When Things Go Horribly, Terribly Wrong

As nay-sayers continue to deny that global warming is real, scientists now say that not only is it real, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. Here’s a rather lengthy excerpt from an article appearing today on the web site of The Guardian, a leading British newspaper:

At a high-level academic conference on global warming at Exeter University this summer, climate scientist Kevin Anderson stood before his expert audience and contemplated a strange feeling. He wanted to be wrong. Many of those in the room who knew what he was about to say felt the same. His conclusions had already caused a stir in scientific and political circles. Even committed green campaigners said the implications left them terrified.

Anderson, an expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University, was about to send the gloomiest dispatch yet from the frontline of the war against climate change.

Despite the political rhetoric, the scientific warnings, the media headlines and the corporate promises, he would say, carbon emissions were soaring way out of control – far above even the bleak scenarios considered by last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Stern review. The battle against dangerous climate change had been lost, and the world needed to prepare for things to get very, very bad.

“As an academic I wanted to be told that it was a very good piece of work and that the conclusions were sound,” Anderson said. “But as a human being I desperately wanted someone to point out a mistake, and to tell me we had got it completely wrong.”

Nobody did. The cream of the UK climate science community sat in stunned silence as Anderson pointed out that carbon emissions since 2000 have risen much faster than anyone thought possible, driven mainly by the coal-fuelled economic boom in the developing world. So much extra pollution is being pumped out, he said, that most of the climate targets debated by politicians and campaigners are fanciful at best, and “dangerously misguided” at worst.

What would it take to head off this scenario? Anderson says that “Only an unprecedented ‘planned economic recession’ might be enough.” He added: “The current financial woes would not come close.”

Ooops, a “planned economic recession.” That sounds like something that would be about as popular as a piranah in the punchbowl. Ain’t gonna happen. And, if my read on the depth and seriousness of our present “financial woes” are anywhere near right, the world economy is already facing unprecedented economic disaster—and yet Anderson says that wouldn’t even start to solve the problem.

The Guardian article continued:

Anderson is not the only expert to voice concerns that current targets are hopelessly optimistic. Many scientists, politicians and campaigners privately admit that 2C is a lost cause. Ask for projections around the dinner table after a few bottles of wine and more vote for 650ppm than 450ppm as the more likely outcome.

Bob Watson, chief scientist at the Environment Department and a former head of the IPCC, warned this year that the world needed to prepare for a 4C rise, which would wipe out hundreds of species, bring extreme food and water shortages in vulnerable countries and cause floods that would displace hundreds of millions of people. Warming would be much more severe towards the poles, which could accelerate melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

Watson said: “We must alert everybody that at the moment we’re at the very top end of the worst case [emissions] scenario. I think we should be striving for 450 [ppm] but I think we should be prepared that 550 [ppm] is a more likely outcome.” Hitting the 450ppm target, he said, would be “unbelievably difficult”.

As we have been warning here, the problem of climate change is so serious that it could literally destroy civilization. Because of the possibility of sudden feedback and tipping point effects, the climate disaster could come quickly, far faster than humans could act in response. The only hope was (notice the past tense here) to take action in advance of the events. Unfortunately, we seem to be unwilling to do anything significant to avoid the climate crash, any more than the dinosaurs took heed of approaching asteroids. It’s business as usual with politicians, businessmen, and most everyone else on the planet.

Right now in the United States we are about to reinstate the failed automobile industry, a major user of petroleum products and thus a contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG). Taxpayer money that could far better be used to jump start new clean and sustainable energy sources is being squandered to keep auto executives and workers employed, to keep putting obsolete automobiles on the road.

An average rise of 4 degrees Centigrade (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) would be disastrous to Planet Earth. Keep in mind that averages do not apply equally, so there will be places far warmer, some not so warm. Unending drought one place, floods on an almost Biblical scale at another. And as the article points out, the biggest effect will be in the polar regions, where we are already seeing major changes. Melting tundra in Canada, Alaska and Siberia are already releasing methane, a powerful GHG that has been sequestered over thousands of years. That is a tipping point that is already being reached, and will add to the warming trend. In the equatorial regions, rain forests, the “lungs” of the planet, are being cut down and what is left could disappear in the face of climate change that some predict will bring drought and desertification to the middle regions of the planet.

The ability of the Earth to produce food will steadily decline, particularly in light of the fact that petroleum and natural gas used to power machinery, fertilize crops, and transport food will become more expensive and less available as the disaster grows.

On January 26, 2008 I reviewed on this site a book titled “Six Degrees,” by Mark Lynas, published by the National Geographic Society. The review was titled “Tracking the Warming of Our Planet,” and you can find it by using the search field at upper right.

What did Lynas say about the prospect of a 4 degree C. average temperature increase? Well, it’s not pretty, and he even described the possibility of a 5 or 6 degree increase, all within the range of possibility of recent projections. Here is the part of my review that touched on a 4 degree scenario:

Four degrees. The four degree world will hardly be recognizable. Oceans will continue to rise, perhaps by many meters, engulfing up to a third of Bangladesh and threatening areas around the globe that are home to billions. The rising sea levels will continue for as long as ice remains to melt; in past eons when the Earth was four degrees warmer than it is today, there was no ice anywhere. Today the East Antarctic Ice Sheet alone contains enough frozen water to cause sea levels to rise by more than 50 meters. Of course, that is not going to happen in the near term — but a four-degree world will place us firmly on track for the total disappearance of polar ice.

Everywhere the civilized world we know will be crashing, and nowhere more than in China. With four degrees of warming, China will face feeding its population now approaching 1.5 billion with only two-thirds of the present agricultural production. World markets for food will have disappeared, and in fact are already stretched in the face of the biofuels insanity presently diverting food to fuel. Mass starvation will be occurring as former bread baskets turn into newly minted deserts.

By the four degree stage serious tipping points may be reached, causing the spiral to zoom ever faster. Vast areas of Arctic tundra will have melted, releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gas into the air. This process is already taking place, and at four degrees of warming it will be in full roar. It is estimated that 500 billion tons of CO2 and methane (an even more potent greenhouse gas) are locked in the frozen tundra of Canada, Alaska, and Russia.

Not so good, huh? Our descendants, should there be any, will be in pretty dire straits. I can imagine a scene in the not so distant future where surviving members of the human race are sitting around guttering campfires scattered across the ruined planet, listening to elders telling tales of this present era. Younger boys and girls will find it hard, perhaps impossible, to believe that anything like the present day debacles could have happened.

“Nobody could be that stupid,” they might say to their elders.

But as they look around at a landscape littered with ruined houses, abandoned factories and rusting cars, they might have to admit that at least something must have gone horribly, terribly wrong early in the 21st Century

Is it possible, against all reason, to think that yes, somebody could be that stupid? And if so, could that somebody be—us? Surely not!

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