The hazards of overstating the climate crisis

Let's just make one thing clear: I believe anthropogenic climate change constitutes the most serious public policy challenge of our time, second only in the history of civilization to global thermonuclear warfare. It's hard to overstate the danger of business as usual when it comes to our fossil-fuel emissions. If, as a growing number of climatologists believe, we are headed for a world that is 4 °C warmer than pre-industrial norms by the latter half of this century, then averting that scenario should be at the top of everyone's priority list.

Still, it is still possible to exaggerate the global warming problem. Much as I love Joe Romm's invaluable contributions to the debate, his deservedly popular and influential Climate Progress blog does tend to suffer from hyperbole, and as such can undermine our collective efforts to win friends and influence people. His latest transgression raises an important point about just how bad things might get, so I'm going to take this opportunity to draw your attention to it.

Writing for the Institute of Physics' Physics World site, Joe warns us that we, as a species, are about to make a decision that will change the course of history. This much is true. The climate change conference in Copenhagen this December represents a critical opportunity to come to grips with greenhouse gas pollution and do something about it. If those talks fail, the resulting delay while world leaders regroup will mean the task will be enormously more difficult. The longer we wait to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will be.

But Joe doesn't leave it that:

The fate of the next 50 generations may well be determined in the next few months and years. Will the US Congress agree to a shrinking cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and legislation to achieve the transformation to clean energy? If not, you can forget about a global climate deal. ...

And if we do not change course quickly, the latest science predicts that these impacts may be irreversible for 1000 years.

In short, the fate of perhaps the next 100 billion people to walk the Earth rests with scientists (and those who understand the science) trying to communicate the dire nature of the climate problem....

Joe is drawing on recently published research that suggests "the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop." (Solomon et al, 2009. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106).

But Solomon's conclusion that global warming will be "largely irreversible" is based on the current capacity of human technology to effect change. At the moment, it is true that geo-engineering schemes to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change are orders of magnitude too expensive and too complex for us to even implement the simplest of them. But this will not always be so.

You don't have to share Ray Kurzweil's trans-humanist optimism to know that it won't take a millennium to come up with efficient, affordable and effective methods of undoing the damage we've done. Carbon-sucking artificial trees are a pipe dream now, but sooner or later we'll almost certainly have figured out how to make them work. Restoring the pH of the oceans to pre-industrial levels without destroying marine ecosystems is a task that exceeds our expertise today, but the chemistry is not that complicated, and given enough time, we should be able to figure out that one, too.

A million in mirrors in space isn't beyond our future ken. It's just that first we'll have to figure out cheap ways to build superconducting rail guns that can launch them into orbit, or come up with some other comparable plan.

My point is not that we shouldn't worry about climate change. We should. None of these technologies are ready for deployment today and they won't be soon enough to forestall catastrophic warming and sea level rise. Even carbon capture and sequestration, something we basically know how to do, just not affordably, is still too far distant to be part of the immediate solution.

If we don't begin to reduce our emissions right away, there will be many decades ahead during which civilization is going to face extraordinary challenges the likes of which it has never seen before. I fear for the future.

But at some point, human intelligence, perhaps with the assistance of artificial counterparts, will come up with ways to fix the planet. By then, I fully expect much damage and suffering will have ensued. But it won't take 1,000 years. It might take 100, or 200, or maybe just 50. (Kurzweil's "singularity" is a virtual certainty; it's arrival date, however, is not.) To insist that the next 50 generations are doomed to suffer for our mistakes is naive. It is overstating the case against inaction.

Am I picking nits? After all, Joe's essential argument about our probable legacy is correct.

And if the scientific community does not help lead the way in reversing emissions, then we will justifiably bear serious blame from future generations, who will no doubt become increasingly bitter about the havoc our ignorance and myopia has brought them. Nobody will be writing books calling us "the greatest generation."

But for anyone who respects the scientific basis of the issue, it's important not to exaggerate for the sake of rhetorical flourish. We may be dooming a few generations to a difficult existence. But not 50, and not for a 1,000 years.

I write this not because I think Joe Romm is irresponsible. I don't. I write it because he's one of the most important sources of analysis on the politics of climate change. His posts are indeed, must-reads. I just don't want him to lose the respect or influence his prolific and passionate posts have earned him.

But Joe's not the only culprit here. Last week's New Scientist contains a feature by Bob Holmes based on speculation that assumes the worst:

The Anthropocene has yet to be accepted as a geological time period, but if it is, it may turn out to be the shortest - and the last. It is not hard to imagine the epoch ending just a few hundred years after it started, in an orgy of global warming and overconsumption.

Let's suppose that happens. Humanity's ever-expanding footprint on the natural world leads, in two or three hundred years, to ecological collapse and a mass extinction. Without fossil fuels to support agriculture, humanity would be in trouble. "A lot of things have to die, and a lot of those things are going to be people," says Tony Barnosky, a palaeontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. In this most pessimistic of scenarios, society would collapse, leaving just a few hundred thousand eking out a meagre existence in a new Stone Age.

This echoes James Lovelock's nightmare that it won't be long before humankind is reduced to a "few breeding pairs of people that survive ... in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

Like Joe's vision, these scenarios assume no significant advances in our technological and geo-engineering capacity for well into the next century. It assumes climate change will always outpace technological progress. Humans might be stupid, but we're not always going to be that stupid.

Curiously, the focus of Joe's essay, is communicating the threat posed by climate change:

The scientific community must figure out how to effectively engage the public on this crucial issue. The physics community in particular must help lead the way. After all, it was effective at warning the public and policymakers about the dangers of that other existential threat to the human race - nuclear weapons. We appear to have walked back from the precipice of global nuclear war only to face an equally grave threat from our unbridled consumption of fossil fuels.

Part of that problem -- indeed,a big part of that problem -- is exaggerating the actual threat. Just ask Al Gore. Even the slightest suggestion of straying from the science, such as animations depicting six metres of sea level rise without painfully explicit reference to the millennial-scale time-frame involved, leads to accusations of unjustified alarmism.

What scientists are telling us is bad enough. There is no need to paint an even scarier picture by extrapolating our current state of ignorance into the distant future. Humanity's very survival is not at stake. Civilization will go on. There's just going to be this most inconvenient period between now and when we do get our act together. Part of the answer to keeping that period as short as possible is avoiding language that isn't rooted in reality.


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It appears the pot is sitting here calling the kettle black.

I hope you're right. But there's the Fermi Paradox.
If we do use up the cheap easy metal and fossil fuel before managing to build a self-sustaining high technology that can recreate and extend the high tech gear, the dismal path of falling back to low tech without cheap materials is obvious.
Lots of science fiction has been written about this.

Consider, anyone with a sharp stick could build up an iron-and-coal technology, given the idea of how to do it and the easily available materials.

But once the solar panels get stolen, as is happening a whole lot now, how are you going to make more solar panels? They're getting ripped off quite often nowadays, you know.

The high tech stuff is portable, easy to steal, but impossible to build for anyone who is living in a culture that's fallen below the high technology baseline.

Right now we don't have even a single city-state anywhere that is working above that baseline, every human population is still either built on the old cheap stuff that's running out, or surrounded by hungry people who want what they have.

I like the optimism. But -- you know the Bradbury quote?
People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better. (from "Beyond 1984: The People Machines")

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Well, I think that we are not going to enter a high-tech future and that energy scarcity will be the eventual reality. The build-out of "alternative" energy technology will not keep pace with the depletion phase of hydrocarbons, including even coal within the next 2 or 3 decades (see Richard Heinberg's "Blackout"). However, it makes for a compelling fantasy.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

While I have no hesitation in saying that it sounds like Bob Holmes is OTT with his predictions of doom, before you blow off Joe Romm's predictions of harm, consider two things:

1. The inevitability of the Law of Unintended Consequences, as applied to "technological fixes" of ecosystem issues. Kudzu was deliberately introduced to the American south in order to prevent further riverbank erosion. Well, that worked, didn't it. ...You are confident that we will work out things like how to bring ocean acidity back into line without breaking anything else, or how to decrease insolation (without any more knock-on damaging effects?); I'm a little more worried, not that it can't be done at all, but that that's not necessarily the way it will happen.

2. Extinction is extinction. Right now, recovery of previously collapsed ecosystems is possible when there are still reservoirs of species to draw on to repopulate decimated areas once the cause of harm is removed. However, we are facing a global loss of biodiversity which is still busy removing a lot of those reservoirs. Even now there are distinct differences between undisturbed old growth forests and recovered forests, in terms of productivity and species diversity; if we succeed in reducing total global species count by half, like we seem intent on doing, how is that going to get better, even with improved technology?

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Agree that drama has a tendency to cloud issues, but some issues really are dramatic. Given the current state of human intellectual evolution it seems that too much drama makes people suspicious and too little drama makes them complacent. Does saying 'it will only be catastrophic for 3 generations or so' have the effect of diminishing the perceived seriousness of the situation? People rarely have the capacity to envision such spans of time, unless they have already lived through them.
It would be nice to think we could be wise enough to use ingenuity (along with the precautionary principle and a serious dose of ethics) to solve many of the problems we create. Many are less optimistic than you on that item. And is such an assumption not the reverse view of that which you challenge - embellishment of the unknown but in a different direction?

It's funny - climate change is always a "fossil fuel" problem. No one happens to mention that there's 1.3 billion cows in the world today and that cattle farming accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. No one seems to ever bring up the fact that Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gas - destroying peat bogs to make way for palm oil plantations. Nope - it's always the first-worlders gazing guiltily at their navel as they contemplate their gasoline-burning SUVs and coal-burning electric appliances.
Get a clue - it's already happened. The positive feedbacks of a missing icecap and melting tundra have baked it into the cake. Reducing CO2 emmissions by 80% by 2020 won't make a difference. The heat absorbed from a missing Arctic icecap and the methane released from the tundra are going to swamp any reduction efforts.
Whatever happens at Copenhagen will mean nothing to your future. What you do to prepare yourself will.

Thanks for this perspective. I don't agree with you regarding the specifics of climate change and how to address the presumed impacts, human and otherwise, and have I feel an alternate grasp of the nuances in regards to some of the emerging futuristic engineering and mega-engineering and potential to overcoming the current plateau of energy use. I think it IS coming , but freely admit to being a rank optimist with only a layman's grasp, and copp a plea in agreeing with the previously cited Ray Bradbury school of thought on the future which we will be building if we don't plunge back into a dark age of technology from which it will be a lot harder to crawl back to where we are now in some yet-to-be.
What amazing modren times we live in, eh?

Personally, I'm still far more concerned with the dangers of *under*-stating the dangers of a run-away greenhouse on Earth. If we end up heading down the path that Venus took, that could be irreversible, and that's the end of ALL life on this planet.
I have no idea how small the probability of that occurring is, but the idea of a CO2 atmosphere, H2SO4 rain, and a ground temperature of 700K doesn't appeal.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Vince, you needn't worry about a runaway greenhouse à la Venus -- at least for another billion years or so.

But we certainly can alter Earth's radiative balance to the point that it's "a different planet," to quote Hansen.

Globally euxinic oceans are a ghastly enough prospect, even without a runaway greenhouse.

By Jim Galasyn (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Alas, Aaron (comment #7) is about as correct as anything I read here (through 10 comments). Even at that, he is still only stating the tip of the iceberg, pun intended. Nothing in this blog post or in any of the comments account for the totality of the global predicament. Weather patterns have already changed dramatically from anything our 'civilization' has seen and do not appear to be trending in a favorable direction regarding the planet's current arable regions. Yet, this only hints at the coming calamity. The point being, most of what is said here and most other climate-related blogs and science sites is narrowly focused on just that, the climate. What is missing, of course, are the influences of these changes on psycho-social reactions. In other words, what is going to happen when 100 million starving, thirsty people from Central American nations are trying to cross the Rio Grand River northward? What is going to happen when half a billion starving, thirsty people of South Central and Southeast Asia are trying to migrate into China? Imagine 50-100 million starving, thirsty Americans trying to emigrate to Canada. We are long past the point of mitigating anything short of returning to a radioactive-induced dark age. A nuclear 'exchange' is, I fear, in our near future. However, what is worse, that will eliminate enough of the populations of every country that, close on its heels, will be the failure of countless numbers of power-generating plants (nuclear and otherwise) as well as the failures of refineries and a myriad of facilities currently producing highly toxic and corrosive compounds. By 2050 there will be at least 6.25 billion fewer people on the planet but I doubt they will be the 'lucky' ones.

By Colin Crawford (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

At this point, no form of optimism is justified by the facts, and "doomer" scenarios are the most realistic. On the one hand, catastrophic climate change is taking place in the context of decreasing supplies of energy, water, and minerals. On the other hand, none of these problems are irreversible because "this will not always be so." I feel better.

Everybody understands on an intellectual level that the present world situation is unsustainable. People seem unwilling to face the implications of that knowledge: the present situation WILL END. Billions of people depend on resources that are rapidly being depleted. When they're gone, billions will starve. Such a situation isn't conducive to building space mirrors and artificial trees out of fairy dust.

When a nontrivial proportion of the country doesn't even believe in global warming and the fraction of people willing to become vegan and abandon their cars is tiny, we don't stand a chance in hell of changing course before the melting tundra releases its methane cloud of doom. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a mass extinction event.

Relentless optimists got us into this predicament in the first place. The market will provide a technological solution to these problems, just like the economy will grow indefinitely and oil supplies are practically limitless.

The last thing we need right now is the suggestion that everything's going to be ok. It would be nice if we could face reality and have a serious conversation about what we eat and where we live instead of ignoring the problem until our lives resemble Lord of the Flies. It's just too bad that doing so might cause certain rich people to lose money. The planet will burn before we let that happen.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Aaron | October 8, 2009 2:17 PM:

No one seems to ever bring up the fact that Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gas - destroying peat bogs to make way for palm oil plantations.

The aforementioned Joe Rohm has posted several articles about this on his website climate progress. Just one example of many. Many other climate bloggers have also covered this topic. The same is true for the 18% or so of greenhouse gasses due to cows. Please take your straw man and shove it.
PS: James, please fix preview.

11: Bloody hell, Colin Crawford, I don't know how you can face getting up in the morning.

By passing stranger (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

As this thread demonstrates, the issue of global climate change is dominated politically by two camps: right wing business interests, which deny the existence of AGW entirely, and left wing Luddites, whose bias against technology, industry, and modern civilization in general leads them to reject technological solutions in favor of conservation, population control, and a drastically reduced standard of living (or worse: to argue for the impossibility of change, and to plan for the destruction of civilization).

Comment #3 talks about the impossibility of rebuilding a technological civilization from scratch now that the lower-tech power sources (coal, oil, etc) are so depleted. It's a good point. Which is exactly why we need to focus - heavily - on alternate sources of energy (including, especially, nuclear), technological solutions to inhibit or reverse climate change, etc, and work on them now, because once we fall off this tiger we're riding, there won't be any getting back on. James Hrynyshyn (the OP) is correct in his analysis of the situation; I just wish there was more political support for his position.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

There's also the problem of species extinction caused by global warming. No amount of future technology can bring them back.

In response to #16, the problem with alternative energy sources is that there aren't any. Aside from the fact that nuclear plants are being decommissioned faster than they're being built, and aside from the fact that the Cold War era material used in some plants is a limited resource, and aside from the obvious safety issues, and aside from amount of time it takes to build a plant, how do you think we get uranium in the first place? We use gigantic oil-powered machines to put the uranium on gigantic oil-powered trucks. We use oil to build the plants in the first place.

This problem isn't unique to nuclear energy. Where does the energy to heat silicon to 1700 degrees Celsius come from, when we're making solar panels? Where do the exotic materials used in high tech devices come from, and how are they extracted? China, mostly, and with oil. What equipment do we use to erect and construct windmills? Fossil fuel-powered equipment.

Fossil fuel "alternatives" are fossil fuel derivatives. Yes, we can make improvements at the margins with research. Politically speaking, how likely is it that this research will take place if a global famine occurs? Our oil problems are obvious and discussed to death, our phosphorous supply may peak and decline in the near future, and there are record droughts in farmlands...everywhere.

Techno-optimists are in denial just as much as global warming deniers. They're just denying a different set of facts for which there is overwhelming evidence. Saying "we'll come up with something" isn't the same as actually having a solution. There are more people than resources to support them sustainably. The environment that supports us is severely degraded. The supply of energy to address these issues is declining. Gadgets can't fix that, short of building a time machine. The fact that we're even talking about changing the pH of the entire ocean and the composition of the entire atmosphere as solutions means it's already too late. I guess it makes me a commie pinko dirty hippie for saying so.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

"You don't have to share Ray Kurzweil's trans-humanist optimism to know that it won't take a millennium to come up with efficient, affordable and effective methods of undoing the damage we've done."

This extrapolation without regard to the facts. You're essentially assuming two things in the near future:
1) the availability of a high power alternative energy source, presumably either fusion or 20%+ efficient solar cells;
2) the capacity to engage that power source to actively fix CO2 rather than to produce shiny crap and fill the world up with people.

You've also ignored the potential for environmental and economic disruption to unleash the 'four horsemen'. The worse things get for large numbers of people, the more the march of technology and the capacity for nations to deploy it is going to slow down.

Essentially, the science we know tells us that 'reversing' the problem will be tough, simply from the point of view of getting enough energy to do it. Pragmatism should tell us that as the proverbial shit hits the fan, it's going to be harder and harder to learn more and do more. I think that, in this sense, Romm himself probably hasn't overstated the size of the problem by that much.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

The prospect of "inventing" carbon sucking trees (isn't this a re-invention of the natural one?) during chaotic climate events seems ridiculous, and makes your arguement border on irresponsible.

Over the past decades people have been told time and again that they need to change or face dire consequences. At first, it was ignored. Then denied. And denied. Sometimes denied with name calling.

Now, society has magically awoken to the fact that we are careening off the precipice of a livable earth environment, but unfortunately too late. Our only chance now is to reduce the severity of the chaos - which as Lester Brown says "should be done with war time speed."

And this is the exact time that you choose to stick your head in the sand? Man, pull it out! Fly to Denmark. Call your representative(s). Redesign your lifestyle. Do something!

Just sitting here saying that someone claiming that 1000 years worth of living in the 1800's is somehow overstating the problem is a waste of time, energy, and ultimately your fathers sperm.

By jackie r. (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

I don't share your technical-wizardy optimism at all. Where is the energy for these devices going to come from? Where is the raw materials going to be found? What happens in say, fifty years when all the petroleum is effectively gone and we can't continue to support these newfangled devices or build new ones?

Since most greenhouse gases are very long lived, and we are certainly going to grossly exceed the threshold limits every scientist seems to be asking for, our ability to "mine the atmosphere" for carbon is directly limited to our ability to find the energy to make it all possible -- and that is far from decided anymore.

Moreover, it is a very dangerous policy to believe on sheer faith that (unproven and untried) technical wizardry will save us. This is akin to a license to continue, which is exactly how the corporate world will take it.

Good point, @WAG. I guess we'd better be storing those DNA samples somewhere safe.

Considering how many species we haven't even isolated/named/cataloged yet, also unwarrantedly optimistic. In many ecosystems we are losing species we didn't even know we had, faster than we can map them. Fix THAT.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 11 Oct 2009 #permalink

"Please take your straw man and shove it."

Perhaps my criticism is too subtle - the point is not to create a strawman to knock down. The point is that in the developed 1st world nations everyone is used to being in control. You get up in the morning, flick a switch, a light comes on. Your turn a faucet handle and hot water comes out. You open a fridge door and fresh food is available. The list goes on.

Confronted with climate change, we in the first-world look about and look at what we can control - namely our fossil fuel combustion - and conclude that such control will allow us to solve the problem. The point of bringing up 1.3 billion cows or poor Indonesian farmers trying to make a living by converting peatlands to palm oil plantations is to make you consider the fact that you're not in control. You can buy a Prius but you can't remove 1.3 billion cows from the planet. You can switch to compact florescent lightbulbs but there are still plenty of people who cook and heat over wood fires that contribute greatly to global warming - you will never be able to locate them all and convince them to stop.

You were never in control and you never will be - your lifestyle and its environment has created the illusion of control which does not exist.

Maybe once you realize that you can't control 6.5 billion people and their desire for a better future for themselves and their children, you'll begin to consider that you probably can't control the planet - or the fact that its climate has ALREADY changed and your current comfortable lifestyle is simply a short time-lag before that change is "in-your-face". Once you realize the difference between what you can and can't control, you'll accept it and begin to make whatever changes are necessary in your life to best deal with what is going to happen in the near future.

I personally don't think the future holds as much violence as "doomers" tend to believe. Try not eating for a week and see how inclined you are to migrate. As for overall population reduction numbers, most of it will probably happen by attrition. People reduce their fertility when they don't have enough to eat. Simply reducing population growth rates by half will halve world population by 2050 - most of it will be voluntary due to grim future prospects. Fears of resource wars are probably unfounded as well - large-scale organized violence tends to be the activity of complex hierarchical societies that are functioning - not collapsed civilizations. Who would fight in an army when the myths of the society have evaporated by the reality of day-to-day life?