Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Will the Climate Come Apart Too Fast for the Current Generation's Comfort?


Monthly mean global surface temperature since 1996 (source; my annotation; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

I know most of us in the current generation of Americans expect the climate to deteriorate, from a livability standpoint, at some reasonably slow rate over the next century or more. In other words, most people in the U.S. now feel some urgency about climate change (that ship, at least, has left dock), but not so much urgency that they're willing to mobilize the country's resources against it.

Which exposes, I think, an argument that comes from a position of privilege, perhaps the ultimate privilege — the privilege of age. The privilege, in other words, of expecting to die before it's really "my" problem after all. Which allows us, at least in the United States, the option of comfortably keeping our oil- and gas-fired iPhone and happy-motoring lifestyles while pretending there's still time to fix things.

Stop global warming at 2°C above pre-industrial? No problem. That won't happen until the 2030s at the earliest. Stop at 1½°C, as the Paris Climate Conference "wants" to do? No problem. We're not there yet.

What we're really pretending, of course, is that we're not cannibalizing the lives of our grandchildren in order not to be put out too much. But what if we really are cannibalizing our own lives as well? What if the tidal wave will hit before we can leave the beach? Oops.

February 2016 Was the Warmest Month in Recorded History

Scientists are noticing that we're piling record-setting month on top of record-setting month, record year on top of record year, in an explosion of warming that seems to be accelerating.

The Guardian (my emphasis throughout):
February was the warmest month in recorded history, climate experts say

From Alaska to Australia, an unprecedented heating of planet Earth is underway with rising temperatures across huge swathes of land mass and oceans

Our planet went through a dramatic change last month. Climate experts revealed that February was the warmest month in recorded history, surpassing the previous global monthly record – set in December. An unprecedented heating of our world is now under way.

With the current El Niño weather event only now beginning to tail off, meteorologists believe that this year is destined to be the hottest on record, warmer even than 2015.

Nor is this jump in global temperature a freak triggered by an unusually severe El Niño, say researchers. “It is the opposite,” said Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey. “This is a catch-up of a recent hiatus that has occurred in rising global temperatures. We are returning to normality: rising temperatures. This is an absolute warning of the dangers that lie ahead.”

Those dangers are now being dramatically demonstrated around the globe: drought in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, which has forced the government there to issue a state of emergency warning; France observed its warmest winter since records began; while the sea ice that has formed in the Arctic this winter is about a million square kilometres less than its average for this time of year. ...
Which leads to this comment about the Paris "aspirational" target of keeping global warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. We've passed that target, at least for now:
Last month’s jump in global temperatures represents an increase of 1.35C above the average temperature level for the period 1951-80 and 1.63C above pre-industrial levels, taking global temperature for the month above the 1.5C rise that last year’s Paris climate was supposed to prevent.
Temperatures may drop back, though it looks like they won't this year. Look at that graph at the top again (h/t Michael Tobis for bringing it to our attention). The arrow before "you are here" was January. The one before that was December. They are all high.

Are things starting to accelerate out of control? Can we afford to act as if they were not?

A Tipping Point for Sea Level Rise?

When seas permanently rise, it's not enough to remain on shore but higher, on a cliff looking down, for example. A higher sea erodes the cliff you're standing on, and if you've built your house near the edge, that edge will start to move back. If seas rise, steadily and quickly, for a century or more, where do you rebuild the city or town you're going to have to move? And if you don't plan to move the city, what happens, at some point to real estate prices?

It's not just that the seas are going to rise by some date. It's that before they do, property values will price in the future collapsed value of that city as well as its present uncollapsed value. Once that process starts, pricing in the future collapse in value, it rarely stops, and as you have probably observed, market collapses can happen very quickly. Again, collapsing property values could be a big potential problem for the current generation of Americans.

The Greenland glacier, for example, holds more than 20 feet of sea level frozen in its ice. The Guardian, but a different article:
Greenland's ice melt accelerating as surface darkens, raising sea levels

Winnowing away of the ice, exacerbated by soot blown on to the ice from wildfires, means Greenland’s ice sheet is stuck in a ‘feedback loop’

Greenland’s vast ice sheet is in the grip of a dramatic “feedback loop” where the surface has been getting darker and less reflective of the sun, helping accelerate the melting of ice and fuelling sea level rises, new research has found.

The snowy surface of Greenland started becoming significantly less reflective of solar radiation from around 1996, the analysis found, with the ice absorbing 2% more solar energy per decade from this point. At the same time, summer near-surface temperatures in Greenland have increased at a rate of around 0.74C per decade, causing the ice to melt.

This winnowing away of the ice, exacerbated by soot blown on to the ice from wildfires, means that Greenland’s ice is stuck in what is known as a “feedback loop” that will make it ever more vulnerable to warming global temperatures. The study predicts that the ice surface reflectivity, or albedo, will drop by 10% or more by the end of the century, which will trigger further melting.

“It’s melting cannibalism, basically – it’s melting that’s feeding itself,” said lead author Marco Tedesco, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Rising temperatures are promoting more melting, and that melting is reducing albedo, which in turn is increasing melting.
Again, the rates are all accelerating. At some point, people alive today will have to worry ... for themselves.

The Arctic Is Rapidly Changing...

About the Arctic generally, here's the excellent Chris Mooney on the large and rapid changes happening there:
Scientists are floored by what’s happening in the Arctic right now

New data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that January of 2016 was, for the globe, a truly extraordinary month. Coming off the hottest year ever recorded (2015), January saw the greatest departure from average of any month on record, according to data provided by NASA.

But as you can see in the NASA figure above, the record breaking heat wasn’t uniformly distributed — it was particularly pronounced at the top of the world, showing temperature anomalies above 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the 1951 to 1980 average in this region. ...

This unusual Arctic heat has been accompanied by a new record low level for Arctic sea ice extent during the normally ice-packed month of January, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center — over 400,000 square miles below average for the month. And of course, that is closely tied to warm Arctic air temperatures.

“We’ve looked at the average January temperatures, and we look at what we call the 925 millibar level, about 3,000 feet up in the atmosphere,” says Mark Serreze, the center’s director. “And it was, I would say, absurdly warm across the entire Arctic Ocean.” The center reports temperature anomalies at this altitude of “more than 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average” for the month.

The low sea ice situation has now continued into February. Current ice extent is well below levels at the same point in 2012, which went on to set the current record for the lowest sea ice minimum extent[.]

“We’re way down, we’re at a record low for this time of year right now,” says Serreze. When it comes to the rest of 2016 and the coming summer and fall season when ice melts across the Arctic and reaches its lowest extent, he says, “we are starting out in a deep hole.”
The Arctic is heating a lot faster relative to the rest of the globe because the northern hemisphere is where most of the industrialization — the burning of fossil fuels — is occurring. The Arctic, including Greenland and its glaciers, is changing rapidly, and it won't be changing back for a long long time.

What You Can Do

I have two suggestions, and only two. One, it's absolutely essential that people know that there's a solution, and that's to engage on a WWII-style emergency mobilization. We have the resources, and we have the need. We just need the will, and you can help with that. Click here for more information, and here to sign the pledge. Then tell your friends, all of them.

Two, elect Bernie Sanders. I can't be more clear. We need someone in the White House who will move with all speed, not all "campaign finance supporter-approved" speed. That's Bernie Sanders, and only he.

Blue America has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president.
Seems so to me. And thanks!


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At 12:49 PM, Blogger VG said...


What I've been thinking about for a while: Parts of major highways up and down the West Coast are very close to sea level- sure to be the same for those along East Cost, although I'm not so familiar with those.

So rise in sea level won't only threaten those living in coastal regions, but could potentially affect the rest of the country, disrupting the movement of goods (via truck AND rail, now that I think of it) to other parts of the country.

This link gives good info on elevations along the coasts

In a quick search I didn't find maps that superimposed elevation and major coastal transport routes, but that would be quite informative.


I am writing this comment quickly (time pressure) so I hope it makes sense. It's just that I feel it's important for people to start considering this problem. Ordinary people who assume b/c they live far inland, coastal flooding won't impact them. imho.

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's particularly worrying is that nonlinear events play out like the famous "hockey stick," small increments at first as if nothing much is really changing (think mid-20th century for temps), then increases that become harder to claim are business as usual (think end of 20th and beginning of 21st), then steep inclines that far surpass the capacity of those looking at things from the small increments perspective to comprehend. The example of the grain of wheat doubled on each square of a checkerboard makes the point very well. If that example holds, the models that are using data from the early stages and have limited data only from very long ago when co2 levels were similar will crank out the predictions we have now, only to see them destroyed with history playing out. We've already seen that too much in the models' failure to predict the speed and extent of what has occurred.

The implication is that we might be on the front edge of speeding up that no one is prepared for. That will mean those in charge will have to have a sense of both nonlinearity but also of systemic interactions (Hardin's "one can't just do one thing"). The only one even remotely exhibiting that in the presidential race is Sanders, who just might be able and open to bringing in the outcasts from the conventional wisdom, people who actually might be able to guide our boat down the white water that the "hockey stick" future portends. Even if/when Sanders to the wayside, keeping his organization and those people active so that they can guide the ideas and proposed actions may be even more important than winning the election in the long run.

At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks GP. I'm turning 60 this year, and have thought a lot about the intergenerational inequity in climate change. I've heard way too many people my age tell me more-or-less that "it's not their problem" - which i find stunning. Few realize how quickly climate change can get out of control. I'm in the "business' of getting electric utilities to embrace clean energy, and although utilities like Duke Energy spend literally tens of millions on PR about how much solar, wind etc they are building, it's baloney. Even sunny AZ and NV are killing solar. It's beyond tragic.

I am thrilled to watch Bernie's success, and to see all the young people showing up for his campaign. It gives me hope.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Maria Ramirez said...

It is looking like we will be around to see our children and grandchildren suffer. It is a terrifying thought, but one that must be shared in order to instigate action.
Diseases and food production besides the heat (it has basically been summer in SoCal for going on 3 years now) will be the tipping point for measures of human survivability. I fear we will have to witness actual suffering in the northern hemisphere before any significant action is taken. (We aren't paying attention to the present suffering in other parts of the planet, as usual.) But Bernie did win Wisconsin tonight!

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GP, your source articles are getting better. First time I've seen the "feedback loop" thing. I've been using the physics term "resonance" as its equivalent when responding to your fine offerings on this topic.

To be brief: the whole thing is currently in a resonant cycle where C increases yield temp increases which yield more C which yield more/faster temp increases... and on and on.

Every week I see another article about the effects being observed to a greater, faster, more dire degree than every predicted. This is another resonant model. The predictions prove to be low, are revised up, and are then proven to be low still... and so on.

Yes, we need to elect Bernie... but not for this. **THIS** is an issue that someone else, clearly, will need to fix. Americans are far too lazy and narcissistic to ever give a shit about their grandchildren when doing so would inconvenience themselves in the least. Perhaps the Chinese will make trillions being the ones to convert the world from oil to solar... but it will never be americans... no matter who our idiot voters elect.

As an aside, human activity not only changes the climate... but I found it fascinating that we actually are changing the tilt of earth's axis too. Been changing it for a century now. We move the mass of trillions of gallons of water out of aquifers so we can drink, bathe, wash our cars and water our lawns and crops (resulting in a lot of evaporation and relocation of surface water). The change in the inertial moment of the earth is changing the tilt of our axis. As the tilt changes, the arctic becomes more directly under the sun's rays. And what happens when the sun shines more directly on something? It heats up.

As I said, every week I read more dire articles about what we humans are doing to our closed system in which we live. No real good news since I first started reading these things... in about 1972.

We've known since BEFORE 1972!!! And we've done nothing but make it worse as fast as we can. And tobacco is non-addicting and actually good for you too.


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