Friday, October 31, 2014

Michael Mann On Climate: There's Very Little "Burnable Carbon" In Our "Budget"; Emissions Ramp-down Must Start Now


-by Gaius Publius

One of my hats is as a climate interpreter to the interested lay person. I have something of a science background and can read the papers "in the original." Another hat is as an occasional interviewer for Virtually Speaking. This month the two hats merged on the same head, and I got to interview the "Hockey Stick graph" climate scientist, Dr. Michael Mann.

For this interview I focused on the basics:

Can humans burn more carbon, create more emissions, and still stay below the IPCC's "safe" +2°C warming target?

Is the IPCC's +2°C warming target truly "safe" at all?

We're already experiencing warming of about +1°C above the pre-industrial level. Even if we stop now, how much more is "in the pipeline," guaranteed and unavoidable?

How do we defeat the Big Money ogre that stands in our way?

And my personal favorite:

Will the answer to global warming come from the "free market"?

The always-defended, sacred "free market" — as close to a religion as you'll find in modern thought. I'll have more about the nonexistent "free market" (you read that right) shortly. For now I want to present what Dr. Mann has to say. He was surprisingly plain-spoken, understands the urgency, and says so. I found the interview fascinating, and I hope you do as well.

Two general points:

1. There are a number of very strong climate candidates running in the coming election. Among them are Ted Lieu, Paul Clements and Shenna Bellows. Each is worthy of your support. Click the link on their names to contribute. Here's Ted Lieu on the subject of climate:
"Climate change is the single greatest threat to California, our nation's future and our environment.  As a member of Congress, I will champion legislation to reduce carbon pollution in the U.S."
That's blunt enough for me, and he has a record to back it up. Paul Clements is "running against the worst enemy of the planet in the whole U.S. Congress, Boehner's Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton". Not to put too fine a point on it, Upton deserves to go down and Clement is the climate champion to send him there. And despite the fact that "progressive" environmental group NRDC is supporting Republican Susan Collins — you read that right — Shenna Bellows is a confirmed and endorsed Climate Hawk. Here she is proving it.

There's not a ton of time, but the game's not over yet. You can support all of these worthies, and they are worthy. Again, to contribute to Lieu or Clements, click here. To contribute to Bellows, click here.

2. Virtually Speaking is broadcast with a studio audience in Second Life. A number of questions came in during the broadcast, some of which are worth repeating. All answers are mine. I hope you find these helpful. Again, I just want to put the basics in your brain — no reason to learn more than needed. Once you master the main ideas, the subject is not hard at all to follow.
[QUESTION] What level of CO2 is reasonable?

[ANSWER] Most still think that 350 ppm (parts per million) CO2 is what's needed to keep us at the upper end of Holocene (era of civilized human culture) temperatures. For contrast, the ice ages averaged about 180 ppm CO2 at the bottom, and pre-industrial (pre-1750) concentrations were about 280 ppm CO2. Pre-industrial temperatures were at the bottom of the Holocene (post–ice age) temperature range, so there's some headroom above that 280 ppm number. How much exactly? No one knows.

It looks like we're headed for a IPCC-"safe" 450 ppm CO2 unless we stop. Not safe, IMO; nor in Dr. Mann's. For starters, this "450 ppm" measures CO2 only, not other GHGs like methane and nitrous oxide. The effective ppm in "CO2 equivalent" with those other added GHGs is higher if only CO2 is at 450.

It's roughly thought that the original ice sheet formations of 35 million years ago, which gave us modern Antarctic, Greenland and Arctic ice, occurred in a cooling environment that crossed below CO2 concentrations in the range of 550-400 ppm or so.

First, that's a wide range. Second, that's no indication of what will happen going the other direction, where the warming tipping points are. Hansen writes, correctly IMO, that real climate sensitivity depends on (a) the starting point (i.e., how near we are to tipping points), and (b) the direction (effect of warming of X amount is not necessarily correlated to the effect of cooling of that same amount).

Nevertheless, the massive uncertainty, plus the world-historical consequences, gives most of us pause. Me, I think 450 ppm CO2 is ultimately a death sentence for civilized humans. Back to life as hunter-gatherers for our third- or fourth-generation descendants. And if worldwide social chaos takes over before we stop, the process could run to conclusion, which, the old IPCC A1FI scenario says, tops out at +7°C warming.

[Q] (What's the ppm) for a 90% chance (of staying below 2°C warming)?

Dr. Mann says 405 ppm CO2 (just above where we are now), assuming we start removing, or failing to add, cooling coal-generated air particles. In other words, we have no carbon headroom for a 90% chance of "success" as defined by the IPCC, say a number of studies. (IPCC is silent, at least in the material I read, on the 90% chance itself. Their Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers of 2013 discusses only the 33%, 50% and 66% chances. The underlying chapters may be more detailed, but I'm not sure of that.)

[Q] Why are we asking him political questions? ... I like him, and I more-or-less agree with him, but his opinions on politics and economics are not educated opinions. (And this also applies to Hansen, who I am fairly sure is just wrong on important political matters.)

First, he's actually good on the politics, better than most. But second, I wanted to get his thoughts regarding next steps. For me the key, core messages are — Stop Now... Zero Carbon "Budget" ... Free Market Solutions Won't Work. He surprised me in agreeing with the third point, and I hope he carries that message to the public going forward. He was already mainly on board on the first two, but I wanted to hear him say so for the record, since I hadn't encountered his public comment on this.

My suspicion is that, in interviews, most people of Dr. Mann's stature and skill aren't often asked real bottom-line questions. I tried to stay with core issues for that reason.

[Q] But, look, you don't consult a political scientist on the physics of climate change, the reverse ought also be true.

But these things aren't rocket science. I have a good physics background (two years in a top-end Physics program), but not a degree in it. Yet I'm perfectly "consultable" on the physics. No reason that Michael Mann and James Hansen wouldn't be consultable on the politics. People like these can be very reliable sources (and voices) on political solutions. In fact, we really need them to address the politics, since that's where the action is. His voice and Hansen's, giving strong accurate advice, are worth a thousand of mine.

For another example of political writing by a scientist, look at the work of Dr. Naomi Oreskes, another frequent visitor to Virtually Speaking broadcasts. If I recall correctly, her background is in geology, yet her book comparing the tobacco denial war with the climate denial war is as good as there is — Merchants of Doubt.

[Q] The political system also has to change to reinstate progressive tax on income and add one on capital. ... we're fucked, we're so fucked.

Not yet. Popular middle-class rebellion hasn't kicked in, and it will. We have one more shot, unless the public is too apathetic for too long a time. But once property values — or water tables in the Colorado River basin, or insurance and development rates in South Florida, or ... you name it — collapse, a whole lot of people could turn Depression-era urgent and "Government, save us" angry. Even so-called Tea Party voters will beg for government intervention. At that point, things get interesting.

That wake-up moment, still in the future, represents real opportunity, if it happens soon enough. Our job is to teach into it, teach ahead of it — show what a real solution looks like before that moment is co-opted by the carbon-captured media and lost.

[Q] Interesting and informative.

Thanks. That was the goal!
All of the initial questions come from Randolph Azarof, someone very interested in the climate question. A sample of his climate thoughts is here.

For more of my own climate writing, go here. As I said, I'll have more on climate and the "free market" soon. Also, on climate and the NRDC. They and their first cousin, the EDF, badly need a comeuppance. I'm hearing that between them, these two well-funded groups are why Democrats are so hugely methane-fueled these days. Guess who else is hugely methane-fueled? Exxon. Interesting confluence of interests, yes?


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At 8:39 PM, Blogger Clif Brown said...

People don't change until they are facing economic disaster, the kind that sparked revolutions in the past. From all that I hear, the effects of global warming will be localized and not general...flooding here and there, crop failures here and there, so the general population will remain as apathetic as it does when a tornado or even a hurricane hits: local mayhem, a general yawn at yet another headline.

If you read Jared Diamond's excellent book, Collapse, it appears the the societies the did themselves in continued with their common practices even when it was perfectly obvious that they were destroying the basis of their livelihoods. The perfect example is Easter Island where every last tree was cut down.

Finally, even if everyone were on board with cutting emissions of CO2, could it stop the increase? I am an environmentalist but I have come to believe that global warming is inevitable, unstoppable and we will have to live with it. Man can be a rational animal, but he is fundamentally emotional. 1,000 scientific studies that are as solid as they can be will bounce off the desire to keep on keeping on.

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pursuit of profit is a function of the mental illness "greed". As these insane people have no concern about anything but their own cupidity, and that they can afford to buy the worst of society to act as their Praetorian Guard, there is no reason to doubt that nothing will change until the last of these dies.

Assuming any sane humans remain alive when this happens, there might be a chance to save humanity. Otherwise, they killed us all over an unnatural abstraction. And we let them.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Bubbalouis said...

What a crock. The CO2 count under a forest canopy is 600 PPM, right now.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Bubbalouis said...

Listen to Hadi Dowlatabadi, Canadian Research Chair and professor in Applied Mathematics and Global Change at the University of British Columbia.

Start listening around 21 minutes. He talks about 600 PPM under the forest canopy at 24 minutes
Climate I: Is The Debate Over? on The Agenda with Steve Paikin

At 4:16 PM, Blogger iron3101 said...

"Free Market Solutions Won't Work."
So I guess you are recommending that our intellectual and moral superiors just do what they think is best for us mouth breathers and we can like it or lump it. Great plan, Chairman.

At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clif Brown,

You are clearly behind on your Easter Island research. Recent research detailed in the book "The Statues That Walked" blows huge holes in Diamond's theories. And just two years ago, we discovered that the Moai statues have bodies covered in symbols and their creation and movement was rather sophisticated.

The islanders didn't destroy their ecosystem, the rats they brought with them did, among other things.

Even Diamond....get it wrong sometimes.

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Earthscience said...

So if 450 will drive is back to hunter gathering, will 550 have us climbing back into the trees?

At 2:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What crap no one will believe Mann again


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