Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Have We Hit the Critical Climate Tipping Point?

Remember I was going to not blog for two and a half weeks - wow, that time passed quickly. It seemed more like 2 1/2 days. I did say it was a compulsion. But I'm still on vacation, I swear

I do, however, feel obligated to discuss the question of whether or not irrevocable climate change is upon us, because of the debunking RealClimate gave of Tim Flannery's analysis here:

Now I should say that I take Flannery's analysis far less seriously than the article I posted a few days ago, that includes the climate model by Weaver and U Victoria here: But it is also worth observing that Flannery is not the first person to come to the conclusion that we have already passed the tipping point or will do so in the next few years. While RealClimate is right to point out the relevant excluded distinctions, I'm inclined to believe that Flannery and Weaver are both right.

Why? Because Flannery's analysis relies on data that the IPCC did not have at the time that its report was compiled. It is not the case that Flannery's analysis simply excludes negative factors and includes positive ones - his analysis derives in part from the fact that emissions rates are rising far faster than the IPCC ever predicted - than anyone ever predicted. And that factor is enormously significant, and one of the reasons I think RealClimate's analysis is insufficient. It may turn out that Flannery is wrong, when all the reports are made available, but their flat statement that this is wrong is, I think, far too quick - we are dealing with subjective data analyses, and I don't think anyone knows that for certain. As one of the commentators on the RealClimate site observes, the negative factors tend to dissipate quickly, while the positive factors tend to linger in the atmosphere, continuing to warm the planet longer than the negatives cool it.

Moreover, when you reduce the positive (heating) emissions, you also reduce the compensatory (negative) emissions, and get more total warming. This is the factor (essentially left out of the IPCC analysis) of Global Dimming, which potentially doubles or triples the heat factor of our emissions. It is Global Dimming that has, most likely, prevented us from reaching 2 degrees already. Flannery's analysis follows the analysis of other major studies, including ones at the Hadley Center and the British Panel on climate change - it is by no means as clear to me as it seems to be to the RealClimate folks that we have an absolute consensus that we should include all the negative factors - or rather, that we fully understand what an absolute total of 450 ppm greenhouse gases, *with* the negative factors will do.

Remember, the 450-550 number is not something for which there is a uniform scientific consensus. At best, the lower number give us a 2 out of 3 shot of not hitting the critical 2 degree scenario. There is no scientific consensus that 550 ppm is acceptable - that is a political number, not a scientific one.

But I personally don't take Flannery's or Weaver's analysis as the final word, but as tools in the aggregate data that is coming out that demonstrate that climate change is occurring far faster and harder than anyone ever thought. Their analysis seems, in general, to better follow all the other bits of data that are flowing in so rapidly. The reality is that if you follow the IPCC's lines of analysis, the arctic ice shouldn't be melting at the present rate. If you follow their analysis, the seas shouldn't have started releasing methane. If you follow their analysis the Greenland ice sheet shouldn't be showing signs of early destabilization. All of these things shouldn't happen for between 40 and 100 years - but, in fact, they are happening now.

Whatever your analysis of the data as a whole, it seems clear that the IPCC figures are simply inadequate to the reality of climate change. This is not a slur on the IPCC scientists - the world as a whole, scientist and layperson alike, are struggling to catch up with our own impact. Whether Flannery is correct or not, the reality is that we have to deal with some really inconvenient truths of our own. They are:

1. Climate Change is striking us more immediately than we ever expected. We are probably closer to a tipping point, if we are not there, than anyone knows.

2. We are flying by the seat of our pants here, and no one analyst really knows what's going on - the most exact tools we have right now are not scientific, but ethical - that is, we cannot risk killing billions of people simply to serve our own convenience.

3. In a sense it doesn't really matter - we're not right now doing much of anything. The odds are good that the rich world will continue its practices for some time.

4. But, of course it does matter enormously. It isn't just the case that at 2 degrees, we're committed and there's nothing we can do. The effects of 450 ppm are very different than 600 or 700ppm. We have to stop making personal and industrial emissions. And that means changing - fast and hard.

Sharon, going back on vacation for real this time...probably


Theresa said...

Sharon, before you go I need to ask a question. It is a question I realize is a luxury even to ask: How long do you think an ordinary middle class north american person has left before life as we have known it is over. I am committed to the 90% reduction goals - we're already working on that and will take it as close to zero net emissions as we can. But I have a lot of stuff to learn yet - I have to learn to grow enough food and to preserve it, I have to learn to knit. Our home and property needs modifications like a well and a rainwater collection system and a root cellar. This is going to take some time to learn and do and I'm wondering how long we have. My husband asked this question of me point blank last night and I couldn't even estimate. I just don't know enough about it. Do you have a ballpark estimate you and your family keep in mind? I'm trying not to panic here, just to get ready in time and prioritize some things.

Sue said...

Theresa, I can't answer for Sharon, of course, but here's my view (and I'm pretty sure it includes stuff I've heard Sharon say): How things collapse or degrade or unwind or whatever we call it -- will not happen all at once everywhere. It will start with people whose budget is already stretched beyond reasonable, and then something happens that they just can't manage to accommodate. It will start with people with secure jobs that become less secure (like working for a mortgage lender, perhaps, or for a major builder?) Then there are trickle effects into the community -- once housing or mortgage is in crisis, that starts to affect car sales (this is already happening -- who can buy a new car when their mortgage is in danger of foreclosing?) or other spending categories. I just think of it as the belt tightening more and more, and gradually more and more people find it unworkable. Of course, at any point in the meanwhile there are things that could happen suddenly -- financial/economic things like the crash of a major bank, logistical things like gasoline shortages or trucker's strike, environmental things like hurricanes, flood or drought. So I tend to see it as a gradual belt tightening into hard times, with the potential of a crisis at any moment. I know that's not very encouraging! But if you focus on reducing or limiting your immediate risk (like not carrying high interest debt that's beyond your ability to pay), then you increase the chance that you have the time as things slowly crumble, to get your garden and knitting (etc) education and experience in. Those are my primary focuses as well, by the way, along with some sort of reduced-gasoline transportation option. Sue

jewishfarmer said...

Theresa, I wish I knew. Honestly, I don't know the answer. In a sense, I'm amazed that we've held on as long as we have, so I'm not sure my judgement is any good.

Generally speaking, barring some major event like a currency crash or war with Iran, I think most of us with reasonably stable lives have 2-5 more years of intermittent stability. But those caveats are big ones and that intermittent thing varies a bit too - it could be longer, it could be shorter if you or I are one of the people who get caught in the economic vise.

But you, as my mother always says, can only do what you can do. So we go on plugging along. What we have done is prioritize, as you say.

So water and food were issues of the first order, and insulation (since we can always bundle up) is an issue lower down, which is why my house is presently 56 degrees

I wish I could tell you. I may be madly alarmist, and we could have decades. And maybe it will never be over for most of us - maybe our wealth will insulate us enough that we won't have the experiences I fear. I think the odds are against it, of course, but I honestly don't know for sure.

If you want to know my personal intuition on this, which is worth the same amount as the pixels it is written in, I'd say under 5 years - maybe 3. But I have no crystal ball, and I've been wrong before.

jewishfarmer said...

Sue's explanation is an excellent one, btw.


Theresa said...

Thank you both very much. That is shorter than I thought, which shouldn't suprise me. I was hoping for 10 years. It is good to know though. It actually makes it easier to prioritize things that way.

I live in an area where there is absolutely no clue about any of this stuff for the most part: a few hours' drive south of the Alberta Oil Sands. There is a boom here the likes of which I or my parents have never seen. When I talk about the need to consume less and prepare, people, including my family (except my husband, thank goodness) look at me like I am some kind of doomsday freak.

I'm glad for blogs like this one that keep me grounded in reality, because up here it seems like everyone is convinced we'll all be rolling in dough, and oil, forever.

Anonymous said...

See James Hansen et al's 2007 paper on trace gases and climate change ( Although CO2 is increasing rapidly, atmospheric methane has not increased at all for several years, which is even better than Hansen hoped for in his "alternative (non-BAU)" scenario. Thus, there is good reason to hope that we have time enough left to make a substantive difference.

I've quibbled with you before on what sort of rhetoric best inspires average folks to sacrifice. IMHO, the single worst possible thing one can say is "We're already over the tipping point," it's too late, we're doomed. If the billions of people one is supposedly killing by driving to one's job and buying groceries are already dead anyway, you might as well keep on with your life. You might feel deep regret for our past folly, but you wouldn't sacrifice your own family's safe and comfortable lifestyle to prevent a disaster that can't be prevented.

Of course you, Sharon, have correctly pointed out that even if we were past one serious tipping point, minimizing emissions might prevent us from experiencing still more warming and worse disasters. Melting Greenland, while bad, would not be as bad as 6 degrees of warming. Unfortunately, certain self-promoting alarmists -- not here! -- have claimed that 2 degrees would doom us to 3, then 4, 5, and 6 degrees of warming through alleged feedbacks that they don't really understand. One of these people even has a book out claiming that at 6 degrees, the ocean will release giant clouds of methane that ignite in a planetwide firestorm and destroy all life on earth. (Gee, did that happen in the Eocene?) Anyone who gets hold of that dreck, and then hears the evidence that we're almost certain to reach 2 degrees total warming, can be forgiven for deciding to eat, drink, and be merry as fast as possible.


Anonymous said...

What really worries me is what happens to poor working-class, credit dependent, unstably employed, urban condo owners like me. I can't afford to downsize (well, technically upsize, downprice) because the local sales market is so slow and I can't afford to buy or rent until I have money in hand from my current home. I have a few feeble vegetables in pots indoors, but can't garden enough to provide food security because I have less than 10 sq ft of space -- currently all in pots since the planter box got ripped out in a repair project this summer which has left me unable to even use the porch. I'm afraid chickens are out of the question. I can't install (or afford, even if I could) solar, wind or geothermal technology as I don't have a roof or land to support it. I can't exactly dig a root cellar in the concrete patio out back (which doesn't cover earth, but rather the underground parking).

And I'm pretty lucky:

*my house has really good insulation (brick building, south-west facing windows, bottom floor, only one exterior wall)
*my community infrastructure is such that I can bike to work and was able to sell my car to help with expenses
*I have friends who farm, I have a HUGE farmer's market with a full range of produce, meats, eggs and cheese five blocks from my house on Saturdays and another smaller one within bike/bus distance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, my crappy local grocery store even sells local milk now (from less than 50 miles out of town)
*I have family in another part of the country to whom I could flee in a long term catastrophe and friends locally with whom I could stay on a temporary basis in a short-term crisis.
*In a pinch I could ask to move to someone's farm locally

But a lot of these contingencies depend long-term on being able to sell the condo as an emergency measure. What's going to happen when nobody else has any jobs or money either?

I think if the disruptions are gradual and there are public policy changes to keep things in a relatively steady direction, my property will increase in value at first as people downsize and move into the city center. But long term (and sooner if this happens more abruptly) I'm not sure there will still be infrastructure downtown to support the density.

(Now I'm going to switch form coffee to tea for the day and calm down a bit; that anxiety needs to be productively channeled)

jewishfarmer said...

Theresa, trust me, I'd like a decade too. And maybe we'll get it. I just don't know. But I think to the extent that this is an economic crisis, it has already begun - the price of food and energy is way up, access to the housing market is way down, people are locked into houses they won't be able to afford to pay for, while the price of everything else goes slowly (or not so slowly) upwards.

Dewey, you have, of course, put your finger on the problem - if we admit we're past the tipping point, we risk the danger of people throwing up their hands. On the other hand, information is information - I can't say I approve of the notion of not saying it if it is true.

You are right that Hansen does make the case that we may still even be able to save the Arctic, while Joe Romm is just hoping for the Greenland Ice Sheet.

On the other hand, another NASA panel is now questioning the whole concept that we have "2 degrees" - climate sensitivity seems to be much higher than anyone thought, and in fact, we may have long passed the critical warming point - as much a two decades ago. There is a great deal of uncertainty - and yet, the uncertainty seems to be heavily falling on one side. It is sort of like looking at the current economy and predicting a recession or a boom - you could predict a stabilization, and you could even predict a boom and be right. But the data seems to be pushing meaningfully in one direction.

Regardless, if we're taking Hansen here, he doesn't think we have anything like until 2050 - more like a decade with "draconian" measures.

But going back to your original, and quite wise point - how do we get out the message "we've really fucked it up" and "we can really not afford to screw up anymore." That's tough in a society where two thoughts don't always rub together. But I still don't think we can not tell the truth as we know it.

Anonymous, the only thing that I can really suggest is that as much as possible you have an economic backup plan - some kind of "unofficial economy" work you can do - making things, building, teaching skills, etc.... The thing is, condo dwellers and urbanites have plenty of pluses as you note, and I'm not sure there so much won't be food available as that it will be expensive. So the more you can keep your personal economy stable, the better.


Anonymous said...

Another question. How much are your estimates based on climate change and how much on peak oil? I ask because while I get that we may have drastically underestimated the rate of climate change, I don't understand why that affects our economy dramatically in the here and now --isn't the bulk of change going to occur a bit further down the road (at least further than 2-5 years)? On the other hand, we may already be feeling the effects of peak oil (especially if we've already passed it) and can expect increasing costs etc. starting now.
The scenario's pretty grim either way, I'm just curious about what's likely to cause immediate change and what's a problem we're not really feeling the effects of yet.

Anonymous said...

I think that the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people is a good indication of when the tipping point is really past. I live about 100 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and as hurricanes become more frequent and more intense, people will be forced to move away from the coast. Other areas will see mass dislocations as water shortages become critical.

Anonymous said...

I think in terms of "the triple whammy" - peak oil, financial failure, and global warming. They have different problems and different pacings.

Much of the issue is which hits first big, rather than just little hits. All three are already giving little hits to our way of life, but none of them has "collapsed" yet.

Peak oil and global warming effect what we can actually DO, and financial collapse effects our current system for doing things. If the oceans rise 1 foot next year, that sucks for Amsterdam and Bangledesh, but it doesn't directly effect what I can do. However, that does effect the global economy a lot. Partly because it directly hurts people elsewhere, but partly because it causes other people who are currently deeply in denial to wake up and face the fact that the time of consequences is at hand. And that means they have to radically tighten the giving of credit, and batten down for a long bear market, and that effects everyone. Our system is so debt laden and teetery, that it will probably bring down much of the money-based economy like a house of cards. I suspect that when the financial community finally faces the twin threats of peak oil and global warming, it will lead to either terrible inflation of the dollar or massive banking collapse (or both). At any rate our system is addicted to economic growth, and giving up on growth will be hard for it.

On the other hand, much of the world lives on the informal economy more than the money-economy, and the money-economy tanking is only a partial disaster.
Financial failure won't effect much what we can DO, but it will effect a lot what we can do with and for MONEY.

Peak oil and global warming work differently they effect what we can DO regardless of money. As the globe warms coastal places will struggle with rising seas, agricultural yeilds will shift and pests and diseases will shift their ranges. As oil depletes and becomes more expensive things that we can do cheaply as long as oil is cheap will become more expensive. Like industrial agriculture, or supporting a global economy where many many goods are transported long distances.

So what is the pacing? Global warming is going faster than anyone expected, so how fast will that be? 1 foot sea level rise in the next 5 years? 1 meter? 30 meters? Who knows. If it's alot quickly it could easily be enough to trigger financial collaspe. But suppose it goes slower, then the question is if oil triggers a financial collaspe.

Oil exports are only a couple of percent below expected demand in 07 and 08 on the Bakhtiari model.
Bakhtiari's 4 phase model, imagines post-peak oil shortfalls as having 4 stages: T1 where the short falls are very small, T2 where they are perceptible, T3 where they are remarkable, and T4 where they are steep enough that the old notion of "demand" doesn't really work anymore (as in "welcome to the new normal"). It looks like we are in T1, and will move to T2 in 2009 or 2010. (The decline in global oil output should be significantly steeper in 2009 than in 2008, and then worse again in 2010. And oil exports should fall even faster than production). My guess is that if we haven't already gotten financial collapse by 2009-2010 for some other reason, the decline in oil outputs will be enough to push us to financial collapse. But hey, like Sharon, I have a hard time understanding why we aren't in financial collaspe already. So our financial systems may be more resilient than I give them credit for. Or maybe it just has a lot of inertia, and is already in the slow process of tanking. Or maybe the accountants have been really creative, and we are already in far worse financial shape than we realize.

I estimate that we have 2-3 years, unless something happens sooner. My estimate is based on my understanding of Dr. Bakhtiari's estimates of oil depletion for the next few years, and my belief that the financial sector will not cope well with T2. If those are wrong we could have longer. But eventually either the financial system is going to collapse under its own weight, or peak oil will trigger it, or global warming will trigger it. Or we'll make it through somehow and I will be wrong and feel stupid, and be immensely grateful that my kids will have a better world than I dared to hope.

Also much depends on how you think of "the bulk of the change." In the Great Depression, the stock market tanked in fall of '29. In early 30 the economy was still pretty intact, but it became clearer and clearer that the economy as a whole rather than just the stock market was tanking. By 1931 everyone felt it and no one was making "business as usual" noises. Things bottomed out in 1933. Maybe the housing market bubble of '07 is our 1929, and by 2008 everyone will know we're in trouble and things will take a few years to bottom out financially. (And then keep going down slowly because of the fundementals rather than market weirdness). Or maybe, things will start tanking hard in 2010 and it will take a few more years for the process to play out. Or maybe everything will happen more slowly or more rapidly than in the 30s. My guess is that things will begin to get so clearly bad that no Americans can think in "business as usual" terms by 2010, but that there will be plenty further change over the following decade, and that is based on peak oil, and the historical cycle, even apart from how fast global warming plays out.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Hansen knows a million times more than I do about ice sheet dynamics, of course, but personally I suspect that the summer Arctic ice is doomed, unless at some point in the next decade or two the Arctic has a few remarkably cool summers. Or unless King George gives us a nuclear winter. Actually, global nuclear war over peak oil might be the most effective way to avoid climate change - combining as it would the destruction of much of the fossil fuel-gobbling infrastructure (and population) with a cold year or two to inhibit the albedo flip. Note that I'm certainly not recommending this (I live in a large city that would probably be a primary target). But I do wonder if the PTB would actually consider it as a solution. Of course, they would imagine that it would be US nuking everyone else, then pillaging the wreckage, whereas in fact the assured destruction would have to be mutual if it was to do any "good," and probably would be.

I've no opinion on whether losing the summer ice commits us to losing the Greenland ice sheet, but I wouldn't be inclined to buy land within 2-3 meters of sea level.


Anonymous said...

Sheesh! I don't know what you guys are reading or where you get your information but I think you are so far off the mark that it's not even funny. Housing markets in many areas are just fine. Where I live our local economy seems to be thriving. I could be wrong - and if I am I will admit it when proven - but I am not buying all this doom and gloom.

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