Moulin

We face a crisis in the form of climate change.

The crisis is being compounded by the failure of policymakers and bodies on whom they rely to adequately account for key factors when projecting its severity and impacts. Like some of his earlier material, some recent articles by prominent Australian climate change author David Spratt, and others, provide alarming insights and represent a call to action.

Climate feedbacks

At the heart of the issue are positive climate feedbacks, which exacerbate conditions that result from global warming. For example, receding sea ice exposes dark ocean, which absorbs more sunlight than white ice, thereby warming the ocean further and causing more ice to recede. The process continues and accelerates, thereby amplifying the impacts.

Some types of feedback occur faster than others. Those that are considered fast include:

  • changes in sea ice;
  • cloud cover;
  • water vapour; and
  • aerosols (particulates).

Slow feedbacks include:

  • increased vegetation at high latitudes;
  • ice sheet dynamics; and
  • further greenhouse gas emissions from the land and sea, such as methane escaping from melting permafrost (frozen soil) or from clathrates (frozen water molecules containing methane) in ocean sediment.

In order to avoid any confusion, it’s worth noting that sea-ice floats in water, whereas ice sheets sit on land. Melting sea ice creates massive problems but does not contribute directly to sea level rise, whereas melting ice caps do.

In “Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action” (2008), David Spratt and Philip Sutton explained that models used by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) only take into account fast feedbacks, with no consideration of slow feedbacks. [1] They cited leading climate scientist James Hansen and colleagues from 2007, who argued that slow feedbacks were becoming significant on timescales as short as decades, and were therefore very relevant to near-term climate change impacts. [2]

Along the same lines, Spratt has recently reported that some of the supposedly slow feedbacks are likely to proceed “at a significant scale in the current hundred years”. He states that certain “fast” and “slow” feedback mechanisms are now occurring in parallel, rather than sequentially. [3]

We are faced with amplifying, non-linear trends, meaning that the history of human civilization (covering a period of around ten thousand years) is no longer a reliable indicator of future impacts.

2°C of global warming is unacceptable

Spratt has also pointed out that climate policy-makers generally regard 2°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels as manageable and achievable by binding treaties and incremental, non-disruptive means. [4] The figure has been adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), albeit with consideration toward lowering it to 1.5°C in the near future.[5]

Here’s what Spratt and Sutton said in 2008, [6]:

A rise of 2 degrees over pre-industrial temperatures will initiate climate feedbacks in the oceans, on ice-sheets, and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points.

A tipping point is a threshold beyond which global or regional climate can change from one stable state to another. Further emissions can result in another tipping point being reached. Some of those emissions can be released from natural sources initially triggered by human-induced warming but now with feedbacks causing them to accelerate, potentially leading to runaway climate change. Methane released from melting permafrost (referred to earlier) is an example. Here are some comments from a 2011 report in The Independent, commenting on the experience of Russian scientists in monitoring permafrost (with my underlines). [7]

Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane . . . have been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region.

The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the east Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks . . . said that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed.

Dr Semiletov stated:

We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.

Here’s a somewhat tamer, but still alarming, look at what was happening to permafrost in 2010, from researchers at The University of Alaska, Fairbanks [8]:

A more recent example was in the form of the massive craters that appeared in Siberia during July, 2014. Russian researchers have suggested that, with rising temperatures, permafrost has thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped. [9]

Here’s an example of what’s been occurring on the Greenland ice sheet (as of 2009), featuring glaciologist, Dr Jason Box: [10]

The Greenland ice sheet is almost 2,400 kilometres long, 1,100 kilometres across at its widest point and more than 2 kilometres thick. [11]

James Hansen has reported that, as recently as the 1990’s, it was neither gaining nor losing mass at a substantial rate. As of 2009 it was losing around 250 cubic kilometres of ice per year in a dynamic wet melting process. “The rate of ice sheet mass loss has doubled during the present decade [commencing in 2000].” [12]

What if a 2°C rise contributed to us reaching 4°C?

Here are some comments from eminent individuals and organisations [13]:

Royal Society (January, 2011)

In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world.

Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (2009)

If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4°C, 5°C or 6°C, you might have half a billion people surviving.

Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (June 2011):

A 4°C temperature increase probably means a global carrying capacity below 1 billion people.

The World Bank (Nov 2012):

There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.

There is no carbon budget left

Spratt refers to the concept of the carbon budget, which has become prominent in recent years, including in the IPCC’s 2013 Fifth Assessment Report. It is supposedly the difference between the total allowable greenhouse gas emissions for 2°C of warming, and the amount already emitted, and allows for significant emissions beyond those that have already occurred.

He points out that in the IPCC report, the lowest-risk carbon budget was based on a one-in-three chance of exceeding the 2°C threshold, that is to say, a one-in-three chance of failure. If the chance is lowered to one-in-ten, then based on an analysis by The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, there is no carbon budget left. In other words, the carbon we have already emitted leaves us with a one-in-ten chance of exceeding 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.[14]

Is that level of risk acceptable?

As Spratt’s “Climate Code Red” co-author, Philip Sutton has pointed out, in building a jet airliner, we would allow a notional failure rate of one in a million. [15] Here’s how the comparative risk factors can be depicted:

Acceptable-risks-4-resized-sharpened

Why do we accept much higher risks when considering the future of our planet than when we’re producing an aircraft, a building or a piece of equipment?

Is there a solution?

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research believes radical outcomes are unavoidable [16]:

Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future. We either continue with rising emissions, and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions. No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.

David Spratt argues that emergency action is essential:

Call it the great disruption, the war economy, emergency mode, or what you like; the story is still the same, and it is now the only remaining viable path.

It is time for political leaders and other key decision makers to face reality and enable the people they serve to do the same.

Our current predicament requires not only that we cease emitting greenhouse gases without further delay, but that we draw down significant amounts of atmospheric carbon through reforestation and other means.

Further comments on the climate emergency and required actions will follow in future posts.

Author: Paul Mahony (also on on Twitter, Slideshare and Scribd)

Postscript 27th August, 2014:

The Guardian newspaper reported on 24th August, 2014, that researchers in Germany estimate that the Greenland ice sheet is currently losing around 375 cubic kilometres (90 cubic miles) of ice per year, while Antarctica is losing around 125 cubic kilometres (30 cubic miles). [17] The combined total (500 cubic kilometres or 120 cubic miles) is equivalent to water approximately 1.4 metres (4 ft, 7 inches) deep across an area the size of Germany.

References:

[1] Spratt, D and Sutton, P, “Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action”, Scribe, 2008, p. 47

[2] Hansen, J. & Sato, M., “Global Warming: East-West Connections”, 25 September, 2007, http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2007/EastWest_20070925.pdf, cited in Spratt, D. & Sutton, P. op. cit.

[3] Spratt, D., “Carbon budgets, climate sensitivity and the myth of ‘burnable carbon'”, Climate Code Red, 8th June, 2014, http://www.climatecodered.org/2014/06/carbon-budgets-climate-sensitivity-and.html

[4] Spratt, D., “The real budgetary emergency and the myth of “burnable carbon”, Climate Code Red, 22nd May, 2014, http://www.climatecodered.org/2014/05/the-real-budgetary-emergency-burnable.html

[5] Cambridge University, “Climate Change: Action, Trends and Implications for Business, The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 1“, p.5, http://www.cisl.cam.ac.uk/Resources/Climate-and-Energy/Science-Report.aspam; http://www.europeanclimate.org/documents/IPCCWebGuide.pdf

[6] Spratt, D and Sutton, P, ibid. p.96

[7] Connor, S, “Vast methane ‘plumes’ seen in Arctic ocean as sea ice retreats”, The Independent, 13 December, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/vast-methane-plumes-seen-in-arctic-ocean-as-sea-ice-retreats-6276278.html

[8] University of Alaska, Fairbanks,Hunting for methane with Katey Walter Anthony, 15th January, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YegdEOSQotE

[9] Moskvitch, K., Mysterious Siberian crater attributed to methane“, Nature, 31st July, 2014, Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15649, http://www.nature.com/news/mysterious-siberian-crater-attributed-to-methane-1.15649

[10] Salter, J., Scientists capture dramatic footage of Arctic glaciers melting in hours, The Telegraph, 20th February, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/4734859/Scientists-capture-dramatic-footage-of-Arctic-glaciers-melting-in-hours.html; and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F9FbdqGRsg

[11] Spratt, D and Sutton, P, ibid., p. 20.

[12] Hansen, J, “Storms of my Grandchildren”, Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 255-256 and p. 287. (An alternative ice loss figure to the quoted figure of 250 cubic km from p. 287 had been shown on p. 255 but the correct figure has been confirmed as 250 cubic km in emails of 15th and 16th June, 2011.)

[13] Dunlop, I.,The New Climate Emergency and Risk Management, Presentation at Breakthrough Climate Restoration Forum, 21st June, 2014, http://www.breakthrough2014.org/#!ian/c2048

[14] Raupach, M. R., I.N. Harman and J.G. Canadell (2011) “Global climate goals for temperature, concentrations, emissions and cumulative emissions”,  Report for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. CAWCR Technical Report no. 42. Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, Melbourne, cited in Spratt, D., 22nd May, 2014, ibid.

[15] Sutton, P., “A safe climate is still possible, but only if we change the way we campaign”, 14th November, 2013, Version 1d, p.9, http://www.green-innovations.asn.au/RSTI/A-safe-climate-is-still-possible.pdf

[16] Dunlop, I., ibid.

[17] McKie, R., “‘Incredible’ rate of polar ice loss alarms scientists”, The Guardian, 24th August, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/24/incredible-polar-ice-loss-cryosat-antarctica-greenland?CMP=twt_gu

Images:

M. Todesco, Cryospheric Processes Laboratory, City College New York City, http://cryocity.org/, used with permission.

The Earth © Pmakin | Dreamstime.com

Commercial airliner flying midair after takeoff © Nils Weymann | Dreamstime.com