In pursuit of Global Warming and Global Climate Change

Posted on August 9th, 2011 in Books,Climage Change,Energy,Environment,Evolution,Health,History,Science,Technology by Robert Miller

Fig. 1 Planet Earth (NASA)

Every educated person on the planet has heard about the threats to human existence imposed by Global Warming. Yet, few of us are knowledgeable enough to explain the basic mechanisms that determine our climate, especially when talking to those among whom are doubting members of the choir. Understanding the essential elements of Global Warming requires effort and an intellectual expenditure, but you can converse intelligently on the subject, while stopping short of explaining the situation on the basis of a thermodynamic theory of equilibrium. Besides, the earth’s climate has never truly been in any form of equilibrium–some positive or negative driving force or energy imbalance has always been trying to change our climate, though, until now, such changes have taken place over millenia, not over the two hundred plus years of the industrial revolution.  Our climate has always been changing, even though the time constants for change are way beyond a human lifetime, and lie properly scaled and recorded within the geological and paleoclimatological record, which gives up its secrets slowly. But once properly deciphered that record reveals a surprisingly coherent history for those willing to put the effort into interpreting the scrolls, or to be more accurate, deciphering the core drillings of oceans and glaciers. Of course, we don’t yet have a complete story. There are large gaps in our knowledge, but we know enough already to be mesmerized by our planetary history and the forces that have shaped our climate. And we should know enough to be alarmed and very wary about our future.

It is now clear that never before in our climate history have we witnessed the kind of experiment now underway–the forcing of our planet to go through something it has never experienced before–a sharp, man-made increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that is now taking place and pushing us towards a climatological precipice that we might not be able to escape. But if we act quickly, this experiment is still under our control, depending on whether we can muster the political will to curb our use of fossil fuels and restore energy balance to keep the planet as it was, with atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million (ppm) or less ; it is now at 387 ppm and rising at a rate of about 2 ppm per year. The alternative is that we run the risk of higher levels of carbon dioxide that will trigger the melting of Greenland and the polar ice caps and eventually raise our sea level by 270 feet! We are probably not at risk for a sea level increase of that magnitude during this century, but we do run the risk of having this kind of sea level rise take place, and once it starts, there will be nothing we can do to stop it. Not only will this massive ice melting proceed out of our control, it will cool the local regions where the melting takes place, impact our weather systems and change the driving forces for oceanic currents. The emergency we must address now has been created by the fact that the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere has a very long half-life and its actions on our planet will be with us for a  very long time. Couple this reality to the fact that we are already seeing weather patterns that reflect Global Warming and you inescapably conclude that our short-term climate does not look good–it will inescapably be more violent. But, we can still do something for the long-term, by acting soon and now is not too early. There is little doubt that if we continue to burn fossil fuels through a business-as-usual mode, our planet will be markedly different and our planetary future will be seriously in doubt. In many ways, that’s the shock–not only that the climate is never in equilibrium, but that it is also super-sensitive to the very fuels we have chosen as our cheapest form of energy. For too long we have assumed constancy in our climate lives: that luxury has now gone, at least the assumption part of it.

Until Homo sapiens came along and started adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, climate change took place over thousands or millions of years and every hundred thousand years or so, we would go through another ice age, created by changes in the tilting of the planet on its axis and slight changes in the elliptical pattern of our annual trek around the sun. These two precession parameters change the amount of sun that radiates to earth (insolation), increasing with greater axis tilt and decreasing with less. Planetary alignments within our solar system create these different elliptical shapes and the axial rotational wobbling–the earth spins like a wobbly top–but wobbles on a very long time scale. The axis of the Earth’s rotation is actually becoming more vertical now, so we would normally expect to see another ice age, perhaps in 7,000 years or so. However, our carbon loading of the atmosphere precludes that possibility. Until humans brought the industrial revolution, the planetary environment changed on a very different time scale, usually thousands of years, even though cataclysmic events in our climate history have been known to happen. The question for our generation is whether we have put in motion a new and ultra-rapid set of events that we will not be able to control. Most climatologists say at best, it will be a close call if we are going to avoid a tipping point, after which it won’t matter what we do. But saving the planet as we have known it is still possible and the science is at a point where only non-scientists or discredited ones believe otherwise.

The value of knowing more about climate change is not to convince those like the Tea Party members, because they are beyond hope. The real function of becoming more knowledgeable about this issue is to convince ourselves and other like-minded colleagues that we are facing an imminent global catastrophe if we don’t act quickly. This is one branch of science we can’t afford to be cautious about. We have enough knowledge about our climate future that we should be ready to support a WW II-like mobilization strategy to begin shaping the new economy that will be required if we are going to ride this thing out and eventually reverse the 250 year trend of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  This dire need for a cooperative spirit to save the planet should greatly reduce the international barriers for interactive productivity towards this end.  And we need to get beyond simplicity. You can’t summarize the anticipated changes with simple phrases. Phraseology for climate change is dead–it’s silly to think in those terms. A warmer earth means a drier earth in some places and at some times, but also a wetter earth in some places at some times. And it means rising sea levels because the polar and Greenland ice packs are melting, even though we don’t understand at what rate that will be happening and over what time—that’s the new threat! Almost none of the projections in our future are what we have been used to in the past and the threats that confront us all point to a fragility of our climate that, until now, completely escaped our attention. Fortunately, the science underlying our climate change has been advancing with new insights and theories appearing on a regular basis. This is still an intense on-going topic of investigation and insight. But, the science has passed judgment on our basic future and now it’s up to the public to catch up with their vision. Although it is already late, it is not too late to save the planet and preserve decent lives for our children and grandchildren. But it is in their future interests and well being that we must act now. So, an essential grasp of these concepts is increasingly important if we, as humans, are going to avoid falling off a cultural survival cliff that lies in our future if we don’t think and act more decisively to curb the new summers of our discontent.  The first person we have to mobilize is ourselves and after that, we can worry about our neighbors and friends. There are plenty of reasonable people out there that need to be convinced about the alarming situation that confronts us and the best way to do that is begin by developing our own educational skills about climate change and the emergency we face. We must quickly rid ourselves of coal-burning sources of electricity and put the kibosh on the use of Canadian tar sand sources. We need to reach a point where we leave the remaining energy in the ground and stop destroying mountain tops for coal.

Although it’s a common default cause for the media, we can no longer blame our current and future weather on El Nino/ La Nino or even a Super El Nino that climatologists talk about. There is some speculation that El Nino could become a permanent fixture to the environmental makeup. It used to be that these special events, which can bring about disastrous drought and flood conditions (depending on where you are), happened every ten years or so, but now they are more frequent, occurring about every four years. We have skewed the climate curve and most of us don’t know how or why, but increasingly we think it’s serious and we have to engage the rest of the world on a rational basis for believing that action needs to begin now and inaction will be a crime against humanity’s future.  Actually, we don’t have to convince the rest of the world—they already get it. We have to convince the rest of America and we have to begin to assume a leadership role in planetary revivalism. The new more violent weather patterns we have been seeing throughout the planet point an uncomfortable finger towards the unavoidable: there is more energy in the atmosphere and that excess energy needs to dissipate itself in some new, often more violent way. A small part of that expression will be in the form of dust storms that we have seen recently in the Phoenix Haboob and before that in the monstrous dust storm that moved across Australia (A NASA image of the Australian dust storm of 2009 is in the second figure). These dust storms are not unlike the dust bowl storms of the 1930s in the American and Canadian prairie lands, though they have a different origin this time around (dust storms of the 1930s have been attributed to soil erosion whereas global warming storms express increased energy in the atmosphere unleashed by condensation). Concurrent collisions between two storm centers can generate massive, uplifting air currents, scooping up dust and throwing it high enough into the atmosphere to be easily seen from satellites. More moisture in the air creates more storms and they will get more violent  In many ways, Australia and New Zealand are like Global Warming laboratories which illustrate both extremes of climate-warming weather gyrations, including severe droughts and record-breaking floods in 2010, in which a region the size of Germany and France combined, was under water, with the storm actions centered in Queensland. Global Warming weather is here and it will not go away.

The concepts that underlie Global Warming need to be learned and instilled among students in all of our public schools at all ages and we need to enlist the young  in experiments that can teach them about climate science and the emergency we find ourselves in. The students then need to bring this scientific knowledge into their homes and educate and invigorate their parents. The new generation needs to face the threats of climate change like no other generation before it. Until now we have assumed planetary constancy but the luxury of that assumption is gone. We need to have this topic constantly on the airways–it’s that serious. On the one hand, it’s like a modern iteration of Galileo telling us that the earth is not the center of the universe (as first suggested by Copernicus), but with one big difference–nothing changed when we learned the new rules of planetary rotations, although Galileo went into house arrest for blasphemy against the church and stayed there until his death.  But except for him and the impact his house arrest had on his young colleagues, the rest of contemporary society could just sit back and claim indifference or belief, without any action required.  The threat of Global Warming is at the opposite end of this analogy spectrum because if we don’t convert this new knowledge of climate change into action, to reduce our carbon emissions, we may be putting all species on the planet at increased risk for survival, including the one we have named  Homo sapiens. Indeed, for some species, such as the polar bear, the possibility of extinction through our greenhouse gas emissions has already been foretold and could be unavoidable; then too, coral reefs  are disappearing as the oceans become more acidic by absorbing more carbon dioxide. We can’t be neutral because the oceans no longer are and they are already talking back to us about we have done to them. Imagine the oceans without any coral reefs: where will all the fish go? We can’t wait to see if the science is wrong or whether some unknown force will emerge to wipe our carbon mess away.  Faux News will have to go–we need nothing but objectivity and action with an arrow pointing in the right direction. Those oars that are not pulling us all in the same direction need to be silenced or nullified. The world cries out for the return simple things like verifiable truth, not the muted information we get from our corporate news media. I agree with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now when she says that “mainstream media” is a misnomer, because they don’t really reflect the views of mainstream America at all. But that’s another story.

While I am a scientist (neuroscientist), I do not feel any special advantage over non-scientists when it comes to learning something about our climate and its history. The topic covers virtually all aspects of our scientific knowledge base, from physics to biology through paleontology,  evolution, geology, chemistry and astrophysics, while at least touching on everything in between. Hanging on the forces that created our climate is the tree of life itself. And increasingly there is the question of human ethics if we don’t act soon in the interest of protecting those that follow. I began reading and writing on this topic as I went along, expressing myself periodically in this forum, at the same time that I was assimilating some of the basics of our climate history and the essential mechanisms of climate change.  At one level, it’s all too simple: the carbon dioxide we have been dumping into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels from the beginning of the industrial revolution reflects heat energy from the earth that would normally go out into space (the shorter wavelengths of light coming from the sun do not interact with carbon dioxide–it’s the longer wavelengths that represent reflected heat (infrared) emission coming from the Earth that interacts with carbon dioxide molecules); part of the energy reflected by carbon dioxide heads back towards the earth and makes our planet warmer, just like what happens in a greenhouse and that’s why they call carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas. However, that’s the easy part–the hard part is understanding how the planet will react to this increased global warmth and those studies are still evolving and being refreshed and updated. But the basics are known–the planet is out of energy balance and it is beginning to speak back to us in predictable ways, few of which are desirable.

As I attempted to learn more about our climate, I took many diversions along the way, reading for example about foraminifera (forams) protists and their role in giving us information about our climate history and the importance of knowing the ratio of oxygen isotopes (O18 and O16) to measure ice and sea levels and ocean temperatures in the past. There is a giant literature on these topics and they all coalesce to give increasing confidence in the reliability of our knowledge about paleoclimatology–the science of knowing our past climate history. One thing seems clear to me: insights from paleoclimatology are essential for understanding our future, even though we have embarked on a climate experiment that is unlike anything that ever took place in the history of our planet. Two divergent methods give us information about the future of our climate. One is through modeling, using large-scale models to predict our climate future. These models are getting better, but they are still deficient in several important respects. The other method is through paleoclimatology, the idea that our climate has gone through many different changes in the past and the analytical techniques, largely applied to core drillings of ice sheets and the ocean floor, have provided us with an increasingly confident if incomplete understanding of our past environment and the factors that influenced our transitions through large climate excursions. It’s very fascinating stuff!

What Are the Essential Questions? Early on, there was one over-riding question that I felt was an essential element to the core issues of global climate change and how I was going to address it. Everyone knows that the earth’s climate has seen fairly dramatic excursions of global temperatures over the documented history in which humans have provided some record of their presence and the question is what forces were responsible for those temperature excursions? How big were they and how did they happen? Are the same forces at work today?  Modern humans appeared about 200,00 years ago and human activity was observed about 130,000 years ago in Africa, where human evolution began. This time line of the fossil record took place during an interglacial period known as the Eemian, in which the average global temperature was only 1 degree Celsius warmer than what we have today. The warm Eemian period gave way to the last ice age, which developed over a period of thousands of years. However, the final descent into the last ice age happened about 70,000 years ago, was very rapid and coincided with the near extinction of humans. Genetic variance studies suggest that that as few as 1000 breeding pairs of humans survived the precipitous onset of the ice age and went on to procreate our contemporary human population. One theory for this rapid excursion into the ice age was the explosion of the Toba supervolcano which blocked the sun, significantly cooled the earth and challenged human survival by creating a long “nuclear winter.” So we know that our climate has changed quite dramatically, such that at one time it challenged the future of human existence, and perhaps it can change more dramatically than we think. But how do we know that the forces responsible for the last ice age won’t come along and create another one, rendering the issue of Global Warming as an irrelevant topic best left to climatologists and paleoclimatologists? One could ask is there really a need to learn something about climate change? Won’t the earth fix itself as some early climate doubters claimed?

The climate experiment we have embarked on has never been executed before. This is a new experiment. Whereas the Earth’s climate has typically evolved over millennia, we have, during the last two centuries, taken a giant syringe and injected our atmosphere with 130 ppm of additional carbon dioxide (along with some serious levels of methane and other atmospheric contaminants) and now we are waiting for the rest of the experiment to unfold. We finally recognize from early reports about this experiment, that we would like to stop it, remove the carbon dioxide we added and get back to the business of being humans again, but this time without the recent weather patterns that include giant floods, excessive droughts and global threats to our water supply. So that’s the message: how do we stop the experiment we started now that it’s going so badly? Stop the experiment–I want to get off. According to scientist James Hansen, if we eliminated all coal-burning sources of energy, and did so within decades, we would come very close to ending our carbon nightmare. But, right now, the world is building more coal-burning energy sources, so we are still moving in the wrong direction.Then too there is the problem of what we would use to replace this source of energy. Renewable energy sources? Unfortunately, we are a long way from having that as a reliable energy source, so we are left with a miracle biofuel or perhaps nuclear energy. Nuclear energy as we have known it is out of the question, because of our inability to handle the nuclear waste and the accident that took place earlier this year in Fukushima Japan. But fast breeder reactors, that have very little nuclear waste and can use up the nuclear waste we have stock piled, could emerge as an alternative. The plan to build one of those reactors was started under the Nixon administration, but killed under Clinton.

The Human Drive for Knowledge and the Best Way to Get it: The great beauty of the university classroom is that professors stand in front of you and condense vast knowledge into a small crystal that dissolves in your brain and creates an image of clarity, where before there was only confusion and uncertainty. Of course, as we all know, you can’t absorb all this by sitting  passively even if you are on the front row. Everyone who gains through this process has to study, read and ponder things, and all of us know that learning requires dedication to the task. Repetition breeds familiarity with the subject and stimulates the need to know more. We learn far more effectively from a knowledgeable person standing in front of us, engaging our brains on the topic of our mutual interest, when compared to any other forum of learning. Now that this form of learning is under threat, we realize that it has been both under appreciated and not well understood, though it requires human dialogue and interaction to work effectively. After forty years of being a university professor, I profess that this mechanism we have established to transmit knowledge by learned scholars standing in front of us, tickling our brains with integrated facts and a lifetime of research experience, is the highest standard of educational sophistication that we have attained in human history and any efforts to destroy this high form of learning will in turn destroy our culture. We should be expanding that experience not contracting it, as we are doing by such things as “distance learning” and “for profit” educational institutions. It is such a profound mode of learning that every human should have the opportunity to experience it and the intellectual stimulation it evokes; otherwise they are robbed of insight from the best form of education humans have ever developed. If expanding this form of didactic/Socratic learning became a more universal form of education, we might have hope of accommodating the 9 billion people on this planet, the expected population by the middle of this century. But even by then, there will still be more cells in a single human brain than humans on the planet and the lust for knowledge will pulsate within each of them.  It is up to us in the new culture to make sure that the innate thirst humans have for knowledge is met by teachers with expertise and enthusiasm for the work. As parents, all of us had to be teachers to our children and now the demand placed on us is to be a parent to the planet: it has been abused.

A First Among Us—the Tea Party Brain: Tea Party climate denial is hard to understand, for it is in this sector of humanity that the thirst for knowledge has died out, extinguished beyond any hope of repair. We might wonder whether this is a new stage in the human evolutionary experience. Someone must do an fMRI study on these Tea Party members to learn how it is possible for a member of our species to suppress frontal lobe function, when in fact that is what the human brain was designed to engage in–the need to figure things out. Normally, it carries out this function unavoidably–it’s human nature.  Until confronted by this group, I did not know that we as humans came with an off switch for this form of brain activity–I thought the use of frontal lobes for longitudinal thinking was obligatory, unavoidable and indigenous to our species. What surprises me even more, but seems consistent with the facts, is that once you turn that switch off and leave it in the off position for a while, it can’t be turned back to on–there’s no more light in that particular brain cavity. Apparently, for the Tea Party Republicans, energy for frontal lobe brain activity was permanently diverted to other centers that remain active, including brainstem functions. It follows that Tea Party members probably have excellent respiration. If so, they should be our first canary in the coal mine. Perhaps that will be their major contribution in the future. Climate denialists working to promote climate disaster, while steadfastly acquiring emphysema.

Creative Confusion: In the early phase of what I call “creative confusion” over my ignorance about climate mechanisms, I sat in on a class,  Mathematical Modeling of Climate Change directed by Professor Richard McGehee of the Mathematics Department at the University of Minnesota. A linked site provides references to some of the important publications in the field of climate science. If you go there you can get a copy of Jim Hansen’s 2008 paper  Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim. It will be a useful reference for his book which I describe below. The modeling course by McGehee was an excellent learning experience, aided by PowerPoint slides from major scientific studies, it was pivotal in getting me to realize how little I knew about Global Climate Change, even though it was not my first introduction to climatology, as I had read a number of scientific papers as well as some of the published reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There is of course a massive literature on the topic of climate change and crystallizing it into a more manageable form is not really possible, so we have to settle for some of the major principles and focus at first on books that have tried to summarize and coalesce the science; then there is the question about how far you want to go, particularly if you still have a day job. I am still on that journey, but I write here to recommend a few books that I have read along the way that others might find useful.

Fig. 3 Mount Rongbuk glaciers in the Himalayas; top is 1968, botton is 2007 (from James Hansen)

Book One: Five different books have given me new insights on global climate change that you might find useful in understanding the problem, its origins, what we can do about it and what is being done today.  I have already reported on one, The Discovery of Global Warmingby Spencer Weart, Harvard University Press, 2008. This is a short, highly readable book on the history of Global Warming and the mechanisms of climate change. Weart has a website where you can essentially download most of the book and other features, such as a timeline of Global Warming history. If you want to assist the cause, allowing your idle computer to work solving global climate models, you can do that as well by going here. Weart also offers advice on how to talk to a climate skeptic which I am not following in this posting.  His site is worth more than one visit. I always get something new each time I tune-in.

More work is being carried out on adaptation than you might realize and future possibilities might work out, but only if we soon begin to mitigate the carbon dioxide levels that we have been adding to our atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. One should no longer be thought of as an alarmist to suggest that the fate of civilization as we know it is at stake, with the serious possibility that our inaction could dramatically truncate the human population to a point where survival can occur but only under very primitive living conditions if at all. Perhaps the most important point that one can make, is that all those who have studied climate change for any significant period in their lives come away from that experience, believing as I do, that our planetary future is in peril and emergency, knowledgeable action is required.  Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas was published in 2008 by The National Geographic Society in collaboration with HarperCollins. I don’t see this book available on Kindle. To research this book,  Lynas went the to the Oxford library for months and took notes on tens of thousands of articles, reading original, peer-reviewed publications on global climate studies as he classified each paper, based on the degrees with which the study projected the global temperature increase during this century. He also relied on the IPCC report, which in 2007, based its predictions on probabilistic outcomes, and the use of phrases like “Virtually certain = greater than 99% probability” all the way to “Exceptionally unlikely as less 1% probability” and of course, many levels in between. The book is organized by chapters based on projections of the average global temperature increase during the 21st century. It is thus more futuristic and predictive than teasing apart the mechanisms of climate change, though some of that is touched upon. Separate chapters are devoted to (1) One Degree, (2) Two Degrees, (3) Three Degrees…all the way up to (6) Six Degrees. Each chapter describes the kind of climate changes expected if the mean global temperature should reach the degree predictions specified by the chapter title. Every chapter has references in the back “note” section to validate the author’s projections. Keep in mind that these are degrees Centigrade, so remember that 1 degree centigrade=1.8 degrees Fahrenheit; thus the outside projection of six degrees, where all hell breaks loose, would be 10.8 degrees F, a whopping change and one that is hard to imagine, but definitely achievable if we don’t act quickly. At those temperatures, human adjustment is not just a matter of turning up the air conditioner, its a matter that food won’t grow, deserts will get larger, sea levels will rise by more than 270 feet and the polar ice caps and Greenland ice will all be gone. We can’t let that happen, but we have to act now to make sure such a dire projection is avoided.

The One Degree Picture: The minimal One Degree picture for the Southwest United States is not pretty, as drought conditions are projected to increase. Humans have already experienced severe drought conditions in that region, both in the pre-industral era, as well as those taking place today. Lynas describes the Pueblo Indian society that lived in Chaco Canyon, located in New Mexico, where the inhabitants erected the largest stone building on the North American Continent before the European invasion–four stories high with 600 rooms. When a significant drought came to the region in AD 1130 the culture collapsed; many died, while  survivors  eked out a living within the steep cliffs nearby. There is evidence for a violent ending for many in Chaco canyon, attended by cannibalism. In the One Degree future for the Southwest, projections include 40% less rainfall, sustained over decades. The primary reason for drought conditions in these areas is that warmer air can hold more moisture, so that it can further dry the earth surface and make the region more vulnerable to fires and failed crop production. Other problems include water shortages interspersed with flooding and enhanced and more dangerous hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, coupled with more widespread, powerful storms that will make many regions of the country far less habitable and living conditions more uncertain. The places on the planet where humans can live comfortably will shrink.

Mount Kilimanjaro: Scientists are now rushing to Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, to obtain ice core samples that provide information about Africa’s geologic past, obtained by dissecting through the ice cores for layers of dust, oxygen isotopes and gas bubbles frozen in isolation within discrete layers. Studies estimate that 80% of the glacier on the top of Kilimanjaro melted during the 20th century and by roughly 2015, four years from now, it will all be gone. The only ice from the mountain that will still be in existence will be in the form of ice cores in the freezers of scientists’ laboratories. Glaciers are melting throughout the globe and cultures that depend on glacier melting for their water supply will face an increasing challenge for water as the glacier runoffs are reduced to a trickle (see figure above on Mt Rongbuck in the Himalayas)

Fig. 4 Surface Greenland Ice Flowing into a Moulin

More Than One Degree: From the one degree scenario things, as you might predict, get much worse and Lynas covers issues like polar bear extinction, which I have touched on previously and failed agriculture in China. At three degrees, an alarming result has been reported in a 2000 paper published in Nature–in which a massive positive carbon feedback forcing was modeled, involving release of huge amounts of carbon from land sources, adding 250 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2100 and adding an additional 1.5 degrees to the global temperature; this model resulted in the creation of a huge desert in the Amazon rain forest! Imagine that–from jungle to desert! According to this model global temperature could reach 4.0 to 5.5 degrees C by 2100 reaching close to the outer limits projected by the IPCC’s worst-case scenario. Lynas’ book does not have many positive outcomes, though there may be some regions that continue to have a climate where humans can survive and maintain the culture we have grown up in, minus of course the luxury of polluting our atmosphere with carbon fuels. The point of all this is that surviving humans need to have access to good technologies for generating heat and cooling while not adding to the carbon load and hopefully reducing it in time to prevent the full blown, worst case scenarios generated by climate science. It is up to us.

Six Degrees: When you reach the outer limits of projected global temperature change, that of six degrees, you can find a period when the earth was that warm to compare with what we might face under the same temperature conditions,  but you need to go all the way back to the Cretaceous period, some 65 to 144 million years ago. At that time the continents were still united into a single land mass (Pangaea), though the Atlantic Ocean was beginning to form–about as big as the Mediterranean–and sea levels were 200 or more meters higher than they are today; only 80% of the current land mass was above water and the average temperature was ten to fifteen degrees hotter than today. Africa, South America and southern portions of North America and Europe were dry and inhospitable, though the northern latitudes were warm and humid and, importantly,  no ice caps were evident at either pole. In the last chapter of his book, Lynas emphasizes that right now, perhaps for a period of only a few years, we have a choice about the world in which we want our children and grandchildren to live. The one degree scenario probably can’t be avoided, or if we did avoid it, we would have to get back to 350 ppm of carbon dioxide (right now we are at 387) and do so very quickly. Even then we would be faced with decades of an altered climate and if we returned to 350 ppm, at the very least there would be fewer non-human species.  The two degree scenario is fast approaching, with carbon dioxide at 400 ppm, a level projected for 2015. Beyond that, all bets are off because we could enter into the carbon-cycle feedback that might generate a potentially disastrous and irreversible climate change–a true tipping point to our climate future. On the whole this is an excellent book which properly frames our future insofar as we can make sound judgments derived from the science and models that are currently available. Lynas closes the introduction to his book by remarking, “Of this I have no doubt: Climate change is the canvas on which the history of the 21st century will be painted. Forewarned is forearmed.”

A Second Book: The second book I recommend is Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertzgaard. This was published a few months ago (2011) and is available on Kindle. Hertzgaard has written extensively on climate change in articles published in The New Yorker, The Nation and Vanity Fair. He has covered global climate issues for years and has traveled throughout the world interviewing scientists, experts, city planners, hydrologists and farmers to learn more about the hardships we can expect from global climate change. He is doubtful that the Monsanto monoculture farming technique, that is widespread in America and China can succeed, and suggests that farmers must increasingly rely on using biodiversity/organic farming techniques. Otherwise there is a risk, like that of the potato famine in Ireland, of having crops wiped out because they are all the same, heat intolerant, drought susceptible, or disease prone. Many farmers are speaking out against the Monsanto strategy of genetically altered crops that are resistant to Roundup, so that the herbicide can be used more effectively against weeds.   One of the positive achievements taking place is that farmers in the Sahel region of Africa, including Kenya, Sudan and Uganda increasingly use a method referred to as “farmer-managed natural regeneration” (FMNR) in which they are recapturing and creating fertile, farmable soil by planting trees to help them push back the desert. The mulch generated by the leaves of trees retains more moisture and improves the nurturing quality of the soil, leading to improved productivity of the land. Time will tell whether the pressure of climate change can be overcome with FMNR. It is one of the many fascinating issues currently evolving as one component to the world’s food supply. Manage the unavoidable and avoid the unimaginable is the guiding paradigm of those trying to adapt, but all the while keeping up the pressure for mitigation to reduce greenhouse gases. Without the latter, avoiding the unimaginable is not possible. Right now we are witnessing a human catastrophe in Africa where the most intense drought conditions in decades are forcing mass movements of people attended by widespread starvation. This too is a consequence of Global Warming which works by exaggerating conditions, including desertification,  that have taken place before.

This is a fascinating book and quite different from “Six Degrees.” This book presents an early summary of some of the changes that are shaping our climate, but Hertzgaard quickly moves on to discuss how his daughter Chiara, now five, must adapt successfully and survive the climate changes that are in her future. His thesis is that the intensity of Global Warming has arrived nearly a century before projections and that even if our global society is smart enough to get busy and reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, we will still have to contend with an excessively warm planet for at least fifty years, because of the long half-life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Much of his book covers the success and attempts that others have and are making to adjust to the expected climate change and his book is focused on what his daughter must do to live through what is hopefully a temporary glitch, before our atmosphere returns to the conditions under which we and all other species have evolved and currently survive. The personal touch of looking towards the future, trying to protect a young daughter who is just beginning life and had nothing to do with creating climate change, gives the book a tone of emergency and sensitivity that  would otherwise be lacking. Discussing the impact of our climate future through the eyes of someone trying to protect their child, gives emphasis to the idea that Hertzgaard does not shy away from–those who oppose immediate action on our greenhouse emissions are guilty of crimes, serious crimes against the future of humanity.

Global Warming vs Global Climate Change: like many others, Hertzgaard distinguishes between Global Warming and Global Climate Change. The former is the actual increase in the mean global temperature as a result of greenhouse gases and the latter refers to the planet’s reaction to the increased temperature, or in other words, just about everything else. He also separates the concept of “adaptation,” meaning the things we must do to live through the next fifty years and “mitigation,” the international efforts that must be expanded to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so that the period of adaptation will be confined to fifty years and not much longer. This terminology and distinction is also part of the most recent IPCC report (2007). Many scientists are leery of  adaptation because they fear it will relax the serious efforts we must take to mitigate the problem by reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. Adaptation by itself will not prevent the problem, in fact, it will get far worse if it leaves us with a false sense of security, feeling that we have done enough and we don’t have to deal further with the problem. Then it will truly get worse and may spin out of control.

Fig. 5 Greenland Ice Breakup

One issue which Hertzgaard addresses is the failure of the fourth IPCC to undertake serious recommendations about sea level rise. When he interviewed one of the reports’ authors, he found out that the fourth IPCC report committee  knew that the models they had been relying on for insights into sea level changes were wrong, so they minimized those aspects of the report and emphasized the need to await better modeling results, which would take into account the new realities of polar ice cap melting and the melting of Greenland’s vast ice stores (Figs 4 & 5). Climate models are furiously being revised to more accurately project sea level rise based on the new realities of massive melting conditions in the three regions of the globe that hold most of the ice and could impose an entirely different future for us if they melt more quickly that we presently assume. In other words, the IPCC fourth report of 2007 is flawed and its projections for sea level changes (which were less than the previous report) cannot be taken seriously. That issue is where James Hansen’s work comes in more forcefully (see below).

This is an informative book that speaks passionately about how it is too late to avoid climate change, so we have to learn to live through decades of these anticipated alterations in our climate, but we can still avoid the full throttle of these effects, unless we reach a tipping point beyond which we cannot escape and, should that turn out to be true, we will watch helplessly as things we do then will have no meaning for our climate future.  Nevertheless, the tone and outlook of Hertzgaard’s message is upbeat: we can adapt, but we have to increase the public pressure for mitigating carbon dioxide down to levels commensurate with a full life, like the one we used to be able to promise to our children and grandchildren. Right now, that promise is up for grabs.

A Third Book: Global climate scientist James Hansen has written a very readable book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity”, published in 2009 by Bloomsbury. It’s available on Kindle and was reviewed in the LA Times If you read no other book, this is the one I would recommend because it blends the science of climatology together with Hansen’s personal history in bringing the attention of this threat into the public arena: it combines science with a personal narrative and some of it shamefully recreates how the Bush administration suppressed scientific information that Hansen tried to promote as a climate scientist.  I have commented many times on how the Republican Party and GW Bush have suppressed science to favor their own political interpretation over those generated through the laboratory. I have also provided a little slide show illustrating how we veered off course. Although it is written by an expert, it is done in such a way that you feel well informed and not intimidated by an overwhelming level of science and technogarble. No one in the world is in a better position to write on this topic and use this kind of title than James Hansen. He was the first to testify before Congress in 1988 and warn of the coming weather hardships if we don’t address the issue of greenhouse gases. He has written numerous articles on this topic and has been a leader, both scientifically and sociologically for a good part of his career. Bill McKibben, coordinator of, has referred to Hansen at “the planet’s great hero.” As the most outspoken advocate of immediate action to avert planetary disaster from climate change, you can imagine that Hansen is one of the prime targets of the climate change denial community. But, to our great benefit, Hansen is fearless in asserting what the science tells him needs to be done.

No scientist feels comfortable predicting and projecting the future, especially if it is something as complex as our global climate and a subject which is likely to attract international attention. We admonish meteorologists who don’t accurately predict the weather a few days in advance, so imagine what many reserve for a climatologist who can’t explain today’s weather hardly at all, but then has no doubt about the future weather trends. So what’s missing? Whereas many climatologists rely on computer models for projecting the future, Hansen instead is committed to paleoclimatology which he feels is on firmer ground, though he does not shy away from climate modeling and his worked has involved both approaches to the problem. However, he is cautious about modeling because models, while getting better, still leave out many important details. One of the model deficiencies that has come to light recently is that of the failure of such models to deal effectively with melting the polar ice caps and Greenland ice. Until recently the models treated these giant structures as ice cubes melting in a glass of water, but it is clear that the these ice sheets are disappearing much faster than this kind of model projects. The moulin figure on the right shows surface melt water that carved a hole into the ice and allows melt water to fall to the bottom, accelerating the ice melting process, including ice sheets that normally resist the flow of a glacier. The elimination of deeply buried ice sheets leads to an accelerated movement and melting of glaciers. As far as models of major ice pack melting goes, it’s back to the drawing board for this aspect of modeling, and while they are still trying to get those models up and running properly, Hansen maintains that the science of paleoclimatology is sufficiently well understood that we can look backwards in order for us to project our future. Although we have been there before, the promise is that the trip we have embarked upon is unlike any trip we have been on before.

Fig. 6 Forest Fires Are Increasing in Frequency and Magnitude

In 1750, the carbon dioxide levels in the air were 280 ppm or .028%; in 2009 the carbon dioxide was 387 ppm or .039%; by 2015 we are expected to hit the magic 400 mark. Imagine that a small change in our atmospheric carbon dioxide could potentially threaten the future of the planet. But that small % change in carbon dioxide, coupled with some of the other greenhouse emissions (such as methane), means that a new net forcing from this factor alone accounts for 1.5 to 2.0 watts of additional energy/for every square meter of the planet, with an error of perhaps a watt. That amounts to turning on a couple of Christmas tree lights for each square meter of the earth’s surface, which seems like a trivial force; in the short run, it cannot interrupt a storm or change a storm path and yet that seemingly minuscule change in net energy is sufficient over a long period of time to effect our climate future. Such an effect pushes the earth’s climate further out of balance. Right now, we are being saved further warming of the planet from greenhouse gases by another factor, also a product of our industrial age, but one whose impact we don’t know a lot about–aerosols. These are man made dust particles, including soot, sulfur dioxide, chlorofluorcarbons and many other particulates. Their effect, when put into the atmosphere is to reflect sunlight and in a way protect us from further warming. They do this in a manner similar to what happens when a volcano erupts and spreads ash into the atmosphere. This will tend to cool the air by reflecting sunlight and can do so for a few years depending on the tonnage of ash delivered by the explosion. But, unless replenished (as we are doing with our fossil fuel usage), the ash will be removed from the atmosphere and lead to restoration from the climate trends that were ongoing at the time. So the efforts that are being generated to reduce particulates as part of our overall atmosphere cleanup, may give rise to a new shift in the global warming cycle and that has led some scientists to suggest that we add reflective particles to the atmosphere to achieve cooling by reflection. Many scientists, including this one, do not see this as a sensible way out of our carbon dilemma.

Hansen’s strategy to deal with our carbon footprint is to analyze the carbon levels that are being added to the atmosphere and then ask where they go? His analysis tells us that global emissions of carbon dioxide increased from less than 2 gigatons (GtC) a year in 1950 to more than 8GtC per year in the last few years. Oddly enough, there are two measurable features to the carbon emission pattern, one of which is the global amount of carbon dioxide emission and the other is the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere–two known quantities. Divide the annual increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the fossil fuel emissions and you get another parameter known as the airborne fraction or the fraction of the emission that is in the atmosphere. Oddly enough, that quantity has remained constant from 1950 to 2010, meaning that a constant fraction of what we are adding to the environment is going into a carbon sink. Carbon sinks include the ocean, forests and soils. Without these sinks our carbon loading of the atmosphere would be much greater that it is today. It has been estimated that the ocean takes up about 3 GtC per year; thus a fossil fuel load of 8.5 GtC per year, which leads to an average 4.5 GtC per year in the atmosphere,  add the ocean sink of 3 GtC per year and we get a net carbon sink for vegetation and soil of about 1 GtC per year. It is encouraging that this land sink for carbon dioxide exists despite the massive deforestation our planet has undergone during the last several hundred years. In the United States, 99% of the old growth forest has been cut down, reducing considerably the contribution from forests which would ordinarily form another large carbon sink. If we continue to use fossil fuels, the land sink for carbon dioxide could become saturated, leading to a much larger atmospheric carbon loading. It is important that we help reforest the planet, for better carbon balance.

Hansen’s book is an educational experience embedded in a fascinating narrative of his scientific life, with stories of his grandchildren added to invoke a proper sense of urgency to our current climate crisis. Hansen travels as a kind of international celebrity and the gold standard for frank discussion of our global threat. He has written letters to leaders of the world, imploring them to take climate issues seriously and begin by eliminating the use of coal. He insists that we must give up on the use of coal immediately–no more mountain tops removed–coal is the worst form of  polluting energy we have. Not only does it heavily pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, but coal mining creates huge levels of polluted water and adds toxins such as mercury to our global air supply and the oceans.  Hansen’s idea is that if we could eliminate the use of coal, we would solve the carbon dioxide problem and begin to head back to 350 ppm carbon dioxide by the latter half of this century. He believes that a carbon tax needs to be applied at the source of each form of fossil fuel, with the money generated given back to the public as a dividend.  In that way the “fee-and-dividend strategy,” as models suggest, could reduce carbon emissions by 28 percent compared to what we have today. Hansen is forcefully opposed to cap-and-trade, which he believes is unworkable and nothing more than a political scam. Tragically, cap-and-trade is the basis of the law that is likely to be passed by Congress, though don’t hold your breath when that might happen.

In case you remain skeptical about Hansen’s sense of urgency concerning our planetary future and the need to act quickly, one of his later chapters (10) is titled “The Venus Syndrome,” in which he lays out how Venus, whose surface temperature is currently  +450 degrees C was once a planet, that like Mars and Earth, probably had oceans. At the time Venus was formed, the sun was 30 percent dimmer, so Venus was probably cool enough to have oceans. Mars on the other hand had its water frozen with a surface temperature of -50 degrees C, as its orbit is further out. But as the sun got brighter, the surface of Venus got hotter and the oceans became water vapor while carbon dioxide, from carbon sources of the planet, became the dominant gas, currently constituting about 97 percent of the atmosphere. Hansen argues that the earth could replicate the sequence of events that made Venus uninhabitable by going through a runaway greenhouse gas emission levels that reach 10 to 20 watts per square meter. This level could be achieved with a relatively small increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, though the exact levels required are unknown. But, such levels are in the ballpark of what we might get to by burning every last stitch of our fossil fuel supply and may be unavoidable if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases before we reach a tipping point where this planetary scenario is unavoidable. Right now we are “enjoying” a minimal period of solar radiation, based on the historical record from satellite data that was first obtained in the 1970s. Should the sun pull out of its current minimum in radiation, it could serve to further accelerate our date with a climate disaster.

Hansen’s final chapter describes the kinds of storms that our children and grandchildren are likely to experience, as he emphasizes that we are already going through these kinds of changes in our weather patterns; he uses concrete examples of past storms to illustrate the connection. Not every storm we see will have an obvious Global Warming signature. But collisions between warm, moist air and cool dry air will increasingly reflect the new energy stored in our atmosphere and released through condensation. His point is that the increase in the violence of the storms we have encountered so far pales in comparison to what we can expect in the near future. The additional energy in the atmosphere will drive larger storms, with more moisture, higher winds, more violent hail storms and give rise to larger and more deadly tornadoes. A mere 10 percent increase in wind speed increases the destructive potential of the storm by one-third. These supercell storms will increase in frequency and magnitude. The devastating tornadoes,  such as those that horrified us this year in Oklahoma, Alabama and Joplin Missouri will only increase in magnitude and destructive force. Thundersnow storms such as the giant cyclonic blizzard  Superstorm that struck the East Coast in mid-March 1993 had 100 mile per hour winds and stretched from Central America to Nova Scotia, Canada. Once the Antarctic and Greenland glaciers begin serious melting, north-south temperature gradients will further increase and likely change the ocean currents with yet more devastating storms like the Superstorm of 1993.  Now add the rise in sea levels anticipated and you have the additional capacity of windstorm floods reaching into new regions, not storm-flooded before. In America, we are not even remotely prepared to face these kinds of forces or admit to their origin.This is a special tragedy, since this country has supported much of the science that went into discovering these man-made threats to our future.

This book is Hansen’s clarion call for action. He advises those alarmed by these environmental threats to join Bill McKibben’s and participate in the events that are needed to change the way we live and revert the planet to one we can live on in the absence of a man-made threat that will make life on earth virtually impossible if we do nothing about atmospheric carbon dioxide. Despite the alarmist nature of Hansen’s message, he remains an optimist about our future and continues to give lectures and advise governments on what lies ahead if we don’t act now. He also has grandchildren that he hopes to help protect from a future that none of us want, but few of us are prepared to help prevent.


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