Brace for impact….

21 11 2017

This piece is particularly interesting because it’s from someone who campaigns for the Scottish Greens. He’s also a scientist, so knows what’s going on better than most politicians.

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ianbaxter

Ian Baxter

Politics will not save us from abrupt climate change because we don’t want to be saved

By Ian Baxter

Forty years ago I was studying for a Physics degree at Edinburgh University. I chose Edinburgh because it offered a course which included Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics, interests which have stayed with me since.

When I came across articles about the Greenhouse Effect, this intrigued me as a scientist, but also worried me as a human being, and although it was only a theory at the time, I felt the implications if true were so severe that at the very least, we should adopt the precautionary principle and take immediate action to prevent it.

It was this that led me to join the Ecology Party in 1979 and since then, politics for me has always been about climate change and the need to address it before it became unstoppable. In the seventies and eighties, the threat of an impending nuclear war was on everyone’s minds, but here was another existential threat to humanity that although distant, required no less attention to defuse or at least to quantify.

Then it was a theory and if proven, we still had time to do something about it. Forty years on and the Greenhouse Effect is now known as Global Warming or Climate Change. The effects predicted are not only happening, but they are happening much faster than predicted and events over the last three years have led me to believe that this is not only irreversible, but we are now entering a period of what is known as ‘abrupt climate change’, which will lead to the breakdown of society within 30 years and near human extinction by the end of the century.

To understand how this will happen so quickly, we need to appreciate that climate change is not linear. We are on an exponential curve. The three warmest years on record globally have been 2014, 2015 and 2016 (with 2017 set to join them).  Floods, droughts, wildfires and storms are this year setting records and records are not only being broken, but they are starting to be broken by some margin. We’re on an curve where not only will events happen more often and be more severe, but the rate at which they increase will itself be increasing. That’s what exponential means.

We also need to appreciate some of the deficiencies in climate modelling. Specifically, climate scientists (in common with nearly all scientists) are experts in their own fields only. Looking at a specific aspect of science in isolation is fine if nothing else is changing, but if everything else is changing, you need to take that into account if you’re predicting what will happen in the future.

There are around 70 feedback effects now kicking in, and few if any models are taking these into account. For example, scientists studying the Arctic sea ice may take into account higher sea surface temperatures, but not the incursion of water vapour (a greenhouse gas) into the Arctic resulting from a distorted jet stream, or the impact of soot on ice albedo from increased wildfires thousands of miles away.

A recent example is the speed with which this year’s Atlantic hurricanes strengthened from tropical storms to Category 5 hurricanes due to higher sea surface temperatures. This surprised meteorologists as the computer models were only forecasting Cat 2 or 3 at most. Only now are they recognising that the models are underestimating the effect of warmer sea surfaces and the additional energy and water vapour they provide.

As Peter Wadhams writes in his recent book ‘A farewell to ice’, to reverse the effects of man made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would demand a switch in global focus on the scale of the post war Marshall plan. We would need not only to stop producing CO2 but also turn over many of our factories to producing carbon capture and storage machines, and we would need to start right now. The cost to the world economies would be huge, possibly running to over $100 Trillion.

If, and it’s still an if, we are capable of reversing the trajectory we’re on, there are no signs of a willingness to do so – neither from politicians nor people in general. CO2 takes over a decade to become fully effective as a greenhouse gas, and lingers in the atmosphere for decades. Methane (CH4) is 130 times as effective as a greenhouse gas in the first 3 years after release and due largely to melting permafrost is starting to rise rapidly in global concentration (another feedback).

So what are we actually doing about it? ‘Emissions’ as measured by countries themselves levelled out over the past three years – but are now rising once again. Leaving aside allegations that the figures have been doctored anyway, the extra CO2 from increasing wildfires is not included (as an example, the CO2 from those in British Columbia, just one Canadian province, this year equated to the annual emissions from 40 million cars on the road). The litmus test is the actual measure of CO2 in the atmosphere – now reaching a peak of around 410 ppm and rising at a record annual rate of around 2.5 ppm per year.

In 1989, the UN issued a warning that we had only ten years to address global warming before irreversible tipping points start kicking in. That was 30 years ago. Similar warnings have appeared since, none of them heeded. Instead of issuing warnings, more and more scientists are now coming round to the view that it really is too late. What I have witnessed over the last three years has led me to believe the same. We really are too late and are now entering the sixth mass extinction.

Too many articles on climate change contain the phrase “By 2100…” or “By the end of the century…”. That really is too far away for most people to treat as urgent. While it’s difficult to make predictions, it should be made clear that the catastrophic impacts of climate change will affect us well before then.

Within five to ten years I expect to see food prices rising well above inflation – perhaps by as much as 50% to 100% with some empty shelves appearing in supermarkets as specific crops are devastated (we already had a ‘taste’ of this earlier this year with courgettes and lettuce crops hit by unusual weather in Spain; world wine production is now at a 50 year low due to extreme weather events).

Wildfires are already becoming uncontrollable. Portugal has seen six times its average this year. There have been fires in Greenland and in Australia during its winter, not to mention the devastation in California, Canada and Siberia. Hurricanes are becoming stronger and appearing in unusual places (Ophelia was the strongest on record in the east Atlantic and Greece is currently being hit by what is called a ‘Medicane’). Sea surface temperatures need to be over 28.5 C for a hurricane to strengthen. The Mediterranean off Italy’s coast reached 30 degrees this year. With the right conditions, it would only take one stray east Atlantic hurricane to head into the Med to cause widespread devastation. I can easily see this happening within ten years. Elsewhere we will see hurricanes and typhoons strong enough to flatten cities within the next decade.

The economic implications will be immense. The impact of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the US is expected to be around $400 Billion this year, not counting the wildfires in California and drought in Montana. Over the next decade, super hurricanes, flooding and drought will cause insurance companies to collapse. Banks will follow and pension funds will start to come under pressure. With food prices increasing way ahead of wages, disposable incomes will be hit hard, leading to worldwide economic depression.

And that’s not taking into account the hundreds of millions of climate refugees (already begun in the Caribbean). With the jet stream already getting seriously messed up, or if the Hadley cells become severely disrupted, it’s not out of the question that the Indian monsoon could fail permanently and within a year we have a billion people starving.

There’s a saying that if something is unsustainable it will not be sustained. Obvious, perhaps, but we have been living well beyond the sustainability of the planet for decades and continue to believe that somehow we can do so increasingly and indefinitely. That will not be sustained.

So for forty years I tried to warn people. Now I tell them it’s too late and we’re f***ed, they say I’m being too negative need to give people a positive message. OK then, will “We’re positively f***ed” do?, because when we could save ourselves nobody listened, and even now when they think we still can, there is absolutely no will to do so.

For a long time, we have needed to change our lifestyles and that, for most people, is a red line area. There are no quick fixes. We cannot continue with mass air transport – the only non polluting alternative to fossil fuels requires huge areas of land to be removed from food production, which is already coming under pressure due to climate change and increasing population. We need to stop owning cars (not just leaving them in the driveways) – the resource requirements and human rights implications of even switching to electric cars present largely insurmountable problems. And even if these problems can be fixed, the solution needs to come first, rather than assuming as always that the next generation will somehow pick up the bill and sort out the mess we are creating by our profligate lifestyles.

And so we continue to build more runways and roads, drill for more oil, burn more forests for palm oil plantations and clear the rainforests for agriculture and logging, despite the fact that these massive environmental problems are no longer a theory but are staring us in the face. But we keep on driving and keep on flying and keep on buying things we don’t need from halfway across the globe without the slightest thought that all this will kill our children.

I was perhaps naive to believe that politics would solve the problem. If the bottom line is that people will not change their lifestyles, then they will not vote for politicians who say we need to. So politicians will not tell people the truth and tell them instead that we can get by with replacing petrol cars with electric ones by some decade well in the future and convince people we’re all ‘doing our bit’ for the planet by planting a few wind turbines. They talk vaguely about carbon capture and how air transport is important for economic growth and without that we cannot tackle climate change. As a councillor I was the only one even vaguely interested in the council’s climate change plan (including both councillors and officers).

And people believe them because they want to. I’ve long maintained that people get the politicians they deserve (good and bad) and they certainly don’t want politicians to tell them they can’t have their cheap holidays in Spain. I joined the Ecology Party (which became the Green Party) because it was, and still is, the only party to come anywhere close to telling people the truth on climate change. That people are generally not in the least interested in the environment that keeps them alive is borne out by the derisory vote Greens get – around 2% support except where they campaign strongly on non-environmental issues.

And Green Party activists have also realised this. So they focus on being more user friendly and campaigning on issues that ‘matter to people’ like independence or austerity, rather than lose votes by telling people it’s about time they faced the harsh truth.

I’ve been accused of being too Utopian, that before we address climate change we need an independent Scotland, or a Socialist Republic, or something else. And those arguments were rational thirty years ago – after all, it’s the free market Capitalist system that brought us to this position. However, thirty years ago is not now – when your house is on fire, you don’t try and get ownership of the keys, you reach for the hose. When I attend a climate rally and see it attracts less than a tenth of the numbers at a Scottish independence rally, it brings home how insane our politics has become. What planet do these people expect an independent Scotland to exist on? Venus by the look of it.

So we might be f***ed, but should we give up? No, I don’t think so. We may not be able to stop the process, but we can slow it down and offer the next generation at least some kind of palliative care. I have not flown or owned a car for around 20 years and will continue that way. Because very soon my children’s generation will become angry with mine, and will ask why, in the face of so many warnings from scientists for decades, we did nothing about it.

It will be little consolation, but at least I will be able to say I tried.

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20 responses

21 11 2017
Chris Harries

Would be good to know who this writer is, so can quote from it.

12 12 2017
Ian Baxter

Guilty as charged! My original post can be found here, with a little bit more info on me – http://midlothiangreen.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/politics-will-not-save-us-from-abrupt.html

12 12 2017
mikestasse

Oooops…… this just made me realise I never gave you credit for the essay Ian, something I always do but somehow managed to stuff up at the editing stage. I will fix it.

21 11 2017
Andy

His name is Ian Baxter….

21 11 2017
Kevin Hester

We were warned and failed to act, all we can do now is try to take our foot off the extinction accelerator and tread as lightly on Gaia as possible. The A.P. article referred to in the blog post is embedded in this photo;

21 11 2017
Dr Bob Rich

He is STILL too optimistic. We don’t have 30 years. We are not entering the 6th extinction event, but well into it.
Catastrophe is a probabilistic event. We’ve been lucky so far that it’s only hit in various localities. It could well have been global in 2017.

21 11 2017
Brandon Young

The presumption that we have a stark choice between continued consumerism and sustainability is too simplistic, and frankly a little naïve.

We can have Sustainable Consumerism should we collectively wise up and demand it.

A simple fee and rebate model can be used to systematically reduce the volume of economic activities that harm our social and natural systems, while at the same time systematically and exponentially expanding the economic activities that serve to preserve and restore our social and natural systems.

The fees would fund the rebates, and the size of the prices involved would be determined by the measured effects of economic activities on our social and natural systems. We would have a set of goals representing the well being of our social and natural systems, and each would have a trajectory for desired change for that real world outcome over time.

When the effects the fees and rebates are having on the set of economic activities in the market are too weak to produce the required trajectory, the pricing signals would rise. And obviously when the market is getting ahead of the curve on a particular goal, the pricing signals would fall, allowing more economic force to be applied to other goals where the market is not performing so well.

The simplest example is a fee on greenhouse gas emissions funding a rebate on greenhouse gas sinking. We set a trajectory for greenhouse gas concentrations to follow, estimate an effective starting price, and let the system run. The market will respond, because the market always follows the profit motive, and profitability will be determined by the ability to innovate and conduct the same economic activities in more sustainable ways. The same simple model can be applied to any goal we choose to set, and this is already being done to improve the efficiency of new cars made in several European countries.

The bottom line is that individual humans do not need to decide to deliberately curb their imposed consumerist behaviour, because the system as a whole can have its behaviour controlled and ultimately designed.

When we understand the forces acting on a system, and have the freedom to control those forces, we have the power to design system outcomes.

We can have a rational system completely populated by irrational participants – people, businesses, governments included. All we need is one moment of collective enlightenment to the power of systems engineering, and the system would take care of the rest, even once we revert to our ignorant ways.

Sustainability does not require us to sacrifice our lifestyles.

21 11 2017
Chris Harries

Brandon. it’s a bit loaded saying ‘we don’t need to sacrifice our lifestyles’. There are some aspects of consumer lifestyles that are unhealthy for the body and mind. There are aspects of consumer lifestyle that are so over the top they make people uncentred, stressed and unhappy… forever unsatiated. There are aspects of our lifestyles that demand way too much from the planet that we live on. And then add in the sheer numbers of people and the demands of a competitive economy. We have momentum.

It’s not just dumbness of decision makers that drives the status quo, that’s underpinned by the growth ethic. This predicament is inherent to the capitalist model. Kill off that and we have economic collapse no matter what, because there’s a big balloon of debt waiting to burst. But we don’t need to kill it off because it’s on the verge of self-destruct as we go past tipping points one by one.

There are all manner of people saying: “But, but, but… all we need to do is build electric planes and put a battery system in every home and build new wave power machines… Each one of these ‘solutions’ holds a tantalising bit of promise, just enough promise that citizens believe that we can make magic happen and we can keep defying rules of thermodynamics and economics and physics and mathematics and so forth… and most importantly our addictions to stuff.

But even if we turn a blind eye to those bottom-line rules, the timeframe within which the whole of society would have to transition isn’t decades away, its twenty years ago. We’re already out of control and we’re already in crash mode. This is the moment when we need to turn our minds to minimising collateral damage and managing the aftermath as best as possible. We aren’t going to bring all those multinationals to heal by sweet talking them with logic.

22 11 2017
Brandon Young

Thanks for the reply. Yes I generally agree with all of that. You say:

“This is the moment when we need to turn our minds to minimising collateral damage and managing the aftermath as best as possible.”

Without systemic control along the lines that I suggest, there is absolutely nothing we can do to minimise collateral damage. When the collapse begins, the outcomes will be chaotic, which means by definition that managing the aftermath is impossible.

We have no real choice but to impose control over the system before it collapses.

21 11 2017
Glenn

Brandon .. i think you are confusing what is theoretically with what is actually possible – the former not worth talking about.

None of this stuff is new. We could have fixed this decades ago BUT didnt.

Its simply a case of too early and at the same time too late for any real action as mentioned.

Try telling every day aussies not go on their jetstar … virgin $150 international flights.

As far as ‘sustainability’ for industrial humans … even if you cut right back it is simply not possible.

Try just building a ‘tiny home’ and you will see how dependant we are on the industrial system.

As mentioned we are #$@&ed!!!

And paradoxically … when you come to terms with this … something frees up in you … allowing you to do more anyways.

Just an opinion.

g.

22 11 2017
Brandon Young

What I have outlined very briefly is a control system, and we have been perfecting the engineering of control systems for centuries. It is no more theoretical than a pressure relief valve that stops a steam engine exploding, or the control system in a fridge that keeps the internal temperature in a desired range.

A control system over the economy that keeps particular economic outcomes within a desired range is actually a very straightforward task of systems engineering, because there is only one force in operation – the profit motive – and there is no question about how it works or how it can be exploited.

If people want to believe that we are necessarily stuffed, and that there is no solution available, then fair enough. There is some appeal in the thought of finding a comfortable place to sit with a decent beverage and simply watching the world die.

But for those of us who haven’t given up just yet, the appropriate position to take when yet to be persuaded by new ideas is scepticism, not outright disbelief.

22 11 2017
Andy

The word institutionalised springs to mind….

22 11 2017
Brandon Young

Andy, I have no idea what you mean. I like cryptic puzzles, but I think I need another clue.

23 11 2017
Andy

“They will smother me beneath six hundred dogmas; They will call me heretic and they are nevertheless folly’s servants. They are surrounded with a bodyguard of definitions, conclusions, corollaries, propositions explicit and propositions implicit. Those more fully initiated explain further whether god can become the substance of a woman, of an ass, of a pumpkin, and whether, if so, a pumpkin could work miracles or be crucified… They are looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever….” Erasmus, commenting on the high priests of market economics.

23 11 2017
Brandon Young

If you are obliquely suggesting that the solution I propose is somehow dependent on dogma or theory, then you must have misunderstood it rather profoundly.

On the other hand, if you are suggesting that this sort of empirical control over economics flies directly in the face of dogma and theory, and perhaps you even realise that it demolishes the need for economic dogma and theory altogether, then you are spot on the money.

Cheers, either way.

23 11 2017
Andy

I am comfortable for you to feel however you wish to feel Brandon….

21 11 2017
MargfromTassie

Which collapse will impact first – the economic one, the climate one, the environmental one or the energy one? Looks like they’re all going to overlap anyway….
Perhaps the more pertinent questions are – when will politicians acknowledge that these catastrophes are just around the corner? And when will the mass of people wake up?

24 11 2017
gigijo

Oh, that’s easy. First, nothing is “around the corner.” It’s here, it’s now. And as long as there’s money to be made, politicians won’t acknowledge shit. And they may NEVER acknowledge anything. And the mass of people will “wake up” only when they’re beginning to starve and seeing people dying in large numbers.

22 11 2017
Susmind

What do young people think ?
Coz ain’t we all old people here !
In 1988 I helped out for two days on a serious Nimbin area hippie commune.
A few of them worked as teachers in the local college/uni & had put together a course on low energy use / sustainability.
But they noted that all their children, then in their late teens/ early twenties wanted( & were going off to ) the big city, latest technology life.

Humans don’t desire the boring vegetable life.

22 11 2017
Susmind

Even if it costs them the earth…

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