We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.


In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.

It’s even worse than we are officially told….

12 10 2018

This is a guest post from my Scottish friend Jacqueline Fletcher who has taught in universities all over Europe, and even sent me a wwoofer from Finland some years ago….. she’s a permie and environmental activist beyond the call of duty. 

jacquelineYesterday evening I attended a meeting with a couple of researchers involved with IPCC reports. Dr Katarzyna Tokarska from the GeoSciences Institute at Edinburgh University and psychologist (and Scottish government advisor on mental health) Dr Nadine Andrews from Lancaster University. Tokarska explained the science, how much CO2 the atmosphere can take if we are to stay within the 1.5 degrees warming (X), how much is already in the atmosphere Y, and therefore X minus Y will tell us how much we can still emit before we lock ourselves ino the 1.5 degrees warming point (Z) and upwards towards 2 degrees.

The bad news is that in a BAU scenario, given the amount of CO2 emitted annually, globally, we will emit that amount (Z) in just three years.

We have to do something NOW. So what is on offer by way of suggestions about what to do?

A digression: In 2015 I was living in Paris and a member of the ‘social movement’ and degrowth group ATTAC. Because ATTAC was also one of the 130 or so groups that constituted CoalitionClimate21, I joined up with that too, to organise protests around the COP21 but also to collectively present a document to which all the global NGOs subscribed to the COP with our own suggestions for the transition to a low carbon society. Of course, there was a good deal more than protest; there were workshops, conferences, tribunals, a march was banned and became a human chain, smaller creative interventions and debates around energy etc and 2 colourful demos on the final day.

From the COP21 I took away a depressingly deep sense of the insurmountability of the crisis, not only were governments still trying to provide solutions that would best suit their corporations and chums in the banks, not only were the scientists watering down their reports to get governments on board, but equally the NGOs were so obsessed with fossil fuels that the Extinction Event which is wiping out the life that maintains Earth’s Biosphere was being ignored. Why is this?

I was well aware nothing significant would come out of the Paris Agreement. It was heralded as a triumph but it was a really only a triumph of PR.

Yesterday, I went to the evening organised by Transition Edinburgh feeling a bit more upbeat. This new IPCC report is very clear about how close to the edge we are. Surely, I thought, now the urgency is so obvious, something would be done, we’d get mobilsed, pressurise our government, take personal measures to change our lifestyles. But after the first speaker already, I felt severely depressed by the type of solutions on offer.

The first speaker was seemingly a proponent of BECCS (Biofuel Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, which Pr Kevin Anderson literally claims is BS) or maybe these were the only statistics she had because the IPCC focuses on technological solutions. For the uninitiated, this entails growing more cash crop forests, burning them for ‘biofuels’, capturing the CO2 and storing it in holes in the ground, like old mines and oil reservoirs, and compressed into rock with technology that is not yet in existence (at scale) In other words yet another linear system, in which a resource is used, waste is produced, the waste is hidden out of sight…a bit like plastic (irony intended). She showed that this was more efficient for storing carbon than afforestation (basically, just not chopping down existing trees). Already this comparison carried a signicant slant.

No mention of the statistics for carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture using biochar, no dig/till and continuous groundcover and/or holistic grazing. There are plenty of statistics out there, even reports from the UN Rapporteurs on the Right to Food, Food Security etc, and the FAO, the IPES-Food, UNCTAD on agroecology as well as statistics that can be gleaned from the growing number of small farmers doing Regen Ag. Why does agriculture never get into the mindset of people, scientists, governments etc dealing with the CO2 crisis?

I’m going to make my own comparison between BECCS and Regen Ag.

BECCS is a linear system with a waste product that is not organically disposable or recyclable. Is its use of resources really sustainable? It uses land then becomes unavailable for any other purpose and is eroded by the monoculture forestry, and which is also irreparably damaging for ecosystems.

Reg Ag on the other hand uses CO2 to grow soil, to replace the eroded soil that is yet another of our pressing crises (about 40% of the planet’s soil is already eroded). By sequestering CO2 in the living soil, the soil not only grows, but it produces healthy food (without pesticides) by maintaining a healthy soil microbiome. It is the microbial life in the soil that releases nutrients from the minerals to pass to plants and therefore creates nutrient-rich food (as opposed to the crap that comes from an agricultural system that kills the soil microbiome). It produces biomass in the soil that stores water to combat droughts and to allow water to filter naturally through to replenish the aquifers. Regen agroforestry and edible food forests also maintain healthy habitats and forage for wildlife with perennials, trees that also sequester carbon etc. It is a solution that also nurtures the ecosystems that are necessary too for our human survival. There is no waste product, everything is naturally and productively recyclable; biomass can even produce energy through biodigesting and still be returned to the soil. There is no wasteful use of land. BECCS takes land away from agriculture, carbon sequestration through regen ag integrates it.

Of course, the BECCS solution proposed isn’t about farming, it’s about energy. And what governments and corporations want to hear is something that produces energy, to continue to fuel an industrial, consumer-capitalist society at any cost for the sake of growth and profit. And if this remains the current thinking in political, commercial and financial spheres of influence, the old paradigm, the old mentality, then frankly, we really are f***ed.

Most of the 278 people who signed up for the speakers and discussion yesterday evening were young, students from Edinburgh University, from all over the world, and in reality we need to act NOW to save the world for them, and not to save a system of industrial production predicated on a mentality that is fundamentally antagonistic to all life on this planet, human and non-human.


If the latest warnings contained in Monday’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—which included pronouncements that the world has less than twelve years to drastically alter course to avoid the worst impacts of human-caused global warming and that nothing less than keeping all fossil fuels in the ground is the solution to avoid future calamities—have you at all frightened or despondent, experts responding to the report have a potentially unwelcome message for your already over-burdened heart and mind: It’s very likely even worse than you’re being told.

“The IPCC understates a key risk: that self-reinforcing feedback loops could push the climate system into chaos before we have time to tame our energy system.” 
—Mario Molina, Nobel Laureate

After the report’s publication there were headlines like: “We have 12 years to act on climate change before the world as we know it is lost. How much more urgent can it get?” and “Science pronounces its verdict: World to be doomed at 2°C, less dangerous at 1.5°C” and “A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking.”


Just two years ago, amid global fanfare, the Paris climate accords were signed — initiating what seemed, for a brief moment, like the beginning of a planet-saving movement. But almost immediately, the international goal it established of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius began to seem, to many of the world’s most vulnerable, dramatically inadequate; the Marshall Islands’ representative gave it a blunter name, calling two degrees of warming “genocide.”

The alarming new report you may have read about this week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which examines just how much better 1.5 degrees of warming would be than 2 — echoes the charge. “Amplifies” may be the better term. Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, the report declares, should the world warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which it will do as soon as 2040, if current trends continue. Nearly all coral reefs would die out, wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure. Avoiding that scale of suffering, the report says, requires such a thorough transformation of the world’s economy, agriculture, and culture that “there is no documented historical precedent.” The New York Times declared that the report showed a “strong risk” of climate crisis in the coming decades; in Grist, Eric Holthaus wrote that“civilization is at stake.”

If you are alarmed by those sentences, you should be — they are horrifying. But it is, actually, worse than that — considerably worse. That is because the new report’s worst-case scenario is, actually, a best case. In fact, it is a beyond-best-case scenario. What has been called a genocidal level of warming is already our inevitable future. The question is how much worse than that it will get.

Paris, climate and surrealism

27 07 2017

Speaker: Prof. Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change

Title: Paris, climate and surrealism: how numbers reveal an alternate reality

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of “well below 2°C” and “pursue … 1.5°C” has catalysed fervent activity amongst many within the scientific community keen to understand what this more ambitious objective implies for mitigation. However, this activity has demonstrated little in the way of plurality of responses. Instead there remains an almost exclusive focus on how future ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) may offer a beguiling and almost free “get out of jail card”.
This presentation argues that such a dominant focus reveals an endemic bias across much of the academic climate change community determined to voice a politically palatable framing of the mitigation landscape – almost regardless of scientific credibility. The inclusion of carbon budgets within the IPCC’s latest report reveals just how few years remain within which to meet even the “well below 2°C” objective.

Making optimistic assumptions on the rapid cessation of deforestation and uptake of carbon capture technologies on cement/steel production, sees a urgent need to accelerate the transformation of the energy system away from fossil fuels by the mid 2030s in the wealthier nations and 2050 globally. To put this in context, the national mitigation pledges submitted to Paris see an ongoing rise in emissions till 2030 and are not scheduled to undergo major review until 2023 – eight years, or 300 billion tonnes of CO2, after the Paris Agreement.

Despite the enormity and urgency of 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” mitigation challenge, the academic community has barely considered delivering deep and early reductions in emissions through the rapid penetration of existing end-use technologies and profound social change. At best it dismisses such options as too expensive compared to the discounted future costs of a technology that does not yet exist. At worst, it has simply been unprepared to countenance approaches that risk destabilising the political hegemony.

Ignoring such sensibilities, the presentation concludes with a draft vision of what an alternative mitigation agenda may comprise.

Our Aversion to Doom and Gloom Is Dooming Us

20 07 2017

Reproduced from Commondreams.

I worked for over 35 years in the environmental field, and one of the central debates I encountered was whether to “tell it like it is,” and risk spreading doom and gloom, or to focus on a more optimistic message, even when optimism wasn’t necessarily warranted.

The optimists nearly always won this debate. For the record, I was—and am—a doom and gloomer.  Actually, I like to think I’m a realist. I believe that understating the problems we face leads to understated—and inadequate responses.  I also believe that people, when dealt with honestly, have responded magnificently, and will do so again, if and when called. Witness World War II, for example, when Churchill told the Brits, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In those words, he helped ignite one of the most noble and dedicated periods of unity and resistance in all the annals of human endeavor.

Finally, I believe that the principles of risk management dictate that when the consequences of our actions —or our inactions—are pervasive, long lasting, irreversible and potentially devastating, we should assume worst-case outcomes.  That’s why people get health insurance; it’s why they purchase insurance for their homes; it’s why they get life insurance. No one assumes they’ll get sick, that their house will burn down, or that they’re about to die, but it makes sense to hedge against these events.  It’s why we build in huge margins of safety when we design bridges or airplanes. You can’t undo an airplane crash, or reverse a bridge failure.

And you can’t restore a livable climate once it’s been compromised.  Not in anything other than geologic timeframes.

Yet we routinely understate the threat that climate change poses, and reject attempts to characterize the full extent of the potential for catastrophe it poses. And it’s killing us.

David Wallace-Wells’ recent article in the New York magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a case in point.  It was an attempt to describe the worst-case scenario for climate change.  Here’s the opening sentences to give you an idea of what Mr. Wallace-Wells had to say:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. 

Predictably, a large part of the scientific community reacted with hostility, and environmentalists were essentially silent. For example, Climate Feedback published a critique of Wallace-Well’s article by sixteen climate scientists, leading with Michael Mann, originator of the famous hockey stick, which graphically showed how rapidly the Earth was warming. Here’s part of what Dr. Mann had to say:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

The last part of Dr. Mann’s statement may explain the real reason the environmental and scientific communities reacted so hostilely to Wallace-Well’s article, and why they generally avoid gloom and doom, even when the news is gloomy—the notion that presenting information that details just how bad climate change could be, leads to “paralysis.”

This, together with scientists’ tendency to stick to the most defensible positions and the scenarios that are accepted by the mainstream—what climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous scientific reticence—probably explain why the scientific community has tended to understate the threat of climate change, although few would describe Dr. Mann as reticent.

And it should be noted that Mr. Wallace-Well’s did overstate some of the science. For example, given out current understanding of methane and carbon releases from permafrost, it appears as though it would take much longer to play out than Wallace-Wells suggested, although it likely would add as much as 2°C to projected warming by 2100. But for the most part, he simply took worst-case forecasts and used them. As Dr. Benjamin Horton—one of the scientists commenting on the Wallace-Wells article put it, “Most statements in the article are based on peer-reviewed literature.”

One of the reason worst-case projections seem so dire, is that the scientific community—and especially the IPCC—has been loath to use them. For the record, ex-ante analysis of previous forecasts with actual changes show a trend that is nearer to—or worse than—the worst-case forecasts than they are to the mid-range.

The article also forecast some of the social, demographic, and security consequences of climate change that can’t be scientifically verified, but which comport with projections made by our own national security experts.

For example, in this years’ Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, climate change was identified as a “threat multiplier” and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in testimony presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May of this year:

Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could  walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate  change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

Director Coats specifically highlighted health security, terrorism and nuclear proliferation as threats that climate change would exacerbate. This is coming from the Trump administration, which has been censoring climate-related information coming out of NOAA and EPA.  It’s a measure of how seriously the national security community takes the threat of climate change that they fought to keep the issue above the political fray.

Yet here again, the scientific community took issue with these claims, because they were conjecture.  Never mind that those whose job it is to assess these kinds of risks found the forecasts likely and actionable. Scientists want data and the certainty it brings, not extrapolation.

So what’s the gap between future worst-case and the more typically used mid-range projections the media and scientists favor?  It’s huge, and consequential.  I’ve pointed out some of the risky—if not absurd—assumptions  underlying the Paris Agreement in the past, but let’s briefly outline some numbers that highlight the difference between what’s typically discussed in the media, with projections based on worst-case—but entirely plausible—forecasts.

After Paris, there was a lot of attention paid to two targets: a limit of less than 2°C warming, and a more aggressive limit of no more than 1.5°C warming.  What was less well known and discussed was the fact that the Agreement would have only limited warming to 3.5°C by 2100, using the IPCC’s somewhat optimistic assumptions.

What is virtually unknown by most of the public and undiscussed by scientists and the media is that even before the US dropped out of the Treaty, the worst-case temperature increase under the Treaty could have been nearly twice that.

Here’s why.

As noted, the 3.5°C figure had a number of conservative assumptions built into it, including the fact that there is a 34 percent chance that warming will exceed that, and the idea that we could pass on the problem to our children and their children by assuming that they would create an as yet unknown technology that would extract massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a cost-effective way, and safely and permanently sequester it, thus allowing us to exceed the targets for a limited amount of time.

But the fact is, some projections found that temperature increase resulting from meeting the Paris targets would exceed 4°C by 2100, even if we continued to make modest progress after meeting them – something the Treaty doesn’t require. The IPCC forecasts also ignored feedbacks, and research shows that just 3 of these will add another 2.5°C of warming by 2100, bringing the total to more than 6.5°C (or nearly 12°F). At this point, we’re talking about trying to live on an essentially alien planet.

Finally, there’s evidence that the Earth’s natural sinks are being compromised by the warming that’s happened so far, and this means that more of what we emit will remain in the atmosphere, causing it to warm much more than the IPCC models have forecasted. This could (not would) make Wallace-Well’s thesis not only plausible, but likely.

But rather than discussing these entirely plausible forecasts, the media, environmentalists and too many scientists, would rather focus on a more optimistic message, and avoid “doom and gloom.”

What they’re actually doing is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with our children’s future with two bullets in the chamber. Yes, the odds are that it won’t go off, but is this the kind of risk we should be taking with our progeny’s future?

There is something paternalistic and elitist about this desire to spare the poor ignorant masses the gory details.  It is condescending at best, self-defeating at worst.  After all, if the full nature of the challenge we face is not known, we cannot expect people take the measures needed to meet it.

I believe now, and I have always believed, that humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices.

As an aside, Trump is now President because the Democrats followed the elitist and paternalistic path of not trusting the people – that and their decision to put corporate interests above the interests of citizens.

Watching Sanders stump against the Republican’s immoral tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill, shows the power of a little honest doom and gloom.

We could use a lot more of it across the political spectrum.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track. It is available in hardcover now, and the ebook will be available shortly. Follow him on Twitter:@john_atcheson

Another silver bullet bites the dust….

10 10 2016

A recent article in the Guardian explains why scientists now believe that soil’s potential to soak up climate changing carbon dioxide has been overestimated by as much as 40%….

Hopes that large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide could be buried in soils appear to be grossly misplaced, with new research finding that the ground will soak up far less carbon over the coming century than previously thought.

Radiocarbon dating of soils, when combined with previous models of carbon uptake, has shown the widely assumed potential for carbon sequestration to combat climate change has been overestimated by as much as 40%.

Scientists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) found that models used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assume a much faster cycling of carbon through soils than is actually the case. Data taken from 157 soil samples taken from around the world show the average age of soil carbon is more than six times older than previously thought.


Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane, our resident climate scientist, recently picked up on this at Chris Martenson’s Peak prosperity blog and wrote the following……?

The article points again to the problems with global models of climate change. Those who generally complain about ‘models’ usually do so to try to imply that they are wrong and that this therefore means that they are overstating climate change. The fact of the matter is that although they are ‘wrong’, the errors, in principle, are just as likely to understate as overstate the situation. In reality, the science tends to be conservative, as scientists are usually constrained to using what is statistically defensible for many of the parameters within their models, so the likelihood of understating known issues (e.g. ice sheet collapses) is greater than substantially overstating them, which is why the vast majority of new findings point out that climate change is progressing faster than we have been estimating.

The famous quote by George Box “All models are wrong, but some are useful” nicely sums up the state of things. Much of what we do in this world is based on our internal modeling, some of which is of high accuracy, “the sun comes up every morning”, and other ideas somewhat less so,  “I’m a safe driver so driving is not risky”. Weather models are notoriously inaccurate but we find quite a lot of utility in consulting them anyway. They may not be absolutely ‘right’ but they are usually reasonably close to the ultimate conditions. Climate models have multitudinous components but their ultimate function basically boils down to calculating the balance between sources and sinks of carbon in the atmosphere, then estimating what the ramifications are of the net changes in type and amounts of the so-called greenhouse gases.

Sources are emissions from things like burning fossil fuels, and positive feedbacks like melting permafrost that releases a portion of the carbon stock, that has literally been frozen in place for millennia, to the atmosphere as the climate warms. Sinks are things like ocean uptake of carbon as higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations force the gas into the water, like occurs in your soda bottle or beer can. Negative feedbacks are those that ultimately bring the system back into balance after excessive emissions and include things like plants soaking up carbon and ultimately depositing some of it for long term storage in soils, in addition to transformation of silicate rocks to carbonate rocks as mountains erode and deposit sediments into the sea, soaking up atmospheric carbon in the process.

As I have mentioned before, the existence of a positive or negative feedback is only part of the story, we also need to know the rate at which it proceeds and ultimately how long it might continue. If you put a match to a high concentration of an explosive gas (say hydrogen) the positive feedback of energy release from a few molecules transferring energy to the proximate molecules will proceed very rapidly but not for very long before the process runs its course in the explosion. On the other hand, eroding the Himalayan mountains down to sea level will soak up immense amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but will take millions of years to accomplish.

All of which is providing context for what the He et  al. (2016) paper is saying. Soil carbon is a catch all term for many chemical compounds in soils that have carbon as a component. This makes the ‘organic’ component of soils. If you are modeling the rate at which carbon can get soaked up by soils you need to know the processes involved and calibrate them using parameters that balance the rates at which carbon enters and leaves the soil. What the new research is showing is that the current Earth Systems Models (ESMs – components of Global Climate Models – GCMs) currently underestimate the age of organic materials (carbon) in existing soils which effectively means that they overestimate the rate at which carbon is likely to be sequestered through plant growth/soil formation in the future. The upshot being that the models are currently estimating that soils will soak up potentially twice as much carbon between now and 2100 as seems likely. If the carbon isn’t getting soaked up it means that it could pile up in the atmosphere for longer than presently estimated and act to warm the planet more than currently projected.

As in all scientific matters, these results will be tested by other scientists and either be verified, refuted or refined. So what does it signify if this is correct? The soil component is only one pool among many but the net fluxes are what matters in the climate situation. For example:

With a Net Terrestrial Uptake of 3.0, the findings could indicate that this should be better described as 1.5-2.0. This could conceivably move the net atmospheric increase from 4.0 to 5.0 or so, a 25% increase. Non trivial. That said, what it probably means is that existing errors in other components of the modeling are either partially overstating emissions or global photosynthesis or understating net oceanic uptake. Therefore, instead of a 25% increase in atmospheric carbon there would be a smaller compounding increase between now and 2100, how small is the question. Future studies will be aimed at teasing these interacting components apart.

Global Warming may proceed faster than expected

1 05 2015


There certainly is some evidence that climate sensitivity may be below 2°C. But if you look at all of the evidence, it’s hard to reconcile with such a low climate sensitivity. I think our best estimate is still around 3°C for doubled CO2.

Mark Cochrane has this to say about the above……..:

The above video and article at the link do a good job laying out the range and likelihood of various modelled climate sensitivities to a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric carbon levels. The extension of the published IPCC range of possible sensitivities to values as low as 1.5C are more an exercise of political correctness than anything else. To realistically have values below about 2.5C you would need to have both reduced feedbacks (e.g. increasing water vapour in the atmosphere and melting ice cover on the ground) and a large negative feedback from clouds (e.g. more low level clouds at low latitudes).

The problem for this scenario being that we have already had decades of measurements that positively show the feedbacks we have already gotten, in terms of increased water vapour and decreased ice cover, won’t support a low climate sensitivity. Similarly, the clouds haven’t shown up as hoped. I spent about 15 years assuming and hoping that they would. Reality and various research studies beat that idea out of my head. If anything, the clouds are yielding a small positive feedback (warming). Depending who you believe that could be due to wispy high level clouds that trap heat or diminished low level clouds at lower latitudes that reflect less sunlight.  Could be a bit of both.

So, barring a sudden and unexpected change in all of the trends to our advantage, a climate sensitivity below 2.5C is a pipe dream. Something more like 3-3.5C is probable with higher values more likely than lower ones around that range. Note, I’d really like to be proven wrong about this… (to the low side)

In practical terms, the higher the climate sensitivity, the faster and more extreme the emissions cuts we will have to make in order to avoid compromising the resilience of our society and the rest of global ecosystems to climate changes as we progress through this century.

Wishful thinking is not a viable strategy for managing our future.

Climate models in perspective

8 02 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane.

One of the favourite refrains from climate change ‘skeptics’ is saying that models are wrong, which is a bit like saying that water is wet. Models are simplifications of more complex systems and as such they are always going to be ‘wrong’ but the question is whether or not they are useful. Weather models are wrong too but we use them all of the time. Sometimes they over predict precipitation or temperature while at other times they under predict.  The Weather Channel actually uses ‘proprietary methods’ to over predict the chances of high precipitation (link), presumably because they’d rather be wrong in one direction than the other.

The ‘skeptic’ claim is that climate scientists do something similar with their projection of future climates for a range of probable emissions scenarios. Somehow hundreds of scientists across multiple groups all manage to collude in this mass delusion to make us worry more than we should about the future impacts of our fossil fuel dependent culture.

Favorite climate skeptic Christopher Monckton and colleagues recently published an article (link) saying as much in the somewhat obscure Chinese journal Science Bulletin. I’ve never heard of this journal before but they are making an attempt to be in the peer-reviewed literature so I won’t quibble. They make the case that the IPCC model scenarios are overstated by a factor of 2 or 3. If you want an in depth summary and critique of this paper see this blog post. Relative ranking of journals is often done using their respective Impact Factors; their likelihood to yield citations to any given work. Scientists aim to get their works into the best location for their work to be read and used by their peers. Science Bulletin has an impact factor of 1.4, Nature has one of 42.4.

Now an analysis has been done to test whether model misses of the so-called warming ‘hiatus’ are due to having incorrect model forcing (sensitivity to greenhouse gasses – e.g. CO2) or other random factors (mostly volcanoes and ocean modes – e.g. El Nino etc.). The paper in Nature by Marotzke and Forster (2015) does this by comparing model simulations used by the IPCC and observations of global mean surface temperature as functions of all possible 15-year (and 62) trends from 1900 to the present.

An in depth explanation of the paper can be found here.  The use of 15 years is somewhat arbitrary but it provides a test of using short time periods to get whatever trend is desired. If the nefarious climate scientists are really making their models over predict the rate of warming then when you plot all of the differences between the model outputs and the actual observations they would tend to be greater than zero. This is the pattern you see from 1998-2012 (middle below), the period of the so-called hiatus or pause. However, you see the exact opposite pattern from 1927-1941 when models would have been accused of seriously under predicting temperature increases (left panel below). When you plot all of the data (right panel) the results are not significantly biased either way.

Comparing model-simulated (brown bars) and observed global surface temperature (vertical black line) for the 15-year periods covering 1927-1941 (left) and 1998-2012 (middle), and for all 15-year periods between 1900 and 2012 (right). Source: Marotzke and Forster (2015)

The models are not systematically biased in either way, they just cannot account for chaotic or random factors within the atmosphere and ocean. Therefore they will seem to over predict and times and under predict at other times. Where are we now?

Still cruising along the lower portion of the 95% range of the model simulations. If it were a blood test you still wouldn’t have a little asterisk on your test but it would be close.

It is noteworthy that this apparent inaccuracy only pertains to ‘surface temperatures’ of the Earth. There are no indications that the rate of warming has actually slowed down in any way. The only change has been in the amount of energy being stored in the world’s oceans. Despite our terrestrial surface bias of measuring the climate, over 90% of the energy is piling up in ocean waters, with much of the heat being transported into deep reaches (>700 m) as chaotic processes lead to periods of ocean water turnover.

The wiggles in the ocean uptake (blue above) of heat end up as periods rapid warming or a ‘pause’ these days in surface temperature. Note, back before 1970 those down turns would cross beneath the land component and yield actual global cooling for short periods. Ocean processes call the tune of energy transfer and the atmospheric and surface temperatures dance to it on short time scales. None of this changes the steady ramp of ongoing energy storage in the long term trend due to green house gas accumulations that is driving global climate change.