January 14, 2013

The Inevitability of Global Warming and the Need for Resilience

Serious human-induced global warming is now inevitable.

The obvious fact is that that mankind has done very little to prevent significant future global warming and there is little reason to expect anything will change during the next few decades.

In other words, we are going to do the experiment, using our planet as a laboratory.

But even if we allow the warming to occur, there is much mankind can do to protect itself by making society more resilient to extreme weather and changes in climate. As indicated by Sandy and other recent storms, we are not even resilient to the current weather regime.

The Dutch have built an effective flood protection system.
 I will argue below in part II of this blog, that to create a more resilient society we need to do three things:
(1)  Improve weather prediction, so that we can protect individuals and economic assets when storms occur.
(2)  Improve climate prediction so we have a better idea of what will happen over the next decades and century.
(3)  Using the climate predictions, improve our infrastructure (e.g., power and transportation) and our economic underpinnings so they will be able to function under the current and future climate.
(4) Deal with population and political issues.   Resilience and adaptation must be holistic; global warming is only one problem in the way of our sustainability on this planet.

So why am I so pessimistic that mankind will do little to stop man-induced (anthropogenic) global warming?

First, after decades of ineffective conferences and agreements, including those  at Kyoto, Rio, and Copenhagen, CO2 is increasing steadily with no reduction in the upward trend (see graphic).  Many of the big carbon emitters (e.g., U.S, China.) won't commit to  serious reductions.  With increasing population, the movement of billions of people towards a middle class life style, and no game-changing energy technology  on the horizon, there is no reason to expect a mitigation of the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.
See any leveling of this upward trend in CO2?  I don't.
Second, although carbon emissions by the U.S. and Europe have slowed or even gone down a bit, countries such as China and India are rapidly revving up their emissions, often using the worst possible fuel--coal (see graphic for trend).   Folks in China, India and elsewhere want the same type of lifestyle we enjoy in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and there is no ethical or other argument why they should be denied what we enjoy.

Third, with new fracking and horizontal drilling technologies, we are finding more and more gas and oil, and prices of fossil fuels have declined--particularly for natural gas.  Fossil fuels are now cheaper than wind and other renewables, making fossil fuels hard to displace.  T. Boone Pickens was ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on wind energy, but bagged the whole idea--losing a huge amount of money-- when natural gas prices plummeted.

Fourth, even folks highly knowledgeable about the problem are unwilling to make sacrifices to seriously reduce their carbon usage.  Do you know who has the worse carbon footprints?  Climate scientists.  I know many of them.  They fly all over the world to frequent meetings (one cross country plane trip puts as much carbon into the atmosphere as a YEAR of commuting in ones car).  I don't know of any atmospheric scientists (or anyone else) that are foregoing jet travel for vacations or to see family.  Lots of talk, but no one is really willing to change their lifestyle in a significant way to reduce carbon emissions.

Fifth,  the one large, proven source of energy, nuclear power, has been taken off the table by many countries due to the Fukashima disaster.  Nuclear power can be safe, with new-technology reactors that don't melt down when power failures.  But they need to be away from vulnerable coasts and fault lines, and we must establish safe depositories of nuclear waste.  Nuclear is expensive, but could displace coal if we made the investment.

Finally, it is clear that national politicians are simply not willing to take climate change seriously, as shown by the fact it was basically off the table during the last presidential election.

Climate conference like Doha have accomplished litle
Yes, we can drive our hybrids, recycle, or buy products with supposed carbon offsets. It may make us feel good or virtuous, but it all is doing very little.  And keep in mind that by digging up and burning  the coal and oil sands in Wyoming and Canada we are sealing our fate.

To have a significant impact on temperatures later in the century we need  HUGE reductions in carbon use worldwide, and it won't happen.  Is there any example in history when people made large economic sacrifices and lifestyle changes for something that might happen decades in the future?   I don't know of any.  In the U.S., we can't make needed and minor adjustments to stop train wrecks we are sure are coming (fixing social security, medicare costs, etc.).

Some folks concerned about the lack of progress on global warming are desperately trying to get action by hyping the past and current effects of global warming, suggesting we are already seeing a large increase in extremes (floods, cold waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, disease, heat waves, etc.).  Bill McKibben, Climate Central, and Skeptical Science are some of the worst offenders...but there are many others.  Most of their claims are unfounded or exaggerated, but even with the willing, if not enthusiastic, amplification of the press, it appears that people either don't buy the claims or still are unwilling to make painful sacrifices.   And yes, there are the  climate change "denier" groups who happily pounce on the exaggerated claims of the "climate lobby" to make their own ridiculous claims that increased carbon in the atmosphere won't warm the climate.
If we were serious at all about global warming, we would not even consider coal trains.

So global warming is going to happen.   The models and basic physics are clear about that.  How much is still uncertain, but we are certain it will be significant.  But there is a great deal we can do to adapt to the new climate and give our civilization some resilience to the change.  And much of it we should do anyway even without climate change, as Hurricane Sandy and the recent Midwest droughts suggest.  In my next blog I will talk about resilience and adaptation.


  1. Looking forward to the next one - very much liking this approach to the issue.

  2. Cliff, I like your no-nonsense, no-BS, matter of fact approach to discussing climate change. Your realistic outlook on our future climate is a necessary component of the discussion. Thank you for being honest about the facts, whether those facts pertain to science or society.

  3. Cliff,
    Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

    I'm sure you'll catch it from both sides (the deniers and climate extremists), but someone needed to point out the risk we're taking.

  4. We as a society may be able to adapt in ways such as moving our infrastructure and communities to higher ground. But what happens when the ecosystem collapses? What if the drought in the Midwest turns into a permanent situation?

    I suspect that the current oil and gas boom enabled by fracking will be short lived. Following that we will see a huge downturn in the burning of these fuels and then wind etc. will become possible in the eyes of investors. But it will come too late for the ecosystem.

  5. This is the best, concise, summary of the current state of human caused climate change that I have read. Thank you.

  6. An interesting article on energy supplies linked to from The Oil Drum this morning:

    A key point:
    Indeed, Business Insider reports that far from being profitable, the shale gas industry is facing huge financial hurdles. "The economics of fracking are horrid," observes U.S. financial journalist Wolf Richter. "Production falls off a cliff from day one and continues for a year or so until it levels out at about 10 percent of initial production." The result is that "drilling is destroying capital at an astonishing rate, and drillers are left with a mountain of debt just when decline rates are starting to wreak their havoc. To keep the decline rates from mucking up income statements, companies had to drill more and more, with new wells making up for the declining production of old wells. Alas, the scheme hit a wall, namely reality."

  7. I submit that the inevitability of global cooling into the next ice age in inevitable. We need resilience in order to adjust to the changes because there is nothing mankind can do to prevent this reoccurrence.

    This statement is just as correct as yours claiming that global warming is inevitable. Isn't just a matter of how much and when?

  8. Bill ,

    So keep polluting our atmosphere?

    It doesnt alarm you that our pollution is changing the planet?

  9. The elephant in the room in this discussion that no one wants to face up to is that developed, western society as we know it probably only has about a century left. Maybe two if we're lucky. By that time the amount of petroleum production will have dropped to a trickle, and everything about our standard of living requires vast amounts of energy to maintain.

    The future will resemble the situation before the industrial revolution, except with better materials. Any mechanization will necessarily be small scale and largely human powered. Comfort heating and air conditioning will be unaffordable luxuries. Most people will live their whole lives without traveling more than a few dozen miles from their birthplaces, and "eat local" will become a necessity, not a fad. (No more out-of-season vegetables flown in from southern climes, no more chemical fertilizers.)

    The reason attempts to reduce carbon emissions have been such a failure is they're basically asking us to voluntarily destroy our own standard of living before shortages destroy it for us. It's a non-starter.

  10. Cliff, you must be out of grant money, so you're banging the GW drum to erase your earlier heresy on cascade snowpack levels.

    It was 34deg in Los Angeles this morning. Did Gore fly into town or something?

  11. Snowing right now in Port Townsend and it looks on the radar like a convergence zone downstream of Vancouver Island.

  12. Cliff, I couldn't agree with you more. But I would caution that "climate change" can mean more than just warming. Some very credible scientists are concerned that we may be entering another cooling phase such as the one that existed from about 1940 to 1980, or worse, the early 1800s, or even worse yet, the Little Ice Age, which would be catastrophic.
    So, IMHO preparing for climate change should include preparing for other types of change - not just warming.

  13. How is it that we can be so certain we are a big cause of the warming? The earth experienced far larger cooling and warming swings than the one we are in now, which began long before human-caused carbon emissions began in the 1800's. Warming of the oceans releases enormous amounts of CO2, like soda does when it warms up, suggesting that warming causes carbon level increases, not vise versa. For every scientist who is sure we are the cause, there is another who is nowhere close to certain. These are inconvenient truths.

  14. Zorch-you are confusing weather (today) with climate (trends over decades).

    While California has had a few non-record setting cold nights, Australia is enduring a record setting heat wave with temperatures reaching into the 120's.

  15. And the military? What is the carbon footprint of all those aircraft, tanks, apcs (no check engine light or catalytic converter), and just sending troops over 10k miles. We must destroy the planet to save us from the terrorists?

    And burning coal to turn corn into ethanol for cars.

  16. I know a number of people unwilling to ameliorate their own travel-heavy lifestyle like to assuage their consciences with the shell game otherwise known as " purchasing offsets".

    We all need to change our behavior, but we (myself included) only seem willing to do so if it's not too inconvenient. So, yeah, I've got to concede this point to Dr. Mass - it's going to happen, and in a big way.

  17. Jonathan, the oceans are absorbing CO2 and getting more acidic. In fact the CO2 in the atmosphere would a lot higher if the oceans weren't absorbing CO2.

  18. Much ado about nothing. Resources are a function of technology. Fossil fuels seem inevitable and onerous now, but time and technology will quickly change everything.

    Read about the future here: http://energyfromthorium.com

    And Cliff please do not be so resigned. It is unbecoming of a scientist of your stature.

  19. Its sad but I would have to agree.. Personally while I'd like to see changes take place, I think that the climate will have the potential to be reversed by nano technology and an impending super intelligence using nanotechnology (foglets, something along those lines), or our ancestors will simply move out into space, in the next 50 years the technological singularity will occur and computers will recursively rewrite themselves to be more intelligent, exponentially faster then we will be able to keep up. We can only hope that they decide to keep us around. :)

  20. Cliff,
    I know how much work it takes to maintain this Blog, especially with the recent increase in frequency and complexity of your blogs. I want to thank you for always creating a stimulating and thoughtful morning for me.
    Larry Wight, Friday Hsrbor

  21. Thanks for this clear-eyed assessment of where we are. I look forward to the next column where you talk about adaptation.

    In the meantime, I'd like to see more concerted effort to reform our social systems which can free up human energy and resources so we can make the adaptive changes that will be needed.

    There are some "no brainers" that we with enough political will could do now such as instituting a healcare system similar to what Canada has. People are stressed and many are unhealthy so making healthcare available to everyone would be a huge improvement.

  22. Atmospheric oxygen levels fall as carbon dioxide levels rise:


  23. Global Climate change is real. Technology is not going to save us; it can't invent more hydro carbons. In order to invent some new energy source we would need to have used existing hydro carbons which we have not done and have yet to prioritize. Peak Oil has come and gone know reserves are shrinking fast. Even an oil trade association has stated production has declined and will continue to decline.

    Society as we know it has 30 years tops. Check out the 40th anniversary edition of the famous MIT study "Limits of Growth". Sadly the collapse of society as we know it is enviable and sooner then later. We can already see the political unrest that is caused by declining resources. This unrest is only going to get worse. Those who wish to thrive in the future should learn to grow and preserve their own food and raise their own animals.

    Cliff, I always enjoy your blogs and I agree we need to focus on resilience. And better climate science is an important step but we must also prepare for scarce resources.

  24. The Bottom Line here is that we now have the technology to dramatically increase atmospheric and oceanographic data monitoring, input, and modeling by supercomputing. To not fund this approach to the study of global climate change would be foolish x 10 to the 123rd.

  25. Still "searching" for that one thing, apparently, that will actually sway those, not persuaded as yet. Public relations wise, looked at more generally, I'll be watching for "actions", lending to a better balance, Science to the Status Quo.

  26. What makes the lack of initiative on climate change even harder to swallow is that so much good can be achieved simply by "shifts" in lifestyle as opposed to "sacrifices." Also, any sacrificial lambs that are slaughtered in the name of climate change most likely have little to do with real prosperity.

  27. Cliff, I'm a big fan of your weather bits on public radio. Very interesting stuff. I was disappointed to find no sense of urgency in this post about climate change. Here's an article by David Roberts, which I recommend: http://grist.org/article/climate-alarmism-the-idea-is-surreal/ He also did a TEDx talk at Evergreen College which puts the problem in a nutshell. I hope you will take the time to look into this further. Thanks.

  28. "one cross country plane trip puts as much carbon into the atmosphere as a YEAR of commuting in ones car"

    WHAT?? I did not know this. So I wasted all my smugness about not ever having owning a car? Because I fly from Seattle to L.A. and back once a month!

    Okay Cliff, I'm really curious about this: that year of commuting, is it equivalent to one plane flight, or one flight PER PERSON? In other words, do I have to take on that entire year as an individual or can I at least divide it by the number of people flying on the plane??

  29. Cliif,

    So where does it all end? This fracking boom to me isn't right. I think solar is the way to go. Those big whirlygigs are a bit too intrusive on the countryside.

    If we can eventually master nuclear fusion, I guess that would safely solve the problem, but we still need fuel for planes and vehicles. though with plenty of energy, fuel could be synthesized. What do you think of algae energy?

    I want to mention, that the oceans are not (yet) actually anywhere near "acidic". The natural pH of the oceans is about 8.3, and CO2 is pushing it toward 8.2, which is still distinctly alkaline. This is helping absorb the gas, but at a cost of the conversion of some calcium carbonate shells and limestone to soluble bicarbonate. Hopefully a new steady-state will eventually be reached.

    It also bothers me that there isn't more talk about overpopulation. True, the developed world is slowing in that arena, but if developing world continues to grow way too fast. If we want prosperity for all and a stable Earth, we have to level off our world population.

  30. I think your calculation on CO2 per plane flight is quite a bit off, or at least needs to be phrased differently. This site (http://www.carbonneutralcalculator.com) will do calculations for the CO2 emitted during a round trip flight from, say, Seattle to Washington DC. That gives .77 tons.

    Grabbing approximate data from around the web, we have a typical American car driving 13,000 miles per year, at 30 miles/gallon, and 8.92 * 10^-3 tons/gallon. That give 3.86 tons/car per year.

    I think it's disingenous to claim that by continuing to fly to conferences, climate scientists are not seriously willing to make sacrifices to stop climate change. The analogy I'm thinking of is if people fighting a flood were to be criticised for splashing a bit of water around while they filled sandbags.

    Collective action, organized with governmental cooperation, is the only way to put a serious dent in global CO2 output. Our representatives need to hear from us that we demand action, and they will act.

  31. Uncle Vinny,
    I have tried a number of carbon footprint calculators (e.g.,http://www.nature.org/greenliving/carboncalculator/index.htm) and the numbers come out similar...a coast to coast flight results in roughly the same carbon emission as computing 10 miles a day in a typical midsize car.

    Regarding being disingenuous, I think there is a lot of potential to use new technology (electronic meetings) to replace some face-to-face meetings. And why not have meetings at central locations that minimize air travel? And the climate scientists I know like to travel for pleasure...a lot.


  32. Why be pessimistic when global warming advocates like Nobel prize winner Al Gore do business with big oil funded Al Jazeera? How convenient it is that promoting global warming can make you a lot more money than being a skeptic.

  33. It's amusing that AGW is still considered an issue given that we've experienced limited warming over the past 150 years, and absolutely no warming over the past 16 years. The climate models are so far off from where they predicted temperatures would be vs. where they actually are.


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