IS IT ALREADY TOO LATE?

Despite the fact that ITV once broadcast a fly-on-the-wall documentary about me called Disasterman, I have always had a fairly positive outlook. Staying optimistic in light of the environmental bombshells published this week, however, is not easy. At times like this it is difficult not to wonder if, whatever action we take, we may already be doomed.

The first bombshell exploded at the weekend, when the results of a major new study (1) revealed that the global population of insects of all types was plunging by 2.5 percent a year. Should this rate of decline continue – and there is good reason to think it could even accelerate – then a quarter of all insects alive today will be gone in a decade. Before 2070, half will have vanished and none will survive to the end of the century. It is impossible to play down the scale of this blossoming catastrophe. Without insects we will starve. Full stop! This would be as near as it gets to an extinction event for the human race, and not one that happens in the dim and distant future, but one that will increasingly impact on our children and their children. As ever, this should not really come as a surprise. We know the cause – a conspiracy of climate change and industrial-scale intensive agriculture. The solutions too, are clear; a complete rethink of our diet, how we grow our food and how we manage our world – for the good of all life, not just our own.

On Tuesday, hard on the heels of the insectageddon bombshell came another, this one in the form of a new report by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (2). This flagged up how the accelerating impacts of climate change and other environmental problems, threatens a collapse of the world’s social and economic systems. Once again, this is hardly news to those of us who have eyes and use them, but the report draws attention to a number of key points; not least the fact that mainstream political and policy debates utterly fail to recognise the problem. It is off the radar and kept there by Brexit, trade wars and comparable issues that pale into insignificance against climate breakdown and environmental degradation. Not only can most policy makers not see the elephant in the room, they are not even in the room.

These two reports are simply the latest in a near continuous torrent of bad news that acts to sap the will. In the face of this mind-numbing deluge, it would be all too easy to throw in the towel; to turn our backs on the environmental crisis that threatens our survival; to plead that it’s just too hard to tackle. But we can’t afford to do this. It is too late now to prevent dangerous, all-pervasive, climate change that will affect every one of us and make the lives of our children and theirs a real struggle. It is going to be tough anyway – that’s now a certainty – but the longer we delay and the slower we are to take serious action, the worse it will be. This is why Extinction Rebellion is calling for a net zero carbon world by 2025. However bad the news gets, this is still something worth fighting for. What choice do we have?

(1) Worldwide decline of entomofauna: a review of its drivers

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718313636

(2) This is a crisis: facing up to the age of environmental breakdown

https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/age-of-environmental-breakdown

 

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

ASIA – CLIMATE BREAKDOWN’S NEW FRONT LINE

By Bill McGuire

In my last blog I reported on the unsurvivable heatwaves that lie in wait, later this century, for unsuspecting populations, particularly across Asia. Without serious efforts to slash global carbon emissions now, three quarters of the population of India will be exposed to ‘extremely dangerous’ levels of humid heat, while four hundred million inhabitants of China’s northern plain will be at severe risk of heat death.

This is shocking enough in its own right, but this week brought more bad news for the region that looks, increasingly, as if it will occupy an unenviable position in the front line as our world’s climate continues to break down. The huge populations of nations like India, China and Pakistan are only sustainable while there is a reliable food supply. This, in turn, is critically dependent upon a trustworthy supply of water for irrigation. There have been worries for some time that a failing climate will result in a more sporadic monsoon, or even – on occasion – its failure. The new research, however, brings an even greater threat.

According to the results of a new landmark study1, the glaciers of the 3,500-long Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain chain are in such a precarious state that a business as usual emissions scenario will see two-thirds of them gone by the century’s end. Even if we really pull our fingers out and slash emissions so as to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, one third of the ice will still be gone by 2100.

The reason why this scenario is so potentially cataclysmic is that the great rivers draining the Hindu Kush Himalaya – including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow – provide the water that irrigates the crops that feed two billion people across a region stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the west to China and Myanmar in the east. Cut off this water supply and the stage is set for a prodigious famine far beyond biblical proportions. The study is the work of more than 200 scientists and peer reviewed by a further 150, so it stands as a formidable work of climate science that cannot and must not be ignored.

With 15 percent of the ice already gone, since the 1970s, problems are already becoming apparent due to more erratic river flow. By the middle of the century, the authors of the report predict, river flow will ramp up as more and more meltwater cascades down from the mountains. Flood events will occur far more frequently, while population centres will also face existential danger from catastrophic deluges arising from the breaching or overtopping of high-altitude meltwater lakes.

The real problems will set in, however, from around the 2060s onwards, as river flows start to drop off in earnest as the source ice fields fade away. Not only will this have a devastating impact on agriculture, it will also ensure that hydro-power dams on the rivers can no longer function, cutting power across the region. The prospects of billions being unable to feed themselves while at the same time having insufficient power to attend to the basics of life, doesn’t bear thinking about. This is a pending human catastrophe on the grandest of scales, and yet another reason why we can’t afford to dither any longer. The honest truth is that, even if we manage to achieve net zero emissions by 2025, this still won’t be enough to stop climate breakdown in its tracks. But failing to do this will doom vast tracts of our world to the heat, dust and despair of Hothouse Earth.

1The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-92288- 1

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

COMING SOON – THE HEAT THAT KILLS IN HOURS

By Bill McGuire (ex-IPCC scientist writing exclusively for XR Blog)

Here in the UK, with snow drifting down and the papers full of warnings of the imminent arrival of ‘the beast from the east’ – the bitterly cold weather pattern that brings the worst of winter weather – it is hard to imagine that elsewhere on the planet temperatures are soaring to dangerous levels. A world away from the frost and icy wind, Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented heatwave. Last week, temperatures across much of the country topped 40°C and, in many places breached 45°C. A few days ago, at Port Augusta in South Australia, the temperature peaked at a record-shattering 48.9°C. Probably most astonishing is the record overnight temperature, which – at Noona in New South Wales – fell to just 35.9°C; an all-time record for the country. I have always thought of Australia as essentially a desert with a few green bits around the outside. The prospects for the country on Hothouse Earth are bleak, so it is particularly ironic that successive governments have proved to be some of the least climate-friendly on the planet.

The scorching temperatures down under are likely to be just the advance guard of what may well be Planet Earth’s hottest year ever. With a new El Niño looking to build across the Pacific – a phenomenon that acts to boost global temperatures as well as supercharge extreme weather – 2019 is widely predicted to be hotter than each of the last three years which, themselves, make up the three hottest on record. As a consequence, heatwaves are likely to be widespread – as they were in 2018. Last year saw unprecedented heat across four continents, especially in July, when more than 3,000 daily high temperature records and 55 all-time highs were shattered.

It hardly takes an Einstein to appreciate that heatwaves will become one of the most damaging, disruptive and lethal hazards as the world continues to heat up. According to the University of Hawaii’s Camilo Mora, one of the authors of a study published last year in Nature Climate Change, when it comes to future heatwaves ‘our options are now between bad and terrible.’ What this means is that, even if we slash greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, by the end of the century nearly half the world will experience deadly heatwaves. If we take no effective action, then three-quarters of our planet’s population will be under threat.

Furthermore, the nature of the worst future heatwaves will be very different from those currently baking Australia and that scorched much of the world in 2018, and their impact potentially catastrophic. As global temperatures continue to ramp up, a deadly conspiracy of heat and humidity, measured by the so-called ‘wet-bulb’ temperature, will bring about murderous heatwaves from which there can be no relief and no escape. When the wet-bulb temperature reaches 35°C, the combination of heat and humidity is such that losing heat through sweating is impossible for the human body. In such circumstances anyone without access to air conditioning – however young or fit – has only six or so hours to live, whether sheltering in the shade or not. Research (1,2) reveals that as the century progresses – and under a business as usual scenario – more and more of the planet will come under severe threat from such devastating heat, in particular the Middle East, South and South East Asia and China. Ground zero looks like being China’s northern plain where – today – four hundred million people toil in the country’s agricultural heartland. By the second half of the century, fatal humid heatwaves are forecast to strike the region repeatedly, effectively making China’s breadbasket uninhabitable.

No human has yet had to experience such heat-death conditions, but it can only be a matter of time. In Bandar Mahshahr (Iran) temperatures of 46°C combined with 50 percent humidity, brought conditions, in July 2015, to the very limit of survivability. Perhaps 2019 will be the year the threshold is breached, bringing a first taste of what it will be like when parts of the world that brought forth and moulded our species finally become off limits to us.

(1) http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/8/e1603322

(2) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05252-y

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

Going Under

By Bill McGuire

If your children or grand children live within sight of the sea, then be afraid. Very afraid. Sea-level rise is set to be one of the most devastating and disruptive consequences of climate breakdown and the prospect of the oceans drowning coastal communities by the end of the century is growing by the day. The prevailing view sees perhaps a metre or so of sea-level rise by the century’s end – enough in its own right to doom low-lying islands and coastlines – but the true picture may be far worse. A number of studies suggest that sea levels by 2100 could be two or three metres up on today; perhaps as much as five metres. A truly terrifying scenario.

uk_sealevel_rise

How the UK would look on an ice-free Earth

Global sea levels rose by around 20cm during the 20th century and are climbing now at close to half a centimetre a year. Much of this is due to the expansion of the oceans as they warm, but melting ice is playing an ever more important role in hiking the rate of the rise. The problem is that the Earth is not heating up uniformly, and the bad news for us is that temperatures across the polar regions are climbing far more rapidly than anywhere else. Of course, this is where the vast majority of our world’s ice resides; in total, a staggering 24 billion cubic kilometres of it – close to seventy per cent of all the fresh water on Earth. The great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been bastions of stability since the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. During the second half of the 20th century, however, and especially in the last few decades, they have started to crumble, shedding vast quantities of freshwater into the oceans.

Until recently, attention has been focused on accelerating melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which are the most sensitive to rising temperatures. The last 20 years or so has seen a huge increase in the melting rate of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is now shedding close to 400 billion tonnes of ice every year. Even more worryingly, the melting rate is increasing exponentially, which means it will continue to accelerate rapidly.

The news from West Antarctica is not good either. In the five years from 2012 to 2017, ice loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet shot up threefold, from 76 billion tonnes annually, to a colossal 219 billion tonnes. In total, more than 2.7 trillion tonnes of Antarctic ice has melted in the last quarter century, adding three-quarters of a centimetre to global sea level. At the new rate, the contribution over the next 25 years would be 1.5cm. Not really too much to worry about. If, however, the rate of increase is maintained over this period, then the annual rise by the mid-2040s – barely more than 20 years away – would be close toa catastrophic five centimetres a year. And this is without the growing contribution from Greenland and from the increasing expansion of sea water as the oceans continue to warm. It is not known how the melt rate will change in coming decades, but it is a sobering thought that even if the rate of increase stays as it is, low-lying lands and all coastal population centres would be threatened with permanent inundation by the century’s end.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, new research from East Antarctica paints an even more disturbing picture. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet dwarfs those of both Greenland and West Antarctica. Complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise global sea levels by around seven metres, while melting of all the ice in West Antarctica would add another five or so. If East Antarctica lost its ice, however, it would push up sea levels by a staggering fifty metres or more. Until recently, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was regarded as largely stable, and some studies even suggested that it might have been growing. The new study (1) reveals, however, that this is now changing, and changing with a vengeance. What was a sleeping giant is now beginning to wake up.

Satellite data reveals that a cluster of colossal glaciers, which together make up about an eighth of the coastline of East Antarctica, are starting to melt as the surrounding ocean gets progressively warmer. The loss of the giant (It’s about the size of Spain!) Totten Glacier – just one of the cluster – would, on its own, raise global sea levels by more than three metres. The new data show that it and its companions are now moving increasingly rapidly seawards and thinning as they do so, meaning that even the worst predictions for rising sea levels may be optimistic. As with the many other indicators that flag the remorseless breakdown of the stable climate that fostered the growth of our civilisation, the collapse of the polar ice sheets sends us the message that time has run out. Prevarication is no longer an option. Only serious and determined action now will give us any chance of avoiding a climate calamity that will swamp the world’s coastlines and displace hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people.

(1) https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/more-glaciers-in-antarctica-are-waking-up

 

Bill   McGuire   is  Professor   Emeritus   of  Geophysical   &   Climate Hazards   at  UCL   and   author  of   Waking   the  Giant:   How   a  Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was   a   contributor  to   the   IPCC  2012   report   on  Climate   Change   &Extreme Events and Disasters.

 

Forward To The Past

By Bill McGuire

The trouble with blogging about climate change is that the bad news comes so thick and fast these days that it is difficult to know what to flag up next. The findings of at least three pieces of research were published in the last week or so, each of which added further support to the case that we are going to hell in a hand cart. It took a deal of humming and harring before deciding which to address here, but in the end I determined to take a look at what past climate change can tell us about where we are headed. For now, the melting glaciers of East Greenland and evidence for an upcoming acceleration of planetary warming will just have to wait.

The idea that the past is the key to the present is a tenet worth much in the fields of Earth Science and geophysics, and it makes perfect sense. In the same way that observing natural processes happening today can help us interpret events within the geological record, so what happened thousands or millions of years can tell us what we to expect on 21st century Earth.

The latest news from deep time is not good. In fact it is terrifying. Around 252 million years ago, the geological period known as the Permian was brought to an abrupt end by the greatest mass extinction event in the history of our world. Known as the Great Dying, it saw almost all marine species wiped out, along with two-thirds of all life on land. What caused this cataclysmic dieback has been a matter of debate and controversy in geological circles for many years. Now, though, it looks as if the culprit has been fingered – climate change. 

The results of a new study published earlier this month1 by scientists from Stanford University and the University of Washington provide robust evidence for a huge spike in warming at this time, with global average temperatures climbing as much as 10°C in as little as a few hundred years. As a result, the warmer oceans may have lost up to four fifths of their oxygen, leading to the obliteration of 96 percent of all marine species. On land, the extreme temperatures wiped everything – from lizards and insects to early plants and bacteria – from the face of the planet. The cause of the temperature spike is not certain, but up there as the favourite is a massive outburst of greenhouse gases triggered by elevated levels of volcanic activity.

Substitute the repeated annual injection into the atmosphere of more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, for volcanic activity, and the situation begins to look horribly familiar. But surely, you might say, even the worst case scenarios don’t predict a 10°C rise in global temperatures, do they? Well, on the basis of current trends, the best we can hope for is a global average temperature hike of 3°C by 2100; nearer 4 or 5°C – or even more – should feedback loops really start to kick in as expected. That is already half way to the Great Dying, and would see countless species wiped out in a continuation of the ongoing, human-induced, sixth great extinction. Even worse, if we burn most (not even all!)known fossil fuel reserves, it has been calculated that our world could end up a staggering 16°C warmer than during pre-industrial times2. At the moment, the average temperature of Planet Earth is a little over 14°C. This would take it to more than 30°C. The result would be a mass extinction to put the Great Dying in the shade, and one that the human race would struggle to survive. Under these furnace conditions, most of the planet would simply be too hot for human physiologies to function, so the best prognosis for our race would be the survival of a few pockets clinging on in the slightly cooler polar regions.

So, it is perfectly clear. We now know exactly what trajectory we will be on if we continue to burn fossil fuels and swamp the atmosphere with carbon.  Not back to the future, but forward to the past. We can’t let it happen.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

Sources:

(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6419/eaat1327 

(2) https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20140017102.pdf 

The Summit To Nowhere

By Bill McGuire

The insanity of it! The crass stupidity. Not only is this week’s critical UN Climate Summit taking place in a country where coal is king – generating eighty percent of its electricity – but it is hosted by the coal mining city of Katowice. Make no mistake, despite the flim-flam on the conference website about its alleged green credentials, this is a city built on coal and powered by coal, which is home to Poland’s biggest coal company.

And it gets worse. In our neo-liberal, everything-monetised, world, no big event can be left un-sponsored, and this year’s climate summit is no exception. What sort of organisations might you expect to attach their names to arguably the world’s biggest ‘green’ event? Maybe the builders of wind turbines or solar farms, or perhaps those involved in sustainable reforestation or carbon capture. But no, the Polish government has permitted – not to say encouraged – a pair of coal companies to become official sponsors. You really couldn’t make it up. But then, the Polish government has a history of this sort of abject and disgraceful behaviour. The last time the country hosted a UN climate conference was in Warsaw in 2013. Then, the Polish Ministry of Economy teamed up with the World Coal Association to host an international coal and climate summit in parallel with the UN event. One of the planet’s greatest despoilers piggy-backing on the high-profile of those trying to clean up their mess. It’s like a sick joke.

And to add to the feeling that the whole thing is taking place in some weird alternative reality, the summit attracts its usual bunch of crazies, fossil fuel apologists and neocon ideologues to its fringes. Topping the bill in Katowice, at an event held nearby by the US Right-wing lobby group, The Heartland Institute, will be a small gang of climate deniers. These despicable cranks will no doubt delight their audience by telling them (a) that climate change is not happening; (b) that if it is, humans are not the cause; or (c) even if we are, it’s nothing to worry about – possibly all three simultaneously.

As if all this is not enough, the chance of anything worthwhile coming out of Katowice – anything concrete that will give us hope – is vanishingly small. The goal of the summit is flagged as being to set down the rules by which the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will operate. That’s right – three years on there are still no mechanisms in place that will allow the translation of the vague promises of Paris into measures that will actually reduce emissions in the real world. You certainly can’t accuse these guys of rushing things. The so-called Paris Rulebook is supposed to determine how governments record and report their greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to cut them. But it doesn’t matter how well you record and report progress, bugger-all is still bugger-all.

Whether or not a rulebook pops out at the end of this week’s summit is going to make very little difference to the chances of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C or even  2.0°C. It is perfectly clear, to those able to see past the obfuscation, deceit, hyperbole and misplaced confidence, that the emissions reductions promises made in Paris – even if they are kept – are nowhere near enough to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown. Certainly, they will not get us anywhere near the 45 percent emissions drawdown by 2030 that the IPCC now demands, which, in itself, is nowhere near enough.

Let’s face it, this whole way of doing things just isn’t working. Summits every year, excruciatingly complex emissions reduction plans that require a 500 page plus rulebook, accommodating fossil fuel companies, keeping big polluters happy just to keep them on board, talking up our chances of keeping our world cool. None of these things are going to get us where we want to be, which is NZ7 – net zero emissions in seven years. What we need instead is an immediate ban on all fossil fuel subsidies, carbon taxes that will make it uneconomic to get hydrocarbons out of the ground, a ‘war on climate change’ economy that embraces personal carbon ration cards, the retooling of industry to drive a crash programme in wind and solar, electric vehicles and infrastructure, energy efficiency and carbon capture, the imposition of NZ7 emissions pathways for all businesses, a ban on deforestation and a massive programme of new planting.

If this all sounds draconian, that’s because it is. If we had taken the climate change threat seriously nearly four decades ago, when it started to be seen as a clear and present danger, we could have turned things around by now, slowly and steadily. Instead, we chose to ignore it, so that emissions are still rising and our world is on the cusp of catastrophe. Sorting the problem now is going to demand big sacrifices by everyone, but the only alternative is to pass on even greater sacrifices to our children and those that follow.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

We need an Apollo programme for climate change

By Bill McGuire

      A recent visit to the cinema to see the excellent First Man, which follows astronaut Neil Armstrong on his path to immortality, reminded me of the big anniversary coming up next year. I find it hard to believe, but 2019 will see the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, way back in July 1969. I was a schoolboy at the time and remember it vividly. In many ways, this seminal event was the beginning of the end for the hugely ambitious US space programme. Despite another five landings following, and all the drama of the Apollo 13 emergency, the final two moon missions were scrapped, along with plans for a moon base and manned mission to Mars in the 1980s. There has been no return to the Moon and – notwithstanding wildly optimistic ravings from Elon Musk and other internet billionaires with more money than sense – a human presence on the red planet seems as far away as ever.

      It is probably not entirely a coincidence that interest in space and reaching out to other worlds began to fade at a time when concerns over our own was growing. Today, few in their right mind would prioritise space exploration over putting our house in order down here on Earth. A house that is in severe danger of being trashed beyond repair by a conspiracy of climate breakdown, environmental degradation and mass extinction. Notwithstanding this, space still has a major role to play down here on the surface. Specialist satellites play a key part in observing and tracking many of the features that flag up how quickly our world is falling apart, including ice cover, sea-surface temperatures and land use. The Apollo programme, in particular, also taught us a vital lesson; just how quickly something can be accomplished if it is wanted badly enough. This is encapsulated in a short clip from the now famous speech President Kennedy made in 1962, during which he announced the intention to put a man on the Moon. 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

      Swap ‘stop climate breakdown’  for ‘go to the Moon’ and these few sentences describe perfectly the can-do thinking that a war on climate change requires. It may be Kismet, but Kennedy’s speech was made seven years before the first moon landing; the same length of time over which Extinction Rebellion demands that UK carbon emissions reach net zero. So, it seems obvious. What we need is an Apollo Programme for climate change. An all-embracing crusade that strives to cut emissions to the bone within seven years. To do this will require retooling the economy and rebooting our wasteful lifestyles to make falling carbon output the measure of the success of our society; not rising GDP, the number of families with two cars, or how many fighter jets we have sold to Saudi Arabia.

      The driver for the Apollo programme was simple and straightforward – get to the Moon before the ‘Russkies’ do. When the alternative is global catastrophe, an Apollo Programme for climate change shouldn’t really need to be incentivised. Knowing that we will bequeath to our children and their children a world that is not desecrated beyond redemption should be sufficient. Nonetheless, there are welcome incentives too. A zero carbon world will be a cleaner, safer and – almost certainly – a happier one. So what’s not to like. The sooner we start the better.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.