Disrupting Earth’s climate is to awaken a sleeping beast

By Zeeshan Hasan

Fixing Climate; The Story of Climate Science and How to Stop Global Warming by eminent climate scientist Wallace Broecker (who unfortunately just passed away)and his co-writer Robert Kunzig is an informative look at the science of global warming as well as a summary of the options for solving it. Wallace Broecker was professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, and through his research first discovered one of the primary regulators of the planet’s climate; namely the “thermo-haline conveyor,” the network of ocean currents which circulates hot and cold water over much of the Earth’s surface.

A recurrent theme in Broecker’s writing is his view of Earth’s climate as a sleeping beast which we awaken at our peril. The relative stability of climate for the past ten thousand years (since the end of the last ice age) is exactly what allowed humans to develop agriculture and create civilisation. Thus, we have greatly benefited from the long sleep of the climate beast. However, the carbon dioxide emissions created by our modern society’s dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas risk disrupting the climate and waking the climate beast. The consequences could be sudden and drastic.

Whereas we may think of climate change as being gradual and taking place over centuries or millennia, climate science has shown that drastic changes have happened very quickly in the past. A prime example is the end of the “Younger Dryas” ice age, a cold period which lasted from 12,800 to 11,500 years ago.

“The [ice] measurements … had shown that the warming at the end of the Younger Dryas had been abrupt … the ice layers were suddenly half as thick … most of that change had taken place in just a few years” (page 141).

So the scientific evidence is that climate change of sufficient magnitude to end an ice age can occur naturally in “just a few years,” not centuries or even decades. This bodes ill for our future, as our burning of coal, oil and gas is now changing the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere faster than any time in history. If a similarly quick global warming were to happen now, humanity would have little time or ability to adapt to it. The results would be catastrophic in terms of increased desertification, reduced food production and famine.

Aside from temperature rise, the biggest threat to Bangladesh in particular is from sea level rise. This is another area where research in climate science has made it clear that big changes can happen at a frightening pace.

In the 1980’s a colleague of Broecker’s, Richard Fairbanks, thought he could pinpoint a time when sea level rose twenty metres in a single century (page 171).

The above is indeed a stark contrast with the scientific conservatism of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of sea likely sea level rise being 59 centimetres by 2100.

The IPCC scientists specifically did not take into account the recent observations of accelerated ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica — essentially because they didn’t know what to make of them (page 183).

The problem is that scientists are generally cautious by nature, and unwilling to talk about possible worst case scenarios until that outcome is virtually certain. Unfortunately, if we wait until the worst case global warming scenario is inevitable before we start doing anything, it will be too late; the climate will have already changed, and humanity will have to suffer the awful consequences. Scientific conservatism in this case is lulling the public and world governments into a misplaced sense of security. So what is to be done? The answer is clear.

Which brings us to the one absolute certainty; no significant solution to the [carbon dioxide] problem can emerge until governments worldwide, and especially that of the United States, follow the lead of Norway and the European Union and impose either an emissions cap or a direct tax on [carbon dioxide] (page 266).

Broecker’s conclusion is shared by most climate scientists. To prevent dangerous climate change, carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by replacing fossil fuels rapidly with nuclear, wind and solar energy. This will require huge investments, and the only way the money can be raised is through a carbon tax. Those of us who care about what the future holds for our children need to start thinking about how to bring about this colossal change in the world economy. The only way to solve the climate crisis is to put continuous and increasing public pressure on politicians around the world to transition away from fossil fuels.

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael Mann

By Zeeshan Hasan
hockey stick
For the past few decades a struggle critical to the future of the planet has been fought between climate scientists on one hand, and think-tanks / politicians funded by fossil fuel companies on the other. During this time, climate scientists have reached an overwhelming scientific consensus that the carbon dioxide emissions caused by our reliance on coal, oil and gas have already caused significant global warming, and will endanger our planet unless all fossil fuels are phased out within the next decade. Simultaneously, the fossil fuel industry has run a huge misinformation campaign to keep the public in the dark about climate change. Ground-breaking scientist Michael Mann writes about this struggle in his book, The hockey stick and the climate wars; dispatches from the front lines.
The critical study which solidified scientific opinion about the truth of global warming was the “hockey stick graph” discovered by author Michael Mann himself in 1998, and highlighted in Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Mann’s graph showed global average temperatures slowly decreasing towards a distant new ice age for most of the past 1000 years, only to spike sharply upwards in the 20th century (like the end of a hockey stick). The ‘hockey stick graph’ showed that man-made global warming was real, and was already happening. The ‘hockey stick graph’ was confirmed by many subsequent scientific studies; the handful of studies which contradicted it were found to have critical errors. Among climate scientists, there was no longer any doubt about the reality and seriousness of global warming.
The fossil-fuel industry, composed of multinational coal and oil companies, sought to protect their business interests by sowing public doubt in global warming, and was quick to strike back at climate scientists. They funded think-tanks and web-sites propagating reports by their own “experts” who cast doubts on the ‘hockey stick’. These experts were usually economists and meteorologists/TV weathermen who knew little of climate science, as well as an ever-shrinking minority of climate scientists. The misinformation campaign took advantage of a public and media largely ignorant of science, and unable to appreciate that the real scientific debate on climate change was over. US Congressmen in the thrall of oil and coal lobbyists undertook an official witch-hunt of climate scientists in 2005. The US Congress was, however, unable to find any problems with the climate scientists’ views; but the damage was done. Widespread media coverage of politicians like Senator James Inhofe saying that climate change was “the single greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public” ensured that doubts about global warming continued in the public mind. The anti-climate science campaign ultimately descended to criminal acts of hacking and baseless accusations of fraud directed at Mann and his fellow scientists. In the ‘Climate-gate’ incident in 2009, unknown hackers stole thousands of e-mail messages from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the UK. One particular e-mail from another climate scientist to Mann was repeatedly used as evidence to claim that Mann had used a “trick” to falsify his ‘hockey stick’ data and was thus able to “hide the decline” in global temperature.
Climate change denialists had a field day. In actual fact, the word “trick” is commonly used among mathematicians and scientists to describe a clever means of solving a difficult problem, seemingly by magic; it did not imply any wrongdoing. Likewise, the “decline” in that was being hidden was a series of temperature measurements from one particular study acknowledged by the original author to be doubtful due to pollution. A number of subsequent inquiries were conducted, and none found any wrongdoing on the part of climate scientists. Again, the damage was already done; public belief in global warming and political will to tackle it both fell dramatically.
The fog of public doubt created over global warming had long-term consequences. Firstly, President Barack Obama’s attempts at regulating carbon emissions were rejected by the US Congress. Secondly, the ‘Climate-gate’ hacking had been timed to occur just before the Copenhagen summit on global warming in December 2009. Due to doubts raised by the ‘Climate-gate’ as well as Obama’s failure to pass any carbon dioxide emissions legislation in the US, Copenhagen failed to produce any meaningful international agreement to prevent global warming. This failure has left the planet in continued peril of global warming and consequent sea level rise, cyclones and drought. The election of Donald Trump in the US and distraction of Europe and the US by Brexit have unfortunately resulted in the peril of climate change being ignored. It is up to the public now to put pressure on politicians to save the planet from catastrophic climate change..

Storms Of My Grandchildren, By James Hansen

9781408807460

By Zeeshan Hasan

James Hansen’s book, Storms of my grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity definitely wins the prize for having the scariest sub-title ever. Yet Dr Hansen is no scaremongering quack, but one of the world’s most respected climate scientists and former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. His book predicts the end of Bangladesh and all coastal cities through global warming and sea level rise, and possibly the end of all life on Earth if our burning of fossil fuels is not rapidly halted. Fortunately, solutions to the problem are still within our reach if we act immediately.

The average educated citizen could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that global warming is a relatively minor problem; how can individuals take it seriously when the media and the world’s governments ignore it? As Dr. Hansen elaborates, that is because  the oil, gas and coal industries have more than enough money and lobbyists to bend practically any government to their will with their short-term promises of cheap energy, economic growth and jobs; not to mention the legal bribery of campaign contributions.

“There were 2,340 registered energy lobbyists when I checked in early 2009… As an example, one lobbyist, former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, received $120,000 from coal company Peabody Energy in 2008 – per quarter. That’s almost half a million dollars per year” (page 186).

Given the political clout of the fossil fuel lobby, it’s not surprising that George W. Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol on reducing greenhouse gases, sabotaged international climate change talks and endangered all of our futures. Dr. Hansen gives a personal account of how the same Bush administration tried to silence him as well as the rest of NASA on the issue of global warming, going so far as to remove any responsibility to study and protect the Earth from NASA’s vision statement. The truth is that every day we continue to burn fossil fuels, the likelihood of catastrophic climate change increases.
Many people may have heard of and shrugged off the findings of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) which forecasts a likely sea level rise of a metre or two in the next century. However, Dr. Hansen points out that the IPCC estimate is drastically underestimated, as geological records indicate sea level rise will be much higher. As he mentions on page 13, “Global warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more would make Earth as warm as it had been in the Pliocene, three million years ago. Pliocene warmth caused sea levels to be about 25 metres higher than they are today”. He goes on to mention on page 141 that “About a billion people now live at elevations of less than 25 meters”. So this would be the end of all coastal cities and low-lying areas such as river deltas, of which Bangladesh is the largest. A 25 metre warming is enough to submerge almost all of Bangladesh and its 160 million people. In that case, what are the options for Bangladesh and other low-lying countries? The wealthy and highly educated will always find some new country to migrate to. The remainder of the population will face a grim fate. It is astonishing that serious scientists like Hansen can elaborate such scenarios in books, and yet our policy-makers still shrug off climate change by assuring the public that we will be able to adapt. The idea of adaptation to most of Bangladesh going underwater is simply absurd. If the rest of the world had any real concern for Bangladesh’s survival, it would admit that adaptation to such drastic change is impossible, and try to limit global warming to a level that would ensure our existence. This would need to be somewhere around 1.5 degree Celsius, requiring rapidly reducing the burning of fossil fuels within the next decade. Oil, coal and gas need to be replaced by renewable energy such as as solar and wind.

For most of the last 20 years, the focus of all international climate change negotiations has been to limit global warming to 2 degrees. This is because 2 degrees warming was considered the threshold that would cause severe consequences for much of the world, essentially ignoring low-lying areas such as Bangladesh. In fact, current levels of carbon emissions are on track to cause 3 or 4 degrees of global warming and result in even more catastrophic effects. More than 2 degrees of global warming could trigger  ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system such as release of huge amounts of methane accumulated though millions of years of decomposing organic matter under melting arctic permafrost and the ocean floor. Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and this sort of positive feedback could spin global warming out of control, endangering all life on the planet. In our own solar system, Venus is a nearby example of a planet where too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has resulted in furnace-like surface temperatures of hundreds of degrees Celsius. This is a fate which may yet await Earth unless we reverse our present fossil-fuel burning course: “After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently?… I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty” (page 236). It’s worth noting that all the above mentioned reserves of fossil fuels are listed as assets in the public accounts of fossil fuel companies, which means that they fully intend to burn all of them. We are on a suicidal path.

Dr. Hansen is interested above all in solving the problem of fossil fuels, but laments the fact that carbon cap-and-trade schemes such as that adopted by the EU have proved ineffective. The solution he proposes is “carbon fee and dividend”; namely  a hefty carbon tax made progressive by returning the tax proceeds equally to each taxpayer. Thus the wealthy will pay dearly for their consumption of fossil fuel intensive goods and services, while the less affluent will be rewarded with much-needed cash for their low carbon footprint (pages 210-211). It should be noted that this should prevent carbon taxes as being perceived as regressive tax and thus being rejected by the public, which recently occurred in France.

Dr. Hansen’s book is uniquely personal, narrating how the birth of his grandchildren forced him to accept responsibility for trying to safeguard their future by becoming a anti-global-warming activist. As a result, he has been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting coal mining (page 248, or for more information watch his TED talk). The closing words of the book are worth repeating:

“The picture has become clear. Our planet, with its remarkable array of life, is in imminent danger of crashing. Yet our politicians are not dashing forward; they hesitate; they hang back. Therefore, it is up to you. You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren in this matter. I am sorry to say that your job will be difficult – special interests have been able to subvert our democratic system. But we should not give up on the democratic system – quite the contrary. We must fight for the principle of equal justice… But as in other struggles for justice against powerful forces, it may be necessary to take to the streets to draw attention to injustice… Civil resistance may be our best hope… It is crucial for all of us, particularly young people to get involved… this will be the most urgent fight of our lives. It is our last chance.”

We need to listen to climate scientists like Hansen and quickly end our suicidal dependence on fossil fuels within the next dozen years or so, while a window remains open to minimise the impact of global warming.

Climate Changed: a comic book warning of global warming

p238ClimateChanged

p247ClimateChanged

by Zeeshan Hasan

French cartoonist Philippe Squarzoni has taken on the huge task of trying to convey the complexity of climate science and the global emergency that it implies in the form of his autobiographical/documentary graphic novel, Climate Changed. Hopefully this will enable the general public, which does not always seem inclined to wade through dense texts on scientific topics, to get a better appreciation of the challenges of global warming.

The book starts with the author contemplating the difficulties of tackling the subject of global warming in comic book form; unlike most comic book stories, it’s a scientific phenomenon without the conventional beginning and end of most stories. His solution is to place a fairly detailed exposition of climate science in the context of an autobiography. The end result is illuminating. It serves to remind the reader that climate change is not just happening to the globe. It’s happening to all of us, since we all live on this planet that is rapidly heating up, and is already presenting us with real consequences in the form of record high temperatures, droughts and deadlier storms. His visit to his childhood home and his observation of how much smaller and different it seems as an adult illustrates that the comfortable planet we knew even a few decades ago is gone forever; the climate has changed, and it’s now a new, more dangerous world that we live in.

As a low-lying country which is both densely populated and incredibly vulnerable to sea level rise, Bangladesh gets two mentions in the book. Squarzoni quotes climatologist and World Bank economist Stephane Hallegatte: with ‘a rise in sea level of a little over 3 feet (1 metre)… numerous densely populated coastal regions such as the Ganges and Nile deltas could be flooded. Millions of people will be driven out, and agricultural production will be severely affected. 20% of Bangladesh could be flooded.’ Bangladesh comes up again when Hallegatte discusses the potential effect of millions of climate refugees on the international arena: ‘If 20 million people leave Bangladesh and head for India, what do we do?… What will the India and Bangladesh of 2060 be like? Will tensions between them have eased? Or will they be at war?’. Even in Bangladesh, such critical long-term concerns are rarely addressed in the short-term daily news cycle.

Unfortunately, the effects of climate change will be felt disproportionately by the poor; this is made clear by Squarzoni’s account of the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005. The wealthier sections of the city all evacuated upon hearing storm warnings a day in advance. The poor had no means to escape, and had to survive for days on the roofs of their submerged houses with most of the city being flooded with up to 23 feet of water. 30,000 people took shelter above the flood waters in the city stadium, until being finally evacuated by the government to the surrounding states. Desperate people started looting shops for supplies, with the result that a curfew was imposed; US soldiers freshly returned from Iraq were called in with orders from the state governor to shoot to kill. Total deaths numbered 1293, and 2 million were displaced; hundreds of thousands for over a year. Immense numbers were left in financial ruin with no means of rebuilding their flood-damaged homes. All this in the richest country in the world. The question arises as to how poorer countries would deal with similar storms and floods, which will grow more common everywhere as global warming adds heat and power to storm systems. How will wealthy countries treat poor countries suffering from climate change, which has been caused primarily by the carbon emissions of the rich? Will rich countries treat poor countries any better than they treat the poorest of their own citizens?

‘So, how to end this book?’ Squarzoni asks as he draws to a close. He observes that so far humanity has failed to deal with the existential threat of climate change by curbing fossil fuel use, and thus nearly closes on a pessimistic note; but as he says, ‘The story isn’t over’. Everything depends on how successfully we the public are able to lobby governments of the world to act over the next decade (which according to the 2018 International Panel on Climate Change report is all the time we have left to make severe cuts to fossil fuel use and thus prevent catastrophic climate change of over 1.5C).