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is climate already
David Spratt • Climate Code Red • September 2013
is climate already
“Dangerous” metrics Case studies 3 1
Climate system elements in danger from implied temperature increases 8 Paleo-climate comparisons Conclusions 11 10
Appendix: Tipping points and climate modelling 16 References 19
Is climate change already dangerous? Copyright: David Spratt 2013 Published by Climate Code Red 305/85 Rathdowne Street Carlton 3053 Australia Contact: email@example.com First published September 2013 Available online at: http://www.climatecodered.org/p/is-climatechange-already-dangerous.html
IS CLIMATE CHANGE ALREADY DANGEROUS?
… the (climate) disruption and its impacts are now growing much more rapidly than almost anybody expected even a few years ago. The result of that, in my view, is that the world is already experiencing ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system’… The question now is whether we can avoid catastrophic human interference in the climate system. – John Holdren (2008), senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology issues
The stated purpose of international climate negotiations is to avoid “dangerous” climate change or, more formally, to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Most of the climate action movement and most NGOs identify with this goal. But if climate change is already “dangerous”, what then is our purpose? • • • To return the planet to a safe climate (Holocene conditions)? To accept that climate change is already irretrievably dangerous state of affairs? In which case the purpose instead becomes … To prevent a plunge into an even worse “catastrophic” breakdown of human society and planetary and climate system elements?
And if conditions existing today for some elements of the climate system and the existing greenhouse gas levels and radiative forcing are already sufficient to push more climate system elements past their tipping points and create “catastrophic” breakdown without any further emissions, what then is our purpose? This paper sets out the evidence that dangerous climate change has already occurred and canvasses possible responses.
1. “DANGEROUS” METRICS
1a. Safe boundary A landmark research paper by Rockstrom, Steffen et al. (2009) established that “human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state… The result could be irreversible and, in some cases, abrupt environmental change, leading to a state less conducive to human development…” They observed that “a new era has arisen, the Anthropocene, in which human actions have become the main driver of global environmental change”. To meet the challenge of maintaining the Holocene state, the authors proposed a framework based on “planetary boundaries” which “define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and are associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes”. The boundaries are “values for control variables that are either at a ‘safe’ distance from thresholds — for processes with evidence of threshold behaviour — or at dangerous levels — for processes without evidence of thresholds”. The authors proposed nine boundaries, including a climate boundary that “human changes to atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per
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million (ppm) by volume, and that radiative forcing should not exceed 1 watt per square metre (W/m2) above preindustrial levels”. But CO2 concentrations now exceed 400 ppm by volume, and IPCC (2007) estimated greenhouse gas forcings of 3 (2.5–3.5) W/m2 above pre-industrial levels (Ramanathan and Feng, 2008). By this metric, climate change is now clearly dangerous, exceeding the safe boundary by wide margins: more than 50 ppm CO2 (equivalent to +0.5ºC of warming) and by more than 1-2 W/m2.
Figure 1: The updated “reasons for concern”
1b. “Burning embers”: five concerns The “burning embers” diagram of IPCC AR3 (2001) was revised and updated by Smith, Schneider et al. (2009), and will be updated again in the new 2014 IPCC report to include the colour purple to indicate worsening climate risks. It provides five “reasons for concern”: a) Risk to unique and threatened systems; b) Risk of extreme weather events; c) Distribution of impacts; d) Aggregate (total economic and ecological) impacts; and e) Risk of large-scale discontinuities (abrupt transitions, “tipping points”). A tipping point is a step change, or passing of a critical threshold, in a major earth-climate system component, where a small push or change unleashes a bigger change in the component through positive feedbacks, which amplify the change. The classic case in global warming is the ice–albedo feedback, where decreases in the ice cover area change surface reflectivity, trapping more heat and producing a temperature rise and further ice loss. A discussion of tipping points and the limitations of current tipping point science may be found in the Appendix.
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This overview focuses on Arctic tipping points (concern ‘e’ above). It is beyond this paper’s scope to provide comprehensive and robust evidence for all five concerns, but one can note in passing that recent climate-change impacted extreme weather events, such as Superstorm Sandy, would reasonably fall within the definitions of concerns ‘b’ and ‘d’. The disproportionate and sizeable impacts of climate change on poor and developing nations, which have already been documented by UN agencies and aid organisations, constitute reasonable evidence for concern ‘c’. The imminent loss of most of the world’s coral reef systems clearly qualifies under ‘a’, and so on.
2. CASE STUDIES
2a. Arctic sea ice On 16 September 2012, Arctic sea-ice reached its minimum extent for the 2012 northern summer of 3.41 million square kilometres, the lowest seasonal minimum extent in the satellite record since 1979, and just half of the average area for the 1979–2000 period. There was a loss of 11.83 million square kilometres of ice from the maximum extent on 20 March 2012. This was the largest summer ice extent loss in the satellite record, more than one million square kilometres greater than in any previous year. Two-thirds of the loss of sea-ice extent has happened in the 12 years since 2000, and the process appears to be accelerating. From 1979 to 1983 in the Arctic, the sea ice summer minimum covered an average of just over 51 per cent of the ocean. It fell to just 24 per cent of the Arctic ocean surface in 2012.
Figure 2: Arctic sea-ice volume loss (based on PIOMAS)
Not only does the sea ice cover a smaller area of ocean in summer, it is also thinning rapidly. The sea-ice volume is now down to just one-fifth of what it was in 1979. The PIOMAS project (Zhang, Rothrock et al.), which captures the process of sea-ice retreat far better than any other general climate models, finds a September 2012 minimum of 3,263 cubic kms of ice. Contrasted with the figure of 16,855 cubic kms in 1979, more than 80 per cent of ice volume has been lost (Figure 2).
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It is now clear that the Arctic is heading quickly for summer periods free of sea ice. A linear extrapolation of sea-ice mass loss suggests it may occur within a decade or so. An exponential fit, which is a better fit for the current data, suggests it might occur within a few years (see Figure 3). At time of publication, the minimum volume figure for 2013 was not available, but it may be a little higher than the record low of 2012, and similar to 2011. Because climate models generally have been poor at dealing with Arctic sea-ice retreat (see Appendix), expert elicitations play a key role in considering whether the Arctic has passed a very significant and “dangerous” tipping point. Here’s what leading figures in the research field say: • Dr Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter told the March 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference that sea ice since 2007 had departed from model predictions, and that disappearance of Arctic sea ice has crossed a “tipping point” that could soon make ice-free summers a regular feature across most of the Arctic Ocean (Pearce, 2012). This conclusion was drawn from a subsequently published paper (Livina and Lenton, 2013) which finds that “an abrupt and persistent increase in the amplitude of the seasonal Arctic sea-ice cover in 2007 which we describe as a (non-bifurcation) ‘tipping point’”. If 2007 is the crucial point on the Arctic sea-ice decline timeline, it is also important to note that global warming above pre-industrial was 0.76ºC at that time. At equilibrium, a 0.76ºC rise is equivalent to CO2 levels of 335 ppm, so the “safe boundary” of 350 ppm already looks too optimistic from this perspective. The Australian Climate Commissioner, Professor Will Steffen, told The Age in September last year: “I’m pretty certain that we have now passed the tipping point for Arctic sea ice” (Cubby, 2012).
Figure 3: PIOMAS Arctic sea ice annual minimum volume (black) plus “best fit” trend (red)
Dr Seymour Laxon, of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London, says: “Preliminary analysis of our data indicates that the rate of loss of sea-ice volume in summer in the Arctic may be far larger than we had previously suspected… Very soon we may experience the iconic moment when, one day in the
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summer, we look at satellite images and see no sea-ice coverage in the Arctic, just open water” (McKie, 2012). • Professor Carlos Duarte, Director of University of WA’s Oceans Institute, says an Arctic “snowballing” situation would prove as hard to slow down as a runaway train. He says melting of the ice is accelerating faster than any of the models could predict and the prospect of an Arctic Ocean free of ice had been brought forward to 2015, compared with a prediction in 2007 that at least one-third of the normal extent of sea ice would remain in summer in 2100. Duarte says that the Arctic region is fast approaching a series of imminent “tipping points” which could trigger a domino effect of large-scale climate change across the entire planet with “major consequences for the future of humankind as climate change progresses” (UWA, 2012). US National Snow and Ice Data Centre Director Dr Mark Serreze told Climate Progress in 2010: “I stand by my previous statements that the Arctic summer sea-ice cover is in a death spiral. It’s not going to recover.” (Romm, 2010) Without human intervention to drive recovery, the evidence is very clear that Serreze is right. Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University and the Catlin Arctic Survey, and a leading authority on the polar regions, concludes in a research paper: “Has Arctic sea ice reached a tipping point? I believe that it has...” (Wadhams, 2012).
I have been predicting [the collapse of sea ice in summer months] for many years. The main cause is simply global warming: as the climate has warmed there has been less ice growth during the winter and more ice melt during the summer… in the end the summer melt overtook the winter growth such that the entire ice sheet melts or breaks up during the summer months. This collapse, I predicted would occur in 2015–16 at which time the summer Arctic (August to September) would become ice-free. The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be completed by those dates. As the sea ice retreats in summer the ocean warms up (to +7ºC in 2011) and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost, frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms, the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas so this will give a big boost to global warming. (Vidal, 2012)
Wadhams’ analysis relies in part on a new, more specialised regional climate model, acronym NAME, developed by Dr Wieslaw Maslowski and colleagues. NAME is head and shoulders above other models so far in projecting and replicating sea-ice losses (see Appendix A). “The future of Arctic sea ice” (Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012) found that: “Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9,000 cubic kms, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 +/-3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer” (emphasis added). The impacts of lengthening periods of sea-ice-free Arctic summers are significant and will, together with warming already “in the system”, push more climate elements past their tipping points. Our knowledge is limited because “a system-level understanding of critical Arctic processes and feedbacks is still lacking” (Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012) and “no serious efforts have been made so far to identify and qualify the interactions between various tipping points” (Schellnhuber, 2009). However, we do know that the Arctic is warming quicker than the global average. Duarte, Lenton et al. (2012) find that: “Warming of the Arctic region is proceeding at three times the global average, and a new ‘Arctic rapid change’ climate pattern has been observed in the past decade.” Reductions in the sea-ice cover are believed to be the largest contributor toward
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Arctic amplification. Maslowski, Kinney et al. (2012) note that: “a warming Arctic climate appears to affect the rate of melt of the Greenland ice sheet, Northern Hemisphere permafrost sea-level rise, and global climate change”. The sea-ice cover in June is about two per cent of the earth’s surface. Replacing that during summer in the Arctic with darker, more heat-absorbing ocean waters is equivalent to about 20 years of human greenhouse emissions, or about +0.5ºC of warming, according to Peter Wadhams. This is consistent with a study by Stephen Hudson (2011), which found that, if the Arctic were ice-free for one month a year plus associated ice-extent decreases in other months, then, without taking cloud changes into account, the global impact would be about +0.2ºC of warming. If there were no ice at all during the main three months of sunlight, the increase would be +0.5ºC. The consequences of the Arctic big melt and the subsequent regional amplification and global temperature increase will include: • • Accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet, very likely pushing it past its tipping point (see 2b. below and Appendix); Pushing Arctic temperatures into a range that will trigger large-scale Arctic carbon store releases of methane and CO2, a positive feedback which will drive further warming (see 4d. below); Further destabilisation of the Jet Stream and hence more northern hemisphere extreme weather; and The destruction of the Arctic ecosystem, which is already well under way. This has been chronicled by many researchers and organisations, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Care for the Wild International (Wolf, 2010). In the Arctic, the rate of climate change is now faster than ecosystems can adapt to naturally, and the fate of many Arctic marine ecosystems is clearly connected to that of the sea ice (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012). I remember well attending an Academy of Science conference in Canberra in May 2008 where the international guest speaker was Dr Neil Hamilton, then head of the WWF Arctic Programme. He told a somewhat stunned audience that the WWF was not trying to preserve the Arctic ecosystem because “it was no longer possible to do so”. Whilst the campaign to stop the development of an oil and gas industry in the Arctic is necessary (if only to prevent more global warming emissions), the claim that in so doing we can thereby “save the Arctic” seems wide of the mark.
2b. Greenland Complex, non-linear systems typically shift between alternative states in an abrupt, rather than a smooth manner (Duarte, Lenton et al., 2012), so it is often difficult to identify tipping points in advance. Only a few Arctic specialists, including Ted Scambos, Mark Serreze and Ron Lindsay, said prior to 2007 that the sea ice was close to a phase change. If it is sometimes hard to see tipping points coming, it is also too late to be wise after the fact. And that is precisely the case with the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS). Current-generation climate models are not yet all that helpful on GIS. They have a poor understanding of the processes involved, and acceleration, retreat and thinning of outlet glaciers are not represented. Recent research (see 3a. below) puts a lower boundary of 0.8ºC on GIS’s tipping point, a warming level we have already reached. In July 2013, a new study found that stretches of ice on the coasts of Antarctica and Greenland are at risk of rapidly cracking apart and falling
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into the ocean: “rapid iceberg discharge is possible in regions where highly crevassed glaciers are grounded deep beneath sea level, indicating portions of Greenland and Antarctica that may be vulnerable to rapid ice loss through catastrophic disintegration” (Bassis and Jacobs, 2013). In 2012, GIS melting shattered the seasonal record; the duration of GIS melting was the longest yet observed; a rare, nearly ice sheet-wide melt event (covering as much as 97% of the ice sheet’s surface on a single day) occurred in July; and the reflectivity of GIS, particularly at the high elevations that were involved in the mid-July melt event, declined to record lows. Unfortunately, data from the GRACE satellite observation of GIS is not yet of sufficient duration to robustly describe the melt trend, but observations are that the rate of melting is increasing, and many glaciers are picking up speed. Since 2001, the Jakoshavn Glacier, the world’s fastest flowing glacier, has more than doubled its flow rate, and total GIS mass loss in 2011 was 70% larger than the 2003–2009 average annual loss rate. Previously, studies have estimated that it would take centuries to millennia for new climates to increase the temperature deep within ice sheets such as GIS. But a new study finds that when the influence of meltwater (which drains through cracks in an ice sheet and can warm the sheet from the inside, softening the ice and letting it flow faster) is considered, warming can occur within decades and produce rapid accelerations. Lead author Thomas Phillips says this research “could imply that ice sheets can discharge ice into the ocean far more rapidly than currently estimated,” thus requiring a re-assessment of the rate of both future sea-level rises and the rate of mass loss of GIS (Phillips, Rajaram et al., 2013; University of Colorado Boulder, 2013). Has Greenland passed its tipping point? What would be the impact of a sea-ice-free Arctic summer and the consequent amplified regional warming on the stability of the Greenland ice sheet? Research does not yet provide a robust framework for considering such questions, yet most scientists if asked for their expert elicitation would probably say that it is hard to imagine the GIS doing anything other than actively de-glaciating at an accelerating rate and passing a critical tipping point in such circumstances. NASA climate research chief Dr James Hansen answered this question in the affirmative, in a peer-reviewed paper in 2007:
Could the Greenland ice sheet survive if the Arctic were ice-free in summer and fall? It has been argued that not only is ice sheet survival unlikely, but its disintegration would be a wet process that can proceed rapidly. Thus an ice-free Arctic Ocean, because it may hasten melting of Greenland, may have implications for global sea level, as well as the regional environment, making Arctic climate change centrally relevant to definition of dangerous human interference.” (Hansen and Sato, 2007)
In the same year, Hansen said that today’s level of CO2 was enough to cause Arctic sea-ice cover and massive ice sheets such as in Greenland to eventually melt away: “I think in most of these cases, we have already reached the tipping point” (emphasis added) (Inman, 2007). And last year, Hansen told Bloomberg that: “Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points – the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates… These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity” (emphasis added) (Morales, 2012). Glaciologist Jason Box told reporters at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union last December: “In 2012 Greenland crossed a threshold where for the first time we saw complete surface melting at the highest elevations in what we used to call the dry snow
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zone… As Greenland crosses the threshold and starts really melting in the upper elevations it really won’t recover from that unless the climate cools significantly for an extended period of time which doesn’t seem very likely” (Goldenberg, 2012).
3. CLIMATE SYSTEM ELEMENTS IN DANGER FROM IMPLIED TEMPERATURE INCREASES
The current level of atmospheric CO2 only is sufficient to increase the global temperature at equilibrium by +1.5°C, based on the standard assumption of near-term climate sensitivity of 3°C for doubled CO2. If all current greenhouse gases are taken into account, then:
The observed increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) since the pre-industrial era has most likely committed the world to a warming of 2.4°C (within a range of +1.4°C to +4.3°C) above the pre-industrial surface temperatures. (Ramanthan and Feng, 2008)
And the IPCC (2007) Synthesis report (Table 5.1 on emission scenarios) also shows that for levels of greenhouse gases that have already been achieved (CO2 in the range of 350–400 ppm, CO2e in the range 445–490 ppm) and peaking by 2015, the likely temperature rise is in the range of 2–2.4°C. These scenarios include short-lived gases such as methane, which degrades out of the atmosphere in a decade, and also nitrous oxide, which has an atmospheric lifetime of around a century. On the other hand, the fact that temperatures are not already much higher than they are today is due principally to the large-scale emission of very short-lived (10 days) aerosols such as soot and exhausts from burning fossil fuels, industrial pollution and dust storms, which are providing temporary cooling. The effect is known popularly as “global dimming”, because the overall aerosol impact is to reduce, or dim, the sun’s radiation, thus masking some of the heating effect of greenhouse gases. The aerosol impact is not precisely known, but Ramanthan and Feng (2008) estimate it as high as ~1°C. As the world moves to low-emission technologies, most of the aerosols and their temporary cooling will be lost. Recent research finds that quickly eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions (and necessarily the associated aerosols) would produce warming of between 0.25 and 0.5 °C over the decade immediately following (Matthews and Zickfield, 2012; Hansen, Sato et al., 2011). A practical consideration of “dangerous” can include the question as to whether there are tipping points or “concerns” activated for the elevated temperatures that we are generally considered to be already committed to: conservatively in the range say +1.5 to 2°C and, more pragmatically, in the range of 2 to 2.4°C if all current greenhouse gases are considered. A related question is whether the +1.5°C goal advocated by the small island states and surveyed recently by Climate Action Network Europe and Climate Analytics (Schaeffer, Hare et al., 2013) would avoid “dangerous” climate change and significant tipping points. This is a broad topic, but four recent important research findings on impacts for the current committed warming are arresting: 3a. Greenland Ice Sheet tipping point The tipping point for GIS has been revised down by Robinson, Calov et al. (2012) to +1.6ºC (uncertainty range of +0.8-+3.2ºC) above pre-industrial, just as regional temperatures are increasing at three-to-four times faster than the global average, and the increased heat
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trapped in the Arctic due to the loss of reflective sea ice ensures an acceleration in the Greenland melt rate. If the lower Greenland boundary in the uncertainty range turned out to be right, then with current warming of +0.8ºC over pre-industrial we have already reached Greenland’s tipping point. And, with temperature rises in the pipeline, the upward trajectory of annual greenhouse gas emissions, the projected future increases in fossil fuel use, and the continuing political impasse in international climate negotiations, we are very likely to hit the best estimate of +1.6ºC within a decade or two at most. 3b. Coral reefs Frieler, Meinshausen et al. (2013) show that “preserving more than 10 per cent of coral reefs worldwide would require limiting warming to below +1.5°C (atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) range: 1.3–1.8°C) relative to pre-industrial levels”. Obviously at less than 10 per cent, the reefs would be remnant, and reef systems as we know them today would be a historical footnote. Already, the data suggests that the global area of reef systems has already been reduced by half. A sober discussion of coral reef prospects can be found in Roger Bradbury’s “A World Without Coral Reefs” (2012) and Gary Pearce’s “Zombie reefs as a harbinger for catastrophic future” (2012). The opening of Bradbury’s article is to the point:
It’s past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem — with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world’s poor — will cease to be.
3c. Arctic carbon stores As Climate Progress recently noted (Romm, 2013): “We’ve known for a while that ‘permafrost’ was a misnomer” because thawing permafrost feedback will turn the Arctic from a net carbon sink to a net source in the 2020s and defrosting permafrost will likely add up to 1ºC to total global warming by 2100. A 2012 UNEP report on Policy implications of warming permafrost says the recent observations “indicate that large-scale thawing of permafrost may have already started.” In February 2013, scientists using radiometric dating techniques on Russian cave formations to measure historic melting rates warned that a +1.5ºC global rise in temperature compared to pre-industrial was enough to start a general permafrost melt. Vaks, Gutareva et al. (2013) found that “global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw extensive regions of permafrost.” Vaks says that: “1.5ºC appears to be something of a tipping point” (emphasis added). Previously a study of East Siberian permafrost by Khvorostyanov, Ciais et al. (2008) found that once mobilised, the process would be self-maintaining due to “deep respiration and methanogenesis” (formation of methane by microbes). In other words, the microbial action that produces methane as the carbon stores melt would produce sufficient heat to maintain the process: “once active layer deepening in response to atmospheric warming is enough to trigger deep-soil respiration, and soil microorganisms are activated to produce enough heat, the mobilization of soil carbon can be very strong and self-sustainable”. A sharp scientific debate has started on the stability of large methane clathrate stores just below the ocean floor on the shallow East Siberian Sea, following the publication in July 2013 of research by Whiteman, Hope and Wadhams which said that the release of a single giant “pulse” of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea could come with a $60 trillion global price tag (Whiteman, Hope and Wadhams, 2013). Wadhams says “the loss of sea ice leads to seabed warming, which leads to offshore
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permafrost melt , which leads to methane release, which leads to enhanced warming, which leads to even more rapid uncovering of seabed”, and this is not “a low probability event” (Ahmed, 2013). 3d. Multiple targets reduce allowable warming Steinacher, Joos et al. (2013) explore the interaction of targets in emissions reductions, focussing on the 2ºC temperature goal. They find that when multiple climate targets are set (such as food production capacity, ocean acidity, atmospheric temperature), “allowable cumulative emissions are greatly reduced from those inferred from the temperature target alone”. In fact, “When we consider all targets jointly, CO2 emissions have to be cut twice as much as if we only want to meet the 2ºC target.”
4. PALEO-CLIMATE COMPARISONS
Another fruitful line of inquiry on whether climate change is already “dangerous” is to look at the paleo-climate (climate history) record for circumstances analogous to present conditions to learn what planetary and climate conditions were like at that time. With current CO2 levels at 400 ppm, a useful comparison is the Pliocene (3–5 million years ago). The research body is large and growing in this area, but here are some examples: 4a. Sea-levels Rohling, Grant et al. (2009) find that during the mid-Pliocene, when greenhouse gases were similar to today, sea levels were more than 20 metres higher than today “we estimate sea level for the Middle Pliocene epoch (3.0–3.5 Myr ago) – a period with near-modern CO2 levels – at 25±5 metres above present, which is validated by independent sea-level data”. Likewise Hansen, Sato et al. (2013) find that “during the middle-Pliocene… we find sea level fluctuations of 20-40 metres associated with global temperature variations between today’s temperature and +3°C”. 4b. Speed of sea-level rise The speed of sea-level rise may far exceed the current, rather reticent estimates that are used for policy purposes. Blancon, Eisenhauer et al. (2009) examined the paleo-climate record and showed a sea-level rises of 3 metres in 50 years due to the rapid melting of ice sheets 123,000 years ago in the Eemian, when the energy imbalance in the climate system was less than at present. 4c. Polar feedbacks Hansen, Sato et al. (2013) find that current temperatures are at least as high as the Holocene Maximum (i.e., as high as they have been over the last 10,000 years). They sum up:
Earth at peak Holocene temperature is poised such that additional warming instigates large amplifying high-latitude feedbacks. Mechanisms on the verge of being instigated include loss of Arctic sea ice, shrinkage of the Greenland ice sheet, loss of Antarctic ice shelves, and shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheets. These are not runaway feedbacks, but together they strongly amplify the impacts in polar regions of a positive (warming) climate forcing… Augmentation of peak Holocene temperature by even +1ºC would be sufficient to trigger powerful amplifying polar feedbacks, leading to a planet at least as warm as in the Eemian and Holsteinian periods, making ice sheet disintegration and large sea level rise inevitable.
[It is relevant here to note that warming in the pipeline due to thermal inertia, plus warming associated with the loss of aerosols, is greater than +1ºC.] And during the Pliocene, with atmospheric greenhouse levels similar to today, the northern
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hemisphere was free of glaciers and ice sheets and beech trees grew in the Transantarctic Mountains. There are also strong indications that permanent El Nino conditions prevailed. 4d. Arctic carbon stores As discussed in 3c. above, scientists using radiometric dating techniques on Russian cave formations to measure historic melting rates going back 500,000 years conclude that a +1.5ºC global rise in temperature compared to pre-industrial is enough to initiate widespread permafrost melt. In May this year, Brigham-Grette, Melles et al., (2013) published evidence from Lake El’gygytgyn, in north-east Arctic Russia, showing that 3.6–3.4 million years ago, summer mid-Pliocene temperatures locally were ~8°C warmer than today, when CO2 was ~400 ppm. This is highly significant because researchers including Celia Bitz (Bitz, Ridley et al, 2009) and Philippe Ciais have previously found that the tipping point for the large-scale loss of permafrost carbon is around +8ºC to 10ºC regional temperature increase. Caias told the March 2009 Copenhagen climate science conference that: “A global average increase in air temperatures of +2ºC and a few unusually hot years could see permafrost soil temperatures reach the +8ºC threshold for releasing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane” (emphasis added) (Adam, 2009). So, if the current level of greenhouse gases is enough to produce Arctic regional warming of ~+8°C and that is a likely tipping point for large-scale permafrost loss, we have reached a disturbing milestone. Even more disturbing is new research from Ballantyne, Axford et al. (2013) which says that during the Pliocene epoch, when CO2 levels were ~400 ppm, Arctic surface temperatures were 15-20°C warmer than today’s surface temperatures. They suggest that much of the surface warming likely was due to ice-free conditions in the Arctic. Compared to the estimated tipping point for the large-scale loss of permafrost carbon of +8º– 10ºC regional warming, this research confirms both that the current level of greenhouse gases is sufficient to both create a sea-ice free Arctic, and Arctic warming more than sufficient to trigger largescale loss of permafrost carbon.
5a. Climate safety The research evidence and expert elicitations demonstrate that climate conditions are “dangerous” now – according to the generally accepted “safe boundary”, “five concerns” and “tipping point” metrics: • • The 350 ppm “safe boundary” for atmospheric CO2 has already been exceeded by 50 ppm. In 2007, at around +0.76ºC warming (equivalent to ~335 ppm CO2 at equilibrium), Arctic sea-ice passed its tipping point. The Greenland Ice Sheet may not be far behind, as the Arctic moves to sea-ice-free conditions in summer, triggering further tipping elements. Around +1.5ºC warming may be the tipping point for the Greenland Ice Sheet and for the large-scale release of Arctic carbon permafrost stores. At +1.5ºC, coral reefs would be reduced to remnant systems. The paleo-climate record shows that the current level of atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm is enough to produce sea-level rises of 20–40 metres; is around the tipping point for
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large-scale release of Arctic carbon permafrost; and is sufficient to trigger powerful amplifying polar feedbacks. To restore and preserve year-round Arctic sea-ice and prevent triggering powerful amplifying polar feedbacks, atmospheric CO2 would need to be reduced to a safe distance below 335 ppm. Five years ago, James Hansen suggested CO2 in the range 300–325 ppm would be required to restore late Holocene sea-ice conditions. Holocene CO2 levels have varied between 270 and 330 ppm. The higher figure occurred in the early Holocene around 10,000 years ago when temperatures were around 0.5°C warmer (known as the Holocene maximum) than pre-industrial levels, when the CO2 level was around 280 ppm. A safe climate would not exceed the Holocene maximum. The notion that +1.5ºC is a safe target is contradicted by the evidence, and even +1ºC degree is not safe given what we now know about the Arctic. 5b. Emission reduction challenges The dominant climate policy frame I have observed is: “Let’s hope it’s not as bad as you say… Even if you are right about the Arctic… holding the system to +2ºC will be very difficult… and a huge political and economic challenge… but it’s the best we can hope for… and while it might be dangerous…that’s a hell of a lot better than +3 or 4ºC … which would be catastrophic.” The discussion on “doing the maths” for the carbon budget is about the total emissions available without exceeding 2ºC of warming. This task is very much more challenging than policy-makers accept, as Anderson and Bows demonstrate in their 2008 and 2011 papers on emission reduction scenarios. They make some optimistic assumptions about de-afforestation and food-related emissions for the rest of the century, and then ask what emission reduction scenarios would be compatible with holding warming to +2ºC, and find that: • • • • Of the 18 scenarios tested, ten cannot be reconciled with ~450 ppm CO2e. If emissions to do not peak till 2025, no scenarios are available. 450 ppm CO2e requires energy emissions to be stabilised by 2015, then decline annually by 6-8 per cent for 2020–2040, with full de-carbonisation by 2050. A five per cent annual reduction in emissions from a 2020 peak (and a 6–7 per cent annual reduction in energy and process emissions) correlates near 550 ppm CO2e, or +3ºC of warming. If the emissions reduction after a 2020 peak is three per cent, this correlates near 650 ppm CO2e, or +4ºC of warming. And looking at equity issues: if non-Annex 1 (developing) nation emissions grow three per cent a year to 2020 and then peak in 2025, there is no carbon budget available for Annex 1 (developed nations) after 2015, for the IPCC’s low-emissions carbon budget.
Research published in August 2013 finds that terrestrial ecosystems absorb approximately 11 billion tons less CO2every year as the result of the extreme climate events than they could if the events did not occur. That is equivalent to approximately a third of global CO2 emissions per year (Reichstein, Bahn et al., 2013). As extreme events increase in scale and frequency with more warming, this may negatively affect the amount of emissions available for the carbon budgets discussed above.
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5c. Two degrees, or four? In June 2013, a German research institute which advises Angela Merkel’s government concluded that “policy makers must come up with a new global target to cap temperature gains because the current goal… limiting the increase in temperature to 2°C since industrialization is unrealistic”. It recommended that “world leaders either allow the 2°C goal to become a benchmark that can be temporarily overshot, accept a higher target, or give up on such an objective altogether” (Nicola and Morales, 2013). International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih Birol calls the 2°C goal “a nice Utopia”: “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2°C. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say” (Harvey, 2011). The prevailing climate policy-making framework now poses a choice between a “dangerous but liveable” 2ºC of warming and the “catastrophe” of 4ºC or more, as reflected in the statement by John Holdren that opens this paper. The World Bank (2012) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers (2012) have recently published reports which complement a wide range of scientific research which concludes that the world is presently heading for 4ºC or more of warming this century, and as soon as 2060. Reuters correspondent Michael Rose (2012) quotes IEA Chief Economist, Fatih Birol as saying that emission trends are “perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6°C, which would have devastating consequences for the planet”. Anderson (2011) says there is a widespread view amongst scientists that “a 4°C future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of eco-systems and has a high probability of not being stable”. Yet the 2ºC goal is not an option either, because, with climate and carbon cycle positive feedbacks in full swing, it is less a stable destination than a signpost on a highway to a much hotter place. The real choice now is to try and keep the planet under a series of big tipping points by getting it back to a Holocene-like state, or accept that a 3-6ºC “catastrophe” is at hand. 5d. Radical choices Policy-makers officially focus on the 2ºC goal, without admitting the ambition entailed:
…while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions. (Anderson and Bows, 2011)
As Anderson and Bows show, if global emissions don’t peak till 2020, then the carbon budget for the developed world is… zero (5b. above). Even the 2ºC target requires actions that are completely outside the current climate policy-making framework, and therefore considered impossible. In “A new paradigm for climate change”, Anderson and Bows (2012) call for academic rigour in elaborating the scientific and economic choices:
… academics may again have contributed to a misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2°C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives… as the remaining cumulative budget is consumed, so any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints… At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards
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national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society… This catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics and the laissez-faire rhetoric accompanying it (unfettered choice, deregulation and so on) could provide an opportunity to think differently about climate change… It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and austrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.”
Anderson is the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which in late 2013 is hosting a Radical Emission Reduction Conference, whose purpose is described as:
Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future. We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption – the rationale for this conference.
To repeat: “…we face an unavoidably radical future… no longer is there a non-radical option.” Can this phrase help liberate us from the prevailing climate policy-making paradigm, from which no further hope can be wrung? In 2008, in a statement for the book Climate Code Red I authored with Philip Sutton, James Hansen wrote:
We must begin to move rapidly to the post-fossil fuel clean energy system. Moreover, we must remove some carbon that has collected in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. This is the story that ‘Climate Code Red’ tells with conviction. It is a compelling case for recognising, as the UN secretary-general has said, that we face a climate emergency.
And what would a radical, emergency-action option look like, and why it is absolutely necessary as the last, best hope we have? We described some of its features in Climate Code Red, as has Paul Gilding in his 2011 book, The Great Disruption. And this year, Delina and Diesendorf (2013) published research from the University of NSW on the question: “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?” In addition to stopping fossil fuel emissions, very large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) would be a critical task, to reduce the level of atmospheric greenhouse. Can CDR be achieved at the size and scale required to help get us back to safety? A recent and very good survey of CDR options and technologies, their costs, effectiveness and environmental consequences has been just published by Caldeira, Bala et al. (2013). As well, it now seems clear that if we are to prevent the world tripping past a number of critical tipping points, some forms of geo-engineering such as solar radiation management (SRM) will be necessary in the short term. This would be an adjunct to a zero-emissions program and CDR, especially as the “global dimming” effect of aerosols is reduced as emissions fall. Here, too, Caldeira, Bala et al (2013) provide a useful survey, including the pitfalls, the challenging governance issues and the many “known unknowns”.
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All of this may seem like a lot of “ifs” and “buts” and “maybes”. We are now in a world of making the least-worst choices. There is no simple answer, and we do not yet know all the questions in detail, let alone all of the answers. Nobody ever does at the beginning of an emergency response. That’s what makes it an emergency. But we do now know, with clear evidence that climate change is already “dangerous”, that we are heading towards a “catastrophe”, that we are in an emergency and, yes, we do face “…an unavoidably radical future”. And we do know from past experience that once societies are in emergency mode, they are capable of facing up to and solving seemingly impossible problems.
David Spratt 14 September 2013 Melbourne
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APPENDIX : TIPPING POINTS AND CLIMATE MODELLING
A tipping point may be understood as a step change, or passing of a critical threshold, in a major earth-climate system component, where a small perturbation (a small push or change) unleashes a bigger change in the component. Potsdam Institute Director, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, says that tipping points “identify the most vulnerable components (tipping elements) of the Earth System, the critical warming thresholds where the respective Earth System elements flip into a qualitatively new state”(Schellnhuber, 2009). These elements include ecosystems, major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheets, and the land- and ocean-based carbon stores. This process is often tied to positive feedbacks, where a change in a component leads to other changes that eventually “feed back” onto the original change to amplify it. The classic case in global warming (or, in reverse, cooling) is the ice-albedo feedback, where decreases (increases) in the ice cover area change surface reflectivity (albedo), trapping more (less) heat and producing further ice loss (gain). In some cases, passing one threshold will trigger further threshold events, for example where substantial releases from permafrost carbon stores increase warming, releasing more permafrost carbon but also pushing other systems, for example parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, past a threshold point. Once a tipping point is crossed, it is irreversible (under natural conditions) within certain time frames, so the consequence is to significantly affect the earth’s climate and ecosystems, for example by raising temperatures or greenhouse gas levels, or changing the efficiency of the land and ocean carbon sinks. Given enough time and the right conditions, most processes (but not extinctions, for example) can be reversed. In a period of rapid warming, most major tipping points once crossed (ice sheet loss, largescale land carbon store releases such as permafrost) are irreversible on human time frames running to a few generations, principally due to the longevity of atmospheric CO2 (several thousand years). Large-scale human interventions in slow-moving earth system tipping points might allow a tipping point to be reversed (for example, a large-scale atmospheric CO2 drawdown program, or solar radiation management). There is discussion, for example, that Arctic sea-ice loss is “easily reversible” in a cooling world, but that is easier said than done. That would require greenhouse gas levels to be reduced significantly, below the level equivalent to the temperature at which the sea-ice system tipped in 2007, to produce a sufficiently cooler world. This would be around 300– 325 ppm CO2, compared to the present level of 400 ppm, so it is not so “easy” in the real world. The scientific literature on tipping points is relatively recent, with a significant contribution by Lenton, Held et al (2008) on “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system” in an issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences devoted to the subject. However, our knowledge is limited because “a system-level understanding of critical Arctic processes and feedbacks is still lacking” (Maslowski, Kinney et al. 2012) and “no serious efforts have been made so far to identify and qualify the interactions between various tipping points” (Schellnhuber, 2009). Climate models are not yet good at dealing with tipping points. This is partly in the nature of
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tipping points, where a particular and complex confluence of factors suddenly change a climate system characteristic and drives it to a different state. To model this, all the contributing factors and their forces have to well identified, as well as their particular interactions, plus the interactions between tipping points. Duarte, Lenton et al. (2012) conclude that “complex, nonlinear systems typically shift between alternative states in an abrupt, rather than a smooth manner, which is a challenge that climate models have not yet been able to adequately meet”. The classic case was the Arctic sea ice “big melt” in 2007. Many models, including those on which the 2007 IPCC report had relied to conclude that Arctic sea-ice was pretty much likely to remain till the end of the century, did not fully capture the dynamics of sea-ice loss. Thus when in 2007 the summer sea-ice extent dropped radically compared to previous years, some modeloriented researchers exclaimed that the Arctic was melting “a hundred years ahead of schedule”. Even today, papers are still being published with modelling that suggests a seaice free Arctic will not occur till mid-century. Given the observations, it’s difficult not to conclude that given a choice between their models and real-world observations, some modellers will always choose the former. In an overview of the current state of Arctic climate research, Maslowski, Kinney et al. (2012) conclude that: “Model limitations are hindering our ability to predict the future state of Arctic sea ice”, and that the majority of general climate models (GCMs) including those used in IPCC (2007) “have not been able to adequately reproduce observed multi-decadal sea-ice variability and trends in the pan-Arctic region”, and their ensemble mean trend in September Arctic sea-ice extent “is approximately 30 years behind the observed trend”. For example, what would be the impact of a sea-ice-free Arctic summer and the consequent amplified regional warming on the stability of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS)? Research does not yet provide a robust framework for considering such questions, yet most scientists if asked for their expert elicitation would probably say that it is hard to imagine the GIS doing anything other than melting at an accelerating rate and passing a critical tipping point in such circumstances. The sea-ice model that has performed best (acronym NAME), is one of a new range of more specialised regional climate models developed by Dr Wieslaw Maslowski and colleagues. Maslowski is highly regarded, in part because his position at the American Naval Postgraduate School has given him unique access to half a century of Arctic sea-ice thickness scans from polar US military submarines. Maslowski told BBC News:
In the past… we were just extrapolating into the future assuming that trends might persist as we’ve seen in recent times. Now we’re trying to be more systematic, and we’ve developed a regional Arctic climate model that’s very similar to the global climate models participating in IPCC assessments. We can run a fully coupled model for the past and present and see what our model will predict for the future in terms of the sea ice and the Arctic climate. (Black, 2011)
He emphasizes “the need for detailed analyses of changes in sea ice thickness and volume to determine the actual rate of melt of Arctic sea ice”, and concludes that:
The modeled evolution of Arctic sea ice volume appears to be much stronger correlated with changes in ice thickness than with ice extent as it shows a similar negative trend beginning around the mid-1990s. When considering this part of the sea ice–volume time series, one can estimate a negative trend of −1,120 km3 year−1 with a standard deviation of +/-2,353 km3 year−1 from combined model and observational estimates for October–November 1996–2007. Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9000 km3, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 +/-3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer. Regardless of high uncertainty associated with
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such an estimate, it does provide a lower bound of the time range for projections of seasonal sea ice cover.
The point cannot be emphasised enough that the best-performing Arctic sea-ice model projects 2016 +/-3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean. The non-linear problem still plagues many Arctic GCMs, and indeed parts of the IPCC process which largely excludes tipping points and carbon cycle feedbacks from consideration, exemplified by the 2007 IPCC’s reticence on sea level rises. Several
fundamental projections found in IPCC reports have consistently underestimated real-world observations in at least eight key areas (Scherer, 2012). In its February 2007 report on the physical basis of climate science, the IPCC said that Arctic sea-ice was responding sensitively to global warming: ‘While changes in winter sea-ice cover are moderate, late summer sea-ice is projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the twenty first century.’ And
apparently the forthcoming 2013 IPPC AR5 has omitted consideration of permafrost feedbacks – another glaring example of that body’s scientific reticence (Romm, 2012).
Figure 4: Arctic sea ice volumes estimates from observations and from the NAME model (Maslowski, Kinney et al., 2012, Figure 9)
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