Conversations we have with people about climate change are rarely based on a comprehensive assessment of the current state of knowledge on atmospheric changes and the implications for our environment and society. We receive bits and pieces of news, often shared by friends on Facebook or Twitter, which make us worry for a few moments, before returning to busy daily life. We may think we have already integrated an awareness of climate change into our lives, by the career choice we made, or the way we shop, recycle or don’t eat meat. Most of us are not climate scientists anyway, there’s all kinds of other things to take care of, and we have bills to pay!
That was me, anyway, until this year. I decided to look more closely at the latest information from the range of sciences that give a perspective on our situation. The last time I studied climate closely was in 1994 when I was being taught climate science at Cambridge University. I do not claim to be an expert in any one climate-related field, but as a Professor who has worked and published in a range of disciplines, I have experience in assessing knowledge claims from various sources. In this summary I provide references as much as possible, so you can investigate further.
Many people working in the climate field look to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide the calm and authoritative voice on this complicated subject. That is what I used to do, as it made sense as a busy person who wanted to have a quick way of “making the case” to others. However, given that the IPCC has proven over the past decades to be woefully inaccurate in the cautiousness of its predictions, I now agree with some of the most eminent climate scientists that the IPCC cannot be looked to for telling us what the situation is. That is why I spent a few weeks returning to primary sources in academic journals and research institute reports, and piecing together a perspective myself. Given the long time span it takes for data to appear in academic journals, I often turn to the information direct from research institutes and their individual experts. The result of that process follows below.
This is Our World Right Now – not theory!
The simple evidence of global ambient temperature rise is undisputable. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, and global temperatures have increased by 0.9°C since 1880 (NASA/GISS, 2018). The most surprising warming is in the Arctic, where the 2016 land surface temperature was 2.0°C above the 1981-2010 average, breaking the previous records of 2007, 2011, and 2015 by 0.8°C, representing a 3.5°C increase since the record began in 1900 (Aaron-Morrison et al, 2017).
The warming of the Arctic reached wider public awareness this year as it has begun destabilizing winds in the higher atmosphere, specifically the jet stream and the northern polar vortex, leading to extreme movements of warmer air north in to the Arctic and cold air to the south. At one point in early 2018, temperature recordings from the Arctic were 20 degrees Celsius above the average for that date (Watts, 2018). The warming Arctic has led to dramatic loss in sea ice, the average September extent of which has been decreasing at a rate of 13.2% per decade since 1980, so that over two thirds of the ice cover has gone (NSIDC/NASA, 2018). This data is made more concerning by changes in sea ice volume, which is an indicator of resilience of the ice sheet to future warming and storms. It was at the lowest it has ever been in 2017, continuing a consistent downward trend (Kahn, 2017).
Given a reduction in the reflection of the Sun’s rays from the surface of white ice, an ice-free Arctic is predicted to increase warming globally by a substantial degree. Writing in 2014 scientists calculated this change is already equivalent to 25% of the direct forcing of temperature increase from CO2 during the past 30 years (Pistone et al, 2014). That means we could cut CO2 emissions by 25% and it is already outweighed by the loss of the reflective power of Arctic sea ice. One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and that it will likely double the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity (Wadhams, 2016). In itself, that renders the calculations of the IPCC redundant, along with the targets and proposals of the UNFCCC.
Between 2002 and 2016, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, and the island’s lower-elevation and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) over a 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Along with other melting of land ice, and the thermal expansion of water, this has contributed to a global mean sea level rise of about 3.2 mm/year, representing a total increase of over 80 mm, since 1993 (JPL/PO.DAAC, 2018). Stating a figure per year implies a linear increase, which is what has been assumed by IPCC and others in making their predictions. However, recent data shows that the upward trend is non-linear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to non-linear increases in the melting of land-based ice.
The observed phenomena, of actual temperatures and sea levels, are greater than what the climate models over the past decades were predicting for our current time. They are consistent with non-linear changes in our environment that then trigger uncontrollable impacts on human habitat and agriculture, with subsequent complex impacts on social, economic and political systems. I will return to the implications of these trends after listing some more of the impacts that are already being reported as occurring today.
Already we see impacts on storm, drought and flood frequency and strength due to increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere (Herring et al, 2018). We are witnessing negative impacts on agriculture. Climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1–2 percent per decade over the past century (Wiebe et al, 2015). The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that weather abnormalities related to climate change are costing billions of dollars a year, and growing exponentially. For now, the impact is calculated in money, but the nutritional implications are key (FAO, 2018). We are also seeing impacts on marine ecosystems. About half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, due a mixture of reasons though higher water temperatures and acidification due to higher CO2 concentrations in ocean water being key (Phys.org, 2018). In ten years prior to 2016 the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosely et al, 2016). This study is indicative of oceans worldwide, and the consequent acidification degrades the base of the marine food web, thereby reducing the ability of fish populations to reproduce themselves across the globe (Britten et al, 2015). Meanwhile warming oceans are already reducing the population size of some fish species (Aaron-Morrison et al, 2017). Compounding these threats to human nutrition, in some regions we are witnessing an exponential rise in the spread of mosquito and tick-borne viruses as temperatures become more conducive to them (ECJCR, 2018).
To conclude, this data is consistent with non-linear changes to our environment. Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections and that the changes no longer correlate with the rate of anthropogenic carbon emissions. In other words – ‘runaway climate change.’
The impacts I just summarised are already upon us and even without increasing their severity they will nevertheless increase their impacts on our ecosystems, soils, seas and our societies over time. It is difficult to predict future impacts. But it is more difficult not to predict them. Because the reported impacts today are at the very worst end of predictions being made in the early 1990s – back when I first studied climate change and model-based climate predictions as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. The models today suggest an increase in storm number and strength (Herring et al, 2018). They predict a decline of normal agriculture, including the compromising of mass production of grains in the northern hemisphere and intermittent disruption to rice production in the tropics. That includes predicted declines in the yields of rice, wheat, and corn in China by 36.25%, 18.26%, and 45.10%, respectively, by the end of this century (Zhang et al, 2016). Naresh Kumar et al. (2014) project a 6–23 and 15–25% reduction in the wheat yield in India during the 2050s and 2080s, respectively, under the mainstream projected climate change scenarios. The loss of coral and the acidification of the seas is predicted to reduce fisheries productivity by over half (Rogers et al, 2017). The rates of sea level rise suggest they may be soon become exponential (Malmquist, 2018), which will pose significant problems for billions of people living in coastal zones (Neumann et al, 2015).
Environmental scientists are now describing our current era as the sixth mass extinction event in the history of planet Earth, with this one caused by us. About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are at risk of extinction due to climate change (WWF, 2018). The World Bank reported in 2018 that countries needed to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people due to the effects of climate change (Rigaud et al, 2018), in addition to millions of international refugees. This situation has led some commentators to describe our time as a new geological era shaped by humans – the Anthropocene (Hamilton, et al, 2015). It has led others to conclude that we should be exploring how to live in an unstable post-Sustainability situation (Benson and Craig, 2014; Foster, 2015).
The politically permissible scientific consensus is that we need to stay beneath 2 degrees warming of global ambient temperatures, to avoid dangerous and uncontrollable levels of climate change, with impacts such as mass starvation, disease, flooding, storm destruction, forced migration and war. That figure was agreed by governments that were dealing with many domestic and international pressures from vested interests, particularly corporations. It is therefore not a figure that many scientists would advise, given that many ecosystems will be lost and many risks created if we approach 2 degrees global ambient warming (Wadhams, 2018). The IPCC agreed in 2013 that if the world does not keep further anthropogenic emissions below a total of 800 billion tonnes of carbon we are not likely to keep average temperatures below 2 degrees of global averaged warming. That left about 270 billion tonnes of carbon to burn (Pidcock, 2013). Total global emissions remain at around 11 billion tonnes of carbon year (which is 37 billion tonnes of CO2). Those calculations appear worrying but give the impression we have at least a decade to change. It takes significant time to change economic systems and so if we are not already on the path to dramatic reductions it is unlikely we will keep within the carbon limit. With an increase of carbon emissions of 2% in 2017, the decoupling of economic activity from emissions is not yet making a net dent in global emissions (Canadell et al, 2017). So, we are not on the path to prevent going over 2 degrees warming through emissions reductions. In any case the IPCC estimate of a carbon budget was controversial with many scientists who estimated that existing CO2 in the atmosphere should already produce global ambient temperature rises over 5°C and so there is no carbon budget – it has already been overspent (Wasdell, 2015).
That situation is why some experts have argued for more work on removing carbon from the atmosphere with machines. Unfortunately, the current technology needs to be scaled by a factor of 2 million times within 2 years, all powered by renewables, alongside massive emission cuts, to reduce the amount of heating already locked into the system (Wadhams, 2018). Biological approaches to carbon capture appear far more promising (Hawken and Wilkinson, 2017). These include planting trees, restoring soils used in agriculture, growing seagrass and kelp, amongst other approaches. They also offer wider beneficial environmental and social side effects. Studies on seagrass (Greiner et al, 2013) and seaweed (Flanery, 2015) indicate we could be taking millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere immediately and continually if we had a massive effort to restore seagrass meadows and to farm seaweed. The net sequestration effect is still being assessed but in certain environments will be significant (Howard et al, 2017).
Research into “management-intensive rotational grazing” practices (MIRG), also known as holistic grazing, show how a healthy grassland can store carbon. A 2014 study measured annual per-hectare increases in soil carbon at 8 tons per year on farms converted to these practices. The world uses about 3.5 billion hectares of land for pasture and fodder crops. Using the 8 tons figure above, converting a tenth of that land to MIRG practices would sequester a quarter of present emissions. In addition, no-till methods of horticulture can sequester as much as two tons of carbon per hectare per year, so could also make significant contributions. It is clear, therefore, that our assessment of carbon budgets must focus as much on these agricultural systems as we do on emissions reductions.
Clearly a massive campaign and policy agenda to transform agriculture and restore ecosystems globally is needed right now. It will be a huge undertaking, undoing 60 years of developments in world agriculture. In addition, it means the conservation of our existing wetlands and forests must suddenly become successful, after decades of failure across lands outside of geographically limited nature reserves. Even if such will emerges immediately, the heating and instability already locked into the climate will cause damage to ecosystems, so it is will be difficult for such approaches to curb the global atmospheric carbon level. The reality that we have progressed too far already to avert disruptions to ecosystems is highlighted by the finding that if CO2 removal from the atmosphere could work at scale, it would not prevent massive damage to marine life, which is locked in for many years due to acidification from the dissolving of CO2 in the oceans (Mathesius et al, 2015).
Despite the limitations of what humans can do to work with nature to encourage its carbon sequestration processes, the planet has been helping us out anyway. A global “greening” of the planet has significantly slowed the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the start of the century. Plants have been growing faster and larger due to higher CO2 levels in the air and warming temperatures that reduce the CO2 emitted by plants via respiration. The effects led the proportion of annual carbon emissions remaining in the air to fall from about 50% to 40% in the last decade. However, this process only offers a limited effect, as the absolute level of CO2 in the atmosphere is continuing to rise, breaking the milestone of 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2015. Given that changes in seasons, temperatures extremes, flood and drought are beginning to negatively affect ecosystems, the risk exists that this global greening effect may be reduced in time (Keenan et al, 2016)
These potential reductions in atmospheric carbon from natural and assisted biological processes is a flickering ray of hope in our dark situation. However, the uncertainty about their impact needs to be contrasted with the uncertain yet significant impact of increasing methane release in the atmosphere. It is a gas that enables far more trapping of heat from the sun’s rays than CO2 but was ignored in most of the climate models over the past decades. The authors of the 2016 Global Methane Budget report found that in the early years of this century, concentrations of methane rose by only about 0.5ppb each year, compared with 10ppb in 2014 and 2015. Various sources were identified, from fossil fuels, to agriculture to melting permafrost (Saunois et al, 2016).
Given the controversy around this topic in the scientific community, it may even be contentious for me to say that there is no scientific consensus on the sources of current methane emissions or the potential risk and timing of significant methane releases from either surface and subsea permafrost. A recent attempt at consensus on methane risk from melting surface permafrost concluded methane release would happen over centuries or millennia, not this decade (Schuur et al. 2015). Yet within three years that consensus was broken by one of the most detailed experiments which found that if the melting permafrost remains waterlogged, which is likely, then it produces significant amounts of methane within just a few years (Knoblauch et al, 2018). The debate is now likely to be about whether other microorganisms might thrive in that environment to eat up the methane – and whether or not in time to reduce the climate impact.
The debate about methane release from clathrate forms, or frozen methane hydrates, on the Arctic sea floor is even more contentious. In 2010 a group of scientists published a study that warned how the warming of the Arctic could lead to a speed and scale of methane release that would be catastrophic to life on earth through atmospheric heating of over 5 degrees within just a few years of such a release (Shakhova et al, 2010). The study triggered a fierce debate, much of which was ill considered, perhaps understandably given the shocking implications of this information (Ahmed, 2013). Since then, key questions at the heart of this scientific debate (about what would amount to the probable extinction of the human race) include the amount of time it will take for ocean warming to destabilise hydrates on the sea floor, and how much methane will be consumed by aerobic and anaerobic microbes before it reaches the surface and escapes to the atmosphere. In a global review of this contentious topic, scientists concluded that there is not the evidence to predict a sudden release of catastrophic levels of methane in the near-term (Ruppel and Kessler, 2017). However, a key reason for their conclusion was the lack of data showing actual increases in atmospheric methane at the surface of the Arctic, which is partly the result of a lack of sensors collecting such information. Most ground-level methane measuring systems are on land. Could that be why the unusual increases in atmospheric methane concentrations cannot be fully explained by existing data sets from around the world (Saunois et al, 2016)? One way of calculating how much methane is probably coming from our oceans is to compare data from ground level measurements, which are mostly but not entirely on land, with upper atmosphere measurements, which indicate an averaging out of total sources. Data published by scientists from the Arctic News (2018) website indicates that in March 2018 at mid altitudes, methane was around 1865 parts per billion (ppb), which represents a 1.8 percent increase of 35 ppb from the same time in 2017, while surface measurements of methane increased by about 15 ppb in that time. Both figures are consistent with a non-linear increase – potentially exponential – in atmospheric levels since 2007. That is worrying data in itself, but the more significant matter is the difference between the increase measured at ground and mid altitudes. That is consistent with this added methane coming from our oceans, which could in turn be from methane hydrates.
This closer look at the latest data on methane is worthwhile given the critical risks to which it relates. It suggests that the recent attempt at a consensus that it is highly unlikely we will see near term massive release of methane from the Arctic Ocean is sadly inconclusive. In 2017 scientists working on the Eastern Siberian sea shelf, reported that the permafrost layer has thinned enough to risk destabilising hydrates (The Artic, 2017). That report of subsea permafrost destabilisation in the East Siberian Arctic sea shelf, the latest unprecedented temperatures in the Arctic, and the data in non-linear rises in high-atmosphere methane levels, combine to make it feel like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets in the chamber. Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction.
The truly shocking information on the trends in climate change and its impacts on ecology and society are leading some to call for us to experiment with geoengineering the climate, from fertilizing the oceans so they photosynthesize more CO2, to releasing chemicals in the upper atmosphere so the Sun’s rays are reflected. The unpredictability of geoengineering the climate through the latter method, in particular the dangers of disturbances to seasonal rains that billions of people rely on, make it unlikely to be used (Keller et al, 2014). The potential natural geoengineering from increased sulphur releases from volcanoes due to isostatic rebound as weight on the Earth’s crust is redistributed is not likely to make a significant contribution to earth temperatures for decades or centuries.
It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.
We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online. But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.
What Now Then?
My conclusion from analysing the latest climate science is that we can ask ourselves questions about what is fundamentally important to us in our own lives. We are being confronted by our own mortality and that of everything we could contribute to. That reflection and reorientation is not a simple or fast process, and I recommend it is explored in community. Share this blog with friends and talk to them. I recommend Dark Mountain Facebook group as one place for that. I would like to recommend other very popular Facebook groups on this topic, but I have found them to reflect a lot of repressed anger. My own hope is that we can cultivate love within this darkness.
Then there is the broader question of how we could help our communities, countries and humanity adapt to the coming troubles. I have dubbed this the “Deep Adaptation Agenda,” to contrast it with the limited scope of current climate adaptation activities. I have created a LinkedIn group for people who work in related areas in a professional capacity.
All manner of personal and institutional pressures and incentives work towards making us ignore or de-prioritise the kind of information and analysis I have presented above. It will be difficult not to be seduced by those who make us think we have more time, or that things aren’t so bad, or that planting more kelp will save us. It will also be difficult to avoid seduction by those saying that praying will help fix things, or that this tragedy can be welcomed as God’s moment of return. Instead, I recommend exploring what is your heart’s desire after you relinquish concern for either conformity, certainty, status, security or self-preservation. That’s probably how we should approach life anyway… Oops. Not to late for that then!
I will be exploring implications of this information for our own agency as professionals in a Sustainable Leadership course. Info here.
My thanks to Chris Erskine at Seedbed and Dougald Hine at Dark Mountain for encouraging me to prioritise this path.
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