Sunday, January 03, 2016

Spaceship Earth is much more sensitive than we thought

You’ve been traveling around in space for a while and during that time you’ve noticed that the coating on the spaceship’s exterior has been peeling off. Not much. A little here and a little there. On occasions, when your crew wasn’t busy with its mission and keeping the spaceship in working order, someone went outside the ship and touched up the coating. Business as usual. Then, a meteor shoots through your air system and you need to get back to Earth quickly. When you go outside to assess the damage from the meteor you realize that not only has the space fragment torn a hole in the ship but there are a lot of places missing the outside coating that you and your crew haven’t kept up with. At the same time you realize the spaceship will burn up upon reentry if the protective layer isn’t fixed immediately. Now, patching the coating takes top priority, even though there are a lot of other preparations just as critical that need to be made for a safe landing.

One of the great big problems with Climate Change is that Murphy’s Law kicks in with a vengeance. ‘What can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment’ should be on everyone’s mind as they think through what rapidly warming our climate means. However much we do to improve the lives of humanity, if we don’t prioritize taking care of our planet’s protective coating, we are not going to be able to safeguard ourselves from the worst of Climate Change. 

Of course, there have been a lot of climate changes in Earth’s history. But this anthropogenic Climate Change is entirely different. We have caused this sudden warming; we thrived on a cooler planet; we’ve built massive infrastructures that are vulnerable to sudden extreme weather; there are now seven billion of us who depend on a very shaky food-producing, life-giving environment; and normal weather events and climate patterns like El Niño get amplified causing far more damage than they could have in the past climate changes.

Climate Chaos, Across the Map What is going on with the weather? With tornado outbreaks in the South, Christmas temperatures that sent trees into bloom in Central Park, drought in parts of Africa and historic floods drowning the old industrial cities of England, 2015 is closing with a string of weather anomalies all over the world. The year, expected to be the hottest on record, may be over at midnight Thursday, but the trouble will not be. Rain in the central United States has been so heavy that major floods are beginning along the Mississippi River and are likely to intensify in coming weeks. California may lurch from drought to flood by late winter. Most serious, millions of people could be threatened by a developing food shortage in southern Africa. (December 30, 2015) New York Times

We have unleashed a new climate paradigm upon our life support system that we barely understand. Two recent items in the news capture novel aspects of Climate Change besides the long list of things going wrong with our weather.

The first is an article by renowned climate scientist, Michael Mann, about how we went about choosing the wrong baseline for the Paris Agreement. In this article (below), Mann seriously challenges using the average between 1850 and 1900 as “an inappropriate baseline … for defining the “pre-industrial.”” Mann thinks a hundred years earlier is a more appropriate baseline from which to measure CO2 increases. An accurate baseline is important because anything else is delusional.

Michael Mann: How Close Are We to ‘Dangerous’ Planetary Warming? In the wake of the COP 21 UN climate summit in Paris, a number of important questions still remain unanswered. Take for example the commitment reached by the 197 participating nations to limit warming below the “dangerous” level of 2C relative to pre-industrial time (neglecting for the time being the aspirational goal of a substantially lower 1.5C limit acknowledged in recognition of the danger posed to low-lying island nations). The question immediately arises: How much time do we have until we reach the danger zone? How close are we to the 2C warming limit? It has been widely reported that 2015 will be the first year where temperatures climbed to 1C above the pre-industrial. That might make it seem like we’ve got quite a ways to go until we breach the 2C limit. But the claim is wrong. We exceeded 1C warming more than a decade ago. The problem is that here, and elsewhere, an inappropriate baseline has been invoked for defining the “pre-industrial.” The warming was measured relative to the average over the latter half of the 19th century (1850-1900). In other words, the base year implicitly used to define “pre-industrial” conditions is 1875, the mid-point of that interval. Yet the industrial revolution and the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations associated with it, began more than a century earlier. (December 24, 2015) EcoWatch

If we think we can continue to increase greenhouse gases because we have chosen the wrong baseline, no amount of human consensus can change the consequences. If you think you can drive to your grandmother’s house for Christmas from your sister’s house on a half tank of gas, but realize your sister’s house is not where you thought it was, then you’d better recalculate. You may run out of gas. Trying to establish the proper baseline for addressing Climate Change is going to be tricky because our climate models are getting better and we are continually learning more about how our climate responds to changes. So, thinking we can pick just any baseline and then assume we have an accurate window where we can keep plowing more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere is a very dangerous delusion indeed. We’d better get our science right—and then we should get our politicians and media to listen to our scientists.  

The other story is about how sensitive climate is to an increase in CO2.

Earth's climate more sensitive to CO2 than previously thought, study finds Ancient climates on Earth may have been more sensitive to carbon dioxide than was previously thought, according to new research from Binghamton University.  A team of Binghamton University researchers including geology PhD student Elliot A. Jagniecki and professors Tim Lowenstein, David Jenkins and Robert Demicco examined nahcolite crystals found in Colorado's Green River Formation, formed 50 million years old during a hothouse climate. They found that CO2 levels during this time may have been as low as 680 parts per million (ppm), nearly half the 1,125 ppm predicted by previous experiments. The new data suggests that past predictions significantly underestimate the impact of greenhouse warming and that Earth's climate may be more sensitive to increased carbon dioxide than was once thought, said Lowenstein. (November 16, 2015)

Climate Change has forced us to learn a lot more about how our planet responds to a sudden warming. Learning, for example, that Earth's climate is more sensitive to CO2 than previously thought after we have already warmed the planet considerably and not heeded decades of warnings means that we have to respond much quicker than we thought. This hammers home the question: Are we going to drive our efforts to address Climate Change by heeding scientific information? Or are we going to proceed regardless of the warnings and a continual indifference to new information?  If so, then we will only be able to chronicle our plight in hindsight because our chances to make the proper turns at the right times have passed us by.

What appears by many to be merely a dreary litany of disasters claimed to be Climate Change -related are actually indicators that our protective layer on Spaceship Earth is peeling away. And while these terrible events have been occurring, our greater understanding of Climate Change reveals that all along our planet has been much more sensitive to warming than we have anticipated.

It isn’t hopeless. But if our reactions to these indicators and new understandings of the problem continue to be chronic hopelessness and denial it may well get very miserable. 

Time passes.

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