Welcome back to another season of Radio Ecoshock. I’m Alex Smith.
A few years ago, one of our guests suggested as the climate destabilized, the world economy could go down with it. With one weather disaster following another, it costs more trying to recover than a country can produce or tax. Eventually, decades away, there would be no money for recovery. Governments would become incapable and bankrupt.
That time is now.
After a year of record snow storms, record drought and fires, record tornadoes, and now a hurricane of the Century, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is broke. Already, municipal and governments were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They sold more bonds this year only due to Federal guarantees. Now after the debt ceiling fiasco, and a downgrade by Moodys, even the mass media admits
America is broke.
Lurking behind, driving energy and extreme rainfall into the clouds, while drying a quarter of the nation into worse than Dust bowl times, the carbon engine of climate change continues to power up.
Next week we’ll do our official kick-off for the Fall Season of Ecoshock. I’ve got a line-up of guests with gusto and guts.
This week is really for our dedicated fans, and anyone else who will listen. We have a new speech by the world’s most influential climate scientist. He works with European heads of state. He receives delegations from China. Recently he advised the White house.
This is a powerful mind, at the vortex of the most recent and urgent scientific research into the new climate we are making. He was a chief organizer of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For all the institutions and panels he heads, most North Americans have never heard his name. Unless they subscribe to a You tube uber-conspiracy channel, where he is villainized.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, known as “John” to his English speaking friends. Among other things, he Research Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Britain. An awe-inspiring position. Now he is the Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, also known as (PIK), and, on the side, a Chair for Theoretical Physics at the University of Potsdam, Germany. Schellnhuber advised the German Chancellor on climate science.
In September 2009, John Schellnhuber was a presenter at the first conference convened to consider the worst, a world where temperature rise beyond our current ecology. A world without ice, anywhere. It was called “Four Degrees and Beyond” at Oxford University.
In July 2011, Schellnhuber gave two keynote speeches for the second such conference, this time in Melbourne Australia. His public speech is available with video on the Net, at fourdegrees2011.com.au. Make sure you see it. There is a lot of important information you have not heard, partly because it is so new. If that video link changes, try downloading the video here or downloading the audio mp3 here.
But I want you to hear the speech he gave to the University Conference audience. It is raw and disturbing. I’m almost hesitant to pass it on. But we all need to know. To know where we are going, when we set out for drive, flick a switch, use the buried fossil power from the distant past.
Dr. Schellnhuber tells the audience the browning of vegetation in the Southern United States is visible from space. America has suffered “traumatic impacts” from climate change already. And the wild ride toward four degrees higher global mean temperature has just begun.
You hear the same disturbing assessment John Schnellnhuber has given directly to many heads of government.
Without a major change, to slash our emissions, we are heading over a climate cliff that will not return to our “normal” for the next 50,000 years or more. We are tipping it, and we are tipping if faster every year.
From the “Four Degrees or More” conference in Australia, courtesy of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and other sponsors to be named later, this keynote address for experts has been lightly edited for time.
The title: “Strange Encounters Behind the Two Degrees Firewall.”
I filled half a binder with notes from this Australian conference. You can find all the Conference speeches, including two important videos, at the web site. Help yourself, at fourdegrees2011.com.au.
We all need to go back to school. To learn, and then to pass it on, to teach others, while there is still time to save our climate.
And there is still time, if we can make a miracle. If we can change.
SOME OF MY NOTES FROM THE “FOUR DEGREES OR MORE” CONFERENCE LECTURES
This two and a half day conference, from July 12 to 14th, began with an acknowledgment of the original owners of the land, the Aboriginal People.
Just three days before, on a Sunday, the government of Australia announced a comprehensive climate change plan.
Keep in mind, the country had been battered by lethal fire storms (almost beyond imagination), a decade-long drought that drove farmers to suicide, and then extreme rainfall events with flash floods never seen or expected.
Despite Australia’s total dependence on coal for it’s own electric generation, and coal exports to Asia as a mainstay of the economy, a multiparty panel agreed on a plan including:
* a mild carbon tax
* a new climate regulatory body called “The Climate Authority”
* plans to cut emissions by 5% by 2020, or up to 25% if other major developed nations took greater steps to cut their emissions
* changes the tax structure of Australia to discourage the carbon path
* mandates a review in Parliament of progress and news aspirations by 2014.
The press dominated by Rupert Murdoch fought this plan. It is possible a new more conservative government could overturn it. There is a strong climate denial club, almost an industry, in Australia.
Australia joins Canada and the United States as the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases.
That is the background to this conference, to examine the possibility that global mean temperatures may rise to 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and perhaps more. What would that mean for Australia, and for humanity? How likely is that climate disaster? Could temperatures go even higher? We heard estimates that at 11 or 12 degrees above “normal” – human physiology can no longer function. The remaining humans would have to cluster in Canada, Sweden, and Siberia as the only habitable places left on Earth…. Just as Sir James Lovelock warned some years ago.
Professor Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, gave 2 lectures, one for the Conference audience (mainly of scientists and experts) and another for the public, with a video online.
The start of the conference keynote address was a little slow, as “John” warmed up and judged his audience. I did not include that in the radio broadcast. He warned Australia was “the most vulnerable continent” to climate change, and we’ll hear more about that.
Then Schellnhuber introduced Germany’s energy revolution, including a decision after the Fukushima accident to
phase out nuclear power. He returned to that subject more fully in the Q and A, and I included that version in the Radio Ecoshock broadcast.
Two degrees is not a good landing place for our climate, he said. It was picked as a compromise between feasibility and desirability. Two degrees he calls “a firewall” to protect us against the disaster of total melting of the polar ice, and all world glaciers.
Even at two degrees, the South Pacific Islands, like the Maldives, would be lost, along with the entire Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
So far, we have only raised the global mean temperature by something less than 1 degree. (And look what has happened already). 2010, he notes, was the warmest and wettest year on record. And despite economic troubles in the developed countries, 2010 greenhouse gas emissions set a new record high. He expects 2011 will be even greater.
Based on our current emissions, other scientists, like Professor Malte Meinshausen (also of the Potsdam Institute) calculate our best case scenario for the year 2300 would be 420 to 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent. The worst case would take Earth up to 2,000 parts per million, a level not seen in millions of years.
The temperature increase over pre-industrial levels could go to 7 or 8 degrees C higher by 2300. That would mean at least a 7 meter sea level rise by the year 2500. The most heavily populated parts of the Earth would be underwater. Later, Schellnhuber considers studies in physics that show the temperature is unlikely to stay anywhere around 7 degrees. Simple calculations about the wave patterns of matter suggest the temperature would either rest around 5 degrees, or keep migrating up to 10 degrees, where there is another natural plateau.
Even half a degree (Celsius) above the pre-industrial world, says Schellnhuber, is like the world catching a fever.
IPCC TOO CONSERVATIVE ABOUT SEA LEVEL RISE
At the 36 minute mark of the speech as posted at fourdegrees2011.com.au, Schellnhuber predicts 15 centimeters higher sea level by 2050. To reach that estimate, he includes news scientific studies about ice melt not included in the last IPCC report. He thinks that science may not even be included in the next IPCC report, because that body is by it’s make-up of total consensus by all countries (including oil producers like Saudi Arabia) far too conservative.
Once the climate reaches levels above 2 degrees, Schellnhuber suggests (and science supports) – the process may be unstoppable. We may already have changed the climate for good, in human time scale. (42 minute mark). Even with efforts to remove carbon, it may take thousands of years for the atmosphere to recover. The next best chance to reverse a climate gone to hot would come in another 50,000 years, when the long-term wobble in the Earth’s orbit would naturally favor the beginning of another ice age.
The two degree “firewall” could hopefully prevent such a big hit, with runaway ice melt at the poles.
THE INJUSTICE OF SEA LEVEL RISE
Here is an interesting note. Schellnhuber was part of a group of scientists who produced a climate change document for the Pope of the Catholic Church. The Pope, it seems, is worried about the injustice of rising seas.
Because innocent nations, who produced very little greenhouse gases, will suffer worse than those who continued to pollute the sky.
Many estimates, based on a combination of climate models and real-time monitoring of Greenland ice melt (from the two GRACE satellites I presume) suggest that runoff will raise the global mean sea level by one meter (39 inches) by the year 2100.
But the sea is not level. We all talk about “sea level” but that does not exist in reality. The sea can pile up in some places, according to the gravitational pull of the sea bed, such as the mass of the rocks underneath, or the mass of continents. This operates just like the gravitational pull of the Moon, which causes water to pile up in tides.
But Schellnhuber warns if Greenland loses mass (as it loses that huge mound of ice), the sea level around Greenland, and even along the U.S. Northeast Coast may remain the same, or even go down a little. The extra
water may go around to the Pacific islands, further drowning them.
After all, the Northeast Coast of North America is already drawing as much water as it can. That won’t change.
Greenland will draw less, because with less ice, it has less mass, less gravity. Why the excess water would go to the South Pacific, Schellnhuber did not say.
But again, there will be “sea level injustice” as South Pacific and some Asian nations are flooded with rising seas, with less impact on parts of the developed world.
U.S. IMPACTS “TRUMATIC”
In various parts of both presentations, John Schellnhuber talks about the “traumatic impacts” of climate change on the United States, already. At 52 minutes, he says satellites can measure the browning of vegetation in the American South West, and the West generally. From space, the vegetation is dying from drought.
Ironically though, rainfall drawn from the driest parts, may fall more plentifully on other parts of the U.S. He predicts American agricultural production could initially go UP as the temperature rises 2 or 3 degrees. Then it would crash with higher temperatures. So Americans might not see their food crash coming.
Schellnhuber participated in the production of 10 papers for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (U.S.) on the various tipping points of climate change.
It is much harder to predict the reaction of whole ecological systems, such as the Amazon rainforest. Most studies suggest that great carbon sink will convert to grasslands, but not all scientists agree. The issue, says Schellnhuber, is not settled.
And here I inject an issue raised later by Schellnhuber. Namely scientists realize there is still a great unknown.
Scientists try to talk about a degree of certainty, while recognizing there is always a degree of uncertainty. There is room for error, and science tries to be a self-correcting system.
Schellnhuber contrasts this to the attitude of climate deniers, who remain absolutely certain they are right, and who do not adjust their positions when facts intervene.
In more new science, just now coming out, climate projections show the development of “oxygen holes” in the Pacific Ocean, and elsewhere. The mechanics of both warming of the seas, and acidification, can lead to conditions where there is no more available oxygen. These become “dead zones” – and they are already appearing. “The oceans rise, warm, turn sour, but also lose breath” under climate disruption, he said.
THE RUNAWAY GREENHOUSE EFFECT
Schellnhuber tackles the question about whether there are upper limits to global heating. Or could the atmosphere just boil away, as it appears to have done on Mars? (My comment, other scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, who specialized in the study of the atmosphere of Venus, also express this question and fear.)
Schellnhuber says it is doubtful that humans could trigger such an extreme reaction. However, we don’t know what will happen if warming melts the frozen methane at the sea bottom (“clathrates”), or if the stored carbon in the frozen soil of the Arctic is released.
It is here, at 1 hour, 4 minutes of the web presentation, that Schellnhuber suggests there are energy bands in solids. “…warming may stop at 5 degrees C. or may go to 10 degrees, with self amplification.” Seven degrees above industrial levels is not a likely stopping point due to physics. And Schellnhuber is a master of physics.
THE NEW LIMITS ON WHAT WE CAN BURN
Starting at Copenhagen, and signed by most nations of the world at Cancun, there is an agreement that we should not exceed 2 degrees of climate heating. With that goal, scientists can calculate how much carbon we could still release, namely 750 gigatonnes between 2010 and 2050.
We already burned about 30 gigatonnes in 2010 and 2011, he says.
He presents two scenarios to stay within the 750 gigatonne level:
1. At our current rate, if we wait until 2015 to take significant action (as Australia has just proposed, and the U.S. too…) – then we have to cut back the overshoot “by one Kyoto Protocol per year”.
2. If we wait until 2020 to take action, we have to cut all greenhouse gas emissions by 9 percent per year. (My comment, imagine getting 9 percent less fossil fuels every year…)
But, if all we have is 750 gigatonnes, Schellnhuber says it must be distributed with justice to all the people of the world. Everyone who breathes has an equal right to the atmosphere. If we applied that principle, giving an equal share of the remaining fuel to every person in India, as much as to Americans, developed countries would have to cut back so drastically they would quickly crash.
The U.S. would be carbon bankrupt by 2020. (My comment: not only is America facing economic bankruptcy, but now carbon bankruptcy as well). But India, given it’s current low per capita consumption of fossil fuels, could go on burning carbon for a few centuries.
Since that is not realistic (my comment, in part because of who holds military power) – Schellnhuber says a global carbon trading system is the only way to save the climate. North Americans, who need lots of carbon while they adjust away from fossil fuels, would buy credits from less developed countries.
Yes, it would be a massive transfer of wealth from North to South – about $100 billion dollars a year, to achieve carbon equality by the year 2050. Schellnhuber said that is not a lot of money in the global economy (my comment: it is less than 10% of the real military budget of the United States alone).
THE GERMAN EXAMPLE
Schellnhuber, who has advised the German Chancellor Angela Merkl (who is also trained in physics), notes that Germany is doing very well economically, compared to most other countries. Yet Germany is committed to 40% reduction from 1990 levels (my comment, not from some year after 2000, as the Americans always propose) – by 2020 (less than 9 years away).
And they will do it without nuclear power, since the Fukushima multiple melt-down, on top of previous radiation from Chernobyl, has convinced the majority of the German people that nuclear is just too dangerous to use.
Germany is already well on its way, with large installations of solar, even in a country which has much less sun that Australia. He talks further about the “German energy revolution” in his public keynote address, also online in video, at fourdegrees2011.com.au
In the question and answer period, Professor Schellnhuber says a large delegation from China recently visited Germany, to confer on converting from the carbon economy to renewables. China wants to join Germany in forming a kind of “carbon fitness club”.
For this and other reasons, Schellnhuber wanted his Australian audience not to depend on selling coal to China for too much longer.
That ends my notes on the first keynote presentation by John Schellnhuber at the Four Degrees or More conference in Melbourne Australia, July 12, 2011.
ARE CHINESE COAL PLANTS COOLING THE EARTH?
I begin with my own comments, as an introduction.
This is one of the biggest questions in scientific circles, and by those curious about the strange climate events of 2011. The proposal is that China has built so many new coal plants, so quickly, that their pollution is acting like a shield against incoming sunlight, retarding the warming that was expected.
The problem comes because calculations of the current carbon in the atmosphere suggests we should have warmed more than we have. It sounds simple in physics, with a calculation of watts per square meter of sunlight hitting the Earth, and a formula for the heating retained because of carbon (discovered over a century ago).
We know that coal plants without scrubbers, and especially those of lower efficiency of burning, emit tons of sulphates into the atmosphere. That caused “acid rain” in the United States, Canada, and Europe in the 1970’s, until most coal plants installed scrubbing devices.
Many of the new Chinese coal plants were built hurriedly with no pollution controls. Scientists calculate that a new coal plant adds to cooling of the planet for the first seven or eight years, due to sulfates, which reflect sunlight back into space. After that, the sheer volume of carbon emitted overwhelms the cooling effect, and the plant then continues to warm the planet for the rest of its operation (often 40 to 60 years).
“THE BIGGEST VOLCANO ON EARTH IS CHINESE INDUSTRY”
The same cooling effect can be caused by volcanoes, which also toss sulphates into the atmosphere. In his public presentation, John Schellnhuber says “the biggest volcano on Earth is Chinese industry”. (20 minute mark).
He notes that the world-recognized expert on cooling by air-borne particles, known as “aerosols”, is Dr. “Ram” Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute. Ramanthan suggests human air pollution (from all sources, including cook stoves in India, and industry all over the world, not just China) – is masking a rise of 2.6 degrees C. The world could be over 2 degrees hotter already, if industrial pollution stopped today.
MY COMMENT: WE ARE ALREADY PAST THE DISASTER POINT IN CLIMATE CHANGE
If true, this is disastrous news. We have already gone passed the compromise “firewall” of two degrees, and all that heat will become apparent if we either clean up pollution (a current high demand in China), or run out of fossil fuels. James Lovelock said we are protected only by “a wisp of smoke” which could disappear in just a few days.
For example, if we experienced a massive solar flare, like the “Carrington effect” which hit the Earth around 1854 – then all electronics would be damaged. Industry might stop for months or years, and the true warming level of the atmosphere would be experienced, without our protective blanket of pollution.
THE STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER SYMPOSIUM (talks on aerosol cooling).
However, other scientists are not so sure how great this masking effect is. On Thursday August 25th, 2011, I recorded presentations by scientists at the The 2011 Stephen H. Schneider Symposium at Boulder, Colorado.
There were three morning presentations on the impact of aerosols on climate, by
1: Phil Rasch (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory);
2: Alan Robock (Rutgers University); and then
3. Veerabhadran Ramanathan (University of California, San Diego).
I listened intently for an assessment of the impact of Chinese coal plants. But did not find that discussion. What I did learn is about the huge uncertainties we still have about both the role of clouds, and of our aerosol pollution, on the climate. This is still one of the great frontiers of science.
Worse, another byproduct of pollution (other than sulphates) – is the black carbon particles. A major source remains primitive cook stoves in India. These particles landing on ice, like the great Himalayan glaciers, can speed ice melting, and increase warming.
But I did not learn more about the impact of Chinese coal plants from this seminar.
If you want to learn more, Prof Robert Kaufman, at Boston University has done a study, with other scientists, saying the Chinese coal plant emissions have masked the real heating of the Earth. Try this article, “Sulfur from Chinese Power Stations ‘Masking’ climate change” in the Guardian newspaper published July 4th, 2011.
MORE FROM FOUR DEGREES OR MORE
There is so much more to learn from the online speeches given at the Four Degrees or More conference in Australia. Go to the web site given above, and explore.
We must learn a lot quickly, and pass it on very fast, to create public action. After hearing the small amount of carbon we can still burn and survive in a sustainable climate – I am amazed to look out on a roadway to see all the humans, one to a car, burning away the future, with no knowledge of what we are creating. And apparently we have no will to stop.