Our institutions fail just as the first waves of a broken climate arrive. We get that story, and the Resistance, from our first guest Stuart Scott. Then we explore the latest science about a feedback from thawing Arctic Permafrost, with our second guest, European scientist Thomas Gasser. I am your scout, Alex Smith. This is Radio Ecoshock. Image for this week’s show courtesy of artist and Radio Ecoshock listener Kevin M. Paulsen
SCIENTISTS’ WARNING ON CLIMATE – GUEST STUART SCOTT
“At some point we realize that humanity has strayed down a rabbit hole from which it cannot seem to emerge. This quagmire is the quasi-religious belief in the Church of Consumerism, with its clergy of advertising executives, bankers and economists, corporate CEOs, politicians, etc.
We have evolved a defective ‘operating system’ that insists on infinite, accelerating economic growth despite the ecological costs – namely the destruction of Nature. Those who have signed or endorsed the Scientists’ Warning through this website have displayed a clear understanding of what is wrong and how we must head to avoid the worst of ecological destabilization that we have inflicted on Mother Earth. We are all therefore de facto members of what we are calling the Union of Concerned Citizens of Earth.”
– written by Stuart Scott, and posted at ScientistsWarning.org
He’s supposed to be retired, living in Hawaii. But Stuart Scott creates ClimateMatters TV with scientists like Dr. James Hansen. Scott travels to climate meetings – where he sets up alternative panels of scientists and experts who are deeply concerned about our future. Now Stuart is heading up a drive to get out the Second World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.
In November of 2017, here on Radio Ecoshock, Dr. William Ripple from Oregon State University explained the simple beginnings of the second scientists’ Warning to Humanity. You can listen to or download my 15 minute interview with Dr. Bill Ripple in CD Quality.
The article by Ripple et al, published in the journal Bioscience, certainly did “ripple” around the world. To work with the widespread support, Bill Ripple began a group called the “Alliance of World Scientists”. Now Stuart Scott has a new project and web site, working in conjunction with the Alliance of World Scientists. William (Bill) Ripple and Bill Reese are on the advisory board. So is Richard Heinberg. That is because climate time is way past being a subject for scientists. We need all of humanity to get this warning, and begin action!
THE BEGINNINGS: WILLIAM RIPPLE, AND THE SECOND SCIENTISTS’ WARNING TO HUMANITY ON RADIO ECOSHOCK
Twenty five years ago, the scientists warned us: humans were heading on a trajectory toward environmental disaster. 1700 of them, including most of the Nobel prize winners, issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. It was 1992, the time of the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. (I was there.) The original 1992 Warning is available as an online .pdf here, from the Union of Concerned Scientists
Now our situation is much worse. More than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries have issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice“. It was just published November 13th in the journal Bioscience, and it’s being echoed around world media.
The “Second Warning to Humanity” is not just a few concerned biologists or climate scientists. Last time I looked, there were over 20,000 signatories from 184 countries. But if I started asking people on any street, I bet most folks have not heard about it.
As Stuart’s site advises, “this Second Notice … can be downloaded as a PDF with working links here.”
To hear more from Stuart Scott, I recommend his interview with Jennifer Hynes, host of Extinction Radio, on July 4, 2018. My thanks to David Korn for that tip. David advises several scientists and groups on communications and other matters. In that interview with Extinction Radio, Scott says the “silver lining” to Trump is the trade war and tariffs will slow down the consumer society. Scott says we live in a “gonzo economic system that only believes in profits – money”.
“Everything about humanity and what we do is exponential” he tells Hynes. “The banking system is very aggressively expanding the economy, and how does that economy expand – by soaking up nature.”
Stuart’s new web site carries the occasional update from the Alliance of World Scientists, but also carries climate news feeds on “Impacts News”, “Resilience News”, and “Scientist Warning News”. As the web site explains: “The impacts and resilience news feeds are generously contributed by the Environmental Health News (ehn.org) via their website and news accumulator The Daily Climate (dailyclimate.org).”
WHICH ECONOMIC SYSTEM COULD REALLY HELP SAVE NATURE?
In the interview we discuss two different brands of economics (beyond the current capital and markets system). They are “environmental economics” and “ecological economics”. Be careful which you choose! The words matter.
Stuart explains it this way. Environmental economics says we need to put a price on nature, and the invisible hand of the market will straighten it all out. He gives the example of Japan pricing the natural system services of its wetlands. (Pollution control, fishing, etc.). They priced it as $16 billion. But there are always people who will cross the law to make money. Don’t put a price on nature. It’s the neo-classical economic view of nature.
On the other hand, “ecological economics” is the ecologic view of the economy. The natural resources and waste sinks of Earth are the real economy. Neo classical economics has no concept of Earth – the is irrelevant, an “externality”. As Kenneth E. Boulding says:
“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”
STUART SCOTT’S PREVIOUS INTERVIEW ON RADIO ECOSHOCK was on my January 14, 2016 show, titled “Through A Dark Portal”. You can download or listen to that wide-ranging 2016 Stuart Scott interview in either CD Quality of Lo-Fi
As you know, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares a summary for national politicians attending conferences which may decide our future. Now British scientists say the latest report for national governments has been seriously watered down. They make the world future appear less risky than we know it is. I ask Stuart about his expectations for this December at COP24 in Poland.
Stuart will go to Poland for COP24. to make the most of his carbon miles, Scott will make as many connections and videos as he can in his 3 months tour away. After speaking in Canada, he’ll be in the EU to do lectures and work with groups, and for the Climate Matters TV programs (climatematters.tv) which forwards to his Youtube Channel.
WHAT IS STUART’S BOTTOM LINE ON WHERE WE ARE GOING?
On Extinction Radio, Scott tells host Jennifer Hynes: “Personally I think we are over the limit and falling. We have to scramble back to safety as fast as we can. Maybe our children will have it a little bit easier.”
PERMAFROST THAW AND CLIMATE CHANGE – WITH DR. THOMAS GLASSER
Will the Paris climate agreement save us from dangerous climate heating? A new study says we will reach the Paris targets for greenhouse gases not by the year 2100, but in the next ten or twenty years. Beyond that point, getting back to a climate we can understand is difficult if not impossible. That is partly because our actions determine a feedback generally left out of climate models and diplomatic channels. The harsh truth is: the permafrost is thawing and nobody knows how to stop that from happening.
How will you know? Perhaps the odd news story will appear again about “drunken forests” or aboriginal people with sunken homes. Pipelines will crack open, spill, and be fixed for a while, like the highways. Then, Nature joins our wild heating party. Invisible plumes of carbon dioxide and methane will escape the newly thawed and rotting Arctic carpet. The new weather will astound us all.
As a new study tells us, that depends on how much carbon we put into the atmosphere now and in the next few decades. We could slow down the permafrost monster, or speed it up. Right now, our common human foot is firmly on the accelerator.
Our guest Dr. Thomas Gasser was educated in France. In 2016 he became a Research Scholar at The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, or IIASA. You’ll find out what that is in a minute. Thomas Gasser is the main developer of an Earth systems model that can include positive feedbacks in our projections. When applied to permafrost, the results are simply scary.
Dr. Thomas Gasser
The inspiration for this interview is a new paper published in Nature Geoscience. The title is: “Path-dependent reductions in CO2 emission budgets caused by permafrost carbon release“. Thomas Gasser is the lead author.
You can read a good article about this new science in this article: “Paris climate targets could be exceeded sooner than expected“, published September 17, 2018.
WHERE GASSER WORKS…
Just quoting from the web site of his institute:
“The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Although funded by many countries, IIASA has it’s headquarters in Laxenburg, Austria, located about 20 km south of the Austrian capital Vienna.
Since 1973, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), a non-governmental research organization with about 200 employees, has been located in the castle.”
To me, it’s worth noting that the IIASA was created during the Cold War, and functioned as a bridge between scientists in the West and the Soviet Union. The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) is still a member country. You can find a page with information on the continuing role of Russia in IIASA here.
But the real news here is captured in this headline story from the UK Independent newspaper: “Paris global warming targets could be exceeded sooner than expected because of melting permafrost, study finds“.
[As I’ve said elsewhere, and of course on radio, I think the whole “we might exceed 1.5 degrees of warming by 2040” is a dangerous illusion. That is my opinion. For one thing, what happened to the more than 1 degree C of warming “in the pipeline” due to global dimming? As James Hansen and others (like V. Ramanathan) have told us, there is already another degree of warming up there in the atmosphere, but it’s hidden by the amount of sunlight deflected away from Earth by our pollution. If we clean that pollution up, or it gets washed out by more intense rains, then forget about 1.5 C of warming. We may have already passed two degrees of warming in reality. End of rant.]
When I recorded 3 scientists on permafrost melt, the risk seem relatively small, given how long it would take to thaw significant parts of the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Agreed the short-term impulse may be smallish, but this new research from Glasser et al. shows that an input that seems small compared to our fossil emissions now, could push us past the 1.5 degree “safe” mark much sooner than the assembled governments will be told this December in Poland.
How soon? That depends. If we continue to increase our emissions as we are doing now, the 1.5 degree mark could come as early as 2029, ten years from now. If we radically cut emissions, that cross-over may come later in this century, likely by 2050?
My impression from talking with other scientists, is that 1.5 degrees (warming over “normal” in the 1950’s) could be the tipping point – beyond which natural feedback cycles take over. At that point there may be nothing humans could do. If we cut emissions, natural systems like permafrost thaw would continue to warm the planet.
The governments who attend the Conference of the Parties in December may be told we can “overshoot” 1.5 degrees, and then come back down through industrial-scale solutions like carbon capture and storage. Glasser finds these ideas unrealistic. What we might capture, if we ever do, could be dwarfed by other natural emissions of greenhouse gases we set loose by going too high.
The paper led by Glasser concludes:
“Irrespective of these uncertainties, it appears that the attainability of the Paris Climate Agreement is more compromised than suggested by the existing literature that largely ignores tipping or irreversible feedbacks of the Earth system.”
SUPPLEMENTARY EMAIL Q AND A – FOLLOWING THE INTERVIEW (and not included in it)…
After this interview, I was still puzzled. I wrote to Dr. Gasser to get clarification.
My first question:
1. One of your answers surprised me. I thought in your paper you discovered some new information about permafrost which contradicted earlier assumptions. But when I asked you what had changed in permafrost science since work done in 2012, if memory serves you said something like “not much”. Perhaps I have a misunderstanding.
I think I didn’t make myself completely clear, on this. My paper relies on more or less the same basic physical science as what we knew in 2012. In this sense, my paper is not much newer and doesn’t fundamentally contradict earlier work. However, this paper is the first time that we (scientists) really push the reasoning and the research on permafrost to estimate what is the impact in terms of reaching a pre-decided level of warming. And, in this case, we realized the impact is bigger than what we could deduce from previous but only exploratory studies.
Roughly speaking, for such kind of topic, the scientific approach takes place in three steps: observation, process modeling, and then incursion in the policy domain (that is, policy-relevant quantification). In 2012, we where at the step of process modeling, which allowed only first quantification of the effect regarding policy-making. In our paper, we went entirely into the policy domain. But again: the permafrost effect is important because we are so close to the target that every little additional feedback matters. The main driver of climate change is and remains human-made emissions!
In my second question by email, I said:
2. The other point where I feel I failed as an interviewer is this: earlier experts and papers convinced me the permafrost thaw problem was so long term that (a) it would occur long after our emissions had already determined the future and (b) therefore we should concentrate on other more immediate problems. I thought your paper made this threat more urgent, and not necessarily a matter for later in the century, and coming centuries.
Here is the reply from Thomas Gasser:
I think this is partly answered above. The timing issue is relative: if you look at temperature targets that are nearing fast (like 1.5°C) then permafrost becomes a short-term issue as well. But for targets that are further away, it is less of a problem (but still one). But this doesn’t contradict the fact that permafrost carbon release will be relatively low in the near future. It’s just that even low emissions can significantly affect the attainability of a target, if the target is already hard to reach!
Aside from what we have just learned from this new research, my own opinion remains darker when it comes to the Great Thaw. It is literally a geologic event unfolding apparently within a few generations or less. The Arctic has warmed more than anywhere else on Earth. The area is vast, as is the preserved vegetation from ages past, which will decompose and let off gases enough to determine our ultimate fate. And as Dr. Gasser told us, the true burden of methane under the sea, and projections for it’s release, are uncounted and unknown.
We hardly have the brain-power to cope with immediate emergencies. It seems hard to imagine this civilization being able to focus on a mass heater switching on in the remote Arctic. Try to keep a place in your mind for this story.
ADDED NOTES TO DIG DEEPER: RADIO ECOSHOCK PREVIOUS PERMAFROST SHOWS AND OTHER SCIENCE
What If the Permafrost Thaws? Posted on May 29, 2012 “There is more carbon frozen in far North than in all living things & the atmosphere. It has begun to thaw. Interview with Prof. Antoni Lewkowitcz and Academy of Science speech by Dr. Charles Koven.”
As I wrote in that blog:
“Why care about the permafrost? 3 reasons
1. it’s a good thermometer. Unlike measuring air temperatures, which is tricky, measuring deeper in the ground is more solidly known. We know the melting is real, permafrost doesn’t lie, proves global warming is happening.
2. Large emissions of carbon could result from melting, but we don’t yet know how much. It will affect people all over the world. We know there are massive stocks of carbon locked up there – but how long will it take to be released?
3. It costs money. Governments, corporations, and individuals have to spend money to protect infrastructure or deal with changes in the ground, from “drunken forests” to sagging pipelines, to tipping buildings and sinking roads.
I think this is a key point about thawing permafrost. There isn’t any realistic geo-engineering scheme to reverse it. The area of permafrost is so huge, and the amount of energy require to freeze it so gigantic, this process is beyond human control, once we initiate the warming and thawing process. It is an irreversible change to the planet.
Should we worry about the permafrost thaw? Maybe not today or tomorrow. The big thaw is happening slowly. It will define the history of the planet. As the Russian expert Sergei Kirpotin of Tomsk University says: the process is already underway. We can delay it, with smarter energy choices, and greenhouse gas control, but unless a miracle happens, over the next century or three, planet Earth will thaw.”
That was 2012. Now, says Thomas Glasser and his team, yes we should worry about permafrost thaw. It could help define the climate of our planet much sooner than we thought.
DR. SARAH CHADBURN: PERMAFROST THAWING MUCH FASTER THAN WE THOUGHT
Battling for Climate Sanity Posted on April 20, 2017
I’ve been a fan of climate progress blogger Joe Romm for years. He wrote: “Global warming will defrost much more permafrost than we thought, a new study finds. Every 1°C [or 1.8°Fahrenheit] of additional warming would thaw one-quarter of the earth’s frozen tundra area — releasing staggering amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.”
Hold that thought. The implications of new research published April 10th are deep and very serious. But it took years of work to find the real measure of thawing permafrost. I’ve reached the lead author of that study. Dr. Sarah E. Chadburn is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the United Kingdom at the University of Leeds.
Getting back to senior climate blogger Joe Romm, he wrote:
“One study found that the feedback from just the CO2 released by the thawing permafrost alone could add 1.5°F to total global warming by 2100, if we don’t sharply curtail carbon pollution as soon as possible.” That is from the article “Earth’s thawing permafrost threatens to unleash a dangerous climate feedback loop“.
WANT MORE SCIENCE ON PERMAFROST?
Andrew H. MacDougall, Christopher A. Avis, Andrew J. Weaver Published 2012
Permafrost soils contain an estimated 1,700 Pg of carbon, almost twice the present atmospheric carbon pool1. As permafrost soils thaw owing to climate warming, respiration of organic matter within these soils will transfer carbon to the atmosphere, potentially leading to a positive feedback
ROBERT SCRIBBLER WRITES IN 2017
“Study Finds 21 to 25 Percent of Northern Permafrost Will Thaw at Just 1.5 C of Warming”
Scribbler’s headline comes from this paper:
Advances in Climate Change Research
Volume 8, Issue 4, December 2017, Pages 235-244 (open access)
The results show that the threshold of 1.5 °C warming will be reached in 2027, 2026, and 2023 under RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP8.5, respectively. When the global average surface temperature rises by 1.5 °C, the southern boundary of the permafrost will move 1–3.5° northward (relative to 1986–2005), particularly in the southern Central Siberian Plateau.