While many of us are stuck at home, U.S. Geological Survey reports finds extreme flooding will double every five years. You hear study author Sean Vitousek. Remember when nuclear fusion was the answer? Or blocking out the sun? Our first guest Professor Duncan McLaren explains why technical delusions are so dangerous.
Miami suffered through 97 degrees F., 36 C, an absolute record for April. California is sizzling. Northern Europe is dry to drought, just when the spring rains should be watering new crops. The Copernicus Climate Change Service reports 2019 was the warmest year ever recorded in Europe. In fact, 11 of the 12 warmest years in European history happened since the year 2000. Europe has already gone above 2 degrees C warming, the supposed red line for climate safety.
Even as city streets appear empty of cars, greenhouse gases from humans continue into the atmosphere. We continue to burn coal, oil, and gas – building on top of a carbon load a century deep. We are heading into nearly un-survivable heat and violent weather.
We can’t just put that off for a year or two while we struggle with a novel virus. We already wasted any years of grace a couple of decades ago. Now every year is a climate emergency into the foreseeable future – because we have lied to ourselves so effectively. Look at the wonders of space travel, computers, and chemicals. Of course humans will find a technology to reverse climate damage and return to safety. Except we have no such technology. Just the promise of a technical fix is what got us into irreversible trouble now.
I’m Alex Smith. Yes, I’m preparing for a deep economic crash, the next great Depression. Our greenhouse is stocked, we’ve expanded our planting area, the new chickens have already started to lay. But you and I cannot be blinded by one emergency, so we miss the next one coming. Let’s keep our eyes on climate change, and our voices calling for action, to flatten the curve of abrupt and disruptive warming here on the home planet.
DANGEROUS DREAMS OF A TECHNOLOGY TO SAVE US FROM CLIMATE CHANGE: DUNCAN MCLAREN
Remember all those fabulous technical fixes that were going to save us from disastrous climate change? The world would run on nuclear fusion, or oil from algae, while thousands of wind pumps saved the sea ice. The world is still waiting – and still heating up. A new paper from experts at UK’s Lancaster University collects the promises and failures of technical fixes – plus the ways all those shiny ideas helped governments and corporations avoid the hard part: real social and economic change needed to limit climate damage.
The paper is called “The co-evolution of technological promises, modeling policies and climate change targets.” We reached the lead author, Duncan McLaren – Professor and Research Fellow at Lancaster UK.
Professor Duncan McLaren, Lancaster University, UK
The authors write:
“…contemporary technological proposals for responding to climate change involve giant carbon-sucking machines, ice restoration using millions of wind-powered pumps and solar radiation reflection with stratospheric aerosols.
Current debate treats these as unproven novelties, often contrasted with more established approaches to meeting objective science-based targets.
Here, we argue rather that such proposals are the latest incarnation of ‘technologies of prevarication’: technological promises elicited by climate politics and policy. We describe a history of such promises, mediated through developing practices of modelling that shape both targets and other policies, and the imagined technologies needed to meet them in an ongoing cycle that repeatedly avoids transformative social and economic change.”
PREVARICATION – to deviate from the truth
Prevaricate and its synonyms “lie” and “equivocate” all refer to playing fast and loose with the truth. “Lie” is the bluntest of the three. When you accuse someone of lying, you are saying he or she was intentionally dishonest, no bones about it. “Prevaricate” is less accusatory and softens the bluntness of “lie,” usually implying that someone is evading the truth rather than purposely making false statements.
THE FIVE PHASES of LYING TO OURSELVES ABOUT “SOLUTIONS” TO GLOBAL WARMING:
2. percentage emissions cuts
3. atmospheric concentrations
4. cumulative budgets
5. outcome temperatures
HERE ARE SOME OF THE TECHNICAL FIXES PROPOSED FOR EACH STAGE:
1. stabilization: enhanced sinks, nuclear power, energy efficiency; international political action: Earth summit Rio, 1992
2. percentage emission cuts: efficiency, fuel switching, CCS proposals; Kyoto protocol 1997
3. atmospheric concentrations: CCS and early BECCS; Copenhagen discord 2009 [BECCS = Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage]
4. cumulative budgets: BECCS and other NETs; Durban and Doha talks (2011/2012) [NETs = Negative Emissions Technology or Techniques]
5. outcome temperatures: NETs, emerging SRM (solar radiation management); Paris Accord 2015. About this stage the authors says “Imaginaries promise to reverse overshoot, manipulate temperatures”
When bio-energy was promoted as a solution to reduce emissions, the Netherlands bought palm oil from plantations carved out of endangered Indonesian rainforests. Britain is still pushing wood pellets as “green” power plants – from more forests cut down and reducing natural carbon sinks. Has bio-energy helped or harmed our climate progress?
Every IPCC report in the 2000’s has explicitly counted on carbon reductions through CCS – carbon capture and storage. There were few real-world attempts at Carbon Capture and Storage, and so far they all failed. Nothing has risen even close to the scale we need. I think the fraud of CCS has been severely damaging to the future. It is tiring to hear each new pipe-dream promoted heavily in mainstream media, and even the science press. They never follow up on the fact that none of the bright headlines worked. Hasn’t media hype, creating these daydreams, or as McLaren calls them “imaginaries” – hasn’t media’s fascination with shiny new objects been part of the problem?
But the public has been right on board. People want to keep driving gas guzzling vehicles, to have a license to burn as much fossil fuels as we want. The wealthy, with private planes, yachts, and multiple homes are the worst carbon offenders. They also have cash to make big political donations to protect their lifestyles. Many Legislators live high carbon lives too. So everyone from the average person to the highest in the land is persistently avoiding what McLaren calls “transformative social and economic change.” Are we running a system-wide Ponzi scheme or cult?
This leads to an earlier article in “Frontiers In Climate” by Duncan McLaren and others: “Beyond “Net-Zero”: A Case for Separate Targets for Emissions Reduction and Negative Emissions” published August 21, 2019.
The authors write:
“Making promises of future negative emissions, instead of reducing emissions now, is even more risky (Fuss et al., 2014; Anderson and Peters, 2016; McLaren and Jarvis, 2018). There is an urgent need to avoid such substitutions. It is crucial to ensure that negative emissions are delivered in addition to rapid emissions reduction.“
Duncan’s PhD research was about “the justice implications of climate engineering”. So I ask him about geoengineering which has also been sold as a technical solution to our pollution.The pessimists say this complex carbon civilization making big technical promises – will itself collapse long before the goals in 2050, much less end of century. Climate change may be faster and greater than our ability to respond. That calls for more humility in the face of natural forces and human weakness.
My uncle always promised to take me to Disneyland. He never did. Eventually this kid learned he was just talking to make me like him. As McLaren and co-author Nils Markusson make clear, there is a lot of that happy talk going on at the global scale. So let’s clear away all the techno fixes that never deliver. What is left? What do we really need to do?
McLaren and Markusson conclude: “Putting our hopes in yet more new technologies is unwise. Instead, cultural, social and political transformation is essential to enable widespread deployment of both behavioural and technological responses to climate change.”
A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
You may also be interested in this developing research from Niskanen, McLaren and others: “Local conflicts and national consensus: The strange case of circular economy in Sweden”.
RISING SEAS CRASH INTO COASTLINES: SEAN VITOUSEK
Once in a lifetime record high seas can flood into cities and wash away coastlines. New research shows within 30 years, that extreme could be the new normal. Rising seas are the relentless new story for the rest of our lives. Dr. Sean Vitousek is a Research Oceanographer with the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Sean is co-author of the new paper “Sea-level rise exponentially increases coastal flood frequency”.
It’s not just that hundreds of billions of dollars of coastal real estate is about to crash that market. Or that all the underground infrastructure in major coastal cities from Miami to New York are going under. The whole appearance of coastlines will have to be remapped, as up to half of beaches disappear and cliffs fall into the sea. Essential wetlands go salty and species go extinct.
Sean has a special and personal connection to the sea and the coasts. He was born and raised in Hawaii (really, I’ve seen his Birth Certificate!). He grew up surfing, and was President of the Princeton surf club. When many of the best California beaches are predicted to disappear as rising seas go right to the cliffs, Vitousek has a personal interest. He has gone around the country making presentations like: “Can Beaches Survive Climate Change? Predicting Long-Term Coastal Change in Southern California”.
Dr. Sean Vitousek, USGS
The Press Release for this new paper in the journal Nature says it all clearly:
“Extreme flooding events in some US coastal areas could double every five years if sea levels continue to rise as expected, a study published in Scientific Reports suggests. Today’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ extreme water levels — which are currently reached once every 50 years — may be exceeded daily along most of the US coastline before the end of the 21st century.
Mohsen Taherkhani, Sean Vitousek and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Hawaii, investigated the frequency of extreme water levels measured by 202 tide gauges along the US coastline and combined the data with sea-level rise scenarios to model the rate at which flooding events may increase in the future.
For 73% of the tide gauges used in the study, the difference in water level between the 50-year extreme water level and the daily average highest tide was found to be less than one meter, and most sea-level rise projections exceed one meter by 2100. The authors’ model predicted that before 2050, current extreme water levels transitioned from 50-year, once-in-a-lifetime flooding events to annual events in 70% of US coastal regions. Before the end of 2100, once-in-a-lifetime extremes were predicted to be exceeded almost daily for 93% of the sites measured.
The data suggest that present-day extreme water levels will become commonplace within the next few decades. Low-latitude areas will be the most susceptible, with their rate of coastal flooding predicted to double every five years. At the most susceptible sites, along the Hawaiian and Caribbean coast, the rate at which extreme water levels occur may double with every centimeter of sea-level rise.
Associated coastal hazards, such as beach and cliff erosion, will likely accelerate in concert with the increased risk of flooding, suggest the authors.”
But what happens to this relatively conservative model if sea level rise is not gradual and predictable, but happens in relatively sudden steps (as show by the coral study in Texas, or if a large ice shelf breaks off in Antarctica? For the Texas coral study, listen to my interview with Pankaj Khanna on Radio Ecoshock.
Do the authors factor in more extreme storms, with storm surge much higher than before? How often will the coasts experience another Hurricane Sandy or worse? Sean was a co-author on this subject in 2016: “A multivariate extreme wave and storm surge climate emulator based on weather patterns”.
Last year I spoke with the grand old man of coastal science, Dr. Orrin Pilkey. He worried the story of rising seas would focus on damage to big cities, while long stretches of the coastal ecology are washed away by rising seas. What do your models tell us about this?
Orrin Pilkey told us it is time to start withdrawing from the coastline now. We should not wait until it becomes a panic emergency.
Our whole system tries to prepare for a short emergency, like hurricane response. We roll out people, supplies, and sometimes the National Guard. But we are far less prepared for a constant, relentless emergency that rising seas will bring. Reading this new paper from McLaren et al, I was reminded of one aspect of controlling the new Corona Virus. The authors suggest we try to “flatten the curve” of warming, buying time to adapt to the impacts of rising seas.
OTHER PRESS COVERAGE
A QUICK LISTING OF PRIME SEA LEVEL PROGRAMS ON RADIO ECOSHOCK
Hundreds of Millions to Be Flooded Out by the Sea
Posted on November 13, 2019, by Radio Ecoshock
What cities, deltas or whole countries will be lost? Scientist Benjamin Krauss at Climate Central joins us. British expert Dr. Jonathan Bamber on new high sea predictions. Brand new coastlines are possible by the end of this century. And a murky worry for all is something called “Antarctic instability”.
Expect A Sudden Sea Level Event
Posted on November 1, 2017, by Radio Ecoshock
Are you ready for rapid sea level rise? New science from Texas warns it can happen. We talk with lead author Pankaj Khanna.
Rough Seas in 2019
Posted on January 3, 2019, by Radio Ecoshock
The grand old man of coastal science Dr. Orrin Pilkey warns: start withdrawing from the coast-line now, or wait for the coming panic.
Heat and the Rising Sea
Posted on March 11, 2015
DR. ROBERT NICHOLLS: WHAT GOVERNMENTS AREN’T BEING TOLD ABOUT RISING SEAS
Scientists on Radio Ecoshock have warned that sea level rise, not heat, may be the biggest and most costly threat of climate change. We know coastal cities around the world are endangered. But are governments getting the best advice from official bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? A new report from researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK says “no”. Their commentary, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, says critical risks are not being communicated.
The lead author for the paper “Sea-level rise scenarios and coastal risk management” is Professor Jochen Hinkel. He was on Radio Ecoshock this past February. Here to explain the new work is co-author Robert James Nicholls. He’s an award-winning Professor of Coastal Engineering at the University of Southhampton. I reached Dr. Nicholls in the Maldives, an endangered island nation in the Indian Ocean.
Dangerous Fruits of a Warming World
Posted on October 9, 2019, by Radio Ecoshock
“Retreat from the Coast” as Patrick Marchman tell us about professionals planning the great migration away from the sea.
As Nature Rises, Humans Stumble
Posted on December 20, 2017, by Radio Ecoshock
Nobody can stop the rising seas. Author and journalist Jeff Goodell tells all in his new book “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World”.
EVEN IN LOCK-DOWN, WE ARE STILL HEATING THE PLANET
The skies are definitely clearer in many parts of the world, as highways empty and billions stay home. In the short term, this is the first time most countries have seen any reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Only the collapsed Soviet Union saw lower greenhouse gas emissions since the 1990’s.
Since then, it’s been a huge carbon burning bonfire, where each year we increased climate-wrecking gases even more. The increase was increasing, and carbon dioxide levels went past 400 parts per million and currently sits above 415 parts per million.
Even with the reductions we can see, humans continue to add vast amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Even with a massive shut-down, we are still making the future more dangerous for ourselves and all creatures. Climate change is now so set, even stopping all emissions would not be enough. We need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a massive scale, if we can.
Is you electricity still on? Does it come from burning coal or natural gas? Are there still planes in the air? Is there any traffic beyond electric vehicles? Are we still cutting down tropical forests, the great carbon sinks? Is the permafrost still thawing, and Arctic ice retreating? Is natural gas leaking into the atmosphere? The carbon machine is still running, for billions of people.
Very conservative experts predict only a 5% reduction in fossil fuel emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic collapse. Since we increased emissions 3% last year, and about 3% the year before, even a deep Depression and collapse of international travel might take us back to emissions levels of 2015 or 2016, which were substantially higher than in 2010, and at least 60% higher, every year, than humans produced in 1990. We have been on a binge.
Two things: don’t be lulled into a happy place when you see some emissions are down. And this much is clear: we can never reopen the old economy, heading for the old normal. The old normal was strangling the species, destabilizing the weather, and killing millions of people with heat. We can only afford to open a new chapter, where everyone consumes much less, products are built to last, and the power comes from the sun, the wind, or water power.
Let’s take this time to plan for an economy in tune with nature. If that is impossible, we are impossible. Thank you for daring to dream we can do much better.
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