The latest models point toward climate disaster – but not right away? Interview with one of the great climate modeling scientists of the world, Oxford Professor Tim Palmer. Plus: a trick in the ocean may disappoint humanity. From Columbia University and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, Dr. Galen McKinley reveals the ocean reacts to our emissions in problematic ways.
You may wonder why I keep making radio programs about climate change, as hundreds of thousands died from a more immediate threat, COVID-19. But climate change is already killing far more, and threatens not just hundreds of millions of lives in the coming decades, but possibly all human life in the coming centuries. This is the chance we have – to take a different path out of the pandemic.
THE OCEAN RESPONDS UNEXPECTEDLY TO CLIMATE CHANGE – GALEN McKINLEY
Some years, the ocean soaks up almost 40% of all the carbon humans dump into the atmosphere. It is a free carbon capture and sequestration system that saved us from heating up even faster. Scientists just discovered why that ocean-carbon system has gone up and down in recent decades. The ocean responds much more quickly to changes in the atmosphere than previously thought. That turns out to be good news and worrying news.
Galen McKinley is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. She is lead author of this ground-breaking study titled “External Forcing Explains Recent Decadal Variability of the Ocean Carbon Sink”.
Dr. Galen McKinley
The authors say “the ocean has absorbed the equivalent of 39% of industrial-age fossil carbon emissions”. Without that, we would all be cooking now!
We get this from a Columbia University press release about this new paper:
“Volcanic eruptions and human-caused changes to the atmosphere strongly influence the rate at which the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, says a new study. The ocean is so sensitive to changes such as declining greenhouse gas emissions that it immediately responds by taking up less carbon dioxide.
The authors say we may soon see this play out due to the COVID-19 pandemic lessening global fuel consumption; they predict the ocean will not continue its recent historic pattern of absorbing more carbon dioxide each year than the year before, and could even take up less in 2020 than in 2019.”
But this Washington Post article suggests “Earth’s carbon dioxide levels hit record high, despite coronavirus-related emissions drop”.
Here is more from the Columbia University Press release:
‘We didn’t realize until we did this work that these external forcings, like changes in the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide, dominate the variability in the global ocean on year-to-year timescales. That’s a real surprise,’ said lead author Galen McKinley, a carbon cycle scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. ‘As we reduce our emissions and the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide slows down, it’s important to realize that the ocean carbon sink will respond by slowing down.’”
It is human nature to want immediate gratification. We may have to sacrifice some convenience or wealth to reduce carbon emissions. But if the ocean takes in less of our emissions, even if we cut back, we won’t see any benefit for a few years or longer. You can see the danger here. Politicians and the public might be more wary of a far-reaching green New Deal. Somehow we must prepare the public to be patient as we battle for a safe climate.
This is almost cruel. If we continue our bonfire of fossil fuels, the ocean will try to absorb even more of them, sheltering us from some of the worse impacts, and that could work for centuries. If we reduce our emissions, the ocean gets “lazy” and absorbs less, so we get less payback for our work to reduce.
It is almost like the ocean and atmosphere have a plastic boundary. If there is more carbon dioxide up there, the ocean takes in more. If less CO2 in the atmosphere, less is taken in by the sea.
As I was learning climate science during the 1990’s, the predominant theory was the ocean would accept less and less carbon dioxide over the coming decades. I believe it was an argument based on marine chemistry. But now the measurements are in, and reality is different. The ocean carbon sink has gone up and down over the decades. In general, the sea absorbed more as we put more carbon into the atmosphere. After the year 2,000, with the globalization of industrial economy and the spread of fossil power, we had a big bonfire of carbon burning. Emissions have gone up and up, and the rate of increase in those emissions has been rising, at least until the COVID crash.
But there is a second factor: a large volcanic eruption also changes that relationship for a few years. I was surprised to find the explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines was the second largest eruption of the 20th century. I had to look up the biggest, which was the eruption of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912. It was so remote experts picked the wrong mountain, only identifying Novarupta in the 1950’s.
If you are a climate-watcher with an ear for how this will all play out over the next decade or two, don’t miss this interview with scientist Galen McKinley.
TIM PALMER HIGHER HEAT
Tim Palmer is Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at Oxford University. Formerly at the UK Government’s Met Office – and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts – Tim’s work is now used by climate modelers all over the world. Palmer has won top scientific awards in both climate and weather forecasting. He is an internationally known expert in his field. When Tim Palmer warns extreme climate change is advancing faster and farther than predicted – we need to listen very closely.
Professor Tim Palmer
If humans double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to 1750 before the age of industry, scientists expect the mean temperature on Earth would be 3 degrees Centigrade hotter. That has been a bedrock of science and policy making for decades. Now multiple scientists and institutions are having to rethink that. The real result of a doubling of CO2 could be a global mean average of 5 degrees C. warming – which could mean 9 degree C hotter on land, or more! The climate system is more sensitive than we thought, according to the latest generation of climate models and projections prepared for the Sixth Assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (due out next year).
Read the transcript for this Tim Palmer interview here.
Tim just published in the top journal Nature. The title is “Short-term tests validate long-term estimates of climate change”. It seems incredible to me that weather forecasts for a mere six hours could tell us anything about climate change “hundreds of years from now”. I ask Tim to explain how that works and the answer is enlightening for anyone learning about climate change.
Of course doubling of course is only part of the story. There is a lot of social and economic pain along the way to 5 degrees of warming. In 2014, American scientist Michael Mann predicted the climate would cross the 2 degree C danger threshold in the year 2036. Emissions have increased since 2014, and now we have this new work on higher sensitivity to greenhouse gases.
THE CLOUDS: A GREEK TRAGEDY
Several guests on Radio Ecoshock have warned about the large but poorly known impact of clouds on the heating the planet. Climate models have struggled to interpret the role of clouds with confidence.
In April 2019, I interviewed NASA’s Tapio Schneider about his stunning paper‘ “Possible climate transitions from breakup of stratocumulus decks under greenhouse warming”. In a nutshell, their research suggested starting somewhere around 1200 parts per million CO2, stratocumulus clouds – essential for cooling the surface – might not be able to form. That would make Earth 8 degrees C. hotter, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. We are at 416 parts per million these days, a long way short of that threshold. Tim Palmer describes recent studies and models about clouds and global warming.
Results from the latest climate models, as described by Palmer is like changing our carbon clocks. We spring forward – a more extreme future arrives sooner, giving us much less time to get off our addiction to fossil fuels. Most scientists, and certainly universities, have taken pains to avoid being “alarmist”. But if we might heat the world past human survival outdoors, beyond crop tolerance, and into mass extinction levels – I can’t think of anything more urgent. It is time for people in all walks of life to be alarmed about climate change.
You can get another view on this new climate science in this Guardian article by Jonathan Watts, “Climate worst-case scenarios may not go far enough, cloud data shows”.
ALEX COMMENTS ON THIS TIM PALMER INTERVIEW
This week, Professor Tim Palmer just brought home so much important news about climate change and the still-developing state of climate science. In just one example, scientists often use a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to measure the sensitivity of Earth’s climate system, and how hot it would be at that point. For decades, scientists concluded Earth would warm about 3 degrees C as a mean average, at the doubling point. Now we learn it could be 5 degrees C hotter then. But when is the “doubling”? No one would say.
From various records, including air in ice core samples, we know carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1750 was about 280 parts per million, before the fossil fuel age began. In the Spring of 2020, CO2 is about 417 parts per million. Since we are currently adding carbon furiously as a rate of 3 parts per million, simple math makes the date of arriving at double CO2, namely 560 ppm. happening around 2067. (560-417=143 divided by 3=47 years; 2020+47=2067)
But, Palmer explains, nobody expects the mean temperature of the Earth to be 5 degrees C hotter by 2067, or any time this century! The “doubling” used by science is the expected warming that will arrive perhaps a century later – when Earth’s system of atmosphere, land and oceans create a new normal state, technically called “equilibration”. There is a big lag time between carbon dioxide levels and the resulting warming, principally due to the time it takes to heat the ocean, which covers the largest part of this planet.
This is good and terrible news. If someone tries to scare you, saying this new science shows we will heat up to 5 degrees C hotter (where mass extinctions are likely) during this century, they may be abusing the science. That mega-warming is unlikely in your lifetime. That’s the good news. But as Palmer points out, carbon dioxide can last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years. Humans now are re-setting the thermostat for all future human generations, plants, animals, all life.
Imagine that Europeans in the year 1820 knew their use of coal would destroy habitability of large parts of the planet two hundred years later. They would not experience the impacts of their pollution, but that killer heat would be coming on now, right now. We are making that decision for our descendants one or a few hundred years from now. But it appears we are so short-sighted, we only care about what happens when WE are alive. That’s what it looks like now, as we fail to address the climate emergency.
For decades, United Nations’ International Energy Agency spoke for the fossil fuel industry and fossil powered life. This week, Fatih Birol of the IEA announced we have only the next six months to avoid a climate disaster. During the pandemic we are using and emitting far less oil, gas and coal. If national governments attempt to go back to “normal”, the rebound will lead to unstoppable global warming.
Birol told the UK’s Guardian newspaper: ““The next three years will determine the course of the next 30 years and beyond,” Birol told the Guardian. “If we do not [take action] we will surely see a rebound in emissions. If emissions rebound, it is very difficult to see how they will be brought down in future. This is why we are urging governments to have sustainable recovery packages.”
British airports and fields are full of unsold cars, no doubt almost all fossil-fuel burners. Almost all countries have millions of parked new cars. On the BBC, a presenter wonders if those cars will be sold. Will British car-makers need to start up again? Germany announced large-scale government financing for German car-makers to switch over to producing the automobiles of the future: electric cars and trucks. And we can stop buying so much stuff made with fossil fuels, and start building a sustainable civilization. That is the chance we have.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening to Radio Ecoshock. My special thanks to listeners who stepped up with donations, as others with lost jobs had to withdraw their financial support. Thanks to your generosity, we have enough money to pay costs over the summer and start a new season of Radio Ecoshock in September.