Calvin on Climate
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Calvin on Climate

NOAA’s water vapor map for the ‘Bomb Cyclone’ of 13 March 2019. A billion-dollar-plus flood followed.

Extreme Weather Has Created a Climate Emergency

Our CO2 cleanup must be big and quick.

Climate action is not working. At the UN’s “Try Harder” session, much was said about emissions reduction, our fifty-year-old “Use Less” strategy for dealing with climate change. Annual global emissions have been rising, not falling; the yearly bump-up in carbon dioxide (CO2) is now 50% greater than when the 21st century began. This is not progress.

The excess CO2 in the air and surface ocean is that greater than its 1800 value, 280 ppm. The excess is the accumulated annual emissions minus what has already been sunk into the ocean depths. Credit: NOAA data.

Even if the industrial countries achieved zero emissions tomorrow, there is a vicious cycle which tells us that our strategy is insufficient. As heat waves worsen, modernizing countries will burn their local fossil fuels for air conditioning. Treaties will prove worthless as voters will insist on enough electricity for their children to survive the hot nights, removing any government that fails to provide enough power; there will be dawn riots in the coolest hours of the day. The argument, that they are turning up the heat on themselves and the rest of us, will likely fail, just as it has failed in industrial countries for fifty years. Self-denial has never been our strong point.

The continued framing of climate action as an emiss­ions reduction task (as if it were “Cutting back to one pack a day”), with no discussion of back­ing out of the danger zone for extreme weather, takes us straight into “too little, too late” and the massive social conseq­uences of hope­less­ness. We do not want to go there.

The risk assessment? Economic collapse and general disorganization can lead to an accelerating human population crash via the usual famines, resource wars, epidemics, and genocides. That’s not a prediction, just history.

Our exclusive focus on emissions reduct­ion is betting the farm on an insufficient strategy.

Emissions reduction is failing and, even if it were not, it cannot do the job that now needs doing.

That is not the only glaring omission from our public discussion. You may have noticed that there is a lot more extreme weather since 2000. It has become more relevant to our future than the next fractional degree of global overheating.

Surges in five types of extreme weather. Other types (drought, unseasonable weather, hurricane strength, etc.) have changed too but by smaller amounts than triple, my threshold for making this list.

2003 Europe, 2010 Russia: Two mega heatwaves, each with 100X as many killed in a week as in 20th-century heat waves [1]. The third mega might well be in North America.

2010: Severe (damages of more than a billion US dollars) inland floods are up 3X.

2012 Sandy, 2017 Harvey: While hurricane strength or numbers may not have tripled, now we have hurricanes that stall, sticking around 24X longer (Harvey, near Houston) than when just passing through, delivering a year’s worth of rain in only four days.

2000: More hot-dry-windy “fire weather” caused U.S. firefighting costs to triple; now they are at 4X the late 20th-century baseline.

2003: The number of severe inland windstorms (mostly tornado clusters and derechos) tripled. Now they are up at 8X [2].

The annual number of severe windstorms, each of which caused more than US$1 billion in damage. They were mostly tornado clusters and derechos; hurricanes were not counted, so this is about severe inland windstorms.

After the jump up, all five surges stayed up. We seem latched up into a new mode of climate functioning. We scientists usually call that a regime change or an abrupt climate shift. The older weather statistics become irrelevant.

Climate scientists had been warning for fifty years about more extreme weather ahead but had no way of predicting a sudden shift. What do the five surges do for the climate prognosis? At the least, they edge us closer to slippery slopes from which recovery is nearly impossible. They will certainly make life difficult for us as we attempt to repair climate.

This averages temperatures over day and night, all four seasons, land and ocean, both Northern and Southern Hemisphere, and over four years. Land, where most of us live, is warming 2.5X faster than the ocean surface since 1984.

We have gone from Climate Creep to Climate Leap, even though the carbon dioxide levels themselves continue to creep. Did the temperature trend change instead, during the onset of those five surges between 2000 and 2012? It certainly did, but paradoxically. The global average stayed nearly flat in those years.

Clearly, extreme weather is a better indicator of trouble than is a global average temperature.

Nature’s CO2 cleanup job. The public still assumes that excess CO2 disappears on the same time scale as the more visible forms of air pollution [3]. The next good rain usually gets rid of them but not the excess CO2. If excess CO2 levels fell so rapidly, our emissions reduction strategy would make sense.

You probably did not hear the bad news, ten years ago, that nature would take a thousand years to draw down the excess CO2. Most scientists had assumed nature’s cleanup would take a century or two; instead, the exponential decline turns out to have a long tail [4]. Nature might clean up a third of the excess by mid-century (while making ocean acidification worse) if we suddenly went to zero emissions tomorrow, but getting the accumulation down to 20 percent will take another thousand years — unless we do the job ourselves.

In 2018, those big authoritative climate reports finally acknowledged that carbon dioxide removal has become essential [5]. Emissions reduction is still a good goal for the long term, but we need to survive the coming decades first, and emissions reduction will not do the short-term job.

Our CO2 cleanup needs to be big and quick, but also sure to work, given that we are not likely to get a second chance. Market-based “climate solutions” are likely to go bankrupt in the next economic downturn.

Thanks to all of the manufactured climate denial, we have not seriously attempted to remove the excess CO2 from the air. Despite the lack of government funding, inventors have been busy with ingenious designs for at least twenty years.

But their designs are all predicated on having the rest of the century to do the cleanup job. None seem capable of even countering the continuing CO2 emissions [6], +10 gigatons of carbon (GtC) each year — and so their promotion conveniently positions them as how to drawdown CO2 after we somehow achieve zero emissions. Our need is now far more urgent; we must counter the continuing emissions with CO2 removal during the additional decades it will take to reduce emissions sufficiently.

The fastest cleanup scenario that I can currently imagine. It assumes we survive the battering in the meantime from extreme weather.

The fastest cleanup that I can imagine takes two decades — and extreme weather could batter us badly as we attempt to repair climate. Even with such an ambitious project, cooling will not occur until after we start sinking -10 GtC annually to counter the continuing emissions of +10 GtC/yr. Even for a big and quick -40 GtC/yr project able to complete the cleanup by 2040, the earliest that cooling would begin is 2027 and extreme weather would probably not decline until the 2030s.

So, we have to move very, very quickly. Whenever you hear someone say, “But first, we must do X,” ask them how long X takes and what the cost is of their proposed delay, in terms of lives lost, more extreme weather damage, economies collapsed, and genocides.

We have already waited too long to go about this in the proper international way, with agreed-upon cost sharing between nations and an international commission to regulate the future enterprise. Now, the larger industrial nations each need to start crash programs, cooperating with each other but waiting around for no one. Later, we can fill in behind with cost-sharing and international commissions.

What we now need is a “Manhattan Project 2.0” that brings together the relevant experts for four years to design and prototype better solutions to repair climate than the present chemical and photosynthesis proposals [6]. The original 1942–1945 Manhattan Project brought together scientists and engineers of many nations; they came up with two designs and prototyped both of them in the fourth year. They both worked. I’d suggest that the world needs multiple such projects; one should not rely on the U.S. getting it right.

The urgency is now such that, in the U.S., we cannot wait for Congress to get up to speed. We need a workaround. I have suggested that a few state governors take the initiative, forming a nonprofit organization, the Governors’ Design Initiative to Repair Climate, appointing the lead scientists and engineers, asking some tech billionaires to serve as its finance committee, and hiring an experienced serial entrepreneur to serve as general manager.

This design consortium would be open to public view and would welcome international participants and observers. The designs would be available to all countries, allowing faster roll-out than any market-driven solution could achieve.

The vetted designs would serve to prod our legislatures into taking over the deployment aspect. The emphasis needs to be on persuading existing legislators; replacing them now takes too long.

Note that our situation is not hopeless, as attention-grabbing headlines are starting to sugg­est. There are effective actions we can still take, if we treat the matter as requiring the urgency of wartime.

William H. Calvin, Ph.D.
President, CO2 Foundation
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle

The Series:

1. Extreme Weather Has Created a Climate Emergency: Our CO2 cleanup must be big and quick.

2. Avoiding “Too Little, Too Late“­An appraisal of climate actions.

3. Why a Climate Emergency? Emergency from a medical perspective.

These brief articles are adapted from my forthcoming book, Fixing the New Extreme Weather. My earlier books on the subject include Global Fever (University of Chicago Press, 2008); more illustrations and sources are at CO2Foundation.org. I wrote the first major magazine article on climate instability, “The Great Climate Flip-flop” which was The Atlantic’s cover story for January 1998.

[1] Robine, J.-M., et al. (2008). Death toll exceeded 70,000 in Europe during the summer of 2003. C. R. Biologies 331, doi.org/10.1016/j.crvi.2007.12.001

William K. M. Lau, Kyu-Myong Kim (2012), The 2010 Pakistan Flood and Russian Heat Wave: Teleconnection of Hydrometeorological Extremes. Journal of Hydrometeorology 13:392–403, doi.org/10.1175/JHM-D-11–016.1

Trenberth, K. E. & Fasullo, J. (2012), Climate extremes and climate change: The Russian heat wave and other climate extremes of 2010. Journal of Geophysical Research 117, D17103. doi.org/10.1007/s10584–012–0441–5

[2] NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (2016), U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/time-series.

[3] R Dryden, MG Morgan, A Bostrom, W Bruine de Bruin (2018), Public perceptions of how long air pollution and carbon dioxide remain in the atmosphere. Risk Analysis 38(3):525–534. doi.org/10.1111/risa.12856.

[4] David Archer, Victor Brovkin (2008), The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2. Climatic Change 90:283–297 DOI 10.1007/s10584–008–9413–1

[5] The 2018 IPCC and the similar National Academies (US), European, and Royal Society (UK) reports on the new climate.

[6] G. F. Nemet, M. W. Callaghan, F. Creutzig, S. Fuss, J. Hartmann, J. Hilaire, W. F. Lamb, J. C. Minx, S. Rogers, P. Smith (2018), Negative emissions — Part 3: Innovation and upscaling. Environmental Research Letters 13, 063003, doi: 10.1088/1748–9326/aabff4.

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William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin

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President, CO2Foundation.org. Professor emeritus, University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Author, many books on brains, human evolution, climate