Calvin on Climate
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Calvin on Climate

The Climate Emergency Needs the Medical Mindset

While our climate problem has fossil fuel emissions as its root cause, it also has knock-ons such as extreme weather. These secondary processes may threaten civilization on a much faster time scale than does the underlying overheating. Here I evaluate this risk landscape and what it implies for effective climate action.

Surges in five types of extreme weather a decade ago

Note that in the US, most of the big wind and rain events are east of the Rocky Mountains, in the region where cooler, denser Arctic air meets the warm, moist air mass of the monsoon circulation from the Gulf of Mexico, producing frontal systems. The fires are to the west. The hurricanes, however, are not sustained by occluded frontal systems in the manner of severe storms; hurricanes spiral because they can suck heat out of warm surface waters.

The extreme weather of the last twenty years has featured five sustained surges, where an aspect of extreme weather suddenly got much worse. And stayed that way. None have flipped back.

The count does not include coastal windstorms such as hurricanes; corrected for inflation.
  1. Severe windstorms (billion-dollar-plus events are now 620% more frequent in the US than before 2008). Or is it 900%? This count does not include coastal hurricanes.
This does not count coastal flooding from hurricanes.

2. Inland floods (billion-dollar-plus floods are now up 220% from before 2010). That’s not counting coastal flooding from storm surges.

3. The third surge, in 2006, was 260% in billion-dollar-plus wildfires. But, overall, the number of major wildfires is not up; it’s just that the big ones are much bigger and so exceed $1b more often. So, the issue is not about what starts the fires (lightning, careless campers, arsonists); it is about what changed about 2006 to prolong and spread a fire in progress — probably more “fire weather,” that combination of hot, dry, and windy.

The buildup of fuel in the forest’s undergrowth did not take a sudden jump in 2006; that is a lame argument. Beware of someone trying to change the subject away from climate change.

For those three extreme-weather types, the surge was in US annual numbers. There are two more extreme-weather types with an order-of-magnitude increase in severity (and I am counting only the two types where that severity has already repeated at least once, taking them out of the black swan category).

Shows degrees warmer/cooler than July average temperature for the location.

The 2003 mega heat wave was initially treated as a chance-in-a-million “black swan” event, unlikely to ever repeat in our lifetime. But it repeated seven years later, about two time zones farther east..

4. The Mega heatwaves (2003 Europe, 2010 Russia). The first mega heatwave in 2003 killed 70,000 in Europe; seven years later in Russia, the second mega killed 56,000 within a month’s time. North America is not immune. If there is a U.S. program to prepare for a mega, I have not heard about it.

Those monthly fatality numbers are several orders of magnitude greater than seen in the world’s newspaper reports for 20th-century heatwaves (counts in the thousands are usually for the entire summer, not just a month).

Hurricane Harvey’s forward speed can be judged from the six-hour distance between the dots. The 11 mph progress on land means that an average hurricane passes over a city in about five hours. Taking five days is 24 times longer; it delivered rain to equal the usual annual rainfall for Houston.

5. Stalled hurricanes (2002 Isidore, 2012 Sandy, 2017 Harvey, 2018 Florence). The forward speed of hurricanes has been gradually slowing for a half-century; this enables them to change direction more easily, even to backtrack.

Hurricane Harvey’s forward speed can be judged from the six-hour distance between the dots. The 11-mph progress over land means that an average hurricane passes over a city in about five hours. Taking five days is 24 times longer; it delivered rain to equal the usual annual rainfall for Houston. That is 52 times normal, made worse by the storm surge that kept it from draining off.

Others. Neither billion-dollar tropical cyclones (TCs, also known regionally as typhoons and hurricanes) nor droughts made my 200% criterion for inclusion in this list, but that is not to say they are unchanged by other measures.

After forty years without a trend in billion-dollar hurricanes, the count took a jump in 2020. A bad year, or the start of a new era?
For billion-dollar droughts, either a year has one or it does not. After 2004, there are only two gap years.

Because of fewer gap years after 2004 when no drought exceeded $1b, it could be said that big droughts are about 50% more frequent. They simply did not meet my arbitrary criterion — 200% and sustained within a few years — that yielded my list of five surges.

Jet Stream Buckling May Be a Common Cause

Because of a blocking high over the eastern US in March 2018, the eastward-creeping jet stream path buckled, extending from Canada down to Mexico and then back up to Canada. Such 500-km-wide hairpin loops only last for a few days; the 1500-km-wide planetary waves usually studied can stay parked for a month or more.

In asking what these five surges have in common, note that all five involve an increased duration of some type.

For four types (I have not seen any data for wildfires), stalled eastward drift of jet stream loops by a blocking high seems part of an explanation for the sudden worsening. To the west of the block, the jet stream’s path buckles, creating many more opportunities for extreme weather.

One candidate for the jet stream behavior is the increased melting of Arctic sea ice during the summer, which reduces the sunlight reflected back out into space, thus warming the Arctic Ocean instead and melting even more ice from below. Since 1993, Arctic air has been warming twice as fast as surface air on adjacent continents, rearranging winds and weakening the polar jet stream.

That suggests a way of reducing extreme weather: create low clouds or a stratospheric haze over the high Arctic to dim the summer’s 24-hour sunshine. Cooling the high Arctic might be one way to reduce extreme weather, if it does indeed reduce jet-stream buckling.

Some years to remember

Climate change is not always gradual. The plot summarizes some years to remember when important aspects of climate changed within a few years. The overheating ramp began in 1977 with land and ocean temperatures continuing to track each other until 1984, when the rate of warming land increased 200%. Both warmings slowed during 2000–2012 when the five types of extreme weather surged. That is analogous to the latent-heat phase transitions where the temperature curve flattens while breaking bonds for melting or evaporation absorbs all added energy.

Gradual overheating, secondary to excess CO2 from emissions, is no longer the correct focus for under­standing the risk we now face. For planning, the One-Two Punch may be the appropriate threat to counter, not just the gradual worsening in overheating.

Back-to-back episodes of extreme weather threaten regional population crashes via famine, epidemics, resource wars, and genocides. Those five surges are what makes climate an emergency now.

Possible extreme weather fixes

Spreading a chalk aerosol in the stratosphere on a flight from Thule to the North Pole and back (1,900 miles). The polar vortex winds should spread out the two streaks. Other proposals involve tethered balloons. Some retired 747s (taken out of service because of old fuel-hungry engines) have been converted into fire-retardant tankers since two-thirds of the fuel tanks are not needed for three-hour flights; 747s have been in production for fifty years, so there are many planes available for modification. Thule at 75 degrees North is a deep-water port in the summertime, with the Air Force’s only tugboat to assist docking tankers carrying aerosol and jet fuel. There is a tradeoff between dispersal altitude (70,000 feet is ideal in the tropics) and how long the aerosol remains in the atmosphere; while the ceiling for 747s is more like 45,000 feet, remember that the stratosphere in the Arctic starts at about 25,000 feet, not 32,000 feet. Thus, at least for a polar halo, a quick trial of solar radiation management seems feasible.

Spreading finely powdered chalk as an aerosol in the stratosphere produces a high haze giving pale blue skies. That dims the sunlight by reflecting a portion of it back out into space, just as clouds do. While there are many problems with attempting such solar radiation management for the planet in general, attempting it for only one percent of the earth’s surface near the North Pole — an “Arctic Halo” — has many fewer problems. Chalk (the same calcium carbonate that piles up on the ocean floor as coccolithophores die) also has fewer ozone problems than when imitating volcanos with a sulfuric acid spray.

While an Arctic Halo will not cool the earth more generally, nor address the ocean acidification problem, it would enable sea ice to survive the summer and hopefully reduce the long jet stream loops that contribute to extreme weather surges. That would help us “buy time” to clean up the excess CO2 by other means.

The Medical Model for What to Do in an Emergency

The degree of certainty sought by climate scientists is not often obtainable in medicine; waiting for it before acting would leave patients dying. Also, like other basic scientists outside of medical schools, climate scientists have not been trained with interventions in mind. Nor is risk assessment a routine part of their daily work.

It seems worth a look at how physicians think, as they are the only group in the world with a 2,500-year-old mindset for dealing with closing windows of opportunity. While I will use the version in the specialty of emergency medicine, it is pretty much the same mindset across medicine and with every patient seen during a busy day.

In emergency medicine, the initial focus is not on the root cause of the patient’s problem. It is about knock-on problems: immediate life threats, such as bleeding and shock.

Let me review what medical school professors teach future physicians about how to manage an emergency, using the physician’s mental check list to show what “climate doctors” (were there such a specialty) would want to consider adapting. I also comment on climate READINESS (that’s personal opinion, not science).

A. Beforehand, sensible anticipations: for windstorms and heat waves, we need to bury utility lines and create city-sized battery backup for air conditioning and food storage; rebuild infra­structure to resist floods and relocate people out of flood plains and coastlines; and stockpile food, water, and construction materials (just-in-time delivery makes us needlessly vulnerable). We need economic modeling for emergencies, what we should have done before the pandemic’s 2020 recession: for climate as well, NOT DONE.

B. Protect the patient from the usual causes of terminal downhill slides. This is commonly called “stabilizing the patient.” The Civilian Conservation Corps and other public works in the 1930s likely prevented much civil disorder in the Great Depression that would have caused even more starvation. For climate, NO SUCH PLANS.

C. Recognize what is wrong. For climate, the working diagnosis since 1980 is an uneven, global-scale overheating caused by the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2), contributed by the emissions of fossil fuels and clear-cutting forests. That I would rate as a LIMITED SUCCESS but attacking the root cause via emissions reduction is now too slow. Taking the excess CO2 out of circulation is necessary, with emissions reduction as a supplement that speeds the year when cooling finally begins.

D. To evaluate urgency and motivate action, estimate where things might be headed (that’s prognosis). Climate models are good for estimating slow climate change over a century (if only it would stay slow), but working models are only beginning to address the dynamic aspects that can create climate flips within five years. PARTIAL SUCCESS.

E. Rule out other problems. Repeatedly search for knock-on climate problems that could provoke a fast track to disaster. For climate, ONLY BEGINNING. Physicians and public health professionals are trained to think about a chain of causation (those knock-ons); they look at each link as a separate opportunity to intervene. Always focusing on the root cause can be a beginner’s mistake.

F. Formulate a plan of treatment and explain it to the patient to get consent to treat. For climate, major explanation efforts have proved INADEQUATE, as has the proposed treatment. We must now focus on a quick cleanup of the existing CO2 accumulation, analogous to using a kidney dialysis machine to quickly clean up an aspirin overdose from the circulating blood.

G. Finally, try to prevent a recurrence, as in persuading a patient with asthma to stop smoking. Emissions reduction is an exact parallel for climate. But note that addressing the longer term is the last thing to do on the doctor’s mental checklist; most of the list is concerned with keeping the patient alive — to make the long-run relevant. PARTIAL SUCCESS.

We have had fifty years of good climate education efforts, but something is preventing effective climate action even by the knowledge­able — perhaps the stay-in-your-seat spectator mindset for the surreal, where gunshots on stage don’t cause you to dive for the floor and phone 911. This is sometimes called spectator voyeurism.

Climate Repair’s Timescale Makes It an Emergency Now

Like most diets, emissions reduction has failed globally. The annual bump-up in CO2 from emissions is now 50% greater than before 2000. That is not progress.

“Climate solution” is usually hyperbole, an overblown exaggeration. Any small move (say, 1%) in the right direction gets a “solution” headline. That is now misleading. Small tweaks are not worthy of being called a solution; that may mislead the public into thinking that something is being done on a time scale that matters.

“Emissions reduction” is similarly misleading. What? It seems so logical but, like quitting smoking, stopping the annual additions does not undo the existing accumulation, which is what causes all the trouble. Most climate action talk concerns the small efficiency improvements aimed at reducing annual fossil-fuel emissions. But that only slows our approach to a crash; it does not back us out of the danger zone, which ought to be our goal.

People (including scientists) keep making erroneous analogies to visible air pollution, and so the public has an expectation that when annual emissions are severely reduced, the climate problems will clear up just as fast as the next good rain cleans up visible air pollution. Seldom mentioned is that nature takes thousands of years to clean up the invisible excess CO2.

While various regions have made progress on reducing emissions, the global average is still going up, faster than ever. But even if it were coming down, there is an important consideration left out. Developing countries, when faced with heat waves, will find that overnight air conditioning is lifesaving. Brownouts will cause them to demand more electricity and they will vote out of office any government that fails to provide. Most continental-based countries have some coal that they can mine and burn. So, absent CO2 removal projects, the CO2 excess will increase — making it even hotter.

Of course, it has been obvious for at least 20 years that we were going to need to remove excess CO2, if only to fix ocean acidification. Geo­engineer­ing projects to reflect more sunlight back out into space are another way to cool, but they don’t fix acidification. Only CO2 removal can do that and cool us off. Still, reflecting sunlight has a place, if just to protect a larger CO2 removal project from more extreme weather.

Our belated realization that five types of extreme weather surged a decade ago makes us aware that time is short. Any CO2 removal project is threatened by extreme weather’s tendency to disrupt economies, start resource wars, overthrow governments, create refugee streams and epidemic disease, attract terrorists, and create famines that contribute to genocides.

That’s not a list of what might happen — that’s what happened in the aftermath of the 2010 Russian mega heatwave, what we know as the “Arab Spring” food riots and uprisings, the continuing civil war in Syria, the refugee streams into Europe, and such.

My 2019 sketch for some design criteria to guide a Manhattan Project 2.0.

When to Do

So, to get the discussion going, here is a sketch for a big-enough climate repair project. I am sidestepping the what-to-do details; the timeline sketch can be applied to any of the several dozen CO2 removal proposals (none are big enough to counter continuing emissions — even in combination — and so begin cooling).

The climate action timeline. This is a sketch of climate impacts (the misery index, if you like) over the next two decades as we implement the fastest, biggest climate intervention that I can imagine. Continuing emissions are currently about +40 GtCO2/yr. When the sequestration rate reaches -41 GtCO2/yr during mass deployment, we will begin removing the CO2 accumulation, allowing cooling to begin. If continuing emissions can be cut to +20 GtCO2/yr by 2026, cooling will begin somewhat sooner.

The timeline estimation starts with the goal (take most of the excess CO2 out of circulation by 2040). Counting continuing emissions, that’s about 500 GtC total. Were we to take 40 years to finish the job, we would have to remove at least 200 GtC more and suffer four decades of extreme weather surges (and their wars, economic crashes, etc.) threatening the project.

Then one works backward to calculate the needed sequestration capacity (-40 GtC/yr). From it, we can calculate when, on the ramp up, we should see cooling finally begin (about 2027).

IN SUMMARY

Gradual overheating, secondary to excess CO2 from emissions, is no longer the correct focus for under­standing the risk we now face from climate disruption.

Because of the surges in extreme weather, we are already in climate emergency territory, where fast tracks to disaster must be forestalled.

One must survive the short run, in order to make the long run relevant — that focus in Emergency Medicine is what the climate crisis now requires.

And there is a big lead time for doing something effective about climate change — actually backing us out of the danger zone by taking the excess CO2 out of circulation.

Sedentary Voyeurism is the tendency to sit idly by, to not engage in the action. It is time for our leaders to stop being climate voyeurs.

This was originally a presentation to climate scientists at the University of Washington’s Program on Climate Change meeting, 15 September 2020; it was adapted for my presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting, 15 December 2020. There is more in my book, Extreme Weather and What to Do About It.

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William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin

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