Calvin on Climate
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Calvin on Climate

What to Do About Extreme Weather

The chain of causation for extreme weather and three points where intervention is possible.

Confused about all of the cross talk about climate change causes? One must distinguish between the various levels of causation. Burning coal and the kinks in the jet stream are both causes of the new extreme weather, but each operates at a different level of causation.

Think for the moment of an analogous problem with a string of ‘causes’: On the proverbial dark-and-stormy night, water starts dripping onto your dinner table from the chandelier overhead. Then the hot lights begin popping out, showering you and your dinner plate with glass shards.

No, the upstairs bathtub did not overflow — but it is catching some of the drips from the ceiling. Inspection of the attic reveals that the roof is leaking. That opening in turn was created by wood rot, caused by insects feeding over the decades. Elsewhere the roof shows insect damage, even though not yet leaking.

What to do? Different things on various time scales.

Searching for a can of bug spray is not the first thing to do, however much you might like to attack the root cause. What you need now is a big bucket in the attic, immediately. Next, call your insurance company; they will send out a contractor to rig a tarp to cover that section of your roof. Getting a roofer to repair the roof will take many months on the waiting list.

Back to climate’s extreme weather shift. The Kink in the jet stream has a cascade of causation behind it: most immediately, those kinks in the jet stream that create the extreme weather are promoted by ice-albedo feedback, which serves to amplify the global overheating from excess CO2, itself caused by burning fossil fuels, making cement, and agriculture.

In medicine, most infections have a similarly long chain of intermediate causes — you may have seen the one for malaria via mosquitoes— and each step may afford a different treatment opportunity that might break the chain.

“Getting at the root cause” is not the only way, nor even the first thing to fix, in addressing the issue. Imagine a dentist who, upon examining your painful dental abscess, offered only the suggestion to drink less sugar syrup (the root cause) and sent you home with your toothache intact.

Yet that is all that our leaders have been offering for serious climate action.

Our current strategy is not working.

An appraisal of useful climate actions

The efforts of millions of people over the last fifty years has surely done something to slow the steep rise in CO2. But not much; it has been over­whelm­ed by other people using more, mostly to modernize in less industrial countries. I’m not sure we can head that off, given their increasing need for air conditioning to get some sleep on hot nights.

We will instead need to counter their emissions for a while. We did, after all, create their overheating problem.

China may currently lead in annual emissions, but this bubble diagram shows the percentage share of global cumulative energy-related carbon dioxide emissions between 1890–2007. That’s what creates the climate problems via overheating, and it comes from the United States (28%), the European Union (23%), Russia (11%), China (9%), other OECD countries (5%), Japan (4%), India (3%), and the rest of the world (18%). Data are from IEA (2009), via Wikipedia.

Getting serious about a climate fix is plagued by some common mis­con­cept­­ions. Most people think that, once we achieve zero emissions, the invis­ible CO2 will go away as quickly as do the more visible forms of air pollution — and thus we will cool off.

But no. CO2 does not clear out within several weeks, as do the visible forms of air pollution clean­ed out by rain. It takes a thousand years for natural processes to reduce excess CO2 down to 20 percent above normal[i].

We need to clean up the excess CO2 our­selves. And complete the job within the next twenty years, before extreme weather leaves us too battered to act effectively.

No amount of doubling down on emissions reduction is going to do the job in time. To repeat the implications for emissions reduction:

· It is no longer appropriate to call emissions reduction a “climate solution,” as I see in headlines or pull quotes almost every day. It misleads people about the more serious climate interventions. Slowing is not a solution.

· Even if we achieved zero anthropogenic emissions this year, the accum­ulation of excess CO2 would still be there, and it is what causes our climate troubles. The hotter surface temperatures would continue to cook the soil, its decomposition releasing stored CO2 into the air; annual emissions would continue.

· Natural processes take a thousand years to do a CO2 cleanup. That means emissions reduction is now too slow, given the shifts in extreme weather and the threat they pose to climate repair projects.

Small symbolic steps

It is said that most people who feel concern about something only undertake small symbolic steps, if any. For climate, converting them into action-oriented concerned citizens has been difficult.

Early in 2019, after the flurry of news reports on major scientific reports stressing the need to clean up the excess CO2, the Washington Post editors asked activists, politicians, and researchers to list some climate policy ideas that offer hope.

Here is what they got:

1. Open electric markets to competition.

2. Be smart about your air conditioner.

3. Make it easier to live without cars.

4. Prevent wasted food — the right way.

5. Adopt a carbon tax.

Perhaps the Washington Post just asked the wrong activists, politic­ians, and researchers but there was not a single mention of removing CO2 or other big projects, despite all the news coverage of the 2018 reports that stressed the need for a cleanup.

“Every little bit counts” reasoning has been exploited to add climate’s urgency to that of other distantly related worthwhile endeavors that need publicity — say, adding a climate mention to a campaign to turn off the lights when leaving a room. We need a higher standard for claiming “climate solution” because many people are being misled by all of the overclaiming for relevance.

We need to convince governments that much stronger climate medicine is now needed. Size matters. Now, quick matters as well. Sure-to-work has become essential, as we may not get a second chance.

Unless supplemented by something far more effective, emissions reduction efforts will be too little, too late.

Global warming is no longer a future problem, nor is emissions reduction its most effective treatment. An additional approach to climate relief is now needed, one that can produce bigger and faster results.

Our current approach is to reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks. They add to the excess carbon dioxide already in the air, which warms up things to change the climate. But doubling down on clean energy, while still a good idea for the long run, is not likely to improve things in the next few decades when extreme weather could collapse civilization.

And zero emissions globally are impossible because the developing countries are going to burn their local fossil fuels trying to modernize — and as warming continues, they are going to need much more electricity for air-conditioning in order to survive the hot nights.

But even without that factor, emissions reduction as our primary focus never made much sense. Let us boldly assume that half of the annual emissions come from developing countries and that half comes from countries that can eliminate their fossil fuels tomorrow. How fast does the carbon dioxide in the air then decline if nature is left to do the cleanup of the excess carbon dioxide (CO2) overhead?

About one-sixth (half of one-third) of the 140 parts per million excess, or 23 ppm, might be gone by mid-century via nature’s cleanup system.

That’s not very much, merely the amount that we’ve added in the last ten years and, at the current rate, it will only take seven years to add another 23 ppm. Yet this 23 ppm would appear to be the most we can expect to accomplish from emissions reduction in the countries that could do it.

Yet our leaders kept acting as if that was a sufficient goal for climate action. What were they thinking?

How much might the developing countries increase their consumpt­ion, because of their need for more air conditioning to help survive a series of hot nights? Probably much more than 23 ppm.

Convinced yet? This is important because we have been “betting the farm” on a strategy that won’t work in time.

That’s why, on top of our zero emissions efforts, we must now add carbon dioxide removal that is big, quick, and sure to work.

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, and the president of CO2Foundation.org. This piece is adapted from his 17th book, “Extreme Weather and What to Do About It.

wcalvin@uw.edu, WilliamCalvin.org

[i] David Archer, et al (2009). Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37:117–134; doi.org/10.1146/annurev.earth.031208.100206

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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