Interesting new stuff about global warming this week – The Daily Beast calls our attention to a new article published in Rolling Stone called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. While it is true that every time we have a warmer-than-usual season people start to get nervous about global warming, it is also true that unusual seasons and more extreme storms do seem to be the new normal. The Rolling Stone article opens with some data:
“If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 1099, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the ‘largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.’ The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.”
In the New York Times, Monday, July 23, 2012, Paul Krugman wrote Loading the Climate Dice in which he gives the following analogy:
How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards with a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white, and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.
And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.
But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but
more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act.
Bill McKibben, the author of the article in Rolling Stone, tells us three important numbers that we need to keep track of regarding global warming. One is the number 2 degrees Celsius, the second is the number 565 gigatons, and the third is the number 2,795 gigatons.
The significance of the first of these numbers which came out of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, which produced little else besides this number, was this point contained in the first paragraph of the accord: “it formally recognized ‘the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” It also declared that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required…so as to hold the increase in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius. (We have so far measured an increase of 0.8 degrees Celsius.)
The second number represents this agreement: “Scientist estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (Reasonable, in this case means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)
Mr. McKibben goes on to say:
“This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientist began to calculate how much oil, coal, and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two degree target.”
As for the third number:
“This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.”
What It Means
It means that this is the moment we must start to switch away from fossil fuels. It means politically and economically it is scary to make this move, but environmentally we must. It means we will become independent of foreign nations that provide us with fossil fuels, but in a totally different way than we are thinking about it right now. It means that unless fossil fuel companies wake up and offer us new ways to make inexpensive energy they will die a horrible death that will be catastrophic for the market place. They must lead the way to non-fossil fuel alternatives or we will have to drive them out of business. They are already in panic mode. Have you counted the number of ads being offered in the media by the fuel industries? We are bombarded constantly by propaganda to make us believe that coal can be clean (will it no longer produce CO2), that we need to get more fossil fuels from tar sands and fracking the shale laid down by glaciers in prehistory.
It means that, in spite of our economic challenges, we need, to find a way to subsidize solar energy to make it much more affordable. We could plaster solar panel all over American housing and let people pay for them with their power bill savings. We need to help everyone switch to hybrid and electric vehicles, again with some kind of subsidies where necessary. We need to put lots of pressure on countries like China and India who are ignoring environmental issues in their understandable goal to raise the standard of living in their respective countries. The planet cannot afford to let them have their fossil fuel moment. These energy companies and energy countries can either continue to be part of the problem which will eventually lead to their demise, or they can be proactive and be part of the solution. The people of the planet beg you to choose the latter approach. Choose it right now, please. Wean us now.