According to the Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update published this week,1 the global mean temperature is projected to be more than 1°C above the pre-industrial average in this and the next four years. Each of those five years is likely to be in in the range between +0.9°C and +1.6°C, and there is a roughly 20% change that one of those years will be more than 1.5°C warmer.
These figures cannot readily be compared with the graph in The 2020s and Beyond, but it looks like we’re a little bit ahead of schedule. This is reason for concern, given that the consensus among climate scientists is that we must do everything we can to stay below +1.5°C. Now it looks like we are going to reach that benchmark ahead of schedule – that is, within less than a decade (but not in the next five years).2 And CO₂ emissions are still rising rather than falling. Taking into account that there is a time lag between atmospheric CO₂ changes and climate changes, this means that the chance of avoiding the climate disasters that are expected to result from passing the 1.5°C limit are almost zero. That doesn’t mean that we can just as well give up now, of course, because every additional heating will lead to more hellish conditions. The more we can limit global change the better, even if we cannot limit it enough.
In 2005, Mark Lynas published his book Six Degrees in which each chapter considered the effects of one more degree of heating.3 The book is outdated (obviously, given the speed of new developments in climate science), but is still is worth reading, and one reason why I mention it here is that it nicely illustrates why each (tenth of a) degree matters, and why we shouldn’t give up, even if we know that conditions are going to be hellish anyway. In Dante’s famous sketch of hell there are “circles” in hell, progressively getting worse and worse. We still have a choice which circle of hell we end up in.
The other reason to mention Lynas’s book is that he wrote a follow up. At least, I think it is a follow up because “Six Degrees” appears in the title of the book he published last month. I don’t have it yet, because international shipping is slow due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but if it’s as good as the 2005 book, then I’ll surely mention it at some point in this blog.
Back to the Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update. The report doesn’t just report on temperatures, but on precipitation as well, and these predictions might be even more worrisome. The Mediterranean, parts of Central Asia, Southern Africa, and must of the Southwestern US will continue to dry out, but these areas are just pink on the drought map. (Still, some of these areas are quite densely populated, so there will be shortages of water and food in at least some of them.) Half of Brazil is red, however, and much of the rest of South-America is pink as well. (Red and pink on the drought map, that is, not red or pink in the sense of re-emerging socialism or pink tides, unfortunately.) In other words, the Amazon is drying out fast. This, combined with the fact that deforestation has reached record speeds under Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist regime, means that the chance of saving the Amazon is nearly zero.
We have effectively lost the Amazon, and given that Amazon deforestation is one of the tipping points mentioned in pretty much every study on that topic, that’s bad. Very bad.
That’s update 1. It’s an update of climate projections discussed in several posts on this blog that you may have read in the past year. This is a bit of an unusual post. Rather than one long article about a specific topic, it’s just a bunch of short updates. I’ll explain why that’s the case further down.
Update 2, is just a sketchy overview of five recent publications (in addition to the report mentioned above) that caught my attention.
A group of researchers including Tim Lenton, one of the most renowned experts on tipping points, have published a paper in May titled “Future of the Human Climate Niche”, in which they conclude that in the next 50 years, one to three billion people will be outside climate conditions in which humanity has lived over the past 6000 years.4 Perhaps, some of these people can adapt, but the fast majority will effectively be left to choose between migration or death (or just extreme poverty, if they are “lucky”). Thus far, most estimates of total number of climate refugees mid-century were between 200 million and a billion, but it looks like the number could be much higher than that.
Another recent paper suggests that the drying out of the United States will not be restricted just to the southwest (as mentioned in “update 1”), but will cause more frequent Dust Bowl heatwaves in the Midwest as well.5 This is reason for concern because the already volatile situation in the world’s largest nuclear power will hardly improve if it is increasingly confronted with water and food crises within its own borders. I’ve written before that the US “seems to be destined to a slow descent into an orgy of violence”6 and the prospect of food and water shortages in parts of the country are ample reason to become even more pessimistic in this respect. Furthermore, the US is heavily militarized and has a long history of violent interventions in – by now – almost every country on the planet. Because of this, if (or when) the US slides down into that orgy of violence, there is a significant risk of the damage spreading much more widely.
Moreover, while the US is already the largest nuclear power (and the most inclined to solve any perceived problem by means of force), it is seeking to further strengthen its nuclear arsenal by adding smaller and faster bombs that they can actually use. In the journal Aviation Week & Space Technology someone at the Pentagon involved in the development of supersonic nuclear weapons is quoted as saying that:
At the end of the day, we have to be careful we’re not building boutique weapons. … If we build boutique weapons, we won’t – we’ll be very reluctant to – use them. And that again factors into our plans for delivering hypersonics at scale.7
So that, apparently, is what the US is working on – superfast and small nuclear bombs that they can actually use. That’s not one step up from drone warfare; that’s an escalator up. And it’s not an escalator to somewhere anyone sane would want to go. (But then again, the world seems to have a shortage of sane people in positions of power these days.)
According to the fourth paper that caught my attention, the thus far unexplained terrestrial mass extinction at the Devonian-Carboniferous boundary was probably caused by ozone depletion due to global warming.8 This is an important finding because ozone doesn’t get much attention in current climate modeling, but also because there is a significant risk of ozone depletion due to other causes. The most important of those other causes is – ultimately – fertilizers. The phosphorus in fertilizers ends up in rivers, which end up in the oceans where they feed (periodic) “dead zones” and contribute to ocean anoxia. Aside from killing life in the oceans (which is also being killed by acidification due to atmospheric CO₂ increase), anoxic oceans emit nitrous oxide (N₂O), which causes ozone depletion (and which is also a very potent greenhouse gas). For this reason, Tim Lenton (already mentioned above) has warned that ocean anoxia may be even more dangerous than CO₂.9 It seems that this new research underlines that warning.
In case you didn’t think this is concerning enough, just this week an article was published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment reviewing what we know about nitrous oxide emissions by permafrosts.10 One of the key findings of that paper is that permafrost thaw due to climate changes is likely to turn permafrosts into “a globally relevant source of N₂O”, creating a positive feedback loop. The term “feedback loop” is sometimes confused with “runaway change”, but it is still far from clear whether there is reason to be worried about something like that. However, the combined effects of ocean anoxia (which is also a positive feedback loop, by the way), permafrost thaw, and other N₂O emissions are more than enough to start wondering whether this isn’t already another existential threat.
Update 3 is of a rather different nature. As mentioned, this is a somewhat unusual post, but what’s also unusual is the recent infrequency of posts at this blog. Since the beginning of this year, I have posted only a few articles here. The reason for that is that I’ve been working on a book since the end of December.11 A first draft of that book is now about 80% finished. After it is completed, I’ll try to find a publisher for it, but there is no guarantee that it will ever be published, of course.
Regardless of whether it will ever be published, I have decided to focus all of my attention on this book (and have, for that reason, temporarily halted most of my other activities – except work and homely duties, of course), which is the reason why I’ve been temporarily relatively inactive here. When the book is finished – or at least, when it doesn’t require my full-time attention anymore – that will change. Hopefully, that will be in a couple of months from now. There’s still a lot I want to write about here, so the relative inactivity is – if everything goes well – only temporary.
To those who support this blog financially — Thank you for your support. If you stick around until the book is published, I’ll send you a pdf of the e-book version (or I’ll make one myself, if necessary).
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- World Meteorological Organization (2020). Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update – Target years: 2020 and 2020-2024 (Geneva: WMO / London: MET).
- The projection is that there is a 20% chance of one year passing the mark; not that the average will exceed it. That is almost impossible.
- Mark Lynas (2007). Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, (Harper Collins).
- Chi Xu (徐驰) et al. (2020). “Future of the Human Climate Niche”, PNAS 117.21: 113505.
- Tim Cowan et al. (2020). “Present-Day Greenhouse Gases Could Cause More Frequent and Longer Dust Bowl Heatwaves”, Nature Climate Change: 505-10.
- Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm), p. 86.
- Steve Trimble (2020). “Hypersonic Mass Production”, Aviation Week & Space Technology, May 4-17: 44-5, p. 44.
- John Marshall et al. (2020). “UV-B Radiation Was the Devonian-Carboniferous Boundary Terrestrial Extinction Kill Mechanism”, Science Advances 6.22: eaba0768.
- Tim Lenton & Andrew Watson (2011). Revolutions that Made the Earth (Oxford: OUP).
- Carolina Voigt et al. (2020), “Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Permafrost-Affected Soils”, Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (published online: July 7).
- No, it’s not about climate change.