IN A NUTSHELL
ARCTIC HYDRATE DESTABILIZATION
The vast slope sediments in the Arctic submarine permafrost lock away 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon - frozen methane and other gases – known as subsea hydrates.
Frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean – known as the '""sleeping giants of the carbon cycle" – have started to be released over a large area of the continental slope near the East Siberian coast. Arctic hydrate destabilisation is one of four scenarios for abrupt climate change.
Methane levels at the surface by the East Siberian coast are four to eight times what would normally be expected and this is venting into the atmosphere. Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
This possibility – sometimes referred to as the 'clathrate gun hypothesis' – is the basis for a doomsday scenario of runaway global warming that tips the Earth towards a hothouse state.
"At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered. The East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing." – Örjan Gustafsson, Stockholm University
Venus, Earth's sister planet, with a similar origin story but orbiting slightly closer to the sun, is a hothouse world. Many scientists fear it's a glimpse of Earth's own future, lifeless but for the relentless firestorm of sulphuric acid rain and the howl of perpetual 500kph winds. Some say the nightmare scenario as unlikely or remote. Others prefer to put their faith in future generations finding a technological solution if and when the problem arises.
AROUND THE WORLD
CLIMATE CRISIS - JANUARY 2020
The crisis is not imminent. The crisis is here. The recent infernos in Australia, the storms and floods in Brazil, Madagascar, Spain and the US, the economic collapse in Somalia, caused in part by a devastating cycle of droughts and floods, are not, or not only, a vision of the future. They are signs of a current and escalating catastrophe.
This is why several governments and parliaments, the UK Parliament among them, have declared a climate emergency. But no one in government acts as if it is real. They operate within the old world of incremental planning for a disaster that has yet to arrive.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the reports of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the official body that began with such hope and promise of holding the government to account, but that has now abandoned scientific realities in favor of political priorities.
Its latest report, on changing the UK’s land use, is so unambitious that, in some respects, it would take us backward. For example, it calls for a 20% reduction in our consumption of beef, lamb and dairy – the most carbon-intensive foods – over the next 30 years. But it admits that this is a smaller reduction than is likely to happen anyway: there has already been a 20% decline in the consumption of these foods over the past 20 years, and this shift is accelerating rapidly. Cultured meat and milk could replace these sectors almost entirely by 2050.
The report makes no mention of rewilding or natural regeneration. The only means it proposes by which trees should return to the land is planting. This is often a slower, more expensive and less effective way of restoring habitats and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere than removing livestock or controlling deer numbers and allowing trees to return by themselves. Its target for reforestation is so feeble that the UK would still have less than half the average current European forest cover by 2050.
One of the reasons for this timidity is its preposterous assumption that if land is unsuitable for commercial forestry, it’s unsuitable for trees. There are plenty of places where trees grow well, store carbon and provide magnificent habitats, but won’t produce straight 50-foot poles. It envisages not wild woods, but plantations, whose purpose is the discredited policy of “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”. This means growing wood to burn in power stations, then capturing and burying the carbon emissions. It will almost certainly cause more harm than good. Could the committee’s enthusiasm have anything to do with the fact that one of its members works for Drax, the energy company pioneering this disastrous technology? Throughout the report, business appears to come first; nature and climate last.
All this, the CCC says, is consistent with the target it has set for the government, of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It tells me that the rationale for this target “remains valid today”, meeting the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. This agreement commits governments to seek “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. But in November, the UN published a report showing that preventing more than 1.5°C means cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6% every year between now and 2030: a much steeper trajectory than the CCC’s. The committee has set the wrong target, for the wrong date.
But I think the problem runs deeper than this. It’s not just the target that’s wrong, but the very notion of setting targets in an emergency.
When firefighters arrive at a burning building, they don’t set themselves a target of rescuing three of the five inhabitants. They seek – aware that they might not succeed – to rescue everyone they can. Their aim is to maximize the number of lives they save. In the climate emergency, our aim should be to maximize both the reduction of emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of global heating: every increment kills.
Maximization is implicit in the Paris Agreement: it requires governments to pursue “the highest possible ambition”. In its land-use report, the CCC repeatedly admits that it could go further, but insists it doesn’t need to, because its policies will meet the target. The target has supplanted the ultimate objective, which is to respond appropriately to the climate emergency. This is a classic vindication of Goodhart’s Law: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.
We are all familiar with the absurdities of target culture. We know how, in many workplaces, the target becomes the task. We know how official targets for depriving people of social security ruined thousands of lives. We know that the Windrush scandal – the persecution and wrongful deportation of people legally entitled to reside in the UK – was caused in part by the Home Office target for “enforced returns”. We know how targets encourage people to game the system, as hospital administrators do with their waiting lists, and cause Kafkaesque nightmares of overzealous officialdom, as David Boyle documents in his new book Tickbox.
But less discussed is the way in which targets can encourage officials to underperform. As soon as you set a target, you pull back from maximization. Even if you say “this target is the minimum”, as the CCC does, politicians treat it as the line they need to cross. At this point, they fulfil their legal duty, even if they fail to fulfil their wider duty of care.
Is a policy of maximization possible? It is not only possible, it’s already happening, in exactly the wrong place. The 2015 Infrastructure Act introduced a legal duty to “maximize the economic recovery” of petroleum in the UK. If drilling companies fail to maximize their extraction of fossil fuel from an oilfield, they will be forced to surrender their license to operate. In other words, while the government observes a legal minimum (the CCC’s target) for reducing greenhouse gases, it observes a legal maximum for increasing them.
The appropriate response to the climate emergency is a legal duty to maximize climate action. The CCC’s board should be disbanded and replaced by people whose mandate is rigorously to explore every economic sector, in search of the maximum possible cuts in greenhouse gases, and the maximum possible drawdown. We have arrived at the burning building. The only humane and reasonable aim is to rescue everyone inside.
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL
- MYTH 1: Global temperatures are rising at a rapid, unprecedented rate.
- FACT: The HadCRUT4 surface temperature index, produced by the Hadley Centre of the UK Met Office and the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, shows warming to 1878, cooling to 1911, warming to 1941, cooling to 1964, warming to 1998 and cooling through 2011. The warming rate from 1908 to 1938 of 0.13 ºC/decade was almost as large as the recent warming from 1983 to 2013 of 0.17 ºC/decade, each 30-years, despite the CO2 increase of the latter period was 4.7 times greater than the former period. Satellite data show cooling from 2002 through mid-2015, then this warming pause ended with a large El Nino event starting late 2015. The UAH analysis of satellite data gives a trend from 1979 to Aug. 2020 of 0.14 ºC/decade, which is half of the corresponding trend of 0.27 ºC/decade of the climate models. The mild warming of about 0.7 ºC over the 20th century is well within the natural variations recorded in the last millennium. The ground station network suffers from an uneven distribution across the globe; the stations are preferentially located in growing urban and industrial areas ("heat islands"), which show substantially higher readings than adjacent rural areas ("land use effects"). Two science teams have shown that correcting the surface temperature record for the effects of urban development would reduce the reported warming trend over land from 1980 by half. There has been no catastrophic warming recorded.
- MYTH 2: The "hockey stick" graph proves that the earth has experienced a steady, very gradual temperature decrease for 1000 years, then recently began a sudden increase.
- FACT: Significant changes in climate have continually occurred throughout geologic time. For instance, the Medieval Warm Period, from around 1000 to1200 AD (when the Vikings farmed on Greenland) was followed by a period known as the Little Ice Age. Since the end of the 17th Century the "average global temperature" has been rising at the low steady rate mentioned above; although from 1940 – 1970 temperatures actually dropped, leading to a Global Cooling scare.
- The "hockey stick", a poster boy of both the UN's IPCC and Canada's Environment Department, ignores historical recorded climatic swings, and has now also been proven to be flawed and statistically unreliable as well. It is a computer construct that used faulty principal component analysis and used bristlecone pine trees whose growth was greatly enhanced by CO2 fertilization. See here for more information.
- MYTH 3: Human produced carbon dioxide has increased over the last 100 years, adding to the Greenhouse effect, thus causing most of the earth's warming of the last 100 years.
- FACT: Carbon dioxide levels have indeed changed for various reasons, human and otherwise, just as they have throughout geologic time. The CO2 content of the atmosphere has increased by 131 part per million (ppm) from the start of the industrial revolution at 280 ppm to 2019 at 411 ppm, most of which is likely due to human-caused CO2 emissions. The RATE of CO2 growth during this century has been 0.57%/year. However, there is no proof that CO2 is the main driver of global warming. As measured in ice cores dated over many thousands of years, CO2 levels move up and down AFTER the temperature has done so, and thus are the RESULT OF, NOT THE CAUSE of warming. Geological fieldwork in recent sediments confirms this causal relationship. There is solid evidence that, as temperatures move up and down naturally and cyclically through solar radiation, orbital and galactic influences, the warming surface layers of the earth's oceans expel more CO2 as a result.
- MYTH 4: CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas.
- FACT: Greenhouse gases form 1.74% of the near-surface global atmosphere by volume. They consist of 1.7% water vapor, 0.04% carbon dioxide (CO2), 0.00019% methane (CH4) and trace amounts of Ozone and N2O. CO2 constitutes 411 part per million (ppm) of dry air in 2019. While the minor gases are more effective as "greenhouse agents" than water vapor and clouds, the latter are overwhelming the effect by their sheer volume and – in the end – are thought to be responsible for 75% of the "Greenhouse effect". (See here) At current concentrations, a 1% change of water vapour in the atmosphere would have the 5.4 times the greenhouse effect as a 1% change in CO2. Those attributing climate change to CO2 rarely mention these important facts.
- MYTH 5: Computer models verify that CO2 increases will cause significant global warming.
- FACT: The computer models assume that CO2 is the primary climate driver, and that the Sun has an insignificant effect on climate. Using the output of a model to verify its initial assumption is committing the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. Computer models can be made to roughly match the 20th-century temperature rise by adjusting many input parameters and using strong positive feedbacks. They do not "prove" anything. Also, computer models predicting global warming are incapable of properly including the effects of the sun, cosmic rays and the clouds. The sun is a major cause of temperature variation on the earth's surface as its received radiation changes all the time, This happens largely in a cyclical fashion. The number and the lengths (in time) of sunspots can be correlated very closely with average temperatures on earth, e.g. the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period. The varying intensity of solar heat radiation affects the surface temperature of the oceans and the currents. Warmer ocean water expels gases, some of which is CO2. Solar radiation interferes with the cosmic ray flux, thus influencing the number of ionized nuclei that control cloud cover.
- MYTH 6: The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has proven that man–made CO2 caused most of the 20th-century global warming.
- FACT@: In a 1996 report by the UN on global warming, two statements were deleted from the final draft approved and accepted by a panel of scientists. Here they are:
- “None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed climate changes to increases in greenhouse gases.”
- “No study to date has positively attributed all or part of the climate change to man–made causes”
- To the present day there is still no scientific proof that man-made CO2 causes significant global warming. Energy balance calculations show the global temperature change at the time of a gradual doubling of CO2, the transient climate responses, accounting of urban and natural warming, is 0.83 ºC, which is much less than estimated by the IPCC computer model value of 1.8 ºC. CO2 caused 0.265 ºC of the 1901 to 2000 warming of 0.67 ºC, or 40%.
- MYTH 7: CO2 is a pollutant.
- FACT: This is absolutely not true. Nitrogen forms 80% of our atmosphere. We could not live in 100% nitrogen either. Carbon dioxide is no more a pollutant than nitrogen is. CO2 is essential to life on earth. It is necessary for plant growth since increased CO2 intake as a result of increased atmospheric concentration causes many trees and other plants to grow more vigorously. Unfortunately, the Canadian Government has included CO2 with a number of truly toxic and noxious substances listed by the Environmental Protection Act, only as their means to politically control it. The graph here shows changes in vegetative cover due to CO2 fertilization between 1982 and 2010 (Donohue et al., 2013 GRL). A major study here shows that CO2 fertilization will likely increase the value of crop production between now and 2050 by an additional $11.7 trillion ($US 2014). See here for more discussion.
- MYTH 8: Global warming will cause more storms and other weather extremes.
- FACTS: There is no scientific or statistical evidence whatsoever that supports such claims on a global scale. Regional variations may occur. Growing insurance and infrastructure repair costs, particularly in coastal areas, are sometimes claimed to be the result of increasing frequency and severity of storms, whereas in reality they are a function of increasing population density, escalating development value, and ever more media reporting. Hurricane and major hurricane landfall counts exhibited no significant overall trend over 167 years of available data, nor did accumulated cyclone energy over the continental USA over 119 years of available data. The average number of strong tornadoes annually from 1986 to 2017 was 40% less than from 1954 to 1985. See here for graphs and discussion of extreme weather.
- MYTH 9: Receding glaciers and the calving of ice shelves are proof of man-made global warming.
- FACT: Glaciers have been receding and growing cyclically for hundreds of years. Recent glacier melting is a consequence of coming out of the very cool period of the Little Ice Age. Ice shelves have been breaking off for centuries. Scientists know of at least 33 periods of glaciers growing and then retreating. It’s normal. Besides, changes to the glacier's extent is dependent as much on precipitation as on temperature.
- The earth’s poles are warming and the polar ice caps are melting at alarming rates.
- FACTS: The earth is variable. The Arctic Region had warmed from 1900 to 1937, cooled to 1966, then warmed to 2005, due to cyclic events in the Pacific Ocean and soot from Asia darkening the ice. There was no warming from 2005 to 2015, then a temperature increase in 2016. Arctic temperatures in 2019 were 0.4 ºC higher than the late 1930s. The small Palmer Peninsula of Antarctica is getting warmer, while the main Antarctic continent is actually cooling. The total south polar region temperatures have been stable with no trend from 1980 to 2020. Icecap mass in Greenland was stable in the 1990s but ice loss increased since then. Antarctica ice mass are near stable. The total rate of Greenland's ice loss between 2013 and 2017 on average was 222 ± 30 billion tonnes per year, causing a sea-level rise of 0.64 mm/yr. North polar temperature graph here. South polar temperature graph here. See here for sea ice extent.
MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN
"Dirty industries spend more on politics, keeping us in the fossil age." (19th January 2017)
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th January 2017
Make America Wait Again. That’s what Donald Trump’s energy policy amounts to. Stop all the clocks, put the technological revolution on hold, ensure that the transition from fossil fuels to clean power is delayed for as long as possible.
Trump is the president corporate Luddites have dreamt of; the man who will let them squeeze every last cent from their oil and coal reserves before they become worthless. They need him because science, technology and people’s demands for a safe and stable world have left them stranded. There is no fair fight that they can win, so their last hope lies with a government that will rig the competition.
To this end, Trump has appointed to his cabinet some of those responsible for a universal crime: inflicted not on particular nations or groups, but on everyone.
Recent research suggests that – if drastic action of the kind envisaged by the Paris agreement on climate change is not taken – ice loss in Antarctica alone could raise sea levels by a metre this century, and by 15 metres in subsequent centuries. Combine this with the melting in Greenland and the thermal expansion of seawater, and you discover that many of the world’s great cities are at existential risk.
The climatic disruption of crucial agricultural zones – in North and Central America, the Middle East, Africa and much of Asia – presents a security threat that could dwarf all others. The civil war in Syria, unless resolute policies are adopted, looks like a glimpse of a possible global future.
These are not, if the risks materialise, shifts to which we can adapt. These crises will be bigger than our capacity to respond to them. They could lead to the rapid and radical simplification of society, which means, to put it brutally, the end of civilisations and many of the people they support. If this happens, it will amount to the greatest crime ever committed. And members of Trump’s proposed cabinet are among the leading perpetrators.
In their careers so far, they have championed the fossil fuel industry while contesting the measures intended to prevent climate breakdown. They appear to have considered the need of a few exceedingly rich people to protect their foolish investments for a few more years, weighed it against the benign climatic conditions that have allowed humanity to flourish, and decided that the foolish investments are more important.
By appointing Rex Tillerson, chief executive of the oil company ExxonMobil, as secretary of state, Trump not only assures the fossil economy that it sits next to his heart; he also provides comfort to another supporter: Vladimir Putin. It was Tillerson who brokered the $500 billion deal between Exxon and the state-owned Russian company Rosneft to exploit oil reserves in the Arctic. As a result he was presented with the Russian Order of Friendship by Mr Putin.
The deal was stopped under the sanctions the US imposed when Russia invaded Ukraine. The probability of these sanctions in their current form surviving a Trump government is, to the nearest decimal place, a snowball’s chance in hell. If Russia did interfere in the US election, it will be handsomely rewarded when the deal goes ahead.
Trump’s nominations for energy secretary and interior secretary are both climate change deniers, who – quite coincidentally – have a long history of sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry. His proposed attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, allegedly failed to disclose in his declaration of interests that he leases land to an oil company.
The man nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has spent much of his working life campaigning against … the Environmental Protection Agency. As the attorney general in Oklahoma, he launched 14 lawsuits against the EPA, seeking, among other aims, to strike down its Clean Power Plan, its limits on the mercury and other heavy metals released by coal plants and its protection of drinking water supplies and wildlife. Thirteen of these suits were said to include as co-parties companies that had contributed to his campaign funds or to political campaign committees affiliated to him.
Trump’s appointments reflect what I call the Pollution Paradox. The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals. Trump’s cabinet is stuffed with people who owe their political careers to filth.
It was once possible to argue, rightly or wrongly, that the human benefits of developing fossil fuel reserves might outweigh the harm. But a combination of more refined climate science, that now presents the risks in stark terms, and the plummeting costs of clean technologies renders this argument as obsolete as a coal-fired power station.
As the US burrows into the past, China is investing massively in renewable energy, electric cars and new battery technologies. The Chinese government claims that this new industrial revolution will generate 13 million jobs. This, by contrast to Trump’s promise to create millions of jobs through reanimating coal, at least has a chance of materializing. It’s not just that returning to an old technology when better ones are available is difficult; it’s also that coal mining has been automated to the extent that it now supports few jobs. Trump’s attempt to revive the fossil era will serve no one but the coal barons.
Understandably, commentators have been seeking glimpses of light in Trump’s position. But there are none. He couldn’t have made it clearer, through his public statements, the Republican platform and his appointments, that he intends to the greatest extent possible to shut down funding for both climate science and clean energy, rip up the Paris agreement, sustain fossil fuel subsidies and annul the laws that protect people and the rest of the living world from the impacts of dirty energy.
His candidacy was represented as an insurgency, challenging established power. But his position on climate change reveals what should have been obvious from the beginning: he and his team represent the incumbents, fighting off insurgent technologies and political challenges to moribund business models. They will hold back the tide of change for as long as they can. And then the barrier will burst.