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The 6th IPCC climate assessment is out and it describes a world speeding headlong toward disaster. Will we pay attention before it's too late? (Probably not.)

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IPCC 6 Climate Change Report: We Only Have 12 Years To Fix This

The 6th IPCC climate assessment is out and it describes a world speeding headlong toward disaster. Will we pay attention before it’s too late? (Probably not.)

If you are regular follower of CleanTechnica, you probably already know about the dire warnings concerning climate change contained in the latest climate assessment report from IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report, which was unveiled officially on October 8 at a international conference in South Korea, is the 6th such report from IPCC. Each one sounds the alarm more strongly about how catastrophic climate change is getting closer all the time.

global warmingThe 5th IPCC climate assessment report was issued in 2014. It was one of the factors that contributed to the global discussions among world leaders at the COP 21 conference in Paris in December of 2015. Since then, most of the nations of the world have paid lip service to the Paris agreement but few have taken significant steps to bring the promises made in Paris to fruition.

The big goal of the Paris climate accords was to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5º C. IPCC 6 says in the starkest possible terms that humans have at most 12 years to fix their addiction to fossil fuels and drastically reduce total carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of staying below that goal.

The odds don’t seem very good. China is sending its warships to play a game of high stakes chicken on the high seas with the US Navy. Donald Trump continues to belittle people who don’t kowtow to his infantile prattlings. Brazil and Argentina are in the process of becoming failed states. Israel continues to humiliate the Palestinians. Who, exactly, is going to ride herd on all these fractious nations and force them to do what needs to be done to keep the Earth capable of sustaining human life — or any other forms of life, for that matter?

Dr. Cristiana Paşca-Palmer, United Nations Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, tells CleanTechnica in an e-mail, “Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are crucial if we want to avoid catastrophic impacts of climate change on economies, societies and life. However, the 1.5° C target will not be reached based on emissions reduction alone. It is imperative that nature be part of the solution to the climate crisis, as nature-based solutions can make significant contributions to climate mitigation and adaptation by reducing emissions from deforestation and other land-use change, by enhancing carbon sinks, and by building the resiliency of ecosystems and livelihoods.”

The Carbon Budget

The Madhouse Effect dust jacket from Tom TolesGlobal warming comes down to some fairly simple math. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, it stays there for a long time. Measuring the current CO2 level is easy. Today it is above 400 parts per million — the highest ever in recorded history. We know that 41 billion tons of carbon dioxide are added to the atmosphere each year. Scientists say adding 410 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere will make a 1.5º C rise in average temperature inevitable.

That’s the Earth’s climate budget. Exceed it and massive changes will cascade through the entire system and humans will be incapable of doing anything to avoid them. If the proven reserves of all the world’s fossil fuel companies are consumed, the Earth’s carbon budget will be surpassed 6 times over.

410 billion tons divided by 41 billion tons a year works out to 10 years before the tipping point arrives and the world plunges into a death spiral of ever increasing temperatures. Assuming some progress is made toward lowering carbon emissions in coming years, humanity has about 12 years in which to solve its carbon problem. After that, all hell breaks loose.

Buffering And Tipping Points

Tom Toles "What's a tipping point?" cartoon (The Madhouse Effect)Those of you who took chemistry in school know about buffering. It’s a process in which a solution can absorb small amounts of a strong acid and still maintain a stable pH level. But if too much acid is added to the buffered solution, pH spikes. The difference between when the buffering action works to control acidity and when it can no longer do so is called a tipping point, which was explained quite elegantly by Malcolm Gladwell in 2000.

In climate terms, the Earth’s atmosphere is like a buffered solution. It is able to absorb some carbon dioxide without overheating but once it reaches a tipping point — many climate scientists say 400 ppm is that point — a number of factors kick in to create a feedback loop that could send average global temperatures soaring by as much as 7º C. (That’s about 12º Fahrenheit for those of you in North America.)

Melting sea ice not only leads to rising sea levels, it means there is no light colored mass in the polar regions to reflect the sun’s rays away from the earth. It means the permafrost begins to melt, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide that have been locked up for centuries. It means more dark land mass to absorb even more heat from the sun. It means a world that races wildly out of control while humans and every other living organism on Earth struggle to avoid extinction.

Flawed Assumptions

Tom Toles "Climate Change Debate" cartoon (Washington Post, 2010)In a conversation with Graham Readfearn of The Guardian, Will Steffen, one of the lead authors of the IPCC 6 report, explains that the most dire climate warnings don’t actually take into account all those other factors. Steffen is a professor at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center. He says,

“I think the dominant linear, deterministic framework for assessing climate change is flawed, especially at higher levels of temperature rise. So, yes, model projections using models that don’t include these processes indeed become less useful at higher temperature levels. Or, as my co-author John Schellnhuber says, we are making a big mistake when we think we can “park” the Earth System at any given temperature rise — say 2º C — and expect it to stay there.

“Even at the current level of warming of about 1º C above pre-industrial, we may have already crossed a tipping point for one of the feedback processes (Arctic summer sea ice), and we see instabilities in others — permafrost melting, Amazon forest dieback, boreal forest dieback, and weakening of land and ocean physiological carbon sinks.

“And we emphasize that these processes are not linear and often have built-in feedback processes that generate tipping point behavior. For example, for melting permafrost, the chemical process that decomposes the peat generates heat itself, which leads to further melting and so on.”

Well, if you are not scared to death for the future of our world after reading that, you are made of sterner stuff than I am. I can hardly sleep at night thinking of the inferno I have bequeathed to my grandkids, who will have to deal with the consequences of a world that is significantly hotter than it is today by the time they reach my age.

Ex-Rex Tillerson, the swarmy ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and ex-secretary of state, once casually announced that people will just have to adapt to the new normal. The problem, Rex, you braying jackass, is that evolutionary changes take place over thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years. What we are facing today is a step change in average global temperatures that takes place over just a few decades. Adaptation does not happen that fast, no matter how many zillions of dollars you have in your bank account, Rex.

What Will It Take?

Tom Toles "Exxon Charred Earth" cartoon (Washington Post, 2006)If you are part of the CleanTechnica community, you know all about renewable energy, electric trucks, buses, and cars, and geo-engineering schemes. We read every day about solid state batteries, more efficient solar panels, and turbines that convert wave motion into electricity.

The truth is, none of that matters. Whether Tesla makes 1 million electric cars or 10 million will make no difference ultimately. We have to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere now. Not in 2030 or 2045. Today. Doing so will cause enormous economic hardship and pain. Entire industries will be wiped out, leading to the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs.

Controlling temperature rise will require massive cooperation among nations. When in human experience has that ever happened? The history books are replete with accounts of warfare. Periods of peaceful coexistence and cooperation get no mention, primarily because there have been so few of them. Is there anything but a global government vested with unlimited powers that could get the job done? And if that is the case, is the cure worse than the disease?

Is IPCC 6 Too Harsh?

Tom Toles "Ostrichphant" cartoon (Washington Post, 2009)The IPCC 6 report has been criticized for being too harsh. Couldn’t these climate science guys tone it down a bit? Jeeze, all this gloom and doom is scaring people half to death. Good. If that’s what it takes to get people’s attention then so be it. To show how bad things are, America’s Jackass in Chief visited Florida — a state that is going to be all but wiped out by rising sea levels in the foreseeable future — a day after the IPCC 6 report was released and said not one word about it.

For a thoughtful discussion about what needs to be done to radically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, I recommend a blog post by Bob Willard. In it, he remarks caustically on the absence of leadership by governments around the globe. “The only thing missing is political leadership to make it happen. How long will we tolerate that witting abdication of responsibility? When threatened by terrorist bombings, countries declared a War on Terror. When threatened by rampant drug addiction, countries declared a War on Drugs. Climate change is biggest threat ever faced by humanity. Isn’t it time we declared a War on Climate Destabilization?”

No Help From The US

The world can expect the United States to do absolutely nothing about carbon emissions and global warming because both are politically unpopular. Instead, it will willingly sacrifice itself on the altar of fossil fuels. When the epitaph for civilization is written, the one factor that will stand out above all the rest as the reason humanity took no significant action in the face of an existential crisis will be tribalism. The only glimmer of hope is if the next species to inhabit the Earth lack the genetic imperative that drives humans to make war upon themselves endlessly.

As Mark Twain once so cogently observed, “Man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to.”

All illustrations are by Tom Toles, who works tirelessly to promote climate change awareness through his cartoons. Thanks, Tom, for all you do. 

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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