It’s 1987 and R.E.M has just released their proto-dystopian classic “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” Fast forward 33 years and the prophesy of that song is about to come true say researchers at the Norwegian Business School. “According to our models, humanity is beyond the point of no return when it comes to halting the melting of permafrost using greenhouse gas cuts as the single tool,” lead author and professor emeritus of climate strategy Jorgen Randers told AFP. “If we want to stop this melting process we must do something in addition — for example, suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it underground and make Earth’s surface brighter.”
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, contains the following synopsis.
The possibility of points of no return in the climate system has been discussed for two decades. A point of no return can be seen as a threshold which, once surpassed, fundamentally changes the dynamics of the climate system. For example, by triggering irreversible processes like melting of the permafrost, drying of the rainforests, or acidification of surface waters. Recently, Lenton et al. summarized the global situation and warned that thresholds may be closer in time than commonly believed.
The purpose of this article is to report that we have identified a point of no return in our climate model ESCIMO—and that it is already behind us. ESCIMO is a “reduced complexity earth system” climate model which we run from 1850 to 2500. In ESCIMO, the global temperature keeps rising to 2500 and beyond, irrespective of how fast humanity cuts the emissions of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is a cycle of self-sustained melting of the permafrost (caused by methane release), lower surface albedo (caused by melting ice and snow) and higher atmospheric humidity (caused by higher temperatures). This cycle appears to be triggered by global warming of a mere + 0.5 °C above the pre-industrial level.
Standing Tall In Deep Doo Doo
The message is clear. We humans have already rendered the Earth unfit for human habitation. We just don’t know it yet. The warmer temperatures since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — which may appear to be slight to the average observer — have unleashed a Pandora’s Box of cascading consequences that will doom us all. The heartfelt pronouncements by corporate leaders and financiers about reducing carbon and methane emissions? Too little, too late. The promises to get to net zero by 2050? Useless posturing designed to reassure the weak minded. As Paul Simon once sang, “We work at our jobs. Collect our pay. Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
EcoWatch reports the researchers used their model to see what would happen by 2500 if increases in emissions stopped today and if they slowly declined to zero by 2100. In the first scenario, temperatures would still rise to around 2.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels within the next 50 years, taper off, then rise again starting in 2150. By 2500, the world would be around three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels would rise by around three meters (9.8 feet). In the second, temperature and sea level rise would end up in the same place, but the temperature increase would be much faster.
The only way runaway climate change could have been avoided is if humans had stopped burning fossil fuels between 1960 and 1970, according to the ESCIMO model. In order to stop temperatures and sea levels from rising now, we would have to remove at least 33 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year starting this one. [Note: the likelihood of removing that much carbon dioxide before the end of 2020 is absurdly remote.]
Push Back And Brickbats
The authors of the study, Jorgen Randers and Ulrich Goluke, freely admit the climate model they used is simplistic and encourage other scientists to take their research as a starting point and run with it. “This paper clearly may be cited in support of a misleading message that it is now ‘too late’ to avoid catastrophic climate change, which would have the potential to cause unnecessary despair,” says University of Exeter climate scientist Richard Betts, who pointed out that the model used by IPCC is far more sophisticated and complex. “The study is nowhere near strong enough to make such a frightening message credible,” he adds.
Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann agrees, saying the ESCIMO model is not very complex and does not accurately reproduce atmospheric and ocean circulation systems. “While such models can be useful for conceptual inferences, their predictions have to be taken with great skepticism. Far more realistic climate models that do resolve the large scale dynamics of the ocean, atmosphere and carbon cycle, do NOT produce the dramatic changes these authors argue for based on their very simplified model. It must be taken not just with a grain of salt, but a whole salt-shaker worth of salt,” Mann told USA Today.
Fuel For The Fire
Mark Maslin, a professor of climate science at University College London, sees some benefit from the study which he says does warn that reducing global carbon emissions to zero by 2050 is just the start of the actions that will be needed to deal with climate change effectively. But there is a downside to such simplistic studies which cannot be ignored. The general public does not understand the process of scientific inquiry enough to grasp such subtleties. Reports like this tend to provide ammunition for the climate deniers who claim all climate scientists are charlatans who engage in fear mongering to boost their careers.
“To be frank, the paper is crap that should not have passed any competent peer review,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and energy systems analyst, tells Gizmodo. “It’s an interesting thought experiment, but its results should be taken with extreme skepticism until more complex Earth System Models produce similar results.”
Hausfather and his colleague Glenn Peters wrote an article in Nature earlier this year begging their fellow scientists to stop publishing worst case scenarios. “We must all — from physical scientists and climate impact modelers to communicators and policymakers — stop presenting the worst case scenario as the most likely one. Overstating the likelihood of extreme climate impacts can make mitigation seem harder than it actually is. This could lead to defeatism, because the problem is perceived as being out of control and unsolvable. Pressingly, it might result in poor planning, whereas a more realistic range of baseline scenarios will strengthen the assessment of climate risk.”
Climate Models & Compasses
Arguing about which climate model is most accurate diverts our attention from what is most important — the Earth is warming and may soon be too hot to support human habitation. Whether that happens in 50 years or 500 years is irrelevant. If we had found a way to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions sixty years ago when the effects of pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere first became known, we could have easily avoided the crisis that confronts us today. But we didn’t and now the task is immensely harder. How do we go forward from here? A writer I hold in the highest esteem puts it this way:
“A climate model is like a compass. It’s a guide, a tool, but it is no substitute for the human brain. The longer we spend arguing about whose climate model is more accurate, the sooner we will cease to exist as a species. There is only one solution to the challenge of climate change. Stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. Full stop. Nothing else matters. And the time to begin finding alternatives to fossil fuels is today, not tomorrow. We are in a race against the clock and we are falling dangerously behind.
“One thing is for certain. It will take all humanity working together to win the battle. Unfortunately, the movement to demonize ‘the other’ in countries around the world is gaining popularity and makes that cooperation less and less likely. We have the power to leverage our collective intelligence, but will we choose to use it while there is still time? There is no compass or climate model on Earth that can answer that question.” Will we succeed in protecting our tiny lifeboat located at the far edge of the universe? “We’ll see,” see the Zen master.