Following on last week’s post, I’d like to write a bit about what gets our attention: calamities, gunshots, collapses, tipping points. Bridges fall, houses flood, sinkholes open, cars collide, people die. In the wrong moment our focus changes from the routine to the extraordinary.
There is of course, already a book on tipping points, called “Tipping Point”, by Malcolm Gladwell. I’d like to explore one tipping point, and what to do about it. Climate change.
Climate is complex, but we have gotten better at measuring and predicting its changes in response to the urgency of the issue. While climate models make our strategy in Afghanistan look like a Gantt chart, they are improving with backcasting against current data.
It is less and less controversial that the climate is changing, though there is still some controversy on what the cause of this change is.
99% of climate scientists say that it is mainly due to increased greenhouse gases, 1% say that it is more due to changes in solar irradiation. One is endogenous,and we are responsible, if not in control. The other is exogenous and out of our control. There is some evidence the sun is about to start pumping out less, not more heat. In this scenario, we’d do well to warm the globe all we could manage, to stave off the impending ice age. Funny that.
The theory behind climate-change-as-our-fault is mostly about CO2. Even if things like Nitrogen Oxides, Methane, and refrigerants are far more powerful greenhouse gases, we don’t produce nearly as much of those. The more Carbon that we dig , drill or pump up from the earth and burn into the atmosphere to power the industrial civilization we have enjoyed for the last 200+ years, the more we are increasing the atmosphere’s ability to hold heat in. Like a greenhouse.
Some say that amount of CO2 we are burning onto the atmosphere is minuscule compared to the amount already in the atmosphere. They are right. The CO2 in the atmosphere, 0.035% (up from 0.025%) makes our atmosphere 70 degrees hotter than it would be if there were no CO2 in the atmosphere.
The CO2 in the atmosphere is like a nearly-full bathtub. Life has evolved through generations take advantage of it. Large sinks like the oceans absorb and concentrate it. The bathtub is almost full, but not quite. About half of what we burn into the atmosphere is taken up by more vegetation, stronger toxins in plants, and slightly more Coca-Cola-like oceans. But if we keep burning more CO2, the bathtub will fill, and we will start to warm up the atmosphere linearly, not seasonally. The linked article predicts we have until 2030 before this happens.
Another tipping point is Thermohaline belt circulation. As landlocked glaciers melt from places like Greenland and the West Antarctic, they make the ocean less salty. Fresher oceans change their density less in response to temperature changes. Right now, the saltwater in the oceans is driven by the sunlight and its own cooling gradients to move gigatons of hot and cold saltwater around the world. As oceans freshen, they lose their vertical temperature gradients and movement in the ocean.
This was helped along by the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap last year. A large mass of freshwater ice that was trapped on land slid into the ocean, and has probably decreased its salinity (I have not seen the measurements yet).
The first effect of the Thermohaline shutting down will be giving Europe weather more suited to its latitude. Sunny Madrid is at the same latitude as New York, NY, Paris = International Falls, MN, and London = Edmonton, AB. Europe is mostly cropland, and most of those crops now enjoy long growing seasons to feed 800 million mouths between Portugal and Russia. They will have to start importing food. The shutdown of the Thermohaline belt will probably take over a decade or so of weakening, as the oceans gradually freshen.
A more sudden tipping point is the “Clathrate Gun”. Methane forms a dense liquid, clathrate, at high pressures and low temperatures. There are large deposits of this under the arctic ocean and off the coast of India, among other locations. During the last couple of summers the arctic warmed enough that the clathrate was bubbling up to the surface. As methane gas. Methane is 20 times as good at CO2 at trapping heat, so even a little can do a lot of damage. Methane is still a distant second to CO2 as a greenhouse gas. It can become the primary greenhouse gas, if we warm the oceans up enough.
Another that I only recently heard about is permafrost. There is more carbon trapped in the permafrost of Asia, Europe, and North America than in the entire atmosphere. Increase the temperature a little, and that permafrost becomes available for plant hypothesis and the global carbon cycle. The panglossian ideal would be that the carbon stays in the thin green biosphere, like a taiga rain forest. The more likely event is that much of it will get into the atmosphere.
Russia, by the way, often sees global warming as a boon to its economy. Its a pretty cold place otherwise, and they could use the growing season. Funny that.
If clathrate and permafrost both melt much of their greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the climate could change with a decade, not within a century. Especially if the ocean and vegetation quits acting as a sink for carbon from the atmosphere and the temperature starts increasing directly with the CO2 we put into the atmosphere. At current rates, the CO2 in the atmosphere is due to be 0.09% of the atmosphere, up from 0.04% today, almsot four times the concentration before the industrial revolution.
The “cataclysmic” predictions of the climate models are that temperature rises by 10 degrees by the time our great grandchildren are adults. The problem is, the effects of this change will not happen over the next century, they will snap on us sometime in the next century. Maybe 2075, maybe 2015.
I’m not so concerned about the loss of coastal real estate as I am about crop failure as our soils, rainfall, and growing seasons shove our crops around to keep feeding us.
In case you think the machinations of the Earth are too huge to be affected by any puny species, there is good evidence that Azolla, an aquatic fern genus, may have changed the climate from a global tropic to the cooler world we evolved in 49 million years ago. Azolla may hove caused the Eocene era.
How to fix it.
The fix, alas, eludes us. Though it is almost certainly our fault, it may not be in our control. Just as no one can control the market. Both the market and the climate are of us, but our control of our works is imperfect. Burning things for energy and making money is just too appealing
I am really happy to be in a warm, lit cafe this morning, drinking the grounds of seeds that grew around the world brewed in clean local river water. All that took energy to get to me, and its costing me less than an hour’s wages to enjoy it.
Most pollutants, like acid in the rivers or soot in the air, follow the Kutznets curve. As people industrialize they pollute, but they also make money. The more money they make, the less polluting is worth it to them,especially if they have to live with the pollution directly. As long as enough of the people have enough money, they start to demand less pollution. And they have the economic power and leisure time to make their voices heard. Wealthy societies never have the same level of filth as poor ones. A clean environment is worth spending money on. It sells itself.
Pittsburgh is a nice city ti visit and even live now. It wasn’t so 50 years ago. Smog was obnoxious enough that the rich moved upwind of the city, then the rest demanded clean air more than progress. For a while, Pittsburgh had to search for jobs, after they chased the mills out of town, but they are forming a strong foundation of “Eds and Meds;, a pretty good bet in the new knowledge economy.
When we collectively decide that something is an issue, we create markets to deal with it.
We decided that home ownership is better than renting, so we started the home mortgage interest deduction in 1913. We now have some of the highest home ownership rates in the world. While housing values were still rising, the average dwell time in houses between sales was eerily similar to the time it took for the home mortgage interest deduction to quit paying significant dividends. About five years.
We decided that overcrowding and mixed traffic with walkers, bikers, horses, carriages, cars, buses, and trolleys all in the same streets as dangerous and unsanitary, so we started single use zoning, the expansion of right of way around every street’s jurisdiction and traffic engineering between 1910 and 1930 to separate people from noxious land uses and get everything but cars and trucks out of the roadway. We now need a car to get everywhere, and only fools and the poor dare to travel otherwise. We definitely solved overcrowding, however.
I believe that global warming and climate change are problems that are mostly our fault, and are a problem. And I believe that we can deal with it before it becomes a real problem. The trick is to see the solutions as new markets, not denial of the existing markets. Opportunity, not drudgery. Markets, not regulations.
Once we go over these tipping points, We have a much harder time undoing our problems. We will have fewer opportunities, meaner markets, and more expenses.
The author, after a tipping point in 1992