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Is Climate Change Hell Now Inevitable?

"Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"  Ebenezer Scrooge, to The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, in “A Christmas Carol.”

Although I spent most of my career involved in climate change, in the last year, I’ve resolved to try not to think about it much.  Too stark; too grim.  But from time to time, I screw up my courage, stare into the Eye of Sauron and face the reality of global warming futures.  When I do, I write about it, and the articles have become increasingly dire.  Good friends, relatives, commenters, and colleagues have been telling me to focus on solutions: to accentuate the positive; to avoid doom and gloom.A general view of the Artic Ocean in 2008. Methane is leaking into the atmosphere from unstable permafrost in the Arctic Ocean faster than scientists had thought and could worsen global warming, according to a 2010 study. (AFP/File/Slim Allagui)

Of course, that advice assumes our actions will make a difference, that there is still a chance to avert catastrophe.

Can we?  If we depart from our present course will the ends change?

Well, there’s a growing consensus that staying above atmospheric concentrations of 350 parts per million will permanently change our climate, and not for the better.

We’re now at 392.41 ppm and rising.  This year’s catastrophes are a mild preview of things to come.

So regardless of what we do, we have already altered the climate in ways that will cost us a great deal of money, kill millions if not tens of millions, and create as many as a billion refugees by mid century. 

Bad as this sounds, there’s strong evidence it’s about to get a hell of a lot worse.

Positive feedbacks can effectively double the amount of GHG released to the atmosphere, and the worst of these – methane releases from hydrates and permafrost -- is self-reinforcing.  That is, once started, it feeds on itself.  More methane means more heat which causes more methane and so on.  This process is slow, but inexorable, once triggered.

We know from the geologic record that runaway methane releases have occurred several times in the past.  Some 55 million years ago, during what geologists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, temperatures soared, as clathrates (or as they are sometimes known, hydrates) released massive amounts of carbon, mostly in the form of methane.  Many scientists believe this was triggered by volcanic releases of carbon.  Other factors may have been at play, but the key takeaway is that methane releases caused runaway warming that lasted for more than 150,000 years, and that today, humans are releasing carbon at ten times the rate that is thought to have triggered the releases.

Some 600 million years ago, geologists identified another, even more extreme event: the Permian Die-Off.  The period came by the name honestly, as some 94% of the marine fossil record disappeared and biologic diversity plummeted. For a time, life itself teetered on the edge of extinction – all life.  Again, massive methane releases triggered by volcanic releases of carbon are the prime culprit.  And again, our current rate of releases is much faster than the one that started this devastating feedback.

If we have triggered a self-reinforcing methane feedback – and there is growing evidence that we have – then there is little point in talking about solutions.  What is needed is a strategy for maximizing the quality of life for those of our species who survive the coming catastrophe.  There will be fewer of us, and we will consume far less, and the world will be a far harsher place.  We will, quite literally, be inhabiting an alien environment, and our best bet is to prepare ourselves for the softest possible landing in this hostile new world.

But let’s say we’re lucky, and we haven’t triggered this cycle of hellish warming, and “all” we have to deal with is our own emissions.  Do we have the technical solutions to walk us back from the brink of the greatest disaster our species has ever faced?

Yes.  Just barely. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that we could provide 80% of our power needs using renewable energy by 2050, using today’s technologies.

And there are a variety of policies that would not only make that affordable, it would make it one of our best opportunities for creating jobs.

Strategies like lengthening the amortization period and lowering interest rates on renewable energy could make the cost per month to consumers less than conventional power in many states. 

Allowing efficiency and on-site renewables to bid into forward capacity markets  makes clean energy competitive with even the cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel power for utilities. 

Feed-in tariffs assure that renewables will pay for themselves.

And fuel standards could be raised to 50 mpg – something that is achievable with several cars now available.  And improved batteries have made EVs practical.

Taxing embedded carbon on imports would force exporters to lower carbon emissions, eliminating the fear of foreign “free-riders.” 

Agricultural polices could make our farms and forests carbon sinks – actually removing carbon from the atmosphere – while improving the quality and sustainability of our food supplies and soils.

So, yes, we can meet this challenge, if we haven’t bumbled into positive feedbacks like some planetary-scale Inspector Clouseau.

What would it take?

People often speak about mounting a Manhattan Project level of effort to achieve this.

Wrong scale.

How about a World War II magnitude endeavor?

Too timid.

The bottom line is, it would take an effort unlike any humanity has ever attempted for us to avoid catastrophic global warming and devastating ocean acidification.  We would have to march in lock-step as a species, making carbon the obsessive focus of all we do, in every facet of our life, if we hope to awaken Scrooge-like, a changed species, filled with redemption, converted from history’s greatest villain, to its greatest hero.

Solutions?  Sure, they’re out there. 

But as I tell my friends, when it comes to actually using them, and using them in time, I am hopeful, but I am not optimistic.

And of course, if we have triggered feedbacks …