Meta-study of 3000 studies on climate change impacts finds likelihood of multiple cascading crises

November 21st, 2018 by  in Clean Technica on a study published November 19 in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions.”

Warmer average global temperatures are producing stronger storms with higher winds and more rain, droughts, wildfires, rising ocean levels, scarcity of clean water, flooding, and heat waves. But we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, warns a study published November 19 in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions.The authors suggest that by 2100, many parts of the world will be dealing with a combination of all those climate change related issues simultaneously, according to the New York Times.

global warmingAn Interdisciplinary Approach

What sets this report apart from other similar studies is the interdisciplinary approach taken by lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and 22 colleagues. Together, they reviewed 3,000 scientific studies covering all aspects of climate change and its affects on the Earth. In most cases, those studies focused on one element of the problem, like ocean acidification or desertification. By reviewing a wide range of available research, the authors were able to identify the interrelated affects of many climate change factors.

Co-author Kerry Emanuel of MIT has this to say about the interdisciplinary approach. “There’s more than one kind of risk out there. Nations, societies in general, have to deal with multiple hazards, and it’s important to put the whole picture together.” The abstract of the report reads as follows:

“The ongoing emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is triggering changes in many climate hazards that can impact humanity. We found traceable evidence for 467 pathways by which human health, water, food, economy, infrastructure and security have been recently impacted by climate hazards such as warming, heatwaves, precipitation, drought, floods, fires, storms, sea-level rise and changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry.

By 2100, the world’s population will be exposed concurrently to the equivalent of the largest magnitude in one of these hazards if emisions are aggressively reduced, or three if they are not, with some tropical coastal areas facing up to six simultaneous hazards. These findings highlight the fact that GHG emissions pose a broad threat to humanity by intensifying multiple hazards to which humanity is vulnerable.” 

Like A Terror Movie That Is Real

Some parts of the world may not need to wait 80 years to experience the confluence of multiple challenges from a warming planet. Florida right now is dealing with extreme drought, record high temperatures and wildfires. On top of all that, parts of the state’s Panhandle were devastated when Hurricane Michael — a powerful category 4 storm — came ashore in October. Score four simultaneous climate change impacts for Florida this year alone.

In California, the situation is similar. The state is in an extended drought exacerbated by record high temperatures and a spate of incredibly destructive forest fires, the most recent of which killed more than 70 people trapped by the ferocity of the inferno.

Dr. Mora recognizes that people tend to dismiss threats that are perceived to be far in the future. “We as humans don’t feel the pain of people who are far away or far into the future. We normally care about people who are close to us or that are impacting us, or things that will happen tomorrow.” He says people are prone to telling themselves, “We can deal with these things later; we have more pressing problems now.” But, he adds, this research “documented how bad this already is.” Mora says the prospect of dealing with up to 6 climate related issues at once in coming years is “like a terror movie that is real.”

How climate change affects people depends largely on socio-economic status, Mora says. “The largest losses of human life during extreme climatic events occurred in developing nations, whereas developed nations commonly face a high economic burden of damages and requirements for adaptation.” In other words, people in industrialized countries see harm from climate change mostly in economic terms. Citizens of developing countries pay for climate change with their lives.

The people at Esri have created an interactive map to illustrate the points made in the study. Viewers can manipulate the map by date and location to see the likelihood of multiple climate change stress factors occurring anywhere in the world for the rest of this century. The map illustrates the threats that may occur if no action on emissions is taken versus some action.

Michael Mann Comments On The Study

Michael Mann, the noted climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, says the new research adds to the urgency for immediate, dramatic action to slow the pace of global warming.  He says it shows “the costs of inaction greatly outweigh the costs of taking action.” He was not involved with the research or the writing of the report.

Earlier this year, Professor Mann published a paper focusing on how changes to the jet stream as the Earth grows warmer are contributing to a range of extreme events from heat waves in North America, Europe, and Asia to wildfires in California and flooding in Japan. He says the study by Dr. Mora and  his colleagues fits well with his own research and “is, if anything, overly conservative” in  that it may underestimate the threats and costs associated with anthropomorphic climate change.

IPCC 6 And You

There has been no lack of warnings recently about the dangers the Earth faces from higher average temperatures. The latest IPCC 6 climate report says humanity has only about 10 years to take dramatic action to curb carbon emissions. Another recent report says if we keep doing what we have been doing, average global temperatures will likely rise by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

What will it take to get nations and the business community to take the threat of climate change seriously? Sadly, for many the idea of spending money to address the problem is just too painful to contemplate when there are lavish executive compensation plans to fund and shareholder value to be created. But as Michael Mann suggests, as expensive as addressing climate change may be, not addressing it will be infinitely more costly.

Humanity being unable to see much beyond the end of next week, the only thing that might save us is the economic imperative that underlies virtually all human endeavor. The amount of renewable energy is increasing dramatically around the world not because utility companies have suddenly decided to polish their green credentials but because wind and solar cost less money than conventional methods of generating electricity. Manufacturers large and small are bringing fleets of electric delivery trucks to market not because they worry about rising ocean levels but because they cost less to own and operate than conventional vehicles.

The immutable laws of economics — rooted as they are in avarice and acquisitive behavior — have gotten us into this mess. All of human commerce today is predicated on the energy provided by fossil fuels. Only those same laws of economics can save us. If it is cheaper to preserve the environment than destroy it, that is what people will do. We can only hope a reordering of economic priorities takes place before the oceans close over the isle of Manhattan and other coastal cities.

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October 9th, 2018 by  in Clean Technica 

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.

The carbon budget of 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 GuardianWill 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.