We have zero years to solve our addiction to hydrocarbon energy.
How many times have we heard: We have a decade, or we have three years, or we have until 2020? In the 1980s, ecologists used to say, “We have to solve this by 2000”, which is now a decade behind us. We don’t have 10 years or 3 years, or any years. We are already far behind any sort of timeline that might have kept Earth’s temperature from rising +2°C from the pre-industrial era. We are now gambling our progeny’s future with runaway heating that could ravage human agriculture, devastate the remaining forests, increase extinctions, and flood every coastal city on Earth.
In the late 19th century, when Swedish chemist Svente Arrhenius predicted the impact of CO2, he warned that the radiation absorption would add “heat” to Earth’s atmosphere. In the 1970s, when ecologists learned from scientists about the risk of human carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions, we spoke of “global heating.” The phrase “global warming” became popular in the 1980s, although “heating” is the correct scientific term. Then, in 2003, the petroleum industry public relations machine came up with “climate change” to convince the public that the impact was natural and non-urgent.
It is time we return to the physically precise term, “global heating,” because that is what we are doing: We are heating Earth’s atmosphere, land, and oceans, and simultaneously turning the entire Earth ecosystem acidic. We should avoid the ambiguous euphemism “climate change” and speak clearly: “Global heating.”
Among modern society’s greatest villains, stand the little band of industry-funded “dissenters” – paid-off marginal scientists and mercenary ecology imposters – who spin a mythology that global heating is normal “climate change,” not real, or that it is caused by some force other than human carbon-dioxide. Geoscientists James L. Powell documented 13,950 peer-reviewed, scientific climate articles from the last 20 years and found that 99.83 % of these articles accept the unambiguous data that confirms global heating caused by human carbon effluents. The impostors perpetrate crimes against humanity and all of nature by denying these facts.
Sun vs. carbon
Recently, another “dissenter” has claimed that global heating is caused by changes in solar radiance. This claim defies the actual data, which remains clear as a bell. Heating and cooling result from what energy scientists call “forcings,” direct heat, dissipation of heat, insulation that retains heat, and so forth.
Annually, NASA’s Dr. James Hanson and others publish updates on the well-documented forcings that impact global temperature. The latest summary of these forcings is contained in a paper by Dr. Andrew Glikson at Australian National University: “No Alternative to atmospheric CO2 draw-down: A geological perspective.”
Heat, or energy transference, is typically measured in watts, about ¼ of a calorie of energy transferred in one second. Global heating forcings are measured in watts per square-meter (Watt/m2) of Earth’s surface. Glikson’s paper documents the actual forcings – both cooling and heating – that have impacted Earth’s temperature over recent centuries. Here is the summary:
Change in Radiative forcings, 1800 to Present:
Solar irradiance: Compared to pre-industrial solar energy, the sun’s energy output has fluctuated between zero and + 0.3 Watt/m2 over the last two centuries, yielding a slight heating effect that could account for about 5% (or less) of the observed temperature increase.
Human Greenhouse gases: The heat forcing from human carbon and other gases has risen from approximately zero in 1800 to + 3.1 Watt/m2 today, rising annually, and which accounts for about 95% (or more) of Earth’s temperature increase over the last two hundred years.
Volcanoes have had an intermittent cooling effect, by releasing aerosols, particles of ash and sulfur-dioxide that scatter and absorb sunlight. The cooling impact – most recently from the El Chicon and Pinatubo eruptions in 1982 and 1991 – is localized, intermittent, and short lived. On average, volcanoes have had a slight cooling effect.
Human aerosols rise from burning tropical forests, coal and oil, and now exceed the impact of volcanic aerosols. The effect has reached about -1.6 Watt/m2, a cooling, which has mitigated the impact of heating from human greenhouse gases.
Determining the Net Forcing is a simple matter of adding and subtracting. The effects of volcanoes, solar fluctuations, and human land use changes, net out to virtually zero. Human greenhouse gases and human aerosols are the only energy forcings that have serious temperature impact, and the math is simple enough for grade-school children:
+ 3.1 Watt/m2 heating from human greenhouse gases
– 1.6 Watt/m2 cooling from human aerosols
+ 1.5 Watt/m2 net heating.
So how much heat is this? Consider a typical 1500-watt space heater that can be used to heat a room. Earth’s surface area is 510 trillion square-meters. Multiply this by 1.5, and we see the net heat forcing is about 765 trillion watts. This is the equivalent of placing 500 billion such electric space heaters across Earth’s surface, land and sea, 30 meters apart, running 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
This is the global net forcing that has resulted from human industrial activity, from the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere. The net impact of fluctuating solar radiance remains trivial regarding the temperature increase from these gases since 1800.
No confusion. No controversy. No hidden data. And none of this is particularly complex science. Svente Arrhenius roughly predicted these results over a century ago. James Lovelock estimated similar results in the 1960s. The denialists huff and puff like 16th century church patriarchs, who refused to accept that Earth orbited the Sun.
Unfortunately, our dilemma is even more complex. The heating creates feedback mechanisms that cause more heating. Since 1800, atmospheric CO2 concentration has risen from approximately 280ppm (parts per million) to approximately 400ppm, but since the extra heat is melting the permafrost and releasing methane (CH4), and since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas, climate scientists must calculate the “carbon-dioxide-equivalent” (CO2-e) that includes the methane impact.
In fact, scientists must consider all the amplifying feedbacks caused by warming, including at least:
1. Methane release from melting permafrost
2. Albedo loss, changes in Earth’s reflective properties from ice melt
3. Vegetation loss from droughts and deforestation
4. Fires, increasing due to heating, and
5. Warmer water that sequesters less CO2
Using the more appropriate CO2-e figure, since 1800, atmospheric CO2–e concentration has risen from 280ppm to 470ppm, a 68% increase in the heat-trapping capacity of these gases in Earth’s atmosphere. The build-up of these gases, however, has not been linear, but rather exponential. This means that not only are the gases accumulating, but the rate of accumulation is increasing. We’re not just speeding down the highway toward a cliff, we are accelerating, as we see by looking at the annual greenhouse gas increases over the last millennium:
1000 -1750: 279 to 275 ppm (– 4 ppm) . . . . . . . . . . ~ 0.0 ppm / year
1750-1850: 275 to 285.5 ppm (+10.5 ppm) . . . . . . + 0.1 ppm / year
1850-1950: 285.5 to 313 ppm (+ 27.5 ppm) . . . . . . + 0.3 ppm / year
1950-2012: 313 to 470 ppm (CO2-e, +157 ppm) . . + 2.5 ppm / year
Thus, we see, that most of the change has occurred since 1950, and since these changes have unleashed feedback mechanisms, the increase in greenhouse effect will likely continue even if we reduce fossil fuel use. According to the 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) projections – without urgent, worldwide policy changes – the greenhouse gas accumulation rate will more than triple to + 8 ppm / year by 2100.
These data have led climate scientists to re-examine the temperature increases expected over this century. Past projections have been conservative and have tended to be linear, but since the gas build-up is non-linear, exponential; and since observed temperature increases, ice melts, methane releases, and so forth also appear exponential; projected temperature rise has been adjusted upwards in recent studies.
Runaway global heating
A comprehensive study of future temperature increase, the MIT Integrated Global Systems Model (A.P. Sokolov, P.H. Stone, et. al., American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate, 2009) doubled the earlier 2003 estimates.
The MIT group ran 400 variations of the model, changing certain input parameters, including variations in physical conditions, human activity, economic policy, and so forth. The projections indicate a median probability by 2100 of CO2 concentration reaching 550 ppm and a median probability of Earth heating by 5.2 degrees Celsius (°C), with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 °C, compared to the 2003 estimates of 2.4°C.
The lower bound, or minimum projected heating, is now + 2.4°C by 2100, with a “very small probability” it will be this low, and only with drastic, immediate, global policy changes that reduce our reliance on oil and gas.
So there you have it: The United Nations goal of restricting Earth’s heat increase to + 2°C by 2100, has already failed. A century of science and two decades of “climate meetings” have failed. The world’s governments and corporations have failed. As we exceed the + 2°C threshold, we risk runaway heating as the feedback mechanisms kick in. As we approach the median probability of Earth heating by +5.2 °C, we almost certainly activate runaway heating.
To global heating, we can add the greatest species collapse in 65 million years. Earth has undergone changes of this magnitude before, and will endure, but human culture has not. Throughout the Holocene, the last 12 millennia, humanity developed agriculture, urban life, and industrial technology in a relatively stable climate. In the last 200 years, we have destabilized Earth’s climate; flooded our lands, air and water with toxins; turned the oceans acidic; and obliterated millions of species. Our progeny now face an uncertain and troubling future.
As an ecologist in the 1970s, I believed that humanity would respond to the ecological imperative as it responded to the social imperative; that we would develop an ecological society just as we developed ideas of democracy, civil rights, and women’s rights. Perhaps our natural optimism bias and good intentions led us to believe circumstances would improve, but the data shows us something quite the opposite. It now appears that our optimism was misplaced. The ecology movement may have one last chance, but the stakes are now much higher, and our actions – to succeed – will have to be similarly more rigorous.