The Climate Crisis
Coming to Grips with the Truth of Our Situation
Creighton University Associate Professor Richard Miller delivered the keynote address at the 2016 Annual Peace Conference October 29 in Omaha. The article below, which he wrote specifically for the Nebraska Report, expertly summarizes the substance of his talk.
The climate change problem is unlike any other problem that we face as a society because it is irreversible on time scales of thousands of years with impacts that can last millions of years (e.g. the loss of biodiversity through species extinction). The shocking truth is that the decisions we make over the coming years will determine the conditions of life for human beings and non-human nature for thousands and possibly millions of years. This is due to the long life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the thermal inertia of the oceans, and the cascading effects that their enduring influence will bring into play.
The implications of the long life of carbon dioxide are not widely understood outside the climate science community. Around 50 percent of the CO2 we release is absorbed in around 25 years 1 by soils, land vegetation, and the oceans, while around 25 percent of it will still be affecting the climate after a thousand years, 12 percent after 10,000 years and around 7 percent of it will be affecting the climate a hundred thousand years from now. This means that the mean lifetime of CO2 in atmosphere is 30,000-35,000 years 2. Over such long time scales, carbon dioxide’s heat-trapping potential can set in motion the eventual collapse of ice sheets (another irreversible impact) and set in motion other chain reactions (i.e. positive feedbacks) that will substantially increase warming. In addition, most of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases goes into heating the ocean (to date around 90 percent). 3 The ocean takes time to heat up (i.e. thermal inertia), and once the deep oceans are heated, it takes time for them, and the planet, to cool down. This means that once emissions are stopped, temperatures will remain elevated for around a thousand years. 4 Thus, if we do not reduce emissions substantially, our inaction will, in the words of the distinguished climate economist Ross Garnaut, “haunt humanity to the end of time.”5
Through the burning of fossil fuels (around 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions) and the felling of forests (around 11 percent),6 which when alive take in CO2 and release oxygen, CO2 levels are increasing in the atmosphere. While CO2 levels have been much higher than they are now at different times in the earth’s history, the increase in CO2 from 280 ppm to 400 ppm since the Industrial Revolution is destabilizing the “Holocene”—the geological epoch in which civilization has developed because it was typified by a relatively stable climate including stable sea levels. The terrible truth of this destabilization is being revealed through scientific research perhaps most notably by two studies from leading researchers who maintain that six glaciers on the West Antarctica ice sheet are now in a phase of unstoppable melt that will lead to a sea level rise of 1.2 meters (4 feet). If these studies hold up, this means that we have already condemned to destruction Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Saint Petersburg, and Miami. These estimates do not factor in storm surge damage, which will likely ravage our coasts much earlier. One study suggests that a five-foot sea-level rise—which we are likely already committed to when we factor in contributions from Greenland—would bring Superstorm Sandy-style surges every other year along the East Coast, putting our cities under siege.7 This level of sea-level rise (4 feet) also condemns much of the rice-growing regions of Asia to destruction, including 50 percent of the rice fields in Bangladesh (home to 160 million people with projections of 250 million by 2050) and more than half of those in Vietnam (the world’s second-largest rice exporter). This will lead to large-scale movements of people which will likely lead to conflict, as the drought in Darfur led to nearly 300,000 deaths from malnutrition, disease and conflict, and the most intense drought in the history of Syria led to mass migrations of farmers into the cities, contributing to the destabilizing of Syria and its descent into civil war.8
The unstoppable melt from West Antarctica will also, according to NASA scientist Eric Rignot, “likely [a two-thirds chance] trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea-level rise of between three and five meters [10 to 16 feet].”9 A 16-foot rise would condemn Boston and Houston and reduce San Diego, Seattle, and New York to remnants of their former selves. While Rignot states conservatively that this collapse could take centuries, a subsequent study has shown that over the past five years there has been a doubling of ice mass loss on Greenland and West Antarctica.10 While it is too early to see if this trend will continue, renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen has argued that three to four feet of sea level rise is possible, on our current path, in 50 years (i.e. 2065).11
Drought will, however, be arriving earlier. Indeed, the transition to a more arid climate in the U.S. Southwest might already be under way 12 and, as we continue on our present path, there is an increasing likelihood of mega-droughts 13—the kind that led to the destruction of past civilizations.
To avoid a continued escalation of sea level and drought over the coming centuries, Dr. Hansen argues that we need to reduce CO2 levels from their current 400 ppm levels to below 350 ppm by the end of the century. To meet this goal requires a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use and the removal of a 100 GtC (i.e. 367 billion metric tons of CO2) from the atmosphere over the next 90 years through improved forestry and agricultural practices. Because of the long life of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), it is not enough to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions; rather, there is only a limited amount of carbon dioxide we can still put into the atmosphere. If we assume that we will draw the prescribed CO2 from the atmosphere through improved forestry and agricultural practices, then we must reduce CO2 emissions by 6 percent a year (Hansen’s starting point in his paper was 2013). If we delay emission reductions until 2020, then we need to reduce emissions globally at a rate of 15 percent per year. 14
To recognize the staggering scale of this carbon reduction challenge, it is important to recall that the only time that emission reductions over a ten-year period have been more than 1 percent per year was during the economic collapse (i.e. a halving of the economy) of the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall when emissions declined 5.2 percent per year. 15 This description of the possible impacts and the unprecedented reductions that are necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change make it clear why 20 Past Winners of the “Blue Planet Prize”16 published a synthesis paper for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in which they maintained: “In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”17
Since the establishment in 1992 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United States—based on its global economic and political influence and its historical responsibility for the climate problem (the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of the CO2 in the atmosphere)—has done more damage to the international process than any other country. President Obama has trumpeted his climate legacy and even spoken of U.S. global leadership on climate change after the Paris Climate Agreement. The science belies these claims. At Paris, the U.S. pledged to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 (including emission reductions from land use change and forestry). Excluding land use change and forestry the U.S. commitment is 19-24 percent below 2005 levels, which is equivalent to reducing emissions 6 to 12 percent below 1990 levels (which is the year most other countries relate their emission reductions). The policies the U.S. has in place, however, will only reduce emissions 9 percent below 2005 levels by 2025—which is 5 percent above 1990 levels.18
What does the science tell us? To avoid or delay the worst of climate change impacts, the U.S. and other developed countries need to reduce emissions 56 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. 19 While the U.S. policies are woefully inadequate relative to reductions prescribed in the scientific literature and are even inadequate to meet U.S. targets, they were enough to help secure the Paris Agreement in 2015. The Paris agreement was also inadequate. The hope has been that while the agreement was non-binding and thus did not have a legal framework to enforce emissions reductions it could signal to global investors that the world is going to move off of fossil fuels. As such, the hope was that it could precipitate a great deal of investment in renewable energies. It appears that that is indeed happening as the growth of wind and solar has exceeded all forecasts with about ‘70 percent of all investment in electric power generation worldwide flowing to renewables’ 20 in 2015. Leading analysts maintain that the “question is no longer if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long it will take.”21 While President-elect Trump has pledged to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, cancel Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” and open up our public lands for more fossil fuel development, he cannot stop the transition to renewable energy. He can, however, slow the process down and, as I have shown, delay is deadly.
There are three final points that must be kept in mind in coming to grips with this situation. First, we have, according to the distinguished Stanford researcher Mark Jacobsen, enough wind and solar in developable locations to power the world 50 times over 22 and moving the entire world to renewables by 2030 would be comparable to the cost of our present fossil fuel energy mix if we take into account the huge health costs from burning fossil fuels. 23 Should renewables not be sufficient, there is advanced nuclear technology (fourth-generation nuclear) that might be able to be brought online in several decades. 24 Second, we have model policies ready to be implemented (dependent upon political will), which will increase employment and make us richer and healthier while meeting the carbon reduction challenge. 25 Third, small percentages of the population (3.5 percent of particular populations) 26 can effect social and political transformation through the practice of nonviolent civil resistance. Right now, around 24 percent of the U.S. population is willing to financially support organizations that engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against entities that make global warming worse, while 13 percent are willing to personally engage in such actions. 27 Ultimately, the power of a government derives from “the obedience and submission of its subjects.”28 The horror that is reverberating among a great deal of the population (some of whom are protesting in the streets) at the election of Donald Trump needs to be channeled to build a coalition among immigrants, people of color, democracy advocates, peace groups, and environmental activists to try to avert many of President-elect Trump’s devastating proposals and to move us on to a World War II-type mobilization to rapidly transition to renewable energy after 2020.
1. James Hansen, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PlosOne Vol. 8, Issue 12 (2013), 10.
2. David Archer, “Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geological time,” Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 110, Issue C9 (2005), 1-6.
3. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association National Climactic Data Center, 2009 State of the Climate Highlights, 4.
4. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, Pierre Friedlingstein, “Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 6 (February 10, 2009), 1704-1709, at 1704.
5. Ross Garnaut, The Garnaut Climate Change Review (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 597.
6. See charts at https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data, which draws upon data from IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.) (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 2014).
7. Mark Fischetti, “Sea Level Rise 5 Feet in New York City by 2100,” Scientific American, May 24, 14,2013.
8. C.P. Kelley, S. Mohtadi, M.A. Cane, R. Seager, & Y. Kushnir, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” (2015) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(11), 3241–3246.
9. Eric Rignot, “Global warming: it’s a point of no return in West Antarctica. What happens next?,” Guardian, May 17, 2014.
10. Robin McKie, “‘Incredible’ rate of polar ice loss alarms scientists,” Guardian, August 23, 2014.
11. James Hansen et al, “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2°C global warming could be dangerous,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, vol. 16 (2016), 3761–3812.
12. Richard Seager et al, “Model Projections of an Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America, Science 316 (5828), (April 5, 2007), 1181-1184.
13. “NASA Study Finds Carbon Emissions Could Dramatically Increase Risk of U.S. Megadroughts,” Feb. 12, 2015, http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/february/nasa-study-finds-carbon-emissions-could-dramatically-increase-risk-of-us, accessed Sept. 19, 2016.
14. See James Hansen, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’,” 10.
15. Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 231-232.
16. The Blue Planet Prize is a prize (often referred to as the Nobel for environmental sciences) awarded to scientists whose scientific research contributes to solving global environmental problems. Authors for this synthesis paper included global leaders in climate science and climate economics. They included Dr. James Hansen (former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies & one of the most important climate scientists over the past 40 years); Dr. Susan Solomon (Senior Scientists US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association & Chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee that produced the 2010 Climate Science Report); Professor Sir Bob Watson (Chief Scientific Advisor in the UK & Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1997 to 2002); Lord (Robert) May of Oxford (Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government & President of the Royal Society of London (1660); Lord Nicholas Stern (Professor, the London School of Economics Former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank from 2000 to 2003, and author of the most influential work in climate economics - The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review)
17. Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, “Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act”, (The Asahi Glass Foundation, 2012), 7.
18. Climate Action Tracker, USA, http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa.html, accessed Nov. 21, 2016.
19. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, Beyond Dangerous Climate Change, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 20-44 at 30-31; http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.full.pdf+html.
20. Bobby Magill, “Renewables Poised for Rapid Growth Worldwide,” Climate Central, Oct. 25, 2016
21. Tom Randall, “Fossil Fuels Just Lost the Race Against Renewables: This is the beginning of the end,” Bloomberg News, April 14, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-14/fossil-fuels-just-lost-the-race-against-renewables , accessed Nov. 21, 2016.
22. Mark Z. Jacobsen and Mark A Delucchi, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials,” Energy Policy 39 (2011), 1154-1169; Mark Z. Jacobsen and Mark A Delucchi, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part II: Reliability, system and transmission costs, and policies, Energy Policy 39 (2011), 1170-1190.
23. Louis Bergeron, “The world can be powered by alternative energy, using today’s technology, in 20-40 years,” Stanford News, Jan. 26, 2011, http://news.stanford.edu/news/2011/january/jacobson-world-energy-012611.html (accessed July 30, 2015).
24. Tom Blees, Prescription for the Planet: The Painless Remedy for Our Energy and Environmental Crises (Booksurge.com, 2008).
25. Citizens Climate Lobby, “REMI Report,” https://citizensclimatelobby.org/remi-report/ , accessed Nov. 21, 2016.
26. See Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press: New York, NY, 2011).
27. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, How Americans Communicate About Global Warming April 2013, http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/how-americans-communicate-about-global-warming-april-2013/#sthash.tQ9hvVeP.dpuf , accessed Nov. 21, 2016.
28. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), 16.