Hope and climate change

According to various reports, Obama is making a speech today in which he will announce limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These limits can be imposed by regulation, and are justified by court decisions requiring the Environmental Protection Authority to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

Going from realistic hope to wishful thinking, a sufficiently positive reaction on this might give him the nerve to block the Keystone pipeline. But strong action on power plants would be enough for me – it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

57 thoughts on “Hope and climate change

  1. Let’s hope.

    Or the Nobel committee could recall his peace prize. He must do something to justify all that expectation. Health funding reform is a big step to Americans, but on foreign policy and climate change he is a huge disappointment.

  2. It is time for unilateral action for the US.
    They can link it back to trade sanctions
    for countries that do not comply much the
    way it did with the dolphin safe tuna.

    If you permit me to toot my own horn,
    I would recommend the OUP book I did
    with a WTO lawyer, Bradly Condon.

    http://goo.gl/C8p4g

    Tapen

  3. Actually, there is already no hope except eventual mass migration to Antarctica in the millenia ahead. Runaway climate change or at least 6 to 8 degrees celsius, average warming, is already built into the system. Our distant descendents, if any, will inhabit the continent of Antartica. It will have a sub-tropical to tropical climate as it did when “52 million years ago summer temperatures in coastal Antarctica reached up to 27 degrees Celsius, and the climate was similar to modern-day Queensland.” – Science Alert.

    This was on the coasts of Antarctica. The interior was cooler and supported “the growth of temperate rainforests similar to beech forests…”.

    It would make a great “science-future” novel this eventual colonisation of Antarctica. I am sure several good ones have already been written but I don’t know of any myself.

    All current countries, except maybe Canada and Sibera are finished mid to long term. Maybe some people will hang on in Patagonia. The future will mainly lie south in Anatarctica. It will perforce be a low energy / renewable energy culture. With humans (other than perhaps scattered, hardy bands) removed from the rest of the planet, it will slowly recover.

  4. “Runaway climate change or at least 6 to 8 degrees celsius, average warming, is already built into the system.”

    Why make assertions like this? You must know that most scientists disagree (see IPCC reports), and you don’t have any expertise of your own. This is not much better than delusionism.

  5. Given the entrenched denialism within conservative politics in America, I’m struggling to feel optimistic that their politics will deliver solutions there any better than ours will. By the time bipartisanship is sufficiently established to enact effective policies we’ll be carried another decade or two past the point of no return – and carrying us past the point of pointlessness appears to be the absolute aim of big mining, big business, big finance and their big conservative political voices in defense of their business models.

    Solving the climate problem seems to be entirely down to a race between fast improving alternatives and entrenched interests that seeks to hobble rather than enable those alternatives. ie if we solve this successfully it will be sheer luck that low emissions energy will turn out to be cheaper than fossil fuels, even fossil fuels that are assisted by governments and allowed to defray all climate costs to the world at large.

    I think the Big Boys (mostly boys) really believed their own ‘renewables can’t do the job’ rhetoric, successfully used the ‘if it’s a problem greens should push for nuclear’ line to shift the debate from what they should be doing to what greens aren’t, and shift the discussion of which technologies from nuclear and renewables vs fossil fuels to renewables vs nuclear to the benefit of fossil fuels. And, despite the criticism of environmentalist for not pushing nuclear they haven’t really been pushing for nuclear themselves. I think they were so sure that the nuclear was the only viable option, that environmentalists would oppose it, conservative politics would not push for it (no climate problem, no need), that fossil fuels would be the inevitable do nothing winners by default.

    They expected wind and solar to be total fizzers and planned accordingly, even to giving environmentalists and renewables enough rope to hang themselves; if they had foreseen how far and fast wind and solar would grow to become competitive the efforts to use their enormous political power to hobble renewables would have been better planned and started in earnest much earlier.

  6. JQ, should one read into your post that you have given up on efficient climate change mitigation, rather than command & control, as a politically feasible option?

  7. @Evan

    As far as the US is concerned, and as long as the Repubs maintain a veto, yes. Oddly enough, China is now going in a more market/price oriented direction.

  8. Triggers for Obama’s announcement could be the recent record temperatures in Alaska and the earlier than expected peaking of the fracking boom. Without administrative CO2 penalties the US switched from coal fired to gas fired generation a process now in reverse. Note the US is soon to export LNG for the first time as is the Australian east coast next year. For all the faults explicit CO2 pricing like carbon tax is fairly transparent. If as expected Obama says generators must achieve a portfolio standard of under 450 kg of CO2 per Mwh then the moral equivalents of the gun lobby will scream that it is socialist. Still if it works without massive loopholes it could be better than explicit pricing.

    @Ken Fabian last year we had 13% renewable electricity about 60% of that from 20th century built hydro. Wind and solar had multiple layers of generous help .. feed in tariffs, subsidies for Chinese made solar panels, small and large scale renewable energy certificates, shortfall charges for electricity resellers, purchase rebates and green grants plus the fact coal was nobbled (in theory) by carbon tax. Wind and solar achieving ~6% of the mix is hardly overwhelming, a bit like a Formula One car getting to shops half a minute quicker.

  9. I haven’t changed my mind that the single most efficient way to minimise the externalities associated with industrial use of ecosystem services remains explicit pricing. That said, if explicit pricing proves politically unviable and the choice is between nothing/something manifestly inadequate and some kind of evidence based regulatory control, I’m for regulatory control. Indeed, I suspect regulation would be a useful adjunct to a framework shaped by explicit pricing in any event.

    If a consequence of having a regulatory system to manage pollution results in the imposition of higher costs on industry per tonne of abatement I’m perfectly relaxed about that — and it might just be that some of those in industry who have waged a trolling populist campaign against pricing, sneering that “if it’s so terrible why not just ban it?” might wonder if they shouldn’t have been more careful at what they wished for.

    A system in which not just CO2 but other pollutants emitted from stationary energy plants were strictly controlled with swingeing fines for breaches would clean the air and likely spur a shift to less polluting energy, greater energy efficiency and ultimately higher real prices anyway — this time imposed by “business” rather than the hated state.

    Over at one of the other places I post, some RW delusionist asked “why don’t we just shut down Hazelwood and save 10% of our GHGs in one go?” Let’s put aside the figure for the moment — I’m all in favour of that — but the delusionist, who in every other case is a supporter of business forgets that

    1. Hazelwood is private property — in part owned by CBA and some super funds — and would insist on just compensation
    2. Assuming the power supplied by Hazelwood could be met by more intensive use of other existing sources, prices would probably rise.
    3. These sources, unless carbon-neutral, would add to the footprint.

    I’d simply regulate Hazelwood out of existence and pay them nothing of course.

  10. Ikonoclast:

    “Runaway climate change or at least 6 to 8 degrees celsius, average warming, is already built into the system.”

    You’ve also told us that every house in Victoria should be built to withstand a category 5 cyclone and that we may soon all need to live in underground houses on hills.

    Have you thought about teaming up with Screaming Lord Monckton and doing a stand up routine?

    Seriously, this infantile nonsense just feeds into the idea that people who accept that AGW is a genuine problem are crazy lunatics. Let’s be sensible on our side and leave the lunacy to the other side. Let’s maintain a clear bright line of separation such that reasonable people will spot the difference.

  11. Hermit, 6% of the mix is more than the doubters ever imagined possible. Most of that has happened within the last decade. Subsidised, yes, but don’t tell me fossil fuels haven’t and don’t benefit from subsidies – with being let off the climate costs of their activities being a huge ongoing subsidy. The next decade begins with reduced subsidies for wind and solar but with costs the lowest they’ve ever been – as in lower than the critics ever imagined possible.

  12. I can’t see the objective of this is anything other than to push generators to gas fired power stations. Unless it is just a token gesture.
    Most power stations run at over 50% efficiency (haven’t actually checked but am sure it is around 70% – 75% for modern power stations supplying a constant demand). Nor am I aware of any upcoming developments for power stations. I would be surprised if a 10% reduction in CO2 over a 10 yr old design can be achieved.
    For the less technical, CO2 production and efficiency are pretty much the same thing for any single fuel type.

  13. I would disagree that “6-8 degrees celsius” is “locked in” as far as the physics goes (unless all the feedbacks like permafrost methane etc.. work out really bad).

    But it might not be such a far-fetched “alarmist” suggestion if we assume the world continues to be run by the people and ideologies we have now (free market fundamentalists, neo-cons etc..).

    According to “350’s” “Do The Maths”:

    It’s simple maths: we can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Burning the fossil fuel that corporations now have in their reserves would result in emitting 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide

    That’s about five times the “safe” amount, and I’m not seeing much sign of any change coming from TPTB that we’ll avoid that.

  14. is unilateral action better than no action at all?

    There were 5 republican senators who would have voted for cap and trade in April 2010: Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, and George LeMieux.

    Obama passed nonetheless on woirking to get the house bill through the senate. should all be forgiven? was he expecting to have a stronger congressional base in 2011?

  15. In defense of Iconoclast I would say that 6 to 8 degrees probably is built into the system – into the global economic system that is. Not yet built into the climate system, but it’s the clear intent of the big business end of town that there will be no impediments to continuing growth of use of fossil fuels or restrictions on global emissions, regardless of how likely it is that it would lead to 6 to 8 degrees of warming.

    A conservative government will mean Australia will not go into future climate treaties with sincere intent to get effective agreements. The lack of effective agreement will be further excuse for pulling back our nation’s local efforts to permanently reduce emissions. Carbon will be unpriced ie subsidised via “future eating” in the form the loss of stable climate and losses of future prosperity and security. Export coal and gas will – for the sake of short term economics – be maximally supported, protected and encouraged to grow as far and as fast as possible. It will not seek to put nuclear on the table but will continue to suggest green opposition is the only reason they won’t. Simultaneously, impediments will be put in the way of renewables so existing energy businesses won’t suffer.

    To suggest that 6 to 8 degrees is likely (as opposed to possible) may be a misreading of the science, but to suggest it’s a misreading of politics and economics- at least as practiced in Australia and America – would be wrong.

  16. John Quiggin :
    “Runaway climate change or at least 6 to 8 degrees celsius, average warming, is already built into the system.”
    Why make assertions like this? You must know that most scientists disagree (see IPCC reports), and you don’t have any expertise of your own. This is not much better than delusionism.

    The upper end of the scenarios (A1F1) in the very conservative and politically managed IPCC report comes in at a likely range of 2.4 – 6.4 degrees C rise by year 2100. This is from the AR4 Synthesis report. My assertion’s low end of 6 – 8 degrees C overlaps this range. My assertion, at least at the low end, is not out of the range calculated as probable given scenario A1F1. If I am reading it correctly this scenario is based on 1,550 ppm CO2e. This scenario might seem very high given our current reading of 400 ppm CO2. I can’t quickly find a current CO2e reading. However, given the greater weight now being given to methane release scenarios becoming possible (from the tundra and seabed methane clathrates) a scenario of 1,550 ppm CO2e does not now appear all that unlikely, in my opinion.

    Researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) and Harvard University published findings in the journal Science on Mar 8 this year.

    One summary notes “thanks primarily to carbon pollution, the temperature is (now) changing 50 times faster than it did during the time modern civilization and agriculture developed, a time when humans figured out where the climate conditions — and rivers and sea levels — were most suited for living and farming. We are headed for 7 to 11°F warming this century on our current emissions path — increasing the rate of change 5-fold yet again.”

    11°F = 6.1 °C. The RATE of change is as great a concern as the magnitude of change. This enormous rate of change bodes very ill for species survival as temperature contours migrate rapidly across latitudes and up altitudes.

    Again, the low end of my claim is not higher than the high end of mainstream claims. Not all scientists would disagree with the low end of my claim. This is why I make the claim. It is not unreasonable for me to hold an opinion at the high end of mainstream science.

    My general experience of the world indicates to me that most people have a high optimism bias. This subjective optimism combined with further related biases to conservative (BAU) and complacent positions suggests to me that even high end consensus estimates will still be conservatively biased. This is an opinion. I don’t resile from that. To suggest near delusion when someone merely takes a high end position based on the probabilities indicated by mainstream science is excessive IMO. You will note too my assertion did not contain a time-frame. It was open ended. I don’t limit my thinking in these matters to the next hundred years. Ten thousand years is more sensible time frame to consider, even if one is merely looking at these matters anthropocentrically.

    Well, I have explained why I make assertions like this. You might or might not accept these reasons. My own opinion is that the optimism bias is admirable in many ways but it is already stretching hope and credulity.

  17. @Ken Fabian

    Thank you, Ken. I did want to make that point too. However, I felt that pointing out the vagueness or even complete lack of definition of my term “the system” (so that I could bring in the argument of the economic-industrial system and its momentum) was going to do my case as much harm as good. I thank you for raising the point as it sounds better coming from another party.

    When I blog with vague or undefined terms as I did there, I do tend to mean the widest definition possible. Of course that would mean I was referring to coupled systems or systems of systems. I do think most here ought to be smart enough to inuit and comprehend the possibility of that wider definition and its implications.

  18. Ken Fabian:

    “In defense of Iconoclast I would say that 6 to 8 degrees probably is built into the system – into the global economic system that is. ”

    Sigh.

    I watched a TED Talk a couple of days ago and learnt that New York City, according to the erudite gentlemen alarmists of the mid-19th century, would need to be abandoned before the dawn of the 20th century because it wouldn’t be able to cope with 1,000,000 tonnes of horseshit each year.

    The point of the story is that this notion of linear trend lines stretching forever into the future is nonsense.

    AGW will be dealt with but unfortunately, because of the breakdown of bipartisanship, it will be dealt with much less expeditiously than is desirable. However once the major players like China, America and the EU countries suffer sufficient catastrophes they will ramp up their efforts to combat AGW simply as a matter of pure naked self-interest.

    Meanwhile, have you noticed how most of the scientists in the delusionist camp already have one foot in the grave? That’s another reason for quiet optimism/ muted pessimism.

  19. Sigh.

    I watched a TED Talk a couple of days ago and learnt that New York City, according to the erudite gentlemen alarmists of the mid-19th century, would need to be abandoned before the dawn of the 20th century because it wouldn’t be able to cope with 1,000,000 tonnes of horsesh!t each year.

    The point of the story is that this notion of linear trend lines stretching forever into the future is nonsense.

    AGW will be dealt with but unfortunately, because of the breakdown of bipartisanship, it will be dealt with much less expeditiously than is desirable. However once the major players like China, America and the EU countries suffer sufficient catastrophes they will ramp up their efforts to combat AGW simply as a matter of pure naked self-interest.

    Meanwhile, have you noticed how most of the scientists in the delusionist camp already have one foot in the grave? That’s another reason for quiet optimism/ muted pessimism.

  20. We CAN deal with AGW. It wouldn’t be very hard at all.

    When I hear people say that we can’t make slight changes to the way we live and our lifestyles in order to massively reduce CO2 output, I remember that not many years ago you would never see those same people picking up warm dog poo with their hands – but now they do it as a matter of habit and scowl at anyone else who doesn’t.

    We can do it, and I hope we do, but I suspect that we won’t – because our democracy is all broken.

    Apparently, for example, 84% of Australians want a South Australian style container refund/recycling system nationally but our supposedly democratic governments refuse to listen.

  21. Contra Ikon’s unsupported claim of a “very conservative and politically managed IPCC”, several high profile and mainstream climate scientists have become increasingly exasperated by the IPCC gatekeepers unwillingness to budge on a climate sensitivity estimate of 2-4.5C in spite of the volume of recent papers that suggest the true figure is somewhat south of this.

    It is worth reading this James Annan post and the supportive comments from Nic Lewis etc… Also worth reading previous Annan posts on the issue.

    The sensitivity figs preferred by Annan etc.. doesn’t mean AGW is less of an issue but does suggest muted pessimism is more realistic than hysterical claims that people will need to live in holes on hills.

    In Annan’s words:

    I don’t think the recent decade really changes the best estimate all that much, but it helps to confirm what sensible people were saying several years ago about extremely high values

  22. @Mel

    “AGW will be dealt with but unfortunately, because of the breakdown of bipartisanship, it will be dealt with much less expeditiously than is desirable. However once the major players like China, America and the EU countries suffer sufficient catastrophes they will ramp up their efforts to combat AGW simply as a matter of pure naked self-interest.” – Mel.

    I will break this down as I agree in part but have a major concern about another part.

    1. “because of the breakdown of bipartisanship, it (climate change) will be dealt with much less expeditiously than is desirable.” – Agreed, except that the word “desirable” might have to be changed to “necessary”.

    2. “once the major players like China, America and the EU countries suffer sufficient catastrophes they will ramp up their efforts to combat AGW simply as a matter of pure naked self-interest.” Agreed. However, what will constitute “sufficient catastrophes”? They will have to see sufficient catastrophes that are unambiguously and undeniably attributable to climate change (and cannot be denied by the even most adroit and glozing of the denialist interests).

    3. The phrase “AGW will be dealt with” unfortunately overlooks the issue of inbuilt forcing and the delayed response of the climate system. By the time conservative BAU interests have witnessed and had their bottom line noticeably damaged by “sufficient catastrophes” and decide to take action, highly damaging climate change will already be built into the climate system.

    It is a bit like saying of a driver taking a turn much too fast. “Well, by the time his fender is crumpling on the crash barrier he will realise he should be using the brakes”. Of course, by that time it is far too late to just be starting to apply the brakes.

    We are dealing with enormous systems here (both the political-economic-industrial system and the climate system) with enormous momentums. It’s not turn on a dime stuff.

  23. John Cook:

    Really all Annan is disputing is the ‘long tail’ of possible climate sensitivity values above 4.5°C, which Annan believes are more improbable than the IPCC report has stated. Nevertheless, the ‘long tail’ represents very low probability scenarios even in the IPCC report.

    Calling people names has never achieved anything of any use.

    In short: we have a serious problem.

  24. The Canadian government is a foretaste of what to expect after September. As for the US, the latest nervous bout of whistleblower-bashing actually indicates a few skeletons hidden in closets about the higher echelons of power.
    US Democracy is hopelessly hamstrung by a senile supreme court, reactionary red state/tea party power formation, and dominant commercial elite.
    Why would you be a reformer when the rewards for playing the game are lucrative and resistance painful, as Sen. Bernie Sanders often demonstrates?
    Dr Gary Sauer Thompson once described SA democracy as a “shopfront” peopled by “managers of decline”.
    My guess is that the macro example of the tendency is the USA itself.

  25. Perhaps the answer the political and institutional paralysis of short term concerns, such as jobs, and ongoing and increasing implications, is to redefine climate change as a national security issue.

    But then, everything, including the research, would have to be secret, accessible by the power elite, including insider corporations.

  26. Weasel words are pretty much a given with Obama as with most politicians.

    What matters is the number: 17 per cent below 2005 emissions levels. Obama has previously committed to this and the background briefing from his officials says that the measures will be enough to reach it

  27. big oil owns alberta . this was made shockingly clear when stelmach was removed in 2010 for talking about raising royalties. my family wrote that they were shocked. they’ve known their province is owned by big oil but they thought the conservatives had some influence. the conservatives have no influence on big oil.

    no one can, is permitted, to countenance stopping oil. no one will get preselection in any alberta political party who proposes to stop oil.

    alberta and its oil are the largest component of the canadian gdp displacing ontario & quebec for the first time in history. manufacturing is dead in the east because of oil. we call it a “two speed economy” and its driven by coal; they call it “the dutch disease”, and its driven by oil.

    harper is ensconced in ottawa. its a first past the post system with five parties.

    as Ken Fabian said: “Solving the climate problem seems to be entirely down to a race between fast improving alternatives and entrenched interests that seeks to hobble rather than enable those alternatives.”

    entrenched interests are driving oil extraction in alberta and governments are not in control anymore. -a.v.

  28. Not only was Obama’s speech disappointing China’s recently announced carbon curbs look half arsed as well. US retail gasolene prices are around $4 for 3.79L in Australia that would be nearer $6 with our higher excise. I suggest if gasolene gets to $6 and stays there the 2700 km pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to Texas will be get built since Obama didn’t rule it out.

    As with health care or gun control the proposal to limit power station emissions will face a hostile Congress and it may not happen in Obama’s term. As in Australia even if no new coal stations are built the behemoths we already have should last another 20 years. Meanwhile both countries export coal with a clear conscience since it ‘helps the poor’ or whatever. I’d say global emissions will keep increasing until limits-to-growth type negative feedbacks cause a general slowdown.

  29. Basically, there is already empirical proof that IPCC projections have been on the conservative downside. A number of parameters have already exhibited faster rises than high-end IPCC projections. Actual CO2 emissions, actual sea level rise, and actual sea ice decline have all risen faster than IPCC high-end projections. On the other hand, IPCC global surface temperature projections have been acccurate thus far.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/ipcc-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm

    Thus, my position is in general correct, namely that the IPCC has a conservative or cautious bias, understating the true dangers. Thus, adopting a position, as I do, with a lower bound of likely changes at the higher bound of IPCC projections is entirely consistent with the empirical data to date. Far from being “not much better than delusionism” this is in fact the most logical and empirically determined position to adopt given the data to date.

    Paleoclimate data analyses are further suggesting that climate sensitivity to CO2 levels is much greater than current climate models assume. This lends greater weight to an assessment that rises in average global temperature of 6 degrees to 8 degrees C are possible. Note, I did not specify a time frame. That amount of rise could take centuries. The sun is also hotter now than at previous eras of high CO2 levels and high average global temperatures. Solar radiative forcing is higher so that higher CO2 levels now become even more problematical or critical. All of these data support a high end temperature estimate and even concern about runaway global warming.

    I would suggest, in terms of the actual outcomes likely to be generated that “bright siding” the climate change debate is the functional equivalent to complacency which in turn is the functional equivalent to denialism and delusionism.

  30. Now JQ, was that damp squib sufficient in your view to “redeem” Obama? (Is the bar really set that low? – if so, then I suppose Obama has worked his usual magic…)

  31. @Tony lynch

    I don’t even see why one can’t simply note worthy programs (if there are such) that Obama has set in motion and even better implemented without going to the status of his Presidency as a whole.

    Obama, even in this area, has been a serious disappointment. In foreign policy and “national security/military” terms been comparable to Bush in some respects and in some respects, even worse. Backed by the Repugs he seems ready to arm groups in Syria that his government lists as terror|sts while snooping on the population to identify people backing terror|sts. Bush didn’t use drones to murder people with the frequency of Obama. The Bradley Manning matter has been horrible. His failure to deliver a fundamentally better system of health insurance and to take on Big Pharma has been dreadful.

    He probably would appear less disappointing if he hadn’t raise such hopes in 2008. He had a TDF hand after September 15 and utterly squandered it, allowing the Tea Party and delusionals in general to run riot. He could have saddled the Repugs with the entire responsibility for the mess and wedged them against both their libertarians and populists.

    So no, his presidency has been and will remain a profound disappointment whatever he does on climate change.

  32. Ikon,

    Hot blustering that starts with the weasel word, “basically”, is unconvincing.

    The technology needed to gain most of our energy from renewables already exists, as PrQ, has shown. If necessary, the developed world could go on to a “total war” footing to rapidly build and install these technologies, close down the coal plants etc… Again, out of nothing more than naked self-interest, these technologies could be shared at no cost with the developing world.

    Every generation has its bug-eyed “The End is Nigh” merchants. But every generation adapts and moves on, even if it doesn’t do so as expeditiously as it should.

  33. @Fran Barlow
    Fran, remember those Michael Moore Docos from years gone by? If there’s a reoccurring theme in them, it’s (to paraphrase) ‘you’d expect the Democrats to be better in [insert topical public interest behavior], but they were actually worse’
    Actually, ditto for much of the other public interest analysis conducted by democratic leaning analysts.

  34. @Ikonoklast. Your info on CO2 emissions is out of date. We are now below both A1F1 and A2 and look closer to A1T. That suggests that we are on track for 2-4 degrees warming at the moment.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/jun/11/climate-change-carbon-emissions-iea-silver-lining

    That’s obviously not satisfactory, but it means that 2 degrees is achievable with strong action – I’ll have a bit more to say about this soon. Asserting that 6-8 degrees of warming is inevitable, or even likely, is both wrong and unhelpful.

  35. @John Quiggin

    Has anyone measured the potential consequences of substantial loss of the permafrost and factored that into the timelines for action?

    Obviously, one of the ‘known unknowns’ would be how much of that will decompose to methane on the same timeline that humanity needs to cap anthropogenic emissions at around 450ppmv. If it became clear by, say 2030 that enough warming of the Arctic to substantially desequester all that pre-anthropic methane would occur, that would introduce a new and serious contributor to warming. That’s one of the reasons that I favour a cautious and early exploration of active atmospheric geo-engineering measures.

    Obviously, even 4degC would be disastrous as it would imply serious loss of snowpack and freshwater and albedo in those parts of the planet, with all the positive feedbacks these would trigger. It would also mean that some parts of the planet would become a lot warmer than 4DegC above pre-industrial climate by 2100.

  36. If extreme ice melt occurs at a lower than expected temp and threatens the seaside mansions of the plutocrats and causes a profit-munching global economic shock as the world’s major cities face the serious threat of looking like New Orleans post-Katrina, action will happen on a heretofore unimaginable scale. The world would galvanise with a singular purpose not seen since WWII.

    Fran is also correct to remind us that a cautious exploration of geo-engineering measures is a possibility that shouldn’t be ignored.

    I love the cabal series The Walking Dead but I very much doubt we face such an apocalyptic scenario, at least not in the first world. But I’m glad I’m not a Bangladeshi …

  37. Surely the magnitude of deforestation throughout South Asia and South America is a concern too.

  38. @John Quiggin

    A full global economic recoverery would see us climb back to or near A1F1. However, for several reasons, I don’t think a full global economic recovery is now likely or even possible. Nonetheless, all feasibly (technically) obtainable fossil fuels are still likely, on current trends and under BAU thinking, to be exploited and burned by someone at some point. This pushes the year we reach the CO2e to take us to 6 degrees C to the right along the time axis. It does not preclude us from reaching it.

    If economic collapse is severe enough and/or if Mel is right as at comment 39 then human CO2 alone emissions might not be enough to push an A1F1 type scenario outcome. In that case, secondary emissions and problems in ecological cycles, like forest fires, methane de-gassing from the tundra and drops in overall photosynthesis rates are likely to do the same job.

    The Oceans at MIT site reports with a story of;

    440 ppm CO2? Add Other GHG and it’s Equivalent to 478 ppm.

    “The Keeling Curve record from the NOAA-operated Mauna Loa Observatory shows that the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration hovers around 400 ppm, a level not seen in more than 3 million years when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than today. ”

    Studies of the mid Pliocene (3.3 to 3 million years ago) indicate “temperature response to changes in CO2 is 30 to 50% greater than the response based on fast feedbacks” according to an article on Skeptical Science. “On top of the fast feedbacks that (would) cause the climate sensitivity of 3°C, additional slow feedbacks (would) add another 1 to 1.5°C warming.”

    “The global average temperature in the mid-Pliocene (3.3–3 mya) was 2–3 °C higher than today, global sea level 25 m higher and the Northern hemisphere ice sheet was ephemeral before the onset of extensive glaciation over Greenland that occurred in the late Pliocene around 3 Ma.” – Wikipedia.

    Our CO2 level now matches the mid Pliocene levels. Our CO2e is well above at 478 ppm equivalent. With dangerous GHG gases such as methane (CH4) sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrous oxide (N2O) playing roles.

    The long cycles of earth’s orbit (Milankovitch cycles) which affect obliquity of the earth’s axis and other factors may have some forcing effects. The forcing effects now may differ from the forcing effects at the time of the mid Pliocene so direct comparisons must be made with caution. The causes of ice ages and interglacials are complex and interacting. But the potential to rapidly (in era terms) mimic the high points (temperature and sea level) of the mid Pliocenc seems high.

    Ocean photosynthesis has been termed “the source of half the world’s oxygen”. What this means is that half of the world’s CO2 scrubbing ability is provided by ocean photosynthesis.

    “As global temperatures rise there is an increase in oceanic stratification preventing cold waters containing nutrients from rising to the surface of the sea and stimulating the growth of marine Algae, “Kump and lovelock conclude that ocean warming is now proceeding rapidly, especially in the tropics and lower latitudes, with the result that Plankton activity is declining.”[7]; “Rising temperatures could reduce the oceans’ ability to absorb Carbon dioxide by as much as 50%, leaving the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to heat the Earth further. Until now, climate models such as those by the IPCC, have assumed that the oceans’ capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will stay constant as the world warms, “Warmer oceans will be more stratified, causing the ocean circulation system to slow down. As a result, it will absorb much less CO2 than at present – 50% less in some scenarios.” says sarmiento of princeton university.”[8] For example, it has been stated that .. “researchers at the scripps institution of oceanography published results of a survey off southern california, where the surface water had warmed by 1.5C since 1951. The warmer water had become less well mixed over the period, and consequently the biomass of zooplankton had decreased by fully 80%. Associated with this decline had been a drop in fish and bird populations …”[9]” – Carbonomics.net.

    I don’t know if the IPCC still assumes that the ocean’s ability to absord and scrub (two different things) CO2 will remain constant.

    It seems a safe assumption that knock-on effects and unforeseen effects (tending to raise temperatures beyond IPCC estimates) will outweigh knock-on effects and unforeseen effects which would tend to lower temperatures. The forcing being studied is being continually discovered to be causing more knock-on forcing effects. I stand by my high end estimates as being a valid and justifiable opinion suggested by a broad view of relevant science.

  39. It is better to have a US President that treats the issue seriously than not. That his position is weak means the good intentions will tend to be watered down and compromised away, but it’s still better that Obama speaks up even if his policies are slapped down than to see him back away in the too hard don’t bother sidestep. There’s not much doubt that Obama’s plan, even if not white anted, is insufficient for the scale of the problem – and that’s what entrenched climate science denial and obstructionism continues to do; prevent truly effective policy from even being within the realms of political possibility.

  40. @Hermit
    Joe Romm’s Climate Progress blog insists that Obama does not need any vote in Congress to issue EPA regulations, since the US Supreme Court upheld the EPA’s ruling that CO2 is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. What Congress can do is change the Act. But with a majority in the Senate and the veto, Obama and the congressional Dems can comfortably block any simple Republican attempts to cancel the regulations. Compare the numerous votes by the Republican House to repeal Obamacare, all empty theatre. If the Republicans see reason, they can trade the regulations for a carbon tax. Some hope.

  41. Ikonoclast :
    @John Quiggin
    A full global economic recoverery would see us climb back to or near A1F1. However, for several reasons, I don’t think a full global economic recovery is now likely or even possible. Nonetheless, all feasibly (technically) obtainable fossil fuels are still likely, on current trends and under BAU thinking, to be exploited and burned by someone at some point. This pushes the year we reach the CO2e to take us to 6 degrees C to the right along the time axis. It does not preclude us from reaching it.

    I think that sums up the ultimate risk reasonably well. Probably more important than emissions trajectories is emissions intensity of the energy sector globally which the IEA reported recently to have hardly changed over the period 1990-2010. In light of the amount of new coal globally since 2010 it seems unlikely that it would be any better right now.

    http://www.iea.org/etp/tracking/esci/

    Until that curve shows a clear downturn, it’s hard to put any ceiling on the climate problem. On the other hand there is still a lot time to do something serious about it before 5C+ is wired in.

  42. The IPAs Alan Moran is critical of Obama’s stance and includes the following as one of his arguments

    Most economic analysts argue a carbon tax or comprehensive system of tradeable rights to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is likely to bring about abatement at lowest cost. A recent edition of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine had five articles addressing this. A single price as a tax or emerging from a market where all emission rights are allocated and can be traded offers the maximum potential to arrive at the sought-after emission levels most cheaply.

    Where does this leave Abbott?

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