Is it 12 years?
That’s a belief I am finding increasingly common, but it really isn’t what the science is telling us.
The science is saying that things are very serious and every year we fail to “bend the curve down” as Greta Thunberg puts it, the worse the outcomes. We know from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 1.5oC Special Report that 2oC is significantly, perhaps surprisingly, worse than 1.5oC.
That is not a reason for a dystopian view that all is lost if we fail to get to zero after 12 (or is it now 11 years) if we don’t get to net zero by then.
The science is not that certain. The IPCC said that 2030 global net emissions must reduce by 45% versus 2010 emissions to achieve 1.5oC, and get to zero by 2050.
That is not to say we should not have highly ambitious targets, because the sooner we peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the sooner we peak the global warming (see Note 1).
Because it is such a huge challenge to decarbonise every sector of our economies, we should have started 30 years ago, and now we have to move very fast; whatever date you put on it. So, if I question some of the dystopian memes out there it is certainly not to question the need for urgent action.
Feedbacks and Tipping Points
I think what lies at the root of the dystopian message is a belief that tipping points – and there are quite a number in the Earth system – are like dominoes, and if one goes over, then all the rest follow. At a meeting I went to that included policy experts, XR, scientists, and others, I got into a chat about feedbacks and tipping points.
The person I spoke to was basically 100% convinced that if we did not get to net zero after ’12 years’ we would set off feedbacks and tipping points. It really would be game over. I want to summarise my side of the conversation:
I appreciate your concern about tipping points; they are real and need to be taken into account.
It is complicated and there are cases that can runaway (take Venus), but there is often a response that limits a particular feedback.
For example, extra CO2 causes warming, which due to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation means that additional water vapour (gaseous form of water, not clouds) is added to the atmosphere (7% extra for every 1C of warming). Since H2O is also a strong greenhouse gas that causes more warming.
This is a crucial ‘fast feedback’ included in climate models. It means that the expected 3oC of warming from doubling CO2 in the atmosphere is actually 1oC from the CO2 and 2oC extra from the H2O feedback (see Note 2).
Ok, so why doesn’t this warming carry on as a runaway (there is plenty of water in the ocean)?
The reason is Stefan’s Law (or ‘Planck Response’).
A body at temperature T emits energy at a rate proportional to T to the power 4. So the loss of heat accelerates and this at some points stops the feedback process (see Note 3).
A way to think about this is a plastic container with a hole at the bottom (say 7mm wide). Pour water from a tap at a constant rate, say half a litre per minute, into the container. What happens? The water level in the container rises to a point that maintains this level. At this point the pressure at the base of the container has increased to the point that the rate of flow of water out of the bottom is equal to the rate of flow in. They are in balance, or ‘equilibrium’.
If I now plug the 7mm hole and drill a 6mm one instead (yes I did this for a talk!), then with the same flow rate coming in, the level of water rises, because it requires more pressure at the base to drive water out at the rate required, to bring the system back into balance (when the level of water stops rising).
We are in both cases having the same amount of energy leaving as entering the system, but in the latter case, energy has been trapped in the system.
This is a very good analogy for what happens with the Greenhouse Effect (see Note 4), and the level of water is analogous to the trapped energy (which means a hotter planet), and the world warms even though the rate at which energy is coming in (from the Sun) is constant. We can explain the Greenhouse Effect via this analogy simply:
The increased heat trapping power of the atmosphere with an increased concentration of CO2 restricts the exiting (infra-red) radiation to space – this is analogous to the reduced hole size in the container – and so …
The temperature of the Earth rises in order to force out radiation at the correct rate to balance the incoming energy – this is analogous to the increased level of water in the container.
This demonstrates that the planet must stabilise the flow of energy out so that it equals the energy in, but with extra energy behind captured in the process (see Note 5).
The main point is that feedbacks do not inevitably mean there is a runaway.
Professor Pierrehumbert wrote a paper reviewing the possibility of a runaway in the sense of heading for a Venus scenario, and it seems unlikely “it is estimated that triggering a runaway under modern conditions would require CO2 in excess of 30,000 ppm”.
Even in more complex cases, such as melting sea ice and ice sheets, the feedbacks do not imply inevitable runaway, because in each case there is often a compensating effect that means a new equilibrium is reached.
But there is not one possible end state for a particular level of warming, there are numerous ones, and we know from the climate record that flips from one state to another can happen quite fast (the ocean conveyor belt transports huge amounts of heat around the planet and this is often implicated in these rapid transitions).
So, this is not to say that the new equilibirum reached is a good place to end up. Far from it. I agree it is serious, and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is now unprecedented for over 3 million years. We are warming at an unprecedented rate, thousands of times faster than the Earth has seen in that period.
It is very scary and we don’t need to say a runaway is inevitable to make it even more scary!
Arguments that a feedback will trigger another, and so on, ad infinitum, may sound plausible but are not science, however confident and high profile the speaker may be. It does the XR cause no good to simply repeat wild speculation that has no scientific foundation, merely on the basis of a freewheeling use of the ‘precautionary principle’.
I hope this clarifies my point, which was not to minimise the urgency for action – far from it – I am 100% behind urgent action.
However, I think that sometimes it is important to be scientifically pedantic on the question of feedbacks and runaway. The situation is scary enough.
I really worry about the dystopian message for our collective mental health, and that this might freeze people and even limit action amongst the wider public who are not activitists (but need to participate in our collective actions).
We need a message of hope, and this is it:
The sooner we can peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (by stopping emissions), the sooner we can halt warming, and
the lower that peak in the atmospheric concentration, the lower the level of warming.
We can make a difference!
We have to act to make hope meaningful, because being alarmed, and frozen in the headlights, and unable to act, is not a recipe for hope.
However, being duly alarmed and having hope are not mutually exclusive, if we recognise we have agency. We can all make a contribution, to agitate for, or implement, a plan of actions and the actions that follow.
(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019
(1) The IPCC 1.5C Special Report (p.64) talks about ‘committed warming’ in the oceans that is often assumed to mean that the Earth will continue to warm even when we stop CO2 emissions due to thermal inertia of heated oceans. Surprisingly for many, this is not the case. The IPCC reiterate what is a long known effect, regarding what they term the Zero Emissions Commitment:
“The ZEC from past CO2 emissions is small because the continued warming effect from ocean thermal inertia is approximately balanced by declining radiative forcing due to CO2 uptake by the ocean … Thus, although present-day CO2-induced warming is irreversible on millennial time scales … past CO2 emissions do not commit substantial further warming”
(2) This excludes clouds, and the effect of clouds at lower and higher levels can, for this simple example, can be regarded as cancelling each other out in terms of warming and cooling. Water Vapour in the atmosphere referred to here is not condensed into droplets but is a gas that is transparent to the human eye, but like carbon dioxide, is a strong absorber of infra-red. Because carbon dioxide is a non-condensing gas, but water does condense, it is the concentration of carbon dioxide that is the ‘control knob’ when it comes to their combined warming effect. In 1905, T.C. Chamberlin writing to Charles Abbott, eloquently explains the feedback role of water vapour, and the controlling power of carbon dioxide:
“Water vapour, confessedly the greatest thermal absorbent in the atmosphere, is dependent on temperature for its amount, and if another agent, as CO2 not so dependent, raises the temperature of the surface, it calls into function a certain amount of water vapour, which further absorbs heat, raises the temperature and calls forth more [water] vapour …”
(3) Strictly, it is a ‘black body’ – that absorbs (and emits) energy at all frequencies – that obeys Stefan’s Law. When using the law, we express T in Kelvin units. To a reasonable approximation, we can treat the Earth as a black body for a back of the envelope calculation, and we find that without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth – at its distance from the sun – would be 258K, or -15oC on average, a frozen world. That would be 30oC colder than our current, or pre-industrial, average of 15oC.
(4) John Tyndall originated this analogy in his memoirs Contributions to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiant Heat published in 1872, although he used the example of a stream and dam, which is raised, my exposition is essentially based on his precedent.
(5) One other aspect of this re-established equilibrium is that the so-called ‘Top of Atmosphere’ (TOA) – where the energy out in the form of infra-red, is balancing the energy in – is at higher altitiude. The more carbon dioxide we add, the higher this TOA. Professor Pierrehumbert explains it in this Youtube exposition, from the film Thin Ice, where he pulls in a few other aspects of the warming process, as it works on planet Earth (e.g. convection).