Even Rocket Scientists Can Be Wrong

Credit: kqedquest, flickrCC

To get some perspective on why the average person has a hard time grasping the threat of climate change, check out this interview of Elon Musk conducted last April.  Here’s the link:

Here are some of his observations (in red italics) and my comments:

“If we keep going, there is some risk of a non-linear kind of thing.” 

It’s not a risk, it’s a fact.  Here’s the temperature record since 1880, at which time the Industrial Revolution began having a noticeable effect on the global surface temperature.  You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand what this graph means.  Since 1950 the world has been on an economic, population, and energy growth binge.  Except for a brief respite in the 1990’s due to a reduction in CFC’s to protect the Ozone Layer, the rate of increase has been accelerating.

“Renewable, sustainable energy sounds logical.”

He’s pretty casual about it.  Maybe essential rather than merely logical?

“Do we try to get there (reducing greenhouse gases) sooner or later?”

Is there a choice?  Again, a casual observation.

“If we stopped CO2 production today, civilization would come to a grinding halt.  Mass starvation and terrible things happening.”

He’s right, but he thinks that continuing to burn fossil fuels is an option that won’t also produce the same outcomes.

“I think we’re probably okay at 500 ppm of CO2.”

Elon is a rocket scientist, not a climate scientist.  Climate science tells us that at 500 ppm the average global surface temperature will rise by 3 degrees Celsius (5.4°Fahrenheit) or more, and that this will cause a sea level rise of 2 to 3 feet by 2050 and 8 to 10 feet or more by 2100.  This will force the migration of millions of people from coastal areas.

A temperature rise of this magnitude will also cause parts of the world to become inhabitable due to killing heat levels, and it will cause storms of unprecedented frequency and destruction, desertification of large parts of the Earth’s surface that will make them uninhabitable, ever more destructive forest fires, and a reduction of global food supplies which will cause massive economic and political turmoil and result in the mass migration of tens and then hundreds of millions of people.

“I think if we get to 1,000 ppm it would be quite dire.”

He suggests that we have the latitude to emit much more CO2 before we reach the “dire” stage.  It should be clear to someone of his intelligence that things are already dire.

To put this into perspective, the following graph shows the correlation between CO2 emissions and CO2 concentration.  Emissions drive concentration.  I used the relationship between emissions and concentration between 1960 and 2019 and applied it to the emissions forecast by the EIA to get the concentration forecast.  The chart shows that we will hit 500 ppm by 2050.

The next chart shows the correlation between CO2 concentration and the global mean surface temperature.  I used the relationship between emissions and temperature between 1960 and 2019 and applied it to the concentration forecast I calculated for the previous graph.  You can see that we reach a 1.5-degree Celsius rise by the mid-2020’s and 2.0 degrees by the mid 2030’s.  This is on point with the most recent forecasts.

It is becoming obvious to more and more people that the urgency of the situation has ramped up considerably over the past ten years.  No informed person should take a casual attitude towards the accelerating impacts of climate change.  Elon is a genius entrepreneur, but entrepreneurs tend to look at things through the lens of their objectives and not through the lens of science which tells you what the facts are regardless of whether or not they are congenial to your enterprise.