Snake Eyes: Gambling Away Our Children’s Future Sophisticated tech can be an asset, except when the scale is vast & progressive
“Gambling: The sure way of getting nothing from something.”
– Wilson Mizner
The Fragility of Our Global Civilization
The scientific evidence unequivocally shows that we have emitted so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (1.667 trillion tons to date* ) that we are at high risk of making the climate inhospitable to life, particularly human life which depends on abundant agricultural production and huge, complex, and finely tuned systems of domestic and international commerce.
Because these systems are so large, we imagine that they are also resilient, but this isn’t so. Even a small disruption can cause severe problems. For example, I was living in Indianapolis when an unusually strong blizzard hit that closed the roads for three days. On the third day I was able to get to the supermarket where I found empty shelves and customers fighting over what little was left.
Sophisticated technology is an asset when change is limited in scope and technology remains operative, but when the scale of change is vast and progressive, as it is with climate change, technology becomes a vulnerability. As conditions worsen, they eventually reach the point at which technology begins to suffer cascading failures which overwhelm our systems. These systems then begin to quickly fragment and collapse, leaving us worse off than we would be if we were not dependent on them in the first place.
*I often see this number quoted as 2 trillion tons. My number comes from CDIAC records from 1751 to 2015 and from Edgar records from 2016 to 2019. These are metric tons (written “tonnes”), not “short” or “US” tons. (written “tons”). But, as is the case here, tonnes is often written as ”tons” in the US because readers may not be familiar with the term tonnes. The consequent ambiguity introduces some uncertainty as to the system of measurement being used. If we convert 1.667 trillion tonnes to short tons we get 1.834 trillion tons, still shy of 2 trillion tons. Perhaps 2 trillion is rounding up.
Some Other Consequences
Food shortages are not the only problem that our children will face. Energy will need to be rationed to reduce fossil fuel emissions. This will affect all aspects of life, from heating to cooling to transportation and industry.
Heat will become a major health hazard, and medical services will be stretched thin as they are taxed to meet the ever-increasing demand for services while facing service degradation due to deteriorating weather patterns that will cause supply shortages and interrupt emergency transportation capabilities.
Federal, state, and local governments will become increasingly strapped for cash as businesses struggle and tax revenues decline, and as the effects of more frequent and severe weather disturbances require repairs that will further drain the public coffers and reduce the availability of other public services.
Insects previously restricted to tropical areas will begin to migrate north, bringing with them diseases that temperate climate residents have not previously had to contend with. This will put further strain on healthcare systems.
And this is not even close to an exhaustive list of the hardships that our children will face.
With the specter of disaster facing our children, you would think that parents would be responding like it was a five-alarm fire. Yet we go on with life as usual, seemingly oblivious to the coming climate catastrophe. A striking example is our car buying habits. In 2018, 6.9 million SUVs were sold in the U.S. In 2019, 7.7 million SUVs were sold – an increase of 800,000 vehicles. Consumers are to blame for demanding these low-mileage vehicles, auto companies are to blame for promoting them, manufacturing them, and selling them, and fossil fuel companies are to blame for continuing to supply the fuel for them. We go on as if nothing has changed.
Of these players, the fossil fuel industry deserves to be singled out as an especially egregious actor. Take this comment excerpted from a recent article in Common Dreams:
In September 2019, the think tank Carbon Tracker released a report entitled “Breaking the Habit” which detailed $50 billion in new climate-warming fossil fuel projects planned by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP. Bill McKibben, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org, described this as “insane greed.”
Do the CEO’s of these companies care more about profits than about the welfare of their grandchildren? Perhaps not consciously, but actions speak louder than words, and their doubling down on fossil fuels at this late date signals their willingness to risk all for quarterly returns and annual bonuses.
The guilt that this would occasion in a normal person is so great that these barons of blight become delusional and imagine that can have their cake and eat it too; that they can continue to burn fossil fuels indiscriminately and still look forward to happily dandling their grandchildren on their knee in their declining years. That is why they will not stop voluntarily. They must be forced to stop, and only governments can do that.
*I use the male pronoun because it would be awkward to use “he/she” and because it is testosterone-filled males who are most susceptible to this illness.
Measuring the Risk
The speed with which the planet is warming is the central issue in climate change. We need to estimate how fast this warming will proceed. It is challenging because so many factors affect the temperature. But reasonable estimates can be made. Here I will use an expedient method which involves relating the rise in global temperature to carbon dioxide emissions.
Since 1970 we’ve put 1.2 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the same time, the global average temperature went up by 1 degree Celsius. If we divide the increase in global temperature by the carbon dioxide emissions, we get one tenth of a degree increase for every 120 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
According to the EIA (US Energy Information Administration), over the next 30 years carbon dioxide emissions will total 1.25 trillion tons. This is almost identical to the emissions for the 50 years between 1970 and 2019 when the global temperature increased by 1 degree Celsius. One degree is thus a reasonable estimate of the temperature increase we can expect over the next three decades, resulting in a cumulative rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, which is the level the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has warned will produce catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
As I said, this is an expedient way to forecast the temperature because it ignores everything but the most influential factor – carbon dioxide emissions. In defense of this shorthand calculation, there is an excellent correlation between incremental emissions and incremental temperature change over the past thirty years, as shown in this graph:
Furthermore, any errors are likely to understate the temperature because of feedback mechanisms and tipping points. Here are three feedback mechanisms (there are many more):
- As more ice melts, the Earth absorbs more sunlight, and this adds to the rate of global warming.
- As the Amazon and other old growth forests continue to be decimated, their power to absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis declines and the trees and plants that die return even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they rot – a double whammy.
- The same is true for phytoplankton, tiny ocean-going microbes responsible for producing 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. They die when the oceans become too acidic. The oceans absorb 25% of carbon dioxide emissions, and as they do, they become more acidic and more toxic to phytoplankton.
And some tipping points:
- As permafrost on land and methane ice at the bottom of arctic continental shelves melt, they will release methane, which is 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the first 20 years after it is released. This too will accelerate global warming.
- Melting Antarctica ice shelves will eventually collapse and release land-based glaciers that they have held back, allowing them to flow into the ocean as they, too, melt. This will increase the speed of ocean level rise.
- The melting Arctic sea ice will eventually lead to the complete disappearance of the ice during the summer. This will accelerate the warming of the Arctic, which is heating up faster than the rest of the planet. Some areas are already 3 to 4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. The current global average temperature is 1 degree above the pre-industrial average. A warmer arctic will accelerate the melting of permafrost and methane ice, as well as the pace of general global warming.
The Factitious Carbon Budget
The “carbon budget” refers to the additional amount of carbon dioxide the IPCC says we can emit before we are certain to reach the 1.5-degree rise that scientists now say is the highest safe temperature. In 2018, the carbon budget was 112 billion tons (gigatons). In 2019, global emissions were about 40 gigatons, leaving just 72 gigatons in the carbon budget. This will be gone in two more years, which makes the budget irrelevant.
It is more than irrelevant; it is also misleading because it gives the impression that we can afford to produce additional emissions. This is incorrect. The full near-term effect of carbon dioxide emissions takes around 40 years to manifest itself.* This is because the oceans hold a vast amount of heat that will continue to warm the surface of the planet until it returns to thermal equilibrium. NASA estimates that this residual warming will increase surface temperature by another 0.6 degrees Celsius, which, when added to the current 1-degree rise, will put us over the 1.5-degree threshold. So, we are already too late to stop the 1.5-degree rise.
*The full effect will take thousands of years, but we have time to react with lead times of this magnitude, so it is the near term that concerns us.
All is not lost. We can keep the temperature from rising even more by aggressively reducing emissions. There are endless ways to do this. Here are a few: (1) accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels, (2) bring back nuclear energy, (3) implement energy-efficient practices, (4) build energy-efficient structures, (5) improve the efficiency the electrical grid, (6) improve the efficiency of electric motors, and (7) practice energy austerity. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is still a tall order considering that:
- Global energy demand continues to rise.
- The use of fossil fuels continues to increase.
- Renewable power isn’t being deployed fast enough.
- The public has been scared away from nuclear power, in part because of negative ads from the fossil fuel industry which inflate the risk. This forces more people to get their energy from fossil fuels.
- Our government is relaxing emission regulations.
- Nations around the world continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of over one trillion dollars a year.
The Role of the Public
Until government policies change to force the oil, natural gas, and coal companies to begin to phase out their products, nothing will happen. But democracies have been co-opted by the fossil fuel industry and dictatorships are not subject to the will of the people, so governments will not act until there is a sufficiently powerful popular uprising.
We see the beginnings of this uprising among today’s youth, but most people, especially in the US, remain implacably entrenched in their high consumption lifestyles. Future climate disaster remains an abstraction for us, partly because the subject is complex, partly because of disinformation, and partly because we do not want to be inconvenienced.
There are no signs so far that the public will respond to the exhortations of scientists and activists, but we must keep trying. The increasing frequency of abnormally destructive weather events may get the public’s attention. The more often these events occur and the more damage they cause, the more likely it is to alarm us and galvanize us into action. But waiting even longer to take decisive action only compounds the consequences.
The Frog in Warm Water Syndrome
The gradually accelerating way in which weather patterns deteriorate in response to the changing climate induces the “frog in warm water” syndrome. The premise is that, if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is put into tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The problem with this analogy is that, unlike the frog, we cannot jump out of the pot. All we can do is turn off the stove. But even that metaphor is flawed because, as we know, the heat remains on even after the stove is turned off.
Despite the accumulating evidence of impending doom, we only respond to the moment, or to the next quarterly dividend, as we continue to enjoy a congenial climate that will soon turn ugly and make life miserable and brief for our children and grandchildren if we don’t act soon.
Reality v. Vision
The IPCC has urged the world to cut fossil fuel emissions by 50% by 2030 and to eliminate them by 2050 in order to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. This plan will reduce forecasted carbon dioxide emissions by 800 gigatons over the 30 years but will still allow another 450 gigatons of emissions to go into the atmosphere – emissions that we can ill afford. The vast difference between what the IPCC is urging and the expected trajectory of emissions on a business-as-usual basis can perhaps be best grasped by looking at the following graph:
In the game of Craps, when you roll a two on your first roll, you lose. Rolling a two in gamblers’ parlance is called rolling “Snake Eyes”, so called because of the resemblance of the two pips to the eyes of a snake, and because of the ill-deserved reputation snakes have for treachery due to the chicanery of the mythical snake in the Garden of Eden.
If we continue on the business-as-usual path, we won’t be gambling with our children’s future anymore because catastrophic climate change will become a certainty, and the game we will be playing with the environment will be like shooting Craps with dice that have only one pip on each side. You are going to roll Snake Eyes every time.