The Next 30 Years: Fasten Your Seat Belts – We’re In For A Bumpy Ride

Bette Davis in All About Eve. Wikipedia.

All About Eve is a 1950 film based on the 1946 short story The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr.  The film stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a highly regarded but aging Broadway star.  Anne Baxter plays Eve Harrington, an ambitious young fan who maneuvers herself into Channing’s life, ultimately threatening Channing’s career and her personal relationships.  All About Eve received a record 14 Academy Award nominations and won six, including Best Picture.  All About Eve is the only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations.  It is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.  (Bette Davis’ iconic line was really “we’re in for a bumpy night.” I took the liberty of changing the last word.)

The Three Amigos

There are three key indicators of climate change that are inextricably linked:  (1) CO2 emissions, (2) CO2 concentration, and (3) surface temperature.  CO2 Emissions increase CO2 concentration which increases the temperature.  For the past 60 years, all three have been on the rise.  This is because, around 1960, rapid economic development, first in the West, and later in the East, resulted in a rapidly increasing amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  In fact, 80% of all human greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since 1960.  Let’s take a look.

Past as Prologue

Although the past is not always prologue, when it comes to the climate, history is a good indicator of what we can expect.  That’s because climate, though a complex system, operates on a simple principle – energy in equals energy out.  When the amount of energy going into the system exceeds the energy going out of the system, as we have today, heat accumulates and the climatic stability which civilized homo sapiens has enjoyed for the preponderance of its time on the planet comes to an end and a period of climatic chaos ensues until the climate can reach a new, stable regime.  This requires a return to a balancing of the energy in-energy out equation which can only happen if we stop emitting greenhouse gases.

A Look Back

The chart above shows that in the preceding 60 years, annual CO2 emissions increased from 9 billion tons to 38 billion tons and that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 increased from 317 ppm to 411 ppm.  The total amount of CO2 emitted during this period was 1,370 billion tons.  That averages to 14.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions for every one ppm increase in CO2 concentration.

This chart shows that, as the global concentration of CO2 increased from 316 to 411 ppm (an increase of 95 ppm) the global surface temperature anomaly increased by one degree Celsius.  Note that the temperature record is not smooth.  This is because there are many factors that affect the transient global temperature, notably ENSO (the El Nino Southern Oscillation) which can cause the unperturbed temperature to rise (during El Nino events) and fall (during La Nina events).  Large volcanic eruptions also perturb the global temperature by emitting vast amounts of particulates that block sunlight and cause the planet to cool for a few years.  Nevertheless, the relentlessly rising global temperature due to the buildup of greenhouse gases is evident.

A Look Forward

Now we’ll take a look at what’s coming.  This forecast is based on emissions projections from the U.S. Environmental Information Administration (EIA).

This chart shows projected increases in CO2 concentration and emissions.  Concentration was calculated by dividing the projected total amount of CO2 emissions for this period (1,271 billion tons) by the ratio of ratio of billions of tons of CO2 emissions per one ppm increase in CO2 concentration over the past 60 years (14.6 billion tons per 1 ppm).  This yields an additional 87 ppm in CO2 concentration, bringing global CO2 concentration to 501 ppm by 2050.  The important thing to note is that, despite the rapid growth of renewables, annual emissions are still increasing.  The next chart shows why.

Green Energy is nuclear plus renewables.  Green energy is expected to grow by 115% in the next thirty years, from 135 Quads (quadrillion BTUS) to 290 Quads, adding 155 Quads to the global energy available. However, the demand for energy is expected to grow by 43%, from 635 Quads to 911 Quads.  This is an additional 276 Quads in demand, which overwhelms the additional 155 Quads expected from green energy (mainly renewables).  That’s why, despite the greening of the energy industry, by 2050, we will still be producing 621 Quads of energy – 68% of our global energy demand – from fossil fuels and generating a record 46 billion tons of CO2 emissions.  Far from reversing the trend in greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel emissions are like a freight train barreling down the track and headed for a wreck, and there seems to be nothing that is going to stop it.

The next chart plots emissions against temperature.

The temperature in this chart was calculated by using the ratio of the change in the temperature anomaly to the change in the concentration of CO2 over the past 60 years.  An increase of 94 ppm in CO2 concentration between 1960 and 2019 resulted in a one degree increase in temperature.   The 87 ppm increase in CO2 concentration between 2020 and 2050 should therefore produce close to another degree in the temperature anomaly.

Risk Factors

This projection assumes that the rate of increase in the temperature in the next 30 years will maintain the same ratio relative to emissions that it did for the past 60 years, however, that may not be the case.  Ice and permafrost all over the planet are melting far faster than expected.  This is reducing the planetary albedo and causing methane concentrations to increase at a faster pace, both factors that will exacerbate global warming.  In addition, efforts to reduce particulates emitted from coal plants in order to reduce local air pollution will have an unwanted effect.  Most particulates block sunlight.  A reduction in particulates will allow more sunlight to reach the Earth’s surface and therefore will also exacerbate global warming.

Clouds are a wild card.  Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia:  “Marine stratus and stratocumulus clouds predominantly cool the Earth. They shade roughly a fifth of the oceans, reflecting 30 to 60 percent of the solar radiation that hits them back into space and reduce the amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface by between 4 and 7 percent.  But, while studies are still continuing, it seems increasingly likely that, as the planet warms, these cooling clouds could become thinner or evaporate entirely, leaving more clear skies through which the sun may add another degree Celsius or more to global warming.”

The Human Factor

The only circumstance that could make things better is if global greenhouse gas emissions subsided.  To have much of an effect at this point would require a rapid reduction.  What is the chance that humanity will radical reverse its policy towards fossil fuels and begin a serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  At the present time, there is no indication that this will happen.  What is needed is a dramatic event or series of events that force even the deniers to realize that the threat is existential, but climate change doesn’t produce drama; it works steadily and relentlessly, ratcheting up the consequences each year.

When will the weather get bad enough for nations to finally sever their cozy relations with the fossil fuel industry?  No one knows the answer, but I will speculate.  I think that conditions will become severe enough during the next ten years that by the end of the decade the fossil fuel industry will no longer be in the driver’s seat.  Many countries will adopt a carbon tax, enact energy austerity measures, and make greater efforts to improve energy efficiency.  In the U.S. the de facto ban on nuclear power will be ended and the government will shift industry subsidies from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewables.  All of this could change the EIA forecast, but perhaps not by much.  Reductions in emissions from developed countries could be offset by increases in emissions from still-growing developing countries so that we end up holding emissions at around 38 gigatons per year rather than rising to 46 gigatons per year.  But this is not enough to have much of an impact on global warming.

How Bad, How Soon

Between 2030 to 2039 the wheels will start to come off the global climate.  We will cross the 1.5-degree temperature anomaly threshold in 2035.  About the same time, the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in the summer.  The lower albedo will accelerate Arctic Ice melt.  The Greenland Ice Sheet will be pock-marked with melt water ponds and crisscrossed with fissures that allow the water to cascade to the bottom of the glacier where it lubricates the base and allows the glacier to flow more swiftly towards the sea.  The immense amount of fresh water streaming off Greenland into the Norwegian Sea will rapidly increase the rate of sea level rise.  A 2019 article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) noted that, for a scenario in which emissions are unchecked, sea level rise will be 20 inches (nearly two feet) by 2050 and six feet by 2100.  This will wreak havoc with coastal cities around the world, eventually forcing them to be abandoned along with their ports which service international trade.  The combined effect will seriously disrupt global production and trade and result in a world-wide depression-level economic contraction.

The fresh water flowing off Greenland will also  significantly slow the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, contributing to cooler weather in Europe and producing storms of unprecedented severity in the North Atlantic.  In the U.S. Midwest, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, days with wet bulb temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius will become more frequent.  A sustained wet-bulb temperature (100% humidity) exceeding 35 °C (95 °F) is fatal even to fit and healthy people because at that temperature and humidity, the body can no longer lose heat and death occurs within hours.

Global agricultural production will begin to decline, forcing food prices up and causing famine in developing countries.  Migrations of tens of millions of people from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America will destabilized the global political scene and produce tensions that will result in violent clashes.  Of particular concern is migration from the Indian subcontinent.  With the Himalayas blocking migration directly northward, refugees will have to migrate northwest through Pakistan towards the Middle East and thence northward through several former Soviet-bloc countries east of the Caspian Sea.  Pakistan and India both have nuclear weapons and have had a running battle since partition over the Kashmir, an area that borders both countries.  Massive migration from India could trigger a war with Pakistan that could become nuclear.  Deaths due to heat stress, starvation, violence, and misadventure during migration will reach into the millions.

The chaos that began in the ‘30’s will only grow worse as the century wears on.  The continuing erosion of the global economy during the second half of the century will have the beneficial effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions however committed warming will still cause global temperatures to rise by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.  Governments will fail as business collapses and tax revenues dry up.  Crop yields will continue to fall due to heat, drought, and floods.  The human population on the planet will begin to decline, slowly at first and then more rapidly as the increasingly severe effects of global warming take hold.  Reproduction rates will plummet, and mortality rates will skyrocket.

This is the legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren.  Greta Thunberg is right.  By being heedless of the consequences of our actions, we are destroying our children’s future, and there is no way for them to get it back.