Three Sure Things: Death, Taxes, and Committed Warming

In a 1789 letter to the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, Benjamin Franklin said: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” an idea which he borrowed from a 1726 book The Political History of the Devil by Daniel DeFoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. To that well-worn adage we can now add “Committed Warming.”

Committed Warming

Climate Science is a complex subject about which we still lack sufficient information to make the kinds of detailed predictions we would like to make.  Skeptics take advantage of this fact to sow uncertainty, but despite the things we don’t know, there is much that we do know, and much that we can confidently predict.  One of these things is Committed Warming.

Committed Warming refers to the fact that there is roughly a 40-year delay between the time greenhouse gases are emitted and the resulting warming of the atmosphere.  This is because over 90% of the heat is initially absorbed by the oceans.  Committed Warming is currently estimated to be 0.6oC.  Our prolific use of fossil fuels has already driven global atmospheric temperature up by 1oC, so even if we magically stopped greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the temperature of the atmosphere would increase to 1.6oC, exceeding the 1.5oC threshold that climate science warns will bring catastrophic climate change this century.  So, we are already too late to meet that target.

The Fictitious Carbon Budget

Unfortunately, we still hear talk about a “carbon budget”.  This refers to the amount of additional carbon dioxide we can afford to emit and still stay below the 1.5oC threshold.  In the 2018 IPCC Special Report, we learned that “recent studies suggest the remaining carbon budget to limit warming to well below 1.5C might have already been exceeded by emissions to-date, or might be as large as 15 more years of emissions at our current rate.”  Another 15 years of emissions at the current rate will add another 570 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere, push CO2 concentration to 450 ppm, ensure that we reach 1.5oC of warming before 2040, and inevitably lead to 3o to 5oC of warming by 2100.

Embracing Vagueness

Too much of our climate change analysis and reporting is like this, understating the crisis, offering so wide a spectrum of possibilities that no conclusions can be drawn; or piling on statistics and caveats in numbing layer after layer until all we are left with is an unquantifiable sense of unease.  Straightforward analysis and warnings from individuals and groups who recognize the existential nature of the threat we face are dismissed by mainstream media and government agencies as irrational fear mongering.  They marginalize the messengers as extremists without considering the other possibility – that they themselves underestimate the danger.  This criticism from within the community of those concerned about climate change is as much responsible for our global failure to act decisively as the misinformation of the fossil fuel industry.

There are several reasons for this self-defeating behavior.

  1. Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Climate is extremely complex and so it’s easy to get lost in the details.  We fail to see the big picture, but the big picture is clear:  Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions; greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase; the planet is heating faster than predicted even a few years ago; at some point we will reach tipping points that will accelerate the process; and, even if we cannot predict exactly when certain consequences will occur, we know that they inevitably will.
  2. Risk-Aversion: Bureaucracies loath taking chances.  Anytime you make a prediction, you are taking a chance, hence the tendency of organizations that have been around long enough and grown big enough to be bureaucracies (media and government agencies) to avoid making any straight statements about likely future scenarios.  Instead the reporting is like reading a menu of possibilities – take your pick.  This is not very helpful.
  3. Organizational and Peer Pressure: Within bureaucracies there is organizational pressure on individuals to adopt the party line – the consensus view approved by the organization.  This is abetted by peer pressure within the organization to play the game.  Jim Hansen is perhaps the poster-person for what happens to those in bureaucracies with rational and reasonable dissenting views.
  4. Scientific Detachment: The integrity of science depends on the objective application of the scientific process, but the idea that objectivity and emotion are somehow at odds with one another is a canard propagated by those who want to marginalize the strident voices of those who, quite understandably, are alarmed by what is happening to the planet.
  5. The Human Element: Many climate prognosticators are reluctant to make firm predictions because, they say, what will happen depends on what society does.  It is abundantly clear that society will continue to sit on its hands until the changing climate begins to seriously disrupt our day-to-day lives.  When that will happen depends on how fast the climate deteriorates and what individuals consider a serious disruption of daily life.  The gradual nature of climate change (which is accelerating) will incline us to put off action.  A sudden and dramatic change would have much more impact, but that is not the way climate change occurs.  Whenever the reaction occurs will be too late, because it is already too late.
  6. Fear and Control: We don’t want to admit to ourselves that the problem could be serious enough to threaten the viability of our advanced global civilization, let alone the survival of our species.  We fear a world which we cannot control and so we perpetuate the myth that we can manage this problem when, even to the casual observer, it is quite clear that we are not managing it and that it is rapidly moving beyond our control.  It brings to mind a line from Hamlet:

    Fear doth make cowards of us all,
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.

And so we trundle forward in a business-as-usual way.  We build more wind turbines and solar farms,  but the global demand for energy continues to grow.  In thirty years, energy from nuclear and renewables will grow from 37,000 TWh to 85,000 TWh annually, a 130% increase, but fossil fuels will still account for 68% of all energy.  Annual CO2 emissions will grow from 38 gigatons to 46 gigatons, CO2 concentration will reach 533 ppm, and the global average surface temperature increase over preindustrial levels will reach 1.7oC.  And this assumes that we do not trip any tipping points, like the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, a significant slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, the complete loss of summer Arctic Ocean sea ice, the rapid melting of permafrost, or the rapid melting of methane clathrates.  Even without these events, it will be disastrous.