11:58 AM CDT, July 30, 2012
It’s climate week on Off the Markley (read yesterday's post on the disastrous summer of 2012), and we’re going to use today’s post to talk about why delaying action on our climatological experiment is not really an option.
In all my writing on the state of our climate emergency, I keep running into two dangerous myths that perpetuate themselves even among smart, relatively informed people (well, three if you count people who still think that “climategate” was a thing that meant everything is just fine). The first is that planetary warming is cyclical, that warming has happened before, and that’s all we’re seeing right now.
This is plainly wrong, first of all, because factors like the orbital variation and solar activity tell us we should be in a cooling period and second, because the very reasons we understand that climate has changed in the past is how we can understand that adding massive amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, particularly CO2, will heat the planet to dangerous temperatures.
The other dangerous myth I often hear goes along the lines of, “Well, the plane'ts warming, and it's probably human activity that's cauing it, but we should wait and see before we shift our economy to more expensive energy. We will have time to adjust.”
(Before I go knocking the hell out of my straw man, let me say that I also hate this argument because fossil fuels like oil and coal are not at all cheap. They actually cost us a fortune, but those costs are all hidden in things like heart disease, brain damage from mercury accumulation and patrolling the Straight of Hormuz.)
Which is why you have to understand the Delay.
The Delay works like so: the 0.8 degrees Celsius temperature rise we’ve seen so far has nothing to do with the greenhouse gasses we pumped into the atmosphere last summer or in 2005 or even a decade ago. This sliver of temperature rise that has already melted a third of Arctic sea ice, raised the acidity of the oceans by 30 percent, and contributed to storms and droughts we’re finding difficult to adjust to—this is all from emissions we pumped out of our factories and tailpipes in the 1970s and 1980s.
Therefore, even if we could shut down global emissions tomorrow, we will still have to pay for another thirty to forty years of treating our atmosphere like an open sewer. In his new must-read article in Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben explains how dire the situation has become. I’ll briefly summarize his argument here:
1) Scientists have long said we don’t want to raise the earth’s temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius, that to go beyond it would be the danger zone (ignore for a moment that 0.8 degrees has actually turned out to be plenty dangerous).
2) This means we can probably burn 565 more gigatons of fossil fuels before 2050 and still have a “reasonable” chance of keeping the temperature rise at or below 2 degrees. This, of course, does not account for the myriad feedback loops that could throw an unexpected wrench into the math. Sure, cloud cover could buy us time with some much-needed cooling, but it's more likely the rapidly thawing permafrost could send a bomb of methane into the atmosphere instead.
3) The Carbon Tracker Initiative has found that fossil fuel companies and sovereign states have proven reserves of 2,795 gigatons. For those keeping score at home, this means that on balance sheets across the world, capitalism is already planning to burn approximately 2,230 gigatons of carbon more than we can afford. The value of coal, oil, and gas companies and petro-states like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia is directly tethered to cooking the planet. Fossil fuels represent the largest market bubble in human history.
First of all, thank God for Bill McKibben. If it weren’t for him, the founder of 350.org, there would basically be no one talking about how truly scary and serious this is. History will look back at him, James Hansen of NASA, and yes, Al Gore with the same kind of reverence we have for people who spoke of racial equality even before they’d achieved the abolition of slavery. The problem is that instead of taking on a handful of human-chattle barons and the syphilitic rednecks they got to die for them, the enemy is the richest companies in the history of money and, worse, our own violent addiction to seemingly cheap energy.
The only lie environmentalists ever tell about global warming is that stopping it is going to be easy if we’d only just change our light bulbs and ride a bike to work. It will not be easy, and riding your bike to work won't do shit. And because of the Delay, it’s that much more important we get started immediately.
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