It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fifteen Year Setback

Copenhagen wasn't all that close, but the loss of momentum in the intervening year has been spectacular.

Bill McKibben in a must-read article at The New Republic:
Conservative opinion has been steadily hardening—for decades Republicans were part of the coalition on almost every environmental issue, but now it’s positively weird to think that as late as 2004, McCain thought it would make sense for a GOP presidential candidate to position himself as a fighter for climate legislation. And all of that is troubling. Because we’re going to be dealing with climate change for a very long time, and if one of the great schools of political thought in this country has checked out completely, that process is going to be even harder.
It's hard to argue with that.

It seems unlikely that either the Republican party will collapse entirely in the foreseeable future. Failing that, it will be a long time before the attachment to a delusional position fades. They've staked out a position not on ethics or policy but on science, and that position is just incorrect. And presuming the USA itself doesn't fail completely in the political chaos of the next few years, the world is hostage to the delusions now being adopted with enthusiasm by the Republican party and their proxies in the mass media.

So now we have to hope that the consensus really is overstated, even though we've been getting some inkings of late that it's understated. Because if things are more than half as bad as we think, we are well and truly hosed. Even if the democrats stage a remarkable recovery in the next two weeks, it won;t be nearly enough. We have lost a decade or two. If we can get matters back on track in time to avoid catastrophe we will be lucky.

For me the problem has lost all sense of urgency. This is not because the evidence has shifted away from urgency. It is because our marginal capacity to deal with the urgency has been crushed. We failed spectacularly to meet the goal of avoiding "dangerous" change. The 2 C target is behind us now. At least we have the luxury of time that we didn't have until now. I no longer believe we can stay within a 450 ppmv or a 500 ppmv peak. That's CO2 only, not CO2 equivalent. CO2 equivalent doubling looks to me to be a lock at this point.

I suppose one silver lining is that we will likely be vindicated in the end, in a way that wouldn't have happened if people had listened to our advice and avoided the danger zone. It's not going to turn out that way. Fasten your seatbelts, y'all. It's going to be a bumpy ride.


Heraclitus said...

I can understand your pessimism - for a sane person living in the US it must be a painful time. But in the rest of the world I think the momentum is in the other direction. Whether we can ever put enough pressure on the US to influence its policy is questionable, but maybe there is reason for hope.

Michael Tobis said...

The situation in Canada is hardly better. I think the Australians got a wakeup call last Austral summer. The Tories in the UK continue to be actual conservatives which is a relief, but the British press is hardly reassuring. I have less of a sense of the non-English speaking countries.

The Dutch, who used to be my heroes, seem somewhat tarnished of late. The Russians remain as cynical as ever and have no particular respect for their environment. What I understand of India isn't promising, and the Chinese will move instantly the day the Americans do and not a moment sooner.

Even in decline America dominates the world economy (and emissions) and will continue to do so for some time.

The idea that Europe and comparable countries will have some influence over America requires both that Europe step up to take responsibility and also that there will remain enough capacity in America to listen to reason and respond to friendly outside influence. Neither prospect is robust, nor is such a scenario likely to unfold quickly.

Dan Olner said...

"I suppose one silver lining is that we will likely be vindicated in the end..."

Reminds me of the recent flu 'pandemic' stuff: the WHO and various organisations used that word, and massive action was taken. A pandemic didn't happen. Many, many people attacked the WHO for scare-mongering. No-one said "thanks for helping to avert what could have been a much worse public health problem."

It occurred to me recently the same would apply to global warming: if we actually managed to contain the problem, and things weren't too bad in 20 - 50 years' time, many would be saying that [carbon-reducing-policy-here] was a pointless energy tax - because, look, everything's fine - no climate disruption!

watchingthedeniers said...

As I said before MT, the ultimate pyrrhic victory:

Since the failure of COP15 (don't let anyone tell you otherwise) there has been a flood of books, articles and blog posts expressing a not dissimilar view:

"We had time, we didn't and now we are screwed".

Thus Bill's Eaarth, Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a species etc.

As an Australian I'm ashamed of our governments lack of action. Per capita, we are amongst the worst emitters in the world. But we've done nothing. State governments are now considering building new coal fired power stations. Yep, that's right. New ones.

The terrible fires of 2009 were a wake up call for a *few* of us. Now, people forget and have moved on. Heck, we've just had lots of rain this past winter, the damns are filling up!

The attitude: "Climate change? Pffft. Don't worry about it, she'll be right mate."

If anything the denial movement down under is just as active, just as influential and just as dishonest as ever.

I hate to say it, but the lack of US leadership is slowing the planets response. The current state of the GOP terrifies me.

As an Australian, I don't vote in your elections. But the influence of US politics is going to hurt me and mine.

profmandia said...

I completely agree, MT. And that is why we need to reach our younger citizens and engage them. I have a few ideas of how to do so but I will need help. Stay tuned but please think about ways to reach and to energize our teens.

Dan Olner said...

On US politics: I'd love to learn more about the impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling on funding. I've seen some crazy figures for how much more money has poured into the midterms this time because of it - seems like a huge well of corporate cash was waiting behind a dam. Perhaps its not as bad as all that...?

And as the libertarians like to say: "oh, evil corrupting corporate money - not like your magic science-funding non-corrupting money, huh?"

Yes, that's right. Like there's no difference in, say, spending $20,000 on hiring a hitman or on fixing the community hall roof.

Antiquated Tory said...

Meanwhile in the Czech Republic (a wholly owned subsidiary of LukOil):
Govt agrees on how to restrict power price hike

The government decided Wednesday to reduce the expected rise in electricity prices next year by introducing a special tax on electricity generated by solar power plants, along with an increase in payments for land leased for the location of solar panels, PM Petr Nečas said after a cabinet meeting. In addition, the electricity price hike should also be compensated by revenues from selling emissions permits.

From the Prague Daily Monitor

bigcitylib said...

Don't forget the EPA endangerment finding. Therein lies salvation.

Dan Olner said...

There's also the lawyers and the insurance companies (apols if you can't see this outside the UK -)

To quote from the info:

"Myles Allan of Oxford University has set up models to predict how much climate change attributable to man has caused extreme weather conditions like the flooding here in the UK in 2000. Sophisticated modelling could make it easier to attribute blame and a recent ruling in the European Court means that victims of environmental crime should find it a lot easier to take their cases to court. Big insurance companies are already warning their clients to expect compensation suits but there is still some way to go before precedent has been set in the case of climate change and nobody knows what will happen once these floodgates have opened. Tom Heap talks to victims of Katrina who are already taking lawsuits and flood victims in the UK on the anniversary of the 2000 flooding to find out whether the courts can really offer compensation where international governments have failed to act."

Lou Grinzo said...

I have to admit that I find it harder by the day to keep pessimism at bay.

I think it's clear that 2C is behind us, as Michael says, thanks to the delay between the emission of CO2 and the actual warming, plus our ever more apparent inability to do anything substantive about those emissions.

I focus on future emissions. How much will the US, EU, et al. reduce their emissions, and how much of their rising emissions can China and India, predominantly, curtail? I see no reason for optimism on either front.

I also think it's folly to hope for some "climate 9/11" or "climate Pearl Harbor" event that will make us suddenly come to our senses and act like an enlightened race our of Star Trek. Looking at the events of the last decade -- Katrina, the EU heat waves, the Russian heat waves, the Pakistan floods, etc. -- makes it clear that it will take a truly gigantic event to get our attention. And by "gigantic" I mean a stomach turning body count coupled with financial losses in the trillions of US$.

Deech56 said...

Lou Grinzo writes about a "climate Pearl Harbor". I wonder whether collapse of the WAIS might be such an event.

Lou Grinzo said...

Deech56: That's exactly the kind of event I had in mind, even though I posted that comment without saying so explicitly.

I can't think of anything else that might have the desired effect. (Translation: anything else that causes enough pain to have the desired side-effect.)

Michael Tobis said...

Losing the WAIS settles the case but pretty much too late. We'll be in full blown acute crisis mode then.

Another really bad plausible outcome is the shutdown of the Atlantic overturning leading to decades of cooling in eastern North America and western Europe. People will conclude that "those climate scientists don't know anything" even though that scenario has been around for twenty years.

Steve Bloom said...

IMHO it's the hydrological cycle changes that are most critical in the near term. (See the two papers released in the last couple of weeks, one on evapotranspiration and the other on increased river flow.) Extreme droughts and floods are something that people will be able to imagine getting worse, so this gives me some hope that we will ultimately see an adequate response, albeit a very late one that won't avoid a lot of the damage.

The other possibility is a rapid methane release from the Arctic, although it would probably need to be larger enough for the effects to be noticed within a decade. I don't think a WAIS collapse qualifies since it seems very unlikely that it could lead to SLR greater than a few meters over a century, and noting that such a rise would likely start slowly (and indeed we could be seeing it now). I agree that a THC slowdown wouldn't do the job.

Steve Bloom said...

BCL, Obama could use the endangerment finding to do some truly sweeping stuff, but I doubt he will. The resolution (so far) of the financial crisis, which Obama had enough direct control over to give a sense of how he approaches such problems, doesn't make me terribly sanguine about what he would do with a free hand on climate.

Ric said...

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I fear that even the hollow triumph of vindication will not be ours to savor.

First, MT, I am close to your age, and we only gotta coupla decades or so alas.

More seriously, the thinking (?) behind the denial may be more resistant to reality than we find easy to conceive. Economic decline (hey, could this blog take peak fossil fuel a little more seriously, engaging the issues head-on?) and climate blows can always be laid to imaginary villains.

For good examples of mass delusion, try historian Sean Wilentz in the Oct 18 New Yorker (available this week on line) on the amazingly straight line from John Birch Society to Tea Party. These folks thought Prez DDE was a devoted Commie agent all his adult life. The current tea partiers are in that tradition.

Steve Bloom said...

Ric, an increasing trend in climate change-driven extreme weather events is difficult to ascribe to imaginary enemies. Straight-up denial will hold sway with those folks up to a point (that point varying greatly for individuals, of course), but for many of them will probably transform into a raise-the-drawbridges mentality that will allow for advocacy for continued large-scale GHG emissions. My expectation (hope?) is that this latter grouping won't be large enough to substantially sway policy.

David B. Benson said...

WAIS collapse will requite millennia; an S-shaped (sigmoid) curve of SLR.

The collapse of agriculture, on the other hand, ...

David B. Benson said...

Testing via big AOGCMs indicates that MOC will slow down rather gradually over this century. For a summary read Wally Broecker's latest book.