I’ve just finished Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything and I completely enjoyed it. Somewhere in the first few chapters I remarked to my wife that I was really pleased to be reading something so contemporary (the book mentions events that happened as recently as June 2014) and yet so comprehensive. It’s not a doom and gloom book, eluminating the causes and consequences of climate change for the unenlightened. It’s more a practical look at where we are now and what our choices are, given the determination of fossil fuel companies to drill to the last drop and the climate intransigence of our governments in the face of big money’s big pressure.
The book has moved the conversation forward, not with data, but with realistic paths for the anti-fossil fuel movement to follow in the future. I appreciated her list of shining examples of states and countries that have successfully resisted fracking or moved toward greener power. I also enjoyed hearing that some of the biggest green groups on the planet are in cahoots with big oil.
For me though, the book floats, fingers crossed, in what I’d call a state of steely-eyed hopium. She’s firmly on the side of those who believe it is possible to make a switch from fossil fuels to solar, wind and wave before we heat the planet enough to cause our own extinction. And she leans quite heavily toward getting there using the model of Indigenous respect for Mother Earth and the Indigenous land rights movement. Nothing wrong with that in itself. But halfway through the book, it occurred to me that the wrong battles are being fought.
Before I describe the tangent my brain went off on, let me encourage you to buy the book. This is one smart and talented writer who knows her stuff. Even if you don’t agree with all of her conclusions, you will certainly enjoy her journey.
So here’s my tangent – why activists may be fighting the wrong battles, or at least, fighting battles that even if they win, will still lose them the war.
In the current climate crisis, I am always leery of those who spend more time talking about who is to blame and what it will be like afterward than they do trying to save themselves. Hey, I’m all for solar power and stopping the burning of fossil fuels from baking the planet. But there are a couple of elephants in the room that Ms. Klein and many other otherwise thoughtful writers fail to address.
When people think of climate change, the picture most commonly in their heads is one where today is mostly fine, with a few aberrant exceptions like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. There is the certainty that as we burn more fossil fuels, we’re going to be in deep trouble. And of course, there is the very real worry that the next time the weather dice are rolled, your own family might be affected. To rectify those worries, we buy Priuses and local produce, click Like on Facebook when someone says No to another bout of fracking or pipeline building. We trust that at some point, our economy will be fully greened, oil will only be used for french fries and gas, well, we won’t talk about Uncle Freddy’s little toot at Thanksgiving.
It is assumed that scenarios where bad weather days happen every day or there is an extinction event just after lunch are at least a hundred years away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the phrase “in order to keep the Earth’s temperature below 2°C”. It’s become a mantra for climate activists the world over. Well, what if I told that we reached 2°C a long time ago and that 4°C is a done deal. Not ‘maybe’ 4°C, not ‘with the right climate models’ 4°C. Actually, 100% locked in, and no one is doing a damn thing about it.
Let me explain. In all our worry about warming up the atmosphere, there is an annoying little law of thermal physics that isn’t getting a lot of airplay. And that’s the fact that heating takes time and we are currently experiencing a delayed response. It’s called Latent Heat, and atmospheric scientists discovered that it takes about 40 years for that CO2 we’re pumping out to reach its full effect.
Anyone who does not know what Latent Heat is will have a false sense of security. It is not hard to understand if I do not use physics jargon. Place on a hot stove a pot of cold water containing 1 kg of ice cubes. Stir the ice water with a long thermometer and take temperature readings. My question is: When will the thermometer begin to show a rise in temperature? Answer: After all the ice has melted. In other words, all the heat from the stove would first all go into melting the ice, without raising the water temperature. The amount of heat entering a system without raising the temperature of the system is called Latent Heat. It takes 80 calories of heat to melt one gram of ice. So in this case, the first 80,000 calories of heat from the stove went into melting the 1 kg of ice first. Only when the ice is all gone will the water temperature rise, and it will do so until it reaches 100C, when the water will begin to boil. Once again, Latent Heat comes into play, and the water temperature will stabilize at the boiling point – until all the water have changed from liquid to vapour, at which point the temperature of the dry pot will rise to the temperature of the flame itself. So how does this apply to Earth’s climate? Consider the Arctic Ocean to be a gigantic pot of ice water, and the sun as the stove. For as long as there is still sea ice to melt, the Arctic Ocean will remain relatively cool, in spite of the ever increasing solar heat entering the Arctic ocean due to ever decreasing ice cover. When the sea ice is gone in the summer, as early as the latter part of this decade, the Arctic Ocean’s temperature will steeply rise, and when it does, so will the global mean temperature, and all hell will break lose. (Source)
So here’s the first elephant in the room. Between 1800 and 1975, the world used a total of 403 billion barrels of oil. In the past 40 years, from 1976 to 2015, we used more than a trillion barrels of oil, well over twice the 1800-1975 amount. That’s just oil. Coal, natural gas and other heat-trapping gasses are in addition, but the trajectory is the same (coal use doubled since 1990, gas use in the U.S. has had a five-fold increase). So, 1800 to 1975, 403 billion barrels of oil.
Up to now, the global temperature has risen an average of .8 degrees. Given the promise of all that latent heat, we can expect that by 2055, 40 years from now, the world will be on average 2°C hotter. Some would say 3°C or more, but we’ll be generous to the doubters and say, at least 2°C hotter than in 1800.
The second elephant is economic. Since the industrial revolution, we have been riding on the coattails of the cheapest energy available on the planet, derived from our beloved fossil fuels. When those fuels become too rare and therefore too expensive to extract (as we go over their production peaks), a stable economy goes south with them. All the world’s hopes of solar, wind and wave power are pointless if no one can afford to build or buy them. There are lots of other reasons why the world’s economy might crash in the next 40 years. Many forecasters are astonished that it hasn’t crapped out already. But the fact we have no replacement for our incredibly efficient black bubbly spells certain doom for the engines of transport, agriculture, and a legion of other human activities. When oil goes, the party is over. Before the fracking boom, it was expected that humanity would drink every drop of oil on the planet by around 2050. Now, some would say fracking has thrown us a life preserver. The only question now is, come 2050, will the rich still be able to afford oil? Because the rest of us sure as heck won’t be able to.
Alone, each of these elephants has the power to stop civilisation in its tracks. Together, it becomes a certainty. Here’s why.
We are all seeing rather less of the Sun. Scientists looking at five decades of sunlight measurements have reached the disturbing conclusion that the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface has been gradually falling. Paradoxically, the decline in sunlight may mean that global warming is a far greater threat to society than previously thought.
The effect was first spotted by Gerry Stanhill, an English scientist working in Israel. Comparing Israeli sunlight records from the 1950s with current ones, Stanhill was astonished to find a large fall in solar radiation. “There was a staggering 22% drop in the sunlight, and that really amazed me,” he says.
Intrigued, he searched out records from all around the world, and found the same story almost everywhere he looked, with sunlight falling by 10% over the USA, nearly 30% in parts of the former Soviet Union, and even by 16% in parts of the British Isles. Although the effect varied greatly from place to place, overall the decline amounted to 1-2% globally per decade between the 1950s and the 1990s.
Gerry called the phenomenon global dimming, but his research, published in 2001, met with a sceptical response from other scientists. It was only recently, when his conclusions were confirmed by Australian scientists using a completely different method to estimate solar radiation, that climate scientists at last woke up to the reality of global dimming.
Dimming appears to be caused by air pollution. Burning coal, oil and wood, whether in cars, power stations or cooking fires, produces not only invisible carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming) but also tiny airborne particles of soot, ash, sulphur compounds and other pollutants.
This visible air pollution reflects sunlight back into space, preventing it reaching the surface. But the pollution also changes the optical properties of clouds. Because the particles seed the formation of water droplets, polluted clouds contain a larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds. Recent research shows that this makes them more reflective than they would otherwise be, again reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. (Source)
Gruesome as it sounds for a scientist to benefit from the events of 9/11, when all the aircraft in the US were grounded after 9/11, it was a perfect opportunity to study the effects of global dimming. Sure enough, without all those aircraft polluting the sky, the temperature in the States shot up a full degree C. Which does not bode well for us in the future when we stop burning fossil fuels. And that could happen for either of two reasons. Either we’ve figured out how to make ‘green’ jets that don’t pollute or we run out of cheap oil to make jet fuel and our fleets are grounded with the rest of the economy.
So here we are with an horrific arithmetic (say that ten times fast). We can expect at least 2°C total rise in temperature by 2055 just from the amount of oil, gas and coal we’ve already burned (the latent heat). That’s a done deal and there’s no going back. But regardless whether our economy goes kaflooey or goes green, the average global temperature in 2055 will go up by two more degrees (when airborne pollutants are lessened). We’ve locked in 4°C, period.
Picture it this way. You are standing in a camp shower, the kind where there is a bucket above and you use a rope to tip it over on yourself. The bucket is the 4°C temperature rise we have already locked in. We have pulled the rope and we have tipped the entire contents onto ourselves. All there is left to do is cringe and wait for the impact. There is no un-tipping the bucket. It’s all up to gravity now.
The year 2055 is not some magic number where the weather’s just fine up until then and then everything happens all at once. No, 2055 is only the latest possible year that 4°C will happen. If there is another 9/11 or if the economy crashes unexpectedly, that could mean another degree or two within a week’s time. I hate to imagine what a Superstorm Sandy would look like the week after that.
The issue is, who is planning for it? Not in a bunker-mentality kind of way, where rednecks stash guns, water and food and expect to fight off the zombie hordes. I mean in a realistic, public resource mobilization manner, where our leaders face the oncoming threat with Churchillian realism and bravado.
Right now, according to the World Health Organization, 150,000 people die annually directly from the effects of climate change. That’s a lot. But what about four times that? If someone told you that half a million people (perhaps your entire city or every person you have ever met in your life) is going to die in front of you, say, on your birthday every year, wouldn’t you think it was kind of an important issue?
A great many books have been written about what has caused our current predicament, books about greedy-guts capitalism and our industrial economy’s dependence, first on coal, and now oil and gas. Just as many books have been written about what to do now that the science is in on climate change, ocean acidification and so on. I couldn’t tell you how many titles I’ve seen that promise solutions to the problem of going green in a black-as-oil world. But seriously, there are bigger fish to fry. Why are we standing around calmly discussing blame and after-party cleanup when humanity is about to experience a holocaust-level loss of life every decade or two for the next several thousand years? We’ve pulled the rope in the shower. And no, despite what the guards have told you, we’re not in here to get clean.