Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Recognizing reality

From Chris Vernon's blog.

2012 December 14
by Chris Vernon

We have a problem. I’ve known we’ve had a problem for a long time. It’s only in the last few years though, after I left my career in engineering to take a PhD in glaciology, studying the changing Greenland ice sheet, that the magnitude and timeframe has become clear. It is now all but impossible to limit global warming, the warming of mean surface air temperature, to less than +2°C from pre-industrial temperatures [1, 2]. Understand also that temperatures over land rise more than this global average, and extremes are likely to be further exaggerated by positive feedbacks. All but impossible because to have even a fifty-fifty chance of keeping warming below that somewhat arbitrary threshold, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak within the next five years or so then fall rapidly for decades: “…the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable” [3].

This fall in emissions would have to happen against the trends of increasing wealth in growing economies and growing populations. Recent history, even with the largest economic slowdown in decades, offers us no hope as global emissions are currently rising faster than ever [2]. It is a fantasy to suggest that the global community is able to collectively choose to peak and decline emissions within the next few years.

The lack of action is not for lack of knowledge. The data and scientific understanding have been clear for a long time and yet over the last decade carbon emissions have increased by a greater amount than in any previous decade (between 2002 and 2011 emissions increased by 2.5 GtCyr-1 from 7.0 to 9.5 GtCyr-1 [4]). There is nothing in the data to suggest that we have recognised the seriousness of our situation. In fact the reverse is true: we are accelerating into disaster faster than the scientific community thought possible even a decade ago.

As a scientist, I’m not supposed to use emotive words like disaster; however, that is what we are facing – an avoidable disaster of our own making. Reticence amongst the scientific community has probably contributed to our civilisation’s inaction. We know enough to say, and importantly to do more. As I write this, however, my office is quiet, half empty. My colleagues are attending a conference on the other side of the planet, elevating their carbon emissions to some of the highest in the world.

Two glimmers of hope I held until recently are fading. The first was offered by researchers quantifying the Earth’s endowment of fossil fuels. Their evidence suggested there simply weren’t the hydrocarbon reserves available to greatly perturb the climate system [5]. This is the question I explored for my master’s thesis [6] a few years ago. However, as extraction of unconventional resources continues to expand and as Arctic melting unlocks probably significant northern reserves, the hope of these resource limits applying any meaningful and timely brake diminishes. Secondly, our emission growth is linked to our economic growth. Without increasing demand from the expanding wealthy population the hydrocarbon reserves will remain unexploited. The threat of economic collapse, in our case linked to unserviceable debts, is familiar and appears plausible at least for developed Western economies.

Exactly three years ago I blogged, with evidence, about the economically induced 2008 emissions peak. The global economy has proved far more resilient than I imagined. In any case, were western economies to collapse, the remaining four fifths of the global population are unlikely to need asking twice before taking up any hydrocarbon supply slack and attempting to resume the emission growth trajectory.

The time for hope is over; it is simply illogical to continue believing that dangerous future climate projections can be mitigated through national and international agreements, or through pro-active action. We now have to consider life in a 4 °C warmer world, described here in a report for the World Bank [7].

Our global civilisation appears to be facing a protracted period of decline. Most likely this will be due to the damaging impacts of climate change but if, against the odds, we are spared the worst climate impacts it will only be due to decline from crippling energy shortages or global economic collapse. There is no easy way down for our seven, going on nine billion population, not from the height we’ve now reached. The first half of the 21st century is likely to represent a new peak of human civilisation, the first truly global civilisation, eclipsing our species’ many previous peaks. From here, we can only now hope the cost of climbing so high won’t be so damaging as to deny our distant descendants their own future triumphs.

[1] PriceWaterhouseCoopers, November 2012.
Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index 2012.
[2] Peters, G. P., Marland, G., Le Quere, C., Boden, T., Canadell, J. G. & Raupach, M. R. 2012. Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Nature Climate Change, 2, 2-4.
[3] Anderson, K. & Bows, A. 2012. A new paradigm for climate change. Nature Climate Change, 2, 639-640.
[4] Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres. 2012. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2012
[5] Nel, W. P. & Cooper, C. J. 2009. Implications of fossil fuel constraints on economic growth and global Warming. Energy Policy, 37, 166-180.
[6] Vernon, C., Thompson, E. & Cornell, S. 2011. Carbon dioxide emission scenarios: limitations of the fossil fuel resource. Procedia Environmental Sciences, 6, 206-215.
[7] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012. Turn Down the Heat: why a 4C warmer World Must be Avoided. Report for the World Bank.


  1. Co-incidentally, I have read that article through It is not clear to me why Chris suggested peak in CO2 emissions in 2008-9. Unfortunately, there is no REAL adaptation for 4°C global warming by the end of the century.

    Does it have to be this way?


  2. As an Oceanographer, I note that few discuss the impact of global warming upon ocean
    currents. Despite the fact that ocean currents account for major climate impacts.

    Of particular concern to me is a global circulation system known as "The Great Salt Conveyor". This deep water circulation begins in the waters off East Greenland, the Barents and White Seas and Denmark Strait. The mechanism for this circulation is salt concentration in surface waters due to ice formation in winter. Once the salinity exceeds the threshold, the saline surface waters plummet to the ocean bottom, from which they flow south to the antarctic circumpolar current. This deep water discharge of surface waters pulls the Gulf Stream north into this area, accounting for the ice free fjords of Norway, the climate of Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Faeroes, Shetlands, Norway, and NW Russia.

    Global warming is expected to stop ice formation altogether within a decade or so, which will shutdown this system. Recent satellite data indicates that the Gulf Stream is already flowing due east from the Grand Banks to southern Europe. If the northern circlation is indeed shutdown, we can expect much colder weather in the North Sea and surrounding environs.


    1. "the fact that ocean currents account for major climate impacts."

      Wrong. It is CO2 and only CO2 that is the problem. You're just trying to take thunder away from climate science.

      What would oceanographers know about climate? Sheesh.


    2. Klem, please, try to maintain the debate at a civilized level. Mr Oprisko is correctly noting the role of oceanic currents on the climate system. If you disagree with something that he say, please state your point, but there is no reason to shout "wrong" aloud in this way.

  3. Very clear article. I think he probably speaks for many people in the environmental movement when he says in his first sentence: "We have a problem. I’ve known we’ve had a problem for a long time". And although humanity needs to keep trying to save itself, it seems to be becoming increasingly clear that there is no guarantee there will be a solution. Most of the standard solutions being proposed, on closer scrutiny, can be seen to be highly unlikely to work. Moreover the problems of obtaining consensus and implementing any of them are gargantuan. A much lower overall world population coupled with much more local production and consumption seem to be the only likely solution that can work. How to get there in a managed way instead of being forced into it through a collapse? Earth is going to be around for a long time still. Humanity may or may not.

    1. " A much lower overall world population coupled with much more local production and consumption seem to be the only likely solution that can work."

      But if we do nothing, the earth god Gaia will deliver the long prayed for climate apocalypse and there will be a lower world population. Your dreams will have come true.


  4. George, "Global warming is expected to stop ice formation altogether within a decade or so..." I don't think there's any evidence for ice formation stopping. Certainly ice free summers are expected within a decade or so, but not ice free winters.

    I've drawn this chart from the PIOMAS Daily Ice Volume Data. It shows the amount of ice growth each year, generated by subtracting the year's minimum volume from the following year's maximum volume. Even if there was zero summer ice, as is likely to be the case soon, there's no evidence in the data that a similar 15+ thousand km3 of ice won't form during the winter. If anything the trend as been for increased winter ice formation. As the summer minimum as shrunk faster than the winter maximum.


    Last winter, the sea surface temperature during the January polar night was around -30C. Winter sea ice and ice formation will be with us for a very long time.

    1. But climate scientists are often heard to say the arctic will be 'ice free' by 2020. These people know full well that they mean ice free in the summer only, but they never mention that detail, they let their followers believe that they mean ice fee all year long permanently.

      Don't tell people that they actually mean summer only, it will spoil the ruse.


    2. Chris - I believe Dr. Oprisko's larger concern is modification of portions of the global ocean circulation due to the effects of warming. I think there is some evidence that this may in fact be underway, including indications that warm water that previously cooled and sank in gyres on the trip north in the Atlantic towards Greenland is now not sinking and heading directly north into the Arctic Ocean.

  5. don't feed the troll.

  6. Very helpful article, I learned many new things, thank you!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)