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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Climate: walking along a mountain path with our eyes closed, hoping that the cliff is still far away....

The danger of climate change continues to be widely misunderstood and ignored.

The COP21 of Paris is starting and trying to gain a slot in the mediaspace. But, at best, it will be a short flare of attention; soon fading in the general indifference. Climate change, it seems, is seen as something remote; its importance dwarfed by more immediate threats; from terrorism to financial concerns. And governments seem to suffer from a split personality disease; with politicians flocking to Paris to declare the absolute need of saving the planet for the future generations and then going back home and declare the absolute need of restarting growth.

But the climate threat is not for the future generations. It is something that's going on now, that has been going on for a century, and that keeps going, taking us along a dangerous path that ends somewhere, probably with a steep cliff.

Here is a summary of the situation as it is today. It doesn't attempt to be exhaustive, but it tries to catch the main points of what's going on.

1. Temperatures. Climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but that's probably its most direct and visible manifestation. The earth as been getting warmer and warmer during the past century or so and, today, the so-called "pause" is over, if it ever existed. 2015 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded, with good chances that 2016 will be even hotter. We are very close to, or we have passed,  1°C of average surface temperature increase in comparison to pre-industrial times. The effects of this warming are multiple: droughts, heat waves, glacier melting, sea level rise, and more. And the more the earth warms up, the more these effects are important.

2. Greenhouse gases.  Carbon dioxide and methane are the main greenhouse gases generated as the result of human activities. Their buildup in the atmosphere continues. About CO2, 2015 was probably the last year in history when humans could breathe an air containing less than 400 ppm of it; from now on, concentrations will be higher. We don't know what effect these concentrations will have on people, but we know that humans had never experienced an atmosphere with more than 300 ppm of CO2 during the more than a hundred thousand years of their existence as a species. We also know that the human cognitive process is already measurably impaired at concentrations under 1000 ppm. Regarding methane, concentrations are also rising after a period of stasis that had lasted until 2006. There exists the worrisome possibility that increasing temperatures will generate a "tipping point" in which the release of methane trapped in the high latitude permafrost would become an independent and out of control source of greenhouse gas. So far, there is no evidence that this is happening, but there are worrisome reports of bursts of methane released from craters in Siberia.

3. Ice melting and sea levels. The melting of the icecaps and glaciers continues unabated. The risk of some major instabilities exists, for instance in Antarctica; even though no spectacular events have occurred, so far. Some studies seem to indicate that Antarctica has been gaining some ice up to 2008 owing to increased snowfall but, even if that turns out to be true, the overall melting trend is evident. The melting of continental glaciers is destabilizing the mountains, causing extensive landslides. The freshwater flow into the oceans is one of the main factors causing a rise in sea levelsAt present, we stand at a level some 20 cm higher than when the measurements started, in late 19th century. So far, no coastal city or inhabited island has gone underwater permanently, but if the rising trend continues this is going to become a gigantic problem.

4. Weather and climate related disasters. The changing weather patterns are one of the factors that have generated a rapid increase in natural disasters during the 20th century. The number of disasters appears to have peaked around 2004-2006, even though the damage done keeps increasing in monetary terms. The change in weather patterns is causing considerable damage to agriculture, affected by droughts (as it is happening in the US)  and by unstable rainfall patterns. So far, food production has not been heavily impacted, at least on the average and the production of cereals remains stable, or even increasing. However, poor countries are especially at risk since farmers do not have the financial resources needed to adapt. Fishery production is in decline almost everywhere, mostly because of overfishing, but also as a result of oceanic warming.

5. Other effects. All the above are effects that can be classed under the "climate change" label, in turn an effect of the warming caused by greenhouse forcing. However, the ongoing changes in the ecosystem are much more complex and extensive. For instance, oceanic acidification is taking place as an effect of dissolved CO2 to a level of some 0.1 pH units and that may already have negative effects on corals. We would need to consider eutrophication, soil erosion, heavy metal dispersal, land coverage by permanent structures, multiple extinctions, deforestation, and much more.

Even though short, this list shows how gigantic and mostly irreversible changes are taking place. The earth changing, it is being transformed into a different planet, an environment that our ancestors never experienced, but that we cannot avoid facing. In this situation, a certain degree of adaptation is certainly possible for humans. Air conditioning can help against heat waves, agriculture can adapt to droughts by irrigation or by switching to different varieties of plants, engineering works can help against flooding, and fires can be suppressed by various methods. But there are limits to adaptation and the problems tend to come not gradually, but all of a sudden. For instance, when New York suffered a disastrous flood, in 2012, the sea level rise was certainly a factor that worsened the problem.

In many cases, we are seeing a situation in which major climate-related emergencies could occur at any moment. There are various possibilities; such as a new heat waves comparable, or worse, than the one in 2003 that claimed some 70,000 victims in Europe. We may see the collapse of major chunks of ice from Antarctica or from Greenland, that would lead to a disastrous sea level rise. Or changes in the weather patterns badly affecting agriculture and hence food production. Or something else; in any case, as the greenhouse forcing continues to increase, these possibilities become more and more likely.

Capping all this, there is the ominous possibility of the "climate tipping point", the fact that after reaching a certain degree of warming, the whole ecosystem will start releasing methane stored in the permafrost, pushing itself to a new temperature state. This new state could be so hot to make most of the planet uninhabitable for human beings. Obviously, there is no way to adapt to such an event.

Against all this, the efforts of the conference of Paris appear unlikely to have a large effect, to say the least. The conference is not supposed to reach any binding agreement and there is little chance that it will arrive to an agreement sufficiently strong to ensure that temperatures will remain within the "2 C" warming limits, even assuming that such a level could be considered "safe."

Yet, it would not be impossible to stabilize climate by switching to an economy fully powered by renewable energy before it will be too late. But that requires sacrifices that, at present, nobody is willing to make. So, we keep walking along a mountain path with our eyes closed, just hoping that the cliff is still far away.....


  1. Creo que es la única receta para hacer frente al cambio climático

    1. ...y Mujica no es el único con ese mensaje. Pero sí vale repetir.

      The video (10 min) has a running translation (a decent one) into English. Mr Mujica, President of Uruguay, preaches a simple lifestyle, concentrating on basic values.

  2. Even if we stopped CO2 emissions tomorrow, we need to get back to 280 ppm or better in order to have a relatively stable climate. We will need to enlist the help of Nature, through photosynthesis, to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it back in the soil (as organic matter) where it has additional benefits: increasing soil's water retention capability and improving nutrient availability for plants. See

  3. We are going to enter the "Trail of bones", left and right, as we move through the worst transition possible to a new earth.

  4. The Final Countdown = Read BeezleyBillyBub
    50% of Forest Bird species will go extinct in 50 years.

    60% of Flower species will go extinct in 50 years.

    50% of Mega Cities will go extinct in 50 years.

    90% of Soil will go extinct in 50 years.

    40% of Humanis will not have enough water in 15 years.

    100% - Ocean Acidification doubles by 2050,

    200% - Ocean Acidification triples by 2100.

    99% of Rhinos gone since 1914.

    97% of Tigers gone since 1914.

    90% of Lions gone since 1993.

    90% of Sea Turtles gone since 1980.

    90% of Monarch Butterflies gone since 1995.

    90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.

    80% of Antarctic Krill gone since 1975.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    60% of Forest Elephants gone since 1970.

    50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    40% of Giraffes gone since 2000.

    40% of ocean phytoplankton gone since 1950.

    30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.

    70% of Marine Birds gone since 1950.

    28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.

    28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.

    97% - Humans & Livestock are 97% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    0.01% - 10,000 years ago we were 0.01% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    1,000,000 humans, net, are added to earth every 4½ days.

    Other than that everything is fine.

  5. Thanks a lot Ugo - so much in tune with what we can observe all across the world right now. Seeing the patterns of behavior is not well understood.

    The current MOOC "U.Lab - Transforming Business, Society, and Self" is questioning exactly that on how to co-create a better future for all by creating an eco-system awareness (sensing, seeing and understanding the pattern of behavior of our actions, especially the ones we do collectively, and often unquestioned).

  6. In our flat, we are going to buy a modern freezer using only 1/3 average electric power compared with the old one. Also we managed to decrease our general use of electric power. This is a ridiculously small contribution. What I mean is, that change has to happen on all levels. Talk about private use of energy helps to create awareness - and even competition.
    On supranational level, there is the european cap and trade system, which is a brilliant invention, in principle, really a silver bullet, if it only would be used decisively. It is the one measure that could really work in Europe. Deplorably, there is next to no media coverage on it in Germany - and elsewhere, I suppose. I got the suspicion, that the lack of interest exists not because it is teethless, but because it c o u l d actually work, in which case the pecuniary consequences would be felt by everyone now, while the climatic consequences are going to be felt by "the others". (Which is of course not true for the mediterranean countries, for which a considerable increase in water stress is forecasted.)



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)