The Weather Makers

Earth’s thermal regulation balance: 492 W/m2 coming in, 492 W/m2 going out, when we don’t mess with it. Diagram from this excellent 1996 paper by U. Wash. Prof. Dennis Hartmann.

Regular readers of HtStW know that I see the consequences of global warming being relative late-comers to the cascade of crises I think will befall our planet in this century. I expect that our preoccupation with economic depression, pandemic disease, the end of oil, the exhaustion of other resources due to overpopulation and waste, and nuclear, biological and chemical violence will distract us from paying significant attention to ‘natural disasters’ precipitated by CO2 until it is far too late. Such disasters may, however, be the icing on the cake that seals the fate of our civilization.

Scientist Tim Flannery’s new book The Weather Makers is a tour de force, an exhaustive and rigorous explanation of how even modest global warming produces dramatic climate change. It starts with a history of our planet’s climate, describing how natural warming events in the past have altered Earth’s climate, and reviewing how the self-regulating systems of our ecosphere — the atmosphere, the oceans, and the ‘respirations’ of living matter — keep our planet’s climate in a precarious balance that is as beneficial as possible for all life on our planet. What comes across in the early chapters is the astonishing fragility of this ecosystem, and the regularity with which small meteorites, volcanic eruptions and other events can throw the planet wildly out of balance and create extinctions of much of life on the planet. After such extinctions, the complex adaptive system that is our biosphere (or Gaia if you prefer), acting like a patient builder of houses of cards, re-starts the building of delicate organic balancing mechanisms, adapting to the climate changes to produce new and unpredictable forms of life that are self-sustaining and self-regulating, until the planet or the cosmos unleashes the next shock to this system.

Flannery takes pains to explain how utterly complex this balancing act is, describing the huge difference in temperatures at various levels of our atmosphere, and how minor tweaking with the tiny constituents of that atmosphere can either bring about stasis of thermal regulation, or utterly destroy that stasis. It is now believed that the ice ages were a consequence of the biosphere not getting the balance quite right, because some of the variables (Earth’s wobble, tilt and distance from the sun all vary in long cycles) could not be anticipated. So much for margin for error! We dodged a bullet, Flannery says, when we banned CFCs a generation ago: had we not, we would already be witnessing some of the severe consequences of atmospheric imbalance such chemical meddling produces. And had we used bromine instead of chlorine for the aerosols that employed CFCs, we would already have irreparably damaged the atmosphere and Earth would already be in the midst of climate chaos.

The fragility of this system was brought home to me by an analogy: Our biosphere — the membrane of Earth’s crust that supports life, is only 10km wide, from the deepest ocean life to the highest mountain life: were it not for gravity, and air and water pressure, you could travel its entire width in a leisurely 90 minute walk, or drive it in 5. The Earth’s diameter is 12,700km. If the Earth were shrunk to a soccer-ball or basketball-sized model, 23cm in diameter, the thickness of the biosphere in the model would be 2mm — one mm (1/25″) above sea level and one mm below, and the tiny band in which over 90% of all life resides would be much narrower still — invisible to the human eye.
The Keeling Curve, developed by the late Charles Keeling. Image from website of Dr. Jeff Masters. Flannery says this remarkable chart “shows the Earth breathing” — inhaling in the northern spring as new plants absorb CO2 and exhaling in the northern fall as plants die and decompose.

Human activity is unbalancing thermal regulation in several ways, Flannery explains. Burning of hydrocarbons and forests produces CO2 that was previously ‘stored’ in the ground (each year we burn half a millennium’s worth of accumulated hydrocarbons), releasing that CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, chemicals we release into the air damage the ozone layer, allowing more of the sun’s heat to reach the Earth. And, as the oceans become more acidic as they have to absorb more CO2, they, and the burned and acidified forests, become less able to act as ‘carbon sinks’, allowing more of the carbon in the air to escape back into the atmosphere. “Positive feedback loops” (vicious cycles) hence accelerate the imbalance and the climate change consequences.

One interesting period to study, says Flannery, is the period of sudden global warming that occurred 55 million years ago, at the time of the clathrate release (methane from underground being released by tectonic shifts and sparked into flame by volcanic heat under the oceans). In that instance, the carbon was mostly absorbed by the oceans rather than reaching the atmosphere, but the resultant spike in CO2 in the oceans exterminated most marine life and left the oceans heavily acidic for 20,000 years. While not an exact parallel to today’s human-caused CO2 spike, the rate of increase is comparable, and the consequences, this ‘last time around’, were cataclysmic.

As a consequence of global warming thus far, all non-human life is, on average, migrating towards the poles at a rate of 6km each decade, and that pace is accelerating. This has resulted in significant havoc to local ecosystems everywhere: Extinctions in tropical areas, invasions by new species in temperate and polar areas, and massive turmoil to established species. And thanks to El NiÒos and La NiÒas, global warming and climate change are occurring not smoothly but in unpredictable, erratic spurts — most recently in 1976 and 1998, when average ocean temperatures in the Pacific suddenly spiked and have not subsided.

I shivered when I read that one of the species that is threatened by this migration is the harp seal, being slaughtered en masse as I write this thanks to the morons in the Canadian federal and Atlantic provincial governments. The breakup of sea and gulf ice, earlier each year, and in some cases non-formation of ice at all (notably in 5 of the last ten years) in breeding areas in Canada’s Atlantic region is preventing the harp seals from breeding, and Flannery explains that an extended run of pupless years is now to be expected, and will lead to the harp seal’s extinction. Ironically, this year’s hunt will have to be extended, it was announced today, because there are fewer seals than expected and because it is harder for the ‘hunters’ to reach them due to early breakup and non-formation of the ice this year. Canada’s polar bears, natural predators of the seals that have long fled the area for more northern areas, are, it was reported this week, also struggling with lack of sea ice and unable to reach their prey, and are starving to death, also headed for extinction. We Canadians should be ashamed of ourselves, and furious at our governments, for tolerating this. The new minority Harper government has also promised to renege on Canada’s Kyoto commitment.

Flannery next painstakingly connects global warming and climate change to current polar melting, reef destruction, ocean current changes, droughts, drops in and salinization of the water table, and species extinctions. He says there is now evidence that the disastrous desertification of the vast sub-Saharan Sahel region of Africa, from the west coast to Darfur and Somalia, is due more to climate change (rainfall patterns) than to overgrazing and poor soil management.

There are three possible ‘vicious cycle’ effects of global warming that could lead to very sudden and disastrous climate change, Flannery says. In declining order of probability:

  1. Collapse of the Gulf Stream (and its moderating influences on climate in most of the world)
  2. Collapse and desertification of the Amazon Rainforest
  3. A new clathrate methane release from the ocean floor

Even if none of these occur, he says, accelerating effects of global warming could soon reach a ‘tipping point’ at which no amount of human action could prevent it from continuing to the point our planet would become unlivable. He sees three possible scenarios as we attempt to come to grips with this reality:

  1. Too late, inadequate or uncoordinated response: Leading to massive climate shifts, destruction of Earth’s life support systems, and destabilization of civilization, leading to a Dark Ages where “the most destructive weapons ever devised will still exist, while the means to regulate their use and make peace will have been swept away”, starting as soon as 2050.
  2. Coordinated, prompt, individual, national and corporate response, including global adoption of a Contraction & Convergence Convention, leading to a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions from human activity by 2030, the gradual elimination of all CO2-producing energy after that, and sustaining carbon monitoring and reduction for at least the century thereafter needed to restore the planet’s thermal self-regulating ability.
  3. Half-hearted response, sufficient to prevent only immediate crises, which would then have to be followed by centuries of massive, staggeringly expensive, global climate engineering projects to help the planet manage the carbon cycle.

I was dreading reading Flannery’s prescription because there were early clues that he believes, based in part on how quickly CFCs were banned a generation ago, that massive coordinated action, combining unprecedented government activity with a global groundswell of voluntary personal actions on eleven fronts, is possible. I’m not sure if he says this because he’s naive (both because human beings and governments don’t act this quickly or decisively unless the threat is imminent and personal, and because there simply isn’t enough top-down control in our world to mandate, control and coordinate such action even if we wanted it), or because he didn’t want the book to be a ‘downer’, hurting sales and the probability of people at least trying to achieve what he prescribes.

Whatever his motivation for saying this, it left me extremely discouraged. As Einstein suggested in his statement on nuclear weaponry, the more we know, and the more we know about human nature, the more pessimistic we get about our ability to collectively take responsibility for our actions and act in accordance with our collective interest. Flannery himself acknowledges that the US and Australia are two countries that are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but their governments haven’t even signed Kyoto, an accord which Flannery describes as hopelessly inadequate. And the idea, which Flannery advances late in the book, that corporations and governments could be pressured into action on global warming by the threat of lawsuits once the connection between carbon emissions and the negative effects on health, security and climate have been even more convincingly established, is, to me, absurd. One need only look at how well Big Tobacco is still doing to see that such threats don’t work.

In summary, this is an important book, a work of true science, and a must read for anyone who cares about future generations or the health and sustainability of our planet. But rather than instilling new hope and galvanizing billions into action to deal with this huge challenge, I suspect Flannery’s book may well be, a century from now, the final epitaph for our civilization.

I will of course act personally on the eleven voluntary personal actions hotlinked above, and encourage everyone to do likewise. Alas, as I’vesaid before, our human nature is not to do what we can, but rather to do what we must.

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5 Responses to The Weather Makers

  1. James Samuel says:

    Thank you for this thorough summary of a valuable book. I read this on the way to Zimbabwe, and on the way back read in a copy of the NZ Herald that there are now several major rivers that do not reach the ocean due to being drained before they an get there – this alone should be alerting us to the dangers of our present course. When an ecx Chairman of Shell came to NZ and spoke of the realities of Global Warming he spoke to a packed house, but while he was clear about the realities and urgency, his hopeful technological possiblities had no substance to them (you can read my report on this lecture which was supported by a prominent University environmental lawyer). The time has come to move beyond denial (probably one of the most debilitating emotions of our society at present).

  2. dave says:

    you’ve forgotten so many people that are (humbly stated) smarter than you. Once you make a “earth-shattering” observation, you might want to at least acknowledge that you are at best am amateur scientist who is ready to categorize all peoples into such categories as “real scientists”, or “free market libertarians” or whatever is convenient to you.

  3. mike janket says:

    Matt has some germane comments to this discussion. We are only too observant of the huge swings in petroleum prices and the biggest fear I have is that of “political oil”. Peak oil is bad enough, but when the thuggery extant in the industry decides to take their balls and bats and go home and sell oil to their political brethren. And, if you are talking about dealing with Chavez and the crumbling house of Saud, you have two massive problems of worldwide concern. Carbon dioxide emissions are leading to some future shocks, even though people like Rush Limbaugh say this is merely like the “natural increases” before the industrial age. I’m not young, with luck I have 20 years left. But, I fully expect petro-mayhem far before my demise. And, with burgeoning carbon dioxide emissions, the dance could get mighty interesting real soon. Frankly, I scared silly,Mike

  4. mike janket says:

    Mike made some boo-boos in his sentence structure, so solly. I could have proofread the verbiage but was too emotionally worked up. This stuff has me tied in knots. Mike

  5. larry h says:

    Most blogs/posts have a little of this, a little of that. This post is going to be a little different, in terms of scale. The world population grew tremendously in the last century and the increase in firepower has increased millions of times in the last century. Maybe that is not accidental. Especially since 1945 there has been an ominous parallel between over-population and massive over-destruction. Could it be that if the human race has no natural enemies Nature sees to it that a self-destructive instinct in Man, what Freud called Thanatos, or the Death Instinct, takes hold of the situation once the species population rises above some optimal thresh-hold level. I know of no other possible cause which so easily explains the environmental crisis. In other words, maybe its NOT greed. People concerned about the environmental crises really ought to ask themselves how humans could be so paralyzed during the rise of the atomic/ballistic missile age. That is evidence of the workings of a collective Death Instinct, Thanatos, on the global level. Could the “environmental crises” not be partly a mirror of the real unhappiness and frustration many people obviously feel in their personal lives? Visit Hawaii and Aspen, CO, two of the top destination resorts in the world, and daily you will could see wealthy and otherwise smart men and women nevertheless racing around like it was their last week on the Planet. Well, either they were fundamentally disorganized in their personal/social lives, or they were mainlining adrenalin, the #1 human antidote against severe depression. It is almost as if they are really dissatisfied & unhappy, the hole in the ozone layer is almost a terrible triumph, like a way to get back at an impersonal Nature that has refused to provide them, rich as they are, with the ways and means of making themselves really happy. If your own life is a disaster, what do you care about the environment? Paralleling this is the drastic compression of the Human attention span. The human attention span may compressing because ANY deep feelings of personal responsibility regarding the destruction of the environment might become overwhelming. This certainly was the case after Hiroshima and the rise of the Atomic Age. It is curious that the worse the species problems become the shorter the human attention span becomes. This I suggest is the workings of the Death Instinct, Thanatos, on a global level. Thanatos is destroying the human mind, by compressing its attention span out of existence. And, again, the simple reason is that the human population may have exceeded some threshold natural limit, at which point Thanatos may more or less automatically boot up. Bottom line: Theory: Over-Creation and Over-Destruction are **irrevocably** wired together. If humans have over-booted their species, then Thanatos sees to it greater and greater engines of destruction are deployed in the human environment. And there’s really nothing else going on.

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