Yesterday I wrote about our changing the climate. The study by Schmittner et. al. I cited yesterday, which showed a lower sensitivity for a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, has set off a firestorm of protest among environmental activists, among them Joe Romm of Climate Progress. It turns out that this latest study, if correct, implies that even with a lower sensitivity, there will be "drastic changes" (for example, as expressed in extreme weather events) on land in the mid to high latitudes, which happens to be where most Americans live, not to mention Europeans, the Japanese, Russians, Canadians and so on.
Romm talks about "fast feedbacks" (e.g. water vapor levels in the atmosphere) versus "slow feedbacks" (e.g. methane release from thawing permafrost). Romm talks about all sorts of other things, but here's what you "need to know" about the "flawed study"—
Here’s what you need to know about the study by Schmittner et al in Science (subs. req’d):
- Its key finding is that the so-called “fast-feedbacks sensitivity” of the climate (to a doubling of CO2 levels) is on the low side. This finding is likely wrong, according to many leading climatologists (see below).
- Even if the study’s findings hold up, we are headed toward high warming on our current GHG emissions path. That’s because we are headed toward a tripling or higher of CO2 levels and because the slower feedbacks ain’t so slow (see “NSIDC bombshell: Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s, releasing 100 billion tons of carbon by 2100“).
- The study finds that small changes in Earth’s temperature can have huge impacts on the land — that’s why it finds a low sensitivity!
I'm going to make this post short and sweet. (Well, OK, maybe not, I'm a wordy son-of-a-bitch.)
This latest study, flawed or not, doesn't matter, just like the many studies which preceded it.
Why doesn't this study matter? Here's why: Homo sapiens—yes, that's you and me folks—is not going to do diddly-squat about climate change. And why not? As if we had to learn this lesson all over again in the three years since the financial meltdown, we have once again discovered that for human beings, the economy is everything.
Stopping or slowing greenhouse gas emissions would require us to shrink the economy instead of trying to grow it. And why is that? Because modern industrial economies require lots and lots of energy to function. As the economy grows, energy consumption grows too. (Efficiency can only take you so far and according to Jevons, only makes matters worse over time.) So unless we have alternative "renewable" sources of energy that scale to the levels required to support a growing global economy, we must shrink that economy to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels. At present, and in the foreseeable future, those viable (scalable) energy alternatives do not or very likely will not exist. Got it? Do not exist.
And nobody—no one important in human affairs—is going to buy off on the idea that we must shrink the economy. Including Joe Romm. Certainly not U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Or the President who appointed him, or anybody else for that matter, if push comes to shove.
Even if an alternative energy miracle occurs, it would take many decades to even partially replace oil, natural gas and coal with wind, solar, hydropower or whatever happens to come along. And remember, all that time the economy would need to be growing, because that's what human beings generally want. It is all that matters to them.
Which brings me to my second point. As I said, and it bears repeating, as the economy grows in the future, energy flows must increase to support that growth. As things stand, it is naive to believe that we wouldn't have to burn even more fossil fuels in the future than we do now. But where are those going to come from? Let me repeat this text from yesterday's post.
...there's a snowball's chance in hell human burning of fossil fuels will culmimate in a doubling of atmospheric CO2. In short, I don't think levels will reach 560 ppmv. I just don't see where all those fossil fuels are going to come from. Even if viable alternatives to fossil fuels miraculously appear, the possibility that global economic (GDP) growth will simply continue year-after-year in the 21st century seems very remote. There are all sorts of contraints on that growth, not just the availability of cheap energy.
Imagine it if you can: if atmospheric CO2 were to grow by 3 ppmv per year, it would still take 56 years to get to 560 ppmv. That takes us to the year 2067. No way, Jose!
And that is the real reason the hysterical prognostications I mentioned above have always been laughable. Those making these dire predictions are employing the standard assumption used by economists, commonly referred to as Business-As-Usual (BAU). In short, these "radical" environmentalists assume that economic growth in the 21st century will (or could) mirror the growth of the 20th century. Not so "radical" after all...
All sorts of constraints on growth? Take the oceans, for example. At the rate humans are destroying marine life in the oceans, polluting them and acidifying them, we could end up with biologically impoverished oceans by 2050. So this ongoing climate debate madness just doesn't matter, whether it comes from deniers or environmentalists.
For humans, the economy is everything, i.e. trying to grow the economy is everything, regardless of the consequences of the expansion. Generally speaking, and sadly, this is entirely the purpose of life in the 21st century. And of course the human population just goes up and up.
To expand human economies, you must increase energy consumption. That's just what we've seen in emerging economies like China or Brazil over the last 15 years.To increase energy consumption, as things stand and unless a miracle occurs, humans will have to burn more fossil fuels. But the question then becomes where is all that crude oil, natural gas and coal going to come from to "achieve" 560 ppmv by 2067?
So go ahead, Joe Romm, talk about "fast feedbacks" versus "slow feedbacks" until you're blue in the face. Talk about doubling or tripling the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere. It won't make any difference in the end.
Unfortunately, the Human Condition is what it is. Nothing is going to be done about mitigating anthropogenic climate change. We've seen this reality demonstrated over and over and over again in recent years. If an alien anthropologist came to Earth to study us, he would—being absolutely objective—arrrive at this obvious conclusion after a cursory assessment of the situation. Here's what the alien would say—
These humans are never going to do anything about their self-inflicted climate problem because for them, the economy is everything.
What would be obvious to the alien is apparently not obvious to human beings. If you've read this post and absorbed its lessons, you now know the true scope of the problems accompanying human existence on the planet Earth. I'll let George take it from here.
Bonus Video — "Circling The Drain". George Carlin tells it like it is.