"When I look at this [CO2 emissions] data the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet," Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist told Reuters.
Note the parenthetical "by 2050". I didn't comment on that date in my post because I thought, well, that's ridiculous. There's no way we will get 6° Celsius (C, centrigrade, = 11° fahrenheit) of surface warming by 2050, or even by 2100 for that matter, as I shall explain below. It turned out that the "by 2050" insertion by the ignorant Reuters reporter was indeed a mistake, as the ever-alert climate activist Joe Romm took some pains to explain. Birol meant that we are on a course to get 6°C of surface warming by 2100. In so far as there is no climate scenario too dire for Joe to endorse, Romm includes this IEA WEO chart to "prove" it.
It is certainly true that on a global scale, which is the only scale which counts, humanity (and all living systems) are on the way to climate catastrophe if the current anthropogenic CO2 emissions trend continues. The only important question becomes: can humanity continue on this path?
My answer is almost certainly not, but before I explain why, I want to tell you one important reason why I write this blog. Please pay attention.
A Personal Message From Me To You
Humans are fundamentally irrational beings. Humans are built for faith and belief, not reason. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about hysterical predictions of 6°C of surface warming by 2100 or whether we are talking about confident predictions of the limitless economic expansion which will get us there. On DOTE I am attempting to point out the flaws in the human character which will lead to our demise in the 21st or 22nd centuries if we don't acknowledge those self-destructive traits and change our suicidal behavior. I am attempting to point out these human flaws in a rational way by calling attention to them. I no longer have any stake in the outcome.
I might as well be pissing in the wind. I know that, but I think it's important that somebody try to do it. That somebody turns out to be me, but I didn't plan it that way. I didn't know my life would become what it has become. I experience my life as being strange, and I feel like a stranger on this planet. I certainly get a lot of shit from hysterical people for making the futile attempt to talk rationally about likely futures for the human animal. That is not at all surprising. I am trying to tell the inmates dwelling within the human lunatic asylum that they are crazy. Obviously, they don't want to hear that.
Back To 6° C...
Both empirical observations and theoretical frameworks indicate that CO2 emissions are irrevocably tied to economic growth at the global scale. These figures are from physicist Tim Garrett.
The left panel is taken from Garrett's Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide? (pdf). For the period 1970 to 2005, the figure shows trajectories in inflation-adjusted, global cumulative economic production P (the integral over time) and carbon dioxide emissions E. The right panel shows the (normalized) relationship between P (wealth) and energy (power) consumption, and is taken from Can we predict long run economic growth? (pdf). The two trends P and E are mathematically related in Garrett's work because burning fossil fuels releases C02 into the atmosphere as a waste byproduct. See my post Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable for a fuller explanation of the relationship between primary, carbon-intensive energy consumption and accumulated economic wealth. The key point of my recent note on economic growth and carbon emissions (linked-in in the first paragraph) states that you can not both grow the global economy and de-carbonize the global energy supply at a rate sufficient to significantly mitigate anthropogenic climate change, although environmentalists routinely assume that you can.
If one accepts this common sense view, the question of whether 6°C of surface warming is possible is equivalent to asking whether it is possible for human populations and economies to grow without limit long enough to put all that CO2 into the atmosphere. Another way to frame the question is to ask: are current global growth rates sustainable for the next 70, 80 or 90 years?
As soon as we pose the question, we can see the absurdity of thinking the answer might be Yes. In fact, the Yes answer (limitless economic growth throughout the 21st century) simply reflects the absurdity of believing that humans can endlessly grow populations and economies on a finite planet. As I said in my personal note above, humans are fundamentally irrational, although they pretend to be otherwise.
But in particular, when we reflect on the future, we immediately see that assuming such endless growth completely disregards "negative feedbacks" affecting human economies from the changing climate itself. (These include "positive feedbacks" which accelerate greenhouse gas emissions from natural sources precipitated initially by the human-caused warming.) Either you take global warming seriously, or you don't take it seriously. I take it seriously. If you think humans will achieve the economic growth which will lead to 6°C of surface warming, I guess you don't take global warming seriously after all. Your view of the human future is thus incoherent (i.e. not rational).
And that is not all, for there are other well-established environmental disasters which must eventually constrain and eventually reverse human economic expansion on this planet. To me, the most serious of these is the ongoing human-caused destruction of marine ecosystems, which itself is inextricably tied to carbon emissions through ocean acidification. But there are other environmental disasters as well, including tropical deforestation, destruction of wetlands, the incipent mass extinction, and all the rest. And finally, there are resource constraints to consider, which will kick in eventually to constrain and reverse human economic expansion. Crude oil is usually the one that comes up, but there are others as well.
Returning to the first figure from the IEA, which was reprinted by Joe Romm, we note the caption: without further action, by 2017 all emissions permitted in the 450 (ppmv) scenario will be "locked-in" by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. I don't doubt the truth of this, but that observation is merely a red herring. If the economic growth which requires us to use that energy infrastructure is missing in action, if not by 2017, but by 2030 or 2040 instead, this observation doesn't matter one way or the other. If the global economy is shrinking due to the environmental or resource constraints I mentioned above, energy consumption (and hence CO2 emissions) will be shrinking too. But that will not be good news!
I hope you found this post useful, as I attempt once again to explain what I have tried explain so many times before. It is crazy to think that we will get 6°C of surface warming by 2100 because the most reasonable view says that human economies will fall apart long, long before we reach that point.
But permit me to say some final things about human irrationality. Fatih Birol is an economist. As such, he believes that the human economic expansion on this finite planet can go on indefinitely without limit. That is crazy. Joe Romm, like "Wild Bill" McKibben, is a climate activist whose entire world view and personal prosperity—these are often the same thing—depends on focusing exclusively on (and exaggerating) the climate problem without factoring in all the other constraints which limit the human future, including, apparently, the detrimental effects of climate change itself. That's crazy too.
You might read (or re-read) my post The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Environmentalism if you are so inclined. But few people will bother to do that, probably. There is a much higher probability that a few people will throw some of their childish, emotional shit my way in the comments on this post.
So it goes.