Climate Change Disaster looms despite Durban Agreement

The global summit on climate change and curbing carbon emissions at Durban in South Africa ended on a positive note diplomatically. The international community rededicated itself to binding emissions limits and pledged four years of studies and assessment.

Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, the head negotiator for Brazil, summed up the positive case:

“This is a landmark achievement that creates real possibilities for scaling up the fight against climate change. It’s an excellent text that clearly sets points of action, points of commitment, and timetables, and it is legally-binding, so it is extremely effective, potentially, for responding to the need of climate change. We got what we came to Durban to get.”

Aljazeera English has a video report on Durban:

But as AP argues, the achievements of the diplomats are too little, too late.

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is rapidly increasing, with a 6% increase in carbon dioxide emissions during the past year alone. At this rate, we are almost certainly looking at an increase of 3 degrees Celsius (roughly 5 degrees F.) by the end of this century.

It seems increasingly clear from the study of past geologic ages characterized by higher carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere that earlier projections of the impact of the increased carbon has tended to be underestimated by scientists.

James Hansen and Makiko Sato have found that in the past, a one degree Celsius rise in the average surface temperature of the earth typically has resulted in an increase of the sea level of as much as 20 meters (roughly 65 feet, or 10 basketball players standing on one another’s shoulders).

The Durban conference was trying to find a way to keep the future increase to “only” 2 degrees C. (3.6 degrees F.). It probably failed to accomplish this goal. But Hansen’s research suggests that even that temperature increase would be too high to avoid catastrophe. The resulting increase in sea level would displace millions from coastal cities and wipe out a significant portion of the world’s wealth.

This is what Egypt would look like with a 30 meter rise in the sea level (courtesy Firetree):

Egypt at a 30 meter sea level rise

I.e. we would lose the Delta, where most people live (and as I mentioned last week, we would also lose Tel Aviv).

A really big question is how fast the increased temperature would cause big changes like sea level rise, loss of surface ice, ocean acidification, and extreme weather events. Some have argued that because the oceans warm very slowly, the most extreme consequences are centuries off (which is not actually that distant).

Hansen warns that in past geologic ages when there has been extra carbon, sometimes the changes occurred really rapidly:

“Two degrees Celsius of warming would … move Earth closer to Pliocene-like conditions, when sea level was in the range of 25 meters higher than today, Hansen said.”

(He means the warm Middle Pliocene, between 3.15 and 2.85 million years before present.)

In other words, 2 degree C. would wipe out the Egyptian Delta, as in the map above, displacing tens of millions of people and ruining the country’s agriculture. If I were Egypt, I’d go ahead and sue the carbon-spewers.

The most plausible solution to the world’s energy problems is solar, as with the Desertec Project in Egypt and Morocco. As Hansen notes, we aren’t moving nearly quickly enough on that front to avert disasters like the complete loss of the Netherlands and the Egyptian Delta and all of Bangladesh. I guess the question is now whether we can stop at a 3 degrees C. increase, or go on up to 5 degrees C. and lose one third of the world’s land surface.

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20 Responses

  1. One assumes that 25 meters means that all of the fought-over ground on Wall St. will be underwater and abandoned. But being in the 1% means you can always buy higher ground.

    It is time someone called the Republican obstruction on climate change for what it is-a threat to our planet.

  2. As the morning terminator sweeps across the spinning planet “today,” billions of people (those not already hard at work, making donuts or “derivative” bets or Big Important Political and Economic and War decisions or rousting or digging about in the various “oil fields” and “mine fields”) will rise from their silk sheets or straw pallets and go about the self-interested tasks of accelerating the real Change, the one you highlight above.

    Billions of people, cooking breakfast with charcoal or coal-fired electricity or “natural gas,” kitchens aswim with the plastic detritus of Consumer Success or landfill gleanings. Millions of them “earning” a relatively huge paycheck by marketing Xmas crap or “But wait, there’s more!” as-seen-on-TV crap or hugely-profitable-but-hiddenly-deadly medications. Millions more “invested” in Energy Production Via Extraction And Combustion (EVAC), via bidnesses like B”I want my life back”P and Halliburton and and ADM and LockheedMartin.

    All the while, the “externalities” get just a picofraction more bad for living things, including asthmatic children and 10-year-old girls experiencing the menarche, and all those disappearing species which the Wise are telling us is no big deal because hey, our enlightened successors and their cloning machines will bring back anything that’s really needed somewhere down the time line. And hey, they say, the real solution is to model the aliens in that silly movie, “Independence Day,” and get off this planet and go on to Consume whole new worlds!

    Juan, how you going to reverse, or even slow, the momentum of human-consumer infestation and investing (as in “besieging”) of our only home? The accretion of badness is a process that proceeds at a speed that is apparent only to those who collect data and see trends. And that awareness is only of value to the species (singular and plural) if the motives of the humble data gatherer are in line with achieving some kind of meta-stable homeostasis, as opposed to doing analysis for the Investor classes that seek only to profit from the new aridity of one place and the new fecundity of another. And already, people are buying up currently upland properties, betting that they will soon be waterfront.

    Too many people are either so immersed in the dreams of achieving Maximum Consumer self-Titillation that they are stupidly or willfully blind to the coming deluge, or “wise” enough to know that they, personally, have nothing to worry about (unless some technobreakthrough lets them buy more decades or centuries of life, which, if it happens will only further cement the ascendancy of the Soylent Corporation.) The worst of us know, like Gingrich and Blankfein and Lay and those African and Middle Eastern kleptocrats, that they will die comfortably of old age long before the turd hits the turbine blades. With billions of us waking to work and live every day in a mass world economy where the dominant faith is Logical Positivism, the dominant doctrine is Moreism, and every business and captive-government and social structure that counts is all about extraction and consumption, you tell me how that Juggernaut can be deflected, let alone dismantled?

    Far as I can see, there’s no wellspring of global altruism that will defeat the concupiscence of the critical mass of us. Love to be wrong about that, for the sake of my grandchildren and yours. Don’t think so.

      • Thanks, but no thanks. If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. Or rule. Whatever.

        Tiresias was blind, and poor. Cassandra had a hard time staying alive, for all her clear sight. Prophets don’t do well as Emperor Palpatines… And the “we” is a pretty small minority of all the Effectives in the human populoblob.

  3. I appreciate the timely article, but need to point out that while sea level rise is catastrophic for local populations, much more severe changes in the atmosphere will precede these alterations and are already occurring. We are already seeing much longer droughts and desertification throughout the world. Famine in Eastern Africa is a prime example of this as is the desertification of Texas. Top soil moisture in America’s breadbasket is down severely and if continues will have serious repercussions in food prices worldwide. The planet’s food production is just keeping abreast of population growth. Continued drought alternated with flood, both outcomes of increased CO2, are having disastrous results.

    • Sea level rise and reduced ability to grow food are direct costs that are not counted in the present monetary system. Respiration of land plants decreases with increased CO2 concentration of the atmosphere and their ability to remain cool through sweating is lessened as well.. Higher temps at 100% humidity becomes a real potent danger beyond body temperature of living things.. Oxygen in atmosphere, half of it is produced by phytoplankton living in the Sea.. The Sea is acidifying and although only .1 pH change from about 8.24 to 8.13 has occurred it represents a 30% increase in acidity of the Sea.. That is a direct result of release of fossil fuel emissions containing carbon into the sky which then has a lot of CO2 taken up by the oceans some of which adds to carbonic acid content of seawater. pH may increase by a total of .4 by 2100. Rate of change is very high and there is lag time between cause and effect from fossil fuel emissions. Change is happening faster than anytime known in the past.
      At some point very soon temperature increase will trip a staggering release of methane and carbon dioxide from frozen peat and offshore methane hydrates.. CH4 or methane at release is over 100 times the greenhouse gas potential of CO2.. Capping this soda bottle Earth once release gets self sustaining at grand proportions is not possible.. If we wait to vote on the adequate response everyone agrees to it’s too late..
      There needs to be direction given by science on what is allowable and what needs to be done.. Shielding tech may be needed to block radiation from hitting Earth but it won’t stop ocean acidification.. Yikes

    • Don’t forget the mysterious effects of increased ocean acidity, which is the price we pay for the ocean doing such a good job of absorbing CO2 so far. When will it hit fishing yields?

      • Why is it always only “all about us?”

        A potential Earthfart on a scale that maybe sends “us” down a Martian- or Venusian-form atmospheric blind canyon comes down to “hitting fishing yields?” “OMG, I might not have my perfectly seared rare ginger-wasabi-arugula yellowfin steak available at Chani’s tomorrow night! And I have lusted after that perfect taste, and the chest/abs/glutes on that waitperson, for a WHOLE WEEK!”

        A Change sort of seems to be in the air, as it were, on a scale that life on earth shrinks to the point that maybe the critters that live in and around the superheated, hypermineralized jets shooting up from the deep-ocean plate boundaries are all that’s left.

        Super, I bet your heart is in the right place, but maybe there’s no possibility that any kind of thinking, other than the sort that monetizes everything, the sort that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing as they say, is possible any more for the Consuming Masses and especially the Soylent Corporation types that dominate the commercial landscape, except for the few deranged souls who are stuck with some apparently larger perception of All The Stuff That’s Happening.

        I recall a sci-fi novella from >50 years ago — the politicomilitarists have set off some kind of Doomsday process while striving for world hegemony. A few of the Powerful are still holed up in bunkers, slowly discovering how totally they have burned their own houses in trying to arsonize their “enemies.” The endpoint for one pair, who in other more hopeful stories would be the new Adam and Eve, as pumps fail and groundwater starts to fill the mile-deep room they are finally stuck in, has them engaging in coitus atop a file cabinet, and strangling each other as they screw, to maximize that last pleasure by killing as they are, in both present and Victorian senses, dying. (And don’t try to tell me that killing another human isn’t exciting fun, for a very large percentage of our fellows. Much better than dropping a deer. Pink mist — love it in the morning…)

        And it’s not like skills and techniques and processes and actions are not in motion that might bring us some gynormous Murphy-mediated Oops! in the realm of genetic Lego games or nanotech ‘bots or cyberpathogens or, if you follow the bleeding-edge of militarization, it is just so humorous how “we” are busily building the whole framework for the ‘Botworld that is the future from which the Terminator traveled back in time to be sure the human roaches are finally extirpated. Here’s one tiny peek at what’s happenin’, made more piquant, ginger-and-wasabi-sharp, by the wonderful flavor of the comments: link to

        Not to worry, though — the paychecks and pensions and revolving-door futures of way more than a critical mass of humans are secured by the mass idiocy of our way of — I was going to say “life,” but that’s not quite right…

        History belongs to those who write it. Obama may be smart enough know that he need not worry about his place in History, since there’s a non-zero and apparently increasing chance there won’t be anyone there to write it. In the meantime, we can pustulate about Netanyahoo and the searing of Syrians and old Saudi men worried that a witch might flaccidize their membrum virile… you know, the Important Stuff that keeps our daily juices flowing…

        • Shame on you, JT, I’m talking about people all over the world who face starvation if they can’t get fish. What does it say that you think everyone who eats fish is a wealthy sushi-sucking yuppie? Did you think I was only thinking about my own dinner plans? I’m also saying that it will be an indication of far greater problems; if it’s harder for us to catch fish, it’s also harder for many other creatures that live in the sea. You’re so self-righteous that you can’t even communicate with anyone on your own side anymore.

  4. Those estimates for sea level rise appear to be well above scientific consensus. The IPCC, which admittedly is probably too conservative, nevertheless predicted a range of outcomes with a 4 degree Celsius change equivalent to 59 centimeters at the high end. More recent projections go as high as one meter for this century. Cataclysmic predictions an order of magnitude higher require substantially higher melting at the poles than the most common models predict. The multi-century long term rise is likely to be in the 4-6 meter range–not 10-30 meters.

    • Predictions about sea level rise by the end of the 21st century are not relevant to the over-all impact because the oceans are deep and cold and warm very slowly.

      The IPCC is widely thought to have ignored evidence from past warming periods that a one degree Celsius increase typically produces 10 to 20 meters in sea level rise.

  5. The Durban agreement, isn’t worth the powder to blow it to hell. Year 2015, how asinine is that?

    P.M. Harper was bullying country’s into accepting the dirty tar oil, at a meeting on climate change!!! Harper is less than honest about the dirty tar pollution, on the eco systems. So what if they are cutting down, the last Boreal Forests in North America? So what if there is deformed fish, in Athabasca Lake, and mercury, heavy metals and cancer causing agents in the mighty Athabasca River. Another flock of ducks died, from landing in that filthy sludge. The Caribou are dying. A First Nations village, is dying from cancer, even the very rare cancer, of exposure to petroleum.

    The planet is already in a disaster mode. Floods, droughts, tornado’s and hurricane’s, much more severe and a great many more in number. Then, there is the huge hole in the ozone, over the far north.

    If we want to save this planet, we have to get rid of Harper. Never have I ever seen, anyone so rabid for money as Harper. He is embarrassing.

  6. Prof. Cole,
    Are you going to address your late-July predictions about the weak support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the negligible support for the Salafists? Were you genuinely wrong or shilling for some reason? I haven’t seen a prediction so wrong for ages–yet, here you go making predictions about something outside of your purported expertise (global warming).
    Some accountability is necessary.

    • hi Deepa.

      I did not say that the Muslim Brotherhood would not do well in elections. I said that they did not spearhead the revolution against Mubarak. I said most polls suggested MB would get at most 30% of the vote. We don’t know what percentage of the vote they will get until the other two rounds are over, but it seems likely it will be more. However, the statement that that was what the polling showed as of last summer was correct. Similar polling in Tunisia was much closer to the outcome.

      The strength of the Salafis, at about 17 or 18 percent of seats so far (but note that they are strong in Alexandria, which was in this round), was a surprise to me, as it was to almost everyone other than the Salafis. Salafis have a distinctive appearance, and I lived for 5 weeks in Cairo this past summer and rarely saw one. Obviously people are voting for Salafi candidates who are not themselves Salafis, and those same people lied to the pollsters.

      I reject your language of “accountability,” which is appropriate to decision-makers but not to people trying to understand things in public. With writers, the standard is different; it is whether they are honest in deploying all the facts at their disposal to come to the most honest judgment they can at any one time. You’ll have to decide whether that description fits me, and if you think it doesn’t, you shouldn’t be reading me.

      • Thanks for the response, Prof. Cole.
        I have just been shocked at how the right-wing commentators who have been against the Arab Spring seem to have been correct about the likely outcome in Egypt. Perhaps even a stopped clock being correct twice a day is the reason, but it has been upsetting me.
        I like your blog and will continue reading it!

    • In both cases, the effects of Prof. Cole’s enemies being seen as “right” are barbaric and catastrophic. Where’s the accountability for what happens if the oil companies really are killing the planet, or if the neocons use Egyptian election results to convince Americans that Arab democracy is the new Nazism? About the same place as the accountability for Wall Street wrecking the world economy.

      • Super, you got it. In our physical bodies, every day, our homeostatic physiology keeps electrolytes at living levels, takes in O2 and dumps CO2, and sends nutrients and hormones where needed, and maintains an immune system that spotlights the cancerous cells we are all always developing and polices them up and breaks down and recycles them (except where by biotrickery the cancer succeeds in obscuring its real nature, persuading the macrophages and T-cells that it is really “just more of us home folks.”)

        No consequences, no accountability, no restitution or retribution or deterrence, none of the metastabilizing negative-feedback mechanisms that at individual scale, keep us screwing-up-the-planet humans individually alive. Instead, our social tumors have mastered the art of fiscal angiogenesis, tricking the rest of us into growing huge new arteries to dump more and more of our joint energy into building ever more tumor tissue, displacing vital organs one by one until the cachexic old carcass dies, completely oblivious, at the corporate scale, to the suicidal nature of Growth. This week, I bet another half a trillion or more in CDOs and CDSs and more refined bets, pay-off-able not by the bettors but by we who are neither parties to nor beneficiaries of the “wagering contracts” that used to be “void as against public policy.” And the cheerleaders are out, rooting for the so archly named “Keystone XL” Job Program and whole bevies of new dronebirds and autonomous battle robots (nobody ever heard the “Terminator” story, apparently, or took the lessons to heart.)

        It’s getting harder to care…

  7. Perhaps the issue of the failed prediction is worth addressing at some length–it has become something of a meme on the right-wing blogs that the failure to predict the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafist electoral victory is evidence of bad faith (at least) by Middle-East analysts. . . .

    • They justified the McCarthy witchhunt on the grounds that “liberal” State Dept analysts failed to stop Mao from winning China because they were really Communist agents. They can manufacture excuses at will to justify the hatreds that already fester in our hearts.

      My guess is that religious fanatics just have higher voter turnout – in Egypt, and in the United States of America.

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