Dread for the Future: is it Climate Change’s High Noon, or its Four O’Clock?

2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States.

Well, granted, the Mongols froze their asses off this year.  But for the rest of us… we have to wonder, what does it mean? 

Well, that depends on whether it’s noon, or 4:00 in the afternoon.

What?

Yes, that’s right.  Think about it.  At noon, it’s still going to get a lot hotter.  We’re getting the highest input from the sun that we’re going to get all day, but it’s still going to build up for another few hours.

In theory, that could get scary, though recent voices suggest that we could probably just cope with it, as we’ve always done.
Hey, we made it out of the Rift Valley, after all. And what’s a human genetic bottleneck between friends?  Very, very close ones, when there’s no other kind?

If it’s noon, we have to make some adjustments.

Sea levels will change.  LOTS of fresh water from glaciers is going to wind up in the mix.  A warmer world is going to be, counter-intuitively, in many respects a wetter world as well.  10-11% of all the land-surface on earth is locked under glaciers right now.  That may not sound like a lot of land…but, no, really, that’s a lot of land.  And on it, right now, we have two-thirds of all the world’s freshwater.  That’s water which will become available as rain.  Possibly lots and lots of rain, in all the places where we don’t really want it.

This is what economists refer to as “not good.”

Now, Al Gore and Company say this is because of the immense amount of carbon we’re putting in the atmosphere.  For the record, I don’t think that’s what’s happening.  I mostly don’t think that’s happening, because the Earth had vastly more carbon in its atmosphere during the Silurian Extinction,  ….which resulted in, well, a lot of ice, at least for a little while.

(What the Silurian Ice Age might have looked like, if there had been massively out-of-scale birds going back in time to record it for us in their tiny birdcams)

I hope that’s the case, because if man is creating global warming via carbon, then it’s inevitable.  Tragicomically for certain Hollywood types who want to scare the shit out of us,
he US is actually putting out less carbon than we used to, and that’s almost entirely due to fracking.  The bad news, if you think that it’s awesome for us to throw less carbon around in the atmosphere, is that fracking isn’t a widespread phenomenon.  While it could in theory be nearly global, it hasn’t caught on in a lot of places, because it’s capital-h HARD.  Turns out that “the West” is really good at something here that a lot of other places aren’t really good at.  So more carbon is coming.

Here at Chez Happycrow, we consider that Free Eyeball in the making.  Lots and lots of carbon, it turns out, is a GOOD thing.  Plants of all varieties grow much, MUCH better when there’s lots of carbon.  And they do that because their stomata don’t have to open up as far in order for the plant to breathe.  You see, the more open the stomata, the more water the plant loses while it breathes — it gets thirstier.  The more carbon in the atmosphere, the less thirsty the plant has to be to achieve X amount of growth.  For most of Earth’s history, we’ve had a LOT more carbon around than we do nowadays.  In fact, to find anything comparable to today’s ~380ppm, you have to go all the way back to the Carboniferous period.


Now, I’m not saying that we ought to bop right back to Ordovician carbon levels.  I’m not sure if a human being can actually think and breathe with that high a carbon concentration:  humanity, no, make that mammals, have never experienced those kind of global carbon levels.  But if you look at just carbon, and just temperature, you can see that we could double our current levels of CO2, or even triple them, and be just fine — we’d lose a lot of ocean real-estate, gain a lot of other real-estate (including land-masses springing up where glacial weights currently hold them underwater — because science is weird that way), and see a crapton of desert get an awful lot more fertile.  Would it suck?  Yeah, especially if you’re a rich westerner losing your pricy beachfront real estate, or an impoverished Bangladeshi with nowhere to go when the water comes.  But we could handle it.

That said….
What if it’s not carbon-forcing (forcing = making the change)?  What if it’s something else?  What if, like NASA indirectly, kinda-sorta, “please don’t hurt me, politicians, but you might want to consider this” suggests, it’s not primarily about carbon, but about the Sun?


Well, then, Katie, don’t bother barring the door.  We might be in real trouble – trouble of the kind that makes sixty million flooding-displaced Bengalis in Bangladesh look like trivia.  No, really. In that case, it might not be noon.  It might be 4:00 pm.  At 4:00, the day is as hot as it’s going to get, and until the next solar cycle (day, in this metaphor, Solar Cycle 25, in astrophysics) ramps up, it’s only going to get colder from here on out.

That’s a recipe for a solar minimum, and not just a wee bairn, but a Grand Solar Minimum, c.f. Maunder Minimum, otherwise known as “everybody freezing their asses off.”
The US spent 2012 pretty damned hot, a whole 1C over the usual.  But that doesn’t mean that the whole world was.  Southeast Asia’s actually suffering colder than usual temperatures, and it’s not trivial stuff.  Deaths, crop failures, food inflation… BAD THINGS are happening due to unusual cold.  And ENSO is negative again.  It’s already affecting maritime traffic up in Alaska.  Global warming may or may not be real now. It WAS real — in 1997

Since then, the US may have gotten hotter, but the world hasn’t.  So far as the world was concerned, 1997 was 4:00pm.


The Thames, 1677.

This isn’t new.  Remember your conquistadors from that world-history class you slept through because the teacher was insanely boring?  Try 1541, when Coronado went looking for his Cities of Gold, and crossed the frozen Rio Grande to do so.  Ever hung out on the Rio Grande?  Frozen isn’t normally the word you use.  People who live on the Rio Grande break out the blankets and shiver uncontrollably when it gets all the way down to 65 freezing degrees.

Oh my God, it’s golfing weather.  Nurse, get that woman a hot chocolate, stat!

And that’s child’s play compared to what happened in 1783/84.  Contrary to public perception, we don’t have very good climate data yet — a couple hundred years is a good start, but we don’t have anywhere near the data we’d like to.  And the world has been getting progressively colder for millions of years.  Right now, we’re in a relative warm spot — an in-between space that’s much warmer and wetter than the iceball that a lot of the world used to be. 

Check out the map below.  That grey isn’t “uncomfortably cold”:  it’s “this is where you find ice in July.”

 

So right now, where are we?  What time is it?

 

If it’s noon, then we might want to frack like mad, and go hardcore into thorium reactors (aka, “green nukes“) and natural gas, with solar and wind helping where they can.

Contrary to Greenpeace, the answer there on alternative energy there is: not much.  Wind is a niche player and always will be, and solar requires huge breakthroughs if it’s going to replace any fossil fuel as a supplier of industrial-scale energy.  (What, you don’t like industrial-scale energy?  Then stop being a hypocrite, turn off your computer, and go live in the woods with a stone hatchet.  Hey, you’re entitled to your principles, so turn this off and go be true to them.)

If it’s 4:00, on the other hand, we’re in trouble.  We’ve got north of 7 billion people on this planet, and a HUGE chunk of the world’s population lives on less than USD2.00 per day.  Simply having enough food to survive is still a huge issue for big chunks of our popularion – and I don’t mean “thrive, be healthy, and get ahead in life,” I mean survival as in “not dying (this week).”  If we get cold enough to endure a 20% to 30% spike in food prices, America’s working and middle classes will hate that, tighten their belts, and move on.

This isn’t a joke.  Global inflation is already widespread, and there’s serious consideration of it having been the effective cause of the Arab Spring.  Don’t believe me?  Think all this inflation business is just some sort of Ron-Paulista crazy talk?  No, actually, global inflation, and specifically global food inflation, is very real.  Don’t trust me, go google it.

But 20% of the total population of the Earth won’t tighten their belts; they don’t have anywhere left to tighten.  They don’t have a buffer, and their response to global food inflation will be to social instability, violence, and eventually, for one fifth of all humanity to simply die

We’ll need a Norman Borlaug on every corner, just to avert a worldwide demographic catastrophe every bit as awful as the Columbian Exchange….but without a single one of the Columbian Exchange’s cruel upsides.  And your community garden’s going to help some local folks, but until they figure out how to transport shipping containers for free, it’s not going to be enough.

If it’s 4:00pm, the answer isn’t nukes and fracking.  It’s burn, baby, burn — not to avoid warming, but to do ANYTHING that can be done to avoid worldwide starvation.

One way or the other, we need real science, and real answers, uninhibited by politically-correct bullshit from either the left or the right.  And we need those answers fast.

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. “I’m not sure if a human being can actually think and breathe with that high a carbon concentration: humanity, no, make that mammals, have never experienced those kind of global carbon levels.”

    Wrong. Twaddle, in fact. Co2 ppm in submarines is often above 3000pm.

    See here

    http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11170&page=47

    “Submarine crew are reported to be the major source of CO2 on board submarines (Crawl 2003). Data collected on nine nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines indicate an average CO2 concentration of 3,500 ppm with a range of 0-10,600 ppm, and data collected on 10 nuclear-powered attack submarines indicate an average CO2 concentration of 4,100 ppm with a range of 300-11,300 ppm (Hagar 2003).”

    If you don’t know what you are talking about, I always find it’s best not to talk about it. Though, I must say – I’d love to see your citations regarding a toxic level of co2 in the atmosphere. Over to you.

    Reply
    • First: be polite or fuck off. You’re a guest, so act like it.
      Second: submarine info is great; has nothign to do with GLOBAL levels. Got any data on how well infants (who are prone to crib suffocation) adjust?

      No citations otherwise. I’m strictly a layman, and working from lay sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide#Toxicity

      EDIT: therefore, I don’t dispute your point. I do,however, dispute your manners.

      Reply
  2. Well if you put out clearly erroneous data as it were truth, how do you expect it to be received?

    Reply
    • Mr. Poynton,

      How it’s *received* is not my problem. However, I have every right to insist on courteous speech on my blog. So assuming that what you really mean to say is “how do I expect you to REACT to it,” then the answer is…..the same way the entire civilized world handles it when there’s a point to be argued. By curbing your sense of outrage that SOMEONE WAS WRONG ON THE INTERNET, and arguing the point in a civil manner.

      exempli gratii:
      1. Read your column: you’re perpetuating a myth — submarine studies show (link, data).
      2. There’s a factual error in this column — if you take a look at these studies… (link, data)

      Notice that they achieve the exact same thing, WITHOUT being an asshole on some stranger’s blog.

      Reply
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