When I give talks about the ecological situation, I am often asked one or more of the following questions: “What do you think will happen?” “What should we do?” and “Are you hopeful?” I typically have either turned the questions around or given only vague answers. Following Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet, I have thought we need to live, not answer, these questions. Now I feel differently because the need to respond has become so urgent.
What we think will happen is a matter of foresight. Foresight involving distant futures is uniquely human. To act in novel ways based on what we foresee on long-term scales is also uniquely human. “Hope” I use as a signifier for what enables us to act to achieve long-term, difficult goals.
We will need foresight, action, and hope to face the challenges that lie ahead.
This article will be presented in two parts. In this first part, I will speak to what I believe is going to happen. In an accompanying article in this issue I reflect on foresight. For purposes of this paper what is essential about foresight is that our apprehensions of the future are constantly shifting from longer-term to nearer-term and from larger scales to smaller scales. Given this, in order to address global warming, we must consistently focus a portion of our attention on what will happen on larger scales 100 years from now or at least 80 years from now through the remainder of this century. To do this we must rely in significant part on science, because what will happen is not evident from current events and concerns. In addition to our current responsibilities, we have responsibility for future generations of all species.
What Do You Think Is Going to Happen?
Since most of my work concerns ecology and culture, when I am asked about what will happen, people usually want to know whether I think we face environmental catastrophe through global warming, loss of topsoil, desertification, ocean acidification, overfishing, sea level rise, water shortages, pandemics, and other such things. They want to know if environmental catastrophe will happen, when it will happen, and what the consequences will be. They want to know whether the global human community will act to bring about a benign future. They want to know if they can morally continue doing what they are doing. They want to know if industrial development and capitalism can continue, and, if not, what the alternatives are.
I wonder about these things, too, and have tried to find answers. In this article, I will write primarily about what I think will happen in relation to climate change because it is the biggest concern, though far from the only one—for example, wildlife and fish in the sea have both declined by more than half since 1970, soil erosion is a major problem, there are large dead zones in the oceans, and there are vast amounts of plastic and other pollution in the seas. The factors leading to all the forms of ecological degradation are related, so the focus on climate change has a broad application.
In this paper I will cover
- The Science
(a) Global Warming, and
(b) Effects of Global Warming,
- Uncertainties in the Science
- Inertial Factors that Stand in the Way of Limiting Global Warming to 1.5oC or 2.0oC
- Questionable Expectations
- My Assessment of What Is Going to Happen
- Invitation for your Assessment of What Is Going to Happen
- Preview of Part II of this Article on What Should We Do? and Do You Have Hope?
1. The Science
(a) Global Warming
Thousands of scientists are involved in the preparation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change and the reports provide a baseline for further discussion of it. Some people believe the IPCC has overstated the trajectory of climate change, but I believe the reports are on the conservative side in that IPCC reports have to be approved not only by the many scientists involved but also by representatives of most of the world’s governments. The IPCC’s most recent major report, the Fifth Assessment Report, was issued in 2014. The report stated that on a business-as-usual basis, our current trajectory, the global mean temperature will likely rise by 3.7oC by the end of this century over pre-industrial (pre-1750) levels. It then gave scenarios (called representative concentration pathways or RCPs) for what would be needed to limit global warming to 1.0oC, 1.8oC, 2.2oC, and 3.7oC, respectively.
Each year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issues an “Emissions Gap Report” that shows the difference in what is actually happening compared to what, based on the IPCC’s assessment, would be needed to keep global warming below 2.0oC and 1.5oC, respectively. The 2018Emissions Gap Report states that even if the unconditional policy commitments made by the 185 governments who have entered into the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement are met, there will still be a rise in global mean temperature of 3.2oC by 2100. The UNEP report also makes clear, however, that these commitments are not being met, which means based on current policies global warming will exceed 3.2oC. (1oC = 1.8oF, so, for example 3.2oC = 5.76oF)
In October 2018, the IPCC issued a supplemental report entitled Global Warming of 1.5oC, which is referred to in this paper as the “IPCC’s 2018 report.” The report stated that 1.0oC of global warming has already occurred and it provided an update of what would be needed to keep (more precisely to have a 50% chance of keeping) global warming below 1.5oC and 2.0oC, respectively.The IPCC’s 2018 report states that
- In order to stay below 1.5oC, there would need to be a 45% reduction of net CO2 emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 and a further reduction to net zero emissions by 2050; and
- In order to stay below 2.0oC, there would need to be a 25% reduction of net CO2 emissions from 2010 levels by 2030 and a further reduction to net zero emissions by 2070.
To date there has been no reduction in CO2 emissions from 2010 levels. Instead global CO2 emissions have continued and are continuing to rise.
The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Reportgave another measure, called the “carbon budget,” of what would be required to limit global warming to 1.5oC or 2.0oC. The carbon budget is the cumulative net anthropogenic CO2 emissions that can be emitted from the pre-industrial period until CO2 emissions reach net zero. According to the IPCC’s 2018 report, the total carbon budget with a 50% probability of limiting global warming to 1.5oC is 2,780 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 of which 2,200 Gt has already been emitted. Thus, there are 580 Gt remaining. If current annual CO2 emissions of 42 Gt were to continue, the budget would be exhausted by the end of 2032. What needs to be understood about this carbon budget is that it is not a renewing annual budget, it is a hard-stop, cumulative budget—the cumulative amount of anthropogenic emissions that may occur before such emissions reach net zero. Net CO2 emissions is defined as emissions minus reductions, so net zero emissions allows for CO2 emissions as long as they are completely offset by CO2 removal. The IPCC’s 2018 report shows no pathway to reach net zero by emissions reduction alone, CO2 removal would also be required. CO2 removal is discussed below.
There is one more measure that is commonly discussed of what is needed to limit global warming. The principal driver of global warming in the projections is anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The IPCC projections give the likely future concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere and the likely increases in temperature based on these concentrations. The pre-industrial level of CO2 in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 412 ppm and is increasing at a rate of about 3 ppm per year. In order for climate change not to exceed 2.0oC, the IPCC Fifth Assessment Reportstated that CO2 concentration must be in the range of 450 ppm by 2100, a level that would be reached by 2032 at current rates of emissions. The IPCC models allow for overshoot of this 450ppm target with later reduction through CO2 removal. A different benchmark, often mentioned by environmentalists, comes from a well-known scientific paper by Jim Hansen and others published in The Open Atmosphere Science Journal in 2008 which said that, in order to maintain conditions in which civilization has developed and our current Earth is adapted, humanity should aim at reducing concentrations to 350 ppm and perhaps lower. Perhaps the best-known climate advocacy group, 350.org, has taken this benchmark as its name.
This graph shows CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years. The C02 level at the beginning of the industrial period was 280ppm. Concentrations spiked in the 20thcentury. About half of the total anthropogenic CO2 emissions since 1750 have occurred in the last 40 years.
(b) Effects of Global Warming
The IPCC’s 2018 report states we are presently on track to reach 1.5oC of global warming (up from the present 1.0oC of warming) by 2040. It then describes what the likely negative effects would be of 1.5oC of warming and how much greater the negative effects would be if global warming were later to increase to 2.0oC. Warming of 1.5oC would increase the average temperature of the hottest days in most of the United States, as compared with the pre-industrial level, by more than 2.0oC (3.8oF) and increase the average temperature of the coldest nights by more than 3.0oC (5.4oF). Warming of 2.0oC would increase the average temperature of the hottest days in most of the United States by more than 3.0oC (5.4oF) and increase the average temperature of the coldest nights by more than 4.0oC (7.2oF). In northern countries, such as Canada, and in the Arctic and Antarctic, warming would be even greater. Keeping warming to 1.5oC as compared to 2.0oC “could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.” “Six percent of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1.5°C, compared with 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C.” The report gives many other examples of the negative effects of going above 1.5oC and 2.0oC.
Global warming has and increasingly will, among other things
- Increase extreme heat days and waves—urban heat islands will be particularly vulnerable to extreme heat as they may be as much as 15oF hotter than surrounding rural areas
- Increase droughts, heavy rainfall events, and intensity of storms
- Rapidly increase melting of glaciers—slow melting of glaciers, with restoration of the glaciers in winter, has served as continuous water sources for billions of people, animals, and plants, rapid melting has led and will lead to depletion of glaciers.
- Increase sea level rise – according to the 2017 US National Climate Assessment, Volume I, global average sea level has risen by 7-8 inches since 1900 and will rise by an additional 1-4 feet by 2100 and a rise of 8 feet cannot be ruled out.
- Reduce biodiversity
- Reduce crop yields and cause food shortages
- Increase deforestation, including by way of increased forest fires—deforestation releases the carbon stored in trees; currently deforestation is the second leading cause of CO2 emissions counting for 24% of the total
- Increase ocean acidification
- Decrease ocean oxygen levels resulting in more dead zones
- Cause coral reef die off—with a 1.5oC rise coral reefs will decline 70-90%, and with a 2.0oC coral reefs will decline close to 100% (keep in mind we are on track for a 1.5oC rise by 2040)
- Increase migration of humans, plants, and animals
- Cause spread of disease
- Present growing challenges to human health, safety, qualify of life, and rate of economic growth, which will weigh most heavily on the poor
- Damage communities, housing, and infrastructure
- Result in costly expenditures for climate mitigation and adaptation
- Likely result in greater conflict among humans
Calculation of the economic effects of global warming on humans is very difficult, in part because in the standard measure of economic performance, GDP, all of the costs of adaptation to climate change and repairing destruction resulting from climate change increase GDP without increasing human welfare. For example, building a sea wall needed to protect humans from future sea level rise would increase GDP, but without global warming the sea wall would not be needed and the cost of building the wall would be avoided.
Solomon Hsiang and others, in a 2017 paper published in Science, calculated that in the United States every 1.0oC of global warming would cause GDP to linearly decline by 1.2%. With a 3.7oC temperature rise by 2100, this would mean a 4.4% linear decline (nearly $4 trillion based on 2018 dollars and global GDP). In contrast, an earlier study by Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang, and Edward Miguel published in 2015 in Nature showed a global non-linear 23% decline in GDP based on a 3.7oC temperature rise by 2100.
In both studies economic impacts worsened inequality. Countries in northern latitudes where most highly industrialized countries are located, showed little or no decline in GDP, while countries in the Global South showed much greater declines. The paper by Burke et al, for example, shows a reduction in GDP per capita in 2100 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of 88%, in Brazil of 83%, and in India of 92%, while in Canada GDP would sharply increase by 247%, most of Europe would increase, and the United States would decline by 36%. For an interactive map that shows projected GDP per capita changes by country, click here.
There are numerous reports, articles, books, and videos that attempt to predict how each degree of climate change will affect Earth. These studies base their analyses on what Earth was like in earlier periods when there were similar temperature levels. This video, Six Degrees Could Change the World, is one presentation. The discussion on the effects of different degrees of climate needs to begin with the observation that we humans are already living at the highest temperature levels of our approximately 250,000 year history.
This table by Glenn Fergus shows the extraordinarily even temperatures during the Holocene epoch—the last ten thousand years in which human civilization developed. Global temperatures have never increased or decreased by more than 0.5oC in that period as compared with average temperatures during the period 1960-90. The end of the scale shows potential temperature increases in 2050 and 2100.
With only 1.0oC of warming, temperatures in Delhi, India, have already reached 48oC (118.4oF) and this summer the temperature in Paris reached 42.6oC (108.7oF). At 3.0oC of warming, both the Arctic and Antarctic ice caps would melt as well as the ice that covers Greenland and this would result in sea level rise of more than 100 feet over a period of centuries. Further, according to an article by Peter Cox and others published in 2000 in Nature, with global warming of 3.0oC, the carbon cycle would significantly change and accelerate further warming. Seawater would absorb less CO2 and vegetation and soils would start to be net producers rather than absorbers of carbon as plant growth slowed and bacteria in warm soils worked faster to break down organic matter and as forests in the tropics died. Cox determined that 3.0oC would release an additional 250 ppm of CO2 into the atmosphere and be a tipping point to a 4.0oC world. The last time temperatures were more than 3.0oC above preindustrial temperatures was during the Pliocene epoch (5.3 to 2.8 million years ago).
- Uncertainties in the Science
When considering the above, the question arises how certain are scientists of how much global warming will occur? The difficulty of making the projections regarding global warming is evident when one considers that the IPCC is attempting to model the evolution of the global climate system. There is no way of knowing precisely how the climate system will react to CO2 emissions and other anthropogenic activities, such as methane emissions, forcing climate change. There are many variables included in the models that could change over time. There are many feedback loops in the Earth system that are difficult to predict and the IPCC excluded feedback loops when it had low confidence in being able to predict them. Feedback loops that are difficult to predict include the amount and rate of methane release from melting permafrost, the rate and amount of frozen methane hydrates release from the Arctic sea, changes in the carbon cycle as described in Cox’s article above, changes in global ocean circulation systems, and the effect of increased cloud cover in the form of water vapor resulting from greater water evaporation in a warming climate or conversely the effect of reduced cloud cover in the form of smog resulting from reduction of CO2 and other anthropogenic emissions. Even more difficult than predicting the physical feedback loops is predicting changes in socioeconomic development (leading among many other things to land-use change and greater or lesser burning of fossil fuels) and changes in human response to climate change (concerning mitigation and adaptation measures). Because of this, rather than attempting to predict human factors, the IPCC showed alternative CO2 emission pathways that humans might follow.
For the layperson (and in a different way, for climate scientists as well), the volume of information about climate change and feedback loops can be very confusing. For the layperson, the language used is confusing and figures used in describing climate change often disagree. Just one example is that the IPCC’s 2018 report says that with current policies we are on a trajectory of more than 3.2oC of warming by the end of the century, but an article on NASA’s Vital Sign’s website on August 11, 2019, called “Is It Too Late to Prevent Climate Change?” states, “In the absence of major action to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6.0oC (10.8oF) according to the latest estimates.”
Further the descriptions of what is needed to mitigate climate change vary widely as well as the descriptions of what would be required to achieve the mitigation goals. To add to the confusion, while books and reports express the dire consequences of climate change, almost without fail, they end with an upbeat note that “there is still time” to keep global warming below 1.5oC or 2.0oC, as the case may be. Further they tend to imply that so long as global warming does not exceed these levels, it won’t be so bad, which, as described in the IPCC’s 2018 report discussed above, is clearly not the case. Worse still, the emphasis in so many of the reports on limiting warming to 1.5oC or 2.0oC implies that 2.0oC is the worst case scenario, when, according to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, the current trajectory is for a 3.7oC rise by 2100 and possibly more. UNEP’s 2018 Emissions Gap Report indicates we remain on this trajectory.
The uncertainties in the projections give ample room for climate change deniers to find holes in them and then dismiss their conclusions. Even those who believe in climate change, however, are affected by the uncertainties in the projections and confusions in understanding the vast and sometimes inconsistent information on global warming and may delay taking action.
One thing we do know is that so far, we remain on the trajectory of the IPCC business-as-usual projection (RCP8.5) and are experiencing consequences predicted in the IPCC reports. The IPCC projections are primarily based on a linear relation between rising C02 concentrations and global warming. Some scientists, however, advance arguments that we are now seeing a non-linear rate of warming due to the triggering of reinforcing feedback loops and that the IPCC reports understate what is happening. For example, they may see the high rate of melting of arctic ice, which removes the white surface that radiates the sun’s rays back into space (the albedo effect) and leaves ice-free ocean that absorbs the sun’s rays, as speeding warming faster than in the IPCC projections. For an article presenting arguments for non-linear rates of warming, see Jem Bendell’s article on “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating the Climate Tragedy”.
- Inertial Factors that Stand in the Way of Limiting Global Warming to 1.5oC or 2.0oC
The primary cause of C02 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels. One explanation, called “fossil capitalism,” attributes the success of the industrial revolution not primarily to innovation or trade, but rather to a one-time, not-to-be-repeated injection of new value into the economy in the form of fossil energy. Today global anthropogenic CO2 emissions exceed 110 million tons per day, over 2.5 million pounds per second, and over 40 gigatons per year. The entire modern economy depends on high levels of energy and by far the predominant source of energy in that economy is fossil fuels. The continued availability of cheap energy from fossil fuels to power fossil capitalism presents a formidable barrier to change.
The section of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Reporton long-term climate projections states: “A large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales, unless net anthropogenic CO2 emissions were strongly negative over a sustained period.” This section of the report also states, “Global temperature equilibrium would be reached only after centuries to millennia if [radiative forcing] were stabilized.” Given the present level of emissions, net zero is hard to imagine and a sustained period of negative emissions is even harder to imagine. To achieve either would require both very rapid CO2 emissions reduction and extensive CO2 removal.
The principal suggested means for CO2 emissions reduction is to switch from fossil fuel energy to alternative energy and carbon capture and storage. The principal sources of alternative energy are hydropower, biofuels, solar, geothermal, and wind. As David Wallace-Wells details in his book Uninhabitable Earth, to convert to 100% renewable energy would require the conversion of the entire energy system to electricity. This would require switching all electricity generation from fossil fuels to renewable sources; tying the electricity generated into a new smart grid; providing battery or other backup power for fluctuations in energy production in the case of wind and solar; and electrifying all equipment that uses power. Further, this would need to happen not only in wealthy countries like the United States, but also in the so-called developing countries.
Another indication of the difficulty of making the transition to 100% renewable energy was described by James Temple in a 2018 MIT Technology Review article. He noted a calculation by Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution that to keep warming under 2.0oC would require adding a nuclear power plant’s worth (1,100 megawatts) of renewable energy every day from 2000 to 2050. Instead, Caldeira calculated that in 2018 we were adding about 151 megawatts, only enough to power 125,000 homes. Temple went on to say that at the present rate, it would take 400 years to make the transition.
Given the difficulty of converting all energy production to renewable energy, carbon capture and storage has been advanced as a way of continuing production of fossil fuel-based energy and then capturing the CO2 produced and storing it in the ground. This idea has been around for years, and to date it has been deployed on only a very limited basis. Ironically, one area where it has been used is in the natural gas industry where selective diffusion membranes remove CO2 from raw gas. The CO2 is then piped to oil fields where it is injected into existing well heads for enhanced oil recovery or natural gas fields for use in fracking. In other words, at present, CCS contributes to expanding oil and gas production and hence to further emissions. CCS has not proven to be cost effective in coal power plants where around one-third of the power produced must be used for purposes of CCS. In addition, there are capital costs in installing the CCS equipment, mining costs in creating and maintaining the storage areas, and operating costs in carrying out the CCS. For additional information, see Jeffrey Michel’s article “Carbon Capture and Storage: Still Not an Option.”
A variation on CCS that has become a key element of the IPPC’s assessment of the possibility of negative emissions is through a combination of biofuels and carbon capture and storage called “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). In BECCS, biofuels are used to produce energy and the CO2 is removed and stored. The theory is that the biofuels themselves are carbon neutral and sequestering the carbon produced in making the biofuels results in negative emissions. This needs a bit more explanation. Let’s say a ton of biofuels, such as wood pellets from a tree, has fixed (absorbed) 100 units of CO2. When the pellets are burned to produce energy and release the 100 units, the 100 units of CO2 are captured and sequestered. The bioenergy is assumed to be CO2 neutral (100 units fixed in the tree – 100 units released in burning = 0); and when the 100 units are captured and sequestered, the theory is that the process becomes CO2 negative by removing and storing the 100 units that were taken from the atmosphere and fixed in the biofuel prior to burning (0 – 100 units captured and sequestered = -100). There are, however, a lot of problems with this theory. The bioenergy would not be CO2 neutral because energy external to the biofuel source would be used in planting, growing, harvesting, and transporting the biofuel, and additional energy external to the biofuel would be used in processing the biofuel and in capturing and sequestering the CO2 released by the biofuel. There are other negative effects of BECCS related to the huge amount of land that would be used to produce the biofuels and the ecosystems that would be disturbed and replaced in the process. At present there are only a few demonstrations of BECCS. It is not currently technically or economically feasible and may never be. See “Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage(BECCS)” and “New Summary BECCS Report: Last Ditch Climate Option or Wishful Thinking?”
In addition to BECCS, there are other approaches to removing CO2 from the atmosphere. One approach uses natural means to absorb CO2 by, for example, afforestation and reforestation, flooding areas of land and growing algae, expanding seaweed and phytoplankton in the oceans, expanding wetlands, increasing rock weathering by artificial means, and changing agricultural practices to sequester carbon in soil. Using these methods to remove significant amounts of CO2, in other words many gigatons, would require vast changes in land use and use of the oceans and disrupt present ecosystems.
Another approach is to use machines that suck CO2 out of the air, this is called “direct air carbon capture and storage” (DACCS), and then using mechanical and chemical processes to condense the CO2 into bricks or pellets that are buried in the ground. David Wallace-Wells in a 2019 New York Magazine article describes a proposed approach that an entrepreneur claims could achieve net zero in carbon emissions at a cost of $3 trillion a year. Wallace-Wells states that there are eighteen of the plants now and globally we would need to open a new plant every day for the next 70 years to install the needed DACCS plants. The energy required to run the plants would require doubling global energy use and this additional energy would need to be clean. Finally storing the condensed carbon bricks and pellets in the ground would require a mining operation that exceeds the present day mining operations of oil and gas companies. For additional information about approaches to CO2 removal, see “Can Removing Carbon from the Atmosphere Save Us from Climate Catastrophe?”
An editorial in the February 21, 2018 issue of Nature entitled “Why Current Negative-Emissions Strategies Remain ‘Magical Thinking’” begins
Decarbonization of the world’s economy would bring colossal disruption of the status quo. It’s a desire to avoid that change — political, financial and otherwise — that drives many of the climate sceptics. Still, as this journal has noted numerous times, it’s clear that many policymakers who argue that emissions must be curbed, and fast, don’t seem to appreciate the scale of what’s required.
The editorial emphasizes how much the Paris Climate Agreement and the IPCC are relying on CO2 removal to meet climate targets. It then previews an article in that issue of Natureon the use of rock weathering for such removal. The article estimates that “grinding up 10–50 tonnes of basalt rock and applying it to each of some 70 million hectares — an area about the size of Texas — of US agricultural land every year would soak up 13% of the annual global emissions from agriculture. That still leaves an awful lot of carbon up there, even after all the quarrying, grinding, transporting and spreading.” The editorial ends by admonishing scientists that they “must continue to spell out to policymakers the harsh reality of what [negative emissions/CO2 removal] would involve in the strongest possible terms.”
Failing all else, the proposal for staving off extreme climate change is geo-engineering. Ideas include giant orbiting reflectors that reflect the suns ray’s into space and continuously pumping sulfur dioxide into the sky to filter the sun’s rays. There is at present no proposal for geo-engineering that is considered safe and feasible. As much of a concern that a nation like the United States or a coalition of nations like the European Union would proceed unwisely with geoengineering is the risk that a state operating outside coalitions and standards, perhaps a state under climate stress or even a wealthy environmentalist, would so proceed. A website that tracks proposals for geoengineering is www.geoengineeringmonitor.org.
- Questionable Expectations
We live in a technological age and we have a sense that technology can spread rapidly. With little thought, we may assume that a global spread of alternative energy technology would not be that difficult. Wallace-Wells, however, highlights the rapid spread of the mobile phones, surely one of the most rapid spreads of technology ever. The first “smartphone,” the Apple iPhone, was introduced in 2007. At the end of 2018, according to a report by Newzoo, about 39% of the world’s people used smartphones. According to GSMA Intelligence,counting both smartphones and non-smartphones, about two-thirds of the world’s people have mobile phones. While recognizing that this spread is impressive, he then emphasizes how small this incomplete accomplishment is in comparison to what would be required to move globally to 100% renewable energy production and distribution and 100% electrification of power equipment.
Not being daunted by the challenge, people discuss a World War II type mobilization to move to alternative energy. Such a mobilization has only happened once and it did not involve all of the world. There are many vested interests and difficult cultural issues involved in bringing about such a mobilization. The primary assets of oil, gas, and coal companies and important or primary assets of petroleum-producing countries are their fossil fuel reserves and they have shown that they will not willingly stop exploiting those reserves. Governments, which should be allies in bringing about the needed transition, presently focus on bringing about continuous economic growth through fossil fuel-based industrial production and consumption. This focus would have to change.
Here is an example of what such a mobilization might look like as proposed by authors Detlef van Vuuren et al, in an article titled “Alternative pathways to the 1.5 °C target reduce the need for negative emission technologies,” published in Nature Climate Change in May 2018:
- Renewable electrification: All energy end-use sectors are rapidly electrified, including heat. The technical constraintsto integrating variable renewables on the grid are overcome. Some fossil-fueled power stations retire early and, by 2030, all new cars are electric.
- High efficiency: The best available technologies are quickly adopted for all energy and material uses, including cement and steel. From 2025 onwards, only highly efficient new cars and airplanes are sold and only the most efficient home appliances allowed.
- Agricultural intensification: Optimistic assumptions for crop yield improvements are combined with 80% worldwide adoption of the most efficient livestock systems, including improved feed digestibility and “genetic improvements”.
- Low non-CO2: Non-CO2 greenhouse gases are reduced using the best-available technologies and further technological progress. For example, by 2050, fugitive emissionsof methane are cut by 100% in the oil-and-gas sector and by 90% for coal mining. Methane emissions from livestock are cut significantly and, by 2050, 80% of meat and eggs are replaced by cultured protein, including lab-grown meat.
- Population: Improved access to education accelerates the trend towards reduced fertility, so that global population rises from 7 billion people today to 8.4 billion in 2050, before falling to 6.9 billion in 2100. This is broadly in line with the UN’s lowest scenariofor population, whereas the high end of UN projections reaches 13.2 billion people in 2100.
- Lifestyle change: The majority of the world population adopts sustainable lifestyles, including, by 2050, 100% adoption of healthy diets with lower levels of meat consumption. There is less private car use and more walking or cycling, while air travel is reduced.
While much in this list is desirable and even necessary, some of its goals seem unreachable such as the proposal that by 2030 all new cars in the world would be all electric. Some of the proposals seem to be based on undesirable aspects of the present economy—when the authors advocate the “most efficient livestock systems” do they means improving confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) with genetically modified livestock and more quickly digestible food to promote faster growth? Further the model appears to be based on continuance of the industrial-growth economy and mentions oil, gas, and coal production in 2050. The article is unavailable for download but based on reviews of the article, it fails to bring emissions to zero and given the carbon budget discussed above would still require CO2 removal to meet the target goal of staying under 1.5oC. Bert Metz, former co-chair of the IPCC commented “It is highly unlikely that the investigated options can indeed all be applied simultaneously to the extent assumed in the paper and that the full impacts of each of the options can be delivered in practice, as the assumptions are very ambitious.”
For a World War II-type mobilization to occur would require that governments invest in the energy transition on the same scale that they invested in the military and war efforts at that time. They, along with private capital markets, would need to de-fund and de-subsidize fossil fuels and fund and subsidize renewable energy and the other changes needed for the energy conversion. This kind of mobilization could not occur without requiring major sacrifices by constituents just as occurred in World War II. Even assuming that such a mobilization were possible, it would be potentially dangerous. Investments made in the wrong way would only prevent the changes needed for the long run, deplete the funds available for making them, and harden the structures that would later need to be replaced.
5. My Assessment of What Is Going to Happen
So now, with the foregoing as background, I give my personal assessment of what will happen.
My position on what will happen has changed. I no longer think that we will be able to avoid significant global warming. Perhaps this would have been possible at an earlier time, maybe even a few decades ago. In my judgment though, it is too late now . . . though it is far from too late to act to bring about an ecozoic future as will be discussed in Part II of this article.
As I see it, we will not meet the targets of rapid emissions reduction by 2030 and of net negative emissions by 2050 or 2070, as required in the 2018 IPCC report and as discussed above, to stay with 1.5oC or 2.0oC, respectively, of global warming. I will be basing my future actions on the expectation that there will be global warming in the 3.0oC to 4.0oC range by 2100 and that further human-caused increases in succeeding centuries can be mostly avoided, though not the consequences of prior warming. I reach this conclusion, first, because I believe the potential for CO2 removal has been overstated. Second, I believe that CO2 emissions will exceed target levels because of continuing use of fossil fuels. Take coal, coal produces more CO2 per unit of energy than other types of fossil fuels, hence environmentalists call for cessation of the use of coal as a first step toward a clean energy economy. Viewed from the United States, it might appear we are on the way to accomplishing this, but on a global basis coal use has not declined, but rather it has doubledjust since 2000. There has never been an energy transition from coal to petroleum to natural gas to alternative energy. Instead the world is today using, in each case, more coal, more petroleum, more natural gas, and more alternative energy than ever before. Energy demand, production, and use are continuing to grow. Alternative energy rapidly increases but barely moves as a percentage of total energy used. While there are forecasts that there are only 50 years of each of oil and gas and 100 years of coal remaining at current production rates, there may be more. New technologies enable location of previously undiscovered reserves and recovery of fuel from deposits previously deemed too difficult to access. As a result of these technologies, known reserves today are not less than but greater than in 1980 even though a tremendous amount of fuel has been extracted since that time.
Third, I do not believe governments or businesses will be able to make the energy infrastructure changes in the time required. Governments move slowly. For example, it took 45 years for New York City to add three stops to an existing subway line. Knowing this, some imagine private markets and capital can move faster, and some even imagine that private markets and capital may do so with sufficient speed to meet the targets in the 2018 IPCC report. Private markets and capital will play a major role in any transition that occurs, but due to vested interests, they will also inhibit any such transition. They will do more of the latter absent direction, regulation, and incentives from governments on a global basis and these will be hard to come by.
The changes needed to end global warming will take time. As Bruno Latour put it in his book Down to Earth, the changes cannot take place faster than the historical process will allow. “Historical process” in this context takes on new meaning. We are not talking about reform within an existing system within an existing civilization, we are talking about civilizational change on a global scale. This is needed, because as Thomas Berry put it in The Dream of the Earth,
We have changed the very chemistry of the planet, we have altered the biosystems, we have changed the topography and even the geological structure of the planet, structures and functions that have taken hundreds of millions and even billions of years to bring into existence. Such an order of change in its nature, and in its order of magnitude has never before entered either into Earth history or into human consciousness.” (P. xiii)
And because, as he added in Evening Thoughts,
The planet has inherent limits. [We cannot deal with] the issues before us without increased awareness and [without] terminating many of the industrial process as we know them presently.
The human consequences will be enormous. But that is now unavoidable in any reasonable assessment of the situation. To continue our denial of the nature and order of magnitude of the issues is only to make any later adjustment that much worse. It is already determined that our children and grandchildren will live amid the ruined infrastructures of the industrial world and amid the ruins of the natural world itself. (P. 95)
We are already far beyond any recovery of the integrity of the planet—its basic life-sustaining functions—such as existed prior to human appearance. (P. 97)
The Earth will never again function in the manner in which it has functioned until the present. (P. 98)
- Invitation for Your Assessment of What Is Going to Happen
This is my assessment of what will happen in relation to climate change. What is yours? Please consider sending CES your assessment or your comments or questions on my assessment.
- Preview of Part II of this Article on What Should We Do? and Do You Have Hope?
Part II of this article will be published in the next issue of The Ecozoic Review. Based on the foregoing assessment of what will happen, I will reflect on what ecozoans can and should be doing. In regard to hope, as I indicated at the beginning of this paper, I use hope as a signifier of what enables to act to achieve long-term, difficult goals. I will reflect on what will sustain us in the Great Work.
Though the changes needed will take time and Earth will not function as it has. I still have hope that the promise of the Ecozoic era will be realized and Earth community will have an ecozoic future.
For purposes of the IPCC reports, the industrial period began in 1750, however, the reference period 1850-1900 is used to approximate conditions in the pre-industrial period. So practically speaking when scientists talk about differences from the pre-industrial period, they are talking of difference from about 1870, the time that the petroleum era began and fossil fuel use expanded rapidly.
According to the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, as compared with the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC’s 2018 report increased the rate of CO2 reduction needed to meet global warming targets significantly based on new studies and more cautious assumptions about carbon dioxide removal.
CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas, but it is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the primary driver of climate change. For a full measure of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists convert the other emissions to their CO2 equivalents and use the term CO2e or CO2eq. Other greenhouse gases include methane and nitrous oxide.
Natural (nonanthropogenic) C02 emissions of over 300 gigatons annually dwarf annual anthropogenic emissions of about 40 gigatons, but Earth’s absorption of natural emissions is roughly in balance with the natural emissions. The anthropogenic emissions raises the rate of emissions to a level beyond what Earth absorbs in the ocean and land and the excess is absorbed by the atmosphere.
There are, however, models that allow for overshoot of the carbon budget with a later catch up through CO2 removal. CO2 removal is discussed later in this paper.
The fossil record and other data show a high degree of correlation between CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and global temperature.
RCP8.5, the IPCC’s worst case scenario, shows warming within a range of 2.6oC to 4.8oC with a mean of 3.7oC.
Reduction of new emissions to zero, however, would require even more than converting to alternative energy, there would also need to be elimination of emissions from deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills, and other sources. Overall, new emissions cannot be totally eliminated, though they can be significantly reduced and they can be offset by CO2 removal.
In regard to CO2 removal it is worth noting that the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, while relying on such removal in projections that keep global warming below 2.0oC, states, “The availability and scale of these and other Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods are uncertain and CDR technologies and methods are, to varying degrees, associated with challenges and risks.”
While effects in succeeding centuries are not the subject of this paper, it is worthwhile to take note of the long-range effects given in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report:
Warming will continue beyond 2100 under all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. Surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions. A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial timescale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period. (2.4, Figure 2.8)
Stabilization of global average surface temperature does not imply stabilization for all aspects of the climate system. Shifting biomes, soil carbon, ice sheets, ocean temperatures and associated sea level rise all have their own intrinsic long timescales which will result in changes lasting hundreds to thousands of years after global surface temperature is stabilized. (2.1, 2.4)
There is high confidence that ocean acidification will increase for centuries if CO2 emissions continue, and will strongly affect marine ecosystems. (2.4)
It is virtually certain that global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise dependent on future emissions. The threshold for the loss of the Greenland ice sheet over a millennium or more, and an associated sea level rise of up to 7 m, is greater than about 1°C (low confidence) but less than about 4°C (medium confidence) of global warming with respect to pre-industrial temperatures. Abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment. (2.4)
Magnitudes and rates of climate change associated with medium- to high-emission scenarios pose an increased risk of abrupt and irreversible regional-scale change in the composition, structure and function of marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, including wetlands (medium confidence). A reduction in permafrost extent is virtually certain with continued rise in global temperature. (2.4)