Poking an Angry Beast

© 2007 Dr Ron Nielsen

The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks!
– Dr Wally Broecker, one of the world’s leading experts on the role of oceans in climate change.

The greatest danger to humanity

In The Little Green Handbook I have identified seven groups of critical global trends. The most dangerous are the trends associated with the ongoing climate change. If we do little or nothing about them, we shall suffer far-reaching consequences in such areas as human health; agriculture and food production; water availability; weather-related economic losses; loss of biodiversity; undesirable effects on coral reefs and on the life in oceans; and the exposure of islands and densely populated coastal regions to storms surges and rising sea levels. Our very survival is at risk.

Do humans influence the current climate change?

We now have a convincing body of scientific evidence that the current ongoing climate change is influenced strongly by human activities (IPCC 2007; see also Olden 2003, Nielsen 2005, 2006, and Rebirth 2001). We also have an increasing number of scientists and non-scientists who are convinced that in order to reduce the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere it is essential for us to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. We have to implement clean, alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar, geothermal, etc. During the transition period between the conventional and the future clean technologies we should also consider other possible solutions such as carbon sequestration, carbon absorption by terrestrial plants, soil, and oceans, and finally perhaps even large geoengineering projects such as albedo enhancement.

How sure can we be about scientific evidence?

Scientists are sceptics, and that is why science is self-correcting discipline producing reliable and trustworthy information. A scientist has to question his or her own research procedures and results to make sure that they make sense. It is therefore only natural for a scientist to scrutinise and question results of other scientists. It is impossible to be a scientist without being a skeptic.

How careful are scientists in drawing their conclusions is illustrated in the recent article published in the prestigious Science magazine (Rahmstorf et al. 2007) entitled Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections. The authors conclude with the following sentence: "Previous projections, as summarized by IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respect even have underestimated the change, in particular for sea level."

Another important point is that non-scientists look generally for yes or no answers. They can generally see only black or white. A scientist, on the other hand, sees all shades and colours. Scientists may question certain results of research but they will also see them in the contents of other research. They will be able to assess how new results fit to a general picture.

A non-scientist, particularly a non-scientist who is guided by prejudice and who desperately looks for evidence to support his or her point of view, may find a black spot somewhere and claim that all is black while a scientist will see the whole pattern. The pattern of climate change reveals a clear evidence of human influence.

If the trends of carbon emissions are allowed to continue, then by the end of the current century the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be between 50-165 per cent higher than in 2000. This will push the average global temperature to between 1.4 and 5.8°C above the present value. New and more refined model calculations predict temperatures at the far end of this range. The average temperature in Australia is projected to increase by around 4°C.

However, we should also realise that climate change is not necessarily a smooth function of time. Abrupt changes are possible and even now we are already experiencing them. For instance, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (see The Little Green Handbook) the number of cyclones in Australia increased abruptly around 1950 from around average 4 per year before that year to around 12 per year after.

The total inflow to Perth dams decreased abruptly from an average 350 billion litres per year (Gl/y) before 1975 to around 200 Gl/y after.

These are local 'tipping points' but a global tipping point is also possible in the form of a shut down of the Gulf Stream (see below) and in a runaway effect, both discussed in The Little Green Handbook.

The Little Green Handbook presents also analysis of global weather-related economic losses. It points to a possibility of global bankruptcy. However, local bankruptcies may occur even earlier. Even now, insurance companies are worried that certain properties might become uninsurable. This could also be connected with local 'tipping points'. For instance, it is well-known that the damage caused by wind increases suddenly by about 600% when wind velocity increases from around 85 kilometres per hour (km/h) to about 100 km/y, which correspond to only 18% increase in wind velocity.

Will the Kyoto Protocol help to solve the climate-change problem?

The Kyoto Protocol is our first positive attempt to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but we need to do much more if we want to have a desirable impact on global climate. In its present form, it is an expression of good will, a positive appreciation of the problem and a declaration of readiness to make suitable commitments. We need about ten times higher reduction of carbon dioxide emissions than those required by the Kyoto Protocol.

The Protocol has been criticised for its flows but it is helpful to understand why it is so imperfect. In the Editorial published in New Scientist (NS 2001) the first paragraph reads:

“George Bush is right about one thing: the Kyoto Protocol is a flawed treaty. But for Europeans looking on in horror as he tries to destroy it, one thing really sticks in the craw. Most of the flows were put there by US negotiators trying to make the treaty palatable to business. Now, having made this rumpled bed with its mass of complicated ‘flexibility mechanisms’, they refuse to lie in it.”

We can hardly expect a solution to a problem, let alone a perfect solution, if we look for excuses to steer clear of the required obligations and commitments. To make a positive impact on the atmosphere and on the ongoing climate change we need not only to adhere to the Protocol’s recommendations but also to follow it by new and improved agreements.

The increase in the average surface temperature in the North Hemisphere is higher than in the Southern Hemisphere. We might think that the warming up of the cold Arctic regions would be beneficial but indigenous population sees it as a disaster. They urge the world “to live up to the Kyoto Protocol and to negotiate additional international agreements to reduce greenhouse gases” (Kusugak 2004).

Is the use of fossil fuels necessary?

We do not have to use fossil fuels to power our economical progress. We need energy but we can change the danger associated with the use of fossil fuels into an opportunity to increase efficiency, decrease waste, and to implement better sources of energy. Fossil fuels will not last long; renewable sources will. Now is the time to make a switch in the right direction.

Our current global yearly consumption of energy (85 per cent of which is from fossil fuels) is about 12,000 times lower than the free and clean solar energy intercepted by the Earth. It is true that to harvest this energy is more difficult than to use the dirty fossil fuels but in the long run it is the solar energy, and not the fossil fuels, which is economically viable. However, we also have other renewable sources we not only could but also should be using.

Economic advantage of fossil fuels is deceptive. Their use appears to be economically viable only for a short time. In the long run, they cause costly and even irreversible environmental damage. They lead to substantial economic losses, and weather-related losses serve as a good example. They are now increasing so rapidly that certain regions of the world might soon become uninsurable. They might even global bankruptcy.

Another powerful and practically unlimited source of energy is nuclear fusion. Unlike nuclear fission, which is used in nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion is a clean source of energy. Problems associated with this source are hard to solve but significant progress has already been made in this area. Hard-to-solve problems are usually most rewarding. Scientists do not ask much for their work. Invest your money in research and scientists will help you to have a better future.

Can the current gradual climate change turn into even more dangerous process?

Our continuing interference with the composition of the atmosphere is like poking an angry beast with sticks. The current gradual climate change can turn into a runaway process. If by then we are finally convinced that we should work harder to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases it will be too late. We also have to consider the probability of an abrupt climate change.

The planet’s Achilles heel is the Ocean Conveyor Belt and the Achilles heel of the Belt is the heat exchange in the North Atlantic. The flow of water in the Belt is about 100 times larger than the flow of the Amazon River. About three-quarters of energy in this region come from the Sun and a quarter from the Belt.

High salinity of the Gulf Stream is essential in driving the Conveyor Belt. Now, however, we observe an accelerated melting of ice covers in the Arctic regions. The salinity of water is decreasing and a cap of fresh water is developing over the heat exchange area (Dickson 2002). This process is likely to cause a shutdown of the Conveyor Belt or a substantial slowing down of its activity. When it happens, the temperature in North Atlantic regions will drop by 3-5°C within a decade. The resulting severe and prolonged winters will affect the most populated developed countries of the world and will last for a century or longer. Meanwhile other regions of the world will suffer prolonged and severe droughts.

The story presented in The Day After Tomorrow is scientifically incorrect. Blood-chilling thrillers might be necessary to spice our lives. They might be exciting when we watch them in the comfort of our lounge rooms or in cinemas. However, living with even less dramatic but nevertheless severe effects of an abrupt climate change for years on end, for a century or longer, is an entirely different matter. Reality can be more painful than fiction even if it is less dramatic.

When we unleash the power of the wild beast we shall have to bear the devastating consequences of the abrupt climate change combined with the continuing destructive effects of the gradual change, which can turn into an uncontrollable runaway process. Changes of this nature are hard to model and predict. However, we urgently need to develop an efficient network of ocean-based instruments, similar to the network of land-based instruments, to monitor the oceanic processes with the aim of using it as a possible early warning of the abrupt climate change (Gagosin 2003). However, if we do what is right we should be able to reduce substantially the risk of such threats.

Conclusion

Global climate is changing too rapidly and we need urgently to replace fossil fuels by alternative sources of energy. The use of fossil fuels is unnecessary. Alternative sources can give us more than enough energy to run our global economy. We already have the necessary technology and expertise to develop and improve these sources of energy. All we need is a stronger commitment to do what is right.
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Note:

This article is based mainly on the information contained in The Little Green Handbook.

References:

Dickson, B., Yashayaev, I., Meincke, J., Turrell, B., Dye, S., and Hoffort, J. 2002, ‘Rapid Freshening of the Deep North Atlantic Over the Past Four Decades’, Nature 416:832-837

Gagosin, R. B. 2003, Abrupt Climate Change: Should We Be Worried? Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Woods Hole, MA, USA

Holdren, J. 2003, 'Risks from global climate change: What do we know? What should we do?, Presentation at the Institutional Investors’ Summit on Climate Risk, United Nations, New York, 21 November.

IPCC 2007, Summary for Policy Makers

Kusugak, J. A. 2004, Roundtable on Aboriginal Issues: Speaking Notes, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Government of Canada Conference Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

Nielsen, R. 2005, The Little Green Handbook: A Guide to Critical Global Trends, Scribe, Melbourne, Australia.

Nielsen, R. 2006, The Little Green Handbook: Seven Trhend Shaping the Future of our Planet, Picador, New York, USA.

NS 2001, ‘Bad Move, Mr Bush’, New Scientist, 7 April, p. 3.

Rahmstorf, et al. 2007, Science, vol. 316, 4 May 2007, p. 709.

Trenberth, K. E. 2001, ‘Stronger Evidence of Human Influence on Climate: The 2001 IPCC Assessment’, Environment, 43(4):8–19.

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