The New Climate Priority

What’s our current climate goal? It appears to be “Delaying disaster, a little.” Very little. Why such lack of ambition?

For effective climate action, what is now an appropriate goal? Cutting our emissions of fossil fuel CO2 in half tomorrow would not reduce our short- to medium-term climate problems. The old prescriptions are now painfully inadequate; they omit any notion of climate repair which would allow us to retreat from the looming climate chaos. We are simply slowing our approach to chaos a little, leaving our children on a trip straight to Hell.

Hell is not my metaphor for hot. It’s for the suffering. A population crash will feel like Hell. All Four Horsemen: war, famine, pandemics, and civil wars that turn into genocides. Not just losing family and friends but becoming a climate refugee oneself, homeless and battered.

The trip to climate's Hell isn’t certain (we are not yet in that deeply yet), just likely if we don’t act decisively to treat climate disease. We need to back out of climate’s danger zone, quickly— a cool-down to save our children and ourselves via repairing climate during the next twenty years, then regulating global temperature thereafter in the manner of a thermostat, giving us time to implement sustainability.

When we see spreading disaster ahead, we need to stop and back up, not merely slow down a little. While reducing annual emissions is indeed necessary, it’s just not sufficient given the medium-term extreme weather prospects. That's the most important reason that our climate thinking needs to change. There are two more.

So-called “Climate Solutions”

Fix the cause and you fix the problem? Not so fast. Getting at the root cause of climate change by reducing fossil CO2 emissions was a reasonable plan fifty years ago, but it didn’t work out very well. The excess CO2 overhead has tripled since then. Now we have a big cleanup problem.

Better miles per gallon, electricity from solar and wind, better light bulbs, a carbon pollution tax: while all are important for sustainability, those progress-as-usual improvements still get advertised as climate “solutions.” They are not. Not even in combination. (So much for “Every little bit counts.”) A vague influence does not count as a solution.

And why are they so ineffective? That’s because they are not subtractions, as in a drawdown or cleanup: they are mere reductions in growth rate. They are analogous to reducing flow by tweaking the faucet, not to addressing the accum­ulat­ion in the slowly draining sink that threatens to over­flow. Emissions reduction does not reduce the accumulation already up in that CO2 dumping ground up in the sky.

We dump stuff into the air and trust natural processes to get rid of it. Dust and smoke particles are usually washed out by rain in a matter of days to weeks. “It rained mud,” my mother said of the great dust storms of 1935. Volcanic sulfur in the stratosphere takes several years to go away. For most of the greenhouse gases, nature takes several decades to ‘drain’ this year’s emissions. But for CO2, nature’s cleanup takes a thousand years.

Nature’s cleanup takes too long

That’s why our present climate paradigm cannot handle the problem. It never could. Just imagine a sink that takes a thousand years to drain. For all practical purposes, the fossil CO2 that we add stays up there until we remove it. The accumulation is what creates the overheating and leads to the extreme weather events.

The politicians' current focus on reducing annual emissions, instead of focusing on the accumulation, is reminiscent of confusing 30 miles per hour with 30 miles. The way our leaders talk (when they do), you’d think that emissions were the climate problem and their reduction is the remedy. Perhaps inadvertently, they convey the impression that if we reduce annual emissions to zero someday, we’ll have solved the climate problem.

Not so. We would still have the excess CO2 that accumulated year after year along the way to that grand zero-emissions year.

The CO2 con­cen­trat­ion was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750. We’ll take that as our ‘overheating’ baseline for now. By the time we started talking climate change in 1965, the CO2 concentration had already climbed up to 320 ppm: we had a 40-ppm excess. It is the excess CO2 since 1800 which causes most of our excess heat since 1800, via greenhouse effects.

By 1996, the CO2 was up to 360 ppm: the excess had doubled. At triple in 2020, the excess was rising 3 ppm each year. Back in the 1960s, that annual step up was 0.8 ppm. The excess CO2 tripled in just fifty years; our annual boost is up four times.

A fifty-year failure is the second reason to reconsider our emissions reduction climate strategy. Poor prospects is the third reason: when air conditioning becomes essential for getting through hot sleepless nights, underdeveloped countries will burn their local coal resources to avoid brownouts. People dying when the electricity fails will trump any treaties signed; those wielding political power will wish to stay in office.

Whiplash weather

Climate trouble comes from the temperature contrasts that develop as land heats up twice as fast as the oceans, and the Arctic heats twice as fast as the land—the very contrasts that the global average washes out. The contrasts rearrange the winds, creating floods here and droughts there. Patches of ex­agger­at­ed over­heating have become the big driver of trouble.

The present para­digm borrows only from preventive medicine—omitting the other lessons we teach medical students about evaluating risk when windows of opportunity are closing. The present paradigm always speaks of a future problem, rather like preventing future tooth decay by brushing your teeth today.

But when we already have a tooth abscess or a climate disease, you’d really expect a focus on how to keep those current problems from killing us, not continuing to talk only about prevention. If climate’s demolition derby might destroy civilization in the next few decades, emissions reduction should not be where you direct most of your efforts.

Emissions reduction has now become what, in medicine, is called an adjuvant, a supplementary treatment that may be ineffective by itself but augments a more effective treatment. Think booster or amplifier. The familiar example is chemo­therapy, ineffective for larger tumors but, following their surgical removal, often effective against the smaller remnants.

Might this be the time to reframe the climate problem, a paradigm shift that better focuses on what really matters—and their closing windows of opportunity?

More solutions that aren’t

Recapturing some of the fossil CO2 in smokestack fumes, burying it in old natural gas wells, is just another emissions reduction scheme called “Carbon Capture,” one that still allows additions to the accumulating blanket of CO2. I consider it a nonstarter because, to run the extraction process, it takes a lot of power, reducing the power available to the grid. To make up for it, they must burn additional coal. The coal companies would sell a lot more coal per gigawatt available to the grid.

If one instead burns new crops of wood or switchgrass with recapture, it prevents some of the atmospheric CO2 earlier captured by photosynthesis from returning to the air in five-to-fifty years, the way it eventually would via bacterial decomposition. But notice the lag time issue: with 50% recapture now, the proponents would accelerate the addition of the other 50% to our CO2 blanket. It’s a bad as a forest fire.

But even if it passes technical muster, that scheme is unreliable even in a ten-year timeframe. Should a famine threaten, food crops will take priority over growing switchgrass and trees. The land and water requirements for growing the switchgrass also mean that it cannot be scaled up to meet the “big enough” test. All smokestack capture methods are too small, too slow, and too unreliable for the immediate task. We need Big, Quick, and Surefire. All three. Not someday but now.

It follows that we must remove the excess CO2 from the air on a large scale if we wish to escape the very serious consequences: not only a series of economic crashes that make lenders reluctant to lend again for fear of not getting their money back, but serious death spirals involving resource wars, famine, epidemic disease, and genocide.

We now need a new plan for how to get ourselves out of this mess. And we had better get it right this time, not producing just another low-ball understatement of the actions needed, with no safety margin considered.

Emissions reduction and sustainability are still important for the post-cleanup world; those too young to vote might focus their efforts there. Others should consider focusing their efforts on promoting quick climate repairs. Legislators will need public pressure to ever get around to doing something effective.

W. H. Calvin (updated 2018 pamphlet #1.)