New climate data shows that the global warming crisis is worse – and accelerating at a faster pace – than was understood as recently as last year’s climate-change conference in Paris, writes Nicholas C. Arguimbau.
By Nicholas C. Arguimbau
The participants at the Paris climate change conference saw themselves produce “an agreement hailed as ‘historic, durable and ambitious’”and “the world’s greatest diplomatic success,” according to the UK Guardian on Dec. 15, 2015.
The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, “A great tide has turned. Finally the world stands united against the central environmental challenge of our time.”
They were still basking in the glow of their success, when news arrived of a sudden and extreme rise in global temperature, described by climate scientists as “stunning”, “a shocker”, “a bombshell’, “hurtling at a frightening pace toward the globally agreed maximum of 2C warming over pre-industrial levels”, “a kind of climate emergency”, an event “using up all our room for manoevre.”
UK Guardian: “February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount.” An event, in short, rendering almost obsolete everything done at the Paris conference.
The most significant aspect of the February event is probably the speed with which it happened. Spikes occur in global temperature during major El Ninos, although ordinarily not in arctic regions or the Southern Hemisphere, and this was the largest spike ever. It dwarfs the spike of the last major El Nino, 1998.
As you can see, the monthly global average temperature went up in the last two months approximately as much as it had in the prior 35 years. To be sure, El Nino does funny things, but just look for another comparable El Nino.
As you can see, the February temperature anomaly hit 1.35 degrees, by far the greatest in history; a few weeks before, the Paris conference had given lip service to a goal of keeping below 1.5 degrees, already apparently impossible with the temperature anomaly passing 0.8 degrees. That wasn’t supposed to happen until we passed 2 degrees, but here we are at 1.35 only two years after we were at 0.8. Hmmm.
It looks sort of as if we should have drawn the line of relative safety at 0.8 degrees or below instead of two but that’s MUCH too little information to go on because the numbers are too “noisy.”
Reading the Data
We all know ice is melting in the arctic, which people say is bad because Miami could drown if enough ice melts. It turns out the drowning of cities is not all. Here’s a picture of the September arctic ice cover since 1979. As you can see, the ice cover has dropped most dramatically in the last decade, with the last nine years being by far the lowest nine.
There is a stunning video of the arctic ice melt if you prefer visuals. People pay much more attention to the arctic ocean ice than to the inland snow, maybe because the ice covers great oil fields (As Pete Seeger asked, “When will they ever learn?”) But the same thing is happening except on a much grander scale to the Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover.
Here’s a graph of the June snow cover anomaly. Over the same period in which the Arctic Ocean has lost 3 million square kilometers of ice, the Northern Hemisphere as a whole has lost on average an incredible 7 million square kilometers of snow cover.
Miami is in trouble and so are we. The fraction of light reflected by an object is its “albedo.” The albedos of ice and snow are close to one, whereas the albedos of earth and open ocean are close to zero. So if the snow and ice melt, more light will be absorbed by the earth and its temperature will rise. That’s the albedo effect.
Warming causes the ice and snow to melt and the melting causes warming, a vicious circle which could accelerate until there is no more snow or ice to melt.
Just remember this formula: If snow or ice melts, the increase in the incoming radiant heat energy absorbed by the earth is equal to the albedo of the snow or ice minus the albedo of what it uncovers, times the intensity per unit area of the incoming radiant energy, times the area involved. This is heating independent of and additional to that caused by CO2 entering the atmosphere.
So if snow melts but just uncovers more snow there’s no change, and otherwise the change is proportional to the area of water or earth exposed.
Assessing the Albedo Effect
Only recently have scientists discovered how powerful the albedo effect is. There were models designed in the 1960s to assess the problem, from which it was concluded that cloud cover in the arctic would prevent it from becoming serious. Actual measurements, however, were not made until two years ago, using satellite data. Why it took so long is a mystery. Did “we” not want to know?
Be that as it may, the scientists showed that over the period 1979 to 2014, warming attributable to the albedo effect in the Arctic Ocean alone had been equal to 25 percent of warming directly attributable to CO2. Pistone, Eisenman and Ramanathan, National Academy of Sciences, “Observational determination of albedo decrease caused by vanishing Arctic sea ice.” These folks should get a Nobel Prize.
This is not a small effect. It means that if we assess global warming by measuring the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are missing 20 percent of the warming just because of a small part of the Northern Hemisphere’s ice and snow cover. That’s a lot, and it tells us at least one reason why warming is happening faster than anyone expected, in fact faster all the time.
Faster all the time because that’s what a “positive feedback loop” does. The really troublesome aspect of the positive feedback loop is that it operates as long as the temperature is above a critical level, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions may slow the warming but doesn’t reverse it.
Paris ignored the albedo effect totally. As a consequence, the nations systematically underestimated the amount of warming we need to deal with, overestimated the time we have to do so and erringly gave themselves a large “budget” of permissible increased emissions. They are set to meet in five years for progress reports, and as things are going, we’ll have gone past two degrees by then.
Bad and Getting Worse
All pretty bad but it’s worse. We have to be careful how we understand the number, 25 percent, because it is about accumulated warming from 1979 over almost four decades, not about warming here and now. As you can see from the above graph, ice-melting has become dramatically greater in the last decade, and therefore so has the Arctic Ocean’s albedo effect.
Were the last decade used as the comparison period for global albedo-warming originating in the Arctic versus for the Arctic versus global greenhouse-gas warming for the last decade, the figure could be closer to 100 percent. And things will get worse, because at this point the Arctic Ocean still retains at least one quarter of its ice-cover in the summer but this will drop to zero at a date that is unclear, reducing the average albedo substantially.
“When will the Arctic be ice-free in the summer? Maybe four years. Or 40,” Washington Post. So if the albedo effect isn’t yet as strong as the greenhouse-gas effect, it will be soon.
All of this is VERY bad news. People went to Paris and talked about reducing CO2 emissions. The goal for years had been to take such steps as would keep global warming within 2 degrees Celsius with a probability of 2/3. The oil industry had been complaining that this would cost them $30 trillion. In practice fixing the industry complaint, the planning documents for Paris “budgeted” an extra $30 trillion worth of petroleum to be burnt by reducing the probability of staying within 2 degrees to one half.
Once it gets started, the albedo effect is its own cause, and stopping CO2 emissions totally will no longer stop warming. In December, it looked as if we had a very small margin of safety that we could expend so the public could buy and the fossil fuel industry could sell another $30 trillion in carbon. [See Arguimbau’s “The International Energy Agency’s ‘Cookbook’ For Paris: A ‘Last Chance’ That Only Continues Forty Years of Failure.”]
But it doesn’t look possible any more. We can control the world’s CO2 emissions, at least in theory, and we’d damned well better, NOW (the albedo effect means the thousands of gigatonnes of extra CO2 emissions the nations are presently allowing themselves as a “budget” and giving gratis to the industry no longer exist), but heating from the melting of the arctic ice will go on, whatever we do to slow CO2 emissions.
So will heating from the melting of the Siberian and North American snow, which apparently already is twice that of the Arctic ice and because the snow occupies an area several times that of the Arctic Ocean and will therefore ultimately have an albedo effect several times larger.
The Northern Hemisphere snow cover must be heating the earth about twice as fast as the Arctic ice melt. Then of course is the melting of the ice floating on the sea surrounding Antarctica, coming from an area comparable to the Arctic ice melt but not presently well-advanced.
Finally, warming from melting of the Greenland (and Antarctica, but the present warming may not yet be sufficient to assure that) land-based snow-and-ice cover, which is not yet happening because so far the snow and ice are too thick to be uncovering land as they melt, will begin unless for some unascertained reason positive cooling takes place elsewhere.
And then there is methane. Ouch! And remember, these are all effects we may now expect to happen because of the albedo feedback even if we stop all further greenhouse emissions today.
So it all appears to this writer, who apologizes that he isn’t a scientist but doesn’t apologize very much because the scientists should have gotten here decades ago.
There is nothing apparent to prevent a heating equal to that occurring from albedo-effect removal of all Northern Hemisphere ice and snow, PLUS the heating occurring from greenhouse-gas emissions as we may or may not control them.
This writer has an educated guess that this will be 3.5 degrees each from the albedo effect and greenhouse emissions, but will not elaborate for the sake of brevity, and perhaps the climate scientists can be coaxed out of hiding.
Large-scale heating beyond that caused directly by CO2 emissions is now inevitable without promptly beginning to reverse the EXISTING heating and/or EXISTING atmospheric CO2 contamination.
At most the rapidity of the albedo warming and perhaps whether the Antarctic land mass joins the frenzy – can be affected by the amount of CO2 we continue to dump into the atmosphere. And don’t forget – the multi-thousand gigatonne “budget” we gave ourselves no longer exists.
The scientists and the nations need to reconvene and start over. Whether they have the intestinal fortitude to do so, is something else.
There is nothing at all new about what this writer is saying except that the inevitable is now occurring and is undeniable. Things weren’t supposed to get out of hand until we exceeded 2 degrees, a figure settled upon by virtually all the governments and all the “big green” environmental groups.
But there is not and never has been any scientific justification for 2 degrees as our line of safety. Two degrees was a political compromise of the like of “We agree. We’ll only cut half the baby’s head off.” We wanted to buy the fossil fuels, and the industry wanted to sell them, for trillions per year for as long as they could. And so we made the fatal compromise.
NASA scientists were talking about it a decade ago. NASA scientist James Hansen was saying at the time that to “avoid the point of no return” we must “begin to roll back not only the emissions [of carbon dioxide] but also the absolute amount in the atmosphere,” and he suggested a target of 300-350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, 300 ppm being equivalent to 1 degree of warming. Others said we had already reached the point at which the arctic ice could not be restored.
What they were saying — and the nations were ignoring — has now been proven.
How did we get here? It was our own choice. Political compromise. It’s just the way humanity makes its decisions, and always has. And our very own “big green” environmental groups joined.
Political compromise works for running a small community when the decisions aren’t earth-shattering. Decisions about climate change are earth-shattering and we aren’t a small community.
And nobody knows how to make social decisions without political compromise. It’s fine to blame corrupt politicians but we elected them. It is fine to blame capitalist thieves, but we are happy to employ them for trillions of dollars. It’s fine to call for a revolution, but how long will it take?
If we get through this mess, which we could have avoided by cutting the global warming temperature ceiling in half, maybe a little more, we have to remember something. If we survive, we need to reorganize into populations and communities that are small enough and physically powerless enough that political compromise can’t bring us close to destruction of the earth. We have learned that if we can do it, we will do it, sooner or later.
Nicholas C. Arguimbau is a retired lawyer with a physics degree from Harvard and a law degree from UCLA, who lives with a cat and a dog and 40 fruit trees in Western Massachusetts.