Heading off the beaten track...

Heading off the beaten track…

The picture above[1] shows the latest estimated volume of arctic sea ice in March, 2015. The red line is 2015, and it looks like it is heading below the 2010 maximum. This is a disturbing trend because 2014 had a very high minimum, but the March maximum may well be very low. We know that 2014 was the first or second hottest year on record, and January and February this year were very warm. Even a cursory look at the Polar Science Center website reveals the very real possibility that we are heading towards another year of very low arctic sea ice extent, which will mean more flooding in the UK and Europe, and another crazy winter in north east America.

Destructive beauty

Destructive beauty

At the same time as the sea ice is struggling to reach a decent maximum, and thinning out every year, the Pacific appears to be entering a new era of vicious storms. The picture above[2] shows four tropical storms or cyclones generating around Australia simultaneously. One is cyclone Pam, which subsequently laid waste to Vanuatu (the emergency response is underway as I write this).

Science is having trouble keeping up with the pace of change that global warming is forcing on the planet. There is no scientific consensus on the role of global warming in typhoons and hurricanes, no solid understanding of where the arctic is heading, no established climate models that can understand the huge drought that is slowly consuming California, and only suspicions about the relationship between Sao Paulo’s deep water problems and Amazonian deforestation, but the inherent conservatism of the scientific process is no reason for us lay observers not to draw the obvious conclusion: Global warming is here, and it is wreaking havoc on our planet as we stand by and watch. Where is our planet heading? Or more relevantly, where is our reckless disrespect for the planet taking us?


As these portents unfold, today I read an article at Lawyers, Guns and Money describing a new phenomenon of “ecooptimism.” Apparently Al Gore has written an article arguing that we may be turning the corner in our response to AGW, because lots of solar panels are being installed; apparently Andrew Revkin gave a talk last year where he said that everything was going to be okay. Apparently Naomi Klein thinks we are able to find a way out of the worst problems that our planet is heading towards. I guess people think that recent agreements between China and the USA, action in the USA on power station standards, and China’s independent decisions to limit its coal use, are signs that we have turned a corner.

Another strain of ecooptimism on the part of economists like Nicholas Stern, decision makers and some of the major international bodies (such as the IMF) holds that even though things are a bit ragged right now, we still have time to reverse the situation by implementing some basic policies, and we can prevent further warming above the 2C “guardrail” without causing major damage to world economic growth. Under this form of optimism, even though we have delayed up until now, moderate changes in the next few years will still be sufficient to prevent major harm to either the environment or the global economy and growth opportunities for poor countries. This view of the global warming challenge holds that it is a serious threat to human civilization, but we can avert the collapse of modern society by imposing a moderate tax regime.

Should I be an ecooptimist? I think not, because these people are deeply wrong. They are ignoring the damage we have already done, misunderstanding how we need to think about the causes, and ignoring the powerful momentum of the climate system.

Ignoring the damage done

What is happening now in the arctic is not a coincidence: global warming is already destroying our planet. The damage being done by the collapse of the arctic sea ice is profound and widespread, and goes well beyond the possibility of polar bear extinction. The ridiculously resilient ridge driving California’s drought is almost certainly related to the collapse of the ice, as are the crazy winters in the eastern USA and the extreme rains in the UK. But California’s drought is also exarcebated by higher surface temperatures, reductions in winter snowfall and the role of unseasonally warm rains in destroying the snowpack that supports summer water reserves. Further south, Sao Paulo’s extreme drought is a response to deforestation (which is also driving global warming) and increasing temperatures. These two droughts alone threaten something like 40 million people in two of the world’s biggest economies, but no one has a serious plan to reverse either. And in the case of Sao Paulo, adaptation is impossible – while Californians, if they act now, could build a desalination plant, Sao Paulo is inland and its choices have essentially already run out. Of course American politics is so stupid that California won’t build a desalination plant until its water levels are so low that it doesn’t have enough water to generate the power that the plant needs …

Optimism about our future ignores that our future has already been changed by the damage we have already done.

Misunderstanding the causes

Somewhat ironically, economists are very good at confusing budgets and flows. When discussing national debts and tax burdens, mainstream economists have a tendency to think about the total national debt and current interest rates, rather than the amount of the debt coming due at any time, and the rate of change of interest payments. When thinking about global warming, they seem to focus on the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon rather than the total amount we are allowed to emit and have emitted. Under this way of thinking, it’s sufficient to reduce the rate of increase of carbon dioxide emissions – you just need to get them lower, but not necessarily to zero or negative. But this is completely wrong: when we make any policy about mitigating future global warming, we need to think about the total allowable carbon emissions, historical and future, and the rate of emissions is only relevant in as much as it determines how quickly we need to go carbon negative. When one thinks about the carbon budget, rather than carbon emission rates, then a carbon tax is simply a temporary policy to reduce emission rates so that we can buy time to achieve our real goal, which is hitting zero carbon emissions before we hit the budget. If a policy has a limit to how much it can reduce rates of emission – as most carbon taxes have been shown to have – then they are necessarily temporary policies. But most mainstream economists think that we can achieve our goals through only a carbon tax and a bit of minor regulation. They see reducing the rate of emission as the end goal, rather than staying within a carbon budget. They never go that extra step to ask – once we have dealt with the low-hanging fruit (coal-fired power emissions) how are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions?

How are we going to clean up the rest of the emissions? Cement-making, international air travel and shipping will probably be carbon-intensive for the foreseeable future. So what are we going to do? If your response is “carbon capture and storage,” you don’t have a solution.

Ignoring the momentum in the system

We already have a certain amount of warming built into the system. Due to feedbacks and the dynamics of the climate system, warming and its effects will continue to propagate after carbon dioxide emissions stop. This means that even if we could wave a magic wand that stopped all emissions tomorrow, the effects of those emissions on the biosphere through phenomena such as glacier melt, desertification, sea ice melt and storm intensity will continue to worsen for some time to come, and the planet will continue to warm a little more. Whatever effects we are seeing now from warming are going to get worse and then linger even if we stop emissions tomorrow. What we are seeing happening now is not the worst possible outcome of our best possible policy response – it is only the beginning. Practically, even if US and Chinese policy-makers have an epiphany tomorrow it will be 10 years before we get a really effective climate policy in place, 20 years before we can get carbon zero. That means we have 20 years of worsening warming, and beyond that an unspecified period of further warming, and beyond that period a further unspecified period of time when the effects of that warming propagate. Sea level rise may lag warming by years, which means that even if we act fast to get carbon zero in 20 years, sea level rise may worsen for 10 or 20 years after that. Arctic sea ice melt is obviously very responsive to warming, but we are only seeing the start of it – the effects of warming will continue to worsen the ice melt for years after the warming stops.

The practical effects of our stupidity

What this means in practice is that the arctic ecosystem is doomed. If anyone believes that another 20 years of warming are going to leave any appreciable ice in the arctic then they are very foolish. A collapse in this system means the near-extinction of a wide range of animals including polar bears, major changes to the jet stream with potentially catastrophic effects on northern Europe and America (including possible widespread cooling), the worsening of drought in California and massive changes in the Siberian ecosystem. Even putting aside potentially fatal methane releases from the sub-arctic, this is going to lead to a world we alive today do not recognize. It may also lead to the collapse of fisheries across the Pacific and Atlantic, depending on how major fish species respond to the loss of plankton and apex predators. The Pacific islands are doomed, of course, because they will run out of fresh water long before they sink beneath the waves, and low-lying Bangladesh is going to see widespread inundation with huge human movements. Pacific storm seasons will get far worse and much of the currently-inhabited coastal property of the eastern USA will have to be abandoned. The cost in flood defense and storm protection for cities like New York will be staggering. Water and food security in the Himalayan catchments, North Africa and Australia will become precarious, and cycles of flooding and drought in places as diverse as the UK and Australia will become much more extreme.

All of this is locked in, even under the best possible policy future.


There are people born today who are going to come of age in a world where the environment is unrecognizable compared to that which most of the human species has become used to. Some 20 – 40 years from now our children and their children will grow up into a world that recognizes our generation as the greatest criminals in the history of the human species. They will look on the devastation we have wrought and their anger will be deep and powerful, especially when they see the way that so many of our generation deliberately and wilfully ignored what was coming, or even made policy decisions that would worsen it. They will look on politicians like Australia’s Tony Abbott, who abolished a carbon price while bleating about “intergenerational debt” with deep scorn, and they will look on people who voted for these criminals as selfish clowns. This generation will also face a future far more precarious than anything we can imagine, because the world will still be warming and they will have to make not only deep cuts to their carbon emissions, but difficult and dangerous decisions about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while dealing with food insecurity and natural disasters on a scale we can’t imagine. Our generation thinks that debates about carbon pricing are difficult; our children’s children will be arguing about whether to ban air travel and the steel industry.

This generation will respond to these challenges with political movements that live up to all the worst claims that conservatives make about the modern environmental movement. For example, because of the corruption and stupidity of current politicians in America, our children’s children will face a world without effective antibiotics. They will also need to reduce carbon emissions radically. The simple solution to both of these problems will be to ban meat eating or to allow only free range organic meat, making the worst nightmare vision of conservative critics of environmentalists and hippies into a reality. Maybe by then there will be new antibiotics that aren’t affected by the stupidity of the meat industry, but it’s highly unlikely that there will be a solution to the industry’s carbon emissions, and our children’s children will not be in a position where half solutions are acceptable.

Unless we act now, this is the world we will grow old in. I see no reason for ecooptimism, and I think that the people expressing optimism on the basis of partial technological solutions, or the comfort of easy first steps like a carbon tax, are fooling themselves if they think that we as a species are going to pull through this problem with such a simple and easy response. This is no time for optimism, but for a society-wide effort, at the same level as was required in world war 2 to eliminate fascism. If we don’t make that effort now, we will all be ecofascists 20 years from now.

There will be no denialists and no ecooptimists in that future.

fn1: Taken from the Polar Science Center

fn2: Taken from the hotwhopper blog