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Industrial CO2: Relentless warming taskmaster

Posted on 11 September 2010 by Michael Searcy

Natural processes have determined Earth’s climatic history, but human industrial activities have introduced a new mechanism that is driving Earth’s climate future. At any given time, the Earth’s climate is subjected to a myriad of natural influences.  The impact of each influence varies based on the magnitude of the natural change, the duration over which the change occurs, and whether or not that change is part of an overall repeated cycle.

Processes that have historically altered the face of the planet, like cycles in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun or shifts in continental tectonic plates, occur over tens of thousands to millions of years.  While not nearly as dramatic, the influence of solar, ocean, and wind patterns is much more immediate, but these effects generally alternate between warming and cooling over the course of months to decades in relation to their respective cycles.  Volcanic eruptions and impacts from celestial bodies, like asteroids, have a near instantaneous effect, but very few of these one-time events are of sufficient size to impact the global climate for more than a few years.

The industrial contribution of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere differs from its natural counterparts in fundamental ways.  This human influence is happening very rapidly, is not cyclical, and pushes the climate continually and relentlessly in the single direction of warming.

All of these influences, along with additional factors like land use changes, carbon soot and halocarbon emissions, and albedo variations, must be considered cumulatively to determine the net impact.

Over the last 30 years of direct satellite observation of the Earth’s climate, many natural influences including orbital variations, solar and volcanic activity, and oceanic conditions like El Nino (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) have either had no effect or promoted cooling conditions.

Despite these natural oppositions, global temperatures have steadily risen throughout that time.

While natural processes continue to introduce short term variability, the unremitting rise of CO2 from industrial activities has become the dominant factor in determining our planet’s climate now and in the years to come.

This post is the Basic version (written by Michael Searcy) of the skeptic argument "CO2 is not the only driver of climate".

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Nice summation, Michael. People need to think of CO2 as "The Terminator" of forcings, because it operates 24/7/365, and it's effects will never, ever stop in our lifetime. The Yooper
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  2. Daniel: Bingo! This is the aspect of CO2 that I think very few people truly understand -- love is fleeting, but CO2 is forever. Many people think we can cut CO2 emissions and the warming they cause will subside in a few months or a year. To me, the truly scary thing is what happens if we somehow find the political courage to do a quick phase-out of coal. We'll still be dealing with (by then) likely 420 ppm of CO2 (or even more), but we won't have the cooling effect of the sulfate aerosols, so we'll suddenly kick CC into overdrive. We've painted ourselves into a very tight and nasty corner. Unless we figure out the climate equivalent of painting a working door onto the wall at our back (ala countless cartoons), this is going to be a very difficult situation to deal with.
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  3. We will need to invest in carbon capture technologies. Carbon Capture (mother nature style)
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  4. A general comment about all the 'Basic' versions... I think they fail to take into account learning styles of individuals that would be interested. Generally the learning styles are visual, audio and kinesthetic. It may be difficult to cover kinesthetic learning styles, but visual and audio should be easier. I think Alden Griffiths presentations show how it should be done, with graphics and audio commentary. Text is going to reach a limited audience, although it is obviously important. Text partly covers the visual, but has limitations. Hence I wonder if we could have more diagrams and audio?
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  5. The central issue is TIME. Human activity is responsible for emitting CO2 in decades at a rate which would “naturally” occur over tens of thousands of years, speeding up consequential effects, most significantly rising temperature. Rapidly rising temperature amplifies the effect of CO2 emissions by thawing land which releases greenhouse gases, by melting sea ice which reduces albedo by warming and acidifying seawater and by increasing the speed with which glaciers and ice sheets melt. The prognosis is that air and sea temperatures will continue to rise as will sea levels and both will do so with increasing rapidity. The effects are likely to be an increase in the incidence and severity of climate events, loss of fresh water provided by stable glaciers and the erosion and flooding of coastal land. The effects on the human population, I leave to your imagination.
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  6. “The central issue is TIME.” “... so we'll SUDDENLY kick CC into overdrive.” - Full consent Ensemble reconstruction constraints on the global carbon cycle sensitivity to climate, Frank et al. 2010, Nature : „But themagnitudeof theclimate sensitivityof theglobal carboncycle (termed c), and thus of its positive feedback strength, is under debate, giving rise to large uncertainties in global warming projections.” Here we quantify the median c as 7.7 p.p.m.v. CO2 per 6C warming, with a likely range of 1.7–21.4 p.p.m.v. CO2 per 6C. “, “Our results are incompatibly lower (P,0.05) than recent pre-industrial empirical estimates of 40 p.p.m.v. CO2 per 6C (refs 6, 7), and correspondingly suggest 80%LESS [!!!] POTENTIAL AMPLIFICATION OF ONGOING GLOBAL WARMING.” So we have more time than we have - not so long ago - it seemed ... “We will need to invest in carbon capture technologies.” Absolutely not! It is extremely costly and will earn in that only Exxon and other fuels consortium . We need to invest in renewable energy ONLY.
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  7. Arkadiusz Semczyszak Do you think we can supply the worlds population with the energy it needs using only renewables, and do it in time to prevent the worst case scenarios of climate change?
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  8. "he unremitting rise of CO2 from industrial activities has become the dominant factor" I don't know if this is the best thread for discussion of Davis, Caldeira and Matthews in the 10 Sept issue of Science. They've analyzed the carbon-consuming capacities of existing industrial and consumer sectors and done some future projections. We calculated cumulative future emissions of 496 (282 to 701 in lower- and upperbounding scenarios) Gt of CO2 from combustion of fossil fuels by existing infrastructure between 2010 and 2060, forcing mean warming of 1.3C (1.1 to 1.4C) above the pre-industrial era and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 less than 430 ppm. This doesn't square very well with Raupach et al. 2007, especially the figure shown here: Pick your favorite scenario, but we've never turned things over the way the 450ppm stabilization requires. So a mere +1.3C doesn't seem like a reasonable forecast.
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