The Ghosts of Climate Past, Present and Future: Part 1
Posted on 23 December 2015 by howardlee
The Ghosts of Climate Past, Present and Future: a 3-part seasonal tale
Part 1 - The Ghost of Climate Past
This story is a departure from Skeptical Science’s usual article style, and is offered for your seasonal reading enjoyment. The tale is based loosely on Charles Dickens’ classic tale: “A Christmas Carol,” updated in the context of climate change and told over three episodes. The story and all names and characters portrayed in it are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. The climate references, however, are factual and based on current science, linked to sources for further reading.
Senator Eb Scruggio tapped the slush off his glossy Cratchit-and-Stones shoes as he entered the lobby and shook the snow from his charcoal-gray cashmere overcoat.
“Merry Christmas, Senator!” said the doorman with a respectful nod, “And thank you kindly for the tip this year!”
Eb smiled briefly, entered the elevator, and touched the number for his floor.
His cell phone buzzed – battery low.
As the elevator whirred towards his apartment, he gave silent thanks for his Personal Assistant and her ability to handle all the seasonal details. He found the whole “holiday season” irritating – not because of the commercialization, the plastic spruce and Styrofoam snow, or the incongruous mix of cheesy repeats and violent horror on TV. He spent no time in department stores or watching movies. The saccharine seasonal cheeriness and wasteful charity grated on him, but he pretended otherwise for the sake of good optics. What really irked him was the fact that Congress ground to a halt for Winter Recess.
As the door to his apartment clunked shut, he engaged the deadlock and the bar latch. He hung his coat and suit jacket, kicked-off his shoes, pulled off his tie and poured himself a large bourbon on the rocks.
His cell phone buzzed again – battery critically low.
He sighed, went into his bedroom, and plugged in the charger cable that he kept by his bed.
Charging - 2%.
He swiped the screen to locate his do-not-disturb app, and disabled it before turning the volume up to max. He could not afford to miss this call.
Returning to the living room he noticed a red "4" glowing on his old land-line answering machine in the shadow of the hallway. With one finger hovering over “erase,” he jabbed at the “play” button.
“Hi this is Rachael from cardholder serv – message deleted. Congratu – message deleted. This is Raj from Windows Computer Company. I’m calling about a virus – message deleted. Did you know thousands of seniors like you – message deleted.”
An empty red 0 glowed at him, a gauge of his personal life.
“So much for the government do-not-call list,” he muttered.
He was not surprised, but a vague melancholy settled on his shoulders like wet snow. He had hardly spoken to his daughter since his divorce two years ago, and his ex-wife – forget about it!
His early elections owed much to photos of him with his photogenic wife by his side, but it all came apart when his daughter Emily announced her engagement to a climate scientist. Influential backers began to distance themselves, so he was obliged to put his career first. In reality that had always been the case, and he thought his wife understood this. Apparently not. Anyway, it was for the best. He was now free to focus on his career undistracted by family obligations.
He spoke out against “climate chicken littles,” and made sure climate legislation got derailed.
He invested months in reassuring his backers. He worked the committees, spoke out against “climate chicken littles,” and made sure climate legislation got derailed. While the President was away in Paris for the UN Climate Conference, Eb was constantly on TV mocking efforts to curtail climate change as a: “misguided and costly distraction from the real issues this country faces, like terrorism, jobs, and government healthcare.”
Now he was, once again, a darling of the right. Everything was falling into place: he had picked his campaign manager, located an office for his campaign HQ, sounded out his key backers, and even had a book deal (ghostwritten, of course). He just needed the money to launch his Presidential campaign. It was coming, he was sure, but with strings attached.
Hence the phone call.
He gathered his schedule and briefing papers in one hand, his drink in the other, and sank into his usual chair in front of the TV, clicking the remote to the news and turning the volume down low so that he could hear his cell phone.
“As the House and Senate break for Winter Recess, some liberal activists are crying foul...” said the news anchor in the background as Eb made a quick pass through the stack.
He pulled out a gold-embossed invitation to spend New Year’s Eve with “Tiny” Tim Cochran, the billionaire oil baron. It would be the perfect occasion for his announcement. Placing the invitation to one side, he picked up a stapled printout of some proposed legislation, red pen at the ready.
After several pages the bourbon began to cut-in and his eyelids grew heavy. He found himself reading and rereading the same paragraph until he was woken by somebody calling his name.
Nobody called him that, except for his late mother and only when she was furious! It was family tradition to name the firstborn son after his great-great-great-grandfather from the old country, but he had insisted that everyone call him “Eb” ever since the teasing in elementary school.
“Oi! Ebenezer!” – a distinctly British accent.
Who could that be? Papers cascaded onto the floor as he looked around.
“Are you blind? I’m right in front of you!” said the voice.
An old man with a shock of white hair, dressed in a high-collared shirt and a crumpled old jacket, with a red-and-green woolen scarf around his neck, was waving at him from the TV.
“Yes that’s right, Ebenezer!”
“What the holy f…” blurted Eb as he jumped up from his chair, knocking his glass onto the carpet.
“No need for that young man!” admonished the TV character. “You’ve been a naughty boy, haven’t you?”
“What is this? Are you some NSA intern having a holiday joke? Because if you are, you picked the wrong person!”
“Nope. It says here ‘Senator Ebenezer Scruggio.’ That’s you isn’t it?” As he said that, an old, liver-spotted hand reached out of the TV towards Eb.
“Who are you and how the heck are you doing that?” demanded Eb.
“Isn’t it obvious?” asked the old man, with more than a hint of impatience. “I’m a ghost, Ebenezer! I’m the Ghost of Climate Past!”
“Goddam hackers or whoever you are, I’ll soon put an end to this!”
Eb moved towards the power socket to pull the wire, but he brushed against the old man’s outstretched hand, which grabbed onto his shirt.
“I said, you’ve been a naughty boy!” repeated the old man. “Now I haven’t got all night so just cooperate for once in your oily little life and come with me!” Muttering “Bloody Americans!” under his breath, he tugged sharply at Eb’s shirt.
Eb felt himself falling as if he was on some kind of theme park ride, until he felt the heaviness of deceleration.
The apartment lit up bright white and smeared into nothingness. Eb felt himself falling as if he was on some kind of theme park ride, until he felt the heaviness of deceleration. The white shattered into snowflakes falling from the black of night, as the two characters found themselves in a circle of yellow beneath a hissing gas light.
“Whoa! What just happened?” asked Eb, holding his head, blinking and reeling.
“We took a little trip through space and time,” responded the old man.
“Trip is… right! This dream… it seems so real!” responded Eb watching snowflakes melt on his outstretched palms. “That whiskey must be bad or… something. Heck, even my feet feel cold!”
“Your feet are cold because you are standing in snow and frozen horse manure,” observed the old man.
Eb looked down at his soaked, soiled socks as the mixed aroma of coal smoke and horse dung hit his nostrils. His icy feet were beginning to ache.
Suddenly, a wave of panic swept over him. That call! He had to wake up! He tried pinching his own arm repeatedly.
“Do stop that,” said the old man, sounding like an exasperated kindergarten teacher. “It won’t do you any good. You’ll return when I say you will and not before, so pay attention and this will be over all the quicker for both of us.”
“Return? Where are we?” asked Eb.
“London, December 1843,” responded the old man as he wrapped his scarf around his neck.
“This is crazy!” said Eb. “I need to return… wake up… now! I’m expecting a call!”
“Oh, you’ll get your call alright, don’t you worry about that!” exclaimed the old man. “That’s why you’re here.”
“W-what do you mean?” asked Eb, beginning to shiver.
“Look up there in that window, where the candle burns. That’s your great-great-great-grandfather. We worked together, me and him, in a little bank about half a mile from here. You and he share more than a name, you know. You share a blindness, a myopic obsession that blinds you to the good you can do. He is blinded by money, you - by ambition.”
So his ancestor, the one with the name Eb wore like an albatross, was in that room, just beyond that pane of glass, thought Eb. Some clerical error at Ellis Island had changed the family name to sound Italian when his ancestors arrived in America, but bizarrely they had kept the name “Ebenezer” intact.
“So, am I supposed to get some great-great-great-grandfatherly campaign advice that will carry me to victory?” asked Eb, now rubbing his arms and standing on alternating legs in a vain attempt to keep his feet from freezing.
“No, I just wanted you to get cold, and here was as good a place as any.”
“Yes, seriously. Seriously cold.” The old man held up a hand to cut off Eb’s protestations.
“You see, Ebenezer,” continued the ghost. “It’s always been about the next campaign for you, hasn’t it? But you need to cure that myopia before you make a mistake that will cost the world! For many years now, you have connived with your backers to discredit climate science. You refuse to accept, despite all the evidence, that your world has warmed by 1.8 Fahrenheit degrees since your great-great-great-grandfather Ebenezer’s time. Since then…”
"we’ve been through geologic age after geologic age when the t-temperature was either warmer or colder"
“Look, I know where you are g-going with this, old man,” interrupted Eb, “but we’ve been through geologic age after geologic age when the t-temperature was either warmer or colder. We’ve had t-times when the carbon in the atmosphere’s been higher, big d-deal! It just shows us there’s nothing to worry about - it’s just natural v-variation.”
The phantom seemed agitated by the interruption. He floated around in a circle, muttering. Then he stopped suddenly and leaned in uncomfortably close to Eb’s face, exuding a smell somewhere between old garlic and rotting meat.
“You know what? I’ll give you bloody natural variation! You bloody asked for it!” and with that the old man yanked at Eb’s shirt and the street smeared to white.
Suddenly all about him was a cacophony of birdsong as Eb found himself in the dappled light of woodland. A herd of red deer stared at them as Eb felt the leaf litter under his socks soak up some of their icy wetness.
“This here is your actual natural variation,” said the old man, “and it’s a beautiful thing! You are in England in the year 4,000 BC, and land temperatures are about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer than when you were growing up. It’s warm because at this time the Northern Hemisphere is naturally receiving 9% more solar energy, due to the natural vagaries of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. But the world you see here is already cooling because of that orbit, Ebenezer, and it should still be cooling in your time. If the climate change in your time was due to Earth’s orbit, then your climate would be well on the way to the next ice age, not warming un-naturally!”
A pair of red squirrels scampered along a branch above them.
“Do you hear that?” asked the old man. The distant sound of rhythmic chopping and human voices, singing some kind of song, filtered through the trees. “Those are our ancestors clearing the forest for the beginnings of agriculture. I would show you, but there’s not enough time. You have to get back for that phone call.”
Another tug on Eb’s shirt. The old man was really ticking Eb off, but his words raised Eb’s hopes as the forest melted into white.
His next breath felt like needles in his nose and throat, as the ends of his fingers began to turn white with frostbite.
His next breath felt like needles in his nose and throat, as the ends of his fingers began to turn white with frostbite. An icy wind moaned across a barren white landscape, battering him and making his pant legs flap loudly around his freezing ankles. His hopes of a quick release were dashed.
Eb struggled against the gale on numb feet as the old man yelled above the wind: “This is the Last Glacial Maximum, the last cold extreme of the ice age, 21,000 years before your time. CO2 is down to 200ppm, and the global temperature is 14 Fahrenheit lower than in your great-great-great-grandfather’s time. It’s so cold because Earth’s orbit is giving the northern hemisphere 2% less solar warmth than in your time. Think about it – that’s not very much less than in your time, but your time is unnaturally much warmer,” observed the old man.
Eb could barely hear him through his hands that were trying to keep his ears from freezing.
Another tug sent Eb careening through the void again.
They were now in a grassy meadow with daisies dancing in the cool breeze. Birds flitted to and from a copse of beech trees while butterflies fluttered among the purple saxifrage blooms.
“Greenland in the Eemian interglacial period – 125,000 years ago,” said the old man as the color began to return to Eb’s fingers, ears and nose, which all burned with chilblains.
“In your time the spot we are standing on is under 5,000 feet of ice,” continued the ghost. “It’s Earth’s orbit that makes it warm - CO2 is only at 280ppm, but the north is getting 14% more solar warmth, so it’s about as warm as the world is in your time. Think about it, man! If your time is about as warm as the Eemian, then you should expect about the same amount of ice melt, and Eemian sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than yours.”
Before Eb could respond, the old man gave his shirt another tug. Another frozen nose, low CO2, cold temperature, and low solar contribution. This time 140,000 years ago.
“Are we enjoying the natural variation yet?” yelled the old man sarcastically.
He didn’t wait for a response. Another tug. Another warm interglacial with CO2 and solar values to match, 315,000 year ago.
Another tug. Another cold glacial – 325,000 years ago.
“Enough!” yelled Eb, holding his ears and reeling. “I get it! Enough of the natural variation and lay off the shirt!”
“But do you get it, Ebenezer?”
“Sure, I’m not stupid. Orbital changes made the climate warmer and colder in cycles going back hundreds of thousands of years. I still don’t think that proves anything about climate change in my time.”
“Don’t you see? In your time that natural cycle is broken!” said the old man. “Do pay attention! I told you before that if the climate was still on that cycle then you would be cooling, not warming. Something else is making your climate warm – and that something is CO2. So put away all thoughts of solar variations and orbits – they explain the climate in the couple of million years before your time, but they can’t explain climate change since the industrial revolution!”
Eb didn’t know where or when he was anymore, but the trees looked the same as before. It was tough to argue against the old man, especially after the freeze-thaw yo-yo he had just experienced. He reflexively patted his pocket for his cell phone and winced when he remembered it was charging by his bed.
“Look, old man,” said Eb. “You said your piece. Now, I don’t know how this works but I really need to get back. Like I said, I’m expecting an important call.”
“So, let me see if I understand this,” said the old man. “After everything you have just experienced, you haven’t changed your mind a bit?”
As the old man began to float around in a circle, muttering and shaking his head again, Eb realized he needed to try a different tack if he was going to get out of… whatever this was.
“So what if modern climate change is due to extra CO2?” said Eb. “That’s OK! Most of us would prefer to live in a warm climate. That’s why people go to warm places for vacation! And, as you must already know, CO2 is good for plants!”
"Most of us would prefer to live in a warm climate. That’s why people go to warm places for vacation!"
Eb could not hide a self-satisfied smirk.
“Good for plants? Good for bleedin' plants?! Do you have any idea how silly and misleading that is?” asked the old man. “Yes, if a plant is kept in ideal conditions and you give it more CO2 it will grow more. But climate change creates conditions that are far from ideal for vegetation: heat stress, drought, pests. CO2 fertilization only works if all the other nutrients that plants need, like nitrogen and phosphorous and water, increase just as much as the CO2. In the real world, agriculture does not benefit from climate change, in fact it is severely threatened by it.
“Anyway, how do you come up with such fragrant manure?” demanded the old man.
“Climate experts assure me CO2 is good for the world! It’s not pollution, it’s just part of life,” responded Eb.
“Climate experts my arse!” scoffed the old man. “Your man Tiny Tim and his pals have spent millions on those so-called experts and that Potemkin ‘Office of Conservative Science’ of yours. What utter drivel! They exist just to obfuscate public discussion about climate change, just to give the illusion that it’s still a matter of debate among scientists. It isn’t. He only supports you so that you can keep the Feds off his back so he can keep pumping black gold until he retires. You get his backing and his money in return, without ever a care for the world’s future!”
“What’s wrong with providing a balance against climate scientists who are paid to put their agenda forward?” countered Eb.
“Ebenezer Scruggio,” said the old man, shaking his head. “You’re a fool! This isn’t about balancing opinions. This is about cold, hard facts grounded firmly in evidence. Scientists in your time have amassed decades of that evidence, and it consistently points the finger at human-caused climate change in your time. There’s overwhelming agreement among scientists about that.”
Just then Eb noticed movement in the clearing. Several long-haired, bearded men clothed in loose animal skins were approaching, shouting menacingly, the whites of their terrified eyes prominent beneath pronounced unibrows and low foreheads, wooden javelins poised to strike.
“We’ve outstayed our welcome,” said the old man, and with another tug of the shirt Eb felt himself falling again.
“Welcome to Siberia!” proclaimed the old man, once the spinning stopped and the color had returned to the world.
Eb was struck by the total lack of birdsong. Instead, he heard the intermittent buzz of dragonflies
A warm breeze moaned through the conifers around them, and Eb was struck by the total lack of birdsong. Instead, he heard the intermittent buzz of dragonflies and the faint scratch of bristletails and centipedes crawling among the pine needles. From their hillside vantage point they overlooked a thickly forested plain stretching to the horizon, in the center of which a bay reflected the cloudy sky.
“Old man, I’m fairly sure this isn’t Siberia. You might want to check your… whatever you use.”
“It’s Siberia alright,” countered the ghost. “Siberia in the late Permian. You are standing at a latitude where Greenland is in your time. We’re not very far from the North Pole here.”
Eb knew the Permian was a long time ago in Earth’s past but he couldn’t recall if it was thousands, millions or billions of years ago. What he did recall was his cell phone waiting at his bedside. He opened his mouth to protest, but the old man cut him off.
“Peaceful, isn’t it?” continued the old man. “It’s a shame it has all got to go.”
At that instant Eb heard distant grunts and screeches from unseen animals, and a great rustling in the trees. The ground began to shake and roll to the extent he could barely stand. Branches crashed down around him as he pitched back and forth for a full minute, arms flailing to remain standing.
“Yes indeed, it’s all about to go pear-shaped, or, how would you say it? ‘belly up?’ ” said the old man. “You are about to see what happens to the planet when huge amounts of extra CO2 are added to the atmosphere. Right now CO2 is at about 1,200ppm, and global temperatures are about 70 Fahrenheit, compared to about 57 in the late 20th Century.”
“Wait, how much CO2?” said Eb interrupting. “That’s – what – 3 times modern levels that everyone is making such a fuss about, and yet look! Forests and a pleasant climate! Nothing to worry about!”
“I will forgive you that one ignorance,” said the old man, “because most people get confused by this. It’s the pace of change that’s dangerous, more than the final level of CO2. If the change takes place extremely slowly – I mean over hundreds of thousands of years or longer – life and the oceans adapt just fine. For sure, the climate ends up warmer and sea levels end up higher, but it happens slowly enough for the whole system to stay in balance. But when large emissions are crammed into a few centuries, then the natural processes in the ocean are overwhelmed, the oceans acidify, temperatures jump, and life on Earth suffers. But wait ‘til you see…”
The eruption column grew taller and began to flatten at a high altitude, casting a growing area of land beneath it into blackness punctuated by lightning.
The old man stopped mid-sentence as a dark gray cloud rose in the distance, boiling and cascading ever higher. An arc of white dust radiated along the ground towards them, nearly knocking Eb over as it passed with a deafening boom. The eruption column grew taller and began to flatten at a high altitude, casting a growing area of land beneath it into blackness punctuated by lightning.
“Ok, we’re not going to stand around for millennia,” said the old man. “After all, you’re expecting a call, so we’ll speed to the end result.”
And with that, the world around Eb sped up in a series of disjointed snapshots, like a DVR on fast-forward: a fountain of bright lava… a smoldering plain of black… dense fog drifting… craters billowing smoke and ash like chimneys... a flat expanse of black… yellow lava coursing into lava tunnels… sheets of glossy gray lava building ever higher… towering columns of smoke …
When the world eventually slowed down, the green plain and bay had vanished under a vast expanse of black lava from horizon to horizon. White fumes wafted from craters dotted here and there in the lifeless landscape.
As Eb breathed he gagged.
“That smell!” he exclaimed. “It smells like something died!”
“It has,” replied the old man. “A lot has died over the last 60,000 years. That’s the smell of fish putrefying in acidified, anoxic seas. 90% of species have died out – from pollution, from ocean acidification, and from marine anoxia, from hypercapnia –that’s too much CO2 in the blood - and from heat.”
Sweat was dripping off Eb’s nose and into his eyes. His shirt and pants were already drenched. It was like a sauna!
“There’s about 20 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than in your time,” continued the ghost, “so the climate has warmed massively – and abruptly by geological standards – by 27 Fahrenheit! Tropical latitudes are now typically around 104 Fahrenheit. That’s not just hot, that’s lethally hot! Plants can’t survive these temperatures for long. Heatwaves are now hot enough to damage animal protein - that’s what we would call ‘cooking.’ Even in the sea, it's too hot for most marine animals to survive.”
Eb was finding it difficult to breathe. The old man showed no mercy, and tugged Eb’s shirt again.
They were now on a hill of shattered, reddish rock. An arid valley stretched before them, devoid of life. Here and there a bleached tree stump attested to a greener world before, but now all was reddish brown. And it was incredibly hot.
“You’re back in DC, Ebenezer!” said the old man, “or, at least, where DC will be in about 251.9 million years’ time."
“You’re back in DC, Ebenezer!” said the old man, “or, at least, where DC will be in about 251.9 million years’ time. See how good CO2 has been for plants!” joked the old man gesturing extravagantly to the bare rock that stretched into the horizon.
“Much of the world now looks just like this, Eb, and it will take ten million years for life to recover in the Triassic.”
Dust-devils swirled in the lifeless, shade-less desert valley. A bleached skull from a long-dead beast protruded from the dirt. The heat was unbearable – it reminded Eb of a visit he once made to Death Valley. He had only lasted a couple of minutes before getting back into the air-conditioned car.
Sweat stung his eyes as he began to struggle for breath.
“In your time you are emitting CO2 at a similar pace as those eruptions we saw,” continued the old man, determined to press his point home while Eb was still conscious. “The Permian eruptions eventually emitted much more CO2 over a longer period than humans are ever likely to do, making the end result far more extreme, but you should take little comfort from that!
“The point is,” continued the old man, now inches from Eb’s face, “this is how the Earth works. It has always worked this way, and you can’t expect it to stop working this way when it’s humans pumping CO2 into the atmosphere!”
The heat. The old man’s bad breath. The nausea.
“If you keep burning fossil fuels at the rate you have been, you’ll end up with 1 degree Fahrenheit of global warming each decade before you retire. In the Arctic the rate could be double that. That’s not as extreme as the Permian, but humans, with our dependence on agriculture, infrastructure, economy… we’re more vulnerable than Permian life was.”
“This is how the Earth works. It has always worked this way, and you can’t expect it to stop working this way when it’s humans pumping CO2 into the atmosphere!”
Eb was hyperventilating and loosening his clothing. His head was spinning.
“Heat stroke and hypercapnia,” observed the old man, dispassionately.
Eb felt dizzy. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees in the dirt.
“Old man!” gasped Eb. “Take… me back, I’m… dying here!” said Eb weakly.
“Very well Ebenezer, but mark my words: you will be visited again before your night is done!”
Eb’s heart began to palpitate. White spots appeared before his eyes as the world began to spin and he blacked out.
He was startled to consciousness by applause.
“… and our next contestant on ‘Get Rich Quick’ is Jacob Marley from Bethlehem Pennsylvania,” said the TV.
“Thank God! It was just a nightmare!” said Eb to himself, patting his favorite chair with relief. “It was just a stupid, crazy, bizarre dream!”
He got up from the chair and stumbled, bleary-eyed, into his unlit kitchen to pour himself some water. As he pressed a glass against the lever in the refrigerator door, the dispenser light illuminated his hand covered in red dirt and grit.
“What the…?” said Eb in awful realization.
He reached for the light switch on the wall beside the fridge and summoned the courage to press. Click. The instant brightness made him blink, but sure enough both knees of his suit pants were torn and grubby, and his socks were reduced to brown shreds.
He cursed loudly as icy water overflowed the glass, running down his arm and splashing the stainless steel fridge door.