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Tipping Points: Could the climate collapse?

Posted on 16 October 2019 by Guest Author

If we stop emitting greenhouse gases is that the end of global warming? Not if we've passed a point of no return - a planetary tipping point. And if we're not careful, things could end up even more messy than my skateboarding.

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. Strip away the humor and it's a training film, Mark. We need training to deal with an emerging situation. And without that humor we find no problem with the facts being conveyed, right?

    Search Youtube for "humorous training film" and you'll find scads. Humor captures and maintains attention for many folks, making things that are dull or too scary palatable.  

    For an excellent and fun example, see this article about Southwest Airlines and how they use humor to make cabin briefings into engaging entertaiment while conveying important information— hence being more effective. :-)

    Southwest’s plan to conquer the airline industry, one joke at a time

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  2. Is this what calls “science?” (No wonder there are so many science deniers - in fact, sign me up.)

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  3. Doug - Sorry but I didn't notice any "facts being conveyed."  

    Facts include discussions about probabilities, discontinuities, historical precedents, and generally, what scientists have to say about tipping points.  

    Endless discussions about what "could" happen are useless.  We "could" all die from a meteor collision and not have to worry about climate change.

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  4. Mark, a system always wins. Now, what were you saying about science again?

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  5. Doug -  Thanks for your reply, but I don't understand your comment.

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  6. Excuse me, comment was meant for bozzz.

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  7. OK that's an arguably fair point, Mark. 

    Adam mentions permafrost loss and hence CH4 emissions, loss of albedo from reduced ice cover, and loss of forest productivity and the CO2 capture associated with that. 

    Those are three positive feedbacks which (we're told by experts) may plausibly end up being self-driving and self-cementing.

    Now, it's not Adam's intention or style to inform readers by reciting facts and figures; those are available elsewhere. His intention and style is to build audience engagement, clearly with the objective of conveying a very broad-brush sense of the topics he's covering and presumably igniting some curiosity and concern about the overall problem of climate change. 

    But Adam might well include a list of references for the concepts he treats, as part of the content at the end of his pieces. 

    Why not write him and suggest that? 

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  8. Sorry, but I couldn't watch beyond the 50 second point

    This infantile approach turns me off in a big way - just as does the disruption to peoples' lives that E. Rebellion is causing.

    Small children might be briefly entertained by this video, but treating adults who might be persuaded of the cause like infants is counterproductive.

    Those "funny" preflight videos do the same thing - they MIGHT (not, actually, in my case) have people watch them but the message is lost in the flimflam.

    The stark message "If you inflate your lifejacket BEFORE exiting the aircraft, you will not be able to get to the exit and you WILL drown" may not make for pleasant listening, but has a better chance of being understood than just sitting there wondering how much the airline paid for the actors and bands.

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  9. Doug - Thanks that makes a lot of sense.  By the way, my own opinion is that tipping points are the "real" issue.  Could you (or other readers), provide any references on this topic?

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  10. Matt, try  this reference  for a starting point (2636 citations) and the follow up reference. I am not that fond of the term "tipping point". This article points to what I think are problematic issues with its use.

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  11. I find the video a bit short of detail and long on promoting Climate Adam. Perhaps it's because in getting old and grumpy. Perhaps the video targets young people quite well. But it's probably not going to be a hit with conservative leaning denialists.

    But one way or the other, whats really needed is a more in depth discussion on tipping points because most people will want a couple of examples and an explanation. Scaddenps references look good and are valuable, but are the other extreme and very technical. 

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  12. Scaddenp.  Thanks.  Exactly what I was looking for.

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  13. I'll just offer that watching Fawlty Towers was not only squeamishly amusing but also informative for me in terms of identifying my own Basil characteristics. Indirection is sometimes quite helpful. 

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  14. One should mention Richard Alley's work on abrupt climate change. Also note the above linked PNAS (from 2007 it looks like) mentions:

    “the qualitative change would appear beyond this millennium (e.g.,marinemethanehydrates...”

    but we're already possibly seeing more methane from the arctic as well as other parts of the ocean;

    they also mention permafrost likely being gradual (though they say <100 yrs)

    and of course it's easy to find many journal articles documenting how much faster various things are occurring than expected

    it seems clear, they don't know and won't be scientifically certain until it's likely too late (if it's not already too late... which they don't seem sure of either)

    point being, the idea of scientific methodical certainty is and has been misplaced in some senses... there were clarion calls in the nineteenth century by Darwin and other natural scientists, not about global warming per se, but that if we continued down the industrial (coal burning, forest clearing) path, we'd end the habitable world...

    what was their proof that the world wasn't big enough to handle humans' collective assault? nothing that would pass a sort of vigorous lab experimental approach, rather "look at what has been left..."

    critics of course said the earth would regerate after clear cutting and could handle the smoke from the coal (arrhenius pointed out the CO2 would warm the earth, but being a chemist, and not understanding ecology in any way, assumed more warmth would be good)...

    so here we are again... no, we can't say when and how much methane will be released from the oceans... so far, in the warmer regions, various organisms intercept it, but a few places these have been overwhelmed... sure the yaley climate connection says don't worry about methane release since it would take the shallow arctic oceans warming by, i forget, 5 to 7 C for them to be released... yet we've seen unprecented warm pacific water incursion into the arctic this summer...

    so how long do we have until the permafrost, marine methane and other feedbacks occur? it seems we don't know, and won't know for a while

    so, we're driving 80 mph (sorry i'm amurican) in fog on a plain... someone radios there's a cliff ahead, though they aren't sure how far or how large the drop is

    time for at least a WWII mobilization, better a reorganization of society along democratic lines (e.g., Free Catalonia of the 1930s).

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  15. ilfark2, good points and nicely time lined. This is my take on the same theme: there are numerous possible tipping points and while scientists have some time frames on them and have worked hard to understand them, there are uncertainties and unknowns . Scientists would only need to be dramatically wrong on one of the tipping points for humanity to have a serious problem, because they all have significant implications. And with so many tipping points the possibility of error increases. It all suggests use of the precautionary principle.

    It's about the implications of the risk. You might take a risk if there was uncertainty but the implications were not too serious, but we only have one planet and some form of run away warming or abrupt climate change can't be ruled out. My gut says climate change is serious and I trust my gut. If the science on tipping points is not 100% certain what else have we got but our instincts and subliminal thought? It doesnt make sense to say lack of 100% certainty suggests we do nothing, not when the risks are this high.

    Now what are the costs of mitigation, because if they are so high that they send us back to the stone age, that would not be much use to us. Maybe we would take the risk and ignore the tipping points. But the costs of mitigation will not send us back to the stone age or anywhere near it. So all the evidence favours mitigation and with urgency.

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  16. “…time for at least a WWII mobilization, better a reorganization of society along democratic lines…”

    And that’s precisely the thing you won’t get in the USA until climate-related disaster is seen as imminent. In WWII the federal government seized control of the economy and inducted 7 million young men for the duration. Manufacture of tires, not to say automobiles, was halted, and each household allowed 4 gallons of gas a week amid rationing applied to food and clothes as well. Hardly a democratic remake of society; the war effort was coercive to a degree few Americans have experienced.

    I’m not in the denial camp on climate. I certainly favor the politically feasible conservation and renewables that might limit growth of impacts on the environment. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing emergency action painless. Solar, wind, biodiesel and forestry projects overseas can, in the short run, replace or offset little of the 80 Quads in fossil fuels Americans burn each year, nor are they free of problems brought by their intensive need for land and materials. Zero emissions to be achieved within a decade or two will entail restriction of civilian access to energy and consumer goods even if it hurts the middle classes and poor.

    For such reasons, I’m convinced the climate change movements face a long slog.

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  17. Jesse Baker @16

    Interesting points. I agree getting to net carbon zero in 1 - 2 decades would require a substantial effort and some sacrifices, but not nearly as much as you might think. Lets unpick the numbers a little. Now America normally spends about 3% of gdp per year (total economic output) on the military. During WW2 this peaked at 41% of gdp and averaged about 30% per year over the war period, as below.

    Now lets assume the Paris time frame of 2 degrees by 2050, so 3 decades. Various cost analyses suggest climate mitigation would cost the USA and other similar countries about 3% of gdp (total economic output) per year, spread over 3 decades. This is a huge scale of difference to the war efforts 30% of gdp per year, about ten times less.

    So yes mitigating climate change to get to net zero emissions by 2050 will be challenging and will require some lifestyle changes, but not nearly as much as the war effort, even if the 3% figure is too optimistic. So its improbable that food or energy rationing would be required.

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  18. Thinking of the "Long Now" it's pretty clear that almost (?) everything we need to accomplish for mitigation of climate change is necessary work in any case, even if CO2 were not a factor. 

    And again in terms of Long Now thinking, the faster we work now, the better the long result.

    Unfortunately I'm not sure I'm being cynical in agreeing w/Jesse that our nature as a species is to ignore problems until opening the front door of one's home reveals flames, waves lapping at the stoop, hungry people from somewhere else too blasted for further existence to be possible. This myopia seems part and parcel of our tendency to behave as though the world  ends the day we die. 

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  19. Nigel J, #17: “So yes mitigating climate change to get to net zero emissions by 2050 will be challenging and will require some lifestyle changes, but not nearly as much as the war effort, even if the 3% figure is too optimistic.”

    My example’s extreme, of course; yet I’m old-fashioned. To me, reducing emissions means for the most part not burning the stuff, with CO2 sequestration as an adjunct, and I’ve hoped the US would adopt an energy policy ever since the OPEC embargo brought Nixon’s “Double Nickel” speed limit. At least the absolute growth of fossil fuel consumption has stopped again, as happened during a few 1980s years when we had advances in efficiency.

    I take it the 3% represents a shift from consumption to investment in the new sectors, geothermal, wind, hydro and solar we’d be developing. It would create jobs, but lead to more expensive goods. Any laws we adopt on energy must have broad public support to include, grudging or not, that of conservatives and those in the oil business; else they won’t last through our government’s regular changes of party control. Once law, it’ll have to be enforced through EPA rules or heavy Pigovian taxes. This is what makes me feel it a difficult problem.

    Doug, #18: “…in terms of Long Now thinking, the faster we work now, the better the long result.”

    Another reason I wish we’d taken energy issues seriously when the first bubbles popped. I’m agnostic on the particulars of climate change itself. Models are attempting to separate out a small effect in a complex, dynamic Earth and the numeric forecast ranges shown on graphs today haven’t changed a great deal from those I saw in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Yet adding CO2 to the air—and a full quarter of all this gas is manmade, emitted after my birth—encourages temperature hikes which will continue, due to thermal inertia, for a long time even if the cause is removed. It takes just a Kelvin or so before trouble starts.

    Running such an “experiment” on the only planet we have is foolish. Uncertainty isn’t a license for recklessness. I don’t see why Americans cannot arrive at agreement on the need for curbs.

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  20. “The IPCC report that the Paris agreement based its projections on considered over 1,000 possible scenarios. Of those, only 116 (about 10%) limited warming below 2C. Of those, only 6 kept global warming below 2C without using negative emissions. So roughly 1% of the IPCC’s projected scenarios kept warming below 2C without using negative emissions technology like BECCS. And Kevin Anderson, former head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has pointed out that those 6 lone scenarios showed global carbon emissions peaking in 2010. Which obviously hasn’t happened.
    So from the IPCC’s own report in 2014, we basically have a 1% chance of staying below 2C global warming if we now invent time travel and go back to 2010 to peak our global emissions. And again, you have to stop all growth and go into decline to do that. And long term feedbacks the IPCC largely blows off were ongoing back then too.”


    Will there be 'change'?

    “Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all of human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably.”


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  21. i'd tried to respond the other day, but was having network issues...

    As to "sacrifices", general morale on the domestic front was very high during WWII mobilization (see Brinkley's "End of Reform" among many others)... suicides were at record lows, most of the population was better off in spite of rationing etc. Above all, US citizens felt they were part of an important project.

    Another note about "sacrifices" in the US.

    Much of our emissions come from the unwanted driving of 2 - 7 (e.g. Ford 150) ton blocks of steel and glass in an ellipse every day. The vast majority of the "jobs"  this is done for are materially useless.

    If we decided to re-arrange society to provide food, shelter, healthcare, education and community, we could get rid of these "jobs" everyone hates (see Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs").

    At the least, assuming you want to keep Capitalism, we could have all the nonsense jobs of the Finance, Insurance, Real Estate done from home and convert all those office buildings to housing.

    We could also re-arrange society so everyone could walk to work (if most insisted on keeping these useless sectors around).

    All this could lead to shorter work weeks and not "sacrifices" in the USA.

    Yes it would take planning away from the corporations and put it in the hands of the people, and yes you'd have to have agreement among the voters.

    Anecdotally and in polls, everyone knows this way of doing things is ridiculous. Nobody likes their commute. Many don't even like their houses. Everyone is getting sick of the increasing share spent on insurance, mortgages/rent and health insurance.

    Look at the PCE, and you'll see, people are spending more in the Financispere (that "70% consumption" number includes healthcare, education and insurance), not on consumer durables.

    In terms of political viability, 1919 everyone knew women would never get the vote. In the 1950s, everyone knew African Americans would never go to school with whites; in the 19th century everyone knew children would always work in factories...

    Better still, in 2015 everyone knew Medicare for All was fringe looney, $15 min wage was WAY out there, free college a crazy wish, student loan write offs a no way in hell...

    So we could get to 0 emiisions in 3 years if we decided to, considering WWII mobilization.

    And some people at MIT just published about a new electrochemical CO2 capture mechanism that might be scalable (not sure the time scale though, and it does uses carbon nanotubes which are pretty energy intense), so there may be hope for humans yet.

    And we could do it in a rational but most importantly, democratic fashion.

    But first a large majority of us have to agree that things could be very different once we decide to make it so.

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  22. ilfark2, I would also love to see some of the utopian changes you hope to see someday. If we had a more egalitarian economy, most of us could be 2, 3, or even 5 times better off (economically) than we are now. If these changes happened at the same time we transitioned to a greener economy, then becoming green wouldn't feel like a sacrifice at all.

    We don't want to have to do without abundant energy. However, we have to find practical ways to produce this energy without burning fossil fuels. Our cars and trucks can then be adapted so that they use this cheap energy — in the form of electricity or hydrogen — so that they don't burn fossil fuels, either. How can this happen? All we've got to do is to change all our fees, taxes, and subsidies so that they're the opposite of the way they are today: tax fossil fuels at a higher and higher rate, subsidize green electricity production more and more, and it won't be too many years before coal-generated power is a hundred times more costly than solar, wind, or nuclear power. When coal becomes more and more expensive, people will stop burning it.

    This would pretty much solve power generation and transport. You could apply a similar method to any other aspect of the economy which also needed to be "greened." For example, if cattle production produces methane at an alarming rate, then tax it accordingly. Subsidize fruits and vegetables to make them cheaper. Soon, only the very rich will be eating beef, everyone can afford healthy food, and another part of the economy will also be helping our planet to thrive.

    It's all related to who controls our government and our economy. That's why it's related to the utopian dreams you've had for our future. As long as the very rich are in charge, all they try to do is to enrich and empower themselves still further. They care not a whit for Mother Earth. We already have the technology to solve all our problems — both ecological problems and social problems. I don't know what kind of government or economy would work the best for the people and for the earth. But it's abundantly clear that it would be hard to do worse than the pernicious system we've got now.

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