According to Danish politician Karl Kristian Steincke, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” Steincke was cataloging a comment made in the 1937–38 session of the Danish Parliament (without translation: “Det er vanskeligt at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden”), which if you consider what befell Denmark shortly thereafter, was apt.
It was too good a line to attribute to Danish politicians, so it fell to less rigorous quotists to ascribe to Yogi Berra, or occasionally Mark Twain or Sam Goldwin.
It seems especially apt when we read predictions of what the world will be like at mid-century or later. Truth is, nobody can know — and less now than before. This is not your parents’ future any more.
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At the risk of serving our readers more dollups of doomer porn — after only just telling ourselves to stop doing that because it frightens people — we have been reminded of the Michael Mann hockey stick chart published more than a quarter century ago, recently updated and retweeted by climate scientist Joe Romm.
Romm says that historically,
[R]ecord CO2 levels are accompanied by record temperatures and record sea level rise. We haven’t hit the temperature levels we can expect from current CO2 levels, and by the time we do, CO2 levels will be even higher. Sea level rise can take even longer to catch up but the latest science says we are headed towards worst-case scenario levels, 3 to 6 feet (or more), by century’s end.
But now CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.
While man-made emissions may have peaked in 2014 and, following the wave of national pledges of the Paris Agreement (and a deepening global recession), are starting to slightly decline now, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.
Monthly levels of heat-trapping CO2 hit nearly 410 parts per million (ppm) in May. How do we explain that? Only one way. What were once natural sinks have become sources, as CO2 reservoirs trapped in permafrost, ocean clathrates, forests and soils heat up and start to release their stores.
While man-made carbon additions actually declined slightly in 2015–2016 according to official data (admittedly an inexact accounting because fracking sources are still undertabulated and military departments keep theirs secret), Keeling’s Mauna Loa data for 2015 and 2016 showed the two biggest annual jumps in actual atmospheric CO2 levels.
Has the clathrate gun fired? Its too soon to say.
Weeds alert! We are about to follow a rabbit trail into the briar patch of recent reports.
Methane hydrate is likely undergoing dissociation now on global upper continental slopes and on continental shelves that ring the Arctic Ocean.
Rachael James and 12 co-authors, writing for the J. of Limnology and Oceanography in Nov 2016, Effects of climate change on methane emissions from seafloor sediments in the Arctic Ocean: A review (Volume 61, Issue S1, Pages S283–S299), concluded that the present scientific consensus converges on pegging methane stored in gas hydrates at a few hundred gigatons. This is high by US Geological Survey standards, but an order of magnitude below pegs by Arctic Methane Emergency Group and Professor Guy McPherson.
If the consensus view of total reserve is a few hundred Gt spread over billions of hectares of cold regions and yet Near-Term-Human-Extinction proponents keep repeating the possibility for a 50 Gt burp, bringing death to our species within this decade, they are really stretching the truth. Its a vivid yarn not backed by evidence.
From May 3 to May 11, 2017, the R/V Hugh R. Sharp manned by British Geological Survey with support from the USGS and NOAA went on expedition to explore seafloor methane seeps on the northern U.S. Atlantic margin. Their data is not in yet, but very soon we shall get to hear what they say.
Ruppel and Kessler, writing for Reviews of Geophysics, Volume 55, Issue 1 Pages 126–168, March 2017 write:
Many factors — the depth of the gas hydrates in sediments, strong sediment and water column sinks, and the inability of bubbles emitted at the seafloor to deliver methane to the sea-air interface in most cases — mitigate the impact of gas hydrate dissociation on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations though. There is no conclusive proof that hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now….
We are less sanguine about that statement also. Hydrate-derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now. There are YouTube videos of it being ignited out of holes in frozen lakes. In some places people are brewing morning coffee that way. It is a question of volume, and whether there is enough to explain the gap between our current emissions slowdown and the Scripps readings of 410 ppm.
The most revealing of Romm’s charts was, for us, this one from Yale360, to which we have added a few labels for clarity:
This chart dovetails very neatly with news accounts of a discovery of fossil skulls in Morocco, pushing back the date of homo sapiens’ appearance in Africa to 300,000 years B.P.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelle and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
“We used to think that there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in East Africa, but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago. Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa,” study author Jean-Jacques Hublin said in a statement.
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Romm sums it up:
“CO2 levels have surpassed those seen not just during modern civilization, but during all of human evolution. Indeed, current levels haven’t been seen for many millions of years.”
By adding more labels to the Yale360 chart, we can date the appearance of our bipedal, hominid-like ancestors to a recent point along the timeline when climate — and particularly the weather in Northern African savannahs — went from considerably warmer and wetter to highly variable but within a hospitable range (180–280 ppm CO2 and plus or minus 2 degrees C). That describes the period 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. Then, suddenly in geological terms, 11,700 years ago the last glacial maximum passed and in rushed the extremely comfortable and stable Holocene, that flat blue line across the chart. For as long as we have had stomachs and skeletons, we have never existed outside a 180-280 ppm world.
Humans looking much the same as today’s took up residence in every corner of the world. In what is to biological evolution the blink of an eye, they built great cities, sailed across vast oceans, forged steel, split the atom, sequenced their own genome, and landed travelers on the Moon and returned them safely back to Earth. It took some two billion years to create thousands of minerals during the Great Oxidation Event, but we humans added hundreds of thousands in just the short time since the industrial revolution.
Even if sea levels rise 300 feet and cover coastal cities, those minerals will still be visible in the sedimentary record. That’s because landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian will collapse into piles of rubble — signatures that are later preserved as highly unusual lens-shaped pockets underground, distinct from their surroundings in both shape and minerals. The Washington Monument, for example, will eventually be a lens-shaped pocket composed of limestone where no other limestone is found. And the pocket that was once the Smithsonian will contain so many rare minerals that they could not possibly have formed so close together in nature. To boot, they will be surrounded by the vast array of the man-made minerals we use every day.
And there, at a glance, is the problem confronting futurists. Most assume that even if the worst happens and seas rise 300 feet or nuclear bombs descend from the heavens, humans will persist as they always have and civilization will recover, in the fullness of time. We wonder.
In that same article from Scientific American, Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, says of the mineral divergence, “One of the most distinctive vertical lines on the graph is the growth of mineral species… It’s one of the most striking changes.”
His choice of words is insightful:
There is nothing at all like this in the geology of the past 4.5 billion years on Earth,” Zalasiewicz says. “It is tragically different.”
There is a change unfolding, and the way it is headed now is profoundly tragic. While it is not too late to reverse climate change, the momentum already gathered suggests that recovery will be a slow process even if we could apply the full potential for human social organization to the task — and we are, by no means, doing that now.
We enjoy romps through science fiction, even fantastical retrofutures like John Michael Greer’s steampunk Retrotopia or James Howard Kunstler’s nostalgic World Made By Hand series, but realistically, when we step out to inhale the brilliant clean air on a beautiful new day, we do so with a sense of foreboding that will not be shaken off so easily.
There is a ray of hope coming from another chart. This one is a chart of opinion in the United States about who thinks imposing more regulation on coal burning would be a good idea. The darker counties are for more regulation, the lighter counties for less. As expected, many of the old coal towns are centers of light. The surprise is where dark pockets are found in new and unexpected corners of the map.
We expect to find intelligent responses to climate change in the over-educated northeast, or liberal pockets around Austin, Albuquerque, Boulder or the Left Coast. We don’t usually expect it in South Wisconsin, West Central Mississippi, Alabama and Southeast South Carolina, the border towns of the Southwest, Las Vegas and Miami-Dade. So what is that about?
We would guess it might have to do with the weather. If that is so, there is plenty more weather just ahead.
Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
— Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin