In September 2012 NASA climate scientist James Hansen declared current reality a "planetary emergency." As Prof. David Barber from the University of Manitoba clarifies, "The [Arctic] thaw this year broke all the records that we had previous to this and it didn't just break them, it smashed them." So why isn't the mainstream press covering this as a big story? "It's hard for the public to realize," Hansen said, "because they stick their head out the window and don't see much going on" (and maybe the press doesn't want to be assailed by the powers that be who, for the most part, own them). Thankfully, some people are noticing, as Bill McKibben's recent [August] Rolling Stone article, Global Warming's Terrifying New Math
has gone viral (see Earth Island Journal
The 'Terrifying Math' is five pages long, far exceeding the declarative paragraph limits of today's sound-bite conditioned minds. So let's boil it down to three numbers as a public service.
But first, in recent news:
1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit: George Bush attends, UN environmental summit accomplished nothing.
2012 Rio+20 Earth summit: Obama doesn't attend, USA and China (who together emit 40% of planetary carbon) have no plans to limit carbon emissions; UN summit accomplishes nothing.
The First Number: 2° Celsius
A rather dated scientific best guess (wild-ass?) was that average global temperature could increase two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and the world as we know it would probably not come to an end. So far (2012) we have merely seen a 0.8 degree increase and the consequences have far exceeded those most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone opening up vast new areas for oil exploration—thawing permafrost releasing gigatons of methane that is a far better greenhouse gas than CO2, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, the atmosphere over the now warmer oceans is five percent wetter all the better for huricanes and devastating floods...). So 2 degrees is looking insanely terrifying, and reality-based scientists are now thinking a 1 degree increase is too much. Realistically expect a 6 plus degree Celsius increase (11+ Fahrenheit) making the future look like a bad SF novel.
The Second Number: 565 Gigatons
Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below the two degree increase. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)
But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're in effect three-quarters of the way to the probably too high two-degree max target.
The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons
Be afraid. Be very afraid. This number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies and countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. It is 5 times the second number above. The proven reserves are currently worth about 27 trillion dollars. Will Big Carbon stop (or be stopped) at 565 gigatons (worth $7 trillion) and leave the rest ($20 trillion) unburned in the ground? If so, why is Exxon alone currently spending 100 million dollars per day looking for additional gigatons? (Spending vastly more per day than it costs to corrupt officials on all levels around the world per year.) If Big Carbon is wildly successful and doubles known fossil-fuel reserves, the laughable 565 gigaton limit will be exceeded by an order of magnitude. Noticeable changes may follow, making life difficult for diehard global warming deniers.
Big Carbon holds the power to dramatically change the physics and chemistry of our planet. They're planning to use it (as it would be unprofitable not to). We're letting them and likely will continue to do so. Like it or not, we're all in this together. Tell your grandchildren to say goodbye to the Holocene and that they are likely to live in interesting times.
But say that 'this too shall pass away', and probably quickly. The next epoch may well be another ice age (deep ocean currents slow, heat is not transported to the poles, they freeze, the white stuff moves towards the equator reflecting more and more heat (albedo increases), Earth gets colder...). Even if we liberate the last remaining drop of fossil-fuel, there are limits, and as the gigatons burned diminish, the Holocene will give way to whatever the survivors care to call it.
In the long run (5 billion years?), no one will care. Count on it. But in the near future....
Support this site: Visit our Zazzle store featuring ultra hi-res images of artworks, Hubble/ESA/NASA space images, Mandelbrot fractals, maps and more. Images up to 525 megapixels allow for fine printing at the largest sizes. Give a fine print as a gift that could hang around for a hundred years or more.