Sunday, August 7, 2016

How long do we have until we must act on climate change?

Spoiler alert...the answer is both "no time left at all" and "however long it takes."

I am going to try to untangle the numbers that climate scientists and journalists throw around a bit, the very numbers that confused the heck out of me when I started to look seriously at climate change, and confuse many folks still.

First, let's start with all this 1C, 1.5C and 2C warming.  What exactly does that all mean? That means, if you average together all the temperatures around the surface of the globe before 1880, and you compare them to the average global temperatures between 2006 and today, they are warmer today.  Depending on which years you choose (2000-2010, 2005-2015, 2006-2016), our current warming is about 1C or 1.8F.  (This should not be confused with the more terrifying numbers of the warming we have seen when we average only January through July of 2016.  Those amount to 1.38C warming.  This is, we hope, a particularly high number because El Nino is taking extra stored heat out of the ocean and bringing it to the surface right now.  Keep in mind that even in that context, 1.38C is extremely high and should alarm everyone.)

In Paris, in December, almost 200 nations agreed that we need to limit warming to under 2C and as close to 1.5C as possible.  Why?  Well, the scientists are pretty clear that beyond 1.5C warming means utter disruption and severe devastation.  Island nations disappear, coral reef ecosystems cease to be (and the food that they provide for millions of people), extreme weather intensifies, water supplies disappear for many people, food crop yields drop.  We begin to see impacts that will themselves certainly bring greater warming (called a positive feedback).

IPCC's projections of damage at varying levels of warming

That warming is the result of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere up until about 40 years ago.  Keep in mind that greenhouse gases do not make heat.  They trap it like a blanket.  When you are cold in the winter, and you put a blanket on, it takes a while for the heat you are producing to build up, trapped by the blanket, to make you feel warm.  The same is true with global warming, except the heat source is the sun.  We are on a delay and will continue to warm even if we stop burning fossil fuels today.  Stop completely.  We will still warm for another 40 years.  We have "locked in" at least 1.5C warming (2.7F).

That makes it sound like we need to stop burning fossil fuels today.  Like, why am I typing this out on a computer if it is this urgent, today?  Even James Hansen, who arguably understands the urgency as well as anyone on the planet, is using fossil fuels.  Why do people who get the urgency keep saying, we have to cut emissions to zero by 2050?  Why not by tomorrow?

What gives?

Well, here is where the sociopolitical realities meet the physical realities.  The latter is immutable.  The former?  Only stubbornly slowly mutable.

No one is going to turn off the energy.  This isn't some demonstration of humanity's evil side.  Our technologies are things we rightly think should be accessible to the poor, who do not yet have it.  We don't see energy as an evil luxury of wealthy nations that the poorest are noble to go without.  Just consider hospitals and refrigeration alone.  These are not evil things.  And no politician is willing to tell a populace that they must go without them.  I would say, understandably.  Just the simplest example:  we travel to our jobs, where we earn money to care for our children, those same children we are endangering with warming.

The very values that would make us cut emissions are often the very values that drive us to continue to use fossil fuels.  

Here is the beautiful thing:  we could continue to use energy without causing warming.  Everyone should, at this point, agree that is what we need to do.  Continue to refrigerate, heat, cool, drive, but without carbon emissions.

We have the technology to decarbonize our energy systems.  The tools we have available for electricity are solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear.  Transport, home heating and cooling, and much of our industry can convert to electricity.  Agriculture can be done in a way that minimizes fertilizers and reduces meat consumption.  Almost all industry can be carbon free.  (There are some exceptions, and R&D into things like cement, a source of high carbon emissions, are essential).

We have the technology and means to cut almost to zero emissions now without halting all modern civilization.

Turning off technology is not an answer anyone can or will choose.  But decarbonization is.

BUT here is the thorny part.  We can't just turn off gas, oil and coal tonight and wake tomorrow and turn on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear.  We can't just park our internal combustion engine cars tonight and drive off in EVs tomorrow.

It takes time and money to build the infrastructure.  That's right.  This is basically a question of time and money.

People say we must ban fracking.  I am all for ending fracking.  But to do that, we have to have something to replace it.  Solar and wind are excellent.  But they require sufficient storage and transmission.  (If those are not sufficient, then, when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, we use gas, which can be turned on and off easily, called "dispatchable.")  Thankfully, Clinton has plans to build up our electrical grid and our energy storage, which will, in fact, permit us to end gas use as a necessary complement to renewables.  But that takes time.

People say we must ban coal.  Coal produces more emissions than any other fossil fuel.  So it is rightly the first to go.  Because we don't have the infrastructure for transmission and storage to complement renewables built yet, when coal plants are shut down, they are often converted into gas plants.  The option?  No energy for the very families we are trying to protect from the ravages of climate change.  So gas comes online as we end coal.  Because gas has lower emissions, we have seen it as a step forward, albeit one rife with problems, not the least of which is fugitive methane.  (Keep in mind, this has been primarily driven by market, simply because gas is so cheap, coal couldn't compete).

People say we must ban nuclear.  This makes no sense to me.  Nuclear energy produces nearly zero carbon emissions.  Keeping our current plants running gives us one less source of energy likely to end up replaced by gas.

People say we must build solar and wind.  Absolutely.  ABSOLUTELY.  But these are intermittent.  Alone, they leave people in the dark if the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.  So as we push for renewables, we must also push for a national grid that can move the energy from where the sun shines or wind blows to where it does not, and we must also push for storage like batteries and pumped hydro to keep from when the sun and wind are productive to when they are not.

And we must push for the infrastructure necessary for transport.  Charging stations for electric vehicles, for example.

This all takes time and money.

So here is the bottom line.  We are not going to avoid 1.5C.  We won't.  We likely won't avoid 2C.  (Heck, discussion of staying under 2C was all but given up a few years ago, before Paris gave us newfound hope).  When the nations met in Paris in December, they each pledged to make changes that will allow us to avoid the 4C we are headed toward, and come in around 3C.  They agreed they would work to pledge more each five years, to "ratchet up" efforts.  Our ultimate warming is a moving target.

And THAT is what we need to take away.  Our ultimate warming is a moving target.  Our job is to get it to move as low as possible by building the infrastructure we need today.

We are now, finally, talking about building the very infrastructure we need to begin decarbonizing. (Hillary Clinton's plans incorporate many of these measures). We must continue to push for that infrastructure:  grid, storage, solar, wind, nuclear, EVs, efficiency, and, yes, lifestyle changes.  But we cannot stop to call our desire to raise our children with modern technology evil.  We must continue to value our children's welfare by working as quickly as we can toward cutting emissions.  At this moment, that simply means taking the first steps, and knowing we will be urging more after those first steps are taken.  And accept that we are chasing a moving target.

Infrastructure changes like those that Clinton is proposing will help move that target in the right direction.  And legislative actions like a price on carbon, brought by a progressive voting bloc in Congress, will help speed its movement in that right direction.

Your vote this November may be the single most important action you can take on climate change.  Not because we have no time left, but because we have this time left.


  1. Very articulate and cogent analysis!

  2. Great blog, you get to the crux of the issue very clearly, thank you. Climate system inertia, like sociopolitical inertia, is a complex issue that has been on my mind. You seem to indicate above that we are now feeling the effects of CO2 from about 40 years ago, am I reading that correctly?

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for the request for clarification. As we discussed on my Facebook post of this blog, the 40 year mark represents when about 60% of warming will be felt, with the 10 year mark being the point when we start to really feel the effects. I repost the link here for those that may have similar questions.
      "A paper by James Hansen and others [iii] estimates the time required for 60% of global warming to take place in response to increased emissions to be in the range of 25 to 50 years. The mid-point of this is 37.5 which I have rounded to 40 years."


      "The estimate of 40 years for climate lag, the time between the cause (increased greenhouse gas emissions) and the effect (increased temperatures), has profound negative consequences for humanity. However, if governments can find the will to act, there are positive consequences as well.

      With 40 years between cause and effect, it means that average temperatures of the last decade are a result of what we were thoughtlessly putting into the air in the 1960’s. It also means that the true impact of our emissions over the last decade will not be felt until the 2040’s. This thought should send a chill down your spine!"

  3. Claire, I really appreciate how well you connect the dots among these complicated details in accessible language. One thing I would add to your comment about these changes requiring time and money is that they will also require significant additional resources (metal, etc), each with their own environmental footprint. I have long wondered whether anyone is doing this accounting in any broader way (i.e. carbon + water + needed = total environmental footprint). Do you know if this is being done by anyone?

    1. Thank you or reading and taking the time to comment.

      You raise an absolutely essential point. While I have read some on EROI, carbon and other environmental destruction concerns in the resource extraction, I have mainly seen them raised within a discussion of entrenched interests in either opposing nuclear or supporting it.

      It can be very challenging to find discourse on it that is balanced and helpful.

      If I find the hard data you are talking about, I will share it back to you.

  4. It's helpful to be brought up to speed by someone who has done the deep digging into the science, politics, and economics and can relate the facts without hyperbole.

    There are so many pieces to this, whether we are looking at how we got into this mess or how to get out of it. One clear takeaway is that blame is, for the most part, both unhelpful and hypocritical. As you point out, we all still drive, fly, heat our homes, cook, and chill our chablis; that should give us a sense of humility as we approach the question of responsibility for both the mess and the solutions.

    As for solutions, I agree that nuclear needs to be on the table – mostly because I've read your other posts on the topic. Additionally, there may be some merit to agricultural methods that increase carbon sequestration, and tree-planting, yes, reducing meat consumption. . .

    It's a good article that precipitates a desire for a wide-ranging and lengthy conversation. :-) (In other words, I'll stop now.) Thanks.

    1. Thank you, John. It has precipitated a fair amount of discussion on Facebook. It has really brought to the fore the fear we all carry of the horrible suffering we have already locked in. A sense of hopelessness that often falls away as doomerism.

      We must must must always remember that doomerism is really a belief that all that is left to save is unworthy of bothering to save. And we know that just isn't true. There is a lot left to save. What is truly terrifying is not that there is nothing left to save, but that there is great suffering to rail against.

    2. Doomerism is also full of hubris: we don't know what the future holds, even in the broad strokes. Acting as if we do know in sufficient detail that it can affect our current actions is a cop out. IMHO. Anyone who does not know that, for many in the world at any given time, life IS suffering – whether because of early climate change or other factors (was, disease, other four horsemen stuff) – is entirely too sheltered.

      The only question worth asking is, is there anything in this world that you love enough to fight for? If the answer is yes, then get to work.

  5. Thanks, Claire! I'm catching up on my online work, and I'm glad to have found this discussion. A couple of points:

    I look more for a dovetailing of scientists' estimates of where we are at on the timeline, and of what the points on the timeline into the future actually are. In my conversation with Dr. Don Wilhite broadcast on the Earth To Lincoln radio show, he spoke of the time after we stop burning fossil fuels as "four or five decades of continued rising temperatures, followed by four or five decades of relative stability," which is compatible with your estimates. (That can be heard at, May 5, 2016)

  6. The other point is that while the conversion of the electricity supply system is decidedly non-trivial, we have already begun the process. Storage will be good, but we are already solving some of the cluster of issues via network solutions; yes, going further will require more transmission, but that is old hat.

    In fact we need very little that is new, technologically. What we need is the political will to act. I'm pondering Bill McKibben's adoption of the "WWII-like" mobilization metaphor, and I'm liking it. It is a positive message, with the added plus that it is what we actually need!

    I'll leave you with a couple links:, which is to a study based in the real world - four years of hourly data in one of the most important electricity regions in the USA.
    OK, so two *more* from the Southwest Power Pool, which runs from the North Dakota border with Canada down to parts of North Texas: shows - IN REAL TIME - how well the grid operators are doing at predicting and coordinating various forms of electricity generation. shows the generation mix, again in real time. I have seen wind up to 40%, although right now it is only 5%.

    Thanks again, Clair!

  7. I’m frustrated by your blog because I think it represents a mistaken political immaturity on how you make either a political or a climate revolution. One should not take a position on party politics or any particular candidate unless you are prepared to defend said positions, as I see it, your's are indefensible.....

    At a certain point, you will wake up and you realize you have destroyed the credibility of any credible source out there. Therefore, any attempt to debunk or defend a falsehood, by yourself, becomes both hopeless and virtually impossible.....

    Welcome to the world of hypercritical blogging, Claire. Personally, been at this since aught-6 and have just gotten my third name change and URL and need to find a way to create more 'urgency' (hint) before publishing.

    Very excellent first timer piece, exceptionally well stated, and most acutely right on-point. Hope you take my few criticisms constructively, as they were meant to be taken.

    Thanks for your time, Claire.

    1. Thank you for the welcome.

      I will take your positive feedback along with your criticisms gladly.

      I disagree with you on taking a stand. Deconstructionism is fun and even helpful. At times, powerful.

      But at some point in life, you stop, you plant your flag and you take a stand.

      I wonder, have you ever seen Hillary Clinton's senior thesis on Saul Alinsky and changing the system from within versus from without? Pragmatism is the tool I personally gained along with motherhood. Any mother will likely agree on its power.