COP out: apocalypse next

Dec 16, 2023
Climate change awareness globe.

Without a large and rapid change in politics, not much in evidence, it now seems unlikely we can avoid climate apocalypse.

The COP28 conference in Dubai on (allegedly) reducing greenhouse gas emissions has come and gone with the usual proclamations of triumph. Wow, this time they actually mentioned fossil fuels, and the need to ‘transition away’ from burning them. But the fossil miners claim gas is a transitional fuel, so that means business as usual.

Our own Labor government is complicit – it is still approving extraction projects, it has not removed our annual $11 billion subsidies of fossil fuels, and it is still allowing emissions to rise.

One can read different things into the deliberately ambiguous final statement of COP28. The reality is that unless the world gets very serious very soon it will be too late, no matter how one might spin it as heralding the eventual end of fossil fuels

It is commonly reported that we are on a trajectory to reach about 2.9°C of warming by the end of the century, but it is rarely explained that this only takes account of humanity’s direct effects. Natural feedbacks would long since have kicked in that would drive heating much higher. We are really on a trajectory to apocalypse.

For some time we have had the means to rapidly phase down fossil fuel burning, with solar, wind, the much neglected off-river pumped hydro storage, electrifying many things, regenerating agriculture and forests and driving towards clean hydrogen and related fuels. The problem is not technical, the problem is political.

After a set back at the last federal election, the Coalition is back in the business of scaring everyone with claims our way of life and our very lives are being threatened by blackfellas, immigrant criminals and so on. Labor’s response has been to panic and capitulate. Lost in the parliamentary squalling is any focus on the real monster threatening us.

The planet is not waiting. It is clear the politicians are ignorant of or wilfully ignoring the real climate situation. There is not time to replace them with a parliament that will act, even if that were a likely prospect. Other relevant countries seem even less likely to change.

Here, briefly, is the real planetary situation. We are having freak weather events – not just record events, but records broken by unprecedented margins. The Lismore flood was two metres above the previous record, which implies something like ten times the amount of water.

The temperature reached nearly 50°C in Canada, a temperature record in Spain was exceeded by 5°C, and others in the region by 2°C. Our Black Summer fires were well beyond previous experience and Canada just had it’s own. Sydney was enveloped in smoke, and then New York! What is the world coming to if the natural world forces itself on the attention of New Yorkers?

Big components of the climate system are going awry. The North Atlantic sea surface temperature (Figure 1) has this past northern summer gone well outside the band of temperatures recorded over the past forty years. There is a steady trend to higher temperatures through the previous years, with lots of fluctuations, but this past year it has just taken off into unknown territory.



Figure 1. North Atlantic sea surface temperature anomaly.

The extent of sea ice around Antarctica (Figure 2) this past year dropped dramatically below previous extents. 2016 and 2020 were on the low side, but still within or near previous extents. This year they have dropped away into unknown territory, and in the southern winter.


Figure 2. Antarctic sea ice extent relative to mean.

Figure 3 shows part of a plot of global average temperature. There has been a steady increase over a century or so – yes, that is global warming. 2021 and 2022 were on the high side, but still on the edge of previous years’ plots. 2023 has taken off into the wild blue yonder.



Figure 3. Global average temperature.

These graphs are scaring climate scientists. Big complex systems like the ocean-atmosphere system always fluctuate, and you can’t predict their behaviour in detail . They have a habit of wobbling along more-or-less steadily for a time, but then they may suddenly shift into rather a different pattern. Before they shift their wobbles commonly get larger, until a wobble tips them over a limit and they slide off into another, rather different state. That shift is called a tipping point.

The graphs are scary because they suggest the climate system is about to shift (or is already shifting) into a rather different state. Tipping points are hard to predict, but climate scientists have identified a dozen or more parts of the global system whose tipping point can be estimated. Figure 4 is a graphical summary. About five of the systems could tip between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming, the target range of the so-called Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This year warming has shot up to around 1.4°C.

Figure 4. Estimated tipping points.

You will notice there is a pink band of uncertainty around each red dot. Perhaps those systems won’t tip until 2-3°C of warming. Or perhaps they are already tipping. We don’t know.

What would runaway global warming mean for us? Ice sheet collapses would be slow – taking decades or even centuries – but they would raise sea level by many metres. Many cities are built close to the sea, and close to sea level. Millions of people would be displaced and their harbours would be inundated. An abrupt thaw of the northern permafrost could release vast amounts of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas. That could trigger runaway warming, passing other tipping points until warming reaches 4, 6, 8°C, we don’t know. The global environment would be drastically changed. Heat, drought, rain, monster storms all in the wrong places, monsoon failures. With such relatively abrupt change, most creatures, including humans, would have a hard time adapting and surviving, and many would not.

The political developments discussed above, in the context of these climate indicators, have forced me to the conclusion that virtually all the relevant governments, including our own, are making little effort to avert global warming.

The politicians seem to be suffering wilful blindness combined with very poor advice. Apparently they are not seeing, or not registering, the evidence just presented. There are those who would feed them only sanitised accounts of the climate. Economists have fed them a totally fanciful story that global warming will only lop a few percent off GDP growth this century – more on that another time.

So it seems to me now that any continuing rational hope, that governments could be persuaded/pushed/replaced in time to retain some chance of pulling back from catastrophe, has been in vain. We need to let go of that expectation. We are probably going into the fire.

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