It’s the Planet Stupid!

Iraq, health care, the economy – all important issues.

And all are a diversion from the one true crisis we face. For if we don’t solve the global warming crisis all other important issues will cease to be, period.

An article by Joseph Romm, “Obama and Clinton plan to cool it” takes a look at Hillary and Barack and climate change.

Mr. Romm starts strong with a clear-eyed description of what’s at stake:

The gravest threat to the American way of life is posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Global warming threatens to put the Southwest into a permanent drought, raise sea levels by 6 or more inches a decade, generate hundreds of millions of environmental refugees at home and abroad, wipe out half the planet’s species, and increase average temperatures in the nation’s interior 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit. And these impacts would likely get steadily worse for hundreds of years or longer.

Unfortunately, Mr. Romm then goes on to talk about the crisis as if it’s about to happen rather than saying it’s happening.

Humanity’s great challenge is to stop the warming before we cross key thresholds or tipping points, in which amplifying feedbacks in the carbon cycle start to seriously kick in and overwhelm human efforts to reduce emissions. A typical feedback would be the melting of the permafrost or tundra, which currently has locked away some 1,000 gigatons of carbon — more carbon than the atmosphere is holding today.

If the permafrost stops being perma…

I feel compelled to impolitely clarify:
Tipping points are being crossed now.
The permafrost is melting now.
The acidification of the ocean is happening now.

We don’t have 40 years to reduce emissions 80% nor 100 years to get to zero – we must drop 90%, and damn fast. (We must really be shooting for zero in the very near term.)

Mr. Romm rightly notes that both Obama and Clinton have relatively strong and detailed positions (if inadequate) on global warming. While supporting McCain at this point is best described (by me, not Mr. Romm) as a suicide pact.

We know we must elect a Democrat – not for the healthcare plan, not the Iraq withdrawal timeline, not the economic packages – although all important – it is to save the planet we know for our children so that we might worry about these other things again. (Or I may qualify slightly and say these other issues are important now in as far as the help or hurt climate change. Climate change is the driver.)

We also know that the Democratic plans are inadequate. They can only be seen as a first baby step in an effort that must rapidly accelerate. Given this fact while trying to find some reason to pick Barack or Hillary on this issue, Mr. Romm’s article has a tantalizing description:

Obama said in early February he would start working on a global climate effort as soon as he becomes the Democratic nominee (which at the time he probably thought would have happened already): “I’ve been in conversations with former Vice President (Al) Gore repeatedly, and his recommendation, which I think is sound, is that you can’t wait until you are sworn into office to get started … I think we need to start reaching out to other countries ahead of time, not because I’m presumptuous, but because there’s such a sense of urgency about this.”

May I tip my hand here, and say that, while a narrow and fleeting look at the candidate regarding this issue, it’s stuff like this that gives me some confidence there’s “can do” substance backing up Obama’s rhetoric – and that perhaps he appreciates the climate crisis is much, much worse than most of us realize.

If we’re to take a serious shot at saving the planet we inhabit, it’ll take leadership that’s willing to leapfrog ahead and change the game.

And lastly (and not completely unrelated), may I suggest downloading the Checklist Toward Zero Carbon. While our leaders leapfrog, so must we.

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4 Responses to “It’s the Planet Stupid!”

  1. kenlevenson Says:

    Thanks Shannon – I appreciate that. I’m “nitpicking” on the tipping points – because I think it’s a real lost opportunity in conveying the eminent urgency of the problem. It’s urgent for everyone only in a conceptual way now, but that’s not going to get us to where we need to be.

  2. Shannon Says:

    I would read more of Climate progress- Joe is a very outspoken advocate for acting now to prevent irreversible climate change. He’s very careful to make use of good scientific information.

  3. kenlevenson Says:

    Joe,

    Jim Hansen says that the tipping point for CO2 regarding the “big melt” (my term) is 350ppm. We’re at 383 and climbing I believe. Is Hansen wrong? Otherwise we’ve crossed perhaps the most important tipping point.

    The Arctic summer sea ice is disappearing far ahead of schedule. Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet melting are accelerating at a breathtaking pace as documented by Eric Rignot. These are surely crossed tipping points, no?

    From Daniel Nepstad’s latest papers, it seems that if the Amazon isn’t crossing a tipping point right at this very moment – it’s teetering on a knife’s edge and it may very well happen in the very near term.

    The permafrost is melting – in a continually growing area it’s no longer perma now. The bottom line is that the permafrost has crossed a tipping point. You reply that the net methane releases have flattened. I’m not sure how – as clearly the work of such scientists as Katey Walter and Euan Nisbet suggest that the methane releases are accelerating. (please point me to the flattening studies – I’d be appreciative.) Anyway this is a slow feedback, which I would describe as already feeding back. And if the additions are negligible now the cumulative effect of the continued melting will cause terrible results by mid century. Unless we halt the warming, the cat is out of the bag – again, tipping point crossed.

    If I may be a little coarse, it’s a bit like saying because the hole in the space shuttle’s wing didn’t cause the shuttle to disintegrate in outer space that no tipping point had been crossed while they were still in space. Yet those astronauts’s fate was already set. Do we really need to be witnessing the disintegration of our climate before we acknowledge what’s happened and is happening?

    With 1.5 degree temp rise “built-in” at this point – can we stop at 2 degrees? Above 2 even the conservative predictions get especially horrendous.

    The various environmental changes will be non-linear and surprising – but they are coming. I’d suggest that the overall climate state has crossed a tipping point from a state where the changes could be expected to be gradual and “safely predictable” to one where so many variables are falling off the cliff, the only predictably certain thing is that we are falling. I’d suggest that’s a meta tipping point crossed.

    Finally, I whole heartedly agree that 80% reductions by 2050 would be astonishing, and the important thing is to get started. I plan to read your book.

    Sincerely,
    Ken

  4. Joe Romm (ClimateProgress.org) Says:

    There is no scientific evidence we have crossed the tipping points. You don’t seem to have a definition of the term. Nor do you seem to have read what I wrote that you quote. Yes, the tundra is melting now. But methane emissions haven’t gone up. They have flattened. So no tundra tipping point yet.

    I think few people (other than you) would argue I understate the urgency of the problem. Cutting 80% by 2050 would be astonishing and very unlikely in the real world. Let’s get started and adjust the target if we have to.

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