The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Global Warming: A localized pause and then the end of our civilization

Mean continetal temp 95-10

Mean continetal temp 95-10

Let’s talk a bit more about global warming and climate change.  The majority of the American population now thinks that global warming probably doesn’t exist.  Part of that is the huge amount of money which has been spent on propaganda, but part of it is that one of the only major areas not experiencing higher temperatures is the continental USA.  If you want to be a climate change denialist, America is a great place to live.

It is also true that the speed of global warming has slowed down.  This is primarily due to two factors:

1) The sunspot cycle.  Solar radiation is currently at its lowest level in some time.  Less heat equals, well, less heat.

2) The icecap and glacial dump.  The polar icepack being dumped into the oceans has had a cooling effect.

The sunspot cycle can change pretty much any time it wants.  Probably we’ve got a decade or so at lower heat levels, but that’s not a sure thing.  As for the icecap and glacier dump: well, once the ice is gone, it’s gone.

The bottom line is that we are going to see things get worse, more slowly, in terms of temperature rises.  We will, however, keep getting crazy weather, changes to weather patterns are an early sign of climate change.

Once the mitigating factors are gone the pace of global warming will pick up again, and it will pick up fiercely.

Now, as for fixing it—there are two main problems.  The first is the will to do something.  While there may be technical solutions which would reduce the amount of carbon we are dumping into the atmosphere, there is no will to deploy them on a wide enough scale to matter.  This is as true in China as it in the US, and without China and the developing world coming on board, what the US does, assuming it does anything, will not be sufficient (and the US will not do anything, the propaganda campaign claiming there is no Global Warming has been successful.)

The second is that there will come a point where global warming becomes a self reinforcing cycle.  With no glacial caps and with the methane released from Siberia, even radical decreases in human CO2 dumping will probably not be sufficient to stop the cycle.

Add to this the severe water shortages we can expect, which will hit large parts of African, a huge swathe of China, much of India and a big chunk of the US, as aquifers are drained down to effectively zero, and you have a recipe for huge loss of life and destabilizing migratory movements.

It is also entirely possible that large parts of the tropics will become effectively uninhabitable, the combination of humidity and temperature will be so high that it will literally be lethal to be outside air conditioningfor any length of time for much of the year.

If world population is only reduced by a billion, I will be amazed.  I also expect some serious wars.  Our civilization will not go quietly into that long long night.


Climate Change: A fighting retreat


The Thinker Americans Don’t Listen To


  1. Cloud

    I find it amusing when people (incl. one of my physics profs) point out that the ice caps have been totally gone before, and life flourished — it did — but these are usually the same people, cool-climate WASPs, who regard oppressively hot places like Iraq, Vietnam, or even New Orleans as hell-holes.

    Incidentally, I’m betting that catastrophic nuclear war will cut things short, probably before C.E. 2100, or in any case with a probability approaching 1 as time goes on. H-bombs are the Chekhov’s Gun of our play.

  2. Hi Ian,

    In your latest entry you stated “… the only continent which is not experiencing increased temperatures right now–is North America” which I would wholeheartedly dispute. North America does not end at the Canadian border. In fact, Canada is the second largest country by landmass in the world. We experienced an extremely early Spring this year and lower than normal precipitation this winter. Additionally, our Arctic has been experiencing remarkably warmer temperatures and earlier sea ice melting for a number of years.

    Keep up the good work though!


  3. Ian Welsh

    Corrected to Continental USA, which is correct, in fact. Well, last couple years, anyway.

  4. And on the Huffington Post?

  5. Ian Welsh

    Yes, corrected there and here, added a chart here to make clear what I’m talking about (didn’t bother with Huffington, pictures there are… touchy.)

    Thanks for the catch.

  6. I’m on your side of the debate! 🙂

  7. Suspenders

    Yep, it’s pretty dire Ian. One of the most important aspects of global climate change is its’ potential to bring us a permanent crises in the global food supply. We’ve already seen what that can do a few years ago when food prices started climbing, and countries started banning exports of staples such as rice. That would be disastrous if it were ever to be implemented on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, at least for those that require imports to survive. Even for net exporters today, there’s worry about whether, with current population increases coupled with climate change, there will be enough to feed everyone. Australians for one are beginning to wonder, and I’ve also seen that brought up as an issue regarding their immigration policies. Same in Britain, although my understanding is that Britain is already a net food importer.

    Historically, one of governments major roles was ensuring that everyone had enough to eat, and with climate change it’s certainly looking like we’ll be going that way again in the future.

  8. Jeebus, Ian – I don’t think you should avoid this subject at all. These last two posts are on fire.

    I agree that a die-off of only one billion is the optimistic view. Let’s hope it’s not all of the “useless eaters.” The perps need to “get some,” too, as it were.

  9. I’d merely point out that some areas in the continental US, especially up near Canada, are still seeing long term warning, and that even these spikes of high temps are pretty damaging on their own.

    Here in Wisconsin, we’re seeing some impact from warming already. Wisconsin’s local environment relies on severely cold winters to kill off species native to areas further south; without that, at least reliably year over year, we’re seeing.. I’m not sure if they count as ‘invasive’ species, but it’s a good enough word. Insects, plant life, etc, moving north.

    In Madison, specifically, the lakes’ frozen season is getting shorter and shorter. I’m not sure what impact that has on the larger environment per se, but the local ice-fishing community’s definitely aware of the change.

    The erratic weather is also a problem for us. Last winter was very warm and mild; the winter before that set an all-time snow record in December, then had almost no precipitation the rest of the season. It’s playing utter havoc with our muni budgets, trying to plan for such unpredictable events, since each large snowfall can cost about a million dollars to clean up after (whereas smaller but more regular snow is much cheaper to plow – less overtime)

    The midwest is also seeing freak rainstorms which dump water far faster than the highly abused lakes and streams can drain it, leading to flooding, dams breaking all over the place, etc.

  10. anonymous

    Now, as for fixing it—there are two main problems.

    I would like to offer that there are three main problems — the two that you listed and the problem itself. Replacing the fossil-fuel energy infrastructure that has been built since the start of the Industrial Revolution (in fact, without it there would have been no Industrial Revolution) is an enormous, daunting task, even if we had continued what was started back in the 1970s. The thirty-year delay in starting has made it even more difficult because there is less fossil fuel remaining to use for the transition to non-fossil fuel and, as you pointed out, there may be positive feedback loops starting that are going to make the warming occur more quickly.

    It’s also worth mentioning that billions of tons of carbon dioxide dissolve in the ocean each year. Findings reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been that this has begun changing the oceans’ chemistry (making it more acidic), something which has not occurred in millions of years. Geo-engineering “technical” (technological) fixes that have been proposed, such as putting a large screen of some sort between the earth and the sun to prevent a steep temperature rise, would not do anything to keep this acidification from getting worse. This may be the final century of coral reefs on Earth.

    And there is the “great Pacific garbage patch” (and, recently reported, an Atlantic garbage patch). We have many human-made problems that are disrupting important ecological systems on earth that demand to be fixed. Where are the jobs programs to get to work on them?

  11. anonymous

    Due notice (from corporate funder Bell Labs, who made these science education films), 1958:

  12. anonymous

    Are you sure about the tropics? Wasn’t there just a study a year or so ago that found that temps in the tropics are not going up, but the tropics are expanding instead? In the tropics the temperature is moderated by the humidity. The water turns to steam, the steam rises up and cools and falls as rain. They don’t have cold fronts and warm fronts and high and low pressure systems like in the middle latitudes.

    Also, the only place in the US really being spared much warming has been the northeast corridor, even though they are dealing with the alternating droughts and floods caused by el nino and la nina, just like the rest of us.

    Also, wamer oceans mean more H2O in the atmosphere, so overall I would expect more precip, not less. Of course, where that precip lands could change all over the place. And places like Nashville might get some nasty surprises, not to mention the bigger and more powerful hurricanes and typhoons.

    I think the dire predictions of global warming would be a lot more credible if they emphasized the changing weather patterns and alternating extremes. Predictions of widespread desertification are just speculation, and for every place that loses water, there will probably be more that get more precip than they already have.

    And in the long run we’re all dead. The earth could probably do a lot better with about 5.9 billion fewer of us. So if everyone stopped having babies, they could save the world some damage and their children or grandchildren a dismal existence. I’m not gonna cry over the end of the civilization that brought us Rush and Beck and everything perfidious that most Republicans hold dear. I would sure hate to live without A/C and clean water and food. But I’ll be dead by then, or maybe I’ll starve if the financial crisis gets us first. But the earth will correct human overpopulation one way or another, and that’s not such a tragedy.

  13. Suspenders

    Interesting documentary. Also interesting how much Bell Labs really dabbled in everything.

  14. anonymous

    But the earth will correct human overpopulation one way or another, and that’s not such a tragedy.

    “Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

    I’m waiting for all of the philosophical adults to sit down with their children or grandchildren and explain to them that they (the children or grandchildren) are not going to get to live to old age. Or are all of the philosophical adults people who don’t have children or grandchildren?

  15. Ian Welsh

    I’m not 100% sure about the tropics, no, but I have seen a study which indicates that’s one thing which might happen. Expansion is another possibility. Or, of course, both.

    In terms of desertification, I am predicting widespread water problems not based on global warming (though there are reasons to do so), but based on aquifer depletion.

    With respect to erratic weather, agreed, and mentioned in the piece (under crazy weather). This is something Stirling told me to expect around 2002 or so, when we first started talking.

    The problem itself is, agreed, huge, which is an implicit reason for my pessimism. It’s a huge deal, and we’re leaving it late.

  16. Celsius 233

    Well, I live in the tropics (13deg. N. latitude, Thailand) and I don’t know if it’s weather or climate; but we’re in the worst heat wave in 59 years here now.
    Closing in on 60 days of 37, 38, 40, and 41c. Never saw it above 36c at our house in 7+ years. My Habaneros have had the snot knocked out of them and the pepper farm about 3k from the house is having a bad year because of the heat. Anecdotal? Of course, but a fact never-the-less.

  17. Celsius 233

    Oh, and my province is one of 35 out of 76 declared in serious drought. A first as well.

  18. Lex

    We’re only accelerating a natural cycle, but as ever…our view both to the rear and forward is tiny. Should a handful of us make it through, the endgame for the majority of humans will probably be recorded as the seed of future myth.

    Just like when this Ice Age really started ending and raised sea levels much faster and with much more violence than any prediction we now face. There were plenty of humans around then. Probably a great many who lived in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley that we now call the Persian Gulf. Almost certainly an even greater many who lived along ancient coastal areas now well out to sea. And when those sea level rises happened, they did so in the span of decades.

    There really was a worldwide deluge, and there were plenty of our ancestors around to witness it…and a few left to pick up the pieces.

    We’re victims of our own egos. We assume that the only civilization the world has ever known is ours. We assume that the only civilization the world will ever know is ours. And it is our egocentric behavior that allows us to put massive amounts of waste into a closed, recirculating system under the false impression that it’s an open system.

    My only real problem with the climate change/global warming movement is that it treats a symptom as the disease. Warming is a symptom of waste, something that you cannot find outside of human behavior.

  19. Lex

    You know, when the icecaps are gone the changes will be much more drastic than simple weather or climate. Their weight deforms the Earth’s crust, without it, the poles will rise and pull other portions of the planet down.

    The British Isles could (not will, could) be sucked into the sea in a rather dramatic fashion. Not to mention that rapid changes to the crust tend to produce all sorts of nifty cataclysms like earthquakes and volcanoes.

    Simply put, there is no way to accurately predict what will happen other than to say that the changes will be huge.

    As George Clinton once said, “Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, and ya’ll done knocked her up.” Birth, like death is a messy business.

  20. jo6pac

    Thanks for the Bell Lab clip, my former wife was at Murray Hill in the early 80s for a summer program and learned how to do thin samples that only 3 other people in the world could do. It give her a great job boost when her future employer learned she could do this. It’s too bad we don’t believe in pure science any more unless it will kill some one half around the world or make lots of $$$$$$$$$$$$ right away.


  21. Bernard

    i can tell you we have had cold fronts pass down here in New Orleans in May, this year, which i have never heard of ever happening before. the weather has changed so much in my short life span. frightening is the only word. with the Gulf Oil spill, i think living here is not a good idea anymore. just the intensity and the volume of weather pattern changes is so observeable to anyone who want to see.

    just wouldn’t know where to move to, though i have favorite places, lol, but who knows what is in store for those places as well.

    watching the changes is not for the feint of heart.

  22. Kate

    Two questions:
    1) The green trend line is descending. Doesn’t that contradict warming?
    2) Ian, do you have a background in either environmental or earth science?

  23. I happen to believe that human beings collectively can actually sometimes be good at anticipatory action, and even inclined to do so. What has happened is that for the very first time ever, as far as I can tell, there has been a massive and successful 30 or 40-year campaign to tell us that any attempt to anticipate or behave as the ant rather than the grasshopper is actually shortsighted in truth—that the optimal system is one run by grasshoppers.

    More disturbingly, this campaign has successfully promulgated the idea that any kind of apparent crisis that requires anticipatory action cannot exist by definition—if we must act in apprehension of a crisis, then in all cases we cannot admit the crisis.

    Having convinced the bulk of the world with any power to do anything of this—made it, indeed, a tenet of near-religious faith—I am instead forced to hope that indeed, they are right, and the technological solutions will arrive in the unplanned fashion as needed, rather than the massive and immediate replacement of infrastructure in which we really need to engage.

    Our bizarre wars have happened because humans do do prefer to plan for the future. And so that desire is redirected towards fighting a non-existing future threat, in a manner neutral to the grasshopper ideology.

    I used to read the Oil Drum religiously and sometimes still check in on it, but I’m forced to wonder whether the warnings are having any effect at all on our political culture (ie, I don’t think so). Will people be, a year from now, opposed to offshore drilling?

    Part of the problem is the American culture of optimism and that culture’s global dominance. Is there a way to define or present these realities/risks in an optimistic manner that will inspire Americans to adopt the political culture for mass reform?

  24. Ian Welsh

    Kate, no, it doesn’t. World temps are increasing, those temps are from only the continental US.

    No, I don’t. But then I don’t have a background in economics only. In terms of formal training, the only things I have much of a background in are sociology and insurance. I’m an autodidact, to the core.

  25. gtash

    I see today that NASA’s dataset is already predicting 2010 to be the warmest year so far. I see that an international report has been issued suggesting it is possible by 2050 there will be no more fish in the entirety of the ocean. And somebody at HuffPo linked the disbelieving Britt Hume pretending he was from Missouri. (What oil? I don’t see any oil. It isn’t there if you cannot see it doncha know.)

  26. Kate

    A quick foray into paleoclimatology would quickly reveal an Earth history jam-packed with hundreds of dramatic climate shifts. Of course, burning all the fossil fuels as quickly as we can extract them from the ground is not helping the humans maintain their habitat’s livability. We simply won’t stop using the petroleum products until they run out because doing so would crash the global economic systems that depend upon it to continue. I don’t disagree that humans are contributing to climate change, but I also cannot agree that human activity is the cause of global warming or that we can even sway the warming pattern to our temporary advantage. Also, climate change has been a constant fact throughout Earth’s natural history, but so has anthropocentric thinking, wherein we regard humankind and humankind’s ideas and actions as the central or most important ones in all the universe we can perceive. Google up “paleoclimate” and you’ll find stuff like this:
    Climate change — including warming — isn’t anything new.

  27. gan1

    “Climate change — including warming — isn’t anything new.” -Kate

    Cancer has also been plaguing mankind for millennia. I guess we needn’t worry so much about the massive amounts of potential carcinogens we add to our food, ocean waters, lakes, air, etc. Since the occurrence of cancer predates the existence of these carcinogens, they can not be relevant.

  28. Ian Welsh

    And climate change events have wiped out entire civilizations. If we’re “contributing” maybe we should have a bit more foresight than lemmings.

  29. anonymous

    If we’re “contributing” maybe …

    Let’s say it clearly: There is no “if” anymore. There is global warming and the burning of fossil fuels is how we’re contributing to it. People who deny it have shown that they’re not going to stop looking for excuses and rationalizations for burning more fossil fuels.

    …we should have a bit more foresight than lemmings.

    What is the point of having people who are able to live without being bent over in labor producing food, clean water, and shelter? (AKA, “the elite”) One of their reasons for existing is to be able to look around and see what is on the horizon. Science makes their ability to do this far greater than any others’ in past civilizations. Scientists have done their part.

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