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

Why the Consensus Environmental Predictions Are Wrong

So, a little bit ago, I noted that with temperatures of 70 degrees in the arctic, we could expect permafrost to melt, and that would release methane. Methane is a lot stronger a greenhouse gas than carbon, in the short run, and there is a lot held in arctic permafrost.

It was suggested that this was “alarmism” and the temperatures would penetrate enough for the permafrost to really melt.

Yeah, about that…

One point I have made consistently now for many years is that virtually everything will happen faster than the consensus estimates. That point has been, well, consistently true.

The estimates made by organizations like the UN are always way too optimistic. Always. They are always wrong.

This is partially because they are playing politics: They’re trying to tell decision makers what they are willing to hear. It is partially because decision makers trim their estimates and it is partially because most people, even most scientists, are shitty system thinkers.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

The concepts of break points and exponential growth don’t really penetrate into most people’s thinking.

The way the world works for long periods is that it’s mostly the same, and there are trends, and the trends are mostly linear. Assume the world be about how it was yesterday, add or subtract the trends, and you’re done.

But when the world actually changes, it changes fast. Those linear trends (which often aren’t linear, they just look like it) hit break points, and they go exponential, or geometric, or they just change their linearity dramatically (from a one percent change to a three percent change a year, say.)

And everything then changes, big time.

This is true for human affairs and for non-human systems (though the two are largely the same now that humanity is the elephant in the ecosystem tea shop). So everything changes after the Great Depression and after the War. Everything changes because of the oil shocks leading to stagflation leading to Reagan/Thatcher.

There’s a status quo, with slow change, then something breaks the status quo, and BOOM.

This is how climate change is working and will work. Slow change, then a threshold is crossed and BOOM. Weeks of tornadoes. Category 6 hurricanes (5 was supposed to be the top.)

Or permafrost melts.

And the permafrost melt is happening 70 years before expected by the consensus estimate.

People suck at systems thinking, even most scientists.

The world is changing. We have the foreshocks now of changes which in a decade or two, will lead to a VERY different world. Ecologically and socially.

This can no longer be stopped. It will not happen. (Maybe we can, once we take it seriously, make it better with geo-engineering, but that will not stop it from first happening.)

So, again, we are now in the “Something bad is going to happen, what are you going to do?” stage. Organizing to stop it failed. It failed. It failed. It is done. You can organize to mitigate and prepare, and you can prepare yourself.

Good luck.



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  1. StewartM

    We can Elect Uncle Joe Biden!! That will change things!! /snark

    (Seriously, one of the polls that showed Biden leading Sanders and the rest of the field by 20 points, irregardless of how dubious its methodology, also showed that something like 91 % of those polled agreed with the statement “climate change is the #1 pressing issue facing humankind”.

    Republicans aren’t the only party with low-information voters. Biden’s “change” means “change back to Obama and/or Clinton policies”…change that never was really change to begin with).

  2. different clue

    Does anyone here care to offer blogs or websites which have at least sections devoted to detailed and actionable survival and preparation information? Do any of those blogs or websites themselves accept submissions from readers containing detailed and actionable information about survival and preparation? Or yet other links and sources and so forth to such information? And groups working on developing and applying such mutual group co-survival skills and tools and resources?

  3. different clue

    I have long thought that capping the hurricane category scale at “5” is disinformative and disleading. Every step from Cat 1 to Cat 5 is a roughly equal increase in sustained wind speed. But Cat 5 is just left to hang there as an open ended category.

    Category assigning would be more informative if more categories could be added open-endedly as sustained wind speeds increase by an average of the same incremental increase as between each of the Categories from 1 to 5. If we did that, and retro-applied it to past hurricanes, we would already be able to talk with more precision about category 6 and 7 hurricanes which have happened down the decades.

    But just calling a 140 mph hurricane and a 220 mph hurricane with the same “Cat 5” designator was always disinformative and disleading.

    Same for tornadoes. F-designations for tornadoes should keep going up by the same increment as separates the F1 from F2 to F3 to F4 to F5. If another equal wind speed increment is added to the very lowest bare-minimum F5, it should be called an F6. And then F7 and F8 and etc. as tornado wind speeds increase.

  4. Hugh

    A consensus approach misses outliers and harbingers. It works on an established mass of data, and those data take years to accumulate. Then meta-analyses have to be performed. These go up the scientific hierarchy, then the politicians play around with the findings, and ten years have passed. Meanwhile as Ian says, tipping points come and go, and besides talk and agreements with no teeth, nothing or next to nothing is done.

  5. Hugh

    Current hurricane categories are based on wind speed, but things like storm surge are what kill the most people and do the most damage.

  6. There is a site that doesn’t pull many, if one punch.

    This site is run by several noted Arctic researchers with an emphasis on climate change and prediction.

    Their estimates are alarming to say the least, giving us until 2026 for the world’s climate to irreversibly change at an accelerating rate leading to an extinction event.

  7. Stirling S Newberry

    Hitler could have been stopped with relatively little loss of life, but he wasn’t. The same could be said of Sargon. Or nuclear war. Or poison gas.

    Lots of people have to die.

    This is true of climate change: when it gets real we will do something about it. Lots of people won’t see the day.

    This is the death bet.

  8. Eric Anderson

    Stirling is right. Humans have been so successful because our frontal lobe has allowed us to predict and exploit the lowest hanging fruit. We have no such intellectual adaptation protect us from the consequences of exhausting the supply. In the past it has always been migration.

    The technological myth that our next migration is to the stars ends in tragedy.

  9. bruce wilder

    I have actually been pretty impressed by the rapid increase in sophistication and subtlety in climate science and climate modeling. I agree that the “official” consensus estimates tend to be too conservative for the reasons given . . . and one more.
    The economics and economic modeling — all the parts of “the system” that represent human action and behavior in the analysis of human-driven climate change — is total crap. Esoteric, mathed up in pointless ways but somehow still more qualitative than quantitative, with no referents to anything recognizable in the political economy.
    We are collectively paralyzed because no one “officially” understands a damn thing about how the economy works. The industrialized, fossil fuel economy is the relentless machine driving us all into a mass extinction event where the whole natural world chokes on our accumulated shit and the economists can not even acknowledge that waste and error are inherent in the use of energy in production. The “experts” in economics smugly and idiotically talk about carbon pricing in a market economy that does not exist.
    It isn’t only that scientists may not immediately grasp the full implications of their own growing understanding of the climate system. The whole thing is driven forward by a political economy no one is even trying to understand. The emissions of CO2 and methane continue to climb — driven by natural processes lapsing into forward forcings sure — it is important to recognize that just as most people are just beginning to realize that man’s industrializing civilization has done this thing, we are losing control and natural processes are threatening to take away our ability to accomplish any good by lifting our collective foot from the accelerator. But, i am not sure most people really grasp that there has been an accelerator and industrial civilization has been pressing hard. The nature of political economy is at the core of “the system”, its consequences and the policy options. And, economists are mostly corrupt morons and the rest us of parrot their neoliberal bovine excretions when we ought to be thinking long and hard.

  10. Bruce get’s it: We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

    Yes, yes, yes, it’s working for a few, but my only interest in that few is in seeing them at the end of a rope. With their guts on the ground and ass on fire. It isn’t working for those that matter: the rest of us.

  11. Tom

    At 1.5C increase, the coastal areas have to be evacuated. This is where the bulk of CO2 is being made. At that point mass civilization collapse begins as 2.5 billion people become climate refugees overnight and the Government’s ability to provide services breaks down follow by complete systemic collapse.

    Best case scenario is that temperature increases stop at 2.5C. We’ll be in a dark age for a 1,000 plus years but humanity will survive with the survivors carrying the genetic memory of our folly which will form new myths for the new nation states that arise just as the Dryas Catastrophe gave us all the Flood Myths and wiped out the first Copper Age Settlements that we are only just now starting to discover.


    But, but, but….

    The Green New Deal advocates & cheerleaders have told us that their Green New Deal will accommodate growth and that growth includes growth in air travel and mass mobility.


    …when it gets real we will do something about it….

    The rub is, who precisely comprises the “we” part of this palliative equation?

    I’m not Elon Musk and you’re not either. In fact, I could never and would never be included in a grouping with him where “we” was used to described our relationship to one another. It’s that many world’s apart.

  14. Eric Anderson

    Bruce —

    Spread Steve Keen’s name far and wide b/c he is one of the few heterodox economists being taken seriously these days. His running arguments with Krugman on money creation are essential reading.

    Here’s an interview where he talks about how his data driven economic models account for energy consumption:

    “Keen talks about the Extinction Rebellion movement and why he has joined that. Ultimately, the cause of the climate change and the economic chaos are the same: too much funny money.”



    Here’s an evocative & enlightening lecture given by Tim Palmer, a theoretical physicist, at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

    To Ian’s point, climate change is not linear and the climate and the weather it produces are chaotic and thus can be described & analyzed using chaos theory.

    Take note that Palmer indicates that geo-engineering the atmosphere is a terrible notion and should not be pursued precisely because of chaos theory. It would have uncontrollable, unforeseen effects and those effects could be negative or positive. If negative, the effects could be many times worse than climate change is already and much quicker.

    Tim Palmer Public Lecture: Climate Change, Chaos, and Inexact Computing


    For example, Palmer mentions clouds in his lecture. In fact, he puts a great deal of emphasis on clouds and the effect climate change is having and will have on various cloud formations.

    Sam Carana, editor of Arctic News (in actuality this is a pen name used to represent the several anonymous authors of the blog), mentions clouds and more specifically the loss of a certain type of cloud formation (marine stratus clouds) that could lead to substantial increased warming if it disappears ( a substantial positive feedback). Palmer and his team are trying to model all of this in an efficient manner via inexact computing. Can they model it in time? What will they find when they and if they do? Does it even matter at this point?

    When Will We Die?

    The Green New Deal and its advocates & cheerleaders are silly when you consider all of this. I bet the Green New Deal doesn’t even consider nuclear as the only viable option to bridge the gap off of fossil fuel until the world contracts to sustainable levels. Instead, they believe they can work with a reformed Wall Street to achieve growth via renewables and save the planet, or at least save life on the planet. The planet will survive. The living planet may not and most likely will not.

  17. John

    Unless Elon Musk is an intruder alien life form who is good a wearing a human skin suit, I lament there are quite a few ways in which the word “we” applies with him. That is part of the problem. We are a culture that selects for sociopaths. We either put them in prison or put them in high political and corporate office with access to a lot of power snd money. And I would venture that climate change is very low on the list of important things for sociopaths.
    One of the truly deranged things Maggie Thatcher thought was “there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals”. That idea is foundational to Neoliberslism. Noxious as it is, society includes the sick ones, the broken ones, the sociopaths. The great koan is ” why do we allow them to run things and be in charge?”

  18. Tom


    Nuclear Power is a non-starter, you are simply changing the nature of the carbon inputs, not eliminating it. Also all the materials need to make them and transport them, require carbon.

    We’re screwed because we let Wall Street Financialize the Economy and take our eye off the ball in getting a true space age going. Its over, we blew our chance and we’ll be lucky if we have a Dark Age to come out of rather than extinction.


    Unless Elon Musk is an intruder alien life form who is good at wearing a human skin suit…

    At this point, are we certain he’s not? If he is, he’s not wearing the skin suit all that well because he appears alien in every way as does Assange.

    Of course, I’ve got my tongue in my cheek when I say this, but only just barely.

  20. Andy Sprott

    Two comments based on the original report published in Geophysical Letters:

    1) The largest observed measurement for maximum melt depth has met exceeded the modelled 2090 values for all sites, but the average measurements have not.

    2) The modelled medium projection depths for the period 2020 to 2090 fall into a band 5 to 10 cm thick (i.e., current predicted maximum melt depth is 5 to 10 cm shallower than the predicted maximum melt depth in 2090). Given the inter-year variablity, this may be a bit trickier to call than is assumed.

  21. “It was suggested that this was “alarmism” and the temperatures would penetrate enough for the permafrost to really melt.”

    From the Independent article that the tweet refers to:
    “A “series of anomalously warm summers” has dramatically accelerated melting rates at three sites despite average annual ground temperatures remaining low. Ponds and hillocks have formed as a result. ”

    It’s magical thinking to hold that a warmer temperature could “penetrate” to heat something below an intervening colder layer. If ground temperatures averages are still “low”, then where is the heat coming from to accelerate permafrost melting??

    I immediately suspected we were talking about an island, and at least for the “worst-affected” site, I was correct:

    “Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island was the worst-affected site, according to the study, published on the journal Geophysical Research Letters. ”

    An island will be more susceptible to heating/cooling from ocean currents, as compared to a land mass thousands of miles from the shore. So, here is a map of this island, followed by a map of ocean currents:

    There are 3 major currents that circle nearby Prince Patrick Island: a cold one, a warm one, and a choppy cold one (I don’t know what the choppiness signifies, but it certainly implies greater variability, to me). In reality, these currents will have fluctuations reminiscent of adding cream to your coffee. Also, I doubt the widths of the current lines are meant to be taken too literally, even at a frozen moment of time. Such thinking would imply that Britain receives little heat from the Atlantic current coming from the tropics, because the line drawn doesn’t touch the British coast.

    So, where is the analysis that looks to disambiguate land temperature changes on Prince Patrick Island caused by variable ocean currents, vs. episodic changes in surface air temperatures, during the summer? I don’t see any. Which doesn’t surprise me. Recall the West Antarctic Shelf melting horror stories, which somehow failed to mention subterranean FREAKING VOLCANOES!


    Nuclear Power is a non-starter, you are simply changing the nature of the carbon inputs, not eliminating it. Also all the materials need to make them and transport them, require carbon.

    It’s certainly a non-starter if it’s used to replace fossil fuels without changing our way of life entirely and contracting to a steady state, so, in that respect, I agree. Otherwise, it’s our only chance. Reactors like the Elysium Molten Chloride Salt Fast Reactor (MCSFR) are the way to go.

    It’s a tall order to believe humans who have enjoyed and are enjoying the excesses of modern economies would change the system to bring themselves into harmony with the life-giving planet. The odds are slim. So slim, in fact, it’s a statistical impossibility.

    Stirling says, ‘when it gets real we will do something about it.’ Ian is saying, and I agree, when it gets “real,” it will be too late. I will add, it may already be too late. Guy McPherson believes it’s too late and we ignore him to our delusional detriment.

  23. GlassHammer

    On the topic of “system thinkers” can you (or anyone) recommend a book that covers the topic in greater depth?


  24. Ernie


    Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows

  25. different clue

    If McPherson is correct, and it is Too Late to do anything about anything at this point; then it is not delusional to ignore McPherson. It is rather pointless to pay McPherson any attention at all, because if is Too Late, why even bother to know about it?

    Just have fun, Live for Today, and Lie Back and Think of England when it is time to die in the Big Heat.

  26. metamars

    This dude:
    says that ITER (fusion) will achieve success around 2025, with energy output/energy input equal to about 10. Fusion power plants will then follow by 2025-2050.

    Based on a colloquium I heard at Princeton University, wherein it was said that fusion technical targets had generally been hit as per expectations as a function of money spent, I find this plausible. (The speaker said that fusion was slow to develop because it had been underfunded, going back to President Reagan. So, as a function of time, progress in fusion has not been impressive).

    I generally root for underdogs, and am happy to see that an underdog that I’ve met, and spoken to – Eric Lerner – has recently participated in trying to get more funding for the little guys:

    “There are many promising approaches to fusion now supported by private companies like ours,” Lerner will point out, “but they are nearly all held back by lack of funds.” The sums required are so small that states like NJ could make a major difference. To address this problem, Lerner will propose a new program that will allow the State of NJ to support fusion companies in the state by matching private investment dollar-for-dollar with government grants. The Fusion Industry Association, an organization of 18 private fusion firms, is circulating a similar proposal on the Federal level to Congress. “Doubling the amount of money available to a wide range of fusion efforts will much more than double the rate of progress achieved,” Lerner concludes.

    Lerner’s relative success vis-a-vis the big guys was written up at dailykos:

  27. GlassHammer

    Ernie & Eric Anderson

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    I appreciate it.

  28. bob mcmanus

    Just have fun, Live for Today, and Lie Back and Think of England when it is time to die in the Big Heat.

    This is my plan. What me, worry? I am fed to the gills with despair and depression and nonsense and am slowly weaning myself off news and current events, at least the online portion. The only hope I have left is Sanders getting elected, and that is very slim.

    (Sanders is interesting to me, because I think very few “get him” in the way I do. Look up Dearborn 1935. The CIO occupied River Rouge, and the usual orderly types wanted FDR to call the troops. He didn’t, and we got the UAW. Then imagine a President 10 times as labour supportive. President Sanders will give activists some support and inspiration, but mostly he will give permission. It will be up to us to make the Revolution.

    And this is what Sanders is saying, and what scares his enemies.)

    Sorry is this seems offtopic.

    Meanwhile, Good Omens was a lot of fun, with great lead performances.

  29. Oops. Should have written:

    Fusion power plants will then follow by 2035-2050.

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