Hugging the monster: Climate scientists and the C-word (Catastrophe)

UPDATE: A complete list of climate series pieces is available here:
The Climate series: a reference post.

Global warming photo
via Shutterstock

This post asks two questions:

  ▪ How close are we to catastrophe with global warming?
  ▪ How close are climate scientists to actually saying so?

It’s not just about the planet; it’s about straight talk about it as well. And it’s not just about the facts, but how they make us act.

Hug the monster — let it catalyze you, not paralyze you. What does that mean? Read on. (To jump straight to “What can I do?” click here.)

The second question first, about climate scientists, from an excellent ThinkProgress piece called “Hug the Monster: Why So Many Climate Scientists Have Stopped Downplaying the Climate Threat“.

The writer, Joe Romm, first quotes an ABC News article:

A few years ago, this reporter heard a prominent climate and environment scientist speaking at a large but off-the-record conference of experts and policy makers from around the world who had gathered at Harvard University’s Kennedy School….

He told us that he and most other climate scientists often simply didn’t want to speak openly about what they were learning about how disruptive and frightening the changes of manmade global warming were clearly going to be for “fear of paralyzing the public.

That speaker now has an influential job in the Obama administration.

Romm then says, correctly in my view:

Climate scientists have been consistently downplaying and underestimating the risks for three main reasons.

First, their models tended to ignore the myriad amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks that we now know are kicking in (such as the defrosting tundra) [defrosting tundra adds carbon].

Second, they never imagined that the nations of the world would completely ignore their warnings, that we would knowingly choose catastrophe. So until recently they hardly ever seriously considered or modeled the do-nothing scenario, which is a tripling (820 ppm) or quadrupling (1100 ppm) of preindustrial levels of carbon dioxide over the next hundred years or so. …

Third, as Blakemore (and others) have noted, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are generally reticent and cautious in stating results — all the more so in this case out of the mistaken fear that an accurate diagnosis would somehow make action less likely.

So climate scientists are quiet for a number of reasons — they missed the feedback amplifiers like defrosting tundra, they didn’t model the “do-nothing” scenario, and they’re … scientists, not loudmouth salesman-on-a-bender types.

But that’s changing. First, from the ABC article:

Global warming’s “risk to the collective civilization” (meaning global civilization) has been continually spoken of in secret or unofficial or private conversations among engaged climate scientists and government and policy leaders around the world.

Such terms — catastrophe, threat to civilization itself — have been commonplace in carefully worded private discussions among peer-reviewed experts that this reporter and other journalists have often experienced and sometimes engaged in.

And this, by Elizabeth Kolbert:

“It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

(On the other hand, what’s a little destruction if daddy gets rich? Price of progress, right?)

“Hug the monster” is mil-speak (heh) for embracing your fear and using it to spur action, not paralysis. Climate scientists are learning to hug the monster — as should we.

Now, about that “monster” — what does it look like? I want to go back to an important piece by James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard, that Chris highlighted a few days ago.

It’s called “Game Over for the Climate”. Real enough? Read on:

GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

For Hansen, “we” is the American government, meaning Barack Obama. For me, “we” is progressives, meaning actual us.

Now let’s look at those numbers again, combining both articles. From Hansen we learn:

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million [p.p.m.] to 393 p.p.m. over the last 150 years. The tar sands contain enough carbon — 240 gigatons — to add 120 p.p.m.

Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

Summarizing Hansen, this is the past and projected concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere:

1860 280 ppm
Today 393 ppm
Adding tar sands 513 ppm
Adding tar shale 640 ppm

I got the tar shale number by scaling up from the tar sands number. If burning 240 gig
atons of tar sands carbon adds 120 ppm to the air, burning 300 probably adds 150 ppm.

More numbers from the Hug the Monster article:

[T]he do-nothing scenario … is a tripling (820 ppm) or quadrupling (1100 ppm) of preindustrial levels of carbon dioxide over the next hundred years or so. In the last 2 or 3 years, however, the literature in this area has exploded and the picture it paints is not pretty (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“).

And if that doesn’t have your attention, here’s a nice picture of what 1000 ppm in the air does to U.S. climate, from “Illustrated Guide” link above:

Click to big. That’s weeks per year over 100°F. That red in California is the Central Valley.

What you can do

This is important and we’re all grown-ups. Here’s what we can do:

  • Don’t freeze and don’t panic. Hug the monster and act.
  • Take progressive responsibilities seriously — which means, understand there’s a deadline.
  • And that means, don’t be complacent about pressing Obama and the Democratic Party hard after the 2013 election debacle. There are about five deadlines like this in the pipeline, and the Dems are in the way on most of them. We might as well get used to pushing them.

    Obama needed a primary in 2011, in my opinion. Every conservative Democrat needs a primary. Every wavering Democrat needs a shot across the bow. Every one. A shot that stings. (I still think Nancy Pelosi needs billboards in her district, even if by persistent freeway bloggers.)

    On each of these issue, including the climate, there’s not a lot of time left for playing footsie with our social friends, career-building, and list-growing. You can preference careers and organizational lists if you want — just don’t say you’re committed to progressive values if you do.

  • Remember — serving self and daddy is a conservative value. Serving others is a progressive value (in my opinion). On issues like this, you have to pick.

And do take hope. It’s not over, and there are a great many people like us, frustrated but eager to act. We just need a center, a seed. Maybe climate scientists saying the C-word, out loud this time, will be that seed.

UPDATE: If the subject of climate scientists and what they go through interests you, tune into Virtually Speaking tomorrow evening (Wednesday, May 16, 5pm EST / 2pm PST). Click here for the live show, and here for the archived version.

The guest will be Dr. Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. It should be a fascinating discussion.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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