How to Witness Climate Change
In every aspect of our shared consciousness as a species, we have entered some unprecedented and novel times. In this short piece I will try to recognise some emerging narratives and main stories of the current predicament and give guidance on how to follow their development.
Narratives are consistent and communicable sets of truths, verifiable by evidence and mostly accepted in social discourse. They are important because many people lack the capabilities, dedication and resources to build systematic understanding of what is happening. There are on-going complicated changes in nature and society. The rate of these changes is not obvious to and not discussed properly in media, political discourse or day-to-day life of ordinary people.
With some focus, however, some of these narratives are becoming visible in current news flows, internet and common talk about climate change. I will discuss three of them, all part of the measured and proven phenomenon known as human-caused climate change. These are Arctic climate change, renewable energy and the gap between political plans to keep global temperature rise ‘well below 2 degrees celcius’ and the current climate action commitments by nations.
The Arctic, commonly defined as the area north of Arctic Circle at 66° latitude, is undergoing rapid and measured change in its ocean and seas, atmosphere and in all the icy objects it holds. It is a vast, remote area existing far away from the massive cities and populations of our human civilisation.
These changes affect lives around the world as emerging weather patterns over land cause water, wind and temperature events which are previously unknown to settled civilisation. The jet stream is now meandering, slowing and breaking down. High altitude winds around and air masses above the Arctic are pushing southwards, causing extremely cold weather to occur for societies which are not accustomed to it.
Science measures that the cryosphere, frozen water in its multiple forms is now melting and thawing at rates which are unimaginably fast and in quantities which are beyond understanding. The ice sheet on Greenland is losing mass, sea ice on the Arctic Ocean is shrinking both in volume and in extent. The previously present ice in the ground called permafrost is melting too. Permanent features of the land scape are unraveling. If you want to follow these changes, look at what your national meteorological service says. You’ll find the trends there. Talk to scientists on social media. See for yourself on Earth Nullschool, Climate Reanalyzer or some other online climate and weather visualisation service. NASA has great communications on this issue.
Second story, renewable energy, is a persistent narrative in climate action, a social construct created as an attempt to replace global reliance and addiction of civilisation to coal, oil and natural gas. There are multiple other climate actions, but renewable energy is taking up space. It is hated, it is loved and it scales up, but it will not scale up fast enough for civilisation to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts, at least not on the current levels of economic investment and political will. Global television set and beer businesses are larger on an annual basis than total investments in renewable energy. There are weapons systems programmes which have cost more than total renewable energy investments.
In all its glory, the renewables narrative is commonly relied to as primary solution for our civilisation in climate change mitigation, or stabilising the climate, to a certain level of overall warmth and ensuing large scale change. It is a story which makes general sense. Fossil fuels will run out at some point in the future and clean energy does not produce emissions because it does not operate by burning matter. Renewable energy is getting cheaper and it obviously delivers fast economic profits for parties involved.
This narrative is attractive for politicians, businesses and consumers. In reality, it does not solve Arctic climate change. Not unless all energy our civilisation uses converts to it within a decade or two. Energy experts refer to total energy supply for our civilisation as primary energy.
New technology might take over the electricity market. Some scientific and economic modelling suggests that this can happen swiftly, ahead of previous estimates.
Still the action on climate change and market disruption of renewables do not slow Arctic climate change. Not now, not in 10 years, probably not in 30 years time. The climate system has inertia. When the greenhouse gas forcing is added to the atmosphere, you will first get warming of the vast oceans. They act as a battery for the unnatural heat.
In fact, oceans are taking up more than 90 percent of the heat added by human emissions of greenhouse gases and other harmful acts such as clearing of forests which are natural greenhouse gas sinks.
Renewable energy is something society has decided to do while continuing to grow both in population and in consumption.
This leads us to the third and final narrative, which is the emissions gap. It can be explained through carbon budgets or emissions reductions, but overall it is very simple and easy to understand. The emissions reductions provided by governments right now in 2016 are totally insufficient in limiting global temperature rise and ensuing risks to 2 degrees celcius.
As it seems impossible for the human species to take drastic and immediate action for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, multiple comforting explanations and hopeful trajectories for the future have entered the professional work of mitigation scientists as well as politicians. These stories include negative emissions and geoengineering.
Negative emissions are technologies or approaches which artificially remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They have been tried on minuscule scales but are non-existent in the order of removing as much carbon as the existing ocean sink does. Geoengineering is just bonkers. Google it and you’ll see.
What do these narratives tell us, what should we do and how should we feel? I have no idea. The situation is strange and it is changing very fast. There are ongoing political and economic problems, security challenges and other distractions from the massive force nature is unleashing on us due to our abuse. I would guess that people will become obsessed and hyper aware of irrelevant topics and consumed by efforts to change or maintain the current way of life.
The above was written on the 4th of November in 2016 when the Paris Agreement came into force, less than a week from COP22 conference on its implementation and close to the United States presidential election in which Donald Trump denies that human-caused climate change exists.