The Soft Climate Change Denial Process

A two-thirds chance of probably escaping dangerous climate change 

Once upon a time the international community agreed on the goal of keeping the warming of the planet above “pre-industrial” times of 2 degrees centigrade. There was a lot of debate about whether or not there was any real scientific basis to this target, with some considering it too high, but it became the de facto international target. There is still an accepted probability that dangerous climate change may set in at below 20C.

Then there was the question of what level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) would limit warming to 20C. In the insurance industry, and financial risk management, probabilities of 99% or 95% are normal for assessing an acceptable risk level. The problem was that using a 95%/99% probability, the acceptable level of atmospheric GHGs would be so low that human civilization would have to immediately engage in deep cuts in emissions. So, to keep this unpleasant reality at bay, a probability of 66% was used. This provided an acceptable carbon dioxide equivalent concentration of 450 parts per millions.

So the accepted international climate change targets are for a level of warming that does not guarantee that dangerous climate change will happen, and a level of atmospheric GHGs that only gives a 2 out 3 chance of not breaching that not so safe temperature increase. Take some time to take that in.

Ignoring Feedbacks

A big problem for the international climate consensus was the possibility of changes to the natural carbon cycle as temperatures rose. So they were ignored. Yep, just totally and absolutely ignored. Permafrost may melt and increase GHG emissions: ignore it; Soils and forests may reduce the net amount of carbon they take in: ignore that; The Arctic may have more dark open water that will take in more of the Sun’s energy: ignore that; Oceans may not be able to take in as much carbon dioxide: ignore that etc. etc.

How was this achieved? Through the sleight of hand of scientific uncertainty; such things were deemed to be not known with enough certainty to be included. In most areas of risk management there is a high degree of uncertainty that is handled with probabilistic assessments. So why did not the premier international climate change organizations, the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, simply use probabilities to include these effects? Maybe because they would have greatly reduced the available carbon budget, forcing a much more aggressive approach to emission reductions? The same approach was taken with sea level rise, where a possible rapid melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets was ignored.

Recent science, and actual events at the two poles, has pointed to a high probability of natural feedbacks kicking in, adding to the levels of atmospheric GHGs.

Let’s Allow Overshoot

After a few years of still-rising emissions, it became apparent that even reaching the 450ppm target, ignoring increases in natural emissions, would require deep emission reductions that are most probably not reconcilable with continued economic growth. But growth is the new God that cannot be rejected! So, let’s assume that overshooting 450ppm is ok (to a level of about 480ppm), and that we will be able to suck the excess GHGs out of the atmosphere at a later date.

So BECCS, Bio-Energy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration was born and embedded in the majority of UN IPCC scenarios. You would not know that though, as the summary report and press releases made little or no mention of the centrality of BECCS to meeting the “safe” 450 ppm target. What is BECCS? Plant an area the size of India with something fast-growing like switchgrass, harvest it and burn it for power, then capture the emitted carbon dioxide and pump it beneath the ground to be stored safely forever. Easy right? No. Numerous academic papers have now shown that such an approach is simply unrealistic.

Backdating Emission Reductions

Many of the scenarios used by the UN IPCC assume that levels of GHG emissions started to reduce from 2010, when in fact they continued to increase. These counter-factual scenarios were not removed from the report.

CO2 versus CO2e

That little subscript e stands for equivalent, where the non-CO2 GHGs are converted into CO2 equivalents and added to the CO2 levels. The UN IPCC target is for 450ppm CO2e not just for CO2. In the AR5 report, it estimated CO2e to be about 430ppm in 2011. More recent estimates by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated CO2e to be 489ppm. That’s 39ppm above the 450ppm target. This number is actually inaccurately low, as it uses an older and lower number for the effect of methane. Using the correct number (35 instead of 25), the actual CO2e concentration is 521ppm; a 71ppm overshoot. That number has been increasing at a rate of 3.5ppm per year since 2010.

The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, produces particles that block the Sun’s energy and therefore produce a global dimming, estimated to be equal to about 60ppm of CO2. Therefore, taking into account the dimming effect, we could say that CO2e is at 461ppm – still an 11ppm overshoot. Those dimming particles only stay in the atmosphere for a week or two though, so as soon as coal burning stops increasing (as it has in recent years) the amount of dimming stops increasing. As CO2 stays in the atmosphere for many decades, the amount will keep increasing even if coal use does not increase.

To summarize: if we calculate the CO2e numbers using the generally acceptable conversion amounts, CO2e is 521ppm, and it is increasing at 3.5ppm per year. If we subtract the effect of global dimming, then it is still 461ppm, 11ppm above the UN IPCC target. The dimming effect has been offsetting the GHG effect, as coal burning increased rapidly in China and India. Now that coal burning has peaked, there will be no extra dimming effect to offset the increased levels of GHGs. If coal use actually falls substantially, or the amount of dimming particles is otherwise reduced (e.g. sulphur scrubbers), the dimming effect will be reduced. So, in the coming years, there will be a greater warming impact from increased GHG levels as the dimming effect is reduced.

The Next UN IPCC Report

Embedded in the next UN IPCC report will be the following assumptions:

  • A highly contested “acceptable” level of warming of 20C
  • An atmospheric CO2e concentration that only provides a highly contested 66% chance of meeting 20C
  • The ability to massively suck CO2 out of the air using highly questionable and speculative technologies
  • Some scenarios assuming a historical reduction in emissions that did not take place

Even with these assumptions, the continued level of human GHG emissions, new scientific research and actual events, will require a new set of assumptions to offset the new inconvenient facts.

  • Research showing that natural emissions of GHGs will increase as temperatures increase
  • The rapidly declining volume of Arctic sea ice, with the possibility of an ice-free September occurring decades ahead of the UN IPCC assumptions
  • Research showing that the oceans and land CO2 sinks may be reduced as temperatures increase
  • Research showing the probability of much faster rates of sea level rise than previously assumed
  • Research showing that the sensitivity of the climate to GHGs may be at least at the top end of the UN IPCC projections, and possibly higher.
  • By 2022 a CO2 level of about 417ppm and a CO2e level of about 542ppm (which even assuming a 60ppm global dimming effect, is still well above the 450ppm target).

It will be interesting to see how the soft denial of the UN IPCC process can be continued in the face of such overwhelming inconvenient facts and research results. Discussions of such things as Solar Radiation Management and carbon capture technologies may begin to proliferate as the drive to continue economic growth once again overwhelms prudent responses to the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The other possibility is a fall back to outright denial, as has occurred in the United States with the new administration.

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2 Responses to The Soft Climate Change Denial Process

  1. Joe says:

    Soft denial has been accompanied by an even more flaccid response to the problem. This is why our only prospect of rapid and dramatic reduction of carbon emissions will be from economic collapse. The timeline for a relatively painless transition to renewable energy and a lower human population has long ago vanished into the history of what-might-have-been.

    • rboyd says:

      I do see the possibility of the "oh fuck" moment by the elites and a rapid move to an authoritarian WW2 type response as a last gasp to protect themselves.

      With CO2e levels already at 521ppm (using a gwp100 number for methane at 35, unlike the NOAA AGGI that uses 25) and a lot of the recent science showing feedbacks, the next UN IPCC report will not be able to reconcile "feel good" with the facts/science. With even the likes of Figueres saying that 2020 is the "do or die" date (still crazily optimistic), I don't think that the politicians will be able to spin the the report in 2022.

      Atmospheric aerosol injection will probably be the "go to" solution to reconcile climate change and growth, we may be amazed how long the elites can drag this collapse out. Also, massive investment in Direct Air Capture. Anything to keep the growth mode, and the elites, safe. It will all just make the final collapse worse.


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