Metanoia: Turn around now! Warming locking us into unadaptable sea level rise

March 23, 2016

Scientistis wish we would hear, take to heart, and implement Pope Francis’ injunction to transition off fossil fuels without delay (Laudato si’ 165).  On Holy Thursday/Holy Friday, we hear again, stories of service, sacrifice, and solidarity, presenting us with the call to conversion and metanoia.

Based on both observations and analysis, the science is clearly moving in the direction that 2°C warming is not “safe” for humanity.  As Prof. Jim Hansen himself acknowledged Monday on the press call, the record we now have of accelerating ice loss in both Greenland and West Antarctica is “too short to infer accurately” whether the current exponential trend will continue through the rest of the century.

The fact that 2°C total warming is extremely likely to lock us in to sea level rise of 10 feet or more has been obvious for a while now. The National Science Foundation (NSF) itself issued a news release back in 2012 with the large-type headline, “Global Sea Level Likely to Rise as Much as 70 Feet in Future Generations.” The lead author explained, “The natural state of the Earth with present carbon dioxide levels is one with sea levels about 70 feet higher than now.” Heck, a 2009 paper in Science found the same thing.

What has changed is our understanding of just how fast sea levels could rise. In 2014 and 2015, a number of major studies revealed that large parts of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are unstable and headed toward irreversible collapse — and some parts may have already passed the point of no return. Another 2015 study found that global sea level rise since 1990 has been speeding up even faster than we knew.

The key question is how fast sea levels can rise this century and beyond. In Joe Romm’s piece last year on Hansen’s discussion draft, he examined the reasons the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and scientific community have historically low-balled the plausible worst-case for possible sea level rise by 2100.  The crux of the Hansen et al. forecast can be found in this chart on ice loss from the world’s biggest ice sheet:

Antarctic ice mass change

Antarctic ice mass change from GRACE satallite data (red) and surface mass balance method (MBM, blue). Via Hansen et al.

Hansen et al. ask the question: if the ice loss continues growing exponentially how much ice loss (and hence how much sea level rise) will there be by century’s end? If, for instance, the ice loss rate doubles every 10 years for the rest of the century (light green), then we would see multi-meter sea level rise before 2100? On the other hand, it is pretty clear just from looking at the chart that there isn’t enough data to make a certain projection for the next eight decades.

The authors write, “our conclusions suggest that a target of limiting global warming to 2°C … does not provide safety.” On the one hand, they note, “we cannot be certain that multi-meter sea level rise will occur if we allow global warming of 2 C.” But, on the other hand, they point out:

There is a possibility, a real danger, that we will hand young people and future generations a climate system that is practically out of their control.
We conclude that the message our climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: we have a global emergency. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions should be reduced as rapidly as practical.

“I have talked to many climate scientists who quibble with specific elements of this paper, in particular whether the kind of continued acceleration of ice sheet loss is physically plausible. But I don’t find any who disagree with the bold-faced conclusions,” said MIT Physicist Joe Romm.  Since there are a growing number of experts who consider that 10 feet of sea level rise this century is a possibility, it would be unwise to ignore the warning. That said, on our current emissions path we already appear to be headed toward the ballpark of four to six feet of sea level rise in 2100 — with seas rising up to one foot per decade after 2100. That should be more than enough of a “beyond adaptation” catastrophe to warrant strong action ASAP, says Romm.  “The world needs to understand the plausible worst-case scenario for climate change by 2100 and beyond — something that the media and the IPCC have failed to deliver. And the world needs to understand the “business as usual” set of multiple catastrophic dangers of 4°C if we don’t reverse course now. And the world needs to understand the dangers of even 2°C warming.”

A study just published today said that “To even come close to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, 50 percent of our energy will need to come from renewable sources by 2028, and today it is only 9 percent, including hydropower. For a world that wants to fight climate change, the numbers just don’t add up to do it,” at the current rates.  (See Glenn A. Jones, Kevin J. Warner. The 21st century population-energy-climate nexus. Energy Policy, 2016; 93: 206 DOI:10.1016/j.enpol.2016.02.044.” We need to make a much more rapid shift than we are contemplating now.

The research team found that “just considering wind power, staying below 2 C would take an annual installation of 485,000 5-megawatt wind turbines by 2028. The equivalent of about 13,000 were installed in 2015. That’s a 37-fold increase in the annual installation rate in only 13 years to achieve just the wind power goal,” adds Jones.  Similar expansion rates are needed for other renewable energy sources.

Recent statistics show that the month of February 2016 was the warmest February ever, while 2015 was also the warmest year since records have been kept.  Jones and Warner point out that every hour of every day:

  • 3.7 million barrels of oil are extracted from the Earth
  • 932,000 tons of coal are removed from Earth
  • 395 million cubic meters of natural gas are removed from Earth
  • 4.1 million tons of carbon dioxide are put into the Earth’s atmosphere
  • 9,300 more people inhabit the Earth

Currently 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity, and there are plans to try to get them on the grid.