Citizen Action Monitor

The Big Picture – Nate Hagens identifies dire impacts to Earth’s environment, as “externalities” to price system

Unaware Earth’s environment is a complex adaptive system, apocalyptic climate scenarios exaggerate climate impacts, underestimate economic risks.

No 2559 Posted by fw, December 17, 2019 – (Set 3: The Big Picture – No. 4 of 8) –

To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on this linked Tab  Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts

Dr. Nate Hagens

“Companies sell products that we demand, and in doing so maximize profits – which is revenue minus expenses. As a result of producing or consuming these products there are many positive and negative impacts called “externalities.” An externality is an impact on people or the planet that is NOT included in the price of the product. Positive externalities might be things such as parks and education, as well as police and fire protection. Or a bee meant for honey production which pollinates a nearby crop. Negative externalities include pollution, disease, climate change or the extinction of a species. There are all sorts of negative social and environmental externalities.”Nate Hagens

Dr. Hagens concludes his 20-minute video of Externalities Part 2: Heating and Oceans, with this six-point summary of his main sections on the climate and oceans —

1/ Externalities — Many of the impacts on Earth’s environment are not included in our price system. They’re external to our price system. They’re shifted costs to the environmental Commons.

2/ Global heating — The direct byproducts from human energy use are heat trapping gases – methane, carbon dioxide.

3/ Some warming now inevitable — Given the speed of human emissions, we’re now in uncharted territory. Some amount of warming, perhaps 1.5°C, is now very likely.

4/ Dire scenarios — At the same time, many of the Armageddon climate scenarios that are frequently in the news are unlikely because the affordability of that scale and level of oil, gas, and especially coal use is highly questionable. Our general energy blindness makes us overestimate climate impacts, and correspondingly, underestimate economic risks.

5/ Ocean risks — The oceans are not often highlighted in the media but have been bearing the brunt of human emissions, and those risks are important.

6/ Think of climate change risk as a symptom of a human system, not a problem —  If you consider the human system as one that uses energy and grows, we should consider climate change and ocean-related risks as symptoms of the problem, not the problems themselves.

My repost, below, of Hagens’ video 4 of 8 in Set 3 of The Big Picture videos, includes the embedded video, my added subheadings, text highlighting, some bulletted reformatting, selected images and my full transcript.

Alternatively, watch video 4, without my transcript, by clicking on the following linked title.

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Externalities Part 2: Heating and Oceans: The Big Picture: Set 3, No. 4 of 8, by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, March 25, 2019 (20:28 min)

TRANSCRIPT

Climate change – the most well-known externalities of human energy use

Okay. One of the most important, and certainly the most well-known externalities of human energy use is climate change, which, more accurately, would be called global heating. You’ve all heard about climate change. This video will present some new and important perspectives that you might not have thought about before. Most of you have probably had the basics of global heating. Here’s a quick review.

[REVIEW OF GLOBAL HEATING BASICS]

Climate change is simply a change in the planetary energy balance

Fossil carbon in oil, coal, and gas are geologic stores of past solar energy that we’re reinjecting into the planetary system millions of times faster than they were sequestered. Climate change is simply a change in the planetary energy balance.

88% of human CO2 emissions are related to fossil carbon burning — oil, coal, natural gas

88% of human CO2 emissions are related to the burning of this ancient sunlight that accumulated over hundreds of millions years. The other 12% is from our land-use changes, mostly removing forests and releasing their carbon.

Certain gases change the composition of Earth’s atmosphere causing heating of the planet

About 30% of the total of these emissions is absorbed by land and forests. Another 24% is absorbed by the oceans. The remaining 46% stays in the atmosphere where it functions as a greenhouse gas. As most of you know by now, certain gases – water vapor, nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide – change the chemical composition of the atmosphere and cause heat to be trapped. This is called “The Greenhouse Effect.”

Without the Greenhouse Effect, Earth would be -19°C instead of +15°C

Under most circumstances this is a very good thing. Without the Greenhouse Effect, Earth would be -19°C instead of +15°C.

Of 342 watts per square meter received from the sun, as electromagnetic radiation, 168 watts of heat are absorbed per square meter of the Earth’s surface

Okay, here’s how it works.

  • There are 342 watts per square meter of incoming solar irradiance coming to the Earth from the sun.
  • 77 watts of this is reflected from the atmosphere and clouds back into space.
  • 67 watts are absorbed by the atmosphere in clouds,
  • 30 watts are reflected from the Earth’s surface,
  • leaving 168 watts of heat absorbed per square meter of Earth’s surface.

Greenhouse gases cause “radiative forcing”, a measure of the influence a given climatic factor has on the downward directed radiate energy affecting the Earth’s surface 

Scientists measure how much impact human Greenhouse gases have by looking at their “radiative forcing” or how much additional energy per square meter they force into the planetary system. The biggest of these forcing is CO2, but there’s also methane, ozone and nitrous oxide.

The net impact of all current, human-related forcings equates to about 1.7 watts per square meter. This is small relative to the entire heat system, but meaningful, because the Earth’s environment is a COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM and it’s sensitive to abrupt or large changes.

CO2 in our atmosphere is higher now than at any time in the past 500,000 years

We now know that CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 500,000 years, which stands to reason given that we’re reinjecting millions of years of stored carbon back into the atmosphere every decade or so.

Neither CO2, nor global temperatures, nor sea level rise have been stable over very long time frames

But as you can see in the above graphic,

  • neither CO2 nor global temperatures, nor sea level rise have been stable.
  • The top panel in green shows CO2 fluctuations over the past 450,000 years.
  • The middle panel in red shows global temperature in Celsius. Note, there were several times the temperature changed by 8 to 10°C in not too long a timeframe.
  • The bottom panel shows global sea levels relative to today. Sea level today is already some 400 feet higher than around 20,000 years ago.
  • If we zoom in on that red panel on global temperature to the very recent past in the above graph, we can see that the climate we’ve been familiar with during our development as a species has been abnormally stable for the past 10,000 years or so.
  • Which at least partially explains why our great grand-sesters developed agriculture at around the same time temperatures stabilized in at least five places on Earth.

We’re headed for a warmer planet because of the greenhouse gases humans have already emitted

Due to the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted, it’s extremely likely we’re headed for a warmer planet than this 10,000 years of Neolithic. But how much warmer, and what are the risks? This topic could be a 5-hour video series itself, or even 50 hours.

But let’s take a quick look at some context first.

Earth has experienced five major extinction periods correlated with large pulses of CO2 from volcanism

First, a really big picture.

Since the rise of multi-cellular life, there have been five major extinction events and many minor ones. An extinction event is where a large percentage of Earth’s families and (unintelligible) are suddenly, in geologic terms, no longer found in the fossil record.

  • Many of these prior events, where large extinctions occurred at the genus level, were correlated with large pulses of CO2 from volcanism.
  • There were times in Earth’s history where massive volcanic activity, that lasted for tens of thousands of years, had lava flows as long as 1,000 miles and lakes of lava 500 feet deep. These were called igneous provinces. This created widespread venting of great amount of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.
  • As you might guess, this usually didn’t end well. The blue spikes, in the graph here, show the percentage of genus-level extinctions over the past 300 million years. The red lines were these known, large igneous provinces where large, long-term volcanic activity had occurred.

Earth’s biggest mass extinction 250-million years ago resulted in the loss of 96% of all species

The biggest mass extinction in Earth’s history, the Permian Triassic at 250-million years ago, where 96% of all species alive at the time, were lost, was due to massive volcanic activity filling the air with CO2, enabling all kinds of methane-producing bacteria. Other lesser extinctions followed. And many of them were linked to CO2 pulses due to volcanism.

The amount of CO2 emissions today, while smaller, is occurring much, much faster

So, today our industry, cars, and removal of forests are functioning similarly to volcanic provinces of old. But the amount of CO2 that civilization is releasing is not approaching the massive amount that the volcanic activity from the Decan Traps created in India over the course of 30,000 or more years. But, the increase from human activity is occurring much, much faster.

On the other hand we are starting from, at least geologically, one of the lowest CO2 regimes of the last 500 million years, shown as the black line in this graphic [below].

The last two decades have been the warmest period on Earth for the past 150 years

Many of you are already aware that the years you’ve been alive are all the warmest years of the past 150 years, and trending higher. [Graph below]

What do we know and what can we infer about future heating on Earth?

But what does this imply about the future? What do we know? And what can we infer?

  • We know higher CO2 regimes will result in higher average temperatures, especially near the poles.
  • More heat waves.
  • More standard deviation of floods and droughts.
  • More need for water.
  • And the agricultural impacts — mostly negative, even though some crops like rice and soybeans are expected to do better in a warmer planet. I’ll review the risk to oceans a bit later.

The impacts get worse with the rise in temperature

As you might guess, the impacts get worse the higher the ultimate temperature is. At 2°C of warming heavy rainfall events will increase in intensity by 7% relative to a 5% expected increase if we stop at 1.5°C. Fresh water availability and, for example, the Mediterranean, will decline by 17% at 2°C versus a 9% decline at 1.5°C.

How bad might these future climate impacts get? Opinions are wide-ranging reflecting human biases

So, how likely are these future climate impacts and how bad might it get? As we’re aware from the human cognitive bias section just about everyone has an opinion. In your own Zip code you can probably find someone who thinks humans will be extinct in the next 20 years from climate —  as well as someone who thinks climate is a socialist scam and we’re headed for an imminent Ice Age.

The good news is scientific modelling of Earth’s complex climate system is improving

The good news is we have tens of thousands of scientists working full time on quantifying these issues, and the models are getting much better. But, they’re still models trying to model a complex system.

Climate scientists created Representative Concentration Pathways as ranges of radiative forcing values

Okay. Recall that human emissions are currently at around 1.7 watts per square meter of additional radiated forcing to the planetary energy balance. Climate scientists have created scenarios of future emissions* <sic> and natural feedbacks called “Representative Concentration Pathways” or RCP scenarios for short. They [RCPs] range from a best-case outcome of RCP2.6 – where we stabilize at 2.6 watts per square meter all the way to RCP8.5 where the human impact on global energy balance goes from 1.7, today, to 8.5 by the year 2100, WHICH, IF IT OCCURRED, WOULD RESULT IN CO2 OF OVER 1,000 PARTS PER MILLION. And I’ll point out the obvious that is often missed – The physical trends from these models don’t magically stop in 2100 – only the models do.

[NOTE *Wikipedia entry states: “an RCP is a “greenhouse gas concentration trajectory” — not emissions — adopted by the IPCC for its fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in 2014. It supersedes Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) projections published in 2000.” Four pathways have been selected for climate modeling and research. They describe different climate futures, all of which are considered possible depending on the volume of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted in the years to come. The four RCPs, namely RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6, and RCP8.5, are labelled after a possible range of radiative forcing values in the year 2100 (2.6, 4.5, 6.0, and 8.5 W/m2, respectively)]

As to which RCP we will be on depends on the future of fossil carbon availability and economic growth

The answer to which of these paths we’re on, and which will end up being the reality, depends greatly on what the future of fossil carbon availability and economic growth is.

Global economic output in 2100 is expected to be considerably higher than today’s depending on the availability of fossil carbon

In all 4 [RCP scenarios], and there are only 4, economic output for the world in 2100 is predicted to be considerably higher than today’s. And this is powered by amounts of coal, oil and natural gas that don’t yet exist as reserves.

Under RCP8.5, by 2100 the average human will be 8 times richer than today

Under that RCP8.5 scenario, the average human is 8 times richer in physical terms in 2100 than today.

Most of the “really scary” internet reports referring to the RCP8.5 scenario, assume business-as-usual economic growth, based on continued use of fossil carbon out to the year 2100

Most of the really scary literature you read on the internet refers solely to this RCP8.5 scenario, which assumes that we continue business as usual economic growth using increasing amounts of fossil carbon throughout this century.

The “good” news is that these scenarios were designed by economists, not climate scientists

The good news, if you could call it that, is that these scenarios were not designed by climate scientists but by economists, who view the world with a money-in / energy-out worldview, instead of an energy-and-materials-in / energy-and-materials-out worldview, articulated in the Energy videos — [Set2 of Energy Videos.]

Economists’ flawed procedure – In designing RCP8.5 scenarios, they set radiative forcings targets first, then created economic scenarios that would achieve them

For instance, the RCP8.5 scenario projects in the year 2100 we’ll use technology to turn coal into liquid fuel, and at a scale generating 200 million barrels of oil per day, when all the real oil itself today isn’t even at 100 million barrels. This isn’t well known, but the designers of the RCP scenarios started with targets for radiative forcings and then created economic scenarios that would produce them – not the other way around.

In Hagens’ view, despite what media says, we don’t have the quantities of fossil carbon required to meet the RCP8.5 scenario

I’m personally very worried about climate – and especially oceans – after I’m dead and gone. But my personal view is that we don’t remotely have the amount of affordable carbon to meet either the RCP6 or RCP8.5 scenarios. However, the current narrative, and the popular press and talk-show circuits make those scenarios seem inevitable.

Check out this image from the latest 2018 IPCC Special Report on the 1.5°C scenario

Okay. Here [below] is the most dense graph of this entire video series. But I’m going to risk your eyes glazing over to make a point. The left axis on this graph shows the projected temperature change relative to 1850-1900 baseline. The bottom axis shows the cumulative CO2 emissions from human impact through 2017 in the purple line and projected forward. This image is from the latest 2018 IPCC Special Report on the 1.5°C scenario.

Those concerned about climate change think we’ve been following the red line on RCP8.5

The red line in this image is that RCP8.5 high-emissions scenario I mentioned, which shows a linear increase in fossil carbon consumption and impact throughout this century. A lot of the people who are very concerned about climate change think we’ve been following this red line, and talk about future climate as if we continue to follow this line. AND RIGHTLY SO TO BE CONCERNED BECAUSE IF WE WERE FOLLOWING THAT LINE WE’D BE IN A HELL OF A LOT OF TROUBLE.

But the latest IPCC Report says we’re following the purple path

But all the science that was part of this latest IPCC Report shows we’re following much closer to the purple line. And future scenarios will likely be in the purple envelope. These scenarios continue to assume abundant fossil carbon availability and growth, which I’m not so certain about.

At our current rate of CO2 emissions, it would take another 40 to 50 years to arrive in the 2°C area on the above “confusing” graph  

To arrive confidently, in the 2°C area of this plot would take another 40 to 50 years of CO2 emissions at the current rate from fossil carbon and land use. I present this to show 2°C – despite much commentary in the news to the contrary – is not yet a certainty.

So, many of the high emission scenarios we read about are based on unlikely economic growth assumptions

Okay. So there’s a great deal we know about global heating, and a great deal of both the risk and uncertainty. The previous confusing graph does not mean that we are not creating significant risks of longer-term Earth-system CO2 effects from our impacts in the biosphere. IT DOES MEAN THAT MANY OF THE HIGH EMISSION SCENARIOS WE HEAR IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL MEDIA ARE BASED ON UNLIKELY ECONOMIC GROWTH ASSUMPTIONS. 

RISKS TO OCEANS

Risks to oceans – Out of sight, out of mind

CO2 doesn’t just impact temperature and climate. The oceans, for most people, are out of sight, out of mind. There are now numerous systemic risks as a result of human energy use which involve the oceans. Here’s a whirlwind summary.

Since about 1750, the oceans have absorbed a third to a half of CO2 emissions released into the Earth’s atmosphere

Recall this graph [above] of the CO2 flux per year over time. Look at the dark blue. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, the oceans have absorbed a third to a half of the CO2 released into Earth’s atmosphere by human activities. Currently 24% of each year’s human emissions ends up in the oceans, which, as a result, are getting warmer, more acidic, and, as a result, losing oxygen.

Let’s take a brief look at the risks to oceans from the perspective of the metabolism of the human ecosystem.

Ocean Risk No. 1 – Sea Level Rise.

  • Sea level today is around 120 meters higher than it was 20,000 years ago to the end of the Ice Age.
  • But it’s still over 30 meters lower than during very warm periods.
  • If the climate does warm by 2°C, the ocean levels are expected to rise 0.5 to 1 meter this century, though higher increases are likely over longer horizons.

  • The above graph shows global coastlines under a hypothetical scenario if the entire Greenland ice sheet melted under positive feedbacks. Many of the world’s seaports would be inundated at even a 1 meter sea level rise.
  • Sea level rise impact goes much further inland than the water itself does.
  • The salinity affects agricultural land well inland.
  • This will be very important in places like Bangladesh where much of their land growing crops is a low elevation.

Ocean Risk No. 2 – Warming.

  • Because sea water has absorbed much of the carbon today, up to 90% of the warming resulting from human emissions has gone into the oceans.
  • Warming poses risks to sea life. Coral species, for example, cannot withstand extended hot periods. They start to die off which diminishes reef diversity.
  • Ocean warming also provides more heat energy which make hurricanes more intense.

Ocean Risk No. 3 – Acidification.

  • During the industrial revolution, sea water has experienced a 30% increase in acidity.
  • This increases approximately 100 times more rapidly than any other time during the most recent 650,000 years.
  • Pteropods are small calcifying shelled organisms that live as zooplankton in the water column and are important prey species for many fish.
  • An increase in ocean acidity can break down their calcium carbonate shell ultimately leaving, at risk fish, cetaceans and other creatures up the marine food web.

Ocean Risk No. 4 – Circulation. The oceans have thousands of currents that act like a giant conveyor belt transporting heat from the tropic to higher latitudes.

  • As warm water from the tropics flows towards the poles in wind-driven currents near the surface, it cools, becoming denser and heavier, and it eventually sinks. It then begins a long slow journey deep in the ocean flowing back toward the equator. This thermohaline circulation draws greenhouse gases and heat deep into the ocean, thus alleviating the early effect of CO2 emissions.
  • If the ocean warms, this circulation slows down thus creating a positive feedback in the sense it becomes less effective at drawing CO2 and heat out of the atmosphere.
  • The Atlantic Ocean circulation has already slowed by about 15% since the middle of the last century.

Ocean Risk No. 5 – Oxygen.

  • Global oxygen concentrations are decreasing due to fossil fuel burning because we’re consuming O2 [oxygen] at a rate 1,000 times faster than pre-industrial times.
  • Oxygen levels have dropped by one-tenth of 1% in the last century. So this isn’t overly worrisome on human timescales. However, there has been a 2% decline in ocean oxygen content during the last 50 years.
  • Warmer water affects the ability to dissolve and hold oxygen.
  • Warming also impacts ocean currents which transfer oxygenated water between regions. This 2% drop is an average.
  • So shallow ocean areas near coastlines are much warmer, which has impacts on sea grasses, which are the homes for baby fishes and other sea creatures.
  • At the extreme end of some longer-term risks, some of earth’s extinctions were linked to times when warming at high latitudes stopped this exchange of oxygen to the deep oceans.
  • And Earth’s seas and oceans eventually became stratified with areas of little to no oxygen, called anoxia.

Lots of unknown risks and potential positive feedbacks are at play here.

Okay. A brief summary of the climate and ocean sections.

1/ Many of the impacts on Earth’s environment are not included in our price system. They’re external to our price system. They’re shifted costs to the environmental Commons.

2/ The direct byproducts from human energy use are heat trapping gases – methane, carbon dioxide.

3/ Given the speed of human emissions, we’re now in uncharted territory. Some amount of warming, perhaps 1.5°C, is now very likely.

4/ At the same time, many of the Armageddon climate scenarios that are frequently in the news are unlikely because the affordability of that scale and level of oil, gas, and especially coal use, is highly questionable. Our general energy blindness makes us overestimate climate impacts, and correspondingly, underestimate economic risks.

5/ The oceans are not often highlighted in the media but have been bearing the brunt of human emissions, and those risks are important.

6/ If you consider the human system as one that uses energy and grows, we should consider climate change and ocean-related risks as symptoms of the problem, not the problems themselves.

THE END

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