Marc Hudson tries to put the “global human-caused carbon emissions not going up” news into context.
I don’t know if there are people out there who, on hearing from the International Energy Agency that for the first time outside of a recession, the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve tipped into the atmosphere (from burning fossil fuels for transport, electricity, heating) has ‘stalled’ and thought “our climate worries are over!”
Probably there are. Humans have limited cognitive capacity, and are always looking for rationalisations to allow them to keep doing what they’ve been doing. And climate change leads itself both to rationalisations and misunderstanding of scales and speeds.
Let’s take human emissions. They’ve been growing dramatically over the last few decades, especially since the Great Acceleration of the 1950s, when everything started to grow dramatically. In 1988 the scientific warnings of the previous 15 years or so burst onto the public stage. Since then our emissions have gone up and up pretty relentlessly, in a global perspective. We built new infrastructure, we didn’t create and/or export the low carbon technologies for energy production, and that’s basically all that matters. Every year we pumped more carbon into the atmosphere than the previous year, unless there was a global recession (which means less economic activity, less energy use, less coal/oil/gas being burned).
But human emissions – a relatively small part of overall emissions from ‘natural’ causes – lions breathe out c02, trees die and decompose etc – are only of interest, I would argue, because they increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. That is currently at the 400 parts per million (ppm) mark, up from 280 in 1780. The possible ‘safe’ level is 350 ppm, thus the name for the organisation 350.org.
If you want to stop worrying about climate change, you can’t just look at human emissions, you have to look at concentrations. And a ‘flat’ level of human emissions – especially at 2013-4 levels doesn’t lead to a stable amount of atmospheric C02. It leads to increases, because the amount we produce is higher than what the planet absorbs from the atmosphere into a) vegetation (plants draw C02 out of the atmosphere and use it as building blocks for their growth, which is a pretty neat trick) and b) the oceans (but the oceans can only absorb so much, and the act of absorbing C02 is making the water more acidic (actually, “less alkaline”), with devastating consequences for anything that makes shells out of calcium, and anything that eats anything that makes shells out of calcium, and anything that…. well, it’s a web. You get the picture, I hope. Btw, those “carbon sinks” are weakening.
Higher atmospheric concentrations of C02 leads to more energy being trapped in the atmosphere (if you’re in bed under two thick duvets, you are going to get warmer than under 1 thick duvet. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’ll do for now.) And higher temperatures mean more extreme weather events, higher global temperatures (especially and sooner at the poles), and very probably more crop failures “etc”.
Look, if people want to grasp at straws, they will. Death row inmates always hope for the last minute phone call from the governor granting clemency. It usually doesn’t come. People turn away from climate change not because those silly environmentalists have got their “messaging wrong” (If one more person says ‘MLK said “I have a dream” not “I have a nightmare’ I am going to explode). People turn away because climate change is a terrifying and imminent nemesis about which we can no longer do very much. If we’d started properly in 1988 we’d have had some chance, perhaps even a quite good one. Now? Um…. If you need to believe that one year’s flat emissions is a harbinger of salvation, you go right ahead.
The car has been accelerating towards the cliff for some time now. No matter what the pleas of the passengers, the driver has had his foot clamped down on the accelerator. Really the car should be slowing, giving itself time to turn. Faster and faster the car goes. But wait, “good news”!! For whatever reason (the fuel mix, the hand that a passenger has put out the window in order to change the car’s aerodynamics, something else), now the car isn’t going faster. It’s merely heading towards the cliff at the same fearsome speed it was going at a minute ago. So that’s much better…