The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is 12 percent more stringent than the Kyoto Protocol, yet since 1978, the US has emitted as much carbon dioxide as we emitted in the previous 228 years. Globally, since 1984, our civilization has emitted as much carbon dioxide as in the previous 236 years.
The new EPA carbon regulations in the Clean Power Plan require about the same carbon dioxide emissions reductions as what was proposed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, when we as a global society first recognized that climate pollution was a problem. What resulted was the Kyoto Protocol, and its proposal to limit carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels in the US and similar levels in other developed countries.
We must begin to remove some of the accumulated carbon dioxide climate pollution we have emitted all of these years directly from our atmosphere.
The grand contradiction between the latest climate science and current climate policy is that since about the beginning of the Kyoto Era, we have emitted as much climate pollution as we emitted since mankind first began altering the carbon dioxide content of our atmosphere to a noticeable degree in the mid-1700s.
The new EPA carbon regulations are a fabulously wonderful thing, but they have been a generation in the making, and the emissions reduction requirements have hardly changed during this time. Are these new regulations an appropriate solution today? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seems to think not.
Dire Warnings from the IPCC
So how can the IPCC enlighten us on this issue? In its 2013 Summary for Policy Makers, its fifth report summarizing the previous seven years of global climate science publications in the academic literature since 1992, the IPCC tells us: “A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from carbon dioxide emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over a sustained period.”
The backup in Chapter 12, Long-term Climate Change Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility, says the same with different words: “A large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales, unless net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions were strongly negative over a sustained period.”
The wording is complex, and it has taken me a year to understand the science well enough to ask the lead authors appropriate questions. Beyond the irreversible part (which needs no interpretation), “a large net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over a sustained period” is the most compelling part of this statement. In Chapter 12 of the report the same concept is conveyed using the words “strong negative emissions.”
What these statements mean is that we must begin to remove some of the accumulated carbon dioxide climate pollution we have emitted all of these years directly from our atmosphere. Emissions reductions alone are no longer enough. A “large net removal” and “strong negative emissions” mean that we must “largely,” or “strongly” remove more carbon dioxide than we emit every year.
Whether this means we need to remove half again as much carbon dioxide as we emit every year or three or four times what we emit every year is not clear. When I asked IPCC authors about exactly how much carbon dioxide removal this means, I discovered a little-seen side of the IPCC.
This is a rare policy statement. It is based on professional judgment. Normally, every single little statement in the IPCC’s reports comes with its own little army of academic researchers with footnotes and statistics piled in every corner. But this is not the case with this statement.
Emissions reductions alone are nowhere near what are needed. Strong negative emissions are required.
Lead IPCC authors Drew Shindell and Matt Collins helped me with questions about this concept. Shindell is currently at Duke, with 20 years at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (The US climate modeling program), and Collins is at Exeter in the UK, previously the manager of the Climate Prediction Program at the UKMet, Great Britain’s national weather service.
The statement comes from logical interpretation of basically everything in the 2013 IPCC report. In other words, it’s a policy statement based on expert opinion just like opinions, diagnoses and designs we trust from our doctors and engineers. The basis is climate modeling and an advanced understanding of how our world has behaved in the past when increased greenhouse gases caused climate change.
To read between the lines and get to the bottom of the reasoning that emissions reductions alone are no longer adequate, if we stopped 100 percent of carbon dioxide emissions today, because of what has become known as “warming in the pipeline,” our climate will continue to warm by 2.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit. This warming comes from the greenhouse gases already in our sky and the reason it is yet to come is because of the great air conditioning capacity of our cool ocean waters.
It takes about 30 to 50 years for the oceans to “catch up” to greenhouse gases in our sky. This can accurately be compared, on a smaller scale, to the air conditioner in your place of residence taking 30 minutes to cool down when it’s been off for too long and it’s really hot inside. It takes time for the A/C to cool down all that hot stuff in the house.
Earth’s oceans, being a tad bit larger than our homes, take generations to absorb the extra heat with the understanding that the extra greenhouse gases are constantly trapping more heat. It actually takes much longer (thousands of years) for the warming to balance with the oceans, but most of it happens relatively quickly (generations). Right now, the balance point is 2.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is today.
And a word of caution is advised about this warming in the pipeline; almost all climate projections that have a range of outcomes turn out to be near or exceeding the high end of the outcome. So many things related to our changing climate are happening faster than projected. For example, Arctic sea ice is melting 70 years faster, and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing ice 100 years faster than projected.
What the IPCC has done with this rare policy statement is to take all things climate into consideration and recommend that we begin to “strongly” start removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.
Removing Carbon Dioxide from the Atmosphere
There is yet another extremely important climate thing that has likely influenced the IPCCs statements on the subject. No discussion of climate policy should be without acknowledgement of abrupt climate change.
We have very accurate evidence from preserved air in Greenland ice cores that show 23 separate abrupt climate change events in the 100,000 years that preceded our current 10,000-year interglacial warm period. These events changed the average temperature of our planet 9 to 14 degrees F, generally in a couple of decades or generations, but at the fastest in only two or three years. In Greenland, the temperature change was 25 to 35 degrees F.
The models are getting pretty good for steady state warming, and in reality they have always been pretty good. A persistent myth however, that the models are not worth much, has permeated the public’s understanding.
The myth comes from the ability of models to recreate abrupt changes. And the models truly are quite challenged when it comes to abrupt changes, or at least they were until last year. Researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Hawaii have successfully modeled abrupt changes over a portion of the past 100,000 years by simulating fresh water impulses from iceberg armadas in the North Atlantic. Not only do we know from physical evidence that these abrupt changes are real, but now we can model them.
We also have a great deal of physical evidence about what happened to our environment during natural climate changes of all kinds; impacts to forests, oceans, rainfall, etc. When we back the models up and run them with ancient climate conditions and ocean circulations, the models are accurate for the slow changes. As of last year, the models are even getting toward reliability for abrupt changes.
When everything is taken into consideration, the professional opinion of the IPCC as stated in its Summary for Policy Makers is that emissions reductions alone are nowhere near what are needed. Strong negative emissions are required. A large, continuous, net removal of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere is required.
The methods could be agricultural, reforestation and/or industrial and energy smokestack capture, but one thing is certain; all of these things combined will not create a large net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Direct atmospheric removal of carbon dioxide is required.
This means that even progressive climate policy much more aggressive than the Clean Power Plan is required. Stronger policy than even the recently adopted net-zero 2030 plan in Austin, Texas, which reduces Austin’s annual carbon dioxide emissions to zero, would still be significantly inadequate.
Final word: All is not lost. Treating climate pollution like the pollution it is can be done for similar costs to what we spend on advertising across the planet every year. The same voices that have so badly discombobulated the climate science discussion in the general population have also masked the true solutions to the treatment of climate pollution. Please tell your friends.
For comprehensive source documentation and a detailed explanation of the scientific reasoning behind the assertions in this article, click here.