The COP26 Climate Summit Starts Today in Glasgow

The COP26 Climate Summit Starts Today in Glasgow

The COP26 climate summit starts today in Glasgow, after a dinosaur told world leaders at the UN to think about extinction:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59101218

Thus, with this in mind, some of our climate history. To start with, we live on a wild, wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion fusing hydrogen nuclei into helium, in a void. Big rocks whiz by a long way overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1% has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston. That negligible wisp of the air is carbon dioxide.

Since about the time of the American Civil War, CO2’s crucial role in warming the planet has been well understood. And not just based on mathematical models: the planet has run many experiments with different levels of atmospheric CO2. At some points in the Earth’s history, lots of CO2 has vented from the crust and leaped from the seas, and the planet has gotten warm. Pretty clear thus far, At others, lots of CO2 has been hidden away in the rocks and in the ocean’s depths, and the planet has gotten cold. The sea level, meanwhile, has tried to keep up, rising and falling over the ages, with coastlines racing out across the continental shelf, only to be drawn back in again. During the entire half-billion-year Phanerozoic eon of animal life, CO2 has been the primary driver of the Earth’s climate. And sometimes, when the planet has issued a truly titanic slug of CO2 into the atmosphere, things have gone horribly wrong. Surely we can learn from this?

Today, atmospheric COsits at 410 parts per million, a higher level than at any point in more than 3 million years. And humans are injecting more CO2 into the atmosphere at one of the fastest rates ever. This is the big deal. When some tell you that the climate is always changing, they’re right, but that’s not the good news they think it is. “The climate system is an angry beast,” the late Columbia climate scientist Wally Broecker said, “and we are poking it with sticks.” The beast has only just begun to snarl. All of recorded human history, at only a few thousand years, a mere eyeblink in geologic time, has played out in perhaps the most stable climate window of the past 650,000 years. We have been shielded from the climate’s violence by our short civilisational memory, and our remarkably good fortune. But humanity’s ongoing chemistry experiment on our doorsteps could push the climate well beyond those slim historical parameters, into a state it hasn’t seen in tens of millions of years, a world in which Homo sapiens did not evolve.

What does the past tell us about the future?

A lot. When there’s been as much carbon dioxide in the air as there already is today, not to mention how much there’s likely to be in 50 or 100 years, the world has been much, much warmer, with seas 70 feet higher than they are today. Why? The planet today is not yet in equilibrium with the warped atmosphere that industrial civilisation has so recently created. If CO2 stays at its current levels, much less steadily increases, it will take centuries, even millennia, for the planet to fully find its new footing. The transition will be punishing in the near term and the long term, and when it’s over, Earth will look far different from the one that nursed humanity. This is the grim lesson of paleoclimatology: the planet seems to respond far more aggressively to small provocations than it’s been projected to by many of our models.

To truly appreciate the coming changes to our planet, we need to plumb the history of climate change. So let us take a trip back into deep time, a journey that will begin with the familiar climate of recorded history and end in the feverish, high-CO2 greenhouse of the early age of mammals, 50 million years ago. It is a sobering journey, one that warns of catastrophic surprises that may be in store. Far worse than Covid, or the next spillover bug.

As we pull back even slightly from the span of recorded history, our tiny sliver of geologic time, we’ll notice almost at once that the entire record of human civilisation is perched at the edge of a climate cliff. First, it’s worth mentioning the punishing ice age. As it turns out, we live on an ice-age planet, one marked by the swelling and disintegration of massive polar ice sheets in response to tiny changes in sunlight and CO2 levels. Our current warmer period is merely one peak in a mountain range, with each summit an interglacial springtime like today, and each valley floor a deep freeze. It takes some doing to escape this cycle, but with CO2 as it is now, we won’t be returning to an ice age for the foreseeable future. And to reach analogues for the kind of warming we’ll likely see in the coming decades and centuries, we will need to move beyond the past 3 million years of ice ages entirely and make drastic jumps back into the alien Earths of tens of millions of years ago. Our future may come to resemble these strange lost worlds.

It’s easy to forget that the Earth is nevertheless a celestial body, and astronomy still has a vote in earthly affairs. Every 20,000 years or so the planet swivels about its axis, and 10,000 years ago, at civilisation’s first light, the Earth’s top half was aimed toward the sun during the closest part of its orbit, an arrangement today enjoyed by the Southern Hemisphere. The resulting Northern-summer warmth turned the Sahara green. Lakes, hosting hippos, crocodiles, turtles, and buffalo, speckled North Africa, Arabia, and everywhere in between. Lake Chad, which today finds itself overtaxed and shrinking toward oblivion, was “Mega-Chad,” a 115,000-square-mile freshwater sea that sprawled across the continent. Beneath the Mediterranean today, hundreds of dark mud layers alternate with whiter muck, a barcode that marks the Sahara’s rhythmic switching from lush green to continent-spanning desert.

Imprinted on top of this cycle were the last gasps of an ice age that had gripped the planet for the previous 100,000 years. The Earth was still thawing, and amid the final approach of the rising tides, enormous plains and forests like the so-called Doggerland  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerland), a lowland that had joined mainland Europe to the British Isles, were abandoned by nomadic humans and offered to the surging seas. By 5,000 years ago, as modern humanity was emerging, the ice had stopped melting and oceans that had been surging for 15,000 years finally settled on modern shorelines. Sunlight had waned in the Northern summer, and rains drifted south toward the equator again. By geologic standards, the climate has been remarkably stable ever since, until the sudden warming of the past few decades. That’s unsettling, because history tells us that even local, trivial climate misadventures during this otherwise peaceful span can help bring societies to ruin. In fact, 3,200 years ago, an entire network of civilisations, a veritable globalised economy, fell apart when minor climate chaos struck.

“There is famine in [our] house; we will all die of hunger. If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger. You will not see a living soul from your land.” This letter was sent between associates at a commercial firm in Syria with outposts spread across the region, as cities from the Levant to the Euphrates fell. Across the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, dynasties that ruled for centuries were all collapsing. The mortuary-temple walls of Ramses III, the last great pharaoh of Egypt’s New Kingdom period, speak of waves of mass migration, over land and sea, and warfare with mysterious invaders from afar. Within decades the entire Bronze Age world had collapsed. Historians have advanced many culprits for the breakdown, including earthquakes and rebellions. But like our own teetering world, one strained by souring trade relations, with fractious populaces led by unsteady, unscrupulous leaders and now stricken by plague, the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean were ill-prepared to accommodate the deteriorating climate. While one must resist environmental determinism, it is nevertheless telling that when the region mildly cooled and a 300 year-long drought struck around 1200 B.C., this network of ancient civilisations fell to pieces. Even Megiddo, the biblical site of Armageddon, was destroyed:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-018-01460-w

This same story is told elsewhere, over and over, throughout the extremely mild stretch of time that is written history. The Roman empire’s imperial power was vouchsafed by centuries of warm weather, but its end saw a return to an arid cold, perhaps conjured by distant pressure systems over Iceland and the Azores. In A.D. 536, maybe one of the worst years ever, one of Iceland’s volcanoes exploded, and darkness descended over the Northern Hemisphere, bringing summer snow to China and starvation to Ireland; if you click on any link here, this one is the best on a Sunday:

https://www.science.org/content/article/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive

There are in fact so many examples. In Central America several centuries later, when the reliable band of tropical rainfall that rings the Earth left the Mayan lowlands and headed south, the civilisation above it withered. In North America, a megadrought about 800 years ago made ancestral Puebloans abandon cliffside villages like Mesa Verde, as Nebraska was swept by giant sand dunes and California burned. In the 15th century, a 30-year drought bookended by equally unhelpful deluges brought the Khmer at Angkor low. The “hydraulic empire” had been fed and maintained by an elaborate irrigation system of canals and reservoirs. But when these canals ran dry for decades, then clogged with rains, invaders easily toppled the empire in 1431, and the Khmer forfeited their temples to the jungle. You can look all this up, the last example here:

https://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/news-events/did-climate-influence-angkors-collapse

Hopscotching through these human disasters to the present day, we pass perhaps the most familiar historical climate event of all: the Little Ice Age. Lasting roughly from 1500 to 1850, the chill made ice rinks of Dutch canals, and swelled up Swiss mountain glaciers. Tent cities sprung up on a frozen Thames, and George Washington endured his winter of cold and privation at Valley Forge in 1777, which wasn’t even particularly harsh for the times. The Little Ice Age might have been a regional event, perhaps the product of an exceptional run of sunlight-dimming volcanism. In 1816, the so-called year without a summer, which brought snows in August, global temperatures dropped perhaps a mere half a degree Celsius. While it is perennially plumbed by historians for insights into future climate change, it is not even remotely on the same scale of disruption as that which might lie in our future. This almost seems contradictory and no right. Indeed, that’s our history.

As Europe emerged from its chill, coal from 300-million-year-old jungles was being fed into English furnaces. Although the Earth was now in the same configuration that, in the previous few million years, had invited a return to deep, unthinkable ice ages, for some reason the next ice age never happened. Instead, the planet embarked on an almost unprecedented global chemistry experiment. Halfway through the 20th century, the climate began behaving very strangely. So, this is a tiny snapshot of the climate of written history, a seemingly eventful stretch that has really been the random noise and variability of a climate essentially at peace. Indeed, if you were to find yourself in an industrial civilisation somewhere else in the universe, you would almost certainly notice such similarly strange and improbably pleasant millennia behind you. This kind of climate stability seems to be a prerequisite for organised society. It is, in other words, as good as it gets. But, it’s all about the rate of change.

As we jump back 20,000 years, to yesterday, geologically, the world ceases being recognisable. Whereas all of recorded history played out in a climate hovering well within a band of 1 degree Celsius, we now see what a difference 5 to 6 °C can make, a scale of change similar to the one that humans may engineer in only the next century or so, though in this case, the world is 5 to 6 °C colder, not warmer. This is important. An Antarctica’s worth of ice now rests atop North America. Similar sheets smother northern Europe, and as a result, the sea level is now 400 feet lower. Ice is a rock that flows. Send it in massive sterilising slabs across the continents, and it will quarry mountainsides, pulverize bedrock, and just about obliterate everything in its path. At the height of the last ice age, along the crumbling margins of the continental ice sheets, the rocky, dusty spoils of all this destruction spilled out onto the tundra. Dry winds carried this silt around the world in enormous dust storms, piling it up in seas of loess that buried the central U.S., China, and Eastern Europe under featureless drifts. This parched Pleistocene world would have appeared duller from space, hosting as it did a quarter less plant life. CO2 in the atmosphere registered only a paltry 180 ppm, less than half of what it is today. In fact, CO2 was so low, it might have been unable to drop any further. Photosynthesis starts to shut down at such trifling levels, a negative-feedback effect that might have left more CO2, unused by plants, in the air above, acting as a brake on the deep freeze.

This was the strange world of the Ice Age, one that, geologically speaking, is still remarkably recent. It’s so recent, in fact, that today, most of Canada and Scandinavia is still bouncing back up from the now-vanished ice sheets that had weighed those lands down. In 2021, we find ourselves in an unusual situation; we live on a world with massive ice sheets, one of which covers one of the seven continents and is more than a mile deep. But, in fact, for most of the planet’s past, it has had virtually no ice:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10712-011-9140-4

Interestingly, for almost all of the Earth’s history, the planet was a much warmer place than it is today. Go figure. It had much higher CO2 levels. This is not a climate-denying talking point; it’s a physical fact, and acknowledging it does nothing to take away from the potential catastrophe of future warming. After all, we humans, along with everything else alive today, evolved to live in our familiar low-CO2 world, a process that took a long time. How long, exactly? Fifty million years ago, as our tiny mammalian ancestors were still sweating through the jungly, high-CO2 greenhouse climate they had inherited from the dinosaurs, India was nearing the end of an extended journey.

When Earth’s blanket of CO2 was finally thin enough, the planet’s regular wobbles were at long last sufficient to trigger deep glaciations. The ice ages began. But the climate was not stable during this period. The ice advanced and retreated, and while the descent into the wild episodes of the Pleistocene epoch could be leisurely. When the last ice age ended, it ended fast. Coral reefs marking the ancient sea level, but today lying deep off the coasts of Tahiti and Indonesia, reveal that about 14,500 years ago, the seas suddenly jumped 50 feet or so in only a few centuries, as meltwater from the late, great North American ice sheet raged down the Mississippi. When a 300-foot-deep lake of glacial meltwater spanning at least 80,000 square miles of central Canada catastrophically drained into the ocean, it shut down the churn of the North Atlantic and arrested the seaborne flow of heat northward. As a result, tundra advanced to retake much of Europe for 1,000 years. But when ocean circulation kicked back into gear, and the dense, salty seawater began to sink again, the system rebooted, and currents carried the equator’s heat toward the Arctic once more. Temperatures in Greenland suddenly leaped 10 °C in perhaps a decade, fires spread, and then forests reclaimed Europe for good.

Modellers have tried and mostly failed to square how a world about as warm as today’s could produce seas so strangely high. I will spare you from this discourse. But soon, we may well have warmed the planet enough to trigger a similarly dramatic sea-level rise, even if it takes centuries to play out. This is what the Exxon scientist James Black meant in 1977 when he warned higher-ups of the coming “super-interglacial” that would be brought about, as a matter of simple atmospheric physics, from burning fossil fuels. But our trajectory as a civilisation is headed well beyond the warmth of the last interglacial, or any other interglacial period of the Pleistocene, for that matter:

https://theconversation.com/ancient-antarctic-ice-melt-caused-extreme-sea-level-rise-129-000-years-ago-and-it-could-happen-again-131495

When we look more than 3 million years in the past, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at 400 parts per million, it’s at a level the planet will not again see until September 2016. This world is 3 to 4 °C warmer than ours, and the sea level is up to 80 feet higher. This ancient planet is far more extreme than anything being predicted for the end of the century by the UN or anyone else. After all, the world that hosted the rainforests of Ellesmere Island was 13 °C warmer than our own, while the current global ambition, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, is to limit warming to less than 2, or even 1.5°C. Part of what explains this glaring disparity is that most climate projections end at the end of the century. Feedbacks that might get you to Eocene- or Miocene-level warmth play out over much longer timescales than a century. But the other, much scarier insight that Earth’s history is very starkly telling us is that we have been missing something crucial in the models we use to predict the future.

The simple issue is the following. Humans are currently (well maybe not this year but you get the point am making) injecting CO2 into the air 10 times faster than even during the most extreme periods within the age of mammals. And you don’t need the planet to get as hot as it was in the early Eocene (23-66 million years ago) to catastrophically acidify the oceans. Acidification is all about the rate of CO2 emissions, and we are off the charts. Ocean acidification could reach the same level it did 56 million years ago later this century and then keep going, which just fyi really sucks:

https://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/3172

When he coined the term mass extinction in a 1963 paper, “Crises in the History of Life,” the American palaeontologist Norman Newell posited that this was what happened when the environment changed faster than evolution could accommodate. Life has speed limits. And in fact, life today is still catching up with the thaw-out of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2486.2003.00661.x

Meanwhile, our familiar seasons are growing ever stranger, and you’ve maybe seen this yourself: crocuses in February, flycatchers arrive weeks after their caterpillar prey hatches, orchids bloom when there are no bees willing to pollinate them, the strangest of warm weather this month, and so on. The early melting of sea ice has driven polar bears ashore, shifting their diet from seals to goose eggs. And that’s after just 1 degree of warming. Subtropical life may have been happy in a warmer Eocene Arctic, but there’s no reason to think such an intimately adapted ecosystem, evolved on a greenhouse planet over millions of years, could be re-established in a few centuries or millennia. Drown the Florida Everglades, and its crocodilians wouldn’t have an easy time moving north into their old Miocene (sorry that’s the 5-23 million year-old period) stomping grounds in New Jersey, much less migrating all the way to the unspoiled Arctic if humans re-create the world of the Eocene. The point is that we are imposing a rate of change on the planet that has almost never happened before in geologic history, while largely preventing life on Earth from adjusting to that change.

Taking in the whole sweep of Earth’s history, one might be able to see how unnatural, nightmarish, and profound our current experiment on the planet really is. A small population of our particular species of primate has, in only a few decades, unlocked a massive reservoir of old carbon slumbering in the Earth, gathering since the dawn of life, and set off on a global immolation of Earth’s history to power the modern world. As a result, up to half of the tropical coral reefs on Earth have died, 10 trillion tons of ice have melted, the ocean has grown 30% more acidic, and global temperatures have spiked. If we keep going down this path for a geologic nanosecond longer, who knows what will happen? The next few fleeting moments are ours, but they will echo for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. This is one of the most important times to be alive in the history of life.

COP26 and C.S. Lewis

This chart of recent temperatures says it all, for me:

With this going on, it’s no surprise that the latest UNEP Emissions Gap Report finds new and updated Nationally Determined Contributions only take 7.5% off predicted 2030 emissions, while 55% is needed to meet the 1.5°C Paris goal. Further, the latest climate promises for 2030 put the world on track for a temperature rise this century of at least 2.7°C. Net-zero commitments could shave off another 0.5°C, if these pledges were made robust and if 2030 promises were made consistent with the net-zero commitments. Reductions of 30% are needed to stay on the least-cost pathway for 2°C and 55% for 1.5°C. “Climate change is no longer a future problem. It is a now problem,” said Inger Andersen, Director of UNEP. “To stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, we have eight years to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions: eight years to make the plans, put in place the policies, implement them and ultimately deliver the cuts. The clock is ticking loudly.”

As of 30 September 2021, 120 countries, representing just over half of global greenhouse gas emissions, had communicated new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs). In addition, three G20 members have announced other new mitigation pledges for 2030. To have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the world has eight years to take an additional 28 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) off annual emissions, over and above what is promised in the updated NDCs and other 2030 commitments. To put this number into perspective, carbon dioxide emissions alone are expected to reach 33 gigatonnes in 2021. When all other greenhouse gases are taken into account, annual emissions are close to 60 GtCO2e. So, to have a chance of reaching the 1.5°C target, we need to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions. For the 2°C target, the additional need is lower: a drop in annual emissions of 13 GtCO2e by 2030.

Net-zero pledges, and their effective execution, could make a big difference, the authors find, but current plans are vague and not reflected in NDCs. A total of 49 countries plus the EU have pledged a net-zero target. This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions. As mentioned above (again), if made robust and implemented fully, net-zero targets could shave an extra 0.5°C off global warming, bringing the predicted temperature rise down to 2.2°C. However, many of the national climate plans delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether net-zero pledges can be delivered. Twelve G20 members have pledged a net-zero target, but they are still highly ambiguous. Action also needs to be frontloaded to make it in line with 2030 goals. “The world has to wake up to the imminent peril we face as a species,” Andersen added. “Nations need to put in place the policies to meet their new commitments and start implementing them within months. They need to make their net-zero pledges more concrete, ensuring these commitments are included in NDCs, and action brought forward. They then need to get the policies in place to back this raised ambition and, again, start implementing them urgently. It is also essential to deliver financial and technological support to developing nations, so that they can both adapt to the impacts of climate change already here and set out on a low-emissions growth path.”

Every year, the Emissions Gap Report looks at the potential of specific sectors. This year, it focuses on methane and market mechanisms. Reduction of methane emissions from the fossil fuel, waste and agriculture sectors can contribute to closing the emissions gap and reduce warming in the short term. Methane emissions are the second largest contributor to global warming. The gas has a global warming potential over 80 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year horizon; it also has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, only twelve years, compared to up to hundreds for CO2 – so cuts to methane will limit temperature increase faster than cuts to carbon dioxide. Available no- or low-cost technical measures alone could reduce anthropogenic methane emissions by around 20 per cent per year. Implementation of all measures, along with broader structural and behavioural measures, could reduce anthropogenic methane emissions by approximately 45 per cent. Carbon markets, meanwhile, have the potential to reduce costs and thereby encourage more ambitious reduction pledges, but only if rules are clearly defined, are designed to ensure that transactions reflect actual reductions in emissions, and are supported by arrangements to track progress and provide transparency.  Revenues earned through these markets could fund mitigation and adaptation solutions domestically and in vulnerable nations where the burdens of climate change are greatest.

Finally, the report finds that the opportunity to use COVID-19 fiscal rescue and recovery spending to stimulate the economy while backing climate action has been missed in most countries. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a drop in global CO2 emissions of 5.4 per cent in 2020. However, CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in 2021 are expected to rise again to a level only slightly lower than the record high in 2019. Only around 20 per cent of total recovery investments up to May 2021 are likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of this spending, almost 90 per cent is accounted for by six G20 members and one permanent guest. COVID-19 spending has been far lower in low-income economies (USD 60 per person) than advanced economies (USD 11,800 per person). Gaps in finance are likely to exacerbate gaps in vulnerable nations on climate resilience and mitigation measures.

With all this in mind, I'm reminded that in 1948, professor and author, C.S. Lewis, wrote an essay titled On Living In An Atomic Age. With the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki still ringing in the world’s ears, fear about atomic technology was rampant. Lewis’ words were a timely reminder then. In the perilous times that we’re currently living through, his words are just as important. As you read through this excerpt from his larger essay, replace the word “atomic” with “coronavirus.” And ask yourself, how will the bomb (or the virus) find you? Let’s face it, it’s a rather far cry from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat at night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

What the atomic bomb has really done is to remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which, during the prosperous period before, we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.

It is our business to live by our own law not by fears: to follow, in private or in public life, the law of love and temperance even when they seem to be suicidal, and not the law of competition and grab, even when they seem to be necessary to our own survival. For it is part of our spiritual law never to put survival first: not even the survival of our species. We must resolutely train ourselves to feel that the survival of Man on this Earth, much more of our own nation or culture or class, is not worth having unless it can be had by honorable and merciful means.

Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilisation are the only people by whom civilisation is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love man less than God do most for man.

Let the bomb find you doing well. To be clear, this doesn't preclude advocating sensible policies about climate change (or sensible precautions against a virus), any more than C.S. Lewis would have opposed sensible policies about nuclear weapons. Man, I wish I could write like this. Seems like a waste to write anything now when one could be quoting C.S. Lewis instead.

How important is this to people and what’s with the green vortex?

The rhetoric is pretty standard. Here, at least, is the standard story: the past decade has been abysmal for climate-change policy, especially in the United States. In 2009, a handsome new president took office pledging to pass a comprehensive climate bill in Congress. He did not. The Environmental Protection Agency sought to meaningfully reduce carbon pollution from power plants. It did not. The United States joined the Paris Agreement. Then they elected Donald Trump, and left. Yes we all know what we need to do: pass a carbon fee or tax, some kind of policy that nudges people to reduce their use of fossil fuels. Yet America refuses. And so the 2010s, once greeted as a “new era” for climate action, now seem unexceptional, the third decade in a row that the United States understood the dangers of climate change but failed to act. Meanwhile the seas rose, wildfires raged, and the Earth saw its hottest 10 years on record with lots of unpredictable fires, typhoons and the like.

You have probably heard this tale before; it is a popular and undeniably accurate read of recent history. It has just one flaw: America is decarbonising anyway. That 2009 climate bill, the one that President Barack Obama couldn’t pass? It required the U.S. to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% by 2020 as compared with their all-time high. Yet last year, US emissions were down 21%. Look here:

https://rhg.com/research/preliminary-us-emissions-2020/

The same bill said that the U.S. had to generate 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Last year, they met that. They will surpass it in 2021. These numbers are not a mere fluke. Last year was a singular, awful moment in economic history, but even accounting for the effects of the COVID-19 recession, America’s real-world emissions last decade outperformed the Obama bill’s targets. From 2012 to 2020, real-world U.S. emissions were more than 1 billion tons below what the bill would have required, according to an analysis of data from Rhodium, an energy-research firm (yes, yes of course, had the bill passed, the U.S. might have done even better):

https://rhg.com/data_story/climate-deck/

Meanwhile, across the economy, companies are learning how to decarbonise. Ford is producing more electric Mustang Mach-Es than gas-powered Mustangs; General Motors, Honda, Volvo, and Jaguar have promised to stop selling gas cars by 2040. Royal Dutch Shell was court-ordered last month to cut its emissions, and shareholders forced Exxon to replace a quarter of its board with climate-concerned activist investors. Most important of all, the costs of solar and batteries have declined in the United States by a factor of 10 over the past decade, and the cost of wind has fallen 70%. Ten years ago, virtually no analyst thought they would fall so low. The International Energy Agency made headlines this year when it called solar “the cheapest electricity in history,” but the entire apparatus of renewable energy has seen cost declines.

All crises teach us lessons, but the pandemic has gone further: it has reminded us about the power of nature. A recent Ipsos poll conducted globally for the IMF found that 43% of people surveyed reported being more worried about climate change now than they were before the pandemic, with only 7% saying they are less worried. The heightened public awareness about the dangers of unmitigated climate change make this an important moment for COP26. Ahhh, that’s nice, and so predictable:

There are notable similarities between COVID-19 and climate change. Human behaviour is central to both crises. SARS-COV2 spreads between people directly, requiring social distancing for containment. Climate change is mostly caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity, requiring us to use less and cleaner energy. Some of what we observed over the past 2 years are cause for great concern. The first is short-termism. No country was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, despite multiple devastating outbreaks in the past decade (e.g. MERS, SARS, Ebola, Zika) and the multiple warnings by scientists. Worse still, as COVID-19 hit, some policymakers were unwilling to acknowledge the danger until it was too late, ignoring the advice of public health experts and acting only after large human and economic costs were incurred. Bolsonara is now being charged with mishandling the pandemic in this respect. This surely begs the question: if it was difficult to react to a danger a few weeks away, then how will we be able to respond to a danger a few decades away?

The second concern is insufficient cooperation. While the collaboration among scientists was unprecedented, cooperation among governments to distribute the vaccines equitably faltered early on, and most countries instead fell back on vaccine nationalism. Indeed, while no country would accept an internal distribution of the vaccine based on money and power, all countries accepted an international distribution based on those very same criteria, notwithstanding the noticeable exception of the COVAX initiative and recent calls for sharing surplus vaccines and patents.

There have also been positive surprises over the past year that allow us to be more optimistic going forward. The response to the pandemic has shown that a concerted scientific effort can perform miracles. After all, developing a new vaccine typically takes 5 to 10 years, and to this day there are not yet vaccines against malaria and HIV/AIDS and so forth. On climate change too, new technologies are crucial, albeit not sufficient, to cope with the challenge of reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. Think of industrial scale battery storage, green hydrogen, carbon capture or negative emission technologies. Advancements are needed to lower the costs of such clean technologies and broaden their adoption. The fast advances in solar panel technology and an 80% drop in prices over the past decade suggest that major progress can be achieved quickly if enough resources are committed. We’re not quite there yet in terms of people taking responsibility. This KFF poll from the US showing interesting data, and gives more relevant nuances to the IMF poll above:

About half of adults say they rarely or never discuss climate change with their family members (53%) or friends (54%), and just about one in ten say they often discuss the topic with either group (12% and 10%, respectively). Small shares say they have donated money to a charity working to address climate change (17%), contacted a government official (12%), or participated in a protest, rally, or other event (9%) to express their views:

 

While most teens see climate change as an important issue, it does not stand out as a singular defining issue for their generation. Like adults, a large majority of teens (86%) believe that human-caused climate change is happening, though just under half (46%) are very certain. Six in ten teenagers (61%) say the issue of climate change is very or extremely important to them personally, making it one of many issues that teens view as important. Notably, about a third of teens (34%) say climate change is an extremely important issue, but rather than standing out as the top issue for teens, climate change ranks similarly to health care (38%), gun policy (35%), and the economy (32%). Teens (39%) and young adults ages 18-29 (43%) are about 10 percentage points more likely than adults ages 30 and older to say climate change will cause a great deal of harm to people in their generation. But like adults, teens are more likely to see climate change as a problem affecting future generations rather than their own (63% of teens and 60% of adults say future generations will be harmed a great deal):

Majorities of teens say the issue of climate change makes them feel “afraid” (57%), “motivated” (54%), and “angry” (52%). About four in ten (43%) say they feel “helpless” (vs. 53% of adults), while a smaller share (29%) say they feel “optimistic.” Young adults ages 18-29 are the age group most likely to express a variety of emotions when it comes to climate change, including “afraid” (68%), “motivated” (66%), “helpless” (66%), and “guilty” (54%). Like adults, most teens say they rarely or never discuss climate change with their family. Moreover, teens are 8 percentage points less likely than adults to say they at least occasionally discuss the issue with friends (38% vs. 46%):

Fifty-four percent of teens say they have learned at least a moderate amount about the causes of climate change in school, while 46% say they have learned about ways to reduce the effects of climate change. The share saying they have learned “a lot” about ways to reduce the effects of climate change has decreased somewhat since a similar survey of teens conducted in 2010 (from 25% to 14%). Six in ten teens recognize deforestation (62%), cars and trucks (62%), and burning fossil fuels for heat and electricity (61%) as major contributors to climate change, while fewer recognize airplane travel (30%) and cattle farming (18%) as major contributors. At the same time, about four in ten teens (39%) mistakenly believe that “the sun getting hotter” is a major contributor to climate change, and one in five think volcanic eruptions are a major contributor:

I loved this in the Atlantic:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/06/climate-change-green-vortex-america/619228/

What it says is that decarbonisation isn’t best accomplished by fiat, they argue, but by feedback loop; it proceeds by a self-accelerating process that the writer has called “the green vortex.” The green vortex describes how policy, technology, business, and politics can all work together, lowering the cost of zero-carbon energy, building pro-climate coalitions, and speeding up humanity’s ability to decarbonize. It has also already gotten results. The green vortex is what drove down the cost of wind and solar, what overturned Exxon’s board, and what the Biden administration is banking on in its infrastructure plan. “Policy makers have been dithering about climate change since 1988, and in the background you have this steady progression of technologies,” Greg Nemet, a public-affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said. Foreign industrial policy has driven that progression, he said, although tax rebates, and California’s economic planning have also played a part. Those policies have allowed the entire world to decarbonize and led companies to support ever more aggressive carbon cuts. That, in essence, is the green vortex.

In coining green vortex, the author has borrowed from the work of Nina Kelsey, an international-affairs professor at George Washington University, who has argued that combining financial incentives and technological change into a “green spiral” can drive decarbonisation. We should hope this thesis is correct. Under America’s new Paris Agreement pledge, announced by President Joe Biden in April, the country will need to double the pace of its emissions decline over the next decade. The idea that drives the green vortex is: practice makes improvement. The more that we do something, whether baking a cake or manufacturing electric vehicles, the better we get at it. Economists call this “learning by doing.” This idea might seem intuitive, but it is often ignored in policy conversations. Over the past half decade, learning by doing has driven down the cost of semiconductors, solar panels, and electric vehicles.

The green vortex leverages this idea to describe a positive feedback loop. Policy can speed up the pace of technology development. As technologies develop, they get cheaper. As they get cheaper, more companies adopt them. As more companies adopt them, their leaders grow more comfortable with climate policy generally, and more supportive of pro-technology policy in particular. As more corporate leaders support climate policy, coalitions change, governments can pass more aggressive measures, and the cycle expands and begins again.

The core mechanism here is that subsidies speed up learning by doing. Any industry would, eventually, figure out how to make a product more cheaply; subsidies move that learning forward in time, so that the unsubsidized price starts looking attractive more quickly. The cycles of the vortex can start slow, but there is wide evidence for them. Nemet, the Wisconsin professor, pointed to one case in particular. In the 1970s, amid a global surge in the price of oil, Denmark began to seed a homegrown wind industry. By the early ’80s, this small country best known for its maritime culture and cheese-filled pastry found one of its largest markets in the U.S., when California began subsidizing large wind farms. By 1990, three-quarters of the world’s installed wind capacity was in that one state. Cheap solar energy emerged from a similar global alignment, Nemet’s work has shown, this one between Chinese factories and German tariffs in the early 2010s.

The green vortex also makes Biden’s climate and infrastructure agenda fit into place. Large parts of Biden’s plan, which has been criticised for a lack of focus, are devoted to beefing up industries. This choice makes more sense in light of the green vortex. It focuses much of its attention on industries that are crucial to decarbonisation but that remain in their early stages. So it spends, for instance, $174 billion on “winning” the global EV market, chiefly by building “domestic supply chains” for electric vehicles and helping consumers buy specifically American-made vehicles. The Biden plan spends even more time on industries that don’t yet have a plan to go zero-carbon. It promises to invest in 15 industrial-scale demonstration projects to produce green hydrogen, and to create another 10 factories that will pioneer new ways to make zero-carbon steel, cement, and chemicals. And the plan promises that the federal government will buy such zero-carbon products to help fledgling firms.

Could a dynamic like the one these policy wonks and academics describe really save the world? According to some, it already has, just not for climate change. The green vortex helped fix the fraying ozone layer in the 1980s, she argues, when it allowed for the global phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals, called chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. The most important thing, the underreported thing, is that the same companies that made the polluting CFCs also made the substitute for CFCs. When major American chemical companies realized they could sell those new chemicals, called hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, to the same customers who once bought their CFCs, they lobbied a recalcitrant Reagan administration to support a global ozone pact. The 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out use of CFCs, passed soon afterward. Then, when demand for HFCs wasn’t as robust as those companies had projected, they pushed the U.S. and the world to toughen the Montreal Protocol. The agreement was tightened multiple times in the ’90s and made stricter again in 2016

And that vortex has continued forward on its own strength. In the past decade, it has become clear that although HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they do ravage the climate, trapping heat thousands of times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Humanity, you might say, leapt from the atmospheric frying pan into the climatological deep-fat fryer. Yet again, the U.S. has moved swiftly to address this problem. Last year, bipartisan majorities in Congress voted to keep phasing out the chemicals over the next 15 years, which will prevent the equivalent of 900 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than Germany’s annual emissions. President Trump signed the phaseout, one of the most substantial pieces of climate policy in American history, into law on December 27. Why did Trump, no climate fan, approve the measure? Perhaps because it created another new market for those same chemical companies to sell a new type of replacement. Trump was, in other words, trapped in the green vortex; clever no? In the next decade, we’ll find out if that feedback loop can work the same for decarbonisation more broadly, and whether policy makers can learn not just to live in the green vortex, but to manipulate it.

Covid and climate change

It gets a bit complex here, to me anyway. Global fossil CO2 emissions have decreased by around 2.6 GtCO2 in 2020 to 34 GtCO2. This projected decrease, caused largely by the measures implemented to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, is about 7% below 2019 levels, according to the analysis of the Global Carbon Project on the basis of multiple studies. A 2.6 GtCO2 decrease in global annual emissions has never been observed before. Yet cuts of 1–2 GtCO2 per year are needed throughout the 2020s and beyond to avoid exceeding warming levels in the range 1.5 °C to well below 2 °C, the ambition of the Paris Agreement. The drop in CO2 emissions from responses to COVID-19 highlights the scale of actions and international adherence needed to tackle climate change:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-021-01001-0

However, the relationship between air pollution and coronavirus is ambiguous, as indicated in many studies showing positive and negative correlations. Many groups have revealed that air pollution increases the COVID-19 mortality rate, whereas COVID-19 lockdown could reduce air pollution level at the same time. There is some evidence from some work revealing that increased risk of COVID-19 infection is associated with exposure to higher air pollutant levels including PM2.5, PM10, CO, NO2, SO2, and O3. For example, some have found that long-term exposure to PM2.5 was associated with a substantial 11% increased risk of cardiovascular death and hospital admissions. In addition, according to a study conducted in Milan, Italy, all recorded daily new COVID-19 cases were positively correlated with the average surface PM2.5 and the daily maximum PM10. Several studies discussed the relationship between O3 and NOx and COVID-19 but it was unclear in those studies. The current research discovered both a negative and a positive correlation between NOx and COVID-19 in various parts of the world. However, as the role in flagging SARS-CoV-2 transmission, O3 was importantly correlated with COVID-19.

Unfortunately, there has been scant research into the relationship between CO and SO2. One group discovered that increases in CO and SO2 were correlated with decreases in the daily number of COVID-19 cases, while another study recently indicated that 1 g/m3 CO is associated with a 15.11% increase in the daily count of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, a SO2 concentration of 10 g/m3 was associated with a 7.8% decrease in the regular number of reported cases in China's 120 cities. As a result, there is insufficient evidence for conclusive findings for CO and SO2 in the current study, leading to these variables being both negatively and positively associated with SARS-CoV-2 transmission. At the same time, some studies indicated that COVID-19's indirect effect could help alleviate the problem of air pollution. For example, one group reported a strong correlation between COVID-19 lockdown and a 15–33% reduction in NO2 and 5% reduction throughout CO in Egypt. Others studied a similar situation that occurred in India. They estimated that the COVID-19 lockdown could reduce PM10, PM2.5, NO2, and SO2 concentrations by 55, 49, 60, and 19%, respectively, in Delhi and Mumbai. This finding was corroborated by a team who discovered that several air pollutant concentrations, including PM2.5, PM10, O3, and CO, showed a significant decline during the COVID-19 outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand.

Overall, we don’t have direct evidence that climate change is influencing the spread of COVID-19, but we do know that climate change alters how we relate to other species on Earth and that matters to our overall health and our risk for infections. As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.

Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people. Less demand for animal meat and more sustainable animal husbandry could decrease emerging infectious disease risk and lower greenhouse gas emissions. We have many reasons to take climate action to improve our health and reducing risks for infectious disease emergence is one of them. Recent research at Harvard has found that people who live in places with poor air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19 even when accounting for other factors that may influence risk of death such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare:

https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm

This is consistent with prior data that has shown that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who smoke fare worse with respiratory infections than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke. In places where air pollution is a routine problem, we have to pay particular attention to individuals who may be more exposed or vulnerable than others to polluted air, such as the homeless, those who don’t have air filtration in their homes, or those whose health is already compromised. These individuals may need more attention and support than they did even before coronavirus came along. For those interested in research papers on air pollution and virus transmission. Some of the important ones to me are:

  • This paper found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate:

https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm

  • This study found that worse air quality in China may increase transmission of infections that cause influenza-like illnesses:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749117326623?via=ihub

  • A study of nearly 500,000 New York residents found that higher particulate matter air pollution levels increased the chances of hospitalisation for pneumonia and emergency department visits, especially for influenza:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6394122/

  • Researchers found that several viruses, including adenovirus and influenza virus, can be carried on air particles. This 2019 paper finds that particulate matter likely contributed to the spread of the 2015 avian influenza, and I always like the sense of pre-COVID papers being more balanced:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-47788-z

  • During the SARS epidemic in 2003, this study found that increases in particulate matter air pollution increased risks of dying from the disease:

http://www.besjournal.com/en/article/id/14a73fdf-d8dd-417a-8ad9-66f2986e2094

  • When it comes to the weather however, I’ve spent some time on climate including temperature and humidity on SARS-CoV-2 spread. To me, it’s much more about driving people indoors, or out. I could go on, and on. If you’ve read this far, you know this.

General climate change and disease thoughts

Climate change has already made conditions more favourable to the spread of some infectious diseases, including Lyme disease, waterborne diseases such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus which causes vomiting and diarrhea, and mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Future risks are not easy to foretell, but climate change hits hard on several fronts that matter to when and where pathogens appear, including temperature and rainfall patterns.  We have seen a trend of greater emergence of infectious diseases in recent decades. Most of these diseases have entered into people from animals, especially wild animals. This trend has many causes. We have massive concentrations of domesticated animals around the world, some of which can be home to pathogens, like the flu, that can make people sick. We also have massive concentrations of people in cities where diseases transmitted by sneezing may find fertile ground. And we have the ability to travel around the globe in less than a day and share germs widely.

But a look at the origins of COVID reveals that other forces may be in play. In the past century we have escalated our demands upon nature, such that today, we are losing species at a rate unknown since the dinosaurs, along with half of life on earth, went extinct 65 million years ago. This rapid dismantling of life on earth owes primarily to habitat loss, which occurs mostly from growing crops and raising livestock for people. With fewer places to live and fewer food sources to feed on, animals find food and shelter where people are, and that can lead to disease spread.

Another major cause of species loss is climate change, which can also change where animals and plants live and affect where diseases may occur. Historically, we have grown as a species in partnership with the plants and animals we live with. So, when we change the rules of the game by drastically changing the climate and life on earth, we have to expect that it will affect our health.

So based on the above we can do a lot. For example, preventing deforestation, a root cause of climate change, can help stem biodiversity loss as well as slow animal migrations that can increase risk of infectious disease spread. The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa probably occurred in part because bats, which carried the disease, had been forced to move into new habitats because the forests they used to live in had been cut down to grow palm oil trees.

Rethinking our agricultural practices, including those that rely on raising tens of millions of animals in close quarters, can prevent transmissions between animals and spillover into human populations. Reducing air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas also helps keep our lungs healthy, which can protect us from respiratory infections like coronavirus. To combat climate change, we need to drastically decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Generating electricity from low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar decreases harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide that lead to more heart attacks and stroke as well as obesity, diabetes, and premature deaths that put further strains on our health care systems.

Preparation for pandemics is also about keeping people healthy at baseline. If we have a population like in the U.S. where a third of our population are obese, and 5-10% of people have diabetes, we’re going to be immensely more vulnerable. And if you look at why people in the U.S. are not healthy at baseline, it has to do with our diets, pollution, and climate change. We have an opportunity here to recognize that prevention is by far the best approach to protecting health. When COVID-19 eases, and we are ready to restart our economy, we can make our workforce healthier and more climate-resilient through scaling-up our investments in low-carbon technologies. Easy to say I know.

People with chronic health conditions, lower-income, and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by both COVID-19 and climate change, and pollution is at the heart of both problems as this study confirms:

https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm

We know that African American communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and we’re now seeing this pollution driving higher mortality rates from COVID-19:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/03/12/whites-are-mainly-blame-air-pollution-blacks-hispanics-bear-burden-says-new-study/

The separation of health and environmental policy is a ​dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with. We need to bring these communities together. Some progress has been made in addressing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals into people. But largely we still view the environment, and life on earth, as separate.

Infectious diseases are scary because they are immediate and personal. They radically and rapidly change how we lead our lives, and they are an immediate threat to our friends and families. They hit all of our “go” buttons. Climate change seems to many an armageddon in slow motion and its dangers can feel impersonal and its causes diffuse. It’s easy to think “I didn’t cause this” or that “it doesn’t directly affect me.” But there’s another way to look at it. Like COVID-19, if you’re concerned about climate change, you can take actions right now to improve your health and the health of your friends and loved ones.

The USA spends just over $3 trillion on health care yearly. And by some estimates, more than half the deaths in the United States are preventable, largely because of pollution, diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits like smoking; that’s just the US. So think about the money we could save simply by reducing air pollution, eating less meat, and building exercise into our day by walking or biking more often. We could use the savings to invest in preventing climate change, among other things like education. When you look at this question purely from a financial standpoint, air pollution is a drag on economic growth and solutions to address have been enormously cost-effective in the United States. In 2011, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency that looked at the costs and benefits of the Clean Air act found that every $1 invested to reduce air pollution returns up to $30 in benefits. The only thing our health and our economy can’t afford is climate inaction.

However overall, when compared to air pollution, the link between COVID-19 and climate change is extremely ambiguous. Since COVID-19 events were detected in 2019, there was no clear evidence of climate change's effect on COVID-19, which is typically a long-term event. A recent review stated that both absolute humidity (AH) and temperature have been linked to influenza outbreaks and facilitated epidemic progression. In tropical regions, SARS-CoV-2 appears to have a higher airborne survival and transmission rate than the influenza virus. A blockade of aerosol transmission in the case of influenza virus has been described for temperature variations above 30°C. Most studies in many countries, including Thailand, Singapore, India, and China, found a positive relationship between temperature and the daily number of COVID-19 cases. Several researchers, however, found a negative association between temperature and COVID-19 cases. One group for example, discovered that rising temperatures were associated with a decrease in daily new cases of COVID-19 in Brazil and Canada. Furthermore, relative humidity was found to be negatively correlated with daily new COVID-19 cases. Another team showed results demonstrating that lower relative humidity promotes influenza virus transmission, confirming this weather effect. The SARS coronavirus's stability at low humidity can support its spread in communities in subtropical climates (such as Hong Kong) during the spring. It’s all very complex to me.

Conclusions

The paleo-climatologist (cool job title) Jessica Tierney thinks the key may be the clouds. Today, the San Francisco fog reliably rolls in, as we even in the UK know. These clouds are a mainstay of west coasts around the world, reflecting sunlight back to space from coastal California and Peru and Namibia. But under higher-CO2 conditions and higher temperatures, water droplets in incipient clouds get bigger and rain down faster. In the Eocene, this might have caused these clouds to fall apart and disappear, inviting more solar energy to reach, and warm, the oceans. That might be why the Eocene was so outrageously hot. This sauna of our early mammalian ancestors represents something close to the worst possible scenario for future warming although some studies claim that humans, under truly nihilistic emissions scenarios, could make the planet even warmer. The good news is the inertia of the Earth’s climate system is such that we still have time to rapidly reverse course, heading off an encore of this world, or that of the Miocene, or even the Pliocene, in the coming decades. All it will require is instantaneously halting the super-eruption of CO2 disgorged into the atmosphere that began with the Industrial Revolution. Simple no? Especially with our clever machines that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere as per this:

https://sci-hub.st/https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652619307772

We know how to do this, and we cannot underplay the urgency. The fact is that none of these ancient periods is actually an apt analogue for the future if things go wrong. It took millions of years to produce the climates of the Miocene or the Eocene, and the rate of change right now is almost unprecedented in the history of animal life.

Taking a step back from Covid which is likely to end up a blip in our history, one can see how unnatural, nightmarish, and profound our current experiment on the planet really is. A small population of our particular species of primate has, in only a few decades, unlocked a massive reservoir of old carbon slumbering in the Earth, gathering since the dawn of life, and set off on a global immolation of Earth’s history to power the modern world. As a result, up to half of the tropical coral reefs on Earth have died, 10 trillion tons of ice have melted, the ocean has grown 30 percent more acidic, and global temperatures have spiked. If we keep going down this path for a geologic nanosecond longer, who knows what will happen? The next few fleeting moments are ours, but they will echo for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years. This is one of the most important times to be alive in the history of life. And it’s far more relevant than some politically correct ESG stuff, though of course I didn’t just say that.

 

Justin Stebbing
Managing Director

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