Our beds are burning

Ask yourself a simple question. Can you give hope to future generations that the Great Barrier Reef will be protected if your policy is to limit warming to 1.5°C when the GBR is already disappearing before our eyes?

With about 1.1°C of warming we are told that Unprecedented fires in California and Australia signal the dawn of the ‘fire age’. Richard Flanagan talks of a Tasmanian rainforest burnt in 2018, now desolate shale with no sign of regrowth.

As I write, pristine Fraser Island is burning on a front about 46 km long, with reports that water from water bombers is evaporating before it hits the ground.

We have now reached a point where the cost of insurance alone in flood and bushfire-prone communities makes it impossible to live there.

Dangerous climate change is already here.

How can we set a target of 1.5°C temperature (actually a 50% chance of limiting the increase to that level) when we know that during the Eemian interglacial sea levels rose 6-9 metres with 300ppm of CO2, and we have already broken through the 410 ppm?

It’s noteworthy that in a 2018 paper by Will Steffen et al Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene the authors propose a Stabilized Earth pathway. In the Supplemental Material, table on page 4, they mention “a best-case scenario” of 400-450ppm of CO2 which pertained in the mid-Pliocene 3-4 million years ago with sea levels 10-22 metres higher than now.

Co-authors of that paper included Hans Joachim Schellnhuber at that time head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, it’s current head Johan Rockström, and Timothy M. Lenton, who had been publishing about tipping points since at least 2007.

The paper went viral as the “Hothouse Earth” paper. It was published a few months before the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C, so there was much focus on limiting warming to 2°C. Many saw the report as alarmist, stressing that if warming accelerated through tipping points it would take time. Articles like Richard Betts Hothouse Earth: here’s what the science actually does – and doesn’t – say were meant to calm us down.

There was no new science in the paper, he says, it was a thought experiment. The focus was on 2°C, which might be reached by 2050, but while some think the effects would play out over “centuries or millennia” we really need more research.

More research and the inadequacy of existing models is exactly what we need, according to the paper, but the main point was missed by many. Steffen in a blog post at Pearls and Irritations says we need A Fundamental Re-think of the Climate Change Challenge.

He is saying that UNFCCC and IPCCC thinking on climate change is very linear. He suggests that the Earth System:

    is more likely to behave as a ‘complex system’, with well-defined states and transitions between them driven largely by feedback processes internal to the system, not only by drivers external to the system. In essence, the external drivers act as triggers that initially drive the system away from a stable state but then intrinsic feedback processes become the dominant drivers of system change until a new stability domain is reached. (Emphasis added)

These internal drivers which constitute:

    important feedback processes within the system are showing signs of instability as result of the human-driven temperature rise. Examples include melting of Arctic summer sea ice that accelerates warming in the north; increasing wildfires in the boreal forests and Amazon rainforest that release more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere; and the onset of melting in some permafrost regions in Siberia, which could release vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere.

These internal drivers may take the Earth System out of human control. From the paleorecord 400 ppm (parts per million) was last seen in the mid-Pliocene, about 3-4 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C hotter than pre-industrial and sea levels were 10-22 metres higher. The next stop is when:

    carbon dioxide concentrations rise to 450-500 ppm, entirely possible this century, we may commit the Earth System to mid-Miocene conditions, about 15-17 millions years ago, when temperatures were 4-5°C above pre-industrial and sea level was likely 20-30 metres above present levels.

In the broad, that still looks linear, except they are saying the extra carbon may come from within the system rather than by burning fossil fuels.

Plus they take into account the full effects of carbon concentrations, played out in millennia, rather than the coming decades and the next century.

In November 2019 a more urgent message along the same line appeared in a Nature editorial Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against by Timothy M. Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber:

    The growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel political and economic action on emissions.

Since the earlier paper in August 2018 the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C was published in December 2018, the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate in September 2019, plus further research on the interaction between various elements of the earth system. A classic is the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is now thought to reach an irreversible tipping point at 1.5°C. A fully disintegrated ice sheet will lift sea levels by 7 metres.

In a classic example of what they are talking about, Arctic sea ice decline means more warmth in the whole area is absorbed through decreased reflectivity. Increased meltwater from Greenland produces a cool blob in the North Atlantic ocean, which suppresses the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a key part of global heat and salt transport by the ocean:

    Rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and further slowdown of the AMOC could destabilize the West African monsoon, triggering drought in Africa’s Sahel region. A slowdown in the AMOC could also dry the Amazon, disrupt the East Asian monsoon and cause heat to build up in the Southern Ocean, which could accelerate Antarctic ice loss.

In the Antarctic, the Amundsen Sea embayment of West Antarctica may have passed a tipping point, and the latest data show that part of the East Antarctic ice sheet — the Wilkes Basin — might be similarly unstable. West Antarctica is worth 3-5 metres of sea level, East Antarctica about 58. The latest thinking on the Eemian is that there was significant ice loss in all three major ice sheets during the Eemian.

So a number of important tipping points already seem to be in play, and it is absolutely crucial that warming be kept to less than 1.5°C. The way things are atmospheric CO2:

    is rapidly heading towards levels last seen some 50 million years ago — in the Eocene — when temperatures were up to 14 °C higher than they were in pre-industrial times. It is challenging for climate models to simulate such past ‘hothouse’ Earth states. One possible explanation is that the models have been missing a key tipping point: a cloud-resolving model published this year suggests that the abrupt break-up of stratocumulus cloud above about 1,200 parts per million of CO2 could have resulted in roughly 8 °C of global warming.

For the cloud study, see How declining ice in clouds makes high ‘climate sensitivity’ plausible.

This image is indicative rather than comprehensive:

The Australian wildfires don’t get a mention at that stage. And the real problem is that our state of knowledge does not yield definite answers.

    we need models that capture a richer suite of couplings and feedbacks in the Earth system, and we need more data — present and past — and better ways to use them. Improving the ability of models to capture known past abrupt climate changes and ‘hothouse’ climate states should increase confidence in their ability to forecast these.

I think we need to take more account of paleoclimate science, which James Hansen has always done, but the IPCC has not.

The paper suggests that:

    Some early results from the latest climate models — run for the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, due in 2021 — indicate a much larger climate sensitivity (defined as the temperature response to doubling of atmospheric CO2) than in previous models. Many more results are pending and further investigation is required, but to us, these preliminary results hint that a global tipping point is possible.


    Some scientists counter that the possibility of global tipping remains highly speculative. It is our position that, given its huge impact and irreversible nature, any serious risk assessment must consider the evidence, however limited our understanding might still be. To err on the side of danger is not a responsible option.

The problem here is that by lining up with the IPCC and the notion that there is still burnable carbon compatible with an acceptable landing at 1.5°C is pretty much being an accessory to the destruction of the ecosystem.

David Spratt has been belling the cat and pointing out that the emperor has no clothes since he saw what happened with the melting of Arctic ice way back in September 2007, and penned The Big Melt, which later, with Philip Sutton, was expanded to the book Climate Code Red.

    The 2°C warming cap is a political compromise; with the speed of change now in the climate system and the positive feedbacks that 2°C will trigger, it looms for perhaps billions of people and millions of species as a death sentence.

    To allow the reestablishment and long-term security of the Arctic summer sea ice it is likely to be necessary to bring global warming back to a level at or below 0.5°C (a long-term precautionary warming cap) and for the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases at equilibrium to be brought down to or below a long-term precautionary cap of 320 ppm CO2e.

    The IPCC suffers from a scientific reticence and in many key areas the IPCC process has been so deficient as to be an unreliable and dangerously misleading basis for policy-making. (Emphasis added)

He’s right about being political. In 1990 the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) undertook an analysis of what constituted ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’. They found two degrees definitely dangerous, one degree probably safe. They also said “Temperature increases beyond 1°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable, and nonlinear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.”

They were right. However, cutting emissions looked difficult and expensive, and developing countries, including China and India, wanted the right to pollute their way to prosperity. So they came up with scenarios which allowed amounts of warming and risk that in retrospect are tragically dangerous. At the time, it must be said, tipping points were not thought to be a factor much below 4°C until about 2009.

Here’s a reminder of how wrong the IPCC was in 2007:

Spratt’s most recent piece – When climate risks are so high, short term actions matter most – sees him lose patience with the authorities playing dice with the future of the ecosystem:

    All carbon budgets for 1.5°C, and most for 2°C, do not keep warming below those targets, but overshoot” for a decade or two or three by up to half a degree, before cooling to the target by 2100. That is achieved with huge amounts of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, a proposed sequestration technology currently not working anywhere at scale other than in the existing oil and gas industry, which is only about storage of vented gases. This is classic moral hazard, and little more than an excuse to pollute now and wave a magic wand down the track.

    All such budgets have monumentally unacceptable risks of exceeding the target, for example probabilities of 33% to 50%. That’s a one-in-two, or one-in-three, chance of failure, of charging past the 1.5°C or 2°C target to a hotter place. A carbon budget with a 50% chance of 2°C, for example, has a 10% chance of 4°C or more, which is not a good bet.

    Would any climate lobby advocate get on board a plane if there were a one-in-three chance of crashing? Of course not, so why use that logic when the future of human civilisation and all those “special places” are at stake? In 2014, Mike Raupach, then head of CSIRO climate research in Canberra, produced work showing that to have a sensible — say 90% — chance of staying below 2°C, there was no carbon budget left.

Here are the probability tables used by the IPCC:


What Spratt is saying is that we would not board a plane if there was a 1 in 100 chance of it crashing. Yet we are being given 50% or 33% chance of crashing the ecosystem as a preferred policy option.

In truth there never was a budget of burnable carbon, as I found when I traced the story all the way through in Climate emergency – ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries, and a safe climate (apologies, it’s a long read, but if you want to know…)

James Hansen addressed the US Senate in June 1988.

Later in December 2007, in answer to a question by Bill McKibben who was thinking of setting up an organisation 450.org, Hansen said make that 350 ppm, for a safe climate we need to reduce atmospheric CO2.

At that time the level was about 382 ppm, but the 350 threshold had been passed in August 1988, two months after climate change was launched as a public policy issue.

In November 2007 Hansen gave a detailed testimony to the State of Iowa Utilities Board (a must-read to understand climate change in it’s deep paleontological context) to try to dissuade them from granting permits to new coal mines. In it he identifies ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ (DAI), the buzzword which was in fact the basic rationale for the UNFCCC and the IPCC. DAI, he said, comes in three aspects: (1) ice sheet disintegration and sea level rise, (2) extermination of species, and (3) regional climate disruptions. With the latter he meant the excess heat, droughts, floods, storms etc which increasingly beset us.

It’s happening now, he said, and warned that if the planet passed CO2 levels of 400 ppm, which he expected in 2015 under BAU (he was right) then dangerous climate change would be unavoidable, and there was a fair chance humans would lose control. His advice then was:

    no new coal-fired power without sequestration in advanced countries from 2012, ditto for developing countries by 2022, bulldoze the lot by 2050. He saw sequestration as 10 years away as an available technology, but then we should use it to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere, ie. from 2017.

In 2007 when Hansen made these calls the IPCC was recommending that global emissions peak by 2030, and reduce by 50% by 2050.

In 2015 the concept of Planetary Boundaries was published. It had been hatched mainly by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen, then at Stockholm University, aired in 2009, but published as Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity Space for Human, then more readably in Nature. This wondrous image comes from from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University:

The safe (green) zone was bounded by 350 ppm of CO2, yellow meant increasing risk. The climate back then was assessed as close to high risk.

What all this means is that effective climate action is not characterised by a target of net zero in 30 years time; it requires decarbonisation as soon as humanly possible, which will inevitably require reshaping human institutions so that they are as fit for purpose as possible. Drawdown is a necessary part, which will cost, but not as much as business as usual would.

Climate restoration – beyond zero emissions

On 13 November this year a group of climate scientists, writers and activists have written an open letter urging governments and companies to start acting, not only to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, but to achieve climate restoration:

    The climate crisis is here now. No matter how quickly we reach zero emissions, the terrible impacts of the climate crisis will not just go away. They will continue to cause millions to suffer for centuries to come, even in the most ambitious scenarios. As such, no matter how quickly it is done, solely cutting emissions is not enough.

    This is why we believe the ideal solution to the climate crisis would be to go beyond net zero, and start to restore the climate. This would be done by, on top of reducing emissions to zero, removing huge amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere. As such, we aim to restore the climate to as close to a safe climate as possible.

    Reaching zero emissions as quickly as possible is a necessary prerequisite for any attempt at restoration. The key purpose of removals should be to attempt to remove as much historic GHGs from the atmosphere as possible. This is not an excuse to reduce ambition on cutting emissions, because we don’t have the capacity to remove future emissions as well. Restoration is not about promoting one specific removal technique, but supporting the basic aim of trying to restore the climate. To restore the climate and have a safe future, we need to maximise mitigation, adaptation and removals.

Further, they urge activists everywhere to include climate restoration in their campaigning, and:

    we urge every citizen to do what they can to make the dream of restoration a reality. (Emphasis added)

The authors include Dr Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, James Hansen, George Monbiot, Michael E Mann and Mark Lynas.

Tim Flannery has written a new book The Climate Cure: Solving the Climate Emergency in the Era of COVID-19. I have not read it yet, but Phillip Adams interviewed him (see Tim Flannery on solving the climate emergency). In the SMH there is a review by James Bradley, along with David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. At The Guardian Flannery talks about talking about the book, and about the climate emergency, to his seven year-old son and others in the next generation.

The cure comes in three parts:

  • rapid cuts to emissions, he says 10% pa for 10 years
  • effective adaptation to life on a hotter planet
  • embrace drawdown pathways that will enable us to capture past emissions and thereby reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.

On drawdown, he sees four opportunities:

  • plant lots of trees
  • seed 9% of the oceans with kelp
  • silicate rocks
  • direct capture and sequestration of atmospheric CO2.

Worth a closer look. Flannery is not altogether hopeful at this point. We’ve left it all too late. He is very angry with about 25 politicians who have effectively blocked any action.


On drawdowns, see also Paul Hawken’s Drawdown a ‘must read’. Plenty of ideas there.

Then there is Rachel Sullivan’s Our options for global C02 drawdown.

[Update 3 December, 2020:

In the post Too good to be true? Is green flying really possible? I identified a Canadian firm Carbon Engineering who say they can capture CO2 directly from the air if they scaled up at less than $US100 per tonne.

The issue then is that you have to store it or use it. They say they could make fuel for less than $1.00/L, but you would end up with carbon back in the air. The concept they use is direct air capture (DAC) to convey that the carbon can be captures anywhere, it does not need to be transported to a storage site.

Their problem in scaling up is that there is no market at present. However, there are at least two other firms with similar capability.]

Andrew Glikson, an earth and paleo-climate scientist at ANU who has researched the relationships between asteroid impacts, volcanism, climate changes and mass extinctions of species, is critical of the blinkered view taken in IPCC reports and regards any plan that doesn’t go beyond zero to drawdown and climate restoration as deficient. See his recent articles:

He has just published a book The Event Horizon: Homo Prometheus and the Climate Catastrophe. There is a full list of his articles at Countercurrents.org, including Planetary arson:

    “Meeting the climate goals of the Paris Agreement is going to be nearly impossible without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” Kevin Drum (2019). No one knows how to impose 1.5 or 2.0 degrees Celsius limits unless drawdown /carbon sequestration of atmospheric CO2 is attempted, nor are drawdown methods normally discussed in most political or economic forums.

In the article he lists and gives some assessment of the various possibilities.

Finally, on climate restoration, take a look at Breakthrough (National Centre for Climate Restoration) where David Spratt, Ian Dunlop, former international oil, gas and coal industry executive, and chairman of the Australian Coal Association, and their mates hang out. One of his mates is Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The first major publication was What lies beneath: the understatement of existential climate risk. In their latest, Climate Reality Check 2020 tells us that if we reached zero net emissions now there would be negligible impact on temperatures, in part because aerosols created by burning fossil fuels suppress warming, and would take that long to dissipate.

Then expect warming to go up, because the if ~490 ppm CO2e were maintained, longer term equilibrium temperature is calculated at ~2.4°C.

We are in a right proper mess.

State of the Climate 2020

This month the BOM-CSIRO State of the Climate 2020 report was published, so we can check the current state of play. I’ll do that here in terms of the Four graphs that matter in the climate emergency.

First, atmospheric carbon dioxide

Here’s the CO2 at Cape Grim:

It’s at about 410ppm but the annual increase has risen by about 50% since the UNFCCC and the IPCC were formed in the early 1990s.

There has been no impact from COVID-19 yet, because most emissions are generated in the Northern Hemisphere. However, even at Mauna Loa a small increase rather than a decrease is expected (see WMO – Carbon dioxide levels continue at record levels, despite COVID-19 lockdown).

From another graph in the report it can be inferred that GHG growth is about 25 times faster than it was coming out of the last ice age. (See also Andrew Glikson – The global warming rate exceeds geological mass extinction events where current emissions growth is found to be more than an order of magnitude greater than during the KT impact, which killed off the dinosaurs, and the PETM 55 million years ago. CO2e levels have now reached 508. This graph shows that CO2 is not our only worry:

The second graph to watch is how energy is accumulating in the ocean, which is where about 93% of it goes:

What may not be appreciated is that the heat in the ocean comes in direct contact with the ice sheets, especially in West Antarctica where much of the ice sits on ground below sea level, but also to some extent in East Antarctica and Greenland. So net zero emissions may not stop sea level rise immediately.

Also rebuilding ice sheets would require GHG levels lower than they were during the Holocene.

Third, temperature:

Only 2.3% of additional warmth ends up in the atmosphere. The report gives us land and ocean surface temperature against a 1961-1990 average. The text tells us:

    Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.44 ± 0.24 °C since national records began in 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.

I think that is a 24-hour average rather than maxima. They tell us:

    Warming is observed across Australia in all months with both day and night-time temperatures increasing. This shift is accompanied by more extreme nationally averaged daily heat events across all months. For example, 2019 experienced 43 extremely warm days, more than triple the number in any of the years prior to 2000. This increasing trend is observed at locations across all of Australia.

    In summer we now see a greater frequency of very hot days compared to earlier decades. In terms of national daily average maximum temperatures, there were 33 days that exceeded 39 °C in 2019, more than the number observed from 1960 to 2018 combined, which totalled 24 days.

The shift in extremes, they say,

    has many impacts on human health, ecosystems and infrastructure and informs climate impact and risk assessments.

Including fire.

The fourth graph I like to keep an eye on is consumption of fossil fuels. The report provides this as the global story to 2018:

No joy there. It does remind us that more than half the emissions we dump into the atmosphere are helpfully absorbed by the planet. However, my understanding is that if you reduce atmospheric CO2 there would be some outgassing from the ocean.

You could get excited by this graph from Peter Sainsbury’s Sunday environmental round up, 8 November 2020

He then puts it into the context of all energy, and gets this:

That can’t be right!

So here’s the BP Statistical Review of World Energy2020 | 69th edition:

Here the various sources are graphed separately:

Renewables at 5% have just pipped nuclear.

How you feel about that graph depends a lot on what you think about gas. I’ll just link to the Climate Council’s explainer Why is gas bad for climate change and energy prices? and post Sainsbury’s graph, which shows gas for generating power to be unnecessary and redundant:

In an SMH article Climate Change Is Already Here: Major Scientific Report republished in Lethal Heating one of our leading scientists had this to say about the State of the Climate report:

    Professor Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at UNSW, said the findings were consistent with 30 years of scientific predictions, and concerns of the scientific community about global warming had only increased with time.

    Professor Pitman said it was no longer possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, but it may be possible to contain it to two degrees, the absolute upper limit permitted under the Paris climate agreement.

    Professor Pitman said reaching net zero by 2050 would not be enough to stop global warming reaching two degrees, and even getting to net zero would be “hugely challenging”.

As Phillip Adams is wont to say, citing Pablo Casals, ‘The situation is hopeless. We must take the next step’.

Andrew Glikson says the more apt term now is not climate change, it’s climate calamity.

All this raises the issue of hope and optimism. I would argue that both need to be based on reality. Rapid decarbonisation together with mitigation and drawdown for climate restoration does offer hope, whereas zero emissions by 2050 is fools gold. Optimism needs to be based on a practical assessment of the likelihood of success. Optimism for its own sake can lead to an underestimation of what needs to be done.

I’ve been writing about dangerous climate change for well over a decade. Below I’ve left links to three of my early posts on this blog, actually among a selection of posts transferred from Larvatus Prodeo:

Below I’ve listed all the links I collected for this piece and did not use:

8 thoughts on “Our beds are burning”

  1. In writing this I was working to a deadline of 30 November, because the ALP has called for submissions to revising its policy platform, which will happen in around March next year, I think.

    Now, that is today, I have to write my submission, but the fallback is ‘please read this post, then make up your own mind’.

  2. We should be looking at strategies for dealing with these projected changes in addition to stopping the emission of GHG.
    Reverse the growth of the human plague and develop plans for dealing with specific changes.

  3. Indeed, John. I’m looking for a paradigm shift from ‘limitation and escaping the worst’ to ‘restoration of a safe but dynamic ecology’.

    Last year I said the key concept was:

      Ecological sustainability within planetary boundaries and a safe climate

    with a note along these lines:

      Ecological sustainability will include preservation, restitution and enhancement along with responsible economic, social and personal growth and development.

    Not much has happened to change my view.

    So to Flannery’s rapid cuts to emissions (10% pa for 10 years), effective adaptation and drawdown pathways we need to add a just transition and positive planning, including something like the ‘green new deal’.

  4. Brian: Even if the world makes a rapid switch to shutting down the extraction of fossil carbon and net emissions due to clearing of forests, there are still going to be changes to sea levels, human population increases, weather patterns etc. due to what we have done in the past.
    There are also going to be local crisis as a result of local changes in food production capacity etc. Some of these will become broader crisis as a result of people wanting to move to a place where they can get food. (Think of a large nuclear power facing a dramatic drop of capacity to look after its people.)
    The question is what do we do to respond to these changes. I am thinking of rising extinctions, the impact on communities due to sea level increases and changes to the capacity of farming land and the seas.
    If you like perhaps you need a world green deal that goes beyond human welfare?

  5. Yes, John. If we had acted when we should have back in the 1990s there may have been a relatively smooth path.

    There is no easy path forward. I’m suggesting we have a proper crack at it rather than go over the cliff holding hands.

    I’m impressed with the Greens revised policy, which had changed without my knowing it. Needs a tweak here and there.

  6. I can’t do much at present but I am trying to get Sime Darby talking to Dr Jonathan D Trent (Omega Algal Oil).

    Apart from that I am implementing the things I have advocated for my own dwelling (boat) up to full energy independence level .

    Having Trump out of the way will make a huge difference to peoples’ ability to focus on real issues again.

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