While driving the other day, I was listening to somebody on a local talk radio station explain that we had far more important issues to worry about and that all those panicking about climate change have got their priorities wrong.
The stance being taken reminded me of the famous opening line from Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem “If”
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
…you’ll be a Man, my son
To be honest, I really don’t agree with that thought. If you are indeed remaining calm while everybody around you is running around screaming in raw panic, then there is rather obviously something going on that you have failed to comprehend.
The greatest threat ever faced by our species is climate change. #COP26, the UN Climate Conference, is now in session and really is a key pivitol moment.
What needs to happen and why?
I’m going to step back from the politics and give you a bit of raw data that illustratesthe problem.
Far from any city, daily measurements are taken at the Mauna Loa Observatory on the island of Hawaii. This has been done from 1958 to the present day. The Mauna Loa observatory is a benchmark sampling location for CO2. Perched on a barren volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the observatory is ideally situated for sampling well-mixed air that is undisturbed by the influence of local pollution sources or vegetation. This location represents a fair unbiased measurement of the global background for the northern hemisphere.
The graph of the data gathered is known as the Keeling curve. This is because scientist Charles David Keeling, started the monitoring program and supervised it until his death in 2005. Since his passing, responsibility and oversight of the project transferred to Keeling’s son, Ralph Keeling.
Here is the complete record of measurements from 1958 until now …
As you can see from the above, the amount of CO2 within our atmosphere has gone from between 310-320 ppm to somewhere between 410-420 ppm today.
If you are wondering why it appears to bounce up and down, that is the summer/winter cycle. In the spring and over the summer vegetation sucks up CO2, then when winter comes, that rate of absorption drops back.
Why does this measurement actually matter?
CO2 is what is known as a greenhouse gas, but what does this mean?
I suspect you do know, but let’s be sure we are on the same page here and cover it briefly. During the day solar radiation warms the surface and then at night that heat is released. CO2 acts like a pane of glass in a greenhouse and traps the heat – net effect – warming.
OK yes, it is all a tad more complicated than just that. CO2 absorbs and then emits infrared radiation. It is this process that traps heat near the surface. The consequence of this has been a measurable increase in global temperatures.
The impacts include …
- Rising sea levels
- An increase in the severity of storms
Not only is the sea level rising, but the rate at which sea level is rising is accelerating. The rise is not just about ice melting, if you warm water, it expands. Just to worry you a tad more, there is enough ice in the Antarctic and Greenland to raise sea level by another 65 meters. While 65 meters is not going to happen in your lifetime, what you might indeed live to see, if you exercise, eat all your vegetables, and are young enough, is a sea level rise of several meters by 2100. That will displace 630 million people.
To address the question in the title of this posting – yes, it matters like nother else. When compared to anything and everything else, it all fades into utter insignificance, it is a challenge that is akin to nothing we as a species have ever faced before.
But surely this is all natural
Permit me to roll out just one word … no.
Let’s grab that Keeling curve and tack on to it ice core data going back over 800,000 years. Trapped in ice core samples are tiny ancient bubbles of the atmosphere. An analysis of these has been used to create a precise 800,000 year record of CO2 within our atmosphere.
If you are curious to read more about these ice cores, then the NASA page on it all is here. You can, if you will forgive the pun, drill down even deeper and examine the ice core data yourself. The NCEI link to that is here.
Here is what the full 800,000 record of CO2 within our admosphere looks like …
If you are wondering why it naturally cycles between roughly 180 ppm and 280 ppm, that is down to what are known as Milankovitch cycles. The orbit of earth around the sun varies from a perfect circle to an elipse. This is because of the gravational pull of other bodies within our solar system. This is also why we have 50,000 cycles that bounce us in and out of ice ages.
What is well understood is that the measured warming is not natural, and is not a variation in solar radiation, (hint: Mars is not getting warmer, only we are). It’s us. Our consumption of fossil fuels has been rapidly increaseing CO2 and that is the cause of the measurable global warming.
Sadly some still don’t truly grasp the devestating consequences of this.
For those that still reject the entire notion of climate change, I should perhaps point out that your argument is not with me, nor even with the wider scientific community, but instead is with the laws of physics. Let me wish you all the best in winning that argument.
So what needs to happen?
We must reduce our CO2 emissions, we simply can’t continue on our current path.
The consequences of doing nothing meaningful are quite frankly unthinkable.
What is going on right now is the #COP26 conference. This is where key decision-makers need to step up to the plate and make commitements.
If nothing truly meaningful happens then multiple species right across the vast diversity of life, including us, along with numerous ecosystems, will be well and truly F**ked.
It’s not yet too late. Right now we stand at a pivitol moment.
Being Realistic; what will be the outcome of COP26?
Thinking about it all with just the words “Success” or “Failure” is perhaps the wrong way to view it. COP26 is not akin too flipping a switch, but instead is about putting in place a scale of mitigation activity that gets us to net zero.
The most probable outcome for COP26 is that there will be a gap between the emissions pledges and the recommended scientific advice. Grasp a firm hold and cling to this thought – That gap does not mean “failure”.
If we did nothing at all and things rapidly unfolded in a short timeframe, for example meters of sea level rise wiping out costal cities in our lifetime, then we simply can’t adapt to that. If however, we slow things down so that events unfold over a far longer period of multiple centuries, that then gives us a decent chance of being able to adapt.
In other words, we are still in with a shot here, all is not lost.
Yes, doing nothing really is not an option, but doing something, even if it is not ideal is very much on the agenda, is within reach, and is the most probable outcome.