Monday, October 28, 2013

How Do We Act in the Face of Climate Chaos?

Guy McPherson

Guy R. McPherson is Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources
Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at University of Arizona.
Below are some (slighly edited) extracts from a post at Guy
McPherson's website: 
summary and update on climate change.

The Warning

As described by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990, temperature rise “beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage”.

We’ve clearly triggered the types of positive feedbacks the United Nations warned about in 1990. Yet my colleagues and acquaintances think we can and will work our way out of this horrific mess with permaculture (which is not to denigrate permaculture, the principles of which are implemented at the mud hut). Reforestation doesn’t come close to overcoming combustion of fossil fuels, as pointed out in the 30 May 2013 issue of Nature Climate Change. Furthermore, forested ecosystems do not sequester additional carbon dioxide as it increases in the atmosphere, as disappointingly explained in the 6 August 2013 issue of New Phytologist.

Here’s the bottom line: On a planet 4 C hotter than baseline, all we can prepare for is human extinction (from Oliver Tickell’s 2008 synthesis in the Guardian).

John Davies concludes: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.” He considers only atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, not the many self-reinforcing feedback loops described below. 

Positive feedbacks
Positive feedbacks
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010). According to NASA’s CARVE project, these plumes were up to 150 kilometers across as of mid-July 2013. Whereas Malcolm Light’s 9 February 2012 forecast of extinction of all life on Earth by the middle of this century appears premature because his conclusion of exponential methane release during summer 2011 was based on data subsequently revised and smoothed by U.S. government agencies, subsequent information — most notably from NASA’s CARVE project — indicates the grave potential for catastrophic release of methane. Catastrophically rapid release of methane in the Arctic is further supported by Nafeez Ahmed’s thorough analysis in the 5 August 2013 issue of the Guardian as well as Natalia Shakhova’s 29 July 2013 interview with Nick Breeze (note the look of abject despair at the eight-minute mark).
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011).
Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011). In addition, ongoing deforestation in the region is driving declines in precipitation at a rate much faster than long thought, as reported in the 19 July 2013 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
Invasion of tall shrubs warms the soil, hence destabilizes the permafrost (Environmental Research Letters, March 2012)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012). According to a paper in the 24 July 2013 issue of Scientific Reports, melt rate in the Antarctic has caught up to the Arctic.
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012), a phenomenon consequently apparent throughout the northern hemisphere (Nature Communications, July 2013). The New York Times reports hotter, drier conditions leading to huge fires in western North America as the “new normal” in their 1 July 2013 issue. A paper in the 22 July 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates boreal forests are burning at a rate exceeding that of the last 10,000 years.
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide(Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012)
The microbes have joined the party, too, according to a paper in the 23 February 2013 issue of New Scientist
Summer ice melt in Antarctica is at its highest level in a thousand years: Summer ice in the Antarctic is melting 10 times quicker than it was 600 years ago, with the most rapid melt occurring in the last 50 years (Nature Geoscience, April 2013). Although scientists have long expressed concern about the instability of the West Atlantic Ice Sheet (WAIS), a research paper published in the 28 August 2013 of Nature indicates the East Atlantic Ice Sheet (EAIS) has undergone rapid changes in the past five decades. The latter is the world’s largest ice sheet and was previously thought to be at little risk from climate change. But it has undergone rapid changes in the past five decades, signaling a potential threat to global sea levels. The EAIS holds enough water to raise sea levels more than 50 meters.
Surface meltwater draining through cracks in an ice sheet can warm the sheet from the inside, softening the ice and letting it flow faster, according to a study accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface (July 2013). It appears a Heinrich Event has been triggered in Greenland. Consider the description of such an event as provided by Robert Scribbler on 8 August 2013:
In a Heinrich Event, the melt forces eventually reach a tipping point. The warmer water has greatly softened the ice sheet. Floods of water flow out beneath the ice. Ice ponds grow into great lakes that may spill out both over top of the ice and underneath it. Large ice damns (sic) may or may not start to form. All through this time ice motion and melt is accelerating. Finally, a major tipping point is reached and in a single large event or ongoing series of such events, a massive surge of water and ice flush outward as the ice sheet enters an entirely chaotic state. Tsunamis of melt water rush out bearing their vast floatillas (sic) of ice burgs (sic), greatly contributing to sea level rise. And that’s when the weather really starts to get nasty. In the case of Greenland, the firing line for such events is the entire North Atlantic and, ultimately the Northern Hemisphere.
Breakdown of the thermohaline conveyor belt is happening in the Antarctic as well as the Arctic, thus leading to melting of Antarctic permafrost (Scientific Reports, July 2013)
Loss of Arctic sea ice is reducing the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator, thus causing the jet stream to slow and meander. One result is the creation of weather blocks such as the recent very high temperatures in Alaska. As aresultboreal peat dries and catches fire like a coal seam. The resulting soot enters the atmosphere to fall again, coating the ice surface elsewhere, thus reducing albedo and hastening the melting of ice. Each of these individual phenomena has been reported, albeit rarely, but to my knowledge the dots have not been connected beyond this space. The inability or unwillingness of the media to connect two dots is not surprising, and has been routinely reported (recently including here with respect to climate change and wildfires) (July 2013)
Earthquakes trigger methane release, and consequent warming of the planet triggers earthquakes, as reported by Sam Carana at Arctic-news (October 2013)
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
Supertankers are taking advantage of the slushy Arctic, demonstrating that every catastrophe represents a business opportunity, as pointed out by Professor of journalism Michael I. Niman and picked up by Truthout (ArtVoice, September 2013)
As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter feedback process is reversible at a temporal scale relevant to our species. Once you pull the tab on the can of beer, there’s no keeping the carbon dioxide from bubbling up and out. These feedbacks are not additive, they are multiplicative. Now that we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else). Nor will we willingly forgo a few dollars by failing to take advantage of the long-sought Northwest Passage.

Robin Westenra provides an assessment of these positive feedbacks at Seemorerocks on 14 July 2013. It’s worth a look.

Earth-system scientist Clive Hamilton concludes in his April 2013 book Earthmasters that “without [atmospheric sulphates associated with industrial activity] … Earth would be an extra 1.1 C warmer.” In other words, collapse takes us directly to 2 C within a matter of weeks. 

Several other academic scientists have concluded, in the refereed journal literature no less, that the 2 C mark is essentially impossible (for example, see the review paper by Mark New and colleagues published in the 29 November 2010 issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A). 

The German Institute for International and Security Affairs concluded 2 June 2013 that a 2 C rise in global-average temperature is no longer feasible (and Spiegel agrees, finally, in their 7 June 2013 issue), while the ultra-conservative International Energy Agency concludes that, “coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017 … without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.” 

Image from: The two epochs of Marcott, by Jos Hagelaars

At the 11:20 mark of this video, climate scientist Paul Beckwith indicates Earth could warm by 6 C within a decade. 

If you think his view is extreme, consider: 
  1. the 5 C rise in global-average temperature 55 million years ago during a span of 13 years (reported in the 1 October 2013 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences); and also 
  2. the reconstruction of regional and global temperature for the past 11,300 years published in Science in March 2013. One result is shown in the above figure.

How Do We Act in the Face of Climate Chaos?

Below is a video of a recent presentation by Guy McPherson. 

Presentation by Guy McPherson in Boulder, Colorado on October 16, 2013.

Below are some extracts from the video, again slightly edited.

Malcolm Light in 2012 concluded, based on data from NOAA and NASA, that methane release had gone exponential and was leading to the demise of all life on Earth, not just human extinction, by the middle of the century.

So 3.5 C to 4 C is almost certainly a death sentence for all human beings on the planet, not because it'll be a warmer planet, but because the warming of the planet will remove all habitat for human beings. Ultimately we're human animals like other animals, we need habitat to survive.

Changes we see in three or four decades happen as a result of what we do today. There's a huge lag between our actions today in the consequences down the road in terms of the Earth's planetary systems.

Without plankton in the ocean, there goes roughly half the global food supply. The ability to lose land plants is growing rapidly and there goes the other half for the food supply for human beings. If we have up to 5 C by 2050, that'll certainly do the trick.

Why is this happening? It's civilization that drove us into population overshoot. We cannot go back anymore since 1939, since we invented nuclear armageddon. There's no going back. If we ceased the set of living arrangements at this point, the world's 400 or so nuclear power plants melt down catastrophically and we're all dead in a month. We cannot terminate industrial civilization until we decommission all nuclear power plants. It takes at least 20 years to decommission a nuclear power plant.

The bad news is that means that the world's four hundred or so nuclear power plants meltdown catastrophically in a short period of time. Fukushima represent a major threat to humanity. If they fail in moving the spent fuel rods next month, according to nuclear researcher Christina Consola, if one of those MOX fuel rods is exposed to the air, one of the 1565, it will kill 2.89 billion people on the planet in a matter of weeks, so nuclear catastrophe is right there on the horizon. 

People ask me: Why are you presenting this horrible information?

Action is the antidote to despair even if the action is hopeless. When a medical doctor knows that somebody has cancer, it's malpractice if they don't tell that. So I'm doing that. I think Bill McKibben and James Hansen and a whole bunch of climate scientists are guilty of malpractice. Because they know what I know. Almost every politician in the country knows what I know. All the leaders of the big banks know what I know. And they're lying to us.

I'm just presenting the information from other scientists here. I'm trying to the widest extent possible not to infuse my opinion in the situation. It's John Davies who on September 20, 2013, taking into account only carbon dioxide, says there will be few people left on the planet by 2040. It's Malcolm Light, writing in February 2012, who assesses the methane situation. And so on.

Yes, I agree with them, and that agreement is illustrated by me showing you that information.

I promote resistance against this omnicidal culture, not in the hope that it will save our species, but in the hope that it will save other species. Because as E.O. Wilson, biologist at Harvard, points out, it only takes 10 million years after a great extinction event, before you have a blossoming full rich planet again. That's what we're working toward. We're saving habitat for other species at this point.


  1. Another important feedback is dying forests. Both trees and the understory are in rapidly accelerating decline due to air pollution. This leads to increased damage from opportunistic biotic attacks - insects, disease and fungus. When plants absorb troposheric ozone, it also causes root systems to wither, making vegetation more susceptible to drought and wind. The death of trees and other perennial plants leads to a number of amplifying loops - more wildfires; more CO2 and ozone...less CO2 absorption, faster warming...disruption of the hydrological cycle; more intense droughts. See and for periodic updates on scientific reports see:

  2. Really? One MOX fuel rod will kill 3 billion people in a few weeks? Is there a credible source or is this anti-nuclear alarmism.

    1. The post contains a link to Christina Consola's report, which gives some further details regarding the gravity of the situation and also lists her credentials. I think it's clear that the situation in Fukushima is very worrying. In my view, governments should embrace effective and comprehensive action to - among other things - facilitate a rapid shift to safe and clean ways to produce energy.

    2. I just read the above mentioned Christina Consola's report. This is not a serious, science based report. This doesn't mean I would favor the use of nuclear energy as a solution for slowing and mitigating climate change, as it is far too complex, and the dangers for nuclear meltdowns is rapidly growing - just in the neighborhood of NY and NJ! I just read the report of "the aftermath of hurricane sandy". Frightening prospects!
      I agree on all other details of your interesting report, the amount and strength of all those feedback loops is impressing and undebatable.

  3. Thank you, Sam. Turning the corner on climate change and finding the dead end awaiting us is a bad news/worse news experience. Guy has been holding the message for a year now and it's really time for others (with credibility) to approach it without political agenda. As Guy talks about the 25 feedback loops currently in place and leading us to the firing wall, I hope other scientists whose expertise coincides with the areas covered by these feedback loops will consider them and address them in a public manner. Thanks again.

  4. We're now at 26 self-reinforcing feedback loops. The large and growing list is here:

  5. Re: "forested ecosystems do not sequester additional carbon dioxide as it increases in the atmosphere, as disappointingly explained in the 6 August 2013 issue of New Phytologist."

    You are extrapolating for the whole planet what was observed over a small patch of land under specific circumstances. If Afforestation cannot sequester carbon, then why does Deforestation cause CO2 emissions?

    I agree with the first reference you cite that Afforestation cannot possibly sequester all the remaining fossil fuel carbon stores on the planet and therefore, we need to get off fossil fuels ASAP, but Afforestation is not an impotent tool at our disposal and it mostly comes for free, if we get off animal products ASAP.

  6. It's not clear that all of those feedback loops are underway, from the links given. Some are still being investigated and "only" a few can definitely be thought to have kicked in in earnest. That is still worrying, of course, but if many can't be validated, it would cast doubt over the others, especially in terms of how they will play out.

    The first highlight from the presentation misses part of the context, where Guy mentions that the data points used by Malcolm Light no longer exist in the data set, and readings over the following years showed much smaller levels of methane, though Guy's phrasing is suggestive of manipulation of the dataset. As the spike hasn't shown up in any of the other stations, it seems likely it was an error or a local, short lived, event.

    Most of what Guy talks about is very concerning but remember that it is a worst case scenario where every feedback goes at breakneck pace and where business as usual goes on for many more decades. I think there are other possibilities but certainly no room for complacency.

    1. There's no doubt that albedo (reflectivity) is increasingly declining in the Arctic. This one feedback alone is estimated by Professor Wadhams to cause more warming than the net radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all people of the world.

      We can count ourselves lucky that there hasn't been more methane entering the atmosphere over the Arctic Ocean as yet, though there are worrying indications that we're running out of luck, so it makes sense to start taking effective and comprehensive action now, rather than to wait until this threat fully eventuates.

      Guy rightly rejects NOAA's practice of removing data, which can confuse people into assuming they were errors. NOAA collects data from only a few stations in the Arctic, so the Svalbard station covers a wide region. A hydrate that is venting locally can push up methane levels in the flask. In such a case, NOAA can later remove such data, not because they were incorrect, but because they are not seen as regionally representative.

      Malcolm Light highlighted these data precisely because they are indicative of the impact of methane venting. There's no doubt that methane has been venting close to Svalbard. This had been observed since 2008, followed up by peer-reviewed studies such as this 2009 one. BTW, current Svalbard flask levels fluctuate between 1865 and 1950 ppb, so the peak of 2040 ppb that Malcolm Light used in his calculations is rather conservative. Again, see this recent post to get an idea of what current peak levels are over the Arctic Ocean.

      In conclusion, just a few of these feedbacks have the potential to devastate the world within decades and Guy rightly sounds alarm bells, the more so since most media refuse to connect the dots.

  7. How do we act in the face of increasing climate chaos now that it is essentially too late to alter this.
    I'd suggest root core change to the force that caused the change in the first place so it stops adding.
    Nature's isolation from fiduciary duty implied in money needs to be eliminated en mass isolating harm from those elements of the economy worldwide that tend to support reestablishment of open system.
    Otherwise entropy is forced to rise automatically. And the determination of exactly how close we were to isolating evil from money and the fun of seeing angst in the devils' eyes as the prey is ripped from grasp. Figuratively speaking.