Monday, December 31, 2012

How to avoid mass-scale death, destruction and extinction

The image below shows the FAO Food Price Index (Cereals), updated to October 2012.

[ image from earlier post ]

The above FAO Food Price Index shows that high food prices have been around for the past few years. The FAO, in its recent Cereal Supply and Demand Brief, explains that we can expect prices to rise, as illustrated below.

The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture mentions, in its Food Price Outlook, 2012-2013, that the "drought has affected prices for corn and soybeans as well as other field crops which should, in turn, drive up retail food prices".

Global food supply is under stress as extreme weather becomes the new norm. Farmers may be inclined to respond to drought by overusing ground water, or by slashing and burning forest, in efforts to create more farmland. Such practices do not resolve the problems; instead, they tend to exacerbate the problems over time, making things progressively worse.

The diagram below shows that there are many climatological feedbacks (ten of which are pictured) that make climate change worse. At the top, the diagram pictures vicious cycles that are responses by farmers that can add to make the situation even worse. Without effective action, the prospect is that climate change and crop failure combine to cause mass death and destruction, with extinction becoming the fourth development of global warming.

How can we avoid that such a scenario will eventuate? Obviously, once we are in the fourth development, i.e. mass-scale famine and extintion, it will be too late for action. Similarly, if the world moves into the third development, i.e. runaway global warming, it will be hard, if not impossible to reverse such a development. Even if we act now, it will be hard to reverse the second development, i.e. accelerated warming in the Arctic.

The most effective action will target causes rather than symptoms of these developments.

Part 1. Since emissions are the cause of global warming, dramatic cuts in emissions should be included in the first part of the responses. In addition, action is needed to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans. Storing the carbon in the soil will also improve soil quality, as indicated by the long green arrow on the left.

Part 2. Solar radiation management is needed to cool the Arctic.

Part 3. Methane management and further action is needed, e.g. to avoid that methane levels will rise further in the Arctic, which threatens to trigger further releases and escalate into runaway global warming. Measures to reduce methane can also benefit soil quality worldwide, as indicated by the long green arrow on the right.

Thus, the proposed action tackles the prospect of mass death and extinction by increasing soil fertility, as illustrated by the image below.

As indicated at the bottom of the image, the most effective policies to accomplish the goals set out in both part 1. and part 3. are feebates, preferably implemented locally.


  1. Ocean acidity and lag time for extinction apply.
    We can see what's coming and make no reply out of fear to tip an apple cart that keeps food supply..
    However at this the edge of Earth's life cliff an awakening is occurring with increase of speed as if the sound of lightning follows the flash but with the internet light speed and common thought are simultaneous. People need the brave to step up and say something to give hope everywhere..
    First off it is important that reality of Event happening is squarely faced and that those trying to understand graphs and things not panic. Or worse yet deny trouble is real..
    Here is link to description of Methane rise up.. The graph shows CH4 concentration in Atmosphere 3D and migration up.
    I want to assure people there are people aware..
    Even President has likely acknowledged trouble..
    So in the interests of science let's cooperate..

  2. Actually an ongoing and worsening threat to the food supply is the inexorably rising level of background tropospheric ozone. Ozone directly reduces crop yield and quality. Plants that absorb ozone through their foliage must repair the damage to leaves or needles and this diminishes energy allocation to roots. Shrunken roots make plants more vulnerable to drought and windthrow, and in the case of agricultural crops like potatoes lowers weight (see the photo at the bottom of this page comparing, left to right, clean filtered air; ambient polluted air; and elevated, expect future even more polluted air - it's shocking...

    A far more serious effect of exposure to air pollution is the loss of natural immunity to fungus, disease and insects. Pathogen attacks become lethal when vegetation is weakened by air pollution. Forests are in dieback because of this, all over the world, so not only are annual crops lost but all the products of perennials, vineyards, trees and orchards are imperiled - from maple syrup to nuts to apples and grapes and artichokes and berries and coffee.

    Of course, the same steps to remove CO2 emissions will largely remove the precursors to ozone. However, none of the geoengineering schemes directed towards temperature will help with ozone, which IS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT ALL BY ITSELF as is ocean acidification.

    I have the utmost respect for the urgency of the methane release, but unless we treat is as yet another dangerous symptoms of the entire package - industrial civilization and overpopulation - it won't do much if anything to slow let alone prevent "mass scale death, destruction and extinction.

    1. Yes, Gail, ground-level ozone is a big threat to the health of people and vegetation. As you say, the same policies that aim to reduce CO2 emissions will also reduce ozone precursors. Let me add that carbon dioxide removal and storage (CDRS) methods such as biochar are additionally very effective in reducing both atmospheric CO2 levels and ozone precursors.

      The three-part plan I propose calls for both dramatic cuts in emissions (including emissions other than CO2) as well as CDRS, as described at:
      This will also dramatically reduce ground-level ozone.

      Deep cuts in emissions will also end the masking effect of aerosols (specifically sulfur) currently emitted by, in particular, coal-fired power plants. Atmosphere and oceans are likely to keep warming for some time, even if we ended all emissions abruptly. Therefore, more action is necessary. Since warming in the Arctic is taking place at several times the rate of global warming, I fear that we also need solar radiation management (SRM) to cool the Arctic. I fear that accelerated warming in the Arctic can cause enough methane releases from the Arctic seabed to trigger runaway warming.

      Geoengineering methods such as CDRS and SRM can make essential contributions in many areas, such as avoiding wildfires in the tundra and avoiding infestations such as bark beetles in the boreal forest. In the three-part plan I propose, the three parts work in parallel and should be executed in parallel since they are all indispensible parts of the plan and work in complementary ways, e.g. biochar will also help retain moisture in forests and thus avoid wildfires and the subsequent soot deposits in the Arctic.

      So, yes, geoengineering will help reduce ground-level ozone and no,
      geoengineering should not be used as a replacement for emissions cuts,
      but instead emissions cuts, CDRS, SRM, Arctic methane management and
      further measures should all be executed in parallel.