We have hardly had a winter in Louisiana. We had two cold days, but that’s it. It’s been warm here all winter long. I have spent most days in January outside in a t-shirt. It’s miserable. Mosquitoes are lingering. Nobody really likes very cold weather, I don’t suppose, but the summers are so long and punishing here that we love a respite from the heat, however short it is. This year, it hasn’t been hot, exactly, but it has been warm — so warm that it feels that we’ve not had a winter at all.
So I wasn’t all that surprised to read this news today:
Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016 — trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.
The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.
The data show that politicians cannot wish the problem away. The Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.
Since 1880, NOAA’s records show only one other instance when global temperature records were set three years in a row: in 1939, 1940 and 1941. The Earth has warmed so much in recent decades, however, that 1941 now ranks as only the 37th-warmest year on record.
The modern era of global warming began around 1970, after a long stretch of relatively flat temperatures, and the past three years mark the first time in that period that three records were set in a row. Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have now occurred since 2000.
I feel that many of us are like the Mayor of Amity in Jaws: ignoring the threat because the cost of facing it realistically is too high.
Did you know that ExxonMobil (then just Exxon) knew about anthropogenic global warming 40 years ago? From the NY Review of Books:
In 1977, for example, an Exxon scientist named James Black gave a presentation to the company’s Management Committee. He explained, accurately, what the “greenhouse effect” is and how measurements of atmospheric CO2 that had been taken since 1957 showed it was steadily increasing. And, although emphasizing that climate science still had to deal with untested assumptions and uncertainties, he said that “current opinion overwhelmingly favors attributing atmospheric CO2 increase to fossil fuel combustion.” “Present thinking,” Black added a year later, “holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
By 1980, a report written by Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary and distributed to Exxon managers around the world stated matter-of-factly, “It is assumed that the major contributors of CO2 are the burning of fossil fuels…and oxidation of carbon stored in trees and soil humus…. There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases in forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.” The next year Roger Cohen, director of Exxon’s Theoretical and Mathematical Sciences Laboratory, wrote in an internal memo that by 2030, projected cumulative carbon emissions could, after a delay, “produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
In 1982, Cohen added that “over the past several years a clear scientific consensus has emerged”: atmospheric CO2 would double from its preindustrial quantity sometime in the second half of the twenty-first century, producing an average increase in global temperature of three degrees Celsius, plus or minus 1.5 degrees. “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community,” he went on, “that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”19
It was clear, too, what a problem these conclusions posed for the oil industry. As a 1979 Exxon memo reported,
Models predict that the present trend of fossil fuel use will lead to dramatic climatic changes within the next 75 years…. Should it be deemed necessary to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels to prevent significant climatic changes, dramatic changes in patterns of energy use would be required.
In other words, the world would have to curtail its use of fossil fuels substantially. Senior Exxon scientist Henry Shaw warned management that according to the predictions of the National Academy of Sciences, global warming, not any lack of supply, would force humankind to stop burning fossil fuels.
In 1982, an Exxon environmental affairs manager named Marvin Glaser wrote a thirty-nine-page primer on climate change that he distributed widely among management.22 It confirmed that, despite remaining points of scientific uncertainty, “mitigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” If these weren’t achieved, Glaser warned, “all biological systems are likely to be affected” and “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” including an expected “dramatic impact on soil moisture, and in turn, on agriculture,” and, eventually, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, which would flood “much of the US East Coast, including the State of Florida and Washington D.C.” He believed that “potentially serious climate problems are not likely to occur until the late 21st century,” but added, “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
Read the whole thing. It shows how Exxon went from being a leader in global warming research to funding denial. It’s breathtaking stuff. But here we are today.
The last thing I want in the comments boxes is another tired war over whether or not global warming is real. We all know what each other is going to say, and we all know that nothing is going to change. The thing that stays on my mind about global warming is the fact that even if the US and Europe did everything we could to combat it, what’s to keep China and India from refusing? As economist Robert Samuelson (who is not a climate-change denier) wrote in 2014, “We have no solution,” Excerpt:
No sane government will sacrifice its economy today — by dramatically curtailing fossil-fuel use — for the uncertain benefits of less global warming sometime in the foggy future. (The focus of the U.S. global warming report on the present seems aimed at bridging this gap.)
Worse, almost all the projected increases in global emissions come from poorer countries, half from China alone. By contrast, U.S. emissions (and those of most rich nations) are projected to stay stable over the three decades. Economic growth is slowing; energy efficiency is increasing; and, in Japan and some European countries, populations are declining. Because poor countries understandably won’t abandon their efforts to relieve poverty, any further U.S. emissions cuts would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere. This dims their political and environmental appeal.
He’s got a very serious point: how do you convince poor and developing countries to slow down the engine of what is drawing their people out of abject misery? I’m not asking, “Should we ask them to do this?” but posing it as a question of basic politics and human nature. China’s own capital city is all but unlivable because of pollution and smog, and yet still, the Chinese factories and coal-burning plants chug on.
Are you going to be the one to tell a village full of extremely poor people in India that sorry, the manufacturing plant that might have pulled them all out of the mire is not going to be built because of global warming? You might be 100 percent right that the plant shouldn’t be built, but how do you tell the poor that — especially given that as a Westerner, you are already the beneficiary of industrialization? Serious question.
In 2015, Samuelson expanded on his point:
On climate change, curb your enthusiasm. It’s not that the recent international conference in Paris didn’t take significant steps to check global warming. It did. Nearly 200 countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times was reaffirmed. The trouble is that what’s being attempted is so fundamentally difficult that even these measures may be wildly unequal to the task.
What’s being attempted, of course, is the wholesale replacement of the world economy’s reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for four-fifths of its energy. To be sure, the shift is envisioned to take decades, four or five at a minimum. Still, the vast undertaking may exceed human capability.
Hence, a conundrum. Without energy, the world economy shuts down, threatening economic and social chaos. But the consequences of climate change, assuming the scientific consensus is accurate, are also grim — from rising sea levels (threatening coastal cities) to harsher droughts (reducing food supplies).
Samuelson says he accepts the dominant scientific view about human-driven global warming, but points out that without a major technological breakthrough, we’re largely powerless to do much of anything. “The addiction to fossil fuels will triumph,” he says. More:
Despite Paris, we haven’t acknowledged the difficulties of grappling with climate change, whose extent and timing are uncertain. We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these. The potential isn’t large enough.
Actual choices are harder. For example, Bryce argues that only an expansion of nuclear power could replace significant volumes of fossil fuels. But greater reliance on nuclear poses its own dangers, including the disposal of atomic waste, operational accidents and vulnerability to terrorism.
It’s true that technological breakthroughs could change this. We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground.
We have been searching for solutions for decades with only modest success. We need to keep searching, but without meaningful advances, regulating the world’s temperature is mission impossible.
It’s at this point that people get really mad, and accuse Samuelson of being a fatalist. But outrage does nothing to answer his point: the task is immense — scientifically and politically — and though we have to keep trying for a solution, there are no realistic ones now.
None of this is to say that Donald Trump is right about global warming, and that we should yield to his viewpoint. At what point, though, do people start to accept that this problem is only secondarily one of US political will? I mean, at what point to people start to accept that nothing serious is going to happen on the climate change front because nothing serious can happen — because of political will globally, yes, but also because the problems are, at this moment, technologically, economically, and politically impossible to solve?
That is to say, at what point does the primary focus of we who accept anthropogenic global warming go on building up community resilience for what’s to come? What would that look like?
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I work in energy and utility policy, so I’m not going to post publicly, but Samuelson makes some great points. There are a few comparisons and points I make to friends of mine that express major concern about this:
Technological Solution – If you want to deal with this, don’t go get a policy degree, get an electrical engineering degree. A decent analog to emissions-causing electric generation is the telephone landline. It’s dying off not because we banned landlines, but because the next generation of communication device became cheaper, better, and more convenient. It’s much harder, but I don’t see a lot of realistic hope on the policy/regulation front.
Developing Countries – Samuelson mentions China, India is also developing quickly, and those are just the big blocs. But grasp the scale. There are almost as many people in India without electricity as there are people in the United States (somewhere around 300 million in the Indian cause is the most recent estimate I believe). They don’t want to forgo affordable electricity (and it will have to be cheap for them to afford it – so – coal) because of some abstract notion of the temperature going up 1.5 C, or whatever an agreement in Paris targets.
Policy for developed countries – Most people when it comes down to it are more afraid of the solutions than the problem. Controlling all major CO2 emitting activities would invade so many corners of private life, it’s hard so imagine it wouldn’t cause a tidal wave of backlash in democracies.