Historic climate pollution emissions almost everyone missed.
Microsoft going net zero by 2030 is a tremendously insightful action, but what’s truly groundbreaking and ever so much more important today, 30 years after we began trying to solve the climate pollution problem through the extinction of the fossil fuel industry, is that Microsoft is now addressing the most important part of the climate reform equation — historic emissions: the climate pollution that remains in our sky.
This is a first-ever declaration to take responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions in the past and the vast majority of the press totally missed it, except for NPR. The headline with Microsoft should not have been “Microsoft to go Net Zero by 2030,” but the much more profound, “Microsoft to remove all their historic climate pollution from the sky by 2050.”
It’s the climate pollution that remains in our sky that is causing the current warming.
It’s the climate pollution already emitted that remains in our sky that is causing the current warming that has resulted in more than half of known tipping points to become active. (Lenton 2019) i.e. Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice sheet, boreal forests, permafrost, the Gulf Stream, the Amazon, coral reefs, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Unless we reduce our current Earth temperature to a point cooler than when these tipping points become active, they will complete their initiations and become irreversible. Because these Earth systems are large and lumbering, and science is slow and methodical, the temperature that caused the tipping points to become active is likely below the amount of warming from a decade or more ago.
The warming documented from excess greenhouse gases during the decade of the 2000s was about 0.5 C, so effective reversal of warming to reverse tipping points must be to an average Earth temperature below 0.5 C. This is especially true because climate science has no safety factors.
The societal risk of these chain reaction tipping points cannot be understated.
If we just assume the tipping points were caused by recent warming from the previous decade where Lenton 2013 describes tipping points becoming, this warming was 0.76 C. A safety factor added on, and a safety factor is mandatory when the risk is unrecoverable scenarios, we need a target of 0.5 C or even less. The societal risk of these chain reaction tipping points cannot be understated.
Tipping points are far more meaningful to the future of humankind than the impacts projected by the climate science consensus based on future warming from future emissions with even 1.5 C of warming. The reason? Current warming in today, of 0.98 C in 2019, allows these activated tipping points to become irreversible, with unrecoverable human civilization scenarios resulting.
This is why the Climate Emergency Declaration in the journal Bioscience, signed by more than 13,000 scientists, is so fundamentally important to the climate pollution reform discussion. The bottom line from Bioscience is, “These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
Our dystopian climate change nightmares of the last 30 years are now realized.
Our dystopian climate change nightmares of the last 30 years are now realized. We have delayed to long and as climate scientists have warned again and again, delay creates a need for far more meaningful action. No amount of future emissions cessation will stop the tipping point completion process except reversal of our current global temperature by removing climate pollution already in our sky.
There is no science maxim, no chemical imperative, no Earth systems dynamic, no physical mandate — to stop emitting climate pollution. The only fundamental law of physical science that must be followed is that we cannot allow accumulated pollutants in our environment that meaningfully degrade our environment away from its stable state where humankind evolved its advanced civilization.
A prime example of this environmental degradation maxim is that when we discovered human sewage pollution was killing millions in the 19th century, we did not stop making human sewage. We responsibly learned to treat that pollution so we could be safe.
A transition to a clean energy future, and sustainable land use and ocean utilization practices are all vitally important to sustaining our civilization, but ignoring the historic burden of climate pollutants already in our sky results in tipping point thresholds becoming irreversible and “large areas of our planet becoming uninhabitable.” Currently accepted climate policy the world over, save Microsoft, completely ignores historic climate pollution.
It was plausible that emissions reductions alone could have saved our civilization.
In the past, it was certainly plausible that emissions reductions alone could have saved our civilization. But 30 years of delay has changed things. Science is slow. The climate science consensus is slower still and it is this consensus upon which policy is based. and besides, we have emitted as much climate pollution in the last 30 yeasr as we emitted in the previous 250 years.
If we do not follow Microsoft’s lead and take responsibility for our previously emitted pollution, “large areas of Earth become uninhabitable.” There is great meaning in these words.
Uninhabitable does not mean, for example, forced migration and abandonment with sea level rise submersion. Even with the most aggressive sea level rise scenarios, 10 feet of submersion takes over a century. What is profound with sea level rise is how the highest of high tides vastly expand inland and degrade infrastructure causing chronic stress to society, economics and the built world. It’s been labeled chronic inundation via normal sunny day high tides.
Time frames are astonishingly near.
Time frames are astonishingly near. NOAA and the Union of Concerned Scientists tell us that by 2030 to 2035, with nine to 14 inches of sea level rise mostly from Antarctic Ice Sheet tipping point collapse, coastal resource abandonment is well underway. Once again, it’s not because of submersion, it’s because of the occasional high tide periods that happen several times a month when winds and moon cycles combine to create higher than normal high tides, or the twice yearly solunar high tides (King Tides) that are created when the sun and moon both align to heighten normal high tides.
With nine to 14 inches of sea level rise, these normally high tides happen on the coastal plain instead of the beach zone. The coastal plain is vastly flatter than the beach zone so a little bit of extra high tide goes a long way. These chronic high tides compromise critical and widespread infrastructure in the coastal zone where a very large and meaningful portion of Earth’s wealth, industrial capacity, and societal infrastructure are located.
Compromise of this infrastructure would have globally-reaching importance because of the infrastructure nodes that are degraded or require abandonment. The science calls these compromises globally compounding events.
Very important to this discussion is the adaptability of our civilization to sea level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that three feet per century is the adaptability limit of the human civilization to sea level rise. With scenarios above three feet of sea level rise per century, the result of unadaptability is unrecoverableness.
Microsoft has now moved climate policy into the twenty-first century.
Microsoft has now moved climate policy into the twenty-first century by committing to deal with their historic climate pollution emissions burden, a policy that has actually capacity to reverse tipping point activation. This is a sea change in climate reform.
Cleaning up our already emitted pollution is nothing new; we have been cleaning up pollution in our society for over 100, years. But it is vastly new to our climate change culture where the only universally accepted solution to climate change has simply been to limit or halt future emissions of climate pollution. That ship has sailed.
To reverse warming, we must do as Microsoft commits: Net zero ASAP (2030 is a good date), and remove all of the climate polluting we have ever emitted that remains in our sky.
We remove the climate pollution partially with restoration and enhancement of nature-based systems like forests, agriculture, soils, and oceans. We still have abundant natural systems that have not yet collapsed that can continue to absorb greenhouse gases from the sky if we do not let the temperature continue to rise and continue to cause ecological collapse.
Natural systems can’t deal with the climate pollution that has been emitted.
Natural systems however do not have the capacity to deal with all of the historic climate pollution that has been emitted. The final cure is that we must turn to tried and true pollution treatment technologies to make up the rest.
We have been removing carbon dioxide from the air through the cryogenic process for 90 years, using lye and potash chemistry to remove carbon dioxide from air since World War II to keep our sailors safe in submarines, and since the 1950s with amine chemistry, where amines are now one of the most broadly important industrial chemicals in the world.
Costs of these technologies are small compared to cost of doing nothing. Costs will also be truly economically small too, once gigascaled from their current mature industrial state. Gigascaling is something we do understand as a society and have implemented in the past and recently with fantastic success.
A single example of how this gigascaling scaling of the problem of removing historic climate pollution from our sky would work how we as a culture ensure that our drinking water is safe. We treat 116 gigatons of human sewage and drinking water across the U.S. every year. Few things dwarf our carbon emissions in gigatonnage, but human sewage treatment is one of them.
In 2020, what’s truly new is that Climate Change V2 has arrived. Emissions reductions are no longer the only solution as they do nothing to reduce current warming that has allowed unrecoverable tipping point collapses to activate. The critical path is now the warming pollutants already in our sky. If we do not reduce warming, all the sustainability practices and conversion to clean energy strategies mean nothing because our civilization as we know it will no longer exist.
There is great meaning in “large areas of Earth becoming uninhabitable.” Please spread the word. This is a good thing. The critical path has now been defined in a way that is critically important to the advancement of meaningful climate pollution reform policy.
Climate Tipping Points Activated (Lenton 2019). Nine Earth systems collapses have been identified by scientists as active: Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice sheet, boreal forests, permafrost, the Gulf Stream, the Amazon, coral reefs, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,and parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. These collapses represent unrecoverable scenarios that these researchers speak to when they say “hothouse Earth well beyond the control of humans,” and “potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
Melton, The Climate Emergency Has Already Begun as Earth Systems Collapse, Truthout, December 7, 2019.
Lenton et al., Climate tipping points too risky to bet against, Nature, November 27, 2019
University of Exeter Press Release must read… More than half of identified tipping points are active
Climate Emergency Declared in Bioscience (Ripple 2019). Over 13,000 scientists have signed a letter declaring a climate emergency is underway in the journal Biosciences.”Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”
“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected…. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity…. Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points and nature’s reinforcing feedbacks (atmospheric, marine, and terrestrial) that could lead to a catastrophic ‘hothouse Earth,’ well beyond the control of humans…. These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable. An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis.”
Ripple et al., World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, Biosciences, November 5, 2019.
Over 13,000 signatories…
Alliance of World Scientists
Unrecoverable resource abandonment by 2035. NOAA’s 2017 Sea level rise report tells us that we can expect nine inches of sea level rise by 2035. The Union of Concerned Scientists report on the NOAA report tells us that with nine inches of sea level rise, we will see resource abandonment as chronic nuisance flooding increases 25 times.
Sweet et al., Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States, NOAA, January 2017.
Spanger Siegfried et al., When Rising Seas Hit Home, Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2017.
Three Feet Sea Level Rise Adaptability Limit. The sea level rise adaptability limit, from the IPCC Working Group II Report 2014, “Nicholls et al. (2011) shows that only a limited number of adaptation options are available for specific coastal areas if sea level exceeds a certain threshold (1 m) at the end of the century.”
Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, page 393, paragraph 10.
Giga Scaling Costs of Ensuring Safe Drinking Water. Treating Human Sewage and Potable Water: This giga scaling is something we know how to do well. We have done it with computer chips, solar cells and giga battery factories. We treat about 52 gigatons of human sewage every year in the U.S. alone, and about 64 gigatons of potable water in the U.S. alone.
Human sewage treatment
Potable water treatment
[Bruce Melton, a longtime contributor to The Rag Blog and guest on Rag Radio, is a professional engineer, environmental researcher, filmmaker, author and CEO of the Climate Change Now Initiative in Austin, Texas, the oldest, independent climate science education organization in the world founded in 2005. The Climate Change Now Initiative is a nonprofit outreach organization reporting the latest discoveries in climate science in plain English, using global warming psychology to communicate this new science on the right side of the brain. The Initiative’s science reporting, films, music, and images of climate impacts happening now can be found at ClimateDiscovery.org.]