We Still Have Time to Restore Our Climate. But the Climate Time Bomb Is Ticking
By Alex Carlin
A recent New York Magazine article about the climate ruin we are facing, by David Wallace Wells, has caused a furor for describing the catastrophes that could happen to our planet by the end of the century if we do not mitigate the harms to our climate and reverse course. This op-ed by guest contributor Alex Carlin contends that those crises could happen much sooner, and he details steps he believes could help forestall disaster.
What should we do?
Trump climate policy is blind and deaf to the fact that the Climate Bomb can cause millions—or even potentially billions—of deaths by mid-century. I believe Trump's rogue refusal to defuse the Bomb is an unfathomably heinous crime against humanity.
While the Paris agreement focuses on lowering CO2 emissions, there is a second indispensable task we must also perform to defuse The Bomb: restoring the Arctic ice.
For thousands of years, the frozen Arctic has been keeping our climate hospitable—until now. The Arctic is a critical part of the earth's mechanism for controlling the planet's temperature and climate.
But ominously, the Arctic Ocean has nearly finished changing from a state of "perennial ice"–covered with sea ice in the winter and never substantially ice free in the summer–to a state of "seasonal ice"–substantially ice free in the summer.
Completing this switchover would herald the biggest change in the global ecosystem since before the start of human civilization, and it would have a devastating impact.
Billions of people will face the risk of death in this century from adverse climate change outcomes such as starvation, heat stress, resource wars and disease if we don't restore the perennial ice.
The UK's Special Representative for Climate Change, Sir David King, warns us that with current climate policies we risk simultaneous collapses of basic crop production in the major breadbaskets of the Northern Hemisphere.
Dr. Peter Carter, an expert reviewer of the IPCC 5th assessment, says that "the entire world depends on the high food productivity of the Northern Hemisphere. The IPCC 5th assessment and recent research shows that the world's best food producing regions in the northern hemisphere are vulnerable to a high probability of multi-breadbasket failure from already committed (locked in) global climate change." Carter expects that, in this context, the effects of the Arctic sea ice switchover would "end the great food production of the Northern Hemisphere, world food output would plummet and with that the world population, losing billions of lives by mid-century."
Here are three reasons why restoring sea ice in the Arctic is mandatory for preventing mass starvation.
First, an agriculture that provides enough food requires a predictable and favorable Earth Climate System.
A relatively unsung factor is surprisingly vital in this system: high-altitude atmospheric jet streams which circulate the planet in paths whose routes and speeds are critically important for the type of weather and climate that farms require to produce food.
The behavior of the jet streams depends on a particular "temperature gradient"–the difference in temperature between the Arctic and the Tropics.
For millennia, the perennial ice of the Arctic has been an important factor in keeping these jet streams consistent and stable. But since the mid-80s the Arctic has been heating significantly faster than the Tropics–a phenomenon called "Arctic amplification." Diminishing sea ice has been playing a leading role in this, and the resulting smaller gradient has already caused the streams to change their speeds and typical paths.
This kind of jet stream disruption leads to unpredictable, unfavorable and extreme weather, with massive swings to heat or cold, devastating droughts, lingering blizzards and mighty floods.
When, perhaps within only a few years, the Arctic Ocean switches fully to seasonal ice conditions, the jet streams will almost inevitably take up new patterns of behavior, leading to weather that is quite different from what our farmers need to feed the population. By mid-century, much of our agricultural land will be toasted or flooded–or both at different times.
A second threat to agriculture is methane, a greenhouse gas that heats the planet like CO2 on steroids. Gigatons galore of methane and other carbon products reside under the Arctic ice and in the thawing tundra and "permafrost" nearby.
For thousands of years we benefited from a perennial state of Arctic sea ice that acted as a cap that kept this methane out of the atmosphere. As we lose the cap, calamitous methane releases become ever more likely. Large releases of methane would accelerate global warming, and the Arctic amplification would further reduce the Arctic to Tropic temperature gradient, causing more jet stream disruption, worsen weather extremes and batter our farms.
Sev Clarke, a prominent inventor of green and climate restoration technologies described the methane threat this way: "If we don't restore the ice, within 15 years methane and CO2 emissions from land and sea are likely to become so intense as to interfere substantially with normal cropping, to push land cultivation and population polewards, and to render much of the tropics unbearably hot during summer. My belief, reinforced by recent, and as yet unpublished, research by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists, is that we have just entered the phase of super-exponentially increasing methane releases from the Arctic."
A third threat to agriculture is sea level rise. Losing the perennial Arctic sea ice is speeding up the melting and partial disintegration of the great Greenland Ice Sheet, and is also having an effect in Antarctica, partly through disruption of the "great ocean conveyor" which sends Arctic-cooled water all the way to the Antarctic. Warming of this water has caused some Antarctic sheets to become unstable. These effects could lead to a devastating half meter of sea level rise by 2050, plus much more by 2100, which would wipe out huge areas of low-lying farmland.
So, as it turns out, if we want to feed our population, allowing the Arctic to lose its perennial sea ice is not an option.
It's very bad, but there are solutions.
The Arctic can be refrozen, and the sea ice restored.
Actions to restore the Arctic sea ice–combined with reduced greenhouse gas emissions and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere–do give us a chance to survive.
Given the stakes, why are there not scientists, engineers, planners and all sorts of able-bodied citizens calling for a restoration of the Arctic ice?
Well, actually, there are.
Climate Restoration—One Answer to 'What Should We Do?'
The above-mentioned inventor, Sev Clarke, is working with The Climate Restoration Foundation (CRF), spearheaded by the mathematician Kevin Lister. This group is working on what actually needs to happen to avoid Climate Ruin.
Do we really need to design techniques for restoring the Arctic sea ice? Why not just bring CO2 emissions down to near zero? Wouldn't that cause the sea ice to naturally restore itself, without any additional human action to restore it?
CRF says the answer is "no." That's because CO2 concentrations are so high already, and CO2 lingers in the atmosphere so long, that if we only reduce our CO2 emissions, the Arctic Ocean will not recover its lost ice anytime soon.
CRF emphasizes that we really must hurry: if the Arctic Ocean does switch its "state" from perennial ice to seasonal ice, it will "stick" there and, to a large extent, get "locked" into its new state, via a phenomenon known as "hysteresis."
They say we are on a track to cross that line in a handful of years, and once we cross that line, going back to where we need to be to feed our population becomes a Herculean task.
The CRF website describes three major actions to keep us from getting caught in this death trap: Marine Cloud Brightening, Buoyant Nutrient Flakes, and Ice Cap Thickening. Lister explained, "They are designed to keep us from getting stuck in a high temperature state. It will need all three technologies working together and on scale, and if this is done then the mutual reinforcement will be such that the sum of the effects will be greater than the individual parts."
CRF is also designing an ingenious way to pay for the task of restoring the ice via the insurance industry, where fossil fuel industries would pay an extra premium that fairly reflects the climate change liability they cause. If they refuse to pay then they would lose their ability to do business because they would be denied insurance coverage.
Keeping them firmly grounded, CRF includes the foremost authority in the polar field, professor Peter Wadhams, who for decades has been doing a magnificent job of exploring the Arctic sea ice, on top of the surface and under it by submarine, to get to the truth of what we face in this crisis. Recently he has come out with a "must read" book on this subject, "A Farewell To Ice."
Also providing support to CRF is professor Paul Beckwith who has expertise on high-altitude atmospheric jet stream issues. His focus is on addressing the aspects of Abrupt Climate Change.
The Point of No Return?
Lister identifies the most important moment in this emergency.
It's not when the Greenland Ice Sheet melting becomes unstoppable, or other such ecosystem events, but rather it's when "it is no longer possible to develop and deploy an effective climate intervention strategy in time."
That point of no return has now arrived, and it is staring us in the face. If people fully understood how and why their families face a ruined world by mid-century, they would be demanding, with "hair on fire" urgency, If people really understood this truly existential crisis and the need for urgent action, they would be demanding that our political leaders scramble at full speed to restore the ice and, of course, to reduce our net CO2 emissions to zero.
Restoring sea ice will certainly require some local engineering intervention, but does the situation constitute enough of an emergency to justify risking the unexplored outcomes of intervention on a global scale, of geoengineering?
As far back as 2009, The Scotsman reported that scientists feared that the lack of action in the preceding 17 years, in which "emissions of climate changing gases such as carbon dioxide soared, has set the world on a path towards potential 4°C (7.2°F) rises as early as 2060, and 6°C (10.8°F) rises by the end of the century."
The article quoted professor Kevin Anderson, who advises the UK government on climate change, and is the deputy director of the highly respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
Anderson said, "The consequences are terrifying. For humanity it's a matter of life or death. We will not make all human beings extinct, as a few people with the right sort of resources may put themselves in the right parts of the world and survive. But I think it's extremely unlikely that we wouldn't have mass death at 4°C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4°C, 5°C or 6°C, you might have half a billion people surviving."
Anderson, no alarmist, is testifying that plausibly with "business as usual" we could have billions of deaths by 2050.
Can we avoid this catastrophe without geoengineering?
This is a question we all must consider with great care.
The Bright Side
John Nissen, founder and chair of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, cooperates with CRF.
He summed it up this way:
"The climate science establishment is so focused on the fight to reduce CO2 emissions that it has ignored the bigger picture: that the Earth System is hurtling towards a new climate regime for the planet, led by abrupt changes in the Arctic as it becomes seasonally free of sea ice. The loss of ice cover means that the Arctic will warm even more rapidly than before, threatening
- a reversal of air circulation at high latitude, disrupting climate at lower latitudes;
- further escalation of methane emissions from land and undersea permafrost;
- further escalation of melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet; and
- a huge contribution to climate forcing and the warming of the whole planet.
These dreadful consequences add up to a new climate regime for the planet. They can only be avoided by cooling the Arctic and saving the sea ice."
While he said categorically that the prospect of geoengineering should never provide polluters or governments a "get out of jail free card" to avoid their absolute duty to drastically cut CO2 emissions, he maintains that "climate change could actually be reversed with the help of geoengineering, and it would be far simpler, safer and cheaper than trying to adapt to ever worsening climate change, and sea level rise to boot."
He emphasized the bright side:
"Let's be positive and appreciate the huge benefits that climate restoration would bring. Moreover, this could be the greatest collaborative venture ever undertaken, employing our best scientific and engineering talent. It could even be an opportunity for peace, as everyone works for the same goal. And by getting together to solve the greatest challenge ever faced by human civilization, we could demonstrate togetherness and counter the divisive politics of self-interest which is sweeping the world."
Nissen even wants oil companies to get involved. He pointed out that "it is in their best interests to collaborate on climate restoration, since they would suffer the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change just as much as everyone else. Moreover, they have valuable skills and resources to help in the restoration effort."
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
We still have a golden opportunity to restore our climate, and Trump has paradoxically brought Climate Ruin back onto the international agenda in the nick of time.
But now we need specific plans that diagram, step by step, how to motivate our entire society to fully acknowledge the climate problem, including what is happening in the Arctic, and then adamantly demand that the solutions be implemented immediately.
I believe that unconditionally, we must reach net zero CO2 emissions very fast, but science is now giving us a second required task: we must also save the Arctic ice.
As Winston Churchill once said, "It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required."
If you know how we can survive the threat of Climate Ruin without geoengineering, then, by all means, please share your ideas.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Center for Media and Democracy.