Climate Change or Climate Catastrophe?

Blog No. 130.

This blog, minus the picture of the two, trusting dinosaurs, is due to be published as an article in the July/August issue of the New Zealand International Review, the house journal of the NZ Institute of International affairs. I stand by my claim that “…as the 21st Century moves on, climate change, or climate catastrophe, will become the determining factor in international relations.” It can already be seen exerting its influence on global relationships. As we will see at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg this weekend, the Trump decision to undermine the Paris Accord is undermining the USA’s ability to influence other nations in determining their alliances and the respect they were prepared to show for American leadership. If America’s temptingly selfish example is followed by other nations, humanity, if it is not already, will almost certainly be doomed to extinction (that is, if America’s nuclear brinkmanship doesn’t pip the climate to the post!)


‘Climate change’ is an anodyne expression that functions to retain the anxiety of the global population within the manageable parameters that the situation doesn’t warrant. After all, no one denies that the climate changes from time to time. The planet has experienced a series of ice-ages and mini-ice ages and warmer periods in between.  However, the current argument, which is being waged with increasing ardour, is not whether or not change is occurring, but whether or not the current changes represent mere fluctuations around a norm, or an out-of-control, existential catastrophe.


The debate is considerably complicated by the involvement of the most powerful vested interests on the planet. These are the companies which, since the industrial revolution, have come to control the supply of fossil energy and the fortunes of the multiple executives and shareholders dependent on its continued and profitable trading.

Since well before 1991, in which year Shell produced its documentary ‘Climate of Concern,’ these companies must have been aware of the link between emissions from the burning of their products and the potential intolerable rise in planetary temperatures (Note 1.) Despite this fatal knowledge, Big Oil (Shell included) has continued to extract oil from Canadian tar sands, seek new reserves through Arctic drilling and in general, maximise the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.

As well illustrated in the film ‘Merchants of Doubt’ (Note 2.)  and as did Big Tobacco before it, the fossil fuel industry has continued to invest millions in persuading politicians and their publics that the pursuit of its economic business as usual is in everyone’s best interests.

In consequence, the voices arguing that the current rapid acceleration of climate warming is man-made and that urgent action needs to be taken to counter the phenomenon are often rendered ineffective by those, whose incomes and fortunes depend on downplaying the threat. The situation is not helped by the many more, who, given the choice of accepting bad news or good news, tend naturally to opt for the good.

With so many axes being ground, with bogus scientific reports being bought and published and with so many soft variables to be taken into account by climate scientists attempting to accurately forecast an unknown future, certainty is well-nigh impossible to come by.

Under these circumstances, and seeing that what is claimed to be at risk is humankind’s continued existence, it is as well to adopt the precautionary principle (aka Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”)

“The precautionary principle (or precautionary approach) to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking that action.”

Green House Gases. (GHGs)

It is fairly simple to measure the amount of carbon dioxide (the most plentiful of the GHGs) in the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, global average CO2 content was about 280 ppm. During the past 200,000 or so years of Homo sapiens’ existence, CO2 has fluctuated between about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during interglacial warm periods. The vast majority of scientists, who study this changing of the climate, are agreed on cause and effect: that an increase in the GHGs in the atmosphere results in an increase in planetary temperatures. Currently CO2 levels are around 407 parts per million. The last time they were at this level, about 3 million years ago, the sea level was about 20 metres higher than it is today. If there is no reduction in GHG levels, and if no further increase is allowed, that is where sea-level is ultimately headed. Fortunately it would take several centuries to get there.

Prior to that, from the start of the industrial revolution in the Eighteenth Century until the 1950s, the average increase was around 1 ppm per annum: from about 1950 -2015, the average annual increase was around 3 ppm. In 2016, this total increased to 4 ppm – the fastest rate of annual increase on record. On the improbable assumption that the annual rate of emissions does not increase beyond 4 ppm per annum, the planet is now on track to reach 450 ppm in about ten years’ time. That figure represents CO2 alone. In fact, were the additional and more effective GHG, methane, which is being released at an increased rate, due to increases in intensive livestock farming and fracking, to be included in the figure, the CO2 equivalent would already have exceeded the 450 ppm mark.

In the words of a recent Stratfor report, since the onset of the industrial revolution “mankind has pumped some 150 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Almost half that amount has been emitted since 2000, 9.9 billion tons of it in 2016 alone. U.S. President Donald Trump claims to think that links between carbon emissions and climate change are “a hoax,” but if so, the hoax has taken in almost every scientist in the world. By burning fossil fuels, they believe, we have altered the chemistry of the air and the oceans… The climate is warming and becoming more volatile, the ice caps are melting, and mass extinctions are underway. Another species of plant or animal disappears forever every 20 minutes or so.”

The above figures from the IPCC, with their best case and worst case scenarios for future emissions, remain relatively undisputed. The disputes and uncertainty centre on a diversity of views as to what the consequences of this increase in the GHGs in the atmosphere will be. At one end of the scale, there are those ‘climate deniers,’ such as President Trump, who argues that scientists claiming that human activity is having a perceptible impact on the climate, are perpetuating a hoax; that current climate fluctuations remain within normal parameters and will continue to do so irrespective of fossil fuel emissions. At the other end of the scale, are such as Professor Guy Macpherson, who argues, unconvincingly, that humanity will be extinct before 2040. (Note 3.)

Points of no return and tipping points.

Where Macpherson appears to have got it wrong is in his timings; in equating points of no return with tipping points. When the patrol leader trips the wire, the pin on the Claymore mine is pulled and a point of no return is crossed. Depending on the length of the fuse, the tipping point comes later, when the mine’s HE charge turns from a solid into a hot, gaseous state and the patrol turns from living flesh to bloody shreds. After such a wire is tripped, it may well become impossible to prevent further disastrous feedback loops leading to the crossing of the next point of no return and the arrival of the next tipping point.   (Note 4.)

Such crucial points would include a rise in ambient temperatures sufficient to initiate the drying out and burning of the carbon sequestered in the Amazon rain forest, the melting of large areas of sea ice, which currently act as mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays back into space, or a massive release of currently frozen methane. What is inevitable is that, as the temperature rises, the atmospheric levels of other GHGs, such as methane and water vapour, will also rise, ultimately leading to an uncontrollable acceleration of the overall rise in global temperatures and Earth ceasing to be a viable human habitat.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Enter the IPCC. (Note 5.)   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the forecasting agency most generally accepted by governments as the authority on which to base their climate change policies. (Note 6.)  Before publication, the IPCC’s forecasts are filtered by a UN panel of national representatives, including those from major oil producing countries such as the USA and Russia. The Panel works to achieve a consensus before publication and as such, its reports inevitably entail political compromises.

Given the selfish, national interests at stake, it is fair to assume that the reports published are more optimistic in tone that the scientific reality might justify. The reports do not attempt to forecast the future. They simply lay out a series of options for the world’s governments to pursue in relation to carbon emissions and then state what the consensus scientific view is in regard to the consequences of each scenario. Given the consensus building process and the need for politicians to keep their electorates blinkered and contented, the more optimistic IPCC scenarios are the ones more likely to be adopted, but less likely to be realised than the worse-case scenarios on offer.  (Note 7 Contains an assessment of the IPCC’s past projections: Note 8 offers an overview of its most recent 2014 report.)

Governments, such as that of New Zealand, which don’t want to call into question their current plans for economic growth, tend to adopt the most optimistic of the IPCC’s alternative scenarios. Hence, in New Zealand, local government bodies responsible for planning for the safety of their communities, are working to an unjustifiably optimistic assumption that the sea-level rise by the end of the century will be between 0.5 metres and 0.8 metres.

The IPCC already records a temperature rise of 1C since 1880 and the rate of rise accelerating in line with the accelerating rise in the GHG content of the atmosphere.

The 2015 Paris Accord.

In 2015, courtesy of Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping, the Paris conference resulted in the Paris Accord. The Accord was based on the IPCC’s projections and designed to limit CO2 levels and consequently, global temperature and sea level rises. These were the targets set out in what was to become the legally binding agreement, which concluded the conference. (Note 9.)

  • a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels;
  • to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change;

Different nations promised different levels of emission reductions, which, when totaled, and in the improbable event of their being adhered to, would not achieve the 2C target, but might be sufficient to keep the temperature rise below 3C. There is a further conference scheduled for 2020 to review the situation, with the intention of making adjustments to emission targets as required.

Given the political differences faced by a disunited humanity, the Paris targets seem over-ambitious and incompatible with the future forecast in the IPCC chart below, which has the temperature stabilising in ‘a few centuries,’ after a currently unimaginable rapid reduction in global CO2 emissions.

Temperature rises.

Key to the projections, are the best guesstimates of the temperature rise consequent on the differing levels of future GHG concentrations and what are to be the likely consequences on planetary life of each such temperature rise.

The generally accepted, but most probably too optimistic – (Note 10.) pivot point is that the CO2 threshold of 450ppm will result in a temperature rise of 2C above pre-industrial levels.

This graphic, taken from a recent and rather alarmist book, ‘Climageddon,’ links emission levels with temperature rises and their effects on the climate and the species dependent on it.

Many climate scientists now see a 3C rise in temperature as inevitable and welcome it as a marked improvement on the 5C that would have been the 2100 destination had there been no international attempt to limit emissions. (Note 11.)

Sea level rises.

As temperatures rise, so too will sea levels.  Globally, sea level has risen about 20 centimetres since the beginning of the 20th century and more than 5 centimetres in the last 20 years alone. (Note 12.) As new evidence comes to light, estimates rise year by year. Professor Peter Barrett, of Victoria University, one of the world’s leading Antarctic climatologists, anticipates a rise of around 2.0 – 2.5 metres by the end of this century. Others, such as, James Hansen, are putting the rise at around 3 metres. This would be caused by rising temperatures increasing the melt rate of the polar icecaps and the thermal expansion of the oceans. (Note 13.)

This 2014 IPCC graph shows Hansen taking the not-unrealistic position of betting on the worst case of the IPCC’s scenarios. Ultimately, if temperatures are allowed to continue to rise, all the world’s ice will melt and the sea level will rise by about 70 metres, without making allowance for the additional 30 or so metres of volume expansion due to the increased temperatures that initiated the melt. The consolation is that the last human will have become extinct long before the seas reach this level.

Further adverse consequences of the modern economy.

At 400 ppm, the climatic consequences of the increased greenhouse gas loading of the atmosphere attributable to mankind’s industrial activities are only just becoming apparent. All the above is reason enough for acute anxiety and impossibly prompt action, but the bad news is in fact considerably worse.  In parallel to changes to the climate, the industrial age has had multiple other adverse effects on the planetary environment and the ecological systems on which human and all other life is dependent.  To quote Steb Fisher from Monash University:

“…climate change is a problem, not the problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.

Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.

Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.

The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on.” (Note 14.)

Political consequences.

Humanity’s current rate of emissions into the atmosphere and draw-down of the Earth’s finite resources is in no way sustainable. If catastrophe is to be avoided, radical changes, political, economic, societal and attitudinal will have to be made. In fact, the changes required are of such magnitude that it is hard to believe current political systems will be able to voluntarily make the necessary adjustments. It is far more likely that the planet, accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth, will force them upon the nations of the world.

In 2016 the NZ government produced a paper on changes to the NZ’s climate that are to be anticipated by 2100. The reader must make their own judgement as to how courageous future governments will be and which of the scenarios offered are most likely to be realised. (Note 15.)

The VIVID report, sponsored by GLOBE NZ, a cross-party group of NZ parliamentarians, was released in March 2017. It details possible routes by which the NZ economy might be induced to conform to the ambitious and, from the time perspective, inadequate targets signed up to in the Paris Accord.  (Note 16.) The initial parliamentary debate, which followed publication, would indicate a growing recognition across all parties that the problem exists and has to be addressed. The parliamentary debate on the VIVID report is heartening. (Note 17.)

Implications for International Relations.

As the 21st Century moves on, climate change, or climate catastrophe, will become the determining factor in international relations. By the 22nd century, international relations might no longer be relevant. Humans might no longer exist, or their multiple nations have been subsumed under a single institution of governance.

The current status of the global climate, as outlined above, is subject to two major developments, one adverse and one favourable, both of which would appear to be unstoppable. The first is population growth. Two centuries ago, the human population stood at approx. one billion. Today it stands at around seven billion. In 2070, it is scheduled to peak at around 10.5 billion. More humans will consume more energy and more of the Earth’s fast dwindling resource reserves.

The second development is what is known as ‘the solar disruption.’ These are technological advances, which will enable alternative, renewable energy sources to replace the burning of fossil fuels. The key question is how quickly this can be achieved. (Note 18.)

Practical consequences.

As global temperatures exceed the unrealistic targets set in Paris, sea levels will rise in lock-step. The present, stable, climate-defining, ocean current and wind patterns will change.  The unfamiliar weather patterns and major disruptive events such as flooding, droughts and high winds, which are already impacting human populations, will increase in both magnitude and frequency. Many, or even most, species of plant and animal will not have evolutionary time in which to adjust to the changes and will become extinct. Multiple eco-systems and food chains will break.

Salt water will invade aquifers and, as glaciers melt, river flows will become erratic. As the oceans heat up and become more acidic, their ability to absorb and process CO2 will decrease. Farmers and fishing fleets will no longer be able to rely on their harvests. Desertification will increase, large tracts of land will become unproductive and then uninhabitable. National economies will collapse and states will fail.

Human populations and other species will embark on massive migrations. Already we see cognac grapes being grown in England and far-sighted American millionaires buying bolt-holes south and north of the 40th parallels. Given a 3-4C rise in temperatures, large sections of the intermediary equatorial section, will be the first to come uninhabitable. While rising temperatures and retreating snow-lines might make northern parts of the North American and Eurasian continents seemingly (and temporarily) more benign, the disruptions, caused by increasing hordes of traumatised, desperate and resentful refugees, most certainly will not.

A time of conflict.

One only has to see the current disruption in the EU, brought about by a mere one or two million refugees displaced by drought and small-scale warfare in the Moslem world, to imagine the magnitude of the disasters that will follow the displacement of hundreds of millions, sometimes supported by the armed remnants of their national armed forces.

It is as though the nations of the world have been warned of the approach of a large asteroid on a collision course with Earth. They can all scatter in terror and vainly fight each other over non-existent safe havens, or they can unite and seek a global solution to the problem. Already, we see the United States, the imagined leader among nations, just two years after the Paris climate summit, setting the example of breaking ranks on the resultant Accord in pursuit of what it imagines to be its own, short-term, economic advantage at the long-term expense of all humanity.

Unity in adversity?

For humanity to survive this crisis, national governments need to reject the democratic imperative of not alarming their populations. The precautionary principle demands an immediate abandonment of a policy of allowing their economies to function on a business-as-usual basis. By failing to mobilise immediately to educate and fully alert their citizenry to the approaching peril, the steps that will ultimately be required to solve the problem may well become impossible. Unpopular political decisions to put the nations of the world on an austere, emergency war-footing need urgent implementation.

It is impossible to imagine such decisions being taken simultaneously by multiple national governments. It therefore seems reasonable for individual nations to seek a means to establish a climate dedicated, parallel United Nations organisation with independent, veto-free, executive powers and not dependent for its funding on the random charity of its members.

Until the asteroid is diverted from its present course, political thought and endeavour needs to be devoted to finding a way to build a tolerable and effective system of global governance. Lobbying other nations and helping lead them to coalesce around such a proposal should have the highest priority on any government’s foreign policy agenda. Should such a global cooperative solution prove beyond the wit of humankind, the science seems to indicate that that kind is unlikely to have more than two or three generations left to run.

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Note 17. A most remarkable event in NZ politics.

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