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Jim Hansen, Climate Code Red and the Atmospheric Singularity
Alex Steffen, 8 Feb 08

Jim Hansen, who to my thinking is the most credible and important voice in American climate science, sent off the slides (PDF) from a talk he gave recently. Their argument is worth pondering on for a moment:

Perfect Storm, Perfect Disaster 1. Great Inertia of Systems-Ocean:Half of Warming still “In Pipeline” -Energy Systems: Decades to Replace2. Non-Linear Problems -Ice Sheet Disintegration-Interdependencies of Species 3. Special Interests have Undue Sway-Exert Media and Political Control -Delay Actions a la Smoking and HealthDanger: Tipping Points Different Planet

New Science in Pipeline
1. CO2= 450 ppmis dangerous!
-Already 280 385 ppm
2. Criteria for Defining Target CO2
-Earth’s History
-Ongoing Effects at 385 ppm

Example:ArcticSea IceCriterion*
1. Restore Planetary Energy Balance
CO2: 385 ppm 325-355ppm
2. Restore Sea Ice: Aim for -0.5 W/m2
CO2: 385 ppm 300-325ppm
Range based on uncertainty in present planetary energy imbalance (between 0.5 and 1 W/m
* Assuming near-balance among non-CO2 forcings

Initial Target CO2: 350 ppm
Technically Feasible (but not if business-as-usual continues)
Quick Coal Phase-Out Critical
(long lifetime of atmospheric CO2)(must halt construction of any new coal
plants that do not capture & store CO2)

“Free Will” Alternative
1. Phase Out Coal CO2Emissions
-by 2025/2030 developed/developing countries2. Rising Carbon Price
-discourages unconventional fossil fuels & extraction of every last drop of oil (Arctic, etc.)
3. Soil & Biosphere CO2Sequestration
-improved farming & forestry practices4. Reduce non-CO
2 Forcings
-reduce CH4, O3, trace gases, black soot

What are the Chances?
Fossil Interests: have influence in capitols world-wide
Young People: need to organize, enlist others (parents, e.g.), impact elections
Animals: not much help (don’t vote, don’t talk)

The Big Tipping Point
If the (human/energy) system reaches a point such that positive
feedbacks cause a rapid change
It is possible. We have to figure out how to live w/o fossil fuels some-
day anyhow –why not sooner?
☺ but animals can’t do it

The argument of the new Climate Code Red report is much the same, though made at greater length and with a more direct advocacy appeal:

Climate policy is characterized by the habituation of low expectations and a culture of failure. There is an urgent need to understand global warming and the tipping points for dangerous impacts that we have already crossed as a sustainability emergency, that takes us beyond the politics of failure-inducing compromise. We are now in a race between climate tipping points and political tipping points.

There are moments that I believe that it might be better to shelve discussion of tipping points for the moment, and pick up that hoary old late-90s metaphor of singularities.

(A singularity, in this usage, is a turning point in human affairs that is so radical it is almost impossible for those who live before it to imagine life after it. Most commonly, the term is used by old-school science fiction writers to describe a future in which evolving artificial intelligences hurtle humanity into a technological maelstrom of innovation. But increasingly, people describe historical moments -- the dawn of agriculture, the "discovery" of the New World, the Industrial Revolution -- as social singularities.)

I increasingly suspect that we are at a shearing point on either side of which a singularity looms.

If we fail to tackle our sustainability crisis, an, most pressingly, our climate crisis, we will with increasing rapidity find ourselves in a world which is not only unthinkable to most people in the developed world, but literally beyond the ability of scientists to confidently predict. If we get things under control, our odds of things staying somewhat the same increase dramatically. But if we can't, we enter a world where nothing we've taken for granted for 10,000 years can be relied upon. Think of it as the Atmospheric Singularity.

On the other hand, if we do come to grips with our challenges, I'm more and more convinced that it will be because we recognize that "small steps" and "swap out" technologies (think Hummer-to-Prius) are not even vaguely sufficient, and we proceed to embrace really radical rethinking of the best ways to deliver prosperity in a sustainable manner. And I'm pretty sure that the end result of that process will be a world which is pretty difficult to even imagine for most people at the moment. Think of this as the Sustainability Singularity

The point is, either way we go, the future will work by its own rules, not the rules we are used to living within today.

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If only we could collectively look at this moment as an opportunity in which doing the right things will lead us to the kind of world we want to live in. Take everything that has been wrong for so long, all the inequality and injustice, and fashion a sustainable culture in which resources and opportunities are shared fairly.
But the powers that be cling to the system that they understand and that benefits them. How do we wrestle enough control away from them to make a difference before it is too late?

Posted by: rejin on 9 Feb 08

Well, actually, the future will also work by the laws of ecology. "Human nature" is also not changing too much... Both are flexible enough to allow for a wide range of possibilities, however.
So, I'd think that some elements of the future are imaginable. Maybe even quite some, looking at earlier and indigenous cultures, and at contemporary, well, "green freaks."
The problem may not be with the imagination, but with the belief that sweeping change is or is not possible.

Posted by: Gerald on 9 Feb 08

Hansen covers many things well including momentum in the system and nonlinear effects. I think he under-states some things, our 385 is really roughly 385+X-Y where X is other GHG and Y is soot and other negative forcings..but cleaner air to breath means we can't just count on this Y (as is mistakenly done by scientists) and say "don't worry, we're still at 385" in fact the key number is 385+X since Y won't be there forever. When ocean stops soaking up as much, we'll get another big escalation on top of even that. 385+X is already more than 425, that's what Flannery was saying and (unfairly, as explained here) got flak from

solutions? Many caring concerned citizens wanting change, I wonder if they even realize out entire economic system of "perpetual growth, forever and ever" is 100% incompatible with a solution.

How to get there? Not enough space here, but we can't rely on "asking people in power" or even "pressuring people in power" to make changes, though these 2 modalities must continue, we need to add a third, "changing facts on the ground" by building our own democratic economic models from the ground up, mutual aid cooperative democratic economics, so we can all unplug outselves from corporate jobs, corporate sources of food,and corporate capitalist sources of housing/shelter. See economicdemocracy dot org forward slash alternatives-to-wallst.html (see URL link)

Posted by: Econ Democracy on 9 Feb 08

Dear Friends,

Please forgive me for saying that I believe my not-so-great generation of elders is literally on the verge of devouring the birthright of its children and mortgaging their future, while not giving so much as a thought to the needs of coming generations. My generation may be remembered most for having ravaged the Earth and irreversibly degraded its environment, leaving our planetary home unfit for life as we know it or for human habitation or both.

Unfortunately, many too many of our brothers and sisters as well as virtually all the political leaders, economic powerbrokers and ‘talking heads’ in the mass media are not yet acknowledging the distinctly human-induced predicament looming ominously before humanity, even now visible on the far horizon. Because human overproduction, over-consumption and overpopulation appear to be occurring synergistically, at least to me it makes sense to see and address them as a whole. Picking the most convenient or most expedient of the three aspects of the human condition could be easier but may not be a good idea. The “big picture” is what we need to see, I suppose. At some point we are going to be forced to gain a “whole system” perspective of what 6.6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) people are doing on Earth. That is to say, the human community needs to widely-share a reasonable and sensible understanding of the colossal impact of unbridled production, unrestained consumption and unregulated propagation activities of the human species on Earth….... and how life utterly depends upon Earth’s limited resource base for existence.

If human beings can share an adequate enough grasp of the leviathan-like presence of the human species on Earth, then we can choose individually and collectively to behave differently from the ways we are behaving now, lest my generation could lead everyone to inadvertently precipitate the massive extinction of biodiversity, the irredeemable degradation of environs, the pillage of our planetary home and, perhaps, the endangerment of humanity.



Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 10 Feb 08

A modest proposal to gauge your sustainability consciousness, and what you might be willing to entertain as a contribution to greenhouse gas reduction:

If you drive a car on a regular basis, commit, from now until a year from now, to not use that car for one day a week. After the end of that year, commit to not using your car for two days per week. After the end of the second year, commit to not using your car for three days per week.

During those off days, to get places you would like to go, make other arrangements: carpool, bus, taxi, bicycle, walk ... or don't leave home (tend your garden, perhaps).

If this seems unthinkable to you, then you will have an idea of how far we are from reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar challenge, would be to turn off the electricity in your home for 12 hours a day.

Posted by: Stephen Bach on 10 Feb 08

It is worth reading James Lovelock's Revenge of Gaia because in it he points out that the main systems for regulating the climate are the ocean algae and their production of DiMethylSulphide (DMS) which was found to have a profound effect on formation of clouds over oceans, the albedo of the ice -aka polar ice, and the forests of the Earth. As he points out the conversion of much of the forests to farmland or wasteland has severely damaged that. And warming of the oceans has cut off some of the ability of the algae to grow, since productivity in the top layer of the oceans is highest away from the lower latitudes. This is because above 12deg, water forms stratified layers that become starved of oxygen because of lack of mixing and this explains why tropical waters are so clear and free of algae.

And last years catastrophic summer melt in the Arctic ocean which if it continues, could mean the Arctic could ice free in the summer in less than 10 years. The existing melt has already resulted in a massive change in albedo during the summer and complete loss would be even worse. The consequences are that a huge amount of energy is being absorbed that would otherwise be reflected and it is adding yet more heat into the system. Thus the natural ability of the Earth to prevent run away warming is badly damaged.

It certainly looks like we passed a tipping point quite a while ago.

And what did we need to do? Get rid of capitalism would be an excellent start, but unfortunately the corporate media has done an epic job of keeping the public uninformed until it is way too late and even now people don't get it and are still engrossed in the culture of celebrity.

A good start though would be to immediately make public transport free in every major town and city world wide. There would be nothing to invent, no new market and no product to sell and it could be done starting today. Of course this solution is unacceptable to capitalism so will not be allowed to happen nor get any sort of airing in the corporate media.

Posted by: Terence on 10 Feb 08



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