In Part 1, we saw that …

  1. Adaptation as primary strategy for dealing with climate change is widely oversold.
  2. This is especially true as atmospheric CO2 concentrations approach 800 to 1,000 ppm, a likely outcome if we listen to either the delayers or deniers.
  3. A leading adaptation advocate and apparent delayer-1000, Roger Pielke, Jr., “labels adaptation what is in fact mitigation, and his idea of mitigation is apparently research into adaptation.”

Let me elaborate on these points. The day before the dubious pro-adaptation L.A. Times piece, one of Pielke’s fellow Prometheus bloggers, Jonathan Gilligan, pointed out, “if our political system stinks at managing floods, coastal storm risks, and fresh-water resources in the absence of anthropogenic climate change, why would it manage better if climate change does turn out to significantly increase the mean severity and/or variance of the distribution?”

I made a similar point last year on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophe that “showed the limitations of adaptation as a response to climate change”:

… a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to “adapt” New Orleans to the threat. We didn’t make the levees able to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a category 4).

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… even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.

If we won’t adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans — since on our current path, climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level?

For some, of course, adaptation is a complete ruse:

The fact is, the Deniers don’t believe climate change is happening, so they don’t believe in spending money on adaptation. The Center for American Progress has written an important paper on hurricane preparedness, which is a good starting point for those who are serious about adaptation.

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But don’t be taken in by heartfelt expressions of faith in human adaptability. If Katrina shows us anything, it is that preventing disaster would be considerably less expensive — and more humane — than forcing future generations to adapt to an unending stream of disasters [which is to say a permanently altered climate].

The nation and the world will obviously have to spend serious money adapting to global warming for two reasons. First, we’ve delayed action to reduce emissions for so long already. Second, delayers like Pielke (and President Bush, Bjørn Lomborg, and Newt Gingrich) still have the upper hand in the debate (as the L.A. Times article and this Revkin NYT piece make clear), because the 1) technology trap is so appealing, 2) action requires a lot of effort, and 3) procrastination is always an attractive option when someone is whispering in your ear that it is actually the best option.

Note: The cleverest delayers, like Pielke, never oppose action completely; they just never tell you specifically what their targets and actions would be. So they get to take the high road and argue out of both sides of their mouths, effectively arguing, “We need both mitigation and adaptation, but even though I don’t think the problem requires urgent action like the advocates, take my word that I support just enough mitigation to avoid the part of climate change that can’t be adapted to.”

Unfortunately, the part of climate change that can’t be adapted to is coming much faster than we feared. If we can keep total warming from preindustrial levels to 2 degrees C or lower, than genuine adaptation is possible. The more we go above 2 degrees C, the more adaptation will be replaced by suffering.

Living/suffering in a 1,000-ppm world

I listed only three catastrophes that would probably occur at 800 to 1,000 ppm, because I think those are the most serious and most inevitable. But they are hardly the only ones. A major 2005 study [PDF] of the impacts of about 800 ppm on the United States found in the second half of this century (from 2071 to 2095) that a vast swath of the country would see average summer temperature rise by a blistering 9 degrees F.

Houston and Washington, D.C. would experience temperatures exceeding 98 degrees F for some 60 days a year. Oklahoma would see temperatures above 110 degrees F some 60 to 80 days a year. Much of Arizona would be subjected to temperatures of 105 degrees F or more for 98 days out of the year — 14 full weeks. We won’t call these heat waves anymore. As the lead author, Noah Diffenbaugh of Purdue University, said to me, “We will call them normal summers.”

Climate scientists don’t spend a lot of time studying 800 to 1,000 ppm, in part because they can’t believe humanity would be so self-destructive as to ignore their increasingly dire warnings and fail to stabilize at well below 550 ppm. The IPCC notes [PDF] that if equilibrium CO2-equivalent concentrations hit 1,000 ppm, the “best estimate” for temperature increase is 5.5 degrees C (10 degrees F), which means that over much of the inland United States, temperatures would be about 15 degrees F higher.

This increase would be the end of life as we know it on this planet. Interestingly, 5.5 degrees C is just about the temperature difference between now and the end of the last ice age, the difference between a livable climate for human civilization that is well-suited to agriculture and massive glaciers from the North Pole down to Indiana.

Is it 100 percent certain that 1,000 ppm would result in …

  1. Sea level rise of 80 feet to 250 feet at a rate of six inches a decade;
  2. Desertification of one third the planet and drought over half the planet, plus the loss of all inland glaciers; and
  3. More than 70 percent of all species going extinct, plus extreme ocean acidification?

Of course not. Such certainty is not possible for a climate transition that is completely unprecedented in the history of the human species. I can state with very high confidence that the possibility all of those outcomes will occur is higher than the world seeing even a single “science and engineering-based technological breakthrough” (let alone several, as delayers like Pielke seem to be counting on) in the next quarter century that is significant enough to somehow avert such catastrophes far more cheaply than simply acting now with existing technology to avoid 450 ppm.

Importantly, even a 3 percent chance of a warming this great is enough to render useless all traditional cost-benefit analyses that argue for delay or only modest action, as Harvard economist Martin Weitzman has shown. Yet, absent immediate and strong action, the chances of such warming and such effects are not small, they are large — greater than 50 percent . These impacts seem especially likely in an 800 to 1,000 ppm world, given that the climate appears to be changing much faster than the IPCC had projected.

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets already appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of schedule,” as Penn State climatologist Richard Alley put it in Mar. 2006. Indeed, a number of peer-reviewed articles have appeared in the scientific literature in the past 18 months supporting the real possibility of a six-inches-a-decade sea level rise.

As for desertification, “The unexpectedly rapid expansion of the tropical belt constitutes yet another signal that climate change is occurring sooner than expected,” noted one climate researcher in December. As a recent study led by NOAA noted, “A poleward expansion of the tropics is likely to bring even drier conditions to the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, Australia, and parts of Africa and South America.”

In 2007, the IPCC warned [PDF] that as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5 degrees C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40 to 70 percent of species assessed) around the globe. That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels significantly exceeding 4.0 degrees C. So a 5.5 degrees C rise would likely put extinctions beyond the high end of that range.

And these horrific impacts are certainly not the worst-case scenario. As NASA’s James Hansen explained [PDF] in a 2004 Scientific American article:

The peak rate of deglaciation following the last Ice Age was … about one meter [39 inches] of sea-level rise every 20 years, which was maintained for several centuries.

Imagine sea level rise of nearly 20 inches a decade lasting centuries. Now imagine what future generations will think of us if we let it happen.

A year ago, Science ($ub. req’d) published research that “predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest” — levels of aridity comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl would stretch from Kansas to California. And they were only looking at a 720 ppm case! The Dust Bowl was a sustained decrease in soil moisture of about 15 percent (“which is calculated by subtracting evaporation from precipitation”).

Even the one-third desertification of the planet by 2100 scenario by the Hadley Center is only based on 850 ppm (in 2100). Princeton has done an analysis [PDF] on “Century-scale change in water availability: CO2-quadrupling experiment,” which is to say, 1,100 ppm. The grim result: Most of the South and Southwest ultimately sees a 20 to 50 percent (!) decline in soil moisture.

You may be interested in how fast we can hit 1,000 ppm. Well, the Hadley Center has one of the few models that incorporates many of the major carbon cycle feedbacks. In a 2003 Geophysical Research Letters paper ($ub. req’d), “Strong carbon cycle feedbacks in a climate model with interactive CO2 and sulphate aerosols,” the Hadley Center finds that the world would hit 1,000 ppm in 2100 even in a scenario that, absent those feedbacks, we would only have hit 700 ppm in 2100. I would note that the Hadley Center, though more inclusive of carbon cycle feedbacks than most other models, still does not model any feedbacks from the melting of the tundra even though it is probably the most serious of those amplifying feedbacks.

Clearly, 800 to 1,000 ppm would be ruinous to this country, creating unimaginable suffering and misery for billions of people for centuries to come. No one who believes in science and cares about humanity can possibly believe that adaptation is a more rational or moral policy than focusing 99 percent of our climate efforts on staying far below 800 ppm.

Roger Pielke, Jr.: Not an honest broker

The pro-adaptation L.A. Times article that began this discussion ends with some mind-boggling comments by Pielke:

Pielke says that even if his critics are right, it is becoming clear that the world lacks the political will to enact global emissions cuts.

“I would characterize us as realists,” Pielke said. “Realists on what is politically possible.”

Is he being serious — or is this an early April Fool’s joke on us all, especially the next fifty generations? This line of “reasoning” is stunning. Pielke claims to be an “honest broker” — heck, he even wrote a book on that subject. He has written:

I have written that an honest broker works to expand (or at least clarify) the scope of choice available to decision makers. I have contrasted this with the issue advocate who works to reduce the scope of choice available to decision makers.

Pielke is now arguing — assuming that those misquoting mavens at the L.A. Times haven’t screwed up again — that even if he is wrong (which, as we’ve seen, he is) — he is really right because the world is politically incapable of making the necessary emissions cuts.

That is not how an “honest broker” operates. How in God’s name — or Einstein’s name, if you prefer — can an “honest broker” in a major science policy debate be someone who just tells policymakers what is politically possible now? What is the point? Isn’t that what politicians are for?

What could possibly reduce “the scope of choice available to decision makers” more than scientists or policy analysts who eliminate all of the choices that are not politically possible now? Pielke is, by his own definition, not an honest broker. He is a bizarre form of issue advocate whose issue is adaptation delay.

I could not agree more that stabilizing below 450 ppm requires many actions that are not politically possible now. Indeed, I have blogged and spoken on that point many times. Of course, one reason (no, Roger, not the only reason) such actions are not politically possible now is that reasonable-sounding delayers like Pielke keep telling policymakers, “Don’t worry. We can adapt. And we need technology breakthroughs anyway. And even if I’m wrong, you policymakers aren’t up to the task anyway.”

Under Pielke’s definition, I am an honest broker, since my primary goal is to “expand (or at least clarify) scope of choice available to decision makers.” Like many scientists and policy analysts, in the 1990s, I thought we had three basic choices: Stay below 450 ppm to avoid catastrophic outcomes with high confidence; overshoot beyond, say, 700 ppm, and destroy life as we know it; and muddle through at around 550 ppm, and hope that was tolerable.

But after talking to dozens of the top climate scientists and reviewing the literature for my book — and now with countless observations showing how dire the situation is — I and much of the climate community have come to realize the third option doesn’t really exist for two reasons. First, the impacts at 550 would probably be catastrophic. Second, the carbon cycle amplifying feedbacks would make stabilizing at 550 ppm exceedingly difficult. In particular, the top 11 feet of the tundra would probably not survive 550 ppm (a point I will be blogging about again soon) and two other key carbon sinks — land-based vegetation and the oceans — already appear to be saturating.

So our choice is really to stay below 450 ppm or risk self-destruction. That’s why climate scientists are so damn desperate these days. That’s why a non-alarmist guy like Rajendra Pachauri — specifically chosen as IPCC chair in 2002 after the Bush administration waged a successful campaign to have him replace the outspoken Robert Watson — said in November: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” That’s why more than 200 scientists took the remarkable step of issuing a plea at the United Nations climate change conference in Bali. Global greenhouse-gas emissions, they declared, “must peak and decline in the next 10 to 15 years, so there is no time to lose.” The AP headline on the statement was “Scientists Beg for Climate Action.”

That is the position of the true “scientific realists.” If the scientific realists (and others) convince the political realists it should be their position, too, then humanity has a chance. If the political realists remain stuck in the past, listening to advice from issue advocates like Pielke, then we do not.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.