Updated 27 Jan 2020
Models have accurately predicted the past 50 years' global warming, according to a review. Now, what do they say will happen next? Oh. Oh dear." — New Scientist, 14 December 2019, p.21
Back around 1976 I was a third-year student at Universilty College London's School of Environmental Studies, which had merged with the Bartlett school of arctitecture. The first computer preditions of global warming were beginning to appear. One was produced by a research colleague elsewhere, whose name and establishment I unfortunately forget (I was an architecture student and the common thread which brought it up was my interest in computers). I have never been able to track it down since but the details stuck clear in my mind.
The prediction was based on a simple model of the gross physics involved: the heat from the Sun, the greenhouse effect due to increased carbon dioxide (CO2), and the heat re-radiated back into space vs. that absorbed by the planet. Variables included likely future rates of CO2 production by civilisation and of re-absorbtion by plant and algal photosynthesis.
The results were startling and depressing, apocalyptic even. If we were to nip global warming in the bud, we would have to make civilization carbon-neutral by 1990. Leaving it until the millennium would create a major blip in global temperatures lasting perhaps a thousand years. Doing nothing but instead letting emissions continue to grow exponentially as they had done up until then would lead to runaway heating. Over the next 500 to 1,000 years and more, with sea levels rising by tens or metres. Presently the world would simply become too hot for us to continue. Civilisation would collapse and CO2 emissions return to normal. But that would not be the end, for CO2 levels would then be so high that warming would continue for another 1,000 years or so before fianlly peaking and taking perhaps 5,000 years to come back down.
But even this doomdsday scenario would not become evident for many years. At this point, some comment on the social and political choices ahead of us was added (I do not know if it was in the original paper, but it had certainly been thought through). The warming would not even be detectable until around the mid-1980s and would remain near-buried in the noise of natural climate variation for the next ten years or so. Only in the late 1990s would the trend become quantifiable. But would anybody listen? Would climate scientists be heard, giving apocalyptic warnings of imminent catastrophe while stick-in-the-muds were still arguing it was all down to natural variation? By the time the figures became unarguable it would be into the next millennium, too late to prevent a blip and on the borderline of preventing uncontrolled runaway. If our politico-industrial masters remained deaf then rising sea levels and increasing destabilisation of weather patterns would begin to demand answers. By the present day the effects would be becoming all too obvious even to the general public. But by then it would be far too late, the runaway greenhouse effect firmly in place and now unstoppable.
Of course, you can imagine the effect that such a terrible prophecy of doom would have on any scientist's career, it would be the end of it. I was lucky enough to see that coming and decided not to enter the field after all. I mean, spending your whole career watching the world as we know it entering its death throes while everybody sniggers at you and spends their funds elsewhere. Too much to bear, sorry folks.
So here we are, 43 years and counting down the line. How did it all pan out?
For my sins, I sat by watching it all unfold, too sick at heart to fight the unwinnable battle. I turned out to be right about the wilful ignorance and ridicule. Those few who stood by the truth were soon laughed out of their careers. Yet some made of sterner stuff remained, keeping quiet and outwardly equivocal, cautiously gathering data to bolster the scientific case.
Some tunred to renewable energy sources, in an attempt to turn them from a passion of the Hippie era into viable commercial technologies. Scorn and lack of investment were their principal rewards.
Society at large kept right on its exponential curve of global expansion. The doomsday forecast remained right on the mark for the next thirty years, right through until the the new millennium. By then we knew a lot more. The ocean algae were proving a little better at carbon capture than we had feared but forests were being cut down faster. The ice sheets were thicker than we had thought and also spent a long time grumbling away absorbing heat before they finally began to melt in earnest. Sea levels will eventually rise an amazing 47 metres once that has happened, not so much from the ice itself as from the thermal expansion of miles-deep ocean. The gulf stream and other deep ocean currents were becoming disrupted. They would be wholly destroyed or even more badly disturbed by a first flush of excessive seasonal meltwater followed evntually by its near-total loss. Rising energy levels in the atmosphere would continue to drive violent storms and change local cimates from wet to arid or vice versa. We were consuming the sustainable resources of 4 1/2 planets just to keep ourselves going. But even by then, the whole truth was still too strong a meat, too unacceptable to our ostrich society; the climate sceptics were telling us what most of us still wanted to hear and it took a long time for the reality of man-made warming to become too obvious to ignore. But the consequences were still unthinkable; could we contain warming to a mere 2 degrees, could we all agree international protocols and targets and then stick to them, could we rearrange the deck chairs in Rome and fiddle some more while the Titanic burned? Yes, for the last ten years or so that is exactly what we have been doing.
The only chink of light has been the revolution in electrical power technology brought about by rare-earth magnets and digital control systems. Wind power is beginning to make itself felt, though it cannot form more than a small part of the total solution and is coming too little and too late. Solar panels have shown a persistent habit of dying before the energy invested in their manufacture has been fully recovered: the more energy-efficient they become, the more energy is required to manufacture their more sophisticated structures and to clear up the chemicals left over from the process. Other alternative technologies remain at best small-scale works in hand.
Now, now the laws of physics are taking their gloves off. Droughts, heatwaves, forest fires, storms, flash floods, all these are increasingly killing people around the world. The human death toll has begun, whole species and ecologies are under sentence of death right left and centre, and climate activists are declaring war. It is time the truth were told.
So here it is. Why do you think all those modern climate scientists have been publishing their computer simulations for a mere 20, 40 or 100 years forward at most? Ask them for their predictions 500 or 1,000 or 5,000 years forward and tell you what happens. There are just too many people crowding into too small a planet. If we do no better than now, the world as we know it will disappear under water and ecological collapse in a few centuries at most. The change is coming fast and hard, faster and harder than anything that Gaia can adapt to, mass extinctions will become commonplace. Technological civilisation itself is under the hammer and cannot survive in its present form. Tens of billions of people, the vast majority of humanity, will simply disappear. That means death on an unimaginable scale. Not the sort of thing you want to pin your thoughts on, never mind your reputation. So go ahead, don't believe me if you don't want to, just ignore the latest computer predictions alluded to by the New Scientist. But you can't beat the laws of physics and even you can smell it in the air at last, you know we're right. That, my friends, is the plain unvarnised truth, writ upon the wall by the laws of physics some forty-five years ago, bolstered by every scientific finding since and now, at last, writ here for all to read.
The burning question now is, can we do better than that? And the answer is not promising. We are told today (at the close of 2019) that we still just have time to prevent the doomsday scenario, to avoid the critical tipping point and keep peak warming to perhaps 3 or 4 degress, not even melting all the ice. But that is only academically true. Check the small print. Preventing the wholesale melting of natural ice and drowning of coastal lands assumes we can roll out a vast and immediate carbon-capture programme way beyond anything currently feasible. Even building out the capture technology would spew more carbon up there faster. International arm-flapping and conferences full of fine-sounding promises – even if they were not false promises – can achieve nothing. In any practically achievable terms we passed that doomsday point some ten or fifteen years ago. Runaway global warming is a fact we must come to terms with for the foreseeable future, as are its direct consequences.
The issue is no longer about containment but about damage limitation and long-term survival. The faster we cut emissions and roll out carbon capture, the sooner we can slow the runaway train and blunt the peak of global warming, and the more ecologies will survive. Can we bring down the super-rich and super-stubborn carbon-miners before they do even greater damage, before wholesale species and ecological extinctions render ever vaster tracts of land uninhabitable, before we ourselves join the extinction list? Can we push out sustainable energy technologies fast enough to maintain some semblance of modern civilisation when the carbon-miners are finally defeated? Can we build out zero-carbon societies at anything like the rate needed to build a sustainable civilisation? Where will the inhabitants of Florida, New York, East Anglia, London, Bangla Desh and a thousand other low-lying areas be living in the lifetime of our grandchildren? These huge programmes needed to bring warming back under control will at first spew yet more carbon into the air, magnifying the problem they are intended to solve. Get them wrong and we will do more harm than good.
The problem with short-term measures is that many will be steamrollered by the long-term effects. Should we be putting our efforts into saving the most vulnerable species and ecologies which will presently become extinct anyway? What about saving the immediate children of those alive today, children whose own offspring will be snuffed out in the unfolding disaster? All those efforts will burn more energy, stoke the flames. Would it be a greater service to the future to focus on the long term, limiting the ultimate population shrinkage as best we can? Should we be trying to save today's threatened habitats or tomorrow's or the day after tomorrow's?
Opinions will differ and many people will focus on their immediate family and environment. But longer-term thinkers whil need the best science available to them, to make the surgical cuts in the right places.
Then there is the practical political side of things, the battle against human nature. Can we persuade our neighbours to vote for the politicans who will lead us forward for the sake of our children's children's children and not hold us back for the sake of power, money and blissful ignorance today? Does humanity have the will to save some remnant of its former glory, or will we continue as we have been, bickering and squabbling over who gets to destroy our planet the fastest?
Do we even yet have the self-honesty to admit what we have done and where it is taking us? Until now we have not. If just one of you reading this grasps the truth that little bit better after reading this, then it has done its work.
PostscriptJust one week after I first posted this piece, climate scientists announced that the global ice sheets are melting faster than even they had been expecting, another week and New Scientist dared to publish the coy little note which now prefaces this essay, while the latest Climate Change conference ends in another inadequate compromise which the biggest and worst economies will fail to honour just like last time. The truth is coming out at last, it really is.