The IPCC has released its 6th assessment report (AR6) last week — a major update to the previous assessment report released 7 years ago. It is grandiose scientific work synthesizing 5 years of climate related publications (from 2014 to 2019). The past 2 years was spent on achieving first a scientific, then a political consensus on the contents of the report. Now, all countries around the world and all scientist involved have come to an agreement on its contents.
This comes with certain caveats with regards to the results. The report represents the bare minimum on which all parties could agree upon, meaning that statements about warming (how much hotter it gets) is also the bare minimum we will get. If any factor, that was not double-triple proved to play a significant role in warming (according to our current i.e. up to 2019 knowledge) was not taken into account and was added with a side-note “cannot be ruled out” only.
A second caveat is, that this is not a pure scientific publication, but a politically palatable version of it. The results and statements must go through a ton of filtering and refinement before they get accepted by the commissioners of Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and the like — just to name few. This guarantees that the report underestimates the true risk of even moderately bad scenarios to come true, not to mention the fat tail risk events (those, which have a low chance of happening, but has a disproportionately devastating effect) to avoid panic. It is no wonder then, that almost all climate related disasters these days come prepackaged with a headline “sooner than expected” or “much greater than accounted for”.
Expect such news titles to pop-up in the future as well.
Why I love scenarios
When I opened the report, I first checked Chapter 4: Future global climate: scenario-based projections and near-term information. I have to admit, I “love” the scenarios (called SSP-s) used to model humanity’s future paths of action. Climate scientists are not geologists working on resource analysis, and that is perfectly fine, but unfortunately economists and political analysts — who provide inputs to these scenarios — are neither. They are paid professionals to represent a politically palatable framing for the future which can be used in later battles between opposing parties — another caveat of the IPCC’s report.
It’s no wonder then, that such scenarios like SSP5 Fossil-fueled Development appear in the assessment as a realistic option. Here is a brief description to it:
“This world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development. Global markets are increasingly integrated. There are also strong investments in health, education, and institutions to enhance human and social capital. At the same time, the push for economic and social development is coupled with the exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. All these factors lead to rapid growth of the global economy, while global population peaks and declines in the 21st century. Local environmental problems like air pollution are successfully managed. There is faith in the ability to effectively manage social and ecological systems, including by geo-engineering if necessary.”
In other words this is Business as Usual forever; put more bluntly: infinite growth on a finite planet. Trust me, the rest of the scenarios are no better in this regard:
“A second group worked on modelling how socioeconomic factors may change over the next century. These include things such as population, economic growth, education, urbanisation and the rate of technological development. These “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs) look at five different ways in which the world might evolve in the absence of climate policy and how different levels of climate change mitigation could be achieved”
Noticed the lack of resource availability issues…? Planetary boundaries? Ecosystems collapse? As if it were wholly up to us to decide how much oil, coal and gas we plan to use. The myth of progress and a relentless faith in human will can be observed here in its full glory… No wonder that no researcher associated with the Club of Rome was invited to participate.
I’ve checked the linked scientific publication, and didn’t find any mention that we could run into a resource problem before 2080: “In the SSP5-Baseline marker scenario, fossil fuel emissions peak between 2080 and 2090 as even the abundant coal, oil and gas resources in SSP5 become depleted.” Apparently they haven’t consulted a petroleum-geologist neither… Like Hallock’s team, whose peer reviewed analysis on economically recoverable petroleum availability clearly shows that none of these higher emission scenarios are possible. According to their best fit scenario, by 2050 we will be extracting less than a fifth of the oil we are “producing” today and we will have practically nothing left to recover economically by the end of the century… With or without managing to install a comparable power generation capacity from wind and solar (most probably without).
Our resource depletion problem, starting with oil and continued with metals necessary to wide-scale renewable projects puts the shiny green scenarios (SSP1–2) to ‘fairy tales of eternal growth’ territory. Just check out the GDP charts by Carbon Brief below. Is it realistic to increase the size of the global economy fivefold, when even it’s current size is full of shortages and irreversible damages to the environment…? Global warming apart, do we really want that?
Down to Earth
Following this line of thought I propose a realistic scenario instead, called: ‘planetary boundaries’. Starting from the basic assumption that oil is the key resource of this civilization, which enables the retrieval of other resources including other forms of energy (like coal, gas, hydro, solar, wind, nuclear and so on) the main presumption of this scenario is, that overall energy production and thus CO2 emissions will peak within this decade then fade away gradually following a Paris style emissions reductions plan — but wholly involuntarily and without the negative emission technologies. (Humanity will have more pressing issues, like providing food and shelter, than to spend precious energy on sucking Gigatons of carbon out of the air using Terawatts of electricity.)
This will place us realistically into the middle range of warming of 2–3 degrees above preindustrial levels till the end of the century. The original SSP scenarios all have a lot of coal burning in common, producing atmospheric aerosols reflecting a lot of sunlight back to space — acting as a sunscreen. In the ‘planetary boundaries’ scenario however coal mining will most probably decline together with oil, so we need to add a 0.5–1 °C of additional warming caused by the loss of this otherwise unwanted pollution shield. On top of this come the usual uncertainties related to tipping points of our climate and we are quickly in the 3–4 degrees world by 2100.
According to the 6th assessment report (following the CO2 emission trajectories associated with middle of the road scenarios, which are the closest fit to the ‘planetary boundaries’ in the sort term) we will reach 1.5°C above preindustrial levels by 2030 or so, 2°C somewhere in the early 2040’s and 3°C somewhere towards the end of the century (maybe in the beginning of the next). With a bit of luck Earth doesn’t reaches 4°C of warming in later centuries, but who knows… Sea levels are set to rise by 2 meters and up to 6 in a couple of hundred years from now, reaching an ultimate rise of up to 13 meters in the next 10,000 years.
Apologists of Progress
So much for keeping global heating under 1.5°C… Remember: in the beginning of the 21st century this was the goal to keep temperature increase under by 2100... now it’s 2030. A few years ago, when the Paris agreement made a hit, it has became the mantra of the progressives that we have ten years to make or break this target. Today, with the release of the latest IPCC report the rhetoric had to be changed again.
Accelerationists (devout believers of Progress) are shouting at the top of their lungs — hoping to save the climate together with this civilization — that we are still “not too late”, “we have the technology” and all we need is “the will” to push political negotiations and green technologies even harder. Never mind the resource limits (“There are no limits to human will!!!”), or that we keep receiving dire warnings for the better half of the last fifty years — yet nothing really stopped the relentless rise of CO2 in our atmosphere (“This time is different! Now. We. Will. Make. It!”). Sure.
It’s no wonder accelerationists cry for acceleration. All this shouting is coming from the false belief that if we say words out loud things happen on a global scale. This is magical thinking per definition: if it were possible and economically viable, it would have happened already. Apologists of progress got what they wanted, but by now somehow seem to have forgotten, that if you let the “market” sort it out for you, all you get is economically sound, but environmentally disastrous solutions. Don’t believe me? Look at how rare-earth metals get mined and processed in China leaving toxic waste in the open — abandoned.
What gets also lost on the accelerationists, that decoupling GDP from CO2 emissions is also a myth… (together with infinite growth). Contrary to common wisdom, we still obtain around 80% of our total energy use from fossil fuels (of which electricity represent a mere 25% only). A lot of applications require stable high heat and electricity inputs 24/7. In theory, there might be options to make steel with burning clean Hydrogen, or in theory we might reach fusion on Earth, but practically these solutions are energetic dead ends and thus most probably doomed to economic failure. If it weren’t enough already, these changes must happen within this decade, eliminating half of today’s (not 1990's!) fossil fuel use by 2030, which is not likely to say the least.
If governments would really like to half emissions in nine years, that would be history’s first voluntary economic collapse — which would not be a bad thing (supposing it’s a well managed transition), since depletion of conventional sources of oil will guarantee that we will leave behind billions of barrels of unrecoverable hydrocarbons anyway — together with our industrial economy fully dependent on them. The difference of course would be great: we would be avoiding an overheated planet vs two more decades of slowly disappearing abundance… Leaving a lot of energy untapped however is not what complex systems do on a daily basis.
Less avid believers of Progress tell us, that we still have a slight chance of hitting 1.5, and if not, then every 0.1°C of heating avoided by releasing less carbon helps. While I fully agree with trying to avoid the release of every kg CO2 and methane, starting in the household, I have practically zero hope that it will be stopping climate change a fraction of a degree shorter. Whatever one saves, will be burned by someone less observant, and ultimately all burnable carbon will end up in the atmosphere — in full accordance with how complex systems approach energy use: burn everything then implode.
There is a more pragmatic reason to avoid CO2 release. Emitting less carbon reduces dependency on the soon rapidly vanishing oil gas and coal supplies, and forces us to learn ways how to get around using less energy.
In the coming centuries there will be still quite some economic activity, even including some coal mining (with a pickax and basket) and maybe an oil well here or there, but their combined level of carbon emissions will certainly not exceed 1900’s levels. With large parts of the globe becoming uninhabitable and without a fossil fuel based industrial agriculture the planet’s population will plummet to levels similar to preindustrial levels (minus the newly created deserts) — well below 1 billion in 150 years from now. People will be living in some sort of Ecotechnic Future with too much abandoned resources to fight about — similar to the relative peace of the dark ages following the fall of Rome. Some heavily damaged eco-systems will recover slowly while others will continue their transformation into something utterly different than what we used to have in our written history. This means, that carbon release by the changing environment (burning forests, swamped coastlines, melting permafrost) will take the place of human emissions, while CO2 take-up will continue to be sluggish — thus conserving >3°C temperatures for a couple of millennia to come.
So, now it’s “official”: we are toast. Not like the dinosaurs were 65 million years ago, but close. It is written between the lines. If you take humanity as a complex system, like I do — it is pretty much a fact. Humanity — obeying the laws of system dynamics — will most probably try to mitigate the worst effects, but will ultimately fail to make a dent on global warming. This time, it will be the other way around: it will be Earth (Gaia?) who will take control of the situation and prune this ‘human tree’ a little. Homo sapiens — I’m sure — will survive though, scattered in a narrow belt below the Arctic circle — as well as in some small settlements in South America, Tasmania and New Zealand — and start to build a new global civilization.
Finding a meaning in all this
Global warming is really “just” a side-effect (albeit the most serious one ever encountered by our species), but it’s not the root cause of our problems. It is our over-reliance on technological solutions, when the answer should’ve been less energy use, less travel, less spending, less devices and smaller families, but more muscle work in local communities for a long time now. This would’ve meant less income for corporations and governments of course, and less income equals less power... And who in his right mind would want that? Well, not the ruling elite for sure.
Civilizations are social constructs. They are nothing more than a set of ideas to keep up cohesion and cooperation, as well as an ideology to explain why a minority of people rule over the majority. These ideas have their shelf life — just like anything else, and if enough people walk away from them, they meet their inevitable end. Ruling elites get replaced quickly and a new social order starts to emerge.
An end of a civilization however, is not the end of the world. By letting the idea of this high-tech civilization go, a whole range of possibilities open up: like re-learning long forgotten skills, building local resilience, a strong community, inventing creative ways to re-use the humongous amount of stuff manufactured during this age and so on. These are all great opportunities to find meaning and goals in a radically different life — if you are willing to let the old industrial paradigm go. I don’t suggest that you quit today, but get prepared to stand on your own two feet, when the time comes.
That’s a lot to think about — as usual.
Until the next time,