The year 1976. That was the last year our Earth was cooler than the 20th century average according to NASA. Gerald Ford was US President, Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics, the Bee Gee’s "You Should be Dancing" topped the USA singles charts, the CN Tower opened, and 60 percent of people today weren't even born yet.
In fact the last time even one month was cooler than average was February 1985. Nearly half of people alive today were born after that … during an eye-popping 326 consecutive months warmer than what used to be called "normal". Generation Hot. If you are under twenty-seven, you're one of them.
Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist recently said: "A warmer world is the new normal. To me, it's startling to think that a generation has grown up with global warming defining their world."
Of course few of them are old enough to do much about it yet. They are still sitting in the back seat while we drive them to someplace a lot less hospitable.
The heat is on
As the chart below shows, global warming has been increasing dramatically during the lives of Generation Hot. The most recent decade was the hottest and includes 9 of the hottest 10 years since 1880. The hottest year recorded so far was 2010. To keep hitting heat records like that you need to be pumped up on atomic power steroids. And that is just what climate science says we have done to our weather system with our trillion tonnes of heat-trapping CO2 pollution so far.
Here in BC, our government reports that we are heating up twice as fast as the global average: "All stations showed increasing temperatures from 1950 to 2006 ... [BC's] total increase of 1.5ºC during the last 50 years is higher than the global average." This warming in BC has killed off billions of trees, altered our snowfall, increased our wildfires, shrunk our glaciers, changed rainfall patterns, warmed our oceans, killed protected old-growth, shifted the plant hardiness zones, caused streams and rivers to rise earlier and even changed the flows and temperature of our mighty Frasier river.
Globally, freak summer heat waves have expanded their reach more than fifty fold across the planet. That is according to an analysis of temperature data recently published by NASA climate scientist, James Hansen. Extreme summer temperatures during 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were so rare they covered only 0.1 percent of the planet on average. Your chance of it happening in your area was around 1-in-750. Now around 7 percent of the planet and 10 percent of the land area swelters under such "extremely hot" summer temperatures. The odds of you, your crops, your forests and your watershed being hit by an extreme heat wave have risen to 1-in-10. According to Hansen:
An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers … the large areas of extreme warming have come into existence only with large global warming.
We conclude that extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were "caused" by global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming…
That Moscow heatwave in 2010 was kinda unusual:
And that great Texas drought last year was hotter and drier than any year, including those of the Great Dust Bowl. In fact it was so off the charts that they literally had to make the chart bigger to fit it on:
That heat and drought didn't stop at the Texas border. It cooked Mexico so bad that the government there reports that 40% of their nations' crops failed. These are the kind of "extreme heat" events that Hansen shows are moving from unprecedented to unrelenting. All this is happening with less than 1 C warming.
More heat coming…
A lot more heat is "in the pipeline" thanks to three major drivers of future heat:
1) Our past CO2
2) Future CO2 "locked in" by existing infrastructure
3) Future CO2 "locked in" by new infrastructure
The latest studies show that the first two -- what we have already done and built -- will push us almost to 2 C of warming. The international community has repeated vowed to not exceed 2 C because it is expected to unleash very dangerous climate changes. Above 2 C, the climate science says civilization will be threatened by dangerous and destabilizing extreme weather, crop losses, rising seas and badly damaged oceans from acidification. In fact Stephen Harper joined the other G8 nations just last week to once again pledge to not breach the 2 C firewall. If Harper is worried I assume it must be really bad.
According to Hansen, 2 C is a rosy estimate based on old data. He says a study of the newest data about how the earth has reacted in the past, and how it is acting now, shows that 2 C is much too risky. He says nasty feedback loops and tipping points will happen if we stay above 1 C warming for very long.
When you add in future heat source number three -- the rate we are adding new CO2-dependent infrastructure -- studies show we are on track to 6 C and "catastrophe".
Let's take a quick look at all three.
WARMING 1: Our past CO2
When fossil CO2 is added to our atmosphere it takes decades to cause its maximum temperature increase. Imagine turning on a flame under a pot of water. It takes awhile for the water to get to maximum heat from that flame. As the next chart shows, a pulse of CO2 will continue to increase global temperatures for the first 30 years. The peak warming comes after about half a century and then slowly declines over centuries as the CO2 is slowly removed from the atmosphere by oceans and rock weathering.
This multi-decade delay means our CO2 emissions from the past few decades still have some heating kick left in them. Climate scientists say we have more warming "in the pipeline" as a result. As I wrote last week, global warming is now increasing by 400,000 atomic bombs worth of new energy every day. The primary driver of our increasing warming is the past CO2 from recent decades.
So, even if we stopped all new CO2 emissions starting tomorrow, global warming would continue for many years. Estimates are that our past emissions will heat the climate another 0.25 C pushing the total warming to over 1C. That might not seem like a lot, but the last time the planet stayed that warm for awhile, sea levels were 15 to 25 feet higher. Hansen has a slide he shows of what Florida would like, perhaps even in this century:
This is just one of the reasons that Hansen says that we are already beyond the safe level of CO2. He says we urgently need to work to reduce the current level of CO2 from 390 ppm back down to 350 ppm. He has a plan that could still do this in time:
- global action to cut new CO2 emissions by 6% per year via an immediate and rising price on carbon
- massive reforestation worldwide to pull a lot of CO2 from the air
- big reductions in non-CO2 forcings like methane and black soot
WARMING 2: Existing high-carbon infrastructure
Of course we can't just stop all CO2 emissions tomorrow. That is because we have invested huge amounts of money in existing carbon burning machines, engines and infrastructure that we still need or want to use. Hansen:
"Humanity today is heavily dependent on fossil fuels -- coal, oil and gas -- for most of our energy. When we realize that it is necessary to phase out fossil fuels, that transition will not be quick -- it will take at least several decades to replace our enormous fossil fuel infrastructure. In the meantime more greenhouse gas emissions and more climate change will be occurring."
The International Energy Agency, one of the world's most authoritative sources on energy markets, recently calculated how much CO2 and heating all our existing infrastructure will put out over its lifespan. They conclude that we have already built 80 percent of the fossil fuel infrastructure needed to hit 2 C. Here is their chart:
WARMING 3: New high-carbon infrastructure
On our current path, the IEA says we are just five years away from being “locked in” to that 2C level. Everything added after that pushes us deeper into dangerous territory. In discussing the IEA report their Chief Economist stated bluntly:
"The world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature. Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) did their own calculations two years earlier showing that we are headed for 5.5 C by 2100. They called for "rapid and massive" action to avoid this and warned that:
"there’s no way the world can or should take these risks."
These aren't exactly hippies and treehuggers. They are some of the world's most sober and knowledgeable institutions sounding the alarm. And they are saying we are handing Generation Hot a miserable choice: either destroy a huge amount of your infrastructure or destroy your chance for a safe climate.
As Nobel Prize Laureate and SFU professor Dr. Mark Jaccard said when he was arrested recently for blocking a BC coal train:
"We are heading for a real crisis in which we’ll have to start ripping infrastructure apart."
Our "irrational carbon exuberance" is starting to inflate the mother of all economic bubbles: the Carbon Bubble. We are betting huge amounts of money on new high-carbon infrastructure and carbon deposits which can't return those investments without also pushing our climate to dangerous extremes.
And our plan is to then hand this entire growing toxic-asset mess to our kids. The same kids who will already be struggling to live on an over-heated and less-hospitable planet. Nice.
To me our political and economic actions around carbon at this point are just plain reckless and immoral. I'm convinced we have the ability to live great lives while also handing the world over to our kids and grandkids in roughly the same shape we were given it. To me that isn't a radical desire but an ancient and conservative one: to pass along a world at least as good as you found it.
If we want to do that then we need to insist that our political leaders quickly put some meaningful limits on our CO2 pollution. We certainly can't afford to let our politicians continue to talk cool while cranking up the heat on Generation Hot.