Sunday, July 04, 2021

Climate change consequences: Too hot, too wet and out of time

The last few weeks have demonstrated that we have arrived at the climate change catastrophe long prophesied by climate scientists—a catastrophe that many thought we still had decades to avert.

In the Pacific Northwest high temperatures broke records day after day. In my former home of Portland, Oregon the temperature reached 116 degrees F (47 degrees C). If you look at the average high temperatures in Portland in summer, you'll see why air-conditioning is not a feature of the average Portland home or apartment. I lived comfortably without it during the four years I was there. Last week Portland seemed as if it had moved to the desert Southwest.

North and south of Portland, the extreme drought in the West continues as wildfires swirl toward another terrible season. Wildfires now dot British Columbia as well as Western Canada suffers from extreme heat. And, drought exacerbated by climate change is occurring on other continents including in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and in Thailand.

We must not forget that one of the other predictions of climate scientists was more frequent and more severe floods resulting from a speeding up of the hydraulic cycle. In my home state of Michigan, seven inches of rain fell in just a few days recently leading to a declaration of a state of emergency as many areas experienced severe flooding.

When I watched renowned climate scientist James Hansen's (now prophetic) 1988 testimony before the U.S. Senate, I was at the time uncharacteristically hopeful that the world's governments would do something to prevent what I perceived as a very, very dangerous threat to human civilization. Surely, the world's elite would now act with haste before it was too late, I thought. (For a brief review of Hansen's eerily accurate forecasts 30 years after his testimony, check out this video.)

Now we know that Hansen's testimony and his later work—despite their increasingly validated (and dire) conclusions—did nothing to stop or even slow climate change. That's not James Hansen's fault, of course. Nor is it the fault of the tens of thousands of other climate scientists who have built what must now be the most heavily researched and validated argument in scientific history, namely, that the Earth is warming, that the consequences will be severe, and that human activity is the primary cause.

So, now that it should seem completely obvious that climate change is not a problem for the distant future nor is it something that will be a small problem, what will governments, corporations and individuals do? On current form, they will continue with business as usual.

Carbon emissions rebounded sharply after the drop due to the pandemic. By December 2020 they were already 2 percent higher than emissions for December 2019 BEFORE the pandemic began. In May this year atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, hit their highest level since measurements started 63 years ago. This is despite the deep slowdown in the world economy due to the pandemic. Greenhouse gas emissions may have slowed during 2020, but they did not stop which means the absolute amounts in the atmosphere keep going up.

Even if human societies were to act decisively now, there is another very serious built-in obstacle to progress. It's called climate lag. There is a significant lag between the time carbon emissions go into the atmosphere and the warming they create shows up. This is complicated, but it has in part to do with the amount of heat the oceans absorb. It takes much longer to heat up water than air.

In this case it can take between 25 and 50 years. It we take the midpoint between the two, 37.5 years, we can estimate that the warming we are feeling today is the result of emissions dumped into the atmosphere through the end of 1983. That means if we were to end all greenhouse gas emissions today, we'd be in for another 37.5 years of warming.

What that tells us is that any actions taken today to curb climate change will seem ineffectual no matter how stringent they are. And, it will be hard to sustain public support for expensive and difficult reductions in greenhouse gases when success will only be visible decades later.

This also implies that no matter what we do, the consequences of climate change will become dramatically worse. Try to imagine what is happening right now in the American West and British Columbia getting dramatically worse in the next two decades. Try to imagine areas which seem "safe" now burning on the evening news. Or worse yet, image that none of this will make the evening news since it will have become an accepted part of daily life. That is where we are headed, and the fact that what we are seeing may already be an accepted part of daily life is what really troubles me.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Joe Clarkson said...

Yes, we will do virtually nothing to reduce carbon emissions.

Another example of human folly is our failure to rid the world of nuclear weapons, something that should be orders of magnitude easier to do than stopping our use of fossil fuels. Hothouse earth is coming and it will be dusted with radioactive fallout.

fjwhite said...

Excellent article. Readers may also be interested in reading the recent work of three scientists that are at the top of my list of favorites.
Here are links to samples of their recent contributions --

Myth #21: Nate Hagens rebuts claims that “Renewable energy can power THIS civilization” : “The popular myth is that we can somehow swap out the dirty energy with clean energy technology while also continuing to consume at today’s income and GDP levels.” This is just one of 33 myths that Hagens includes in his May 21 Earth Day talk, “Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality.”

“Our actions are more systematically directed at accelerating destruction…” says Tom Murphy : We are ill-equipped to appreciate the abnormality of our time, incapable of picturing what a long-term “normal” must look like.

Dr. William Rees Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, his primary interest is in public policy and planning relating to global environmental trends and the ecological conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development. — “Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?” — — ZOOM lecture by William Rees, You Tube, January 28, 2021 (74-minutes)

Lastly, here’s a link to an article that I wrote for my blog, critical of 350 Canada’s overly simplistic explanation of climate science: 350 Canada’s “Climate Science Basics” fail the acid test of science reporting excellence : Its climate crisis assertions border on the fraudulent; they’re “misleading, overly simplistic, and sometimes, factually false.”

S. W. Lawrence said...

I"ve got to say that the comments on this blog are often as educational + insightful as what I see over at, written for + by actual climate scientists. Worth reading in + of themselves.

Frank Warnock said...

This is right on par with Ron Patterson's "Confessions of a Doomer", featured on Peak Oil Barrel in 2016. Serious action needed to happen at least 40 years ago with Raygun NOT ripping the solar panels off the WH. That and steady state economy and keeping humans to ~2B, and even that was probably too late. I'm just amazed how few Americans today care about this issue, or take any kind of personal responsibility in their own lives. Gas is in the $2~ range in most of the U.S. NE, which, when factored for inflation, is the lowest in the history of happy motoring. The jokers on the MSM bang on about emissions cuts and "reigning in AGW", or that technology is going to save us. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Don19 said...

A huge glacier I walked on in Switzerland back in 1988 has now completely gone.

Where I live in South East England we've only had three significant dumps of snow in the last 30 years - it used to be most years.

The times they are a changing but everyone is too busy buying cars to care.

Don19 said...

Here in the UK I've slashed my motoring in half and take the bus and train far more often - but my efforts are probably less than a trillionth of what is needed

SomeoneInAsia said...

I'm from Singapore. On my part, I think I'm already more or less resigned to the fact that the modern global industrial order will come to an end within either this decade or the next -- and that my loved ones and I will then find ourselves in a world of great hardship in which you'll be lucky if you can have just one meal a day.

I used to be passionate about things like climate change and resource depletion. But looking at how we've collectively stubbornly refused to change course no matter how much evidence we've been shown that infinite growth in a finite world is a sure path to Hell -- and worse, how we've often warped the message of the warnings so that we now fancy we can continue in our sorry ways one way or another -- I've finally decided to say: F*** IT (please pardon the expletive).

Perhaps in the future (what remains of) humanity will learn from the error of its ways and new societies will arise like the Phoenix from the ashes, entailing a recovery of many aspects of our pre-industrial ways of life and a little wiser and more humane this time. In this hope I find solace. It's all I have going for it now.

Long ago I bought a recording of Vaughan Williams' 6th Symphony, which also included his The Lark Ascending. The symphony was all terror and destruction, but after the lifeless desolation of the final movement came the peaceful pastoral vision of The Lark Ascending. I really want to believe that's how it will go.

Unknown said...

Music transcends generations; I often wonder how much of our culture will survive the bottleneck. You might like this:

I stumbled across it, and wondered what her future will be like? Will that talent be allowed to flourish? We failed them, methinks