Saturday, November 28 , 2015, 11:20 am | Fair 61º

Wayne Mellinger: Climate Change Is Real, Is Getting Worse Fast, and We Need a New Approach

By Wayne Mellinger |

“It’s Global Warming, Stupid” ran the headline on the cover of the conservative Bloomberg Businessweek on Nov. 5. The article’s lead stated: “If Hurricane Sandy doesn’t persuade Americans to get serious about climate change, nothing will.”

With about 100 people dead and $50 billion in economic losses, this storm was one of the largest and deadliest in recent U.S. history. But will it be enough to persuade people that climate change is real?

While a tsunami of available facts on global warming exists, we are so overwhelmed by data and rhetoric that we seem not to be able to absorb, much less make sense of the phenomenon. Many Americans must either be tuning out or surfing past these data bits.

For while our nation bakes, burns and floods, we continue to entertain ourselves to death and reel at once from boredom and overstimulation, emotional numbness and information overload. I am afraid that it will take a lot more than this one storm to persuade nonbelievers of the reality of climate change.

Our nation has a large anti-science, anti-intellectual segment that is dead-set against evolution, climate science and numerous other forms of intelligent discourse. Yet, there is a vast consensus among moral, intellectual and scientific leaders about climate change being real.

Climate action is a moral responsibility. As moral beings we are called to environmental action. To remove the ability of power elites to destroy the Earth, we must take ourselves seriously as moral agents with the right to live.

Environmental degradation and the resulting global climate change are immensely dangerous to all life on our planet. Devastatingly, while activists are clearly vocalizing the dangers we face, our nation’s leaders do not act nor create policies to avert future harm.

Part of the problem is the tone of the arguments. Often, policy wonks debate with facts that lack moral conviction and facts alone cannot tell us what we ought to do. And what should we do?

We have a moral obligation to take action to protect the future of the Earth because the survival of humanity depends on it. An action is right if it protects what we value, and there is no higher value that the well-being of ourselves and our planet. Our collective survival is entwined with the survival of our ecosystems.

Climate scientists argue that environmental change threatens the very basis of life on Earth. The vast growth of human populations and economic activity is imposing huge costs on the Earth’s climate. If we keep doing what we are doing today, even with no growth in population or the world economy, we will destroy the planet’s climate and ecosystem.

Greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere at current rates will make the world unfit to live in by the end of this century.

Given that human activities are dramatically accelerating and that the world’s economy will double in size in the next generation, we face the possibility of enormous environmental degradation.

Recently Bill McKibben, one of the deans of ecological movement, had an influential article in Rolling Stone magazine (August 2012) titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” It has gone viral. So far it has 124,000 “likes” on Facebook, 13,400 “tweets” and 5,328 comments. Because of the importance of the essay, let me summarize some of the main points of McKibben’s article and briefly comment upon it.

“Do the math,” McKibben seems to be saying. He presents three numbers that add up to a global catastrophe and does a bit of arithmetical analysis.

First, two degrees Celsius (2 C) was the number agreed upon by the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009 as the amount of the increase in global temperature below which we as a planet must hold ourselves. That is about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Copenhagen Accord set purely voluntary agreements to cut carbon emissions, but without any enforcement mechanism.

While the agreement upon two degrees Celsius figure was initially hailed, it is now seen by McKibben and others as a far too lenient figure. We have already raised the average temperature of the planet about 0.8 degrees Celsius and the damage is a lot worse than expected.

Many scientists have come to believe that two degrees is too much and is a prescription for disaster. Many small island nations will not survive a two-degree rise and drought-stricken Africa will not fair well.

But 167 nations responsible for 87 percent of the world carbon’s emissions have signed onto the Copenhagen Accord making it the world’s official position.

Second, McKibben tell readers that humans can place about 365 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050 and remain below the two degree benchmark. One central problem is that previously released carbon will continue to overheat the atmosphere even if we stopped increasing CO2 now. Computer models calculate another .8 degrees in temperature increase, bringing us to 1.6 C or three-quarters of the way to the 2 degree target.

Now no one “knows” exactly how good these numbers are, but there is a general consensus that they are generally right. Moreover, studies predict that carbon emissions will grow by about 3 percent per year and that by 2028 we will reach our 565 gigaton level.

Third, McKibben gives the number that is scariest of all. The amount of carbon contained in already proven coal and gas and oil reserves is 2,795 gigatons, a number that is five times greater than 565.

In order to avoid disaster, we would have to keep 80 percent of these reserves underground. According to McKibben’s research, that is $20 trillion in assets in a “carbon bubble.”

McKibben presents a grave choice: “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance or a relatively healthy planet … you can’t have both.”

Thus far, environmental efforts to get a handle on global warming have failed, McKibben argues, and as we take stock of these strategies we can learn what does not work: So far, neither changing individual lifestyles nor working through the political system convincing our leaders of our looming disaster have led to the desired results.

McKibben argues that we must keep the fossil-fuel industry from burning the carbon in the soil. He argues that we need a “real” social movement and “movements require enemies.”

McKibben concludes that the fossil-fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One.” It is a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth.

The profits of the fossil-fuel industry stem from a single historical accident: they dump their waste for free. No one else gets that reprieve, McKibben notes. Now we understand that CO2 is dangerous.  McKibben argues that the fossil-fuel industry gets a “special pollution break” and urges us to put a price on carbon through a direct tax.

Moral outrage might give rise to a “real movement,” he states. He observes the role that anger had in changing investment patterns through the divestment movement of the early 1980s concerning South Africa.

While McKibben emphasized the burning of fossil fuels in his article, we have also degraded the ecosystems to the point where they are releasing billions of tons of stored carbon. Grasslands, forests, wetlands and rivers all play a central role in absorbing carbon as well as regulating weather and temperature.

While I agree that the fossil fuel industry is reckless, I think that we must also admit that we are the enemy. Those corporations only have power if we give it to them. We need to reclaim our power and change our everyday behaviors.

While the numerical analysis McKibben presents is important, I think that we need to change the tone of the argument. Wonkish arguments about 365gigatons turn a lot of people off.

McKibben still writes as if reforming the systems is the answer, while I am convinced that we must transform the whole economic system.

Climate change is a social justice issue because the people who will suffer the most from the effects of environmental disaster caused by our comfortable lifestyles are the people of the future, especially those in the poorest situations. Thus, those causing the problems will not pay the costs of these problems. That is not fair. Making others bear your burdens is unjust. We are obliged to fix the problem now because we are the ones making the problem.

If we do not take responsibility now to protect the climate system for the sake of present and future generations, victims will suffer horrible harm for what which they are not responsible. For us who bear the burden of responsibility, and who have reaped the benefits of living in the wealthy societies that created the problems, we must take action.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

comments powered by Disqus

» on 11.30.12 @ 05:14 PM

More BS from a non-scientist equating weather with climate. Sandy was a weather event; prove, with actual factual data, that this particular storm was directly related to any change in climate, I dare you.

Further all that carbon contained in those fossil fuels was once IN the atmosphere you dolt. It won’t all go back at once and you are forgetting, rather conveniently, that all life on the planet is part of the “carbon cycle” meaning large amounts of that CO2 will be taken up by living organisms, like trees and plants, which will be consumed by more and more animals.

This is more “the sky is falling” crap designed to scare people into accepting going back to the stone age to “save the planet”.

The problem is you big commie, the planet will get warmer no matter what you do YOU CAN”T STOP IT. Its part of the latest warming cycle and the more you titanic idiots consume valuable human resources trying to play god with the planet’s climate the less resources will be left to deal with the change that will happen anyway.

» on 12.01.12 @ 01:38 PM

This article is very interesting, however I didn’t see any
usefull answer to the so-called global warming problem.  Cutting the worlds poplulation in half, eliminating fossil fuel use is not an answer.  The answer given is not possible.
So were do we go from here??  Solutions are the answer.

» on 12.01.12 @ 01:54 PM

Good article, Wayne.  I’ve had discussions with global
warming deniers, and they simply refuse to read the
research, even when I show it to them.  They say they don’t
have time to waste reading something they don’t believe in.

Well, I HAVE read the research, and we’re screwed.  I’m
less concerned about the warming world, although I do
expect extreme weather events and wildfires the size of
several states.  What’s going to kill us is ocean
acidification, which will destroy the food chain from the
bottom up.  With increased petroleum and coal usage and
melting permafrost releasing methane (a much more powerful
global warming gas than carbon dioxide), we’re headed for a
planet of runaway global warming, with temperatures so high
as to be unlivable on much of the planet.

Then I read the rubbish spewed by AN50, and I realize that
the human race is simply too stupid to survive.  Well,
AN50, I am trained as a scientist (and engineer).  The
carbon in the fossil fuels came from solid carbon compounds that were formed by the growth of plants.  The previous peak of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere occurred about 325,000 years ago at a level of 300 ppm.  Present day levels are around 390 ppm, the highest ever.  Much of this will be taken up by plants and animals, but it is dwarfed by the amount still in the earth, and that source is being released by burning fossil fuels.

AN50, you criticize Wayne for a lack of factual data, and then you display a profound ignorance of the facts yourself.  You then display immaturity through name calling.  Shame on you.

» on 12.01.12 @ 03:26 PM

Global CO2 levels were this high during the Miocene 15 million years ago, 5 times the pre industrial age amount 200 million years ago and 20 times that 550 million years ago. As a Scientist and engineer I would expect you to do a better job of researching. What a putz. The earth was not only warmer but supported a much higher level of bio matter and a far higher variety with all that poisonous CO2, think Amazon.

As for your apocalyptic vision, the planet has suffered far greater and much more rapid catastrophic climate changes. What your infantile models continue to leave out is the biologic feedback in our biosphere. It is not only incredibly resilient but never a factor in the alarmist consideration. The reason is we know little about it, but that it is largely unpredictable.

What is incredibly frightening is how little you narrow minded alarmist think out side your droll academia driven world. Please stop giving engineering and the sciences a bad name by doing half assed ideologically driven research because your intellectual narcissism won’t allow you to admit you might be wrong or that you are incapable of thinking beyond your social group.

For the record, I never denied the globe was warming and never denied human CO2 contribution may be a factor (however small). All I have ever said, is that the warming we are experiencing is driven largely by non human factors we cannot control, that all our efforts at reducing or stopping human CO2 contribution are futile at best and will cause far more damage to human life than just trying to adapt to the inevitable change, which is what all species of life on this planet that expect to survive, are doing.

» on 12.01.12 @ 03:58 PM

There is a non-profit in the Santa Barbara area called that tackles the big problems in America and the world at large.  Not that it pushes solutions but it does render non-partisan opinions based solely on the science. 

The first project was long-term climate change.  It took the mountain of data from the East Anglia data base and analyzed it with open source computer software and concluded that climate change is real and mostly man made.  There is an app on iPhone and iPad that one can reference to see Earth temperatures from the past two centuries - “Just Science”.

The term “Climate-Gate” is the HOAX perpetrated upon the American people by those (hard-right conservatives) who have a vested interest in keeping fossil fuels burning. We should be investing heavily in research on finding clean sources of electricity instead of kicking the oil can down the road.

» on 12.01.12 @ 06:36 PM

Dr. Mellinger,

In 2001, Bill McKibben’s article in the New York Review of Books, explaining the significance of the Third Assessment of the International Panel of Climate Scientists, woke me to the devastation that threatens us.

At the time, as editor of the Green Party’s newsletter, I wrote an extensive editorial “Fiddling While Earth Burns.” It cited many of the same examples later used by Vice President Al Gore in his notable film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Interestingly, this 2001 editorial quoted a then-recent statement by Gore: “The mimimum that is scientifically necessary [to combat global warming] far exceeds the maximum that is politically feasible.”

Unfortunately, that assessment hss proved definitive.

In 2001, climate scientists’ rough estimate of the required reduction in carbon dioxide emissions just to stablize the degree of warming “at its current level”? 60% to 80%

Of course our production of these emissions has risen ever since and in 2011 reached a record high.

And in usual fashion, our current president has not only done nothing but has piled on by refusing international agreement on controls.

In my opinion, Dr. Mellinger, the game is up. We and our children and grandchildren are going down.

William Smithers

» on 12.03.12 @ 02:38 AM

Blue top, there are solutions. They will take time and they will involve more fossil fuel use not less.

Keep in mind that our modern industrial civilization exists because we can mine lots of cheap high density energy in the form of carbon based fuels. This has led to the greatest advancement to the living standards of the poor than any other factor in human history and was aided by the US capitalistic free enterprise system.

The idea of scuttling this to reduce CO2 levels is repulsive in that the greatest harm will be to those same poor, something the upper middle class and academic elite seem very far removed from. I guaranty you though when these same groups realize how much they will suffer as well, they will sing a different tune. But I digress.

Essentially we will need to replace mined carbon fuels with those we can make our selves replacing millions of years of solar and geothermal messaging of dead things. That new paradigm will come not from solar, wind or biomass but the most abundant energy source we have, geothermal.

Mining geothermal in abundant amounts will allow us to replace carbon fuel for fixed source generation (like power plants) and create needed surplus generation to sequester CO2 and use it to create carbon based transportation fuels.

In that way our transportation fuels become part of a new geothermal based carbon cycle where the net CO2 delivered to the atmosphere is zero.

To get there we need to use our fossil fuels to develop the drilling technology to make geothermal economically viable. Our abundant fossil fuels will also help balance our enormous debt and help finance the new paradigm as well as help other alternatives.

However until the religious zealots of the AGW religion as abundantly displayed here pull their fear mongering lemming heads out of their collectivist arse and realize there are ways to resolve this, that don’t require impoverishing the human race and sending us back to the Stone Age, we will indeed be doomed. Cheers!

» on 12.03.12 @ 02:09 PM

AN50, I don’t think there are any solutions.  See this:

» on 12.03.12 @ 03:14 PM

I know there is a tendency for people to panic, but you are talking about a single spike in one single area that was not recorded elsewhere. Let’s collect more data, then see what happens.

Further none of these catastrophic studies, that measure anticipated atmospheric warming, include the resulting rise in cloud formations, as a result in increased water vapor formation. There is a whole area of distinct feed back mechanisms associated just with the water vapor loop. Keep in mind that water vapor is the best GHG and the most prolific swamping the effects of methane, CFC and CO2, yet we systematically ignore it. No one can accurately predict what effect increased cloud cover would do. It may cause global cooling and actually accelerate our fall into another ice age or make it run away into global warming. We just don’t know, yet.

My point has been we are piddling around with minor players in the GHG spectrum, ignoring the elephant in the room and using these scare stories to detract from our ability to adapt to changes and survive, instead having the grotesque intellectual narcissism to believe we can actually control the climate. Yes we can affect it as all living organisms do, but control, nope, nada, no way.

Relax Brother Stein, we will solve our issues with operating outside the carbon cycle, we will survive (at least some of us) what ever climate changes occur and we will soldier on. Our biggest problems are not environmental in nature but rather our egos. 

I know its hard to believe given the state of decline in western civilization from one that planted a man on the moon, built vast infrastructures on the surface of this planet and effected the greatest rise in living standards for the poor in all human history, to the self absorbed, self centered, nanny coddled, whiny, spoiled, fearful, weak, pedantic, hedonistic, pathetic civilization we now have grown accustom to, but the genes are still there and we will rise once again. And if not then its probably time for us to go anyway.

» on 12.03.12 @ 04:00 PM

Good points, AN50.

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