This Is Abrupt Climate Change

We've gone so far down the path that it doesn't matter if we turn off the heat engine now or not. We're destined for a loss of habitat for our species in the not-very-distant future, regardless.

Transcribed from the 16 January 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Listen to the full interview:

In late November 2014 at the Lima COP 20 meetings, a climate scientist from the University of Ottawa in Canada predicted a global average rise in temperature of five degrees Celsius or greater in the span of a decade or two, based on what has happened historically. That takes us right up to the kind of global average temperature that essentially no complex organism survives. Then we reset the clock, and it takes another ten million years or so before complex organisms begin evolving again from microbes.”

Chuck Mertz: Climate change is already happening, and the disastrous effects are starting to mount. And soon—sooner than you think—that disaster is going to happen faster—faster than you think—and it’s going to be more destructive than you think, even leading to human extinction. And again, not a long time from now, but real, real soon.

Here to tell us is conservation biologist Guy McPherson. He is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for twenty award-winning years. Guy is the leading voice of abrupt climate change.

Thank you so much for being on our show this week, Guy.

Guy McPherson: It’s a pleasure, Chuck, thanks.

CM: Let’s just start with a really basic question about your ongoing essay, which you call the Monster Climate-Change Essay. How long have you been writing this essay? When did you initially post it at your site?

GM: January 6, 2011. I’ve been updating it every couple of days since then.

CM: Because every day there’s more and more news about climate change that’s breaking, and it’s more and more bad news. But, unfortunately, what we keep hearing is not even the worst news about climate change.

You write, “Almost everybody reading these words has a vested interest in not wanting to think about climate change, which helps explain why the climate change deniers have won. They’ve been aided and funded by the fossil fuel industry, the memos from which reveal decades of disinformation and a deliberate campaign to deceive the public that continues even today, according to an in-depth analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists in July 2015.”

How dangerous is it to ourselves, individually, to be in this kind of denial that you are suggesting? Because what’s been happening within American culture over the last twenty or thirty years is this embrace of individualism and the undermining of a collective approach to addressing problems. So shouldn’t we be concerned, at least, for our individual safety?

GM: That’s the very crux of the issue, isn’t it? We think that we Americans are somehow exceptional, that we’re not prone to the same kind of misfortune as all those other people, so we continue to act as individuals instead of coming together as a society. And whenever there has been any sort of movement to come together as a society in a beneficial manner (as happened during the Vietnam War era, for example: the people focused on environmental protection and civil rights and ending the Vietnam War were all the same people), it has led to a tremendous fracturing of society.

So we’re in this strangely difficult situation—and we’ve been in it for a long time, arguably since Vietnam, arguably since long before then—and now it’s too late to take any real effective action that will prevent climate change from removing habitat for our species. We’re in the midst of abrupt climate change, something with which most people are unfamiliar.

CM: Well, that’s the thing. How would you prove to somebody who’s sitting next to you at the bar that we are already in the midst of not just climate change, but abrupt climate change?

GM: It’s a key distinction, between anthropogenic climate change (climate change created by humanity’s collective actions) and abrupt climate change (which is beyond the human realm to control). Most people have heard about anthropogenic climate change, are familiar with it, and are even willing to admit that it’s underway—particularly if it doesn’t involve any action on their part to try to address this now unaddressable issue.

The abrupt climate change topic is the one that goes the next step. There are various indicators which point to abrupt climate change: things like Katrina and Sandy and Haiyan, these superstorms that have the capacity to level cities and overwhelm our ability to respond, much less control; things like wildfires that are too numerous and too large for us to have any control over. Last year, 2015, we saw more acres burned in the United States than had ever been measured before.

These are just minor examples. Food and water disruptions are already underway. São Paulo, one of the world’s largest cities, doesn’t have access to clean water for their population. That’s a problem. There are refugees coming from Syria into Europe; there are refugees coming from the south island states in the Pacific into places like Australia and especially New Zealand.

So: there are people moving to escape the absence of habitat which has been created by anthropogenic climate change and abrupt climate change, there are frequent and powerful storms, there are fires that are unbelievable, there are food and water shortages; there are five million people that die every year as a result of climate change.

CM: When you say “abrupt” climate change, though, just how abruptly will the worst factors of climate change happen and affect the human population?

GM: Well, about 55 million years ago, there was a global average rise in temperature of five degrees Celsius. That’s about nine degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t sound like much. We’re capable of adjusting to changes in temperature that rapid, as individuals. But the other organisms on the planet are not capable of making the same adjustments, and they certainly aren’t capable of getting up and moving around like we are. They are not capable of taking refuge in Europe or New Zealand. They have to stay right where they are, especially organisms like plants. So when the habitat changes, they die.

That nine degree (Fahrenheit) temperature increase occurred in the span of thirteen years. That’s the kind of abrupt change we’re talking about. I can’t imagine that the human race would survive that sort of abrupt rise in temperature, because of how it would affect our habitat. Ultimately, we’re human animals—a lot of us lose track of that, not only because of the notion of American exceptionalism, but the notion of human supremacy. That we’re actually different from all the other organisms is a built-in thought with which we’ve been raised. But it’s not a healthy thought to separate ourselves from the living planet, because we actually depend upon the living planet.

Another example is the great die-off of about 252 million years ago, when more than 90% of species on the planet lost habitat and then went away through extinction. More than 90%. The current events with respect to climate change are happening orders of magnitude faster than that event. That one took somewhere between twenty and eighty thousand years for a global average temperature rise of initially a couple of degrees Celsius and ultimately about ten or eleven degrees Celsius. And now we’re talking about an abrupt rise in global average temperature far, far exceeding that pace.

Paul Beckwith, a climate scientist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, in late November 2014 at the Lima COP 20 meetings, predicted a global average rise in temperature of five degrees Celsius or greater in the span of a decade or two, based on what has happened historically. That’s five degrees Celsius from today. And that takes us right up to the neighborhood of the kind of global average temperature that essentially no complex organism survives. And then we reset the clock, and it takes another ten million years or so before we have complex organisms again evolving from microbes and bacteria and so forth.

CM: But we’re told the goal is a two degree Celsius rise in temperature and that these Paris climate talks were a success, even though the agreement is completely non-binding. So what about that two degree Celsius ceiling—how attainable is it to limit the amount of climate change to only two degrees Celsius? What have you learned from your research about that limit?

Very few people want to turn off the heat engine, and at this point, we’ve gone so far down the path that it doesn’t really matter if we turn it off now or not. We’re destined for a loss of habitat for our species in the not-very-distant future, regardless.”

GM: That’s a great question. You’ve got a goal, I’ve got a goal, now all we need is a football team, right?

A couple of things. First, two degrees Celsius has never been the scientific target. The scientific target was set by the United Nations advisory group on greenhouse gases in October of 1990that’s a long time ago—and the target was no more than one degree Celsius. No more. We’re above that now, by the way.

The political target was created by a neoclassical economist, of all people, who said that no, the scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about; two degrees Celsius is the real target. And that’s been bandied about for long enough now that people assume it was some sort of scientific target.

David Spratt, a climate science speaker and synthesizer of information, delivered a presentation in summer 2014 saying that the real target should have been less than half a degree Celsius. We blew through that number a long time ago.

So how important is two degrees? It’s irrelevant. And not only that, but it’s already locked in. Even if industrial civilization collapsed today, even if we turned off all the lights, stopped driving cars, no more electric anything, not able to have this conversation, the whole thing comes down in the next ten minutes, there’s something called global dimming. The particulates put up into the atmosphere through industrial activity—including burning low-quality coal, which puts sulfates into the atmosphere—when they all fall out (and it doesn’t take long for them to fall out) we lose this protective umbrella we have over the planet created by those particles.

So greenhouse gases, paradoxically, are trapping heat, trapping long-wave radiation, preventing it from going back into space once it enters our atmosphere, and that’s warning the planet—but at the same time the particulates produced through the same industrial activity that put the greenhouse gases up there are also providing a protective shield. When that protective shield goes away, we’ll experience up to a three-degree (Celsius) global average temperature rise. That puts us well over four in total. That’s a big number. And in a matter of days or weeks—that’s how rapidly this system will respond to the loss of that umbrella over the planet.

So two degrees is a done deal. It’s already behind us. There just isn’t any broad recognition of that fact.

CM: You mentioned how an economist changed it to the two degree Celsius ceiling. It wasn’t a climatologist, it wasn’t somebody who had a PhD in environmental science. This is a little bit off of where your writing goes, but I’m just curious: how much has the influence of the ultra-rich, of the 1%, caused climate change?

How much has the influence of money actually caused climate change?

GM: His name, by the way, is William Nordhaus, and he’s quite an influential and well-known economist.

How much has the so-called 1% had influence? I don’t think you have to look very far to see the impact of those folks. The Koch brothers and their ilk, for example, have been funding climate denial messages for years, arguably decades, in the same vein as a tobacco company knowing that tobacco was causing lots of disease and death—based on their own research—and not allowing the information to get out into the populace. The anti-science climate change message, one of denial, has been profoundly effective because it’s had a lot of money behind it.

If you tell people that it’s all a farce, it’s all a scam, it’s all a liberal conspiracy invented by Al Gore, who makes money off solar panels, that’s easy for people to believe, for one thing, because nobody really wants to do anything. Certainly nobody—or a very, very small fraction of the population—wants to terminate industrial civilization, wants to turn off the heat engine. That’s how we make our money! That’s how we get to go visit people we love, far across the continent or across the sea.

Nobody wants to turn this thing off, which is what it would have taken, years ago. Very few people want to turn off the heat engine, and at this point, because of those particulates in the sky, we’ve gone so far down the path that it doesn’t really matter if we turn it off now or not. We’re destined for a loss of habitat for our species in the not-very-distant future, regardless.

CM: You write about how much the science is being silenced on climate change: “In addition, the consolidation of the scientific publishing industry is accelerating, with expected profit-based results.” How much has climate science had its research and even its access to the public cut off? And can we just blame the fossil fuel industry, or is there more to blame than just the fossil fuel industry?

GM: I would argue there is much more to blame than merely the fossil fuel industry. For one thing, we’re all using fossil fuels, so we point the finger that way and some other fingers are pointed back at us. But again, it’s the whole culture. It’s this whole idea that we are able to fix anything, and we will recognize when we have a problem far enough in advance that we can head off the problem and fix it.

This isn’t a problem, this is a predicament. There is no politically viable approach to dealing with abrupt climate change. Even in 2007, when Tim Garrett from the University of Utah was writing and then submitting his initial article indicating that civilization was a heat engine, I suspect there were very few people at that point who were willing to say, “Well, alright, the evidence says we need to turn off the heat engine, let’s just shut it down! Let’s ban all flights. Let’s not sell any more fossil fuels to anybody. And yeah, a lot of people will die because they won’t be able to get water out of the ground and through their taps and so on, but that’s what it’s going to take to allow our species to persist. So let’s do that.” I can’t imagine there would be even 3% of the population in the United States that would vote for that.

We’re no longer in that slow linear rate of change that recycling and energy efficient lightbulbs will fix. Rather, we are in one of these events that has occurred throughout planetary history, driven by things like methane and moistening in the upper troposphere, these self-reinforcing feedback loops that cause the system to heat up on its own.”

Let’s look a little bit more deeply at some of the political machinations of the publication process itself. The refereed journal literature, that’s the gold standard of science. When something is published in these noted journals, it has gone through an extensive process of peer review. It’s very difficult to get anything nonsensical through that process, and if something nonsensical makes it through that process, it is then subject to scrutiny by the entire scientific community, which can then conduct their own research and disprove all that has been found out that we don’t really like.

So Tim Garrett started working on his heat engine papers, initially submitting them for publication in 2007. That initial submission was rejected by ten different journals before it was accepted by an editor by the name of Steven Schneider, for the journal Climatic Change. That’s one of the premier refereed journals dealing with climate change. And he, as an editor, sent it out for peer review, looked at the comments and the reviews, and said, “Yeah, this is high quality stuff. We’re going to publish this.” And the electronic version was published in November 2009.

There was immediate kickback from the scientific community. Several scientists wrote to Steven Schneider, the editor, and said, “Whoa, you’re talking about the heat engine that is civilization. Turning off civilization? That’s just wacky.” So the paper was pulled, and it was not subsequently published in print form until February 2011, almost a year and half later.

By that time, there were two research labs that had written responses to the paper; those responses were published, but Garrett himself was not allowed to respond to them in print. Garrett has published a couple of other papers subsequently, and nobody to my knowledge has taken issue with his primary findings: that civilization itself is a heat engine, that it doesn’t really matter if we run it with solar panels and wind turbines, that civilization itself is at the root of the predicament.

I suspect Steven Schneider allowed that paper to be published, and shepherded it through the entire process until it reached the light of day, for one reason only—we can’t know this for sure, because the reason is he was dying. He has subsequently died. I suspect he was at the point where he just said, “You know, we’re going to get this information out there, and it doesn’t affect my career anymore because I’m dead in a few months.” And then the paper came out.

I think it took a brave man, and a distinguished scholar, in the name of Steven Schneider, to shepherd that paper through the publication process. And that paper is among the least cited and most important papers on climate change I’ve ever read. Last I checked, it has fewer than thirty papers that had cited it. It’s a big deal. And nobody wants to look at it.

CM: You write that it’s not only the scientists who underestimate the damage; it’s the science itself, too. I think this is an important point. How does science underestimate climate change?

GM: Science is a very conservative process. One of the reasons it has served us so well over the last couple of millennia is that it is conservative. An individual scientist can’t write up a paper claiming, for example, that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet, send it in and have one person look at it, an editor, and the editor says, “Yeah! I like that! We’re going to publish this, this week!” It doesn’t work that way.

It’s conservative in that multiple voices are allowed to comment on a paper, and there is a lot of thought that goes into the process, and as with the legal system in the United States—or Great Britain, from which it was derived—there’s precedent. To overcome an enormous body of evidence would require an enormous body of evidence itself. It would require significant, solid findings.

So the science itself, once it establishes something—for example, that climate change is anthropogenic, and it’s underway, and it’s proceeding relatively slowly—then it’s very difficult to overcome that with the evidence that says we’re no longer in that slow linear rate of change that recycling and energy efficient lightbulbs will fix. Rather, we are in one of these events that has occurred throughout planetary history, driven by things like methane and moistening in the upper troposphere, these self-reinforcing feedback loops that cause the system to heat up on its own, independent of human action. That requires a lot of evidence.

I would argue that at this point, we have a tremendous amount of evidence, but the science, being a conservative process, is slow to react to that new knowledge.

CM: Guy, I have one last question for you, and it’s what we call the Question from Hell, the question we might hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response.

You mentioned earlier how wind and solar are not the solution to this. You mention in your writing that nuclear energy is not the solution to this, that vegetarianism is not the solution to this, that geo-engineering is not the solution to this problem.

But you developed a “comprehensive set of durable living arrangements” in response to the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy and global climate change. You share property in a rural area developed specifically to provide abundant supplies of food and water as well as maintaining comfortable body temperatures in the absence of fossil fuels. You are available for consultation if people are serious about doing the same; you live in an off-grid straw-bale house in rural southern New Mexico, where you “put into practice your lifelong interest in sustainable living.”

So if these other solutions—wind and solar, nuclear, vegetarianism, geo-engineering—don’t work, can we simply use your lifestyle as a model in order to save ourselves? Or is there no hope for us to survive climate change?


I was making sure that there was a pregnant pause, so that everybody would be leaning into the speaker when I say no.

When I made the commitment to move here—my wife and I decided to move here in 2007—there was relatively little known about abrupt climate change at the time. There certainly was little evidence to suggest we were in the midst of abrupt climate change. So my personal response is, “Mistakes were made.”

I don’t think there’s any way out of this. I can’t imagine what it would be. I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a way out. Yeah, I have solar panels and I live off-grid—if there’s anybody who would be resistant to my message, it’s me. Because I turned my entire life upside down. I left a six-figure job doing essentially no work at a university to come out here and make no money living in the rural countryside, where I have very little contact with other human beings.

I’ll admit, I was hoping at the time that everyone would follow. I’m a middle-aged white man, and a teacher, I’m just assuming everybody will do what I do. But alas, that didn’t happen! Either way, even then it was already too late, I suspect, though I didn’t know it at the time. And now I’m absolutely convinced that even had everybody followed my lead in 2007, it wouldn’t matter.

CM: Well, Guy, I guess I have to go back to waiting for the aliens to save us.

GM: Yes, you and me both. And by the way, I’m not suggesting inaction as a response. I’m all about action, and I took action here. I recognize now that it was too late at the time. But from a Buddhist perspective, one should take right actions and not be terribly attached to the outcome. So I still promote people taking actions they believe are correct, while not being too hung up on it not working.

CM: Guy, it has truly been an honor to have you on our show this week. Thank you so much.

GM: Thank you, Chuck, the pleasure is all mine.

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