It’s not the heat, it’s the warming beyond evolutionary boundaries.
First published as an abridge version on The Rag Blog, as a part of an-in-depth radio interview on the Rag Radio syndicated on Pacifica on 7/21/2023
There’s a quote that has been around forever, variously worded and attributed to many. The origin of the story seems to be General Philip Sheridan in San Antonio after the Civil War, “If I owned Texas and all Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
It’s always been blisteringly hot in Texas. In Austin, we have not set a new all-time temperature record since 2012 at 112 degrees, which was a tie from 2003. We hit 2009 a half dozen times +/- in the 20th century, including 2017, 2019, 1923 and 1925 (+/-). The difference today with climate change is duration. In the 20th century we had on average about 10 to 11 days at 100 or above every year. In 2019 the five year average was 40 days and after 2022 the 5-year average is 47 days. In 2011 of course we endured 90 days at 100 or above, so there is a lot of natural variability. In 2021 we only had 12 days above.
But the numbers aren’t that simple and something the National Weather Service is doing is masking warming. Because of large natural variability from year to year, weather data statistics tend to take about 30 years of data to accurately reflect the true average. But because our climate has just only recently begun to change rapidly, the old 30-year average strategy creates an understatement. The example is that the 30 year average days over 100 degrees every year statistic that we hear in the weather report for Austin is 28 days, a bit less than half of the much more realistic 5-year average of 47 days.
It’s this extended duration of heat, not the absolutes, that is doing the damage. We just broke a record for 10 days in a row over 105 on Tuesday and the record is likely to be smashed by a couple more. The old record was 9 days in a row in 1923.
The problem with this kind of heat is a nonlinear bit of heat physics, where a little warming does not create a little bit more heat energy, it creates a lot more — nonlinearly more. This increases evaporation nonlinearly so that in a warmer climate we can actually see perpetuated drought with normal or even above normal rainfall.
What I am concerned with is an overly aggressive reporting of the simple “heat wave” concept with global warming – even with “new normal” as a subtitle… Even with “and it gets much worse from here” as a subtitle… The absolute temperature is hardly any different than it was in the early 20th century, which is trouble for our grids with an ever expanding population and challenges with Texas regulations that require safety factors with design.
The true killer is that our current average amount of warming is beyond the evolutionary boundaries of our Earth’s systems.
When these boundaries are exceeded, 10th grade science tells us the systems collapse so new species and mechanisms can evolve into the void that are tolerant of the new conditions. This is what is happening now with the fires, insect and simple water stress mortality. It’s this water stress mortality that when doubled, creates a halving of carbon storage. Because our biggest natural systems sequestration ability is from our forests, and because most forests globally have already seen a doubling to quadrupling of mortality, and because forest sequestration is only modest when in full health, we have natural systems feedback emissions right now where our forests are likely in general, no longer absorbing, but emitting carbon in the form of greenhouse gases that compound the warming.
These collapses do not self-restore unless the warming that caused them is removed, and they self-perpetuate, becoming worse and worse every year until the systems totally collapse, creating nonlinearly more greenhouse gas emissions that dwarf humankind’s. It’s these runaway greenhouse gas feedback emissions that are wildly more troubling than the perpetuation of simple global warming heat waves that kill tens of thousands.
Back in our built environment, mechanical stress does not self-restore like a lot of biologic systems. Once stressed, like with the extended unprecedented heat, that stress never leaves whatever components of the system that were degraded. Continued stresses accumulate until failure. This means our old and decrepit grid is becoming less and less reliable. Winter Storm Uri really put it to the test, meaning that severe stress was encountered during Uri. This stress is compounded with four times more extreme heat days today than when most of our grid and generation capacity was designed and built. Design criteria for most engineering is the same today as it was in our old climate.
Engineering Design Criteria Are Behind
We are updating some of our criteria, like the NOAA rainfall intensity criteria that was updated with Atlas 14 in 2018, where the previous update was in 1970. This recent update shows the old 100-year storm in Austin is now the 25-year storm, and this similar increase is happening in various places across the country and the world. Areas that are generally wetter are seeing their wetness compounded, and the reverse is mostly true for areas that are generally drier. There’s another twist though, it’s climate change after all.
The statistical rain gauge data that NOAA uses to evaluate daily rainfall was not meant to be used with data that are not stationary. These statistics, called frequentist statistics, are meant to be used on stable data, like the old rainfall data from our old climate before about the year 2000 when we first started warming above the natural variation of our old climate. This conundrum, labelled the non-stationarity problem, understates an increasing trend. In other words, the NOAA data that shows the 100-year storm is now the 25-year storm is understated. Evaluation of this non-stationarity problem shows that the understatement can be as much as 60 percent. In other words, it is plausible that our 100-year storm in Austin is not the 25-year storm, it could be as frequent of an occurrence as the 10- or even the 5-year storm, on average of course, over long time periods.
The same exact problem is a challenge with heat extremes and the engineering criteria used in the design of our infrastructure and built environment. Our engineered systems are becoming more and more under-designed as time moves forward into the the warming future.
Extremes Become Much More Extreme with No Additional WArming (Not Warming in the Pipeline)
But it’s not just additional warming that we have to be worried about. A related phenomena of frequentist statistics, related to the frequency of the 100-year storm and its kin, which are the rest of the 1-, 2-, 5-, 10-, and 50-year storm family, these things will all occur in our currently warmed climate if we were to magically halt all warming this instant. This is because our new climate has just recently warmed above the stable natural variation of our old climate, and only the 1-, 2- and maybe the 5-year storms (or heat waves, or winter storms, or drought, etc.) have already occurred. As time passes, the much more extreme 10-, 25-, 50- and 100-year events will occur. Don’t confuse this with “warming in the pipeline.” Warming in the pipeline is additional warming because of the imbalance between excess and recently emitted greenhouse gases in our sky (over the last 200 years) and the actual temperature of Earth that is cooled by the momentum of our old climate’s coolness in our oceans and ice sheets. Warming in the pipeline creates even more extreme events that are in addition to the events that will eventually occur because of frequentist statistics.
Our built environment then is at great risk of failure today, and as time passes, and because of warming in the pipeline, and because of future warming to the ubiquitously accepted warming target of 1.5 degrees C above normal, where we are at 1.1 C warming today. With the extremes being so wildly damaging today, and with them creating such large injustices to underprivileged peoples who cannot afford simple necessities and live in underdeveloped nations without the capacity to endure, there is one solution that has escaped the masses, that is growing across the world. This solution is actually quite simple, much more simple than the global sustainability strategies we have been throwing at climate change for 30 years, of the elimination of fossil fuels from our global culture. This simple concept is climate restoration, where restoration is cooling Earth from today to a temperature that is below this tipping threshold we have crossed that is creating such outsized extremes.
So how is cooling Earth from today, a task that on the surface seems much larger than simply limiting future warming to 1.5 degrees C above normal; how is this “much more simple?”
Our global climate culture today has been based on eliminating fossil fuels for the last 30 years. This is a common practice in medicine, where one tells the doctor that “it hurts when I do this,” and the doctor replies, “well don’t do that.” It is quite logical, but unfortunately we are finding it extremely difficult to accomplish. Yes, privileged nations have reduced their emissions a bit, but this is mostly from switching from coal generation to natural gas that only has half the carbon footprint as coal. Yes we are rapidly increasing the renewable generation portfolio in privileged nations but globally, we are now emitting nearly twice the greenhouse gases that we committed to from the Kyoto Era in the 1990s. Something has to change. Tipping is activated.
To make this picture even more bleak, forty percent of all energy generation globally is from hard to decarbonize sectors, meaning it takes heat energy from burning something to operate these industrial sectors and they are not likely to be decarbonized in time frames that matter. Then there is the agriculture and forestry sectors that account for about 25 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. These too are hard to decarbonize and quite likely will remain so for the foreseeable future. This means that a total of 55 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from our global culture will almost certainly not be decarbonized in time frames that matter.
But, the World Resource Institute reports that over 90 countries representing over 80 percent of global emissions have committed to net zero emissions. These commitments rely upon carbon offset credits to compensate for the hard to decarbonize sectors, where the offset is almost always a natural systems sequestration like from forests. Folks then buy offset credits that are backed up by forest preserves, where those forests will not be logged for the standard 100-years the offset must remain valid.
A New Era of Climate Change Much Different Than Our Old Climate Culture
Trouble is, we have entered a new era of climate change as previously discussed. We have warmed above the evolutionary boundaries of our Earth systems and they are now in collapse so the species and mechanisms in the old systems can be replaced by new species and mechanisms that are tolerant of the new conditions. What happens when an Earth system, such as a forest, begins collapsing from beetle attack, fire or simple water stress? It’s sequestration capacity reverses and it begins emitting some of that carbon it has been storing in our old stable climate where it evolved.
In California where there are likely more carbon offset forests than almost anywhere, fires have now burned virtually the entire safety buffer of the offset programs that were meant to ensure the forest remains a viable carbon offset for the next 100 years. More evidence of the passing of our stable ecosystems is that about a third of forests that burned in the western US about the turn of the century are are not regenerating. They are instead changing to shrublands or grasslands because it is simple to hot and dry from nonlinear evaporation for the forests to regrow, and half of the forests that are regenerating are doing so at only half of the rate of the 20th century.
So how is it possible that because we have passed these tipping points and climate change is now much worse, how are solutions now more simple? Well, now the extraordinary challenge of eliminating the most important thing in our world, the wealthiest and most influential thing that is responsible for our population increasing from 1 billion to 8 billion; now this thing, the elimination of fossil fuels, cannot stop the mayhem. Literally, unless we restore our climate to a temperature that is cooler than today –that future emissions elimination cannot do– our fate is sealed, game over, the chess slips off the cracker. So how is climate restoration is much more simple that eliminating fossil fuels?
History of Carbon Dioxide Removal
We have been taking carbon dioxide out of air for over a hundred years. Reports that these carbon dioxide strategies are new or expensive are artifacts of the scenario bias in climate science, where future modeling is based on scenarios and all 2,012 scenarios evaluated by the leading climate science institution, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are all further warming scenarios and they all rely upon some form of emissions elimination and they all limit the industrialization of the atmospheric carbon removal processes. In other words, if a scenario does not include plausible situations, the science is agnostic on those situations.
We have been taking carbon dioxide out of the air with three main technologies for over a hundred years. Nobel Prize winner Carl Linde was the first to remove carbon dioxide from air. His technology was developed from his refrigeration discovery that itself was first used in the 1870s to help the brewing industry overcome limitations on summer season brewing and beer storage that was plagued by bacterial contamination where literally in Bavaria, beer brewing in the summer was prohibited. By 1890 Linde had sold 747 of his “ice machines.” In 1892 Guinness contracted with Linde to build a CO2 liquefaction plant to sell excess CO2 from fermentation. This set in motion the ultra-cold refrigeration technology that Linde later used in cryoseperation to distill the components of air into useable products that include, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon. The cryoseparation technology first supercools air to a liquid, then evaporates the liquid in a tall column where the temperature rises upwards in the column, condensing individual components at different temperatures, much like water vapor condenses in clouds.
In 1904 the recyclable lime-potash process was discovered to separate CO2 from air as a simple chemical reaction using extremely common potash and lime. In 1930 the first patent was issued for an ammonia-based process that used amines to remove CO2 from air. Notable applications for both were in submarines in World War II to keep our sailors safe form carbon dioxide poisoning. Also in World War II, the Habor-Bosch Process was developed to synthesize ammonia from hydrocarbons in Germany, mostly for explosives, as the Allies had cut off the German supplies of guano needed to generate the ammonia. This process became an extremely important process globally in synthesizing fertilizers. An important part of this process is removing CO2 to allow the formation of ammonia. This CO2 removal process advanced the state of amine technology for removal of CO2 from air. These three processes are mature today and represent some of the most important industrial processes known to humankind. Their components are widespread in industry making their implementation into a scaled atmospheric CO2 removal infrastructure a challenge of motivation and money, not technology.
Scaling to the Billions Is Something Humans Know How To Do in the Twenty-First Century
The nascent part of current science that says we can’t do this is the scaling part. Right now we remove a million tons of CO2 from the air every year plus of minus. To restore our climate we have to remove 1,000 trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Over 20 years, we have to scale current removal 50 million times. This seems like a lot, but we spent $4.3 billion on health care in the US alone in 2022 and on average we move 250 billion tons of earth across the world every year, treat 116 billion tons of potable water and human sewage in the US alone every year, and we manufacture 22 billion pairs of shoes, every year.
Right now a couple of hundred, 1 million ton per year carbon dioxide removal units have been committed by industry to take advantage of enhancement of the IRS 45Q carbon removal incentive and cash payment that was tripled by the Inflation Reduction Act. The cash pay is up to $180 a ton, far more than it cost to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
Climate restoration has begun, but we still have this little warming target thing of 1.5 C to deal with. If we warm further, of course the current impacts will not go away and they will only get worse. Of course collapsing Earth systems will not self-restore, or even be possibly restored by humans. We must adopt a restoration target that uses the only tool remaining in our tool box of atmospheric carbon removal, because remember, natural systems are now likely emitting because so many of them are now in collapse.
The last thing to remember is that we have to do all of this faster than the standard date of 2100 of our climate culture because this date is not based on climate tipping activation or Earth systems collapses. Tipping becomes permanent with irreversible feedback emissions dwarfing humankind’s if we do not restore our climate before the point of no return. This is a real piece of climate science that says that if the perturbation to the systems that caused the collapse to begin is not removed before the point of no return, after this time the systems will continue its collapse even if the perturbation to the system is removed. When is the point of no return? It is different for different systems, but let’s just assume it’s mid-century because the risks are so great if we overshoot. So we do have to make haste, or we risk passing the point of no return, but the talking heads on the television say it will be outrageously expensive and cost trillions of dollars to restore our climate.
Costs of Trillion of Dollars is Little Money with Today’s $100 Trillion Annual Global GDP
True, it will cost trillions but like it was mentioned earlier, we spent $4.3 trillion on health care in the US alone in 2020. And if we were to scale World War II spending to today’s economy, the trillions we must spend on treating climate pollution in our atmosphere seems trivial. In World War II, (in 2019 dollars) we spent $53 trillion over seven years on mostly heavy industrial expansion. Today’s global gross domestic product is $100 trillion per year. Scaling World War II spending then, to today’s economy, says that with world war motivation, today we are capable of spending $43 trillion dollars per year to avoid whatever it is that we are motivated to prevent. At $100 a ton to remove the 1,000 billion tons of CO2 from the sky to restore our climate, this is $100 trillion. But the cost of CO2 removal is less than $100 per ton today, and in a few years when the 100 year old carbon removal processes are scaled up, costs will be far less than $100 a ton.
The challenge we have today, to restore our climate, to return the mayhem back to its former rare levels, to stop existentially irreversible tipping in its tracks, and to eliminate already excessive injustices to underprivileged peoples, is simply a task of motivation; costs are little money. And there are bonus points. What we have come to know as irreversible impacts are actually reversible. The irreversible concept comes from that scenario bias where all the scenarios are further warming, and of course impacts only get worse with further warming. If we cool our climate cooler than today, back to within the evolutionary boundaries of our Earth systems, sea level will actually fall. We will not get all the sea level rise back because about half of it came from melting ice, but we will get some of it back because most of the rest came from expanding ocean waters as they warm. Restoring our climate means the oceans restore or cool too, at about the same rate as our climate except for the abyssal waters that stay in the deep for centuries or a millennia.
There is one more thing; gotta mention it. Our climate is changing so fast now and so many impacts are understated, that we are likely on a path that is worse than the worst case scenario; lots worse. We need to rapidly research myriad geoengineering strategies in case emergency cooling is needed. More good news? Geoengineering is really, really cheap, like a thousand or a million times cheaper than carbon dioxide removal. And geoengineering actually reduces the load co CO2 in the sy a bit too. This is because of those natural feedback emissions. If our climate is cooler, there are fewer natural feedback emissions. The total in some scenarios amounts to a couple hundred billion tons.
Climate change is not the horror story we have been led to believe. It’s worse. But not really because, the solutions are now so much easier and cheaper and we no longer have to do the single thing that we as a society are so afraid of — change our lives forever. Simple treating climate pollution like any other pollution is all that is required to avoid existentially irreversible climate futures. Decarbonizing our world is a good thing because so much pollution and so many injustices are caused by the dirty and dangerous fossil fuels extraction and industrial sectors, but if we do not remove much larger amounts of climate pollution from our sky than the total of all emissions from net zero, nothing else matters because of those runaway feedback emissions. Treating pollution is simple, we know how to do this. When we discovered human sewage pollution was killing millions in the 19th century, we did not stop emitting human sewage.