[Note: This subject was one of the key points discussed in the 10/24/21 Symposium “The Climate Crisis: The Big and Urgent Things” . The edited video of this event is now live for all Institute members. Just go to the “member login” at the top of the home page, sign in and you can watch this thought provoking symposium at your leisure. If you are not a member you can simply sign up as a Global Member for $75 and have a year’s worth of 21st century think tank content”]
The climate crisis of today was created in the past, particularly since 1970. The catastrophes we see today have nothing to do with the GHG emissions we are putting up into the atmosphere today.
A key fact that many people don’t understand is that when CO2 goes up into the atmosphere, it can stay there for decades and even centuries. There is CO2 in the atmosphere that was emitted in the 1800s from Industrial Age Britain. C02 from brand new 1957 Chevys or a cross country air flight from the 1980s. It is this that is causing the warming of the planet and the early stage.
CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere through time. This existent CO2 is what is causing the warming of today. Not what we are emitting today or will in the years ahead. Simply stated: if all GHG emissions end at midnight tonight, the planet would warm for a good 30 years, as it has been baked into the system. Think about that. All the talk and meetings at COP26 is about slowing and then stopping GHG emissions in the future. Not the present, but the future.
Due to anthropogenic warming, all living species are locked into 30 years of warming, if all emissions stopped today… and they won’t. All the talk at COP26 is about being ‘carbon neutral by 2050. What could well happen if humanity takes another 20-30 years to get to ‘carbon neutral’ is that the planet may well flip from cooling to warming…for centuries!
In 2015, I co-authored a book about the climate crisis with climate scientist, and brilliant planetary ethicist Tim Rumage. Working with Tim, the writing of “This Spaceship Earth” completely changed the way I looked at being a futurist. Basically, I decided that it would be a dereliction of my duties as a professional future to NOT talk about the most existential threat we all face. How could anyone call themselves a futurist and not speak about the climate crisis?
In the book we used the phrase “resident CO2” to describe the CO2 that was and is residing in the atmosphere and therefore the trigger for the warming of Spaceship Earth.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution the estimated amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was roughly 730 gigatons. It took around 240 years for humanity to increase that number to 800 gigatons during WWII. The amount of resident CO2 then crossed 830 around 1970, or total of 100 gigatons increase over 270 years.
From 1970 to 2010 the number increased to 1230 or 400 gigatons in 40 years. In 2021 the estimate is that the number is somewhere between 1300 and 1350 gigatons, so say 1330.
Some simple but true statements about this:
- Every species that has been alive since the 1700s are 730 gigaton species now living in a 1330 gigaton world.
- Cutting our carbon emissions dramatically from current levels will slow warming but will not stop it.
- What will stop warming is the reduction of the 1330 gigatons from the atmosphere as it is ‘resident CO2’ that has, is and will cause warming
- Of the 600 gigaton increase since 1700, 500 have been since 1970
- The global population in 1970 was 3.7 billion people. [1700 was .6 billion] We are now at 7.9 billion. There is obviously some correlation between global population and resident CO2. [Planned reduction of global population will be one of the most significant things humanity will have to do if we ever want to be in a regenerative relationship with Spaceship Earth, for future columns here]
Once you understand this concept of existing CO2 in the atmosphere being what gives us the climate crisis of today, the view of COP26 becomes even more depressing.
First, I would venture that most of the people attending do not understand that dramatically cutting GHG emissions won’t stop warming, it will just slow it down. There seems to be some general, low-brow belief that all humanity needs to do to end the climate crisis is simply to stop using fossil fuels. That is the first important step. A first step that doesn’t seem to happening, except in incremental ways at COP26.
What does humanity do now?
It helps to get off fossil fuels.
It helps to capture carbon at the point of emission while we are getting off fossil fuels
It helps to dramatically slow how we consume stuff and that we need to move to conscious non-consumption.
All of the above are widely known and in need of global scaling with urgency.
While we are doing these things – or in the case of governments saying what they might do in the future – we need to rapidly bring down the cost of reducing “resident CO2” from the atmosphere. I know some really smart climate scientists who understand the need for drawdown from the atmosphere and while they think it necessary, the cost is too prohibitive , currently in the thousands of dollars a ton.
This is the area of the climate crisis where technology can, should, and will be essential. We decided to go to the moon and we did. We have called big endeavors “moon shots” ever since. Well, reducing resident CO2 is a moon shot effort. We must clean up the room we live in before moving to another room to mess that one up.
So nation states equivocate, deliberate, argue and give lip service to getting off fossil fuels. The richer countries – the primary polluters anyway- with the greatest leadership and funding of technology truly need to step up. It is up to the U.S., Europe, China and Japan, tech leading countries, to set up a urgent, coordinated, well-funded effort to create technologies and ways to draw down resident CO2.
This must be started with early stage technologies as soon as possible. Hundreds of tons initially, to thousands of tons and, if we care about our grandchildren, great grandchildren and all the unborn thereafter, to get to millions of tons taken out of the atmosphere.
In the prior column I mentioned that humanity emits some 100 million tons of CO2 every day. The goal by 2030 would be to cut that to 30-50 million tons a day and to drawdown as much of that as possible every year. The effort will be very slow at first, but by the 2030s we should be able to draw down millions of tons a year.
So, slow the warming first and then reverse the warming in the second half of the 21st Century