The Climate and Ecological Emergencies

City and technology. Computer graphics.

Decision time

The human race is facing a stark choice.   On the one hand, there is the potential to make the earth uninhabitable by not attending to the climate and ecological emergencies; the signs of global heating are unmistakeable and the vital signs of life on the planet are almost everywhere in rapid decline.  On the other hand, there is the potential to switch path in pursuit of a self-sustaining society.  None of this is new.  Ransacking and wanton pollution of the planet has been going on for a long time.  It is perhaps the immediacy and finality with which a choice now needs to be made that highlights what is at stake.

In the opening chapter of A Blueprint for Survival, published nearly five decades ago in 1972, the editors of The Ecologist wrote:

The principle defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable.  Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable – unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.  We can be certain, however, that sooner or later it will end (only the precise time and circumstances are in doubt) and that it will do so in one of two ways: either against our will, in a succession of famines, epidemics, social crises and wars; or because we want it to – because we wish to create a society which will not impose hardship and cruelty upon our children – in a succession of thoughtful, humane and measured changes.

There have been several times over recent decades when concerted action should have been expected.  The transition should have begun in earnest decades ago when the first scientific warnings of ecological stresses and limits were sounded.  The final declaration of the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was an environmental manifesto that was a forceful statement of the finite nature of Earth’s resources and the necessity for humanity to safeguard them.  The publication of Global 2000 in 1980 was a further milestone as it was arguably the first substantive assessment of demographic, economic, resource, and environmental projections and the integration of those projections.  Our Common Future was published in 1987 and addressed critical global environmental problems driven by non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production. There has also been the regular drumbeat of assessment reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In November 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists, representing some 15,000 scientists, issued a secondWarning to Humanity” (their first was in 1992).  It was the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article.  The BioScience article stated

By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.

In the 1990’s Ray Anderson, a US industrialist, described the situation to fellow CEOs:

Every ecosystem on earth is in decline.  This is a crisis: It is a funeral march to the grave, if someone or something doesn’t do something to reverse the deadly decline. Business and industry–the largest, wealthiest, most powerful, most pervasive institutions on earth, and the ones doing the most damage–must take the lead. Once one understands this crisis, no thinking person can stand idly by and do nothing. When you get past denial, you must do whatever you can. Conscience demands it.

In their book Climate Code Red published in 2008, David Spratt and Philip Sutton wrote:

With few exceptions, the present responses to global warming are within the ‘normal political-paralyis mode’.  Most governments have not been brutally honest with themselves about the new climate data and its consequences or about the severity and proximity of the consequences if present trends continue.  Necessary targets and goals are being severely compromised, while the speed of our response is hopelessly inadequate, and will result in global warming worsening and moving beyond our capacity to construct practical rsponses.  There is neither effective leadership nor bipartisanship.

We are not devoting the necessary resources to solving the problem, whether it is research and innovation, planning for a rapid transition, or scaling up production.  Not only has failure become an option; it has also become the norm.  On all objective measures the world is going backwards: emissions are rising at an increasing rate, events signalling more dangerous changes in the environment are occurring faster than expected, and positive feedbacks are beginning to kick in.

In short, although it is the greatest threat in human history, global warming is not being treated as an emergency.

Is it really an emergency?

By taking a long view, the temperature of planet earth over millions of years can be plotted to illustrate how we currently stand.  Figure 1 shows the gobal mean surface temperature (degree Celcius) of planet earth over the last 500 million years with respect to the average over the period 1960-1990.  It is only in the last 10 thousand years or so that we have enjoyed a relatively stable climate.  The red dots shown on the right-hand side of the graph indicate the sharp increase in temperature that is expected as a result of human activities that drive climate change.


Temp of Planet Earth

Figure 1.  Gobal mean surface temperature (degree Celcius) of planet earth over the last 500 million years.

If we induce a global heating of about 4 degree Celcius, life support systems as we know them would largely be breaking down (see here for a description); a planet with 5 degree Celcius heating would be largely unrecognizable from the one we are used to; a planet with 6 degree C heating would be uninhabitable.  If we go beyond about 1.5 degree C, there is the potential for tipping points in nature to have been crossed and this could bring the prospect of runaway climate change; the unprecedented wildfires burning in the arctic and permafrost collapse are a symptom of this.  More than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now ‘active‘, according to the Stockholm Resilience CentreThis threatens the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently undergoing measurable and unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.

According to the lecture by J. Rockström at current concentrations of greenhouse gases (about 450 parts per million), one could expect a heating of 6°C with a probability of almost 2%.  That is a 2% probability that we have already committed to an uninhabitable planet given what we have already done.  Mass extinction events have occurred in paleohistory; such events generally occur when there is a sharp disruption to the climate because ecosystems cannot adapt quickly enough.  The assessment report of The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) confirms that the earth’s biodiversity is in a state of distress.  There are clear signs that we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction.

If we zoom into the right-hand side of the graph in Figure 1 and focus just on this century, can we identify how quickly the earth’s climate might be disrupted?  In a recent (published in 2018) study by Wang and co-workers, predictions of 39 Global Climate Models were compared.  The results are shown in Figure 2.

39 Global Climate Models

Figure 2.  Comparison of predictions from 39 Global Climate Models.

Figure 2 shows that we could have induced a 4 degree Celcius heating by around 2060; it could of course be later, although the median for all the models indicates that 4 degree Celcius would be reached before 2090.  James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, has described the gathering storm of dangerous climate change.  Assessment reports issued by the IPCC can be accessed here. A documentary by Sir David Attenborough titled Climate Change – Britain Under Threat, can be accessed here.  Other films and documentaries about climate change can be accessed at Films for the Earth.

Dangers known for a long time

Examples of early works on climatic impacts include the Charney Report (1979) and a film made in 1984 on climate change.  These follow the work (published in 1896) of Svante Arhenius, who used basic principles of physical chemistry to estimate the extent to which increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are responsible for the Earth’s increasing surface temperature.  In turn, the work of Arhenius followed the work of other pioneers.  On August 23, 1856, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the work of American Eunice Newton Foote was presented.  Foote was an early female climate science pioneer.  Foote’s work showed that carbon dioxide and water vapor modulated solar heating, and she presented it three years before John Tyndall, whose more sophisticated experiments demonstrated conclusively that Earth’s greenhouse effect comes from water vapor and other gases like carbon dioxide that absorb and emit thermal infrared energy, not visible sunlight.

Implications for the polar ice sheets have been known for a long time; research published in 1978 by John Mercer, for example, focussed on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet; more recent studies of the Antarctic ice sheet are here and here.  James Hansen has suggested that sea level rise (SLR) of up to about 5 metres could be expected this century.  For example, see this paper in which Hansen suggests that scientific reticence is inhibiting communication of a threat of potentially large sea level rise; see also. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control.  Gavin Schmidt has provided a very good analysis of how James Hansen’s predictions from 30 years ago stack up against observed data since then. It is worth noting that the IPCC projections do not include SLR contributions from ice sheet disintegration.  The necessity for greenhouse gas drawdown and targets for stabilisation are summarised in an article by Gideon Polya.

Implications for climate impacts have been understood for a long time, including within the fossil fuel industries; see this timeline.  For example, on February 29, 1980 the American Petroleum Institute hosted a meeting with its CO2 and Climate Task Force comprised of fossil fuel industry representatives from Exxon, Texaco, and Standard Oil.  The meeting largely centered around a report by Dr. J. A. Laurman – “The CO2 Problem; Addressing Research Agenda Development”.  Dr. Laurman’s report uniquely conceded that there is “strong evidence” that the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration is “anthropogenic” and caused “mainly from fossil fuel burning.” Further, the report dismissed uncertainties surrounding carbon cycle modeling and natural climate variability. Predicting a global average of 2.5 degrees C rise expected by 2038 with “major economic consequences” and a 5 degree C rise by 2067 with “globally catastrophic effects”, the report concluded that there is “no leeway” regarding the “time for action.”  In 1991, Shell produced a film, titled Climate of Concern, which set out how fossil fuel burning was warming the world and that serious consequences could well result.

The projections of globally catastrophic effects by the 2060’s as discussed in the 1980 meeting hosted by the American Petroleum Insitute are not inconsistent with the terrible consequences of the projections shown in Figure 2.

On 30th October 2019, Rex Tillerson, an ex-chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest oil and gas company in the US, took to defend his former firm against accusations of misleading investors about the threat climate change posed to its bottom line.  In court he said “We knew it was a serious issue and we knew it was one that’s going to be with us now forever more”.  He added “It’s not something that was just suddenly going to disappear off of our concern list because it is going to be with us for certainly well beyond my lifetime.”

The connection between CO2 and the earth greenhouse effect has been known since the 1850’s, which is longer than anyone alive today.  It has been known since the 1970’s that the situation is an emergency; this was when many of those now nearing retirement were leaving school.  Despite the reality, an entrenched minority continue to misinform.  As David Suzuki notes we are “almost out of time on climate change“.

The situation is an emergency.

Impacts already being felt

As early as 2012, the US Federal government spent $96 billion on climate disruption.  Comparing individual costs, the cost of climate disruption exceeded federal spending on all of other non-defence programs such as education and transport.  At a household level, it would be difficult to sustain at least 10% of household income each year on climate disruption.  Similar considerations apply at the enterprise, regional and national levels.  In 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria combined that year to make the United States the most disrupted region for the first time.  For many months during 2018, California, the 5th largest economy, witnessed its largest and most destructive wild fires.  The burning down of the town of Paradise in the wildfires brought home to many the destructive power being unleashed, including toxin release and contamination of soil, water and air.  Wildfires have bankrupted the utility PG&E through the $30 billion in claims, and there is a good chance they will bankrupt whatever new utility company emerges to buy the company’s assets.  In 2019 unprecedented flooding and tornadoes have occured in the US mid-west.  The ways that Hurricane Dorian has affected the Bahamas perhaps represents a microcosm of what could come, with impacts on humans, wildlife, infrastructure, and the broader environment (through effects such as oil spills).

NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) tracks U.S. weather and climate events. It estimates the annual cost of weather and climate disasters in the US are nearly $100 billion / year and notes that these estimates do not reflect the total cost, only those associated with events in excess of $1 billion in damages.


NOAA barchart-billions

Figure 3.  Graph of billion-dollar disaster events (source: NOAA)

The graph of billion-dollar disaster events in Figure 3 is showing an upward trend.  With prospects of further global heating it is clear that significant disaster events can be expected over the coming business cycles.  This has the potential to impact investment portfolios and suggests that investors may respond by moving their investments.  Divestment from fossil fuel industries is likely to accelerate as investors acknowledge their assets are overpriced and markets self-correct.   There is increased litigation activity by municipalities and private parties against fossil fuel companies and others.  Meanwhile, according to a report by Carbon Tracker, major oil and gas companies have invested $50bn (£40.6bn) in fossil fuel projects that undermine global efforts to avert a runaway climate crisis.

A report by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) in 2019 assessing the climate performance of 274 of the world’s highest-emitting publicly-listed companies finds that almost half (46%) do not adequately consider climate risk in operational decision-making. A quarter (25%) do not report their own emissions at all, undermining a key recommendation of the Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD).  This low level of corporate response and readiness is roughly in line with statistics at other levels across the global econony.  By mid-2019 approximately one-sixth (16%) of global GDP is covered by net zero emissions targets set by nations, regions and cities according to a study by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).  The ECIU’s Net Zero Tracker is online.

Regulators in the financial sector are expressing concern about increasing risk to the stability of the financial system.  Rostin Behnam, who sits on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, aired his concerns:

If climate change causes more volatile frequent and extreme weather events, you’re going to have a scenario where these large providers of financial products — mortgages, home insurance, pensions — cannot shift risk away from their portfolios.  It’s abundantly clear that climate change poses financial risk to the stability of the financial system.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England noted in a speech given at Lloyd’s of London 29 September 2015 “once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late”.  Central banks have so far focused largely on the impact of climate change risks on big investors’ liabilities and how they can help improve conditions for low-carbon investments. There is suggestion that central banks should take into account climate change risks not only as part of ensuring financial stability but also when setting monetary policy.

Insurers and their policyholders face high exposure risk from climate change on many fronts, including

  • general liability claims for third-party bodily injury and property damage
  • Directors & Officers (D&O) claims for a Company’s failure to properly disclose climate-related risk to its business and/or failure to align its business model with a low-carbon future
  • first-party loss, including business interruption.

The level of liability that is at stake is staggering.  A 2009 report by WWF and Allianz SE indicates the impact that a hurricane in the New York region would have. Potentially the cost could be 1 trillion dollars at present, rising to over 5 trillion dollars by mid-century. Although much of this would be uninsured, insurers are heavily exposed through hurricane insurance, flood insurance of commercial property, and as investors in real estate and public sector securities.

In his 2016 book Dangerous Years David W. Orr writes about climate change and the long emergency:

… present economic arrangements are not suited for the long emergency and will have to be remodeled or scrapped altogether.  This is a systems crisis and can only be solved by changing the economic and political systems and rebuilding their intellectual foundations.  … We presently lack both the vision and the means adequate to change large systems to good effect towards reasonably predictable ends.  The problem is that systemic change happens either slowly by accretion or suddenly and chaotically when things collapse.  And when collapse occurs, the results are often unpredictable and sometimes tragic.

Sharp turn

The choice being faced is shown in Figure 4.  To choose uninhabitability of the earth or to mobilise and make a sharp turn by slamming the brakes on greenhouse gas emisisons, putting a stop on the ransacking and poisoning of the earth and designing and building the necessary systems (technological, economic, behavioural, social, etc) in a last chance pitch for survival.

190626 road ahead

Figure 4.  Sharp turn.

The opportunity to switch path and implement emergency decarbonisation and emergency regeneration exists and could potentially limit global heating significantly and allow nature to regenerate.  Many of the actions that can be taken to address the climate emergency can also play a positive role in addressing the ecological emergency.

Continued in Part 2.

Author: Michael Gell

Michael Gell specialises in energy and environment with a focus on cricular economy and regeneration. His career began with British Gas R&D in the late 1970’s. Following a decade of research into industrial energy efficiency and low-energy houses, his focus broadened to advanced electronics with IBM and MOD. He established BT's research centre on quantum electronics in 1986. In 1990 he set up the corporation's research centre on digital technologies which spearheaded the transformation of the telephone giant into the internet age. Michael established an independent energy and environmental business in 1995 and this has evolved to Greenclick. Michael has nearly 200 publications and 50 patents. From 1992-97, Michael was Editor of European Transactions on Telecommunications. He has served on multi-stakeholder committees (IEEE EPEAT) developing environmental standards for electronic equipment and has provided expert advice on national environmental pilot programmes and design and operation of greenhouse gas disclosure platforms. In 2009 he was a member of the World Economic Forum Task Force on Low Carbon Economic Prosperity.

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