The Magnitude of the Challenge

With the COP26 climate summit due to kick off in Glasgow on Sunday, here’s a stark warning of what the future holds in store for us all if our global ‘leaders’ fail to come through (as I fully expect them to do).

As Sir David Attenborough said recently:

If we don’t act now, it will be too late.

Sir David Attenborough
Dr Will Steffen from the Australian National University discusses ‘Climate Change: The Magnitude of the Challenge’ at Festival of Ambitious Ideas, May 2016

Dr Will Steffen: OK, now, as Monty Python said, for something completely different: I’m going to talk a bit about climate change, but probably stuff you haven’t seen or heard about before. So, I want to talk about the magnitude of what we have to deal with and the reason that the exciting developments that Laughlin talked about need to be accelerated; they’re not optional, they must be done.

Slide showing global temperature variations wildly swinging over the last 100,000 years, marked with human events from the first migrations out of Africa up to the stable period of the last ~10,000 years (the Holocene).
Slide #1: Human Development and Earth System Dynamics (Source: Greenland Ice Core Data (GRIP) and S. Oppenheimer, “Out of Eden”, 2004)

All right: That’s the 100,000 year history of homo sapiens – half the time we’ve been on the planet. Just look at the last 10,000 years; a very even climate. That’s the only time in our history that we’ve been able to develop agriculture, villages, cities and civilization. It’s a planetary sweet spot, and we’re leaving it really fast.

Slide showing global temperature variations wildly swinging over the last 100,000 years, marked with human events from the first migrations out of Africa up to the stable period of the last ~10,000 years (the Holocene).
Slide #2: Temperature rise: Beyond the envelope of natural variability? (Source: Summerhayes 2015)

That’s the last 2,000 years. Rome was at point zero, the city of Rome. Look: you can see natural variability of climate; that’s temperature, that wavy black line. Look at the right hand end: that’s what we’re doing because we’re burning fossil fuels. It’s shooting way outside the variability – natural variability – that we’ve designed our cities for, and our own physiology is built for.

Slide showing the IPCC 2013 forecasts for two possible global surface temperature futures: one being 'business as usual', taking us up to ~3°C to ~5°C, and a much lower path that assumes action to address the problem.
Slide #3: IPCC temperature projections (Source: IPCC 2013)

We can look toward the future; and these are the projections from climate models. And a lot of people may question them, but climate models are bloody good at getting global average temperature; in fact, they’re spot on, because we understand the physics of the climate system really, really well. Those are our two futures. The future that Laughlin is talking about is the blue one. And that’s very positive because we can get emissions down very fast, as he said, we can stabilize the climate by the period 2050 to 2100. Where are we going now? We’re going on the orange one, and that’s going toward a 4°C temperature rise by the end of this century compared to pre-industrial. Any idea what the temperature difference is between the last ice age and the present? Any guesses? 4°C. See, we’re talking about a shift as big as between an ice age when mastodons and woolly mammoths were around and humans barely survived. We’re talking about the same difference – but not in 5,000 years, in one century.

Dr Will Steffen standing at the lectern, with a slide showing the unprecedented steeply rising forecast of global temp up to 2100AD, with the last two millenia shown for context. Subtitle reads, 'it is impossible to survive that sort of change. That's beyond human physiology'
Slide #4: Projected temperature rise by 2100CE, in the perspective of the last 2,000 years (Historical data plus IPCC projections)

So, let me put that change on the same timeframe that I just showed you. There is our 2,000 year history where we developed our cities, modern civilization. There is the spike at the end where we are now. And there’s the projections, on the same timeframe, at 2100. OK? The problem there is that, in my view, it is impossible to survive that sort of change. It’s beyond human physiology to deal with that sort of change; in fact, large mammals as a whole will not be very good in there. Our cities are designed for that wavy black line there, and remember, a lot of our infrastructure is designed for 100 years. That’s just 100 years. In fact, that 5-6°C is business as usual 85 years from now: a human lifetime. So, what Laughlin is talking about is really important and it is not optional. It must be done and it must be accelerated.

Slide showing the unprecedented steeply rising forecast of global temp up to 2100AD, with the last two millenia shown for context. Arrows show the 2°C to which we're already committed, and the point at which civilisation becomes at risk (~5°C).
Slide #5: Projected temperature rise by 2100CE with additional notes (Historical data plus IPCC projections)

So, let me just leave you then with a couple of numbers. See, that’s what we’re committed to, by the way. Even with the fastest rollout we can of solar, of non-carbon transport, of different agriculture; we’re committed to pretty much 2°C. We’re not going to make the Paris 1.5°C; that’s already out of the question. And that’s already a big shock, but that is the trajectory we’re on now. And that’s a collapse scenario, no matter what we do with all the whizz-bang technology, because physiologically, we can’t survive that. So the real challenge is: we’ve got to make sure we hit that 2°C.

Slide of text detailing three aspects of rates of climate change: Increase in CO2 is ~100 times the max rate in the last deglaciation; Since 1970, global avg temp has risen ~170 times the rate over the past 7000 years (and in the opposite direction); Rate of increased ocean acidification is unparalleled for more than 300 million years.
Slide #6: Rates of Climate Change (Source: De Vos et al 2014; Wolff 2011; Marcott et al 2013; NOAA 2016; Canfield et al 2010)

Let me leave you with some thoughts about rates of climate change. CO2 – that’s the big gas that we’re worried about in the atmosphere – the last time that rocketed up was when we came out of the last ice age; it went up by 100 parts per million in 5,000 years. It was 280 just a century or so ago; it’s hitting 400 now today at Cape Grim, as we speak. All right, that’s 100 times faster than the maximum rate the Earth has experienced. Look at temperatures: since 1970, the global average temperature has risen at a rate of about 170 times the background rate over the past 7,000 years. Why do you think reefs are bleaching all over the world? Why do you think we’re having massive fires in Canada? That’s why. It’s not something for the future; that’s why it’s happening. And ocean acidification: it’s going faster than it has for 300 million years, and that’s why ocean ecosystems as a whole are in trouble.

So, I’ll just leave you with this point: it’s that we have two possible futures. We don’t want that one, for sure. So, everything Laughlin has been talking about – and lots of other people – about getting carbon out of our economy: it’s not optional. If we don’t get carbon out of our economy over the next two or three decades, that’s where we’re heading.

Dr Will Steffen, Climate Change: The Magnitude of the Challenge

The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.


Slide #1 (@21 seconds)

Slide showing global temperature variations wildly swinging over the last 100,000 years, marked with human events from the first migrations out of Africa up to the stable period of the last ~10,000 years (the Holocene).
Slide #1: Human Development and Earth System Dynamics (Source: Greenland Ice Core Data (GRIP) and S. Oppenheimer, “Out of Eden”, 2004)

Human Development and Earth System Dynamics
x-axis: Age (kyrs before present), graduated (left to right) 100, 80, 60, 40, 20
y-axis (left): (can’t make out label), graduated (top to bottom) -34, -38, -42, origin (not marked) ~-46
y-axis (right): label ΔT (temperature change), graduated (top to bottom) 0, -20, origin (not marked) ~-30
Source: Greenland Ice Core Data (GRIP) and S. Oppenheimer, “Out of Eden”, 2004

There is a dashed line that runs across at the level of 0ΔT.

The main chart contains pointers to events:
~95k First migration of fully modern humans out of Africa
~70k Aborigines arrive in Australia
~60k-~40k Migrations from South Asia to Europe
~18k Beginning of agriculture (coincides with the start of the Holocene)
~10k Great Asian, European, African, American civilizations

The graph starts at -38 on the left, and progresses towards the right in crazy, jagged swings up and down across most of the chart. Then, at ~12k, it settles on the 0ΔT line and continues there to the right-hand side. This activity is enclosed by a shaded oval which has a red arrow pointing at it from text that reads ‘Holocene’.

Slide #2 (@41 seconds)

Slide showing global temperature variations wildly swinging over the last 100,000 years, marked with human events from the first migrations out of Africa up to the stable period of the last ~10,000 years (the Holocene).
Slide #2: Temperature rise: Beyond the envelope of natural variability? (Source: Summerhayes 2015)

Temperature rise: Beyond the envelope of natural variability?
x-axis: Years (C.E.), graduated (left to right) 0, 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000, 1200, 1400, 1600, 1800, 2000
y-axis: “Stand. Temp. (°C” (truncated), graduated (top to bottom) 0.2, 0, -0.2, -0.4, -0.6
Label below, presumably indicating source: Summerhayes 2015

Three lines slope gradually down from left to right; the middle one begins at 0°C and ends at ~-0.4°C. The two lines either side are 0.1°C away. The label beneath these three says ‘Natural Envelope of Temperature’. Above the lines are two labels: ‘MWP’ (medieval warm period?) from ~1000CE to ~1200CE, and ‘L/A’ (?) from ~1200CE to ~1800CE.
The graph itself starts at -0.2C, stretches across to ~1900CE varying between the upper and lower boundaries of the ‘Natural Envelope of Temperature’ zone, and then abruptly shoots off the top of the chart (creating a shape that I would call ‘the hockey stick’).

Slide #3 (@67 seconds)

Slide showing the IPCC 2013 forecasts for two possible global surface temperature futures: one being 'business as usual', taking us up to ~3°C to ~5°C, and a much lower path that assumes action to address the problem.
Slide #3: IPCC temperature projections (Source: IPCC 2013)

IPCC temperature projections
Chart title: Global average surface temperature change
x-axis: (no label, but inferred calendar years CE), graduated (left to right) 1950, 2000, 2050, 2100
y-axis: (no label, but inferred degrees Celcius), graduated (top to bottom) 6.0, 4.0, 2.0, 0.0, -2.0
Source: IPCC 2013

The graph starts at ~-0.5°C at 1950CE on the left, and progresses towards the right (I assume this is historical data): the line is relatively thin. At 2005CE it splits into two bands that spread as they move towards the right (my assumption is that this spreading represents uncertainty of the accuracy of the projection into the future):
an upper orange band that extends up to ~3°C to ~5°C
a lower blue band that spans ~0°C to ~2°C.

There is a legend at the top left showing black, blue and orange, but I cannot make out the labels :(
There is a blue line extending up from 2005CE. Above the line of the graph before this point is the number ’42’; to the right, the number ’39’ appears above the orange banding, and the number ’32’ appears below the blue banding. I have no clue what those numbers are supposed to represent.

Slide #4 (@138 seconds)

Dr Will Steffen standing at the lectern, with a slide showing the unprecedented steeply rising forecast of global temp up to 2100AD, with the last two millenia shown for context. Subtitle reads, 'it is impossible to survive that sort of change. That's beyond human physiology'
Slide #4: Projected temperature rise by 2100CE, in the perspective of the last 2,000 years (Historical data plus IPCC projections)

This shows slide #2 (the past 2,000 years) together with the range of projected temperature rises, between 1.5°C and an almost inconceivably steep slope up towards a gut-wrenching ~6°C…

Slide #5 (@204 seconds)

Slide showing the unprecedented steeply rising forecast of global temp up to 2100AD, with the last two millenia shown for context. Arrows show the 2°C to which we're already committed, and the point at which civilisation becomes at risk (~5°C).
Slide #5: Projected temperature rise by 2100CE with additional notes (Historical data plus IPCC projections)

As slide #4 above, but with two additional annotations:

  1. An arrow pointing to the 2°C mark at 2100CE, labelled, “Committed“.
  2. An arrow pointing to just below the 5°C mark at 2100CE, labelled, “Earth System moves to a new state? Severe challenge to contemporary civilisation. Possible collapse?“.

Slide #6 (@217 seconds)

Slide of text detailing three aspects of rates of climate change: Increase in CO2 is ~100 times the max rate in the last deglaciation; Since 1970, global avg temp has risen ~170 times the rate over the past 7000 years (and in the opposite direction); Rate of increased ocean acidification is unparalleled for more than 300 million years.
Slide #6: Rates of Climate Change (Source: De Vos et al 2014; Wolff 2011; Marcott et al 2013; NOAA 2016; Canfield et al 2010)

Rates of Climate Change
Source: De Vos et al 2014; Wolff 2011; Marcott et al 2013; NOAA 2016; Canfield et al 2010

This slide features the following sobering facts:

  • Rate of atmospheric CO2 increase over the past two decades is about 100 times the maximum rate during the last deglaciation.
  • Since 1970 the global average temperature has risen at a rate about 170 times the background rate over the past 7,000 years of the Holocene, and in the opposite direction.
  • Rate of increase in ocean acidification is unparalleled for at least the last 300 million years.

If we don’t act now, it will be too late.

Sir David Attenborough

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Biodiversity, Core thought, Education, Energy, Environment, GCD: Global climate disruption, Health, Strategy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Magnitude of the Challenge

  1. Margy says:

    Dr. Steffen asks “Why do you think we’re having massive fires in Canada?” According to the Govt of Canada website, Canada has a large boreal forest region that historically sees large fires because of a combination of rain, lightning and wind. The Canadian National Fire Database says that from 1980 to 2019, the number of fires has been on a decline since higher years in the mid ’90’s. Area burned is lower too though higher than the 80’s and 2000’s. Like other parts of North America, the Smoky the Bear years of preventing forest fires resulted in a build up of dead wood. Combine that with a public that didn’t want to see trees cut down anywhere… trees that disrupt the advantages of a fire break.
    How much of this is caused by climate change and how much is caused by decades of poor forest management…

    Like

    • peNdantry says:

      Margy, I’m sorry to say it, but I feel it has to be said: an ever-present problem in the ‘climate change debate’ over the decades has been picking on one aspect of the ‘pro-action’ argument, highlighting how it might be construed as being misguided, and then using that as an excuse to dismiss the entire argument. (I’m sure there’s a more concise way of describing that, but I’m not aware of it.) A classic example is the way in which Al Gore was reviled, simply because he participated in the 2006 documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which made a couple of mistakes. The deniers revelled in dwelling on those minor points, distracting from the main message.

      Yes, you’re not wrong: I’m sure that ‘poor forest management’ has contributed to the situation you’ve picked on here. But to me, all that does is highlight the reality that homo fatuus brutus is adept at screwing things up and finding excuses after the event (and absolutely superb at spinning them in such a way as to make it seem as though he was not at fault).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Margy says:

        I wasn’t aware I was dismissing the entire argument.

        Liked by 1 person

        • peNdantry says:

          OK, I accept that you didn’t intend that; my apologies. Focusing on one small point and going to great lengths to show how it’s wrong is a denialist tactic I’ve seen far too many times; it raises a red flag for me.

          So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak. – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

          Liked by 1 person

          • Margy says:

            I didn’t say the author was wrong. I answered the question he asked. We can’t find solutions to a problem if we don’t look at everything that contributes to the problem.

            Attaching the word ‘denialist’ to anyone who is questioning ‘your tribes’ assumptions seems like a weak argument. If this is a ‘war’, then I believe the strong are the people in the middle who are the synthesis of the thesis (existential threat) and antithesis (climate change is normal).

            Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. I believe good progress is being made by those who approach climate change from the middle ground.

            Like

          • peNdantry says:

            I really don’t know how to respond without risking alienating you further, Margy. You say that “you didn’t say the author was wrong”, and yet you picked upon a single sentence in his presentation, and picked holes in it. I agree completely that we have to look at the situation in the round: but that’s what you’re not doing, here. Why did you choose to ‘answer’ this one question, and ignore the main point made, that we, as a species, are headed into extremely dangerous territory?

            The fact that you suggest that I am part of a ‘tribe’ says much; it indicates that you believe that my stance is predicated upon a series of beliefs that are not a result of my own decision, but by adherence to loyalty to a group. That is far from the truth: though I am no expert, I have been studying climate science for several years now, and I know enough to realize that we are in seriously dire straits. You appear to believe that we are not in a ‘war’. I believe that you are wrong. You are aware, I hope, that the entire fossil fuel industry has been aware for decades that their industry poses an existential risk to our entire civilization? If not, I think that you need to spend some time (not that we have much left) educating yourself about that reality.

            You talk about ‘the middle ground’, yet your attitude suggests that you believe that it is the high ground. From where I sit, those in the ‘middle ground’ are actually sitting on the fence: unconvinced of the harsh reality facing our entire species. And unless those sitting on that fence get down off it and add their voices to those of us demanding change, we are all doomed.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. The magnitude of the challenge of the COP26 is pretty high that it will soon collapse without any solution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Forestwood says:

    Important information, Colin and effectively presented. There will always be naysayers and nit-pickers who do waste a lot of precious time in getting action moving. I learnt many years ago that most of them seem to require some kind of prop of their ego. I like to listen to differing points of view but the hammering of being right about tiny points, about being moderates. It is simply too exhausting and I stopped discussing climate science with them, any longer. They don’t want to listen.
    What will it take to make them and the world’s influential to sit up and finally understand? If that day arrives, will it probably be too late.
    On a more positive side, the climate deniers in our parliament are being usurped in business decisions by business leaders who are moving forward with cleaner targets and options despite the government dragging their feet. Why? Because they are already feeling the pinch of being passed over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • peNdantry says:

      I’m not so sure it’s ‘ego props’ that are the issue, here: I think it may be more a case of cognitive dissonance. When faced with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we all struggle to reconcile the differences, and the easy path is always the one that evades the obstacles. Unfortunately, confronting those in denial can do more harm than good, because they just double down. Yes, it’s exhausting, but, somehow, we have to find a way to get them to listen, for all our sakes.

      I have no faith at all in the idea of relying upon private industry to resolve such problems, especially when the government refuses to implement proper oversight and regulation. Take the current situation with sewage dumps into our waterways and seas here in the UK: the government’s attitude is that it’s ‘too expensive’ a problem to address. I’ve just had a letter from my MP, in which he admits that

      successive governments have put it in the ‘too difficult’ box

      I need to reply to that letter to point out that it’s indicative of a serious failure of government: they kick problems down the road unless they absolutely have to deal with them. The coronavirus pandemic is a case in point. And if outrageous raw sewage dumping is in the ‘too difficult box’, we have a snowball’s chance in hell of relying on our ‘leaders’ to be proactive about the much greater problem of climate change.

      Like

      • Forestwood says:

        Quite frankly, it is maddening that an MP could fob you off with a financial excuse. It is his job to find a way to do it within the means that government has. But then at least he was honest, I suppose. Our incumbent politicians either don’t answer a question at all, or give you the marketing spin style of answer, which contains neither truth nor fact.
        I agree and have always agreed that relying and giving time for private enterprise and technology (another argument that has been around since the 80’s) to solve environmental problems is naive.
        Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is rampant in those people who cannot or refuse to believe things are grim. In that respect, they remind me of anti-vaxers with their heads buried far down in the sand.
        Dumping raw sewage happens here from time to time but the public are usually so outraged that an investigation to find the culprit is enacted with fines imposed where possible. It is a deterrent of sorts.

        Liked by 1 person

        • peNdantry says:

          It’s worse than “since the 80s”.

          An international conference [about pollution] was held in 1911 and American reformers joined their British counterparts. Information, reports and scientific data were shared and disseminated. Conversations about strategy, tactics and insights stoked the fire of reform and change.

          Industry argued for efficiency and technological fixes. Jevons’ paradox was quietly ignored and engineers were put to the task of researching and inventing more efficient installations.

          The government faced two choices: ban the use of coal or impose further restrictions.
          – Polly Higgins (1968–2019), Eradicating Ecocide, page 17

          … and, soon after that, World War I happened, and it was all conveniently forgotten about… :(

          Liked by 1 person

          • Forestwood says:

            Priorities and in Australia at least, egos seem to prevail. A lot of our economic success is based on mineral wealth, and exporting coal. We don’t have a nuclear program after the French’s unethical and criminal actions in New Zealand. Coal was also so cheap to dig up. Whole towns and regions, lives and careers are invested in coal. The central region of my state would be a wasteland instead of a thriving, wealthy inland area if it wasn’t for coal. Once people have good salaries, a career, and a high standard of living, they do not like to give it up easily. I think these people put their faith in technology – we even have propaganda style ads on TV, advertising “clean coal.” Ugh. If these arguments were evident in 1911, and the war buried them, it makes me feel even more pessimistic about the prospects of saving the planet. That was the reason I had to walk away from a career in Environmental Science….

            Liked by 1 person

          • peNdantry says:

            It is disheartening. But we have to keep on trying. Giving up is not an option. Activate the Omega-13!

            Like

          • Forestwood says:

            I do agree. I just had to step back for a while and change my approach as it was so disheartening.

            Liked by 1 person

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