Filed under: 2016, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, writing | Tags: climate change, Earth Day 2016, Hot Earth Dreams
Yay, it’s the day after Earth Day. They’ve started signing the Paris climate accord, John Kerry photo-opping by signing with his granddaughter on his lap. Obama will ratify it by executive action, the Senate Republicans will pass something nauseating telling him to stop chasing myths (unless maybe that doesn’t happen?), he’ll veto their attempt to quash him, and…
Well, what happens next? In the real world, I’m not so sure, but after I finish the swarm of stuff I’m working on (I won’t be blogging for the next few weeks), I’ll start figuring out how to revise Hot Earth Dreams. There’s still time to get your comments in, but the window is closing.
Now that it’s the day after Earth Day, what have I learned?
One thing I’ve learned is that, for most people, talking about climate change is right up there with talking about defecation with a stranger. Euphemisms are the order of the day (AGW, ACC, etc.), complexities are scary, and most people know less than they like to pretend. It’s still something that engages more anxiety and fearful projections than sensible talk. That makes selling a book about climate change tricky, sad to say.
So far as things to contemplate changing, I’ve got a bunch, in no particular order:
–Coral bleaching. I still can’t believe I didn’t devote some space to this. Does coralline red algae die in hot water? This will get interesting because corals and red algae are the bricks and mortar of the reef. The order in which they fall apart has a lot to do with how reefs die. I think, anyway, from what I’ve read.
–The arc of carbonization: so what I’m seeing at the moment are suggestions that a) the PETM was cooler than I thought it was, and b) they’re focusing on 100,000 years, not 400,000 years (sigh), and c) we might pass 2°C real soon now, or at least the IPCC5 was way too conservative, and it’s now all about the methane, and anyway people are dying of heat stress in India, and…So how much do I change the basic model of the High Altithermal? That’s my question. Some parts, like the presumed paleotemperature of the PETM or the course of David Archer’s basic model probably need to change, in part because Archer’s changing his own model. The others? It’s harder to tell. People have been dying in India from heat stress for years, and the western Persian Gulf hit Black Flag heat stress levels last year. Some of this needs to be integrated, some not. The big question is…
–Methane. Somehow I think I need to shriek that, with an undertone of OhMyGawdWereAllGonnaDieNow (!) What’s going on with methane is a complex mess: I think I can find how much methane climatologists model is in the permafrost, and hopefully soon we’ll have some estimate on the subsea methane clathrates. How much of it comes out depends on the depth at which it’s buried, so it’s not just a simple matter of emptying the pool. Then there’s the behavior of methane in the air (it decays over 1-2 decades into CO2). Then there’s the fact that bacteria in the ocean and Arctic soils metabolize methane into CO2, but it’s not clear how much they can put a dent in emissions. In the ocean, at least, metabolized methane ends up as CO2 in the water, which basically means that that amount of CO2 can’t be taken up from the air. So it’s a mixed, complicated blessing. Hopefully I can figure out how to make it less confusing in the book.
–Fossil fuels. This is getting interesting: the coal industry is dying as we speak. For example, The Indian Energy Minister said last week that solar is now cheaper than coal for them, and China’s switching from natural gas to coal (note the screwed up headline). Even though Sun Edison is going bankrupt, so is Peabody. Natural gas got a huge black eye from The Aliso Canyon natural gas leak, but I don’t think that’s going to shut down fracking nearly as efficiently as turbulence in international oil markets has. US fracking is being kneecapped by persistent low oil prices as Saudi Arabia, Russia dump oil onto the market, even as producers like Iran and Brazil come onto the market Curioser and curioser.
We’re now into a region where at least three different narratives are at play. On one hand, conventional economists are saying that it’s only a matter of time before demand starts catching up with all that cheap oil, there’s an industrial boom, and oil prices go back up as the addicts get more hooked, and oil supplies tightened. Why didn’t that happen months ago? On the other hand, political wonks seem to wonder whether this is war by other means, as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and the US oil industries suffer, and they’re seeing this race to the bottom as a beggar-thy-neighbor strategy that has certainly beggared Venezuela and is hurting Russia. The idea is that whoever is the last fly on the dungpile gets to rake it in by cranking prices up. On the gripping hand, environmentalists like Carl Pope are saying that the cheap oil is a sign that people are turning away from it, and that it’s flooding the market because global demand is decreasing. We’ll see which story (or stories) prove(s) to be more right.
Still, the original Hot Earth Dreams story of us blowing all our fossil fuels into the air seems to be–Hallelujah!–wrong. Most of that fossil fuel would have been coal, and it’s probably staying underground unless things get stupidly bad. Unfortunately, we might have woken up the methane monster, which could just easily take coal’s place in trumpeting carbon into the atmosphere. Equally unfortunately, we don’t hear about the role of oil in city reconstruction, military movements, and container shipping so it’s definitely premature to declare that deep decarbonization has happened yet. They’re still thinking we’ll be burning stuff into 2050. Whatever, I’ll probably have to change that story of us burning everything. Life turned out to be more interesting and unpredictable, as life tends to be. Yay!
–Oh, and I probably was wrong about the entire east Antarctic Ice sheet melting entirely. Mostly, yes, but the modeling boffins aren’t showing a total melt-down. So I should probably rejigger my sea-level rise projections. Sigh.
What did I miss for big themes that need big rewrites? One thing I’ll note is that you can still buy the original Hot Earth Dreams, figure out where it’s already outdated, and let me know. I’ve gotten some really good feedback on those typos (thanks especially to Brad), as well as a couple of scientific gaffes on carbon isotopes and possibly meteor impacts that need to be fixed. And that thing in the future languages section. If you find anything else, let me know, and I’ll give you credit in the revision.
Happy Earth Day!
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