Illustration: “Ecocide VI” by Heather Clements
Sun, Jan 6, 2013
by Guy McPherson
American actress Lily Tomlin is credited with the expression, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” With respect to climate science, my own efforts to stay abreast are blown away every week by new data, models, and assessments. It seems no matter how dire the situation becomes, it only gets worse when I check the latest reports.
The response of politicians, heads of non-governmental organizations, and corporate leaders remains the same. They’re mired in the dank Swamp of Nothingness. These are the people who know about, and presumably could do something about, our ongoing race to disaster (if only to sound the alarm). Tomlin’s line is never more germane than when thinking about their pursuit of a buck at the expense of life on Earth.
This essay brings attention to recent projections and positive feedbacks. There is little new here beyond my recent presentations on the subject. Specifically, I presented most of this information at the Bluegrass Bioneers conference (Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock evaluates my presentation here). More recently, I presented an updated version on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. All information and sources are readily confirmed with an online search, and links to information about feedbacks can be found here.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C, 7 C by 2100
International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by
United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
These assessments fail to account for significant self-reinforcing feedback loops (i.e., positive feedbacks, the term that implies the opposite of its meaning). The IPCC’s vaunted Fifth Assessment will continue the trend as it, too, ignores important feedbacks. On a positive note, major assessments fail to account for economic collapse. However, due to the feedback loops presented below, I strongly suspect it’s too late for economic collapse to extend the run of our species.
As pointed out by the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1990, “Beyond 1 degree C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” Planetary instruments indicate Earth has warmed about 1 C since the beginning of the industrial revolution. However, plants in the vicinity of Concord, Massachusetts — where the instrumental record indicates warming of about 1 C — indicate warming of 2.4 C since the 1840s.
Whether you believe the plants or the instruments is irrelevant at the point. We’ve clearly triggered the types of positive feedbacks the United Nations warned about in 1990. Yet my colleagues and acquaintances think we can and will work our way out of this horrific mess with permaculture (which is not to denigrate permaculture, the principles of which are implemented at the mud hut).
Let’s ignore the models for a moment and consider only the results of a single briefing to the United Nations Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP15). Regulars in this space will recall COP15 as the climate-change meetings thrown under the bus by the Obama administration. A footnote on that long-forgotten briefing contains this statement: “THE LONG-TERM SEA LEVEL THAT CORRESPONDS TO CURRENT CO2 CONCENTRATION IS ABOUT 23 METERS ABOVE TODAY’S LEVELS, AND THE TEMPERATURES WILL BE 6 DEGREES C OR MORE HIGHER. THESE ESTIMATES ARE BASED ON REAL LONG TERM CLIMATE RECORDS, NOT ON MODELS.”
In other words, Obama and others in his administration knew near-term extinction of humans was already guaranteed. Even before the dire feedbacks were reported by the scientific community, the Obama administration abandoned climate change as a significant issue because it knew we were done as early as 2009. Rather than shoulder the unenviable task of truth-teller, Obama did as his imperial higher-ups demanded: He lied about collapse, and he lied about climate change. And he still does.
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
Siberian methane vents have increased in size from less than a meter across in the summer of 2010 to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the United States in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Communications, November 2011)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic, too (Nature, August 2012)
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, October 2012)
Exposure to sunlight increases bacterial conversion of exposed soil carbon, thus accelerating thawing of the permafrost (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2013)
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
As nearly as I can distinguish, only the latter feedback process is reversible. Once you pull the tab on the can of beer, there’s no keeping the carbon dioxide from bubbling up and out. Because we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else).
See how far we’ve come
Never mind that American naturalist George Perkins Marsh predicted anthropogenic climate change as a result of burning fossil fuels in 1847. Never mind that climate risks have been underestimated for the last 20 Years, or that the IPCC’s efforts have failed miserably. After all, climate scientist Kevin Anderson tells us what I’ve known for years: politicians and the scientists writing official reports on climate change are lying, and we have less time than most people can imagine. Never mind that even the Atlantic is displaying “five charts about climate change that should have you very, very worried.” Never mind that atmospheric carbon dioxide is affecting satellites. Never mind that even the occasional economic analyst is telling climate scientists to be persuasive, be brave, and be arrested.
Never mind all that: Future temperatures likely will be at the higher end of the projected range because the forecasts are all too conservative and also because climate negotiations won’t avert catastrophe.
Actually, catastrophe is already here, although it’s not widely distributed in the United States. Well, not yet, even though the continental U.S. experienced its highest temperature ever in 2012, shattering the 1998 record by a full degree Fahrenheit. But the east coast of North America experienced its hottest water temperatures all the way to the bottom of the ocean. The epic dust bowl of 2012 grew and grew and grew all summer long. Even James Hansen and Makiko Sato are asking whether the loss of ice on Greenland has gone exponential (while ridiculously calling for a carbon tax to “fix” the “problem”), and the tentative answer is not promising, based on very recent data. And climate change causes early death of 400,000 people each year.
Then see where we’re going
The climate situation is much worse than I’ve led you to believe, and is accelerating far more rapidly than accounted for by models. Ice sheet loss continues to increase at both poles, and warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is twice the earlier scientific estimate. Arctic ice at all-time low, half that of 1980, and the Arctic lost enough sea ice to cover Canada and Alaska in 2012 alone. In short, summer ice in the Arctic is nearly gone. Furthermore, the Arctic could well be free of ice by summer 2015, an event that last occurred some three million years ago, before the genus Homo walked the planet. In a turn surprising only to mainstream climate scientists, Greenland ice is melting rapidly.
Ocean acidification associated with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is proceeding at an unprecedented rate and could trigger mass extinction by itself. Already, half the Great Barrier Reef has died during the last three decades. And ocean acidification is hardly the only threat on the climate-change front. As one little-discussed example, atmospheric oxygen levels are dropping to levels considered dangerous for humans.
An increasing number of scientists agree that warming of 4 to 6 C causes a dead planet. And, they go on to say, we’ll be there by 2060. The ultra-conservative International Energy Agency, on the other hand, concludes that, “coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017 … without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.” At the 11:20 mark of this video, climate scientist Paul Beckwith indicates Earth could warm by 6 C within a decade.
Same-day notification: I’ve posted the following in the Classified section, and bring it to your attention here. I visited this community in July 2012, and I recommend it highly.
Atamai Village: A Resilient Community?
As Guy McPherson has so forcefully summarized in “The twin sides of the fossil fuel coin,” the science has progressed almost as fast as the climate chaos itself. The conclusion from that presentation is that our dear little planet is well on the way to extinguishing all life due to the rapid, unpredictable and non-linear changes we are now witnessing in real time. Projections based on the best current data indicate that life, all life, on planet earth will be extinguished by the middle of this century due to climate chaos – unless some very radical actions are taken on a massive scale.
Planning for Atamai Village began in 2006 with the intention of creating a human settlement that could deal with the challenges presented by climate chaos and energy descent, and all the social and economic implications that were to follow. That was one year prior to the IPCC coming out with its 4th Report identifying human created climate change as a serious issue.
While Atamai Village was well placed to deal with what we understood at the time was going to happen with climate change, Guy’s summary of the current situation means we, along with everyone else, need a major rethink. Our original plan was that we would establish a carbon neutral settlement for some 50 or so families that would see us relatively self-reliant in the same ways that traditional villages were and still are self-reliant. We intended to enhance our resilience by designing the village, based on a traditional model, using best practice permaculture principles.
While we have accomplished much in terms of enhancing our resilience to date, we and everyone else, are in a very different situation than we were a mere 6 years ago. The extinction of all life on the planet is not just another news item (although, interestingly it hasn’t even made the news!) It is as cataclysmic as it gets! It’s not only a big deal it would seem to be THE BIG DEAL and we need to take it seriously. A resilient community in NZ might be a good thing in itself, but it is not going to avert human extinction on its own, or the extinction of all life on the planet.
But we’ve made a start – earlier than most people and groups – and perhaps we have some contribution to make.
What have we accomplished so far?
• Acquired about 120 ha of land.
• Established a farm operation which is producing fruit and vegetables, has laying poultry, sheep and the beginning of a dairy herd.
• Established a community orchard and garden, and planted thousands of utility trees.
• Created ponds and dams and have done a water inventory of the land so we understand what additional resources we can tap into and what our limits are.
• Completed a permaculture design for the overall village, and created individual land sections each of which is able to support at least permaculture zones 0, 1 &2.
• Obtained permission from our local council to create approximately 40 titles for future villagers. Our plan is for at least 50 titles to eventually be available.
• Welcomed 9 families on site now, some housed in previously existing homes, and one in the first new house built to Atamai Building Guideline standards.
• Demonstrated that the Building Guidelines result in a comfortable dwelling that has almost no operating costs, which generates its own power and water and looks after its own wastes.
• Created a cycle path around the village residential area, so that it can function without cars (all paths are no more than a 10 degree incline).
• Created livelihood opportunities for some villagers and have more available for future villagers.
• Initiated a reforestation project that will increase carbon sequestration and provide future villagers with a variety of lumber for a variety of purposes.
• Created a Commons resource, which largely consists of the majority of land available, as well as equipment, tools and infrastructure.
• Created an Incorporated Society to own and manage the Commons collectively.
• Operated the Society on a consensus decision process since 2010.
• Developed a “layered technology” approach to basic services to ensure we have as much control over our essential technologies as possible for basics such as food, water, energy and shelter, while enjoying more sophisticated (and fragile) technologies while they last.
• Established several Working Groups to carry out Society tasks, including a Strategy Group to look at the big picture issues that will determine our future and the future of the planet.
• Created a small community to work together on our uncertain future. We recognize this is not a task to take on alone.
More details about our vision and what we have done so far are available at www.atamaivillage .com
We are under no illusions that what we have done will avert climate chaos, or protect us from the course of mass extinction we are all on. But we do believe we must keep trying to avert this disaster, and that we are better placed than most to work on the Mother of All Projects. As societies continue to falter under the impact of both Climate Chaos and Resource Depletion, everyone’s options to creatively contribute to adaption and appropriate responses will rapidly diminish. Ever increasing necessities and crisis will make it increasingly difficult to adapt. Atamai Village provides a setting of very high resilience that will keep functioning well beyond most other settlements.
In addition to the steps toward resilience described above, we believe we are well placed to work on this project for at least the following reasons:
• We are to a large degree aware of the problems and are attempting to face them honestly and squarely.
• We have actually made a start – and we have been at it for 6 years and given considerable thought to many aspects of the adaptations that are likely to be necessary, and researched how to approach many of the challenges we will be facing, and implemented them in our plans and built infrastructure
• We are in the Southern Hemisphere, where the impact of climate chaos will take longer than in the Northern Hemisphere – so we may have a few more years to work on these challenges than elsewhere.
• We have gathered people with a variety of skills and interests that are likely to be relevant to work on the challenges ahead.
• We are prepared to adapt our approaches to deal with the realities that are actually confronting us as they unfold.
• We are purposely disseminating and sharing what we have learned and what we might learn with our further attempts to deal with these challenges.
We fully recognize that humanity’s chances of collectively avoiding massive dieoff are low. But we believe there is both a moral and practical imperative in trying.
We intend to give it our best shot and invite anyone who feels they can make a tangible contribution to our efforts – with finances, with creativity and intelligence, with sweat and effort – to step forward and get on with it.
Send us your ideas and tell us about yourself, and ask any questions about how we are proceeding. http://www.atamaivillage.com/contact
Many of you clearly understand the challenges that our world faces. Often that realization is accompanied by despair. An antidote to the despair that I have discovered is Action. My wife and I have been working full-time these past 14 years to create a sustainable existence on some beautiful land in Southern Utah … we raise our own veggies, herbs, fruit and animals for meat. We forage and hunt. We fix or rig everything ourselves. We repurpose things from the dump. We engage with the local community by selling and sharing our food, hosting musical events and workshops, showing movies in the barn and offering a tool library. We live very happily in these troubled times. I think the model we have created is similar to what Guy has been working on at the Mud Hut.
We have come to realize that the knowledge that we have gained these past years is starting to be sought by many so we have decided to offer a 7-month Apprenticeship for 2 people starting this April. It will be all-inclusive and cost $7,500. I wish we could offer it for free but I still do engage in the cash economy and know many do have the means to pay.
The nature of coming here to live, work and learn is intimate so there is no room for a lot of personal baggage … we are not therapists. We approach this work from a point of hope for the future, not despair for the past and present. You need to be in good physical condition but do not need to have any experience in Homesteading.
We will interview applicants to try to ensure that the chemistry will work between us. We encourage you to check references from folks who have worked for us in the past and we will ask you for personal references. Please check out the Apprenticeship Website at http://sustainableapprenticeship.weebly.com/
Scott and Brynn Brodie
Owners, Red House Farm