Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Truth is flooding out?

I don't know what's your impression; maybe I am biased, but I have this feeling of an acceleration, of something that's boiling up in people's minds. More and more people are entering the fray; and they are doing it forcefully and with strong arguments. And not just scientists: people with different backgrounds and abilities are coming forward. The latest one I stumbled upon is Gaius Publius; again not a climate scientist. It is very well written and an example of how to communicate the danger of climate change. Is truth finally flooding out?

The climate crisis in three easy charts

I’m preparing to pivot back to climate crisis, starting with some reformatting of the earlier Climate Series posts — the transition to WordPress wasn’t kind to them — and the organization of this material into book form. (There’s also a climate-themed novel in the works; thriller fans, stay tuned.)
As a result, I’m doing serious study to refine both the concepts (or rather, the explanation of them) and the dating of coming events (the crisis in its various stages).

The first part of that pivot includes two media appearances this week. I’ll be on Virtually Speaking With Jay Ackroyd this Thursday (May 2) at 9 pm ET to discuss climate crisis for a full hour, followed by a Sunday appearance with Avedon Carol as part of the Virtually Speaking Sundays weekly media panel.
It’s the climate discussion I want to focus on here, and I’d like to do it by focusing on three diagrams and a few references back to my earlier climate pieces.

Climate catastrophe will usher in a new geologic era

Long-scale earth history is divided into Eons, then Eras, then Periods. But in fact, prior to the Cambrian Period, when life on earth exploded in number and variety, earth history is the story of non-life or small single- or multi-celled life. And starting with the Cambrian period, there’s just one “eon” anyway. It’s eras and periods we care about.

So let’s start there, with the Cambrian Period and the flourishing of life on earth. Consider the chart below:

The divisions across the top are geologic periods, starting with the Cambrian (“Cm”), the period of “visible life”‘ — meaning a proliferation of hardshelled species. It’s the big explosion of life on earth. The numbers across the bottom are millions of years ago. The spikes show extinction events, with the percentage of marine species going extinct expressed on the vertical or Y axis.
The chart doesn’t call them out, but starting with the Cambrian period, we’ve had three geologic eras (the larger divisions):

Paleozoic Era — “old life”
Mesozoic Era — “middle life” or the Age of Reptiles (dino days)
Cenozoic Era — “new life” or the Age of Mammals (including us)

The Paleozoic Era runs from the start of the graph to the big spike at 250 million years ago on the X axis. It encompasses six geologic periods and ended in the greatest mass extinction event on the planet — geologists call it the “Great Dying”.

The Mesozoic Era runs from the Great Dying at 250 million years ago to the big spike at 65 million years ago, the event that wiped out the dinosaurs — and every other large species. That cleared the way for mammals to grow big and thrive.

We’re now in the Cenozoic Era. Keep those transitions in mind — when mass extinctions change which groups of species can evolve and rule, it’s the end of an era and the start of another. Now look at the chart again. The whole chart shows 540 million years, and just three geologic eras. The next extinction event on the scale of the one at 250 million years ago, or the one at 65 million years ago, will change the shape of life on earth and usher in a new era. Ready for that?

[Update: For a chart that shows geologic eras, periods and their subdivisions in one place, click here. Opens in a new tab.]

Where does man fit in?

Great question — where does man fit in? Answer: We come in very late.
First, notice the last three geologic “periods” at the top-right in the chart above. The period marked “K” is the Cretaceous, the period at the end of the Mesozoic Era. The next period (“Pg”) is the Paleogene, the one that marks the start of the Cenozoic (new life) Era. The period after that (“N”) is the Neogene, which ended just 2 million years ago. The period after that, not shown, is the Quarternary Period, our current one.

The Neogene-Quarternary boundary is the start of the time of great glaciers, and the best way to show that is with the chart below, showing earth temperatures mapped across the geologic periods (at the left end) and geologic epochs (the rest of the chart).
Click here to open the full version in another tab. It’s a big, interesting chart. (Source here.)

First, get oriented. On the Y axis is global temperature using change — in °C — from global temperature in the year 1800 as the norm or zero mark. (The global pre–Industrial Revolution temperature is generally the mark from which other global temperatures are measured, unless otherwise noted. To convert from °C to °F, just double the number; you’ll be pretty close.)
On the X axis, the first big division — from 542 million years ago to 65 million years ago — represents the first two geologic eras, the Paleozoic and Mesozoic (which unfortunately aren’t called out on this chart). “K” at the top and bottom is still the Cretaceous Period, and the end of the Cretaceous Period is also the end of the dinos and the end of the Mesozoic Era.

In this respect, both charts are the same. Man hasn’t showed up yet — our mammal ancestors were the equivalent of field mice in that world, small prey with soft shells and hiding skills.

But before we look at the rest of the X axis, notice that in the left-most part of the chart, the Y axis shows a huge change in global temperature relative to pre-Industrial norms. Looks like a monster spike, especially the first one, doesn’t it?

The Cambrian temperature spike is 6–8°C (about 11–14°F) higher than pre-Industrial levels. It’s also the temperature we’re headed for by 2100.
But let’s not get distracted. Let’s set some markers in this chart in the horizontal (time) dimension. The whole rest of the chart — the part after the period called “K” — shows the  Cenozoic Era (“new life” or Age of Mammals).

From here to the right, the chart’s subdivisions show Epochs, which are sub-parts of Periods.

[Update: For a chart that shows the relationship between eras, periods and epochs, click here. it will help you stay oriented.]

Jump through the next five divisions — the epochs marked “Pal” through “Pliocene”. That takes you through the Neogene Period (“N” in the first chart) and to the start of the modern Quarternary Period, the one we’re in, and the one we’re interested in.

The epoch of the Pleistocene, which starts the Quarternary Period (again, see the chart), is the great age of glaciers. Homo habilis evolves at this time, a little over 2 million years ago. Homo erectus evolves shortly afterward. Each starts in Africa — now you can probably guess why — and each leaves Africa and spreads across the globe. (Homo erectus, by the way, lasts a long time on this earth. Longer than us by a lot.)

Homo sapiens evolved much later, in the Pleistocene — the age of glaciers, remember — just 250 thousand years ago, almost died out in Africa, but rebuilt our numbers, then spread out of Africa like our cousins. Because that was the glacier age, we’re still hunter-gatherers like the the rest of our cousins. The big beasts of the earth are creatures like woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, and we’re all alive on a fairly frozen planet with glaciers coming and going.

At the end of the Pleistocene is another extinction event. At the same time that the last glaciers recede (see chart), the big mammoths and tigers (et al) die off. Simultaneous with a noticeable change in climate, what we call “human civilization” begins. You can see that above, around 12–10 thousand years ago [corrected] as the planetary temperature stabilizes. From then until almost now, planetary temperature is pretty stable. Notice it doesn’t take much of a wobble to mark the “Little Ice Age”.

Just two more points to make in this piece and I’m done.

First the bad news

Folks, that little climb in temperature you see near the right end of the graph above is just the beginning. Remember the Cambrian spike at the left end of the graph? Take another look and note the increase — about 7°C. Now here’s Figure 21 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis, a report prepared by … oh … every single one of the world’s top climate scientists for the benefit of our world’s “leaders,” who met in 2009 to discuss how to pass the climate buck one more time:
What you see is temperatures from 500 AD to about 2000, with a number of prediction scenarios going forward. See the scenario called “A1FI”? It’s the one in red. That’s the one we’re on if we don’t stop spewing carbon. I call it the “do nothing” scenario — otherwise known as the “Keep David Koch Happy” scenario.
All you need to know? We’re on track for about +7°C — the peak temperature in the big Cambrian spike — by the year 2100.

Now the good news

Despite all this doom-and-gloom, it’s not over yet. Truly. By my calculation, we have a 5–10 year window to avoid the catastrophe. It won’t be easy — we’re past the point where any transition will be smooth — but we can make the transition and survive as a civilized species, humans in a recognizable world.
But two things are needed:
  1. This has to be our top priority, which means you and everyone you know has to be fully aware and in full battle gear. (For reference, it’s called “hugging the monster.”)
  2. It’s us vs. David Koch and all of his friends and enablers. Tackling any other enemy is tackling a dummy while the game is being played.
Educate your friends, and put a wrench into the Koch machine. How’s that not a plus?

If the Koch Bros keep getting rich, we move backward. If Barack “Hope & Change” Obama approves Keystone, we move backward. If the U.S. develops “domestic oil” resources, we move backward. For every new car (“carbon-delivery system”) sold, we move backward. People need to know this and think like this. We can stop the crisis, but only if we stop carbon. It’s that simple; and that stark.

But it’s also doable, and we’re the species that’s most equiped for “doable.” It’s what our big brains are for.

I’ll have more in the weeks and months ahead. I haven’t given up, not by a long shot. But you can’t pull out of a tail spin if you don’t admit you’re in one. Me, I think we can pull out.

[Updated for clarity and to correct two typographic errors, one in naming and one in the age of our species. We're 250 thousand years old, not 250 million. Also updated to add links to a chart showing all eras, periods and epochs in relationship to each other.]


  1. I like the three charts but I like the last couple of paragraphs of the post even better. All the way from "but two things are needed" through to "it's what our big brains are for".

    Regrettably I don't think that David Koch and Fox Channel and etc. (i.e. "all his friends and enablers") are the only enemy. There are others and they have many tentacles in many places. But it's good to start going after the known and proven enemies. (nothing personal mind you, but we are not going to let you destroy OUR biosphere even if you are stupid enough to not understand that you will be destroying yourself too for a fistful of paper dollars and a baloney life)

  2. "...I have this feeling of an acceleration, of something that's boiling up in people's minds. More and more people are entering the fray; and they are doing it forcefully and with strong arguments."

    I think I have that feeling too...
    But I wonder if it because "the truth is flooding out" (ie, gaining acceptance with a wider population), or whether it is because those that already know the truth have realized that this may be the last opportunity to enter the fray (ie, the small minority is becoming more vociferous)?

    Quoting Michael Mann:
    "Everything I have experienced since then has gradually convinced me that my former viewpoint was misguided."

    I suppose either case is an improvement, however the former case would be better than the latter...

  3. Ugo, even if I am sharing with you the impression of an increasing number of people aware of such issues related to climate change and, more generally, on sustainable development and life, the comparison with a flood is too big for me. I prefer using an atmospheric comparison, and I think that the actual situation is comparable just to a small breeze. Better than nothing, but nothing more. For a breeze to become a hurricane, there is still a lot of bread to eat...

    1. Sorry, I do not know why I appear as "prova" in previous comment. I am Claudio Cassardo.

  4. As much as I agree that the Kochs of this world and their bribed politicians are the archetypal 'Greedy Lying Bastards' who are doing their best to promote doubt and denial about climate science, the fact remains that almost all of us are happily buying what they sell, and can't live without it. The world is powered by fossil fuels, and everything else is small fry. This gives us two problems:

    First, we can't simply choose to stop or drastically curtail fossil fuel use without crashing the world economy and probably having a few billion people die of starvation, thirst, disease, conflict and so on.

    Second, fossil fuels are finite and heading for decline anyway.

    I know you know all this, but my point is that it makes it really hard to know what to campaign for. We can see the problem but I'm not at all sure there's a painless way out of it. If by some miracle everyone on the planet learned what was happening and had a religious conversion to wanting to live a low-impact lifestyle, we could certainly save significant amounts of carbon emissions by reducing discretionary travel, turning off our TVs, turning down the central heating thermostat etc., but with the best will in the world, we still need massive amounts of fossil fuels to run civilisation's infrastructure - the food supply chain, factories for essentials, water supplies, sanitation, emergency services... quite a long list of things we can't reasonably do without. Even substantially reduced anthropogenic emissions would still be vastly more rapid than the geological processes which lock away carbon in the Earth's crust, so our emissions would accumulate in the climate system and we'd still have the same climate disruption, just a bit later.

    It would be nice to think that 'renewables' are the answer. Of course the energy gathered is inexhaustible (sunlight, wind, wave etc.) but the resources we use to gather that energy are finite, and the energy is much more diffuse and much less convenient than fossil fuels. At the moment, all the 'renewable' energy infrastructure we're building is being done with fossil fuel energy - can we ever rely on solar panels and wind turbines to entirely power the factories making solar panels and wind turbines? It's not clear to me that we can (and of course there is also the location of raw materials, mining, transport, refining, transport of finished products, installation, repair, dismantling, recycling... pretty much every part of that is powered by fossil fuel energy). I don't know of any analysis showing that renewables can ever possibly supply all of the energy we use today to run civilisation *and* renew themselves as well. I worry that renewables are a dead end, and a waste of resources.

    In any case, ever more studies are showing that it's already too late for emissions reductions alone to avert massive climate disruption. We need active sequestration of CO2 from the free atmosphere to quickly reduce and eliminate the planetary energy imbalance and stop global warming before nature takes over and runs away from us, which could be in as little as 50 years. What method and resources are we going to use for this sequestration, which would have to be on the order of 100 billion tons of CO2 per year? What energy source are we going to use to power it? Obviously not fossil fuels, and surely not renewables.

    So, what's the 'doable' answer? What radical changes do I demand in my letter to my Member of Parliament? What will actually be (a) technically possible, (b) effective, and (c) tolerated by the electorate who are in love with freedom of travel, iPads, big screen TV, central heating and air conditioning etc.?