Matter of Degrees: How Hot It Gets Still Depends on Us

By Andrew Leonard

Author’s prologue The interviews for this story were all conducted prior to the 2016 presidential election, at a time when the likely outcome appeared quite different. One of the sources was so certain about what would transpire on Election Day that he referred several times to “President Clinton’s energy plan.” The “other option,” he noted, was “so unattractive” as to not bear thinking about. For climate change activists, no truer words could be spoken. The actions taken by President Barack Obama’s administration to tackle climate change now appear to be in great jeopardy. The conclusion of this article—that there is a viable path forward to mitigate the worst possible impacts of climate change—still holds, but at this point it does not seem likely that a Trump administration and a Republican Congress will follow that path.

As I walk into her office, Inez Fung is staring at a huge flat-screen monitor jam-packed with columns of data and software code.

“What do the numbers mean?” I ask, hoping the answer will shed some timely light on Fung’s research into climate change.

She shrugs. “You don’t want to know.”

It’s not immediately clear whether she is implying that the story told by the data is too scary to share, or too complicated to explain to a layperson. The answer that emerges over the course of our conversation seems to be a little of both.

Fung has spent her career exploring how carbon dioxide generated by human activity circulates through our planet’s atmosphere oceans, and land-based ecologies. The numbers on the flat screen represent the state of the art: data gathered by an orbital satellite launched in 2014 that measures emissions with unprecedented precision. Along with her graduate student Stephanie Wuerth, Fung can now track exactly where emissions are being generated and where those emissions end up.

The research will be useful, she explains, for policy efforts aimed at mitigating climate change. The better we are able to pinpoint where emissions come from, the better we’ll know whether emitters are meeting their commitments to reduce them.

The data will also help answer much larger questions. While the basic physics of how greenhouse gas emissions contribute to higher temperatures have long been accepted by the vast majority of climate researchers, serious uncertainties remain. For example, the best guess is that right now, every year, the ocean absorbs about 25 percent of all new CO2 emissions. But what if the ocean reaches saturation and its capacity to absorb CO2 suddenly stops? Existing forecasts of how hot it will get will have to be radically readjusted.

And maybe that’s the part I don’t want to know? Because even without a new worst-case scenario, Fung is pessimistic (or perhaps just realistic) about the world meeting the goals it has already agreed to in treaties, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement in which governments pledged to hold global warming to 1.5 (or, at worst 2) degrees Celsius over the historical average.

“The Paris Agreement is important to get us to slow down,” says Fung. “But with what we have already put in the atmosphere … 2 degrees is gone. Even if you slow down current emissions, overall emissions are still increasing. That’s how things work, and the land and ocean cannot remove that CO2 fast enough.”

“I have a knot in my stomach all the time,” says Inez Fung. “I’ve been alarmed since the 1980s.”

The gloomy assessment made me think that the life of a climate scientist must be a kind of anxiety minefield and towards the end of our interview, I ask Fung if her research has affected the way she goes about daily life. “I have a knot in my stomach all the time,” she says. “I’ve been alarmed since the 1980s.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you may feel sick to your stomach as well.

As of this writing, 2016 is on track to become the hottest year since modern temperature records have been kept. Meanwhile, glaciers and ice sheets the world over are melting and sea level is rising inexorably. We can’t stop these changes altogether, and even slowing the pace of change will require efforts on a scale humanity has never attempted. If that doesn’t distress you, it should.

For this story, I traipsed back and forth across the UC Berkeley campus, interviewing a half-dozen scientists, public health specialists, engineers, and economists about the current realities and future prospects of climate change. Honestly, I expected to quail before an unrelenting litany of doom, but the message I heard was more nuanced. The future may look grim, but it isn’t set in stone. And amid all the sobering statistics, there is still cause for hope.

My interview subjects repeatedly reminded me that Barack Obama’s landmark 2014 achievement in getting China to agree with the U.S. to limit emissions—an essential preliminary step necessary for making the Paris Agreement possible—may end up being his most important legacy as president. And just a few days after I began my reporting, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an extraordinarily ambitious slate of climate-change legislation. At the same time, solar and wind power are being deployed at accelerating rates and a future where electric cars are the norm seems more likely every day.

There is, I was told, a roadmap for us to follow: Keep fossil fuels in the ground; restructure the global economy around a carbon price that properly penalizes emissions; and invest in the basic science necessary for new technological breakthroughs.

That said, no one sugar-coated the overall challenge. There’s no getting around it: The world will get warmer and people will suffer.

In 2004*, glaciologist Kurt Cuffey chartered a plane to fly over Alaska and get a firsthand look at the local glaciers. He recounted his observations for the San Francisco Chronicle in an article that is still pinned next to his office door. “It is quite stunning to see how the vast majority of glaciers have retreated and thinned substantially,” he wrote.

I sought Cuffey out because I wanted to confirm something Inez Fung had told me: That in the past five years climate change has been accelerating faster than scientists had previously forecast, and the most obvious proof of this could be found in Earth’s diminishing cryosphere.

He concurred.

“The big glaciers which drain the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets out to the ocean have started to flow faster,” said Cuffey, “and that’s transferring more ice out to the edges where they become icebergs, and that contributes to sea-level rise.”

So what’s next, I wondered? What happens in a world where we hold warming to a 2 degree Celsius rise? And what happens if we don’t, and temperatures spike by, say, 4 degrees C?

When climate activists talk about keeping the rise in temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C (or 2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the numbers may seem trivial to people who are used to experiencing vastly larger shifts in a single day. But to a climate scientist, even these small differences have huge, potentially catastrophic implications.

“The difference between 2 degrees C and 4 degrees C is enormous,” said Cuffey.

“You absolutely don’t want to be defeatist,” Kurt Cuffey admonished. “If, over the next several decades, we reduce the rate that we are sending carbon fossil fuel into the atmosphere by shifting energy production to solar and wind and nuclear, we could probably limit further warming to a degree.”

At 2 degrees, mountain glaciers in the Rockies, the Alps, and the Andes will be gone, he said. Melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica will contribute to accelerated sea-level rise, perhaps as much as a foot by the end of this century. But at 4 degrees, said Cuffey, “you are getting dangerously close to a situation where all these big ice shelves around the mainland of Anarctica would be warm enough during summers that they would disintegrate.” At that point, even Himalayan glaciers would disappear, said Cuffey, and sea level could “easily” rise by 10 to 20 meters.

“The difference in the moral and ethical imperative,” said Cuffey, “between keeping the planet to a warming of 2 degrees versus keeping it to 4 degrees or 6 degrees is a very strong one.”

Mindful of Fung’s pronouncement that 2 degrees is “gone,” I asked Cuffey whether he thought it realistic to think we could avoid hitting 4 degrees.

“You absolutely don’t want to be defeatist,” he admonished. “If, over the next several decades, we reduce the rate that we are sending carbon fossil fuel into the atmosphere by shifting energy production to solar and wind and nuclear, we could probably limit further warming to a degree.” Doing nothing would be like finding you had cancer and simply watching it “take over your body” and destroy your vital organs.

“I think if there is one thing that’s more cause for optimism than anything else,” Cuffey said, “it’s that the technologies and economics for alternative energy seem to be improving rapidly. California is definitely leading the way on climate change, and I think it’s a great thing.”

SB 32, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on September 8, commits the state to lower its emissions to 40 percent under 1990 levels by 2030. It builds on a bill Brown signed in 2015 that will require California’s electrical utilities to get 50 percent of their power from renewable sources, also by 2030, not to mention other climate change legislation dating back to 2006.

These laws work. In 2015, 26 percent of California’s retail electricity came from renewable sources, up from just shy of 12 percent in 2009. Considering that the state is the fifth-largest economy in the world, that is no small achievement.

In their offices at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Inez Fung and Kurt Cuffey spend their days trying figure out how climate is changing the planet. Meanwhile, over at the School of Public Health, Kirk Smith worries about the welfare of the human beings who live on it.

“The mantra in the climate business,” said Smith, a professor of global environmental health, “is that there are three things you can do: there’s mitigation—stopping the emissions, or capturing them. There is adaptation—getting yourself ready, building dikes and air-conditioned buildings and so forth. And then there’s suffering.” Don’t do enough of the first two, and all that’s left is the pain.

Smith has devoted his professional life to improving public health in the developing world. His particular focus has been on air pollution, a problem that has been easier to tackle than climate change. When the air is unbreathable, governments feel pressure to take action. Climate change poses a knottier problem, because the worst impacts are yet to come, and humans, said Smith, are generally not very good at dealing with threats more likely to be faced by their grandchildren than themselves. Solving “the foresight problem,” he said, requires thinking about how to “bring the future backwards so people can see it.”

Smith’s most recent strategy: confront the world with the looming end of the Summer Olympics. Right smack in the middle of the Rio Olympics, Smith co-authored a paper published in The Lancet arguing that as the planet keeps warming, it will become more and more dangerous to hold athletic events during the heat of the summer. By 2085, according to the paper, only three cities in North America would be plausible hosts of a Summer Olympiad—San Francisco, Calgary, and Vancouver. (For obvious reasons, the Winter Games are even more problematic.)

The paper made a splash, but it was a Trojan horse. The health of elite athletes and potential disappointment of spectators was not Smith’s primary concern. He’s more worried about the wellbeing of the people who build the stadiums and grow the food that athletes eat. More than half the world’s labor force works outdoors, he reminds me, in construction and agriculture.

“The problem is that this all has to be driven by policy,” says Long. Until markets are set up to give investors real incentives to fund research into climate solutions, Long said, “there is no business reason to do this.”

A hotter world could lead one of two outcomes. Either workers are forced to labor in dangerous conditions, resulting in disability or death, or the work simply doesn’t get done, meaning a “loss of productivity that will be the single biggest economic impact of climate change.”

“Climate change,” concluded Smith, “is the most regressive tax in human history. The poor get the worst hit.”

Still, Smith is not a pessimist. He’s seen vast improvements in global public health over the course of his career, including enormous gains in the standard of living of people in China, India, and Africa. It’s obvious to him that humans can make a positive difference in their environment.

It won’t be as simple as rescheduling marathons for the middle of winter, but neither is it without a solution. “It will be difficult,” he says. “But not technically impossible.”

What exactly is technically possible? I sought out Jeffrey Long, a professor of biomolecular engineering with joint appointments at UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy–funded Center for Gas Separations. I was looking for someone who might be able to answer a nagging question: Can the kinds of technology that got us into this predicament also help get us out of it?

Long’s lab specializes in the creation of materials known as “metal organic frameworks” (MOFs), compounds characterized by a porous sponge-like structure that will let some gas molecules pass through while trapping others. MOFs could become a crucial tool for capturing CO2 emissions at the source.

Long envisions a future in which devices made out of his lab’s new materials are installed in smokestack flues. The single largest producer of CO2 emissions, he pointed out, are power plants that burn coal. Replacing them with renewable energy sources will take decades, but added “we just don’t have decades where we can keep emitting CO2.”

Using MOFs, harmless gases could be allowed to pass while CO2 molecules would be trapped and absorbed for eventual sequestering—stored away, perhaps in depleted oil wells or aquifers, a technological challenge in its own right. The critical advantage of such a technology, said Long, is that, in theory, it could be deployed at much lower cost than currently available methods of carbon capture.

But the path from basic science to breakthrough technology is a lengthy one.

“Getting this from a lab bench to a power plant takes a lot of time,” said Long. While he and some former students have successfully founded a startup to commercialize the technology, it’s hard to attract funding for projects that can take a decade to mature, and with no sure-fire market for the product when it’s ready. Without the right regulatory structure in place, getting power plant operators to focus on carbon capture at the expense of their bottom line is an uphill battle.

“The problem is that this all has to be driven by policy,” says Long. Until markets are set up to give investors real incentives to fund research into climate solutions, Long said, “there is no business reason to do this.”

The day after I spoke with Jeffrey Long, I met Tamma Carleton, a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, for coffee near North Gate. Carleton and her adviser, Solomon Hsiang, had just published in Science a massive review of recent research linking climate to a vast array of current social and economic impacts.

Hsiang, only 32 years old, has already built a formidable reputation for using computational analysis of large data sets to make predictions about the probable effects of rising temperatures. His findings show that, as the mercury climbs, economic inequality will increase, violent conflicts will spread, and the migration crisis will grow.

What made the recent Science paper different, Carleton told me, was that it covered impacts that are already being felt—everything from the effect of rainfall on land invasions in Brazil to increasing mortality rates in India.

“There is a lot of work out there on how much your grandchildren are going to suffer in a variety of different ways,” said Carleton. “We really wanted to drive home the fact that climate matters a lot right now.”

It may sound depressing, but Carleton finds her work invigorating.

She said that the ability to measure climate impacts with greater economic and statistical precision means that it is now possible to calculate a real “social cost of carbon”—to put a clear, quantitatively rigorous price tag on the impact of every unit of carbon dioxide loosed in the atmosphere.

As we begin our interview, Dan Kammen, the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at Berkeley, unrolls a poster for a global warming documentary called Time to Choose on the table between us.

Kammen is an executive producer of the documentary, which was co-written and directed by Cal alum and Academy Award–winner Charles Ferguson. So it’s no surprise that he endorses its “we can do this” message. What is surprising is how forcefully he makes the case.

“Things are changing much faster than the skeptics and naysayers think,” said Kammen. “Price changes in solar are transformative. A mixture of solar and wind, sustainable biofuels if that’s possible, plus sustainable, more distributed hydro, plus very large amounts of energy storage—an area that is innovating as fast today as solar was at its peak—is a very interesting cocktail that gets us quite far along….”

While in one breath he concedes that “we’re behind schedule as a global community today,” in the next he reminds that, “what is critical is the rate of improvement.”

One of the things Kammen’s lab studies is the rate of innovation in renewable energy technologies. How quickly are improvements in energy efficiency occurring? How fast is battery storage expanding? How speedily is the cost/benefit ratio for carbon capture improving?

To hold warming to 2 degrees, he says, we need to improve energy efficiency by 2 percent a year. Every year, in other words, the amount of energy we would need to achieve a given task—cooling a house, driving to the grocery store, washing our clothes—needs to drop by 2 percent.

The world currently averages an energy improvement rate of about 1 percent a year, said Kammen. That’s not enough, clearly. But California improved energy efficiency at a rate of 4 percent a year for an entire decade, Kammen stresses. And China achieved a rate of 5 percent over a similar time frame. It’s doable—if governments are determined to lead. But it would help—a lot—if markets were structured to encourage the trend.

Economists believe that if consumers are forced to pay extra for carbon-intensive products they will swiftly redirect their purchases towards cheaper alternatives, or otherwise conserve on their energy consumption. With a little nudging of the market, the global economy will start lumbering in the right direction.

Of course, there are some potentially disturbing implications to the idea of a carbon-priced world. For example, it’s possible to imagine a future in which goods like airline travel, beef, and air-conditioning—already luxury items in much of the world—could be priced out of reach for all but the rich.

Kammen’s hope is that the innovations spurred by correctly structured market incentives will help us escape that bottleneck. But in the end, no matter what we do, the poor will bear the brunt of it. “We are already committed to a lot of climate change and the saddest part of the story is not that we could have avoided it by acting sooner, but that the poor who have the least voice will suffer the most.”

He pauses, looks down at the table and the Time to Choose poster.

“We can do it,” he says. “But there will be a lot of suffering along the way.” 

Andrew Leonard is a Bay Area journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and Salon, where he was on staff for many years.

* Editor’s note: In the print version of this story, the sentence reads: “In 2004, when there was still a raging debate over whether or not climate change was real… .” It has been removed here because it is inaccurate. Certainly, in 2004, the topic of global warming was as controversial as it is now. And, then as now, many scientific uncertainties remained concerning the details. (See for example, our reporting in 2011, on Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s Earth Surface Temperature Project which scrutinized the reliability of the modern temperature record.) By 2004, it is fair to say that climate change had become a political lightning rod; however, there was no “raging debate” among climate scientists as to whether or not climate change was real, as evidenced by the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which delivered its Third Assessment Report in 2001. As for Dr. Muller, a year after we reported on his skeptical review of the temperature record, he wrote this op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic.” 

From the Winter 2016 Reality Bites issue of California.
Image source: Marcus Hanschen
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Comments

A very well written and important article. Nice job. It is very timely given the current alarming choice to head the EPA.
That was a very good scientific news.
Perhaps what is needed for more public exposure to this information is something like: *Reduce the complexity of the information to a point that most people can understand… *Use those personal pictures of those involved with the story… *Try to distribute it to comprehensive media sources, NY Times, Washington Post, Popular Blogs… *Make it easy for people to comment on the information…
Interesting article but ….. Has it occurred to you that there is even some remote possibility that virtually everything in this article, in the way of gloom and doom conclusions, is basically utter nonsense? Have you considered the possibility of these people being wrong in their predictions? Kick back for just a moment and look again at your prologue. All the geniuses were sure about political outcomes too, right? President Clinton. Hmmm. Kind of missed there, didn’t we. Have you considered the possibility that there is nothing actually going wrong with the climate? Maybe, just maybe, those up and down fluctuations are actually necessary for the survival of the planet’s living organisms? One thing Berkeley taught me was to question highfalutin conclusions by people who first assume their conclusions and then launch on a crusade to prove them. The doom and gloom predictions about icebergs all melting and us being underwater by several years ago turned out to be wrong. Storm strengths have weakened instead of strengthened. The earth has been much, much warmer in the past than now and yet …. omigosh, the planet is still here and doing quite well, thank you.
Yet again….another article on global warming where, unless I somehow missed it, no one mentioned the impact the food we choose to put onto our plates has. It is my understanding that the single biggest contributor to global warming is animal agriculture, especially beef production. Bigger than all forms of transportation combined. Guess no one wants to look into the mirror and point the finger at themselves. Eliminating meat from our diets has an immediate effect and zero cost. I would think this should have been mentioned in the article. This message needs to be sent, again and again.
It must be emphasized that a most important special issue of CALIFORNIA was the Sept-Oct 2006 “Global Warning” issue produced by our most excellent J-School journalists: http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-gl... Most alarmingly, the extremely valuable information and grave warnings in this issue seem to have been overlooked even by Berkeley environmentalists. This failure must be corrected with the greatest sense of urgency because 10 years have now gone by and we are still falling to overcome the problems highlighted in the “Can We Adapt in Time?” cover story, a failure that threatens the long-term future quality of life for the human race more than any other threat to our civilization today. This is especially threatening because of 2016 political events where new powers that be in Washington appear to be ready, willing and able to turn our planet into another Mars, proving that we have all failed to achieve a successful civilization that demands communications skills that our J-School journalists have, cooperation, truth and morality, and time is running out.
Contrary to the concern expressed by Anthony St. John, I am greatly encouraged by the results of the recent presidential election. The maximum temperatures that will be reached in this current inter-glacial cycle may not depend much at all on the presence of human activity. We may have changed the slope of the average temperature curve, but that does not equate to changing the maximum height. We may simply reach the maximum a little bit sooner. Furthermore, common sense should tell us that we could adapt by moving around. Northern Canada is still quite cold. Look at Northern Russia where temperatures often go way below zero. Vacation now in Antaractica? I think not. We may present a problem or two as a species but perhaps our biggest problem is stubborness. Refusal to adapt is going to hurt us. Why must Nature - which has been changing for hundreds of millions of years - suddenly sit still and cater to our every whim? Want to change man’s activities to make the clash a bit softer? Encourage people to have way fewer babies until we reduce the world’s population to a couple billion or less to facilitate gradual migrations that adapt to weather/temperature changes.
Anthony, you do realize, don’t you, that the 400 ppm measurement was based on a few spot measurements by one method and that the consensus level measured over wider areas and using multiple techniques is around 350 ppm. I don’t recall the exact source of that but I read the details a while back. If you take the measurements right next to certain manufacturing plants you can get quite high levels.
Actually, Anthony, your own source has a map showing information that looks very much like what I saw somewhere else. Take a look at http://climate.nasa.gov/news/2530/nasa-releases-eye-popping-view-of-carb... The average is more like 350 ppm and if you go to Antarctica, you will be lucky to find any levels above 325. You need to take a more critical look at your own sources.
Richard, we keep proving that the Pogo quote on the 1971 Earth Day poster is still right: “We have met the enemy and he is us” is still correct. I still stand by my December 31, 2016 comment which applies to academics as well as the new political powers that be in Washington. No wonder deniers are so confused.
In response to Carolyn Murphy, the article does mention beef, but only in passing, as an item that would become more expensive under a carbon cost adjustment. You’re right that animal agriculture, and particularly beef production, is a major contributor to global warming, but it is not the leading cause. Fossil fuel combustion leads the way by a long shot. For more on that, see: https://www.skepticalscience.com/how-much-meat-contribute-to-gw.html
In response to Richard Power’s first comment above, (Have you considered the possibility of these people being wrong in their predictions?) the simple answer is ‘yes.’ In the Editor’s Note, in fact, you’ll see that we highlighted our previous reporting on the work of Berkeley physicist and erstwhile climate change skeptic (that’s ‘skeptic’ in the best sense) Richard Muller, who scrutinized the modern temperature data and ultimately found it sound. … Of course, we should all hope that the alarm over the climate proves unfounded, but it would be complete folly to act as if that were a certainty. As the old saying goes, “Trust in God, but steer away from the rocks.”
Pat Joseph, as long as you do the steering with your money, not mine, that’s fine. But when my tax dollars get wasted on this foolishness, then I’m concerned.
In response to both Carolyn Murphy and Pat Joseph, I see that both of you are quite willing to destroy other people’s lives to pursue your unproven theories. The contribution of cattle to climate is so miniscule you practically need a microscope to see it. But each of you would quite willingly advocate and enable the trashing of the entire cattle industry in this country to put your unproven theories into practice. And I bet neither of you has figured out yet why the heart of this country just elected Mr. Trump.
Richard Power, it’s “our” money, not yours or mine, and neither of us has any direct say in how it’s spent. As for wasted dollars… whatever one thinks about climate change, we will run out of fossil fuels eventually and had better start the energy transition now. There’s a cost involved in that, sure, but there’s also opportunity. … All that aside, your starting point, that concern over global warming is “foolishness” is itself foolhardy.
Well, the chart I linked to showed livestock agriculture as 5% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, (primarily methane). Five percent is hardly microscopic. I didn’t say anything about “trashing the entire cattle industry” or “destroying other people’s lives” and neither did Carolyn. If you want to argue, kindly stick to the facts.
That’s 5% of the greenhouse gases. That’s not the same as what contribution it makes to changing the climate. The contribution to changing the climate is likely so small as to hardly be measurable.
And let me guess, Pat Joseph. You voted for Clinton. And you just can’t figure out how Trump won. Because your ideas are “right” and everyone who disagrees with you or even dares to doubt your ideas is foolhardy. And they’re idiots. And they’re stupid. And everyone else must go along with your plans for spending tax dollars. Enough!!! Maybe you’ll get it eventually, but I sort of doubt it. People all across this country are sick and tired of being told how to run their lives. They’re tired of knowitalls running up huge tabs of government expense for projects that defy common sense. They are just plain fed up with people like you reaching down into this pockets for money to spend on one wild idea after another.
Yeah okay sure whatever.
Here’s a real scientist. http://reason.com/blog/2017/01/04/georgia-tech-climatologist-judith-curry As for my “miniscule” remark, Pat Joseph, that cattle methane is 5% of man-made greenhouse gases, and man-made greenhouse gases in turn are only a tiny fraction of all production of greenhouse gases. Way over 90% are produced naturally. So I’ll stick to that “miniscule” characterization of the situation.
Yes, Judith Curry is a “real scientist.” The suggestion that the scientists in the article are not is silly, though. To your point about natural greenhouse gases, well sure, water vapor is far and away the most prominent greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. No argument. And greenhouse gases are not inherently bad. Of course not. We need the greenhouse effect after all for the planet to be habitable. But you can have too much of a good thing.

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