by Mark Nicholson
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels 1960-2024
Atmospheric Carbon dioxide levels over the last 800,000 years.
No, despite the title, I am not reviewing the second book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. I am writing from the centre of the Scottish Highlands where it has been cool and wet for most of July after a sunny and dry June. Meanwhile the weather in southern Europe just gets hotter and hotter. Likewise in China and the USA.
In my family there are the ACCDs (Anthropogenic Climate Change Deniers) and the CCCDs (Climate Change Catastrophe Doomsayers), of which I am one (well, maybe the only one). The ones in the middle raise their eyebrows or just shrug.
Already more and more people are beginning to accept that there is no way we will reduce the increase in global warming to the 1.5 degree C target by 2030 (see my article of February 2021: https://www.only-connect.co.uk/post/glasgow-2021-and-the-fallacy-of-net-zero-or-a-beginner-s-guide-to-climate-change). So, if they cannot predict six and half years hence, how do they even think they know what the Earth will be like in 2050? The great thing about long-term targets is that the politicians who set them will be either out of power or six foot under or both. Call me a doom-monger but I am at the far end of the scale in predicting a bad end to this climate crisis.
Why are the majority of us not really worried enough about global warming so that we feel unable or unwilling to take constructive action? Here are a few reasons to explain why:
There is nothing we can do about it. At an individual level, that is more or less true. Only governments can act by moving away from a carbon-based economy and that will inevitably be difficult and painful. Instead, politicians are talking about ‘adaptation’, which they think will be easier and cheaper than trying to lower carbon dioxide levels. Would you be happy to ‘adapt’ to summers of 48 degrees as measured in Sicily this month?
If it is going to reduce our standard of living, then no way. Well, bad luck, it will: we are a carbon-based economy and abandoning it will take decades. Very few people are prepared to accept a lower standard of living anywhere. Meanwhile, the world population continues to rise, led by Africa. Not only that, but Africa’s middle class is also growing exponentially. This means high-rise buildings, private cars, washing machines, air-conditioning, so Africa’s previously modest carbon footprint is rising fast. Concrete production contributes 8% of carbon dioxide emissions and Africa will soon be building more megacities than China.
It is going to be too expensive. Yes, but as numerous studies have shown, it is far cheaper doing something now rather than waiting until the climate is unbearable in some parts of the world. Anyway, we are not keen on having to pay more in a period of high inflation. The burning of fossil fuels accounts for most of the global warming today. The three largest budget airlines in Europe fly roughly 350 million passengers a year astoundingly cheaply. Imagine a government directive to halve the fleet size or treble their prices for a tax for carbon-offsetting projects: there would be uproar. Yes, we may change our lightbulbs and set our washing machines to 60 degrees because it saves us money but try saying that you can only use your non-electric car on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays or that you cannot drive alone. I know of no one who refuses to fly because of carbon emissions. I am as guilty as anyone, having just bought a return ticket of 17,000 km to enjoy a change of scenery.
Slow onset catastrophes are seldom noticed. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami was immediately sensational news and ‘only’ killed 230,000. The Ethiopian famine twenty years earlier killed one million and few would have even heard of it, had it not been for Michael Buerk and Bob Geldof. This catastrophe may last decades or centuries. Is it ethical to say “Who cares? I won’t be around”.
The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide doesn’t look too serious. It has only gone up from 250 parts per million (ppm) to 425 ppm (in comparison, oxygen levels are at almost 20,000 ppm). Take a look at those two graphs at the top. In the first graph, it looks linear, doesn’t it? Well, you can do anything with statistics and even more with graphs. Both graphs demonstrate the same thing. The difference is that the second one shows the real exponential rise. There are still people who, despite all the science, question the correlation between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperature rise. A 1.5 or 2 degree Celsius increase does not sound much. The temperature increase during the Permian (see below) reached 6.5 degrees C above 1950 levels and that was enough almost to destroy 60-80% of all life forms on Earth. The COP 27 target is to achieve net zero by 2050 when global temperatures will have reached 2-2.5 degrees C, almost 40% on the way to the temperatures during the Permian-Triassic extinction.
Ignorantia legis neminem excusat. I would translate this as ignorance of science is no excuse. I remain staggered how few can give me the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere today compared to 1950. To me, that is more important than knowing the names of Henry VIII’s six wives. Likewise, most people know nothing about palaeontology or oceanic chemistry. We were not around at the Permian-Triassic extinction just over 250 million years ago but it was the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history, far worse than the Yucutan meteorite hit that took out the dinosaurs. The predicted melting of the north polar icecap will decrease albedo but more importantly, will cause perturbations in the Gulf Stream. This in turn will stop deep oceanic oxygenation and lead to a hydrogen sulfide-based ecosystem. The gas is highly toxic and will cause widespread marine and terrestrial deaths.
Climate change is not yet killing enough people. Over 60,000 people died of heat–related causes last year in Europe but individual deaths are not ‘news’. Deaths have to be large-scale and, dare I say it, in the ‘Western world’. Starvation from drought in the Horn of Africa is a chronic event, not an acute one and few can relate to the remoteness. Wait until 100,000 Westerners die of heatstroke in a week.
I will use an analogy to show how only violent or unexpected death wakes people up. On 2 March 1974, a friend of exactly my age, the son of my mother’s doctor, had nipped over to Paris on BEA (which merged that month with BOAC to become British Airways) in order to watch England play France in the Rugby Five Nations. The next day I was driving north from Edinburgh when BBC Radio 4 announced a plane crash near Paris. For some reason, I stopped the car to listen because I had an uneasy feeling. A Turkish Airlines DC-10 had gone down a few minutes after take-off from a Paris airport (which became Charles de Gaulle [CDG] airport one week later). It was the worst aviation disaster in history at the time. My friend had found a seat on the plane as BEA was overbooked. The cause was quickly established. The bolts holding the cargo door had given away because a design flaw meant the door could be forced shut while not engaging the locking nuts properly. The door flew open, decompressing the plane and severing all hydraulics to the tail plane. It then transpired that exactly the same thing had happened to an American Airlines DC-10 in 1972. That plane was not catastrophically damaged, so a controllable landing was possible and no one was injured. FAA sent an advisory to McDonnell Douglas who sent it on to all DC-10 operators, basically saying ‘I say, old chaps, just check the cargo doors’ and recommending a sign saying ‘Don’t force the handle’ (the Turkish baggage handler in Paris only knew French and Turkish). After the Paris disaster, every DC-10 on earth was grounded. My friend’s name is engraved with 345 others on a granite plinth on a forested hill a few km from CDG. As an investigator from the US National Transportation Safety Board said later, it takes body bags for humans to take real action. Sadly, it also takes body bags on our doorstep. When a Lion Air 737 Max 8 crashed into the sea 44 years later, few noticed. “Must be pilot error” said an aviator friend, “Everyone knows Indonesian airlines have the worst safety record on Earth”. Five months later, I was swimming in a pool in Colombia when a friend came up and announced more bad news: an Ethiopian 737 Max 8 plane had gone down between Addis Ababa and Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines is the oldest and largest airline in Africa with a good safety record, so how could two of the most modern short-haul jets in the world have crashed? Ironically, it took exactly another 346 fatalities for anyone to do anything. All 737 Max 8s were grounded worldwide for 20 months. It also cost Boeing US$ 2.5 billion in compensation owing to a design flaw in the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, which was supposed to prevent the airplane from stalling.
The analogy is relevant. Sudden disasters bring about instant change in action. Slow-onset disasters, of which climate change is the ultimate example, do not. So we are left with hand-wringing, targets, conferences and proclamations from Kings and Popes but no immediate change. The Kenyan President recently upset everyone at a global UN Environment Programme meeting in Nairobi proposing that the next Climate Change COP should be the last as no COP target has ever been hit.
My worry is that our leaders think that we can suddenly stop global warming in its tracks by bringing in appropriate measures and the latest technology. My own feeling is that our atmosphere is on course for unstoppable and catastrophic change owing to cascade effects: temperatures rise, fires burn, temperatures rise. Permafrost, which covers 23 million square kilometres of the earth’s surface is melting. Methane is released as the peat oxidizes and the end result is yet more carbon dioxide; so temperatures rise yet again.
We should fear for our children’s children.