A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 CO2e

On the highway to a smokestack hell, Faust met a devil who said to him:

“Give me all your tomorrows, all your children and all your children’s children, and I will make this one day, for you, a paradise.”

*    *    *    *    *

Understanding how much warming may be in store from all the CO2, methane, N2O and other greenhouse gasses humans have pumped into the atmosphere can be a bit problematic. First, definitions have tended to be confused due to the fact that equilibrium climate sensitivity measures (Charney) used to project warming for this century by the IPCC only take into account about half of long-term (slow feedback) warming should CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels remain high.

For example, equilibrium climate sensitivity measures show an effective rate of warming by about 3 degrees Celsius (C) for every doubling of CO2 from 1880 onward. By this measure, we get about 3 C worth of warming over this century once we hit 550 ppm CO2 and about 6 C worth of warming at levels around 1100 ppm. It is important to stress that these short term warming projections do not take into account long-term ‘slow’ feedbacks to a given rise of CO2 that are strong enough to double the ultimate temperature increase. This larger Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) measure is both observable in paleoclimate and in the various model runs that project a given level of atmospheric CO2 out through the centuries.

Fast Feedback vs Slow Feedback Climate Sensitivity

(Fast feedback equilibrium climate sensitivity over one century vs long term sensitivity over multiple centuries to a given greenhouse gas forcing. Note that approximately double the amount of warming occurs after ‘slow feedbacks’ like ice sheet response and environmental ghg emissions are taken into account. Image source: Leeds.)

So both paleoclimate and most model runs end up with a long term warming of about 6 C at 550 ppm CO2 and of about 12 C at 1100 ppm CO2.

It is here that we run into an additional difficulty. We don’t ultimately know how long, long-term will really be. We hope, and our climate models seem to support this hope, that such ‘long term’ warming from the so-called slow feedbacks like ice sheet albedo response and natural carbon emissions won’t appear in force this century. But given the stunning pace of human greenhouse gas build-up combined with a number of observed ‘slow feedback’ responses going on now, we don’t really know for certain. And there is some reason to believe that the ‘slow feedbacks’ might not be so slow after all.

In this context, the current level of CO2, at around 400 ppm, results in a warming this century of around 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius (if the slow feedbacks are as slow as expected) and a long-term warming of about 2-3 degrees Celsius. And it is at this point where an already complex dynamic begins to break down, taking on a number of, yet more complex, factors.

A Host of Extra Gasses No-One Really Talks About

At issue is the fact that humans have emitted a massive volume of additional greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. These gasses have grown in proportion and heating effect alongside the, admittedly larger and more significant, CO2 emission. And each has made their own additional contribution to human warming.

Some of these gasses, like methane, have been a typical part of natural atmospheres for millions of years. At times, methane concentrations are observed to have spiked to levels even higher than those seen today. But the periods during which such levels were apparent were also times of global crisis — the hothouse mass extinction events.

Methane Since 1984 MLO

(Atmospheric methane concentrations since 1984 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

But the other gasses: nitrous oxide, CFCs, HFCs, nitrogen triflouride, and a host of nearly 50 other industrial chemicals that contribute to warming were either never in the atmosphere before or were present at much lower levels than what is seen today. The result of this added pollution is yet more potential warming, in addition to a number of other difficult to deal with impacts. A pollution impact that is outside the context of past global crises and that puts current day greenhouse gas forcing at a critical and unstable level.

Methane levels alone have more than doubled since the start of the Industrial Revolution, rising from about 750 parts per billion to about 1835 parts per billion today. This value, depending on how it’s calculated over time, is equivalent to an additional CO2 forcing of between 22 and 110 parts per million. And though methane is the strongest non-CO2 warming agent, adding them all together can result in a value that is quite a bit higher than the base CO2 level would indicate.

Nitrous Oxide MLO

(Atmospheric nitrous oxide levels since 1997 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

In addition, on the negative side of the ledger, human fossil fuel burning (primarily coal) burning emits sulfur dioxide, other sulfates and various aerosols which, overall, create strong negative feedbacks in the climate system by reflecting incoming sunlight. The net result is a temporary suppression of a portion of human-caused warming. The reason this suppression is temporary is due to the fact that the sulfur dioxide and related sulfates rapidly wash out of the atmosphere. So if coal burning ceases, the reflective particles rapidly fall away and we readily come to witness the full strength of the human greenhouse gas emission.

Which brings us to the question — what is the full strength of the current human emission and how long will it last? There’s a term for this number: CO2e. In other words — the equivalent CO2 forcing of all greenhouse gasses added together.

Fortunately for our exploration, there’s been a bit of work done on just this subject. Last year, MIT’s Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment issued a report describing model data that determined the current CO2 equivalent forcing from all of the more than 50 greenhouse contributing trace gasses in the atmosphere. And the results were somewhat disconcerting. As of June of 2013, that amount was equal to 478 parts per million CO2. Or a CO2e of 478 parts per million when all the other greenhouse gasses were added to the already high and rapidly rising levels of CO2. Adding in the current rate of CO2 rise, we end up with about 480 parts per million of CO2e from all greenhouse gasses by this year. So if we’re talking about the total burden of all greenhouse gasses and the one that will be with us through the long term, 480 is, unfortunately, the number we should be dealing with and not 400.

Aerosols and the Faustian Bargain

Unfortunately, to determine the current forcing one has to also take into account those pesky aerosols we mentioned above. And, luckily, we also have a reliable measure that provides the negative forcing or relative cooling effect of sulfur dioxide in the current atmosphere. As of 2013, the IPCC had found that sulfates and other effects due to aerosols provided a net negative forcing of about .8 Watts per meter squared or about 1/2 the positive forcing of CO2 which was, then, at around 390 ppmv (2011), about 1.68 Watts per meter squared. This approximate 1/2 value, when divided by the then observed rise in CO2 since 1880 gives us a rough equivalent negative forcing value of minus 55 parts per million CO2e.


(IPCC AR5 Radiative Forcing Assessment. Image source: IPCC)

So subtracting out the net effect of sulfates and other aerosols brings us to a total net forcing from all factors related to human changes to the atmosphere of about 425 ppm CO2e. A rather disturbing final number both due to its departure over the current 400 ppm CO2 value and due to the fact that though most greenhouse gasses have atmospheric residence times of decades to centuries, the cooling sulfates would likely last for 1-2 years before falling out entirely. This means that once fossil emissions stop, we may as well just add +55 ppm CO2e to the current total.

This warmth masking factor of human coal emissions was described by James Hansen as a kind of Faustian bargain in which current burning of the dirty fuel provides temporary respite to warming at the cost of even more rapid future temperature increases. And it is just this devil’s deal in which we are now entangled.

425 CO2e: A Dangerous Interim

So it is likely that current atmospheric forcing, including all greenhouse gasses and all human sulfates, is probably at around 425 ppm CO2e. And since the residence times of these gasses are decades to millennium, while Earth Systems feedbacks appear to be enough to maintain high methane levels indefinitely, we should probably view this as an interim figure when considering how much short and long-term warming is likely locked in.

In the short term, using equilibrium climate sensitivity measures, we are likely to end up with between 1.2 and 1.8 C warming over the course of this century even if all greenhouse gas levels, along with sulfate levels, were to remain stable and if the slow feedbacks move along at the expected pace. Meanwhile, long-term warming of between 2.4 and 3.6 C would be expected if all atmospheric gas levels were to stabilize.

But unless an ongoing regime of sulfate aerosol spraying of the stratosphere were put into place, the sulfates would, predictably, fall out once human emissions stopped. And that rapidly brings us back to the 480 ppm CO2e number.

480 CO2e: What is Probably Locked in Long-Term

Looking at the more permanent 480 CO2e value, the fact begins to sink in that we are already well on the way to extreme climate difficulties. For 480 CO2e, without the reflective aerosols, means that the world probably ends up warming by between 1.8 and 2.3 C before the slow feedbacks kick in and between 3.5 and 4.5 C long-term. At these levels, major ice sheet destabilization and melt is eventually likely to result in between 50 and 140 feet of sea level rise with the only remaining glaciers in the end confined to central and eastern Antarctica.

The only saving grace to a cold turkey cessation of emissions now is that most of the worst amplifying feedbacks are likely to be kept in check and thus prevent rapidly accelerated warming and climate destabilization. The extra 1.7 to 2.2 C worth of long-term warming likely comes from a combination of albedo loss, permafrost thaw and related ghg release keeping currently high levels high long-term, and, perhaps, a methane belch in the 1-50 gigaton range that spikes atmospheric levels.

I say likely to be kept in check… but we have to also consider that there is a low, but not out of the question, risk of setting off a kind of mini-runaway that generates warming far beyond the expected range and pushes climates to a hothouse state not seen since the PETM or Permian extinction events. There is little evidence for such an event in response to current climate forcings in the models at this time, but we have a number of scientists, including Peter Wadhams, Natalia Shakhova, and Igor Simeletov, who have raised the possibility, based on their observations of Arctic sea ice and carbon stores, that just such an event could be in the offing. Unfortunately, without more in-depth research into the potential pace of release of current carbon stores (permafrost, forest, clathrate, ocean) we don’t have a scientific oracle that provides a comfortable certainty on this key issue.

It’s worth noting that this best possible future, where the risk of a mini-runaway in warming to PETM or Permian levels remains low, probably won’t happen as business as usual fossil fuel emissions continue unabated with no sign of being rationally held in check. Under the current regime, a CO2e of about 550 ppm, enough to warm the Earth between 5-6 C long term, is locked in within 25-30 years. A climate state that pushes the risk of a mini-runaway to moderate. Meanwhile, levels that would almost certainly set off a Permian or PETM type, anoxic ocean, extinction event, at around 800 ppm CO2e, become possible under BAU by 2060-2080.

The situation is, therefore, once again worse than expected…


400 PPM CO2? Add in Other Gasses and It’s 478 CO2e

Earth Systems Sensitivity

Leeds Climate Sensitivity

Jules Charney (bio)


Radiative Forcing Links:

Real Climate: Radiative Forcing

The Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment

NOAA: Radiative Forcing of Non-Greenhouse Gasses

IPCC: Initial Radiative Forcing Assessment

Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gasses: Scientific Understanding, Control and Implementation

CDIAC: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations and Analysis

IPCC AR4 Appendix/Glossary

Nitrous Oxide and Climate Change

Leave a comment


  1. Mark Archambault

     /  March 5, 2014


    A very important and well-written article that even a non-scientist like myself can understand by reading slowly! I didn’t realize the negative forcing from aerosols was one half the positive forcing of CO2. That’s huge.

    Does dust blown into the air from deforestation, fires to clear forests and expanding deserts contribute to the negative forcing, or do those particulates remain too low to the ground to make a difference?


    • Some, like black carbon, are positive. Organic carbon, which is the dust segment, is shown as likely negative. It’s worth noting that the effect of aerosols on clouds is a high uncertainty. And it’s also worth making the distinction between the recent clouds study, which found that changes to clouds as the earth warms is an amplifying feedback, and the aerosol effect on clouds, which is a different measure.

      Glad it was helpful!

      Also, Hansen was the first to use the term Faustian Bargain in association with Aerosols.


      • Also worth looking at is this ESRL NOAA study on how aerosols provide a negative feedback in the Arctic:

        Click to access CF2.Stone.pdf

        The aerosol optical depth during summer months is a significant negative forcing which is about equivalent to AOD over other Northern Hemisphere ocean systems. It’s worth noting that the net AOD negative forcing in this region is greater during summer than the global average.

        So though my above assessment is a global summary, and though the ghg overburden in the Arctic is roughly +5 ppm CO2 and +50 ppb methane, the overall Arctic forcing, though higher than the global average, is probably in the range of 430 to 435 CO2e with aerosol forcing factored in.


  2. james cole

     /  March 5, 2014

    One reason I fail to see how we make any reductions in CO2 is the rise of China and India. Just saw a program about driving in Mumbai India. They mention that cars and taxis have doubled in just a few short years. I saw first hand the USSR convert from a nearly no car country to a modern Russia in which the car is everywhere and nearly an item of worship. In the last 3 decades the world has raced to catch the big CO emitter the USA. Pretty obviously, they have succeeded. And the motoring drive continues anywhere and everywhere an economy modernizes. How do we reduce anything when the trend is up, up and away?


    • Good question and a very tough issue.

      An international framework to shift funds for rapid transition and shut down of coal plants and replace them with renewable generation+storage in China and India would be very helpful. Additional response may well involve incentive and disincentive for exports/imports based on progress in these countries. A carrot and stick economic and diplomatic approach. We can act unilaterally or under an international framework. The latter would be preferred.

      Atmospheric carbon capture may well be needed even though that’s a tough proposition (biomass + sequestration). In addition, we may need to artificially maintain the aerosol parasol (a kind of geo-engineering light), through lower level atmospheric spraying (so as not to endanger ozone). (Oh, I could see the chemtrails folks going nuts over this one!)

      There are options. It’s just that they’re not easy and require large-scale response/global coordination.


      • Robert, from where I’m sitting right now, I can see streets and parking lots jam-packed with cars. It makes me recall a question someone put to an environmental blogger that I read not too long ago, namely, what could you do to convince consumers to abandon the status quo?

        How will the current generation of vehicles get off the road, and is there anything with a sustainable/low-emissions lifecycle that could replace them? Are there any plans that have been put together for major transportation infrastructure changes that you see as viable?

        I’m not so good on the politics, policy, or activism side of things, but if there’s anything technical I could put my brain to work on or any reading you could recommend to get me up to speed on green energy science, I’d love to look into it.


        • There are more than 1 billion automobiles in the world. A huge number of, mostly unsustainable, machines. My first move would be to research vehicle to grid technology. The second would be to research non-carbon based energy sources. The third would be to research non-carbon based materials and manufacturing. The fourth would be to research policy and human population dynamics regarding captive markets and captive consumers. There are many issues. But the most important, in my view, is to provide people with choice and reward for making choices that are generally helpful. That’s on the carrot side. On the stick side, you go after anything that produces carbon like gangbusters — starting with the worst of the worst which would be coal and the unconventional fuels.

          I don’t know that we have time to work everything out. But I’d feel unconscionably amoral if I didn’t try.

          On the level of individual choice:

          1. Eat less meat or go vegan.
          2. Purchase renewable energy.
          3. Use an ev, public transport, walk or ride a bike.
          4. Support others who do the same.
          5. Increase efficiency of water and energy use as much as possible.
          6. Grow a garden.
          7. Buy local whenever possible.
          8. Be as self-sufficient as possible (reduce dependence on manufactured goods).
          9. Reduce air travel as much as possible.
          10. Support others and help develop communities and political structures who do the same.
          11. Support polyculture and permaculture farming.

          Clean Technica is a good site for brushing up on green tech. GreenCarCongress provides good info on alternatively fueled vehicles. Those are just a couple of the ones I’d recommend.


        • Have you seen that thing about the glass roads with solar voltaic cells built in? That’s some pretty neat stuff.


        • Solar roads? Oh yes. I love that stuff 🙂


        • I had no idea glass tempering was so versatile until I found out about that.


        • It makes me imagine great glowing towers of glass. I know, fanciful, But what’s imagination good for if you can’t enjoy it now and then?


        • I don’t know anything about glass tech, but it seems like it would be pretty friendly tech, as tech goes.


        • More friendly than ff, that’s for certain. You just have to manage how they’re made.


    • What goes up, must come down – especially bubble like economies. There simply isnt enough fossil fuels available to keep up the current growth in these countries as we are clearly hitting the roofs of affordable resources. These things will naturally limit future emissions, but who knows exactly when the shit hits the fan? Some people like Gail at the ourfiniteworld.com blog predict its only a few years until things start to falter seriously.

      I believe Robert har on a number of occations said “why cant we just get peak right oil now and be over with it” so we have a chance at lowing the pace of emissions. I couldnt agree more, although the world is hardly prepared for a lower energy future. Furthermore a lot of the conflicts that has arisen lately are very likely closely linked to energy shortages and indeed from drought conditions from climate change. It surely feels we are on the edge of some serious disaster, but perhaps that view is exaggerated a bit by the many signals we pick up everywhere these days. I sure hope that there is some inertia to give us some hints of collapse before it happens though. There seems to be so many good things going on as well with regards to renewables and hopefully a bit enlightenment about future possibilities if we just let go of old paradigms. In that I hope I share some of Roberts optimism, even though his posts paint a dark realistic picture of our future.


  3. Andy

     /  March 6, 2014

    I have a question. I apologize if it is a dumb one.

    Looking at all of these net changes in gasses and particulates in the atmosphere, is it possible for this to cause a change in the viscosity of our atmosphere thereby contributing to variability?

    I am thinking specifically of shear stress due to viscosity of the gas mixture of the atmosphere.

    As an analogy, I think of a ball bearing spinning in a liquid. If the bearing is in water, the water has a low viscosity, thus there is less that “follows” with the surface. However, if the bearing was spinning in honey, there would be different turbulence and a higher “altitude” of honey moving along with the rotation due to the higher viscosity.

    You gentlemen are light years ahead of me in understanding the physics and reactions to these changes and may shed light on this thought (dumb or otherwise).



    • The more ghg you pump into the atmosphere, the thicker the atmosphere eventually becomes. One of the issues Stu Ostro has recently raised involves the height and strength of high pressure systems in the new atmosphere. Another issue is the emergence of clouds at altitudes far higher than what we saw during the 20th Century. Such high level clouds trap more heat and are another amplifying feedback to initial ghg forcing.

      So the dynamic properties of the atmosphere do change quite a bit.


      • Andy

         /  March 6, 2014

        Would it be possible that the higher concentrations in the arctic could be influenced then by the centripetal force similar to the behavior of a centrifuge on a liquid such as blood? As these gasses and particles have different densities and weights could it be influenced is such a manner?


        • To my knowledge, atmospheric circulation/Coriolis effect tends to disperse the gasses. That said, we do observe a higher concentration, as we would expect, near emissions sources.


    • But temperature surely has made the atmosphere taller above the Arctic. That is exactly one of the main components of Jennifer Francis theories about the meandering jet stream. Taller atmosphere there lowers the pressure difference between the poles toward the mid latitudes and slows down the jet stream.

      It is interesting though to think that we are probably the only hominids who have breathed 400ppm CO2 concentration air though. Not to mention the insane NO2 concentrations we breathe in cities these days… I am sure it has some consequences on our organism.


  4. A non-doomer way of looking at this is that action can have cascade effects as well, and the more people act the easier it will become and the wider the options will be. These will always be limited by whatever the current climate situation is, as an immediate absolute, but within that context one is not necessarily absolutely helpless.


    • You’re right about that. Actions and behavior generate their own inertia. So moving in the right direction generates it’s own kind of counter-force. At this point, such a counter might not be enough to overcome all effects of climate change. But it would reduce harm and prevent some of the worst effects.

      What frustrates me, as much as climate ignorance, is this sense among some that we are either just fine or we are ruined. There are numerous shades between one and the other and though tipping points exist, there’s no indication that they all line up like dominoes. We get a certain set of consequences if we mitigate now. Though tough, they’re not as bad as the consequences of waiting 20-30 years or of continuing with BAU until all the pieces break off.


      • Mark Archambault

         /  March 6, 2014


        Thanks for that and your above links on the role of aerosols.

        This is my ‘take-away’ from what you just wrote: “There are numerous shades between one and the other and though tipping points exist, there’s no indication that they all line up like dominoes.”

        That’s encouraging, because books like Mark Lynas’ “Six Degrees” seem to imply that once you set off one Earth system positive feedback, like a decline in aldebo (sp?) in the arctic, then that automatically leads to a large methane release, which leads to … mass extinction. So yes, the impression you get from Lynas’ work and the Arctic Methane Emergency Group is that once one major domino falls, the rest inevitably follow and all we can do is watch the unfolding doom.

        Before coming to your blog I thought I had a good understanding of the major dynamics in global warming and its feedbacks, but now I see it’s much more nuanced, and the science is continually being refined, which is, of course, what you’d want from good science.


        • It’s more what end climate state you get based on the initial forcing load.

          For example, based on the current forcing we have initial warming of around 1 to 1.5 C. This sets off various amplifying feedbacks such as CO2 and methane release and albedo loss. This also sets off various negative feedbacks like fresh water outflows from glaciers and the ice berg cooling effect. You probably end up with methane pulses, CO2 feedback, and albedo loss that is enough to raise sea levels by a huge degree over time, stratify the oceans, and melt a good amount of the ice before everything reaches a new stability at between 2.3 and 3.6 C putting us in the context of Pliocene or Miocene climates.

          In this case, there is risk that acceleration is rapid enough and powerful enough to set off a mini-runaway that brings us all the way back to PETM and/or Permian conditions. But the risk is somewhat low in the current range of forcing.

          I would say the risk is much higher if we have total atmospheric forcing above 550 ppm CO2e value for an extended period, as that value is enough to melt all the ice and unlock a much larger share of the stored carbon. So the likelihood of hitting many more of the tipping points at six degrees, long term warming and a 550 CO2e, is much higher.

          At 800 ppm CO2e initial forcing, it’s probable that all the dominoes do eventually line up and we are in a situation where a Permian or PETM is almost entirely unavoidable.

          So where we are now, though likely to transform the globe and result in a far worse state, isn’t yet likely to set off a mini-runaway. The risk is probably on the order of between 5 and 20 percent. I’m working on an analysis of this now. And, quite frankly, it scares the living daylights out of me, because I don’t see how we avoid hitting 550 ppm CO2e and getting into a period where the mini-runaway is probably even odds without very serious and heavy lifting now as well as a number of extraordinary responses come mid century.

          So I would hardly call my case optimistic. More a desperate cry for action as things really do appear to be starting to edge out of control now. Probably still avoidable, with very hard work, but maybe not. And that shouldn’t be cause for too much comfort.


  5. A lot of people overlook the cooling effect of the sulphate aerosols in industrial pollution. It’s a rather quick thing to change too – as most of the tropospheric stuff can fall out of the atmosphere fairly quickly – within days. Even the stratospheric stuff lofted by volcanoes only lasts a few years.

    Therefore this aspect of the radiative budget can change rather fast if industry starts to go down – almost real-time excepting that of course it takes time to accumulate the extra heat (it would still represent a significantly increased rate of warming I would think).

    I think you’re still being rather optimistic by hoping that various feedbacks won’t occur. There are decades of further warming committed in the system from the current greenhouse gas load – and multiple feedbacks showing signs of stirring already. It seems very optimistic to assume we aren’t going to get multiple unpleasant surprises (to those who said they wouldn’t happen until later this century anyway – NB Arctic sea ice) and a substantially higher ultimate greenhouse gas burden as a result.

    Depending how far the Arctic goes it’s good for another 0.3Wm to 0.7Wm (and the recent study might have made that assessment worse, I’m not sure – I’m using old figures here) – all focused into a specific region in time and space.

    The Amazon is already showing a suspicious propensity for drought and tree death, forests etc are already starting to burn and die in multiple other regions too (including as some of your posts note regions previously not known to have fire regimes eg the Arctic). The pine beetles continue to do their bit, the permafrost can be shown to massively melt by 1.5C over base (Vaks 2011, I think), etc.

    Wipe out the human contribution right now – and I personally wouldn’t be at all surprised if we find out that natural feedbacks go on to add 200-300ppm carbon dioxide, and fairly quickly (this century). Some of the natural reservoirs of carbon are immense compared to the human contribution to date. Worst case we ultimately get a much higher shift (ie end Permian type outcome).

    In fact, aren’t you really just stating the IPCC position above? (albeit in more accessible and concise terms)

    If there is one lesson we ought to be learning from the trends so far – it’s “worse and faster than expected”. The vast majority will continue to be caught on the hop.


    • I’m revealing that the IPCC case, when looking at the underlying data, isn’t as pretty as it appears at first blush.

      As for feedbacks… I assume that the total global ghg feedback is able to match the oxidation of methane and the ocean, weathering and other carbon cycle up takes of CO2 over time. It’s possible I’m being too optimistic, but the natural system additions will struggle to add atmospheric carbon at a rate greater than .5 ppm CO2 per year under this scenario. The permafrost will take decades to centuries to completely thaw and release its carbon (under cold turkey) and the negative feedbacks from ice sheet melt keep warming in check longer. Perhaps for a period of centuries.

      Arctic methane release in high volumes is still a wild card. But I give an annual release greater than 500 megatons about a 20 percent potential under full mitigation. The very large releases in excess of 1 gigaton are less likely. Overall, though, we have a growing Arctic methane emission over 40 years that is partly countered by the human draw-down and then a stabilization.

      In all, this probably keeps us in the context of Miocene or Pliocene,long term, under full mitigation. It’s worth noting that the ESS measure that I’m using for context includes carbon feedbacks and albedo loss.

      In all, there’s some small chance of mini runaway to PETM/Permian conditions under this scenario. But they are minimized. Further, it’s the scenario in which other actions have the most likelihood to succeed.

      Of course, this is all hypothetical as BAU continues to chug along (even though solar growth last year was 40 percent…).


  6. Also, drip irrigation salinifies. It only works for so long, soil must be flushed out and the moisture go to the sea if you want to keep growing stuff. I see this happening where I live, in places, and we’re at 3300′ and have a river (well, kind of a creek) running through toen.

    This could all be done artificially for about 1000x as much work.


  7. BBC piece about WIPP from yesterday. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-26441154


  8. Harry

     /  March 6, 2014

    I have to echo JCL’s post above. BAU cannot continue for very much longer. It is a mathematical certainty. Last year the US economy “grew” 2.7% during by borrowing 4% of GDP. The lunatic economists just dismiss this as fiscal drag and move on.

    The oil major’s cap-ex costs have been rising at 10.9% per annum. BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon and Total all posted significant drops in profit for the final quarter of 2013. They are cutting back on production and selling off assets in order to raise capital. Like a plane that can only ascend, a growth-dependent, debt-based economy will fall out of the sky once the noose of diminishing returns tightens to a critical point. I would suggest that that point is fairly imminent. If interest rates go up we will have a domino-run of debt defaults and a further undermining of capital investment but if they stay low the life is sucked out of pensions and savings. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. The economy will collapse – this much is certain. What happens next is anyone’s guess, although I’d imagine a very swift reduction in fossil-fuel use coupled with a dramatic increase in the cutting down and burning of trees.

    Any idea what such a scenario would mean for the climate, Robert? One would imagine that it would probably be better than a steady continuation of BAU. Great article btw. Have you noticed an increase in traffic of late, what with the remarkable rash of freak weather events you chronicled in your previous post?


    • The traffic has gone up ever since winter when I used Jennifer Francis’s fine theory along with weather observation to predict extreme weather conditions. The buzz about the polar vortex provided an opportunity to explain how warming in the Arctic was driving extreme weather and that tapped in to the cognitive dissonance being pumped out by climate change deniers in their annual chasing of every cold snap and snowstorm.

      It was fun fighting the misinformation, even if the message is a pretty rough one. In general, though, it seems a good number of people are making use of the, now rather large, body of research and analysis I’ve accumulated here. I sincerely hope it helps somewhat. I’m not directly motivated by simply tracking destruction. I’d really like to see some positive response to help people, animals, the natural world and to prevent as much harm as possible.

      I have no faith in peak oil/coal/gas to effectively shut down the current system of extraction and emission. The size of the diffuse reserves are large and those corporations will keep trying to concentrate energy sources and make profit as they have since their inception.

      Analysis of CAPEX aside, I still see stocks up for almost all the oil majors. So they’ve managed to off-load the non-profitable assets onto smaller companies. All this means is that if the smaller players can’t make a profit on marginal oil and crash, the prices go up and everyone again goes on a drilling spree. This is one of the reasons I’ve been so adamant about viable alternatives. On the one hand, you have an economy stressed to greater oil/gas/coal economy if/when price shocks arise. On the other hand you have renewables and their falling price curve. At the point of intersection, where we are even now in some regions, the fossil fuel giants require political control to retain markets. This situation is somewhat more tenuous than peak oil which, without viable alternatives, means peak profits at the expense of everyone else.


      • Harry

         /  March 6, 2014

        You can’t simply disregard rising CAPEX and falling profits! Oil companies are bound by the same financial laws as any other commercial enterprise. The economy as a whole is far too brittle to cope with any significant oscillation in oil price.

        At today’s rates of use we have very roughly 40 years of proven oil reserves remaining: http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=5&pid=57&aid=6
        I guarantee that most of it will remain in the ground.


        • Oh, these companies are still among the most profitable in the world. A fall in profits by 30-50 percent among most of the majors was build in once they made these heavy investments. They start to fight to survive now. And, I hope they fail.

          What I want to see is those investments fail. And to fail in a big way as new energy moves in to eat big oil’s lunch. I’d like to see those stocks fall and fall and fall some more.

          I don’t care about how many years of proven reserves we have left. It’s more than enough when you add in unconventional forms to ruin the climate. We have zero years of climate safety from fossil fuel emissions left. And that’s why peak oil, coal, gas should all be now.


        • As for the fragile world economy. It can better bear the assaults and difficulties of an energy transition now than it can bear the ongoing and rapidly increasing damage from continuing to emit. The world continues without fossil fuels and much more happily.


  9. The drought mentioned in the Mid East in the last post :
    08:20 UTC

    Dust storm over the eastern Mediterranean Sea


  10. Daniel Wirt

     /  March 6, 2014

    Regarding business as usual, any comments on this?


    • mikkel

       /  March 7, 2014

      I believe China will “perfect” coal to liquids/etc and then as fracking is revealed to be the ponzi scheme it is, the US will have a major coal boom that focuses on the massive amounts of low grade coal available. There is another 100-200 years of energy doing that.

      “About the only thing that may stop the bases from being fully built is that they need large amounts of water in a water-tight land, according to Greenpeace activist Lifeng Fang in Beijing. He thinks that water represents the upper limit on further use of coal.

      But Jackson, the director of Duke’s Center on Global Change, differs. He maintains China will merely move herders and farmers off already dry land in its interior and transfer their water rights to the coal industry, which produces more economic value than agriculture with the water.”

      The eastern US has the water and the coal.


  11. Robert, did you got my email from last week?


  12. Arctic Sea Ice Melt Fueled By Warm Rivers

    The team also projected the heating power transported by the discharge of the 72 rivers in North America, Europe and Asia that empty into the Arctic Ocean. Using statistics on average annual river discharge and supposing an average summer river water temperature of around 41 degrees F, the team found that the rivers are moving as much heat into the Arctic Ocean annually as all of the electric energy utilized by the state of California in five decades at today’s rate.
    Read more at http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1113088776/arctic-sea-ice-melt-warm-rivers-030614/#qXqfCyDKpbSvFhug.99


  13. ‘Rock Snot’ Infestation Caused by Climate Change, Study Suggests.

    A pesky species of algae sometimes called “rock snot” due to the way its tendrils attach to rocks in waterways is infiltrating parts of eastern Canada due to global warming and not accidental introductions from humans tromping around, a new study suggests.



  14. Robert,
    Do you have the formulas that were used for the various gasses to come up with 480ppm CO2e? Some on my site don’t understand why it does not come up higher, according to their math.


    • I have some of the reports, but not all. I’ll give the author a call and ask if there is a comprehensive summary of the methods used.


      • If you can get them, that would shut these guys up.


        • Usually, everyone argues over methane. But there have been quite a few band absorption studies that nail the current forcing down at near .5 watts per meter squared or around x35 CO2 for an equal volume of CH4. These are based on observation and so are probably among the most accurate.

          In any case, the MIT study roughly jibes with the IPCC assessment and while I’ve been somewhat critical of the way they approach climate sensitivity, my opinion is that the base figures are best of class as they come from all the top agencies/studies worldwide (NASA, NOAA, WMO, etc.).

          I wouldn’t get yourself too worked up about wrestling with people who are bound and determined to cherry pick data, misrepresent studies or mangle facts. There’s a difference between an honest query and a continued beating of the nonsense drum.


  15. Robert,

    Great post. What I particularly appreciate is that you are not extremist, but using solid peer reviewed modeling as the basis of the presentation, the results of which – are still very sobering.

    I have a follow-up in the research writing process, I’d like to add a couple of points from your presentation, with proper credit given.


    • Please feel free. If you need me for comment, let me know.

      It’s worth noting the IPCC consensus summary provides a total forcing, in its own context, roughly equal to 430 CO2e after aerosols. The assessment lags by three years in even the most current iteration. So, in that context, we are probably already +.11 watts per meter squared higher in the global forcing total. So current CO2e for 2014 under IPCC at a likely 2.40 watts per meter squared is probably 437 ppm including aerosols.

      Last of all… Given some concerns about Arctic changes in optical depth during summer … This factor is primarily due to the higher angle of the sun and not to a reduction in aerosols during this period.

      Most concerning, and without lighting our hair on fire, is the fact that 2014 CO2e is probably closer 492 ppm CO2e once the aerosols fall out. This probably puts us in the low-moderate risk range of mini runaway rather than just low.

      4 watts per meter squared forcing, for reference, is about 550 CO2e, a dangerous level that puts us at moderate risk of mini runaway, locks in 3 C of warming from fast feedbacks and 6 C from slow/long-term feedbacks.


  16. Hi Robert,
    You are very kind and well rounded in your knowledge. Thank you

    Regarding “what goes up- must come down”… the particulates that buffer more incoming heat …? how are they impacting the gray scale on the snow? Is that factored in to the temporary assist by coal?

    2. There is a graph with much higher GHG ratings for methane (in relationship to CO2’s GHG strength 105:1 and even 256:1) In part due to the limited hydroxyl. This makes methane even a stronger GHG in the Arctic. Can you discuss this please.

    Especially as the premise for fracking is influenced by some promoted false climate advantages that do not factor in the harvest process. (trucking of water or the additional chemicals that interact with air and water … bromide, benzene, toluene, radium infested water) My background is not in science but I am building as comprehensive as I can climate puzzle and awareness that stems from air and water/ice. (How much has domestic methane harvesting impacted the increase in heat driven weather patterns that is now animating the earths huge methane stores?)

    Focusing efforts on clean air and water; they are the lowest common denominators and comprehensive/fast ways to regain any possible climate balance. It would also require the large population to push co-cooperatively in multiple vectors.. It is a positive focus “Clean air/water: NOW” that is a “Business As UnUsual” aalternative.. you can add food and soil to this- but if the air and water are respected and assisted the many other systems will clean up..- Maybe that too would be “faster than expected” .

    3. The water/ice is also weight that is being rapidly redistributed on tectonic plates. How is that impacting the subduction zones? The mid ridges? If those zones activate particulates will the earth return to a new climate balance that could be very cold ?


    • Cheers Cindy, will do my best based on what I’ve read in the science.

      1. The black carbon particulates are taken into account as a positive feedback in the IPCC data. It’s possible that their total effect is somewhat underestimated.

      2. Methane’s x105 number is in effect due to interaction with aerosols, which amplify its impact while the aerosols are in place, limiting the overall effect of aerosol cooling.

      The lifespan and potency of the hydroxyl sink is somewhat in question. If we see significant losses, the residence time for methane would increase which would also increase its global warming potential. the 256:1 number appears to take into account substantially longer lifespans (8 years now, 13-18 in this assessment). It’s important to note that we don’t see that now.

      3. RE fracking. In my view further expansion into any new unconventional fossil fuel source is an extraordinarily bad idea. Due to inherent extreme dangers of any continued fossil fuel emission, I believe the science supports a move to fossil fuel abolition:


      … along with rapid transition to non ghg polluting sources.

      3. During the Permian Extinction Event we saw rapid volcanic production of aerosols, CO2 and methane. The net result was positive forcing despite the dampening effect of aerosols. If warming sets off a new age of vulcanism, the large initial outbursts would result in temporary cooling, but a long-term added forcing effect to warming.

      It is worth noting that you would need to multiply current volcanic contribution of ghg to the atmosphere by 25 times to equal the rate achieved during the Permian and about 150 times to equal the current pace of human ghg addition to the atmosphere.

      Warmest regards and best wishes,



  17. Hi there mates, good piece of writing and pleasant arguments commented here, I
    am genuinely enjoying by these.


  18. A grim situation Robert. However nothing is certain until it happens and if we are very lucky and determined we may avoid the worst.


  19. arnulfo

     /  April 21, 2015

    Reblogged this on The grokking eagle.


  1. A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 CO2e | GarryRogers Conservation and Science Fiction: #EcoSciFi
  2. Climate-change summary and update | Nature Bats Last (versão mobile)
  3. A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 CO2e | robertscribbler « The Turning Spiral
  4. Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, March 9, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered
  5. Another Week of Anthropocene Antics, March 9, 2014 [A Few Things Ill Considered] | Gaia Gazette
  6. robertscribbler
  7. Nature: Human Warming Now Pushing Entire Greenland Ice Sheet into the Ocean | robertscribbler
  8. Climate-change summary and update » Climate-change summary and update | GeoengineeringWatch.org
  9. Far Worse than Being Beaten with a Hockey Stick: Michael Mann, Our Terrifying Greenhouse Gas Overburden and Heating the Earth by + 2 C by 2036 | robertscribbler
  10. Methane Monster Finding Cracks in Earth’s Defenses: Is the Global Methane Sink Starting to Fade? | robertscribbler
  11. Grim News From NASA: West Antarctica’s Entire Flank Collapsing Toward Southern Ocean, At Least 15 Feet of Sea Level Rise Already Locked-in Worldwide | robertscribbler
  12. Enough Heat Forcing To Melt A Third of Earth’s Ice: Global CO2 to Reach Extremely Dangerous Peak Near 402 PPM for 2014, Methane Levels Ramp Ominously Higher | robertscribbler
  13. Global CO2 to Reach Extremely Dangerous Peak Near 402 PPM for 2014, Methane Levels Ramp Ominously Higher | robertscribbler
  14. The Keystone Pipeline, Arctic Methane Eruptions, and Why Human Fossil Fuel Burning Must Swiftly Halt | robertscribbler
  15. Climate-change summary and update | limitless life
  16. Entering the Middle Miocene — CO2 Likely to Hit 404 Parts Per Million by May | robertscribbler
  17. “Standing on the Shores of Disaster” Global Average CO2 Exceeds 400 PPM In March | robertscribbler
  18. “Standing on the Shores of Disaster” Global Average CO2 Exceeds 400 PPM In March | Artic Vortex
  19. NASA Shows Human Hothouse Maintaining Record High Temperatures for 2015 | robertscribbler
  20. It’s Not Just Sao Paulo — Much of South America and Caribbean Sweltering Under Extreme Drought | robertscribbler
  21. Bobbing Around Volume 15 Number 1 | Bobbing Around
  22. Strong Westerlies Push El Nino Toward Extreme Event | robertscribbler
  23. At Least 20-75 Feet of Sea Level Rise Already Locked In — Putting Climate Central’s Surging Seas Into Context | robertscribbler
  24. Japan Meteorological Agency — September of 2015 was Hottest on Record — NASA not Far Behind | robertscribbler

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