Possible futures (it’s our choice)

This page presents possible futures, based on various decisions we might make and projections of the Earth’s responses to the consequences of those decisions. Which future we end up with is up to us.

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A possible future: Sea-level rise
2 possible futures: Dust Bowl (or the better choice)
Choosing a bright future: Kauai, Hawaii
A possible future: She could take it back someday (some thoughts from 1994)
A possible future: Cree saying

A possible future: Sea-level rise

Source: CSIRO. Graph of global average sea level data from 1880 to 2014. Link to primary data source: Church & White, 2011.

Scientists nearly double sea level rise projections for 2100, because of Antarctica (The Washington Post, 30 Mar 2016)

Source: NASA Climate Time Machine. Map of the Southeast US with 6 meters (20 feet) of sea level rise. Red shaded regions would be underwater. For context, satellite observations have indicated a thinning of parts of the Greenland ice sheet. If it were to melt completely, water from the Greenland ice sheet would raise the global sea level by 5-7 meters (16-23 feet).

London and New York could be underwater ‘in our lifetimes’: Scientists warn of devastating floods if the West Antarctic ice shelf breaks up (The Daily Mail, 28 Nov 2016)

The processes that could bring about this awful future have already been obviously underway for well over a decade.

Read more: J. Church, Science (2010).

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2 possible futures: Dust Bowl (or the better choice)

Know anyone who remembers the Dust BowlGrapes of Wrath and all that? Our President’s recent executive order, which can only be called “business as usual” (or worse) with respect to carbon emissions, aims to bring it back. To stay.

Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Projected soil moisture in 2095 at 30-cm depth (as deviations from the 20th century average) for a “business as usual” CO2 emissions scenario. Under this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 1,370 ppm in 2100.

This projection was not made by a bunch of hacks and conspiracy theorists. The lead author on the study is a NASA scientist, and the picture above results from analyses of 17 different climate models by a team of independent scientists from multiple institutions. I myself am a scientist who dreamed of working at NASA, but I don’t. Please trust me when I say it’s competitive. The climate models involve enhanced versions of the same math that enabled the physicist, Gilbert Plass, to predict in 1956 almost the exact temperature rise and environmental observations we see now. See the NASA press release here. See the technical paper here.

The image above is called “business as usual.” It assumes the Paris Climate Agreement is not honored (as our President has clearly signaled his intent that we not honor it), and all of us go on emitting carbon like we have been. In this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 1,370 ppm by 2100. (This is not crazy but quite realistic; as we have seen, the CO2 level has risen from 290 ppm in 1900 to 410 ppm today and the rate of increase is strongly accelerating.) The darkest regions in the above image have soil moisture comparable to the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Farmers and grocery shoppers, take note.

The image below is a “moderate emissions” scenario, which assumes we constrain our CO2 emissions such that the atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2100 is 650 ppm. It’s still dry compared with the 20th century average and, make no mistake, this will be challenging. But it’s not a Dust Bowl.

Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Projected soil moisture in 2095 at 30-cm depth (as deviations from the 20th century average) for a “moderate emissions” CO2 emissions scenario. Under this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 650 ppm in 2100.

The second image seems like a better choice, for sure. But it’s not the trajectory we Americans are on, under the conditions of our President’s recent executive order. Under those conditions, if we achieve the second choice, it will be thanks to the Chinese, India, Europe, Brazil, and the rest of the 194 other nations that signed the Paris Climate Agreement. And it will be in spite of our own irresponsible actions as the current 2nd largest carbon emitter, the #1 cumulative historical emitter, and the most wealthy nation on the planet. We should be ashamed.

Look, I have no ill will toward coal miners. They have helped bring us enormous human progress. But we now clearly understand that progress has had a price we can no longer afford (and have developed the technology to avoid) paying. Modern coal mining is a technical job. Much like building solar panels or wind turbines. I propose that coal miners could learn to do either one of those. I recognize it would be a hardship (which we could choose to ease, for example, through government-subsidized retraining programs). I believe some of them would end up enjoying and prospering from such a change. And new jobs of the future, not the past, would be created. And the United States would be more competitive in the future global economy, which will embrace sustainable energy sources to the extent that it survives.

But, in any case, it would also be a hardship for all the residents of New Orleans and Miami to choose between building a 25-foot seawall (the height of the Great Wall of China!) or abandoning their homes and skyscrapers. It would also be a hardship for American farmers to look for new professions or seek their farming fortunes in Canada, where they don’t presently own any land.

And let’s be clear. We’re not talking about the fate of some distant human generations. The children living among us, our children, will experience the year 2095 that we are choosing right now.

We have real choices to make. Not made-for-TV choices. And the time for making them is now. (The Earth doesn’t watch TV.)

Watch a short NASA video about this study narrated by lead researcher Ben Cook, NASA Climate Scientist:

Video credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Choosing a bright future: Kauai, Hawaii

In March, 2017, residents of the Hawaiian island of Kauai connected a 54,978-panel solar farm to giant battery packs provided by Tesla, creating the world’s largest photovoltaic-battery combination power plant. The batteries store electricity generated when the sun is up for use at night, enabling the 13 megawatt solar array to provide power around the clock.

This power plant has reduced Kauai’s fossil fuel consumption by 1.6 million gallons per year and brought the proportion of its power from renewables higher than 40%, well on the way to the island’s goals of 70% by 2030 and 100% by 2045.

Tesla has contracted with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative to operate the solar plant, providing electricity to island residents at a guaranteed flat rate of 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour for the next 20 years. This is well below the current Hawaiian average electricity rate of 28.3 cents per kW-h and competitive with the U.S. overall average rate of 12.2 cents per kW-h (source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Watch this short news report to learn more:

Video credit: CNNMoney. News report about the Kauai’s new 13 megawatt photovoltaic-battery combination power plant, the largest in the world, which came online in March, 2017.

Read more here.

This is the nature of renewable energy in 2017. It’s here now. It’s available. In many cases, it’s competitive in cost with fossil sources. (The installed price of solar photovoltaic systems has been falling year on year for decades.) It can provide complete, local-scale energy independence and insulation from the market forces that cause fossil fuel prices to vary. It has no greenhouse gas emissions. Its provision requires no miners to get black lung. With continued investment, it will only get better and better.

While many of us appreciate the seriousness of global climate change, I think many people may under-appreciate the rampant availability of the solutions.

When we are talking about choices between future scenarios, we are really talking about just that: choices. We have everything we need to make dramatic steps toward solving this problem and ensuring a livable future Earth for generations to come.

In fact, last month a group of scientists published in the prestigious journal, Science, a very readable, technical roadmap for meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a short but sobering read. We definitely don’t have much time left to engage in idiotic arguments about whether global warming is even happening.

On the other hand, our President has vowed “massive infrastructure spending” to get Americans “off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country.” I think that’s great. I can’t imagine a more impressive, job creating, value creating national infrastructure project than this one.

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A possible future: She could take it back someday (some thoughts from 1994)

Her love rains down on me as easy as the breeze
I listen to her breathing, it sounds like the waves on the sea
I was thinking all about her, burning with rage and desire
We were spinning into darkness; the Earth was on fire

She could take it back, she might take it back some day

So I spy on her, I lie to her, I make promises I cannot keep
Then I hear her laughter rising, rising from the deep
And I make her prove her love for me, I take all that I can take
And I push her to the limit to see if she will break

She might take it back, she could take it back some day

Now I have seen the warnings, screaming from all sides
It’s easy to ignore them and God knows I’ve tried
All of this temptation, it turned my faith to lies
Until I couldn’t see the danger or hear the rising tide

She could take it back, she can take it back some day

She can take it back, she will take it back some day

She will take it back, she will take it back some day

-Pink Floyd, 16 May 1994

Video credit: YouTube. Pink Floyd performs “Take It Back” on The Division Bell tour, 1994.

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A possible future: Cree saying

Image credit: The bathroom wall of my friend, Marlys. Marlys has lived in the same region of the Upper Midwest for 89 winters. She testifies that the effects of Global Climate Change on those winters are unmistakable.

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