CO2 shame

It’s a shame, really. We’ve been aware of the climate change effect of carbon dioxide for over 100 years. We’ve known for at least 30 years that human-caused increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases will have a powerful impact on climate within decades. We’ve seen it happen — already. We now know that its effect over the next century will be disastrous. But we haven’t moved an inch toward stopping what will bring disaster on our own heads.

It’s like knowing all about the tremendous harm from smoking cigarettes, but still inhaling three packs a day.

This is genuine knowledge, not just some flimsy theory and not uncertain science. Sure there are uncertainties, plenty of them, enough to make you dizzy. But the reality of global warming, the human cause, and the extreme danger are not among the uncertainties. And I do mean knowledge, all that talk about how it’s not a problem is just people and politicians blowing smoke up your ass. But we haven’t even slowed down. Here’s the latest CO2 data from the Mauna Loa atmospheric observatory:

CO2 is rising faster now that it was just a few decades ago. We can even estimate how the rate of increase is changing, by calculating the difference between CO2 concentration each month, and its value 12 months previously, to figure its annual change:

Clearly the annual change in CO2 concentration fluctuates. A lot. But it’s consistently positive, CO2 is growing. And there’s a trend there as well as fluctuation, an upward trend, because the rate of increase is itself increasing. I’ve superimposed a trend line on the above graph.

One of the factors which influences the fluctuations in CO2 growth is the el Nino Southern Oscillation. Here’s a plot of MEI, the multivariate el Nino index, over the same span of time:

There seems to be some correlation between MEI and the CO2 growth rate. We can investigate this by building a mathematical model of CO2 growth rate as a combination of a linear time trend and the MEI index. We can even include a lag in case the effect of MEI on CO2 growth isn’t instantaneous. Here’s how the model compares to observations:

It’s a pretty good fit — a linear growth trend plus MEI influence accounts for about half the variance of the CO2 growth rate. The lag between MEI and CO2 growth response is about 9 months.

We can also study the residuals, which is what’s left over, i.e., what is not explained by the model:

The biggest, most obvious feature is the pronounced dip in the early 1990s. This may well be due to the cooling influence of the Mt. Pinatubo volcanic explosion, or it may be related to the economic impact of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, or both.

Yet one fact remains, inexorable. CO2 continues to grow, significantly faster now than just a few decades ago. And it will continue to grow over the coming decades. How fast it grows depends on what we, as a global society, choose to do about it.

Some will claim that halting the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases will only reduce temperature a tiny bit. They are wrong. More to the point, not halting emissions will increase temperature. A lot more than if we do quit.

It’s time to quit smoking.

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40 responses to “CO2 shame

  1. Justice not vengeance.

  2. Andrew Brown

    Fantastic article as always Tamino. Thank you. However shouldn’t the last sentence read “A lot more than if we do quit”?

    [Response: Indeed yes. It's now fixed.]

  3. And it will continue to grow over the coming decades.

    Well, not if the people predicting near term peaks in oil and coal production are correct.

    Unless we decide to replace all the lost oil and coal production by cutting down the boreal forest. (Which we’re likely to do anyway, along with the tropical forests.)

    • freetoken: there is a truly *phenomenal* amount of coal still in the ground. Here in Queensland, Australia, there is a “gas rush” going on, to extract methane from coal seams down around 600-900 metres underground. Nobody mines the coal down that deep here, because there is an abundance of the stuff within 20-100 metres of the surface that can be dug by open cut mining instead. I’ve seen mines that have been in operation for over 40 years, and they’ve barely made a dent on the coal in their mining lease, let alone the whole state… a quick search pulls up some figures: identified reserves are in excess of 32 billion tons of black coal, with production a little under 200 million tons per annum. That’s “measured plus indicated” reserves, there are others that haven’t been fully explored yet.

      Sadly, the governments here just see dollar signs in front of their eyes whenever coal is mentioned (more than a third is high-quality coking coal, some is such high quality anthracite it doesn’t even need any ‘washing’ before use).

  4. Allowing for yearly variation due the NH/SH difference in the accumulation of land plantae (stems/leaves) material could make the fit somewhat better. This should be fastest at late June/early July, if I remember correctly, in autumn they tend to put their energy in seeds/preparing for winter.

    [Response: By taking differences 12 months apart, I've effectively removed the annual cycle from the CO2 growth rate estimates. However there might be an annual cycle in the size of the purely random fluctuations.]

  5. It’s too late. With the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions by corporations, while individuals are subject to a lid, no politician threatening to corporate interests can ever again win a major US election.

    My model says severe-drought area will double in TWELVE YEARS. 2023. You heard it here first.

    [Response: When we have massive crop failure right here in the U.S.A. -- you can bet those politicians in denial (led by Inhofe) will go down in defeat, oil money or no.]

  6. Interesting!

    Speculation, probably wrong: You’ve found a correlation between CO2, El Nino and possibly volcanoes. But you’ve previously shown a link between temperature, El Nino and volcanoes. Is it possible the the relation is more direct, and the CO2 growth rate fluctuations are correlated directly with temperature? (Or to ask another way – is there a solar cycle component in there too?)

    Maybe there’s some physical explanation – e.g. T affecting how the environment absorbs CO2 in some way. But in practice I think your suggestion about the fall of the USSR is more likely.

  7. Thanks Tamino.

    The parallels between climate change and smoking are powerful (though not perfectly matched).

    They are both significant public health issues, for starters.

  8. “It’s a shame, really.”
    Candidate for understatement of the year.

  9. I’ve never come across this fit between the MEI and CO2 fluctuations. Is there physics behind it, or is it still a mystery? Are the warmer eastern Pacific waters giving up more CO2 for a time? Should this not be balanced by the cooler western Pacific waters? NOAA’s flux maps show patterns of uptake and release. Though CO2 uptake across the ocean surface isn’t consistent, is it?

    [Response: The most plausible speculation I've heard is that el Nino/la Nina affects rainfall patterns, which affects plant growth, which affects CO2 uptake by land plants. But I'm hardly in the know on this question.]

  10. “It’s like knowing all about the tremendous harm from smoking cigarettes, but still inhaling three packs a day.”

    Yes but doing the above kills YOU and if you want to do that, fine your life, your cash, and your six months on a cancer ward in excruciating pain.

    Doing the CO2 thing has the potential to kill us all and most other life on the little blue dot which is simply not acceptable, the question is when are people in general going to cotton on, because when they do there are those who better put some “Jam” in their pockets because they are going to be “Toast”

  11. John Brookes

    You are right Tamino. If the equivalent of last year’s Russian heat wave happens in the US for a couple of years running, then there will be action. The trouble is that any problems with food production hurt the poor countries far more than the rich, and these are not the countries causing the problem.

  12. At the time of the “collapse” of the old Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was media talk about a shutting down of industries and a general decline in economic conditions. This was coincidental with the Pinatubo eruption, so both effects are probably factors in the large change in CO2 behaviour around 1990 or thereabouts. As the old USSR became Russia and a bunch of satellite states, their individual economies stagnated, then slowly recovered and now contribute to the inexorable rise in CO2 emissions, as they did before the de-unification of the USSR and re-unification of East and West Germany. The re-unification of East and West Germany also caused a significant blip in West Germany’s economy, as they absorbed the economic chaos of the East Germany ex-state.

    No doubt the picture is more complex than that; nevertheless, it is a reasonable first order guess as to the big blip around 1990. Perhaps some economic data would shed more light on it.

  13. Regarding the CO2 growth rate and ENSO correlation – I tend to think it is probably thanks to ocean temperatures…


  14. El Nino 1998, fires in Indonesia.
    “In 1997-98, the forest and land fires in Indonesia contributed 22 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide production. Over 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere, elevating Indonesia to being one of the largest carbon polluters in the world in that year.”
    I guess it would be fairly easy to explain the rest with drought (reducing CO2 uptake) and warm surface waters releasing or refusing to take up CO2.

    • Steve, I think they may have been out by an order of magnitude with their percentage: 700 million is only 2.3% of ~30 billion tons of human CO2 emissions.

      • I see what you mean. So I wanted to check that the order of magnitude error wasn’t elsewhere. Not much help, but wikipedia says this:
        “Forest fires in Indonesia in 1997 were estimated to have released between 0.81 and 2.57 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is between 13-40% of the annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.”
        So … it doesn’t look like just a misplaced decimal.

        [Response: 2.57 Gt CO2 would be less than 10% of emissions from burning fossil fuels. Did they mean 2.57 Gt Carbon rather than Gt CO2?]

  15. Does anyone have a time series for Gross World Product?

  16. Horatio Algeranon

    The significant decline in CO2 emissions from former USSR in the early 90′s had a relatively small impact on overall global CO2 output, which only dropped by about 1.8% (over a single year from 1991 to 1992)

    The yearly global totals are given by Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2007 (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

    Global CO2 emissions are illustrated on this graph which shows a substantial decline from the former USSR but no obvious decline in the overall global output.

  17. Tamino:
    When we have massive crop failure right here in the U.S.A. — you can bet those politicians in denial (led by Inhofe) will go down in defeat, oil money or no.

    I suspect not. They will maintain their positions the same way they achieved them, by stoking fears of gun control, socialism, homosexuality and the “war on Christianity”. “Droughts are nothing new,” Inhofe’s successor will say, “remember the dust bowl?”

    It is difficult to overestimate the depth of denial in the American (and Australian) electorate at large. The dangers of climate change are simply too colossal for most of the them to accept and deal with; Miami will be awash before the truth sinks in.

    • Jeffrey Davis

      Joe Romm, I think, has a post or two about the recent droughts around the country. IIRC, the drought in Oklahoma and Nebraska is now worse than during the Dust Bowl era. (The soil isn’t blowing away now thanks to improved agricultural techniques.)

    • “Miami will be awash before the truth sinks in.”

      even then they will claim Miami has been awash before or perhaps by that stage pure 100% denial will be acceptable.

      Miami? No such place ever existed

    • Adam, unfortunately I’m sure you are right. Policies that could send up energy costs at a time when the economy is being deeply effected by ‘natural’ disasters – will be relatively easy targets for the disinformation industry to attack. It saddens me to say that it would take some kind of climate disaster that’s wholly outside previous experience to penetrate through the facade of insulated complacency. It would have to really hurt to cause the ongoing campaign of doubt, denial and delay to implode. Simply knowing better just isn’t cutting it.

      The underlying tolerance for BS is way too high – I would like to expect my elected representatives to take expert scientific advice seriously yet many of them not only tolerate the denialist campaign but embrace it. The apparent popularity of politicians in Australia campaigning against carbon pricing is convincing them they are right and it will only harden their position. In this the mainstream media, far from challenging them and scrutinising their climate science denial position gives them a stage to trumpet their victories over the ‘green religionists’. And this is about a wholly inadequate policy mostly intended to be seen to be taking the issue seriously … without upsetting Australia’s ever expanding fossil fuel export industry. I don’t know how minimum adequate policy can even make it into the realm of what politics can currently accomplish.

    • Chalk me up for another who agrees with Adam R and Ken Fabos.

      The USA and the Australian body politics, and their attendant multinational corporate funders and conservative voting public, have shown enough denial in the face of plain facts, that plain evidence in front of their noses isn’t going to change their minds. This is a visceral cultural phenomenon, and any shift in it is not going to be voluntary: it will either be imposed by Nature, or by authoritarian government attempting an eleventh hour gasp to do what should have been done decades earlier.

      And even then there will be a shockingly large proportion of the lay public who will still whine, bray and generally holler than it’s all a scay-um to robs them ov dayer hard-erned munay.

      The train has left the station and is building a up a head of steam. The only question now is how fast do we permit it to go before it hits the wall at the end of the tracks?

      • Australia seems to be pressing forward with a price for carbon pollution and trading scheme. The present Govt is in a loose alliance with some Independent Reps and a Green, and the July the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. If the Govt can hold together until July 2012 the legislation will be in place and, hopefully, we’ll start reducing our CO2 emissions. There were some anti carbon tax rallies but they were dwarfed by pro carbon tax rallies. Though, you could guess which got more air-time on the news.
        I’m crossing my fingers the Govt will stay the course despite the bad polls they’ve had recently.

  18. [Response: By taking differences 12 months apart, I've effectively removed the annual cycle from the CO2 growth rate estimates. However there might be an annual cycle in the size of the purely random fluctuations.]

    Oops, I don’t know how I missed that, sorry. Anyway the suggestion is likely crap since the droughts should be included in a model of land plant uptake of CO2. There’s though the difference between oceanic algae vs. land plants since the water plants & floating algae rarely get distressed by droughts.

  19. A question: Is there a direct relation between some section of the ENSO cycle vs. amount of droughts? One might think as the T gets higher in atmosphere the amount of global rain would decrease, though rising humidity. The thing would have to be computed globally since it is proven some areas get more water during various phases of ENSO.

  20. Watching the Deniers

    While we can continue to blame the denial machine, in the end a greater proportion of those living in the developed “West” have embraced inaction.

  21. Phil Scadden

    Oale – Drought or wet in response to ENSO depends on what part of globe you are in.

  22. Right, Watching, but most of those embracing it have done so because they’ve been systematically lied to.

  23. SO how do you propose to get CHina to reduce it’s 25% of emissions and rising? Or the developing countries 53% and rising share?

    [Response: Perhaps a good start would be to stop letting the republican party in the USA get away with denying reality.]

  24. JR,

    How about a tariff on imports equivalent to $150 per ton of carbon emitted in their manufacture and shipping?

  25. The fires in Indonesia dumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Anyone notice that the difference in MLO CO2 between May’98 and May’97 (seasonal peaks) was 2.8ppm? The prior year’s difference (between May’97 and May’96) was only 1.3ppm. How do you spell anthropogenic?

  26. David Kerner

    Could the up tick in CO2 be partially attributed to a weakening of global carbon sinks? Would plotting (total estimated human emissions + natural emissions) – (estimated global carbon sinks) let me check the variability of that value with any accuracy? The literature on the subject seems to increasingly highlight multiple sinks such as mangroves having greater storage capacity than expected, while also being destroyed/filled at higher rates. As such, is historical carbon sink data valid enough to infer trends?

  27. “Yet one fact remains, inexorable. CO2 continues to grow, significantly faster now than just a few decades ago. And it will continue to grow over the coming decades. How fast it grows depends on what we, as a global society, choose to do about it.”

    To the end I would add “…if we are fortunate. If we are not, natural feedback processes will take control out of our hands. Then the real fun will start.”