The Dimensions of Climate Change


There are three major reactions to climate change:

·       The iconic folk singer and activist, Joan Baez. “I’ve never been an optimist…I’m a realist, which I think is much closer to pessimism than optimism. The world is…falling apart…Global warming is going to get us and that’s going to be it.”


·       The climate author, David Wallace-Wells. “We’ve done more damage to the climate in the last 25 years than in all of human history before…(but) we own the system.”


·       The President of the United States, Donald Trump. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese (more about this later) in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” (Tweet, 1/6/12 and reaffirmed 1/18/16)

Who is right? We think Mr. Wallace-Wells because, “…we own the system.” But the hour is quite late. We will discuss the present and likely future consequences of global warming, the credibility of the principle scientific model currently used to model its broad consequences, and the social cooperation necessary to combat the threat to life as we know it.


The Present and Likely Future Consequences of Climate Change.

The best practical summary of the likely consequences of global warming is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on 10/8/18, which summarizes the consequences of more than 1.5°C global warming above the pre-industrial level. This report was drafted by 61 volunteer (also later discussed) climate scientists from many nations and across many scientific disciplines. The following figure summarizes the ten major effects of climate changes.


Global warming has an effect upon:

·       Warm-water Corals. These are the canary in the coal mine Since 2016, more than half of Australia’s great barrier reef has died, due to the increased warming and acidification of the oceans caused by increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2. Their fate may not be concerning to most, but reefs support a quarter of all marine life, which supply a half billion people with food and income. 1

·       Arctic Region. The melting of the sea ice is opening up new shipping routes and providing access to new resources like oil, gas and uranium. The bad news is that the Arctic permafrost is melting, releasing more atmospheric CO2 and methane. According to Max Holmes, a researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center, roughly twice as much carbon is locked up in the permafrost as is in the atmosphere. Almost one half of Canada sits on frozen permafrost that is melting rapidly. 2

·       Coastal Flooding. In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy smashed into New York City, causing a 13.7 foot tidal surge that flooded the Battery Park subway station and lower Manhattan. Sandy caused $65 billion in U.S. damage. Experts on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets estimate that there is a 1 in 20 chance that ocean levels will rise by more than 6.5 feet by 2100 if emissions aren’t cut. 3

·       Fluvial Flooding. In March 2019, a massive cyclone hit the Midwest, following a record snowmelt. This is a picture of the resulting river flooding.


The effects of global warming at the present 1.2° above the preindustrial level are already manifest. The figure above indicates they will get much worse if nothing is done.



The Principal Scientific Model

Climate science is both the detailed observation of the natural world and the development of complex mathematical models to describe it. In this case, to simulate climate change over years to centuries.

After choosing the problem and its scale, the third step (Jacobson, 2005) is to select the dimension of the model, and thus its accuracy, according to the computer resources available. If you aren’t too interested in gears and levers, skip to the next paragraph.

·       A zero-dimensional model is a box model in which” …chemical and/or physical transformations occur (instantaneously), the concentration of each gas and particle is uniform throughout the box.” This simplification allows a mathematical treatment of the process being studied.

·       “A one-dimensional…model is a set of adjacent box models, stacked vertically or horizontally.”

·       “A two-dimensional…model is a set of 1-D models connected side by side….Advantages of a 2-D over a 1-D model are that transport can be treated more realistically and a larger spatial region can be simulated…”

·       “A three-dimensional model…is a set of horizontal 2-D models layered on top of one another.” The resolution of this model is much higher and transport and dynamics can be treated more realistically. The disadvantage of this model is that it requires a lot of computational resources.

The UN climate model is derived from Princeton’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) model that, “…has had a central role in each assessment of the…IPCC since 1990…” 4 To draw an analogy with stock market valuation. A P/E model is just a number, a zero dimensional model. A present value model that could theoretically chart the evolution of interest rates or stock prices over time would be an impossible two-dimensional model because financial market prices are also influenced by emotion and cognitive biases in the short-term. Luckily climate models, that model physical processes, are easier…with PhDs and supercomputers.

Relevant to the credibility of this model is its widespread use in climate science, notably to produce the UN’s modeling of climate change policy and as a component of NOAA’s long-term climate predictions. What we really note is that this model is being continually improved. For example, “GFDL’s successful model, CM2.1…was used as the starting point to develop the next generation CM3 coupled model” that incorporates:

·       The roles of aerosol (particulate matter like dust, sea salt, sulfate compounds and soot)-cloud interactions.

·       Chemistry-climate interactions.

·       Coupling to the stratosphere, and other details. This model also enables the separation of “…natural forcings only, aerosol forcing only, and (more important for present political discussion) anthropogenic forcings only.” 5

When a climate change denier counters the science with the phrase, “I believe,” they have essentially conceded the logical argument. People who enter the climate change argument on the negative should understand (at least at this level) what they are talking about. More later how short-term economic interest can dangerously blind one to the facts.


Looming Problems

In the 19th century the British invented the modern world; first by their development of the technologies and science of energy capture (steam engines and thermodynamics) and then by the development of liberal democracy, that enabled society to create and adapt to rapid change. In the 20th century, the baton of rapid economic growth by industrialization passed to the United States. In the 21st century, that baton passed to Asia and notably to China which became “the world’s workshop.”

Rapid economic growth, however had a cost. That cost was the increased use of fossil fuels to power heat engines, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exceeding the natural ability to the earth to cope. The result, excessive global warming.

On May 10, 2019 the science magazine Nature accepted for review, “Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5°C climate target”. This significant paper by Tong, Zhang, Zheng and Caldeira found that the world’s existing and committed fossil energy infrastructure (coal, gas and oil fired power plants, industry and transport) has already exceeded the earth’s carbon budget limit for 1.5°C warming.


                                                   By the mid-21st century

Existing infrastructure will emit an added:            658 Gigatons (109 tons of CO2)

Planned infrastructure will emit an added:             188 Gigatons

                                                                                 846 Total Gigatons

For 1.5°C warming, the earth’s carbon budget is:   500 Gigatons CO2

For 2.0°C warming, the earth’s carbon budget is: 1335 Gigatons CO2


The first figure in this essay illustrates the extreme consequences of exceeding 1.5°C global warming. The current global warming is between 1.0 and 1.2°C. The lower 1.5°C level for global warming requires a low energy intensity economy: a declining use of oil, methane emissions reduced by 40%, and CO2 net emissions peaking in 2020 and then declining to approximately zero by 2050 (RCP 2.6). 6 The required path(s) for emission reduction are contained in the IPCC’s 1.5°C report earlier cited.

There is probably a bit of diplomacy in crediting this article. The lead researcher is Professor Ken Caldeira of Stanford’s Global Ecology department. Tong, Zhang, and Zheng are postdoc students from China. The paper also notes, “More than half of the above emissions are projected to come from the electricity sector, and infrastructure in China, the USA and the EU28 countries represent appropriately 41 percent, 9 percent and 7 percent of the total respectively.”

The paper ends with the achievable policy suggestions:

1)    A global prohibition of all new CO2 – emitting devices – including many or most of the already proposed fossil fuel-burning power plants.

2)    Substantial reductions in the historical lifetimes and/or utilization rates of already existing industry and electricity infrastructure.

Implicit in this is the replacement of fossil fuel capacity by the renewable energy sources of wind, water and solar (WWS). Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford notes, “The real issue is whether and who is prepared to pay the substantive cost for a fast switch from…(coal).” In The Guardian, Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff writes, “It’s high time to create a World Carbon Bank. We could use a global carbon tax to give developing countries incentives to phase out coal.” The development of new energy technologies would also increase the adaptiveness of the U.S. economy.


Social Cooperation

The above indicates that there is little time remaining, and that the usual quarrels within and between states will soon be dominated by the global warming crisis and the chaos it will bring, if unabated. The countries close to the equator will suffer increasing heat, RCP 2.6 indicates that North China will experience increasing drought, and all seaport cities will experience increased inundations. The broad U.S. - West Coast, Midwest, South and East - will suffer all as well.

So, who is going to lead us out of this? The globalized laissez faire economic order, sponsored by the U.S. after W.W. II, has reached its limit. But the U.S. is still the dominant military power and still wields enormous influence. Faced with the challenge of climate change, it can and should do more rather than flail and tweet.


               “Global warming is…a reality that will burden human civilization for generations

                 to come. The question for those in positions of power is how much their

                 children and grandchildren will have to suffer.”


                                                                                             Washington Post Editorial





Why has global warming gotten out of hand since Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), when it was possible to remedy global warming by making a few minor adjustments? The problem is dysfunctional vested interest. The business of the fossil fuel companies is to produce carbon. On October 8, 2018 the BBC interviewed Myron Ebell, President Trump’s advisor on environmental matters before the inauguration.  He is now director of a think tank that campaigns on behalf of the U.S. energy industry. He tried to argue two points:

1)    The (our note: volunteer) authors of the U.N. IPCC report were “charged” to produce reports announcing an immanent crisis.

Interviewer: “They aren’t even paid…you’re paid.”

2)    The rate of warming according to the data is much slower than the models used by the IPCC…..They also don’t consider the fact that we’ve already had one degree of warming (our note: irrelevant).

Interviewer: “You’re trying to show that you know more about the science than the scientists.”

Here is the truth. Motivated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry that just want to continue business as usual, climate change denial will harm us all – and very soon.

To make a broader point: the science of thermodynamics produced global warming; the science of climate change can remedy that – but we’ve got to act before its too late.


The science and technology to handle climate change exists, but the U.S. is not now politically organized to do so.

Since the inter-war 1930s, the electorate of the liberal democracies of Britain and the U.S. has been able to wisely choose the competent leadership necessary to handle major crises. The crisis of global warming, however, is different from the previous ones because it involves, not a single large event (like a war or financial collapse), but a series of smaller events that will get worse and worse. This is reality.

 A 7/13/18 NYT article discusses the state of politics both in the U.S. and in Britain.

“What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels (Brexit) are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

“When we speak of government, we refer to this various technical and bureaucratic means by which policies and plans are delivered. Government involves officials, data-gathering, regulating and evaluating. As a governmental issue, Brexit involves prosaic problems such as how to get trucks through ports. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is always an abstract notion of where power ultimately lies, albeit an abstraction that modern states depends on if they’re to command obedience. As a sovereign issue, Brexit bravado appeals to ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’. (Note our conversation in “The Contours of Change.”) These are two incommensurable ideas of what power consists of, although any effective state must have both at its disposal.

“One way to understand the rise of reactionary populism today is as the revenge of sovereignty on government. This is not simply a backlash after decades of globalization, but against the form of political power that facilitated it, which is technocratic, multilateral and increasingly divorced from local identities.

“A common thread linking ‘hard’ Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials. Soon after entering the White House as President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon expressed hope that the newly appointed cabinet would achieve the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.”’

The problem with this viewpoint is that we no longer live in a laissez faire world, “Home on the Range,” where “…the skies are not cloudy all day.” We now live in a highly interdependent world; and if we do not better adapt to it and treat it well, “Our goose will be (literally) cooked.” Its time to choose. 7