Climate Change

Double or Nothing? Our Climate Gamble

Poker chips. Photo © World Poker Tour / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Imagine you’re in a high-stakes poker game, and … your cards suck. You are good at this game, so you think you can bluff your way to victory anyway, until you look at the striking player sitting across from you. She is stone-cold confident, and poised, and it’s suddenly clear. She doesn’t bluff. You are in way over your head. She doubles down. You’ve approached this game with confidence, over confidence, and she’s called your bluff. You fold.

As you pull away from the table you ask a friend, “Who is she?”, and he says “That’s Mother Nature.”

I believe this high-stakes poker game is playing out right now for me and my fellow Americans.

Mother Nature just doubled the bet on the consequences of climate change, and right now the “cards” take the form of a paper just published in Nature by DeConto & Pollard. It presents an improved model of Antarctic ice sheet dynamics that doubles predictions of global sea level rise. It’s been reported on all over the place (Washington Post, New York Times, etc.). Only time will tell how the new model stands up to scrutiny by the scientific community, but I think it’s going to stick because (i) this study fills critical gaps in prior climate models (influence of atmospheric warming, and sheer strength of ice), and (ii) it predicts the known past better than prior climate models.

With this better model, we’re looking at 5-6 feet of sea level rise by 2100, and over 50 feet by 2500. I can’t extend my limited powers of empathy to 2500, but I am paying attention to 2100. My kids could make it there. Five to six feet – that’s about twice what we thought the worst case scenario was a month ago. Five to six feet is disastrous for coastal cities all over the world. But I’m not here to rehash Climageddon – it’s well covered by my TNC colleague Pascal Mittermaier here, and those newspaper articles above. And I’ve already ranted about how common sense folks should be way more freaked out by conservative scientific predictions about all four horsemen of the climate apocalypse (floods, fires, droughts, and disease).

Perhaps oddly, I view this latest bit of climate science with optimism. I know, I know. How can I be optimistic when my childhood neighborhood in Manhattan might require SCUBA gear to visit?

I believe – based on nothing but instinct – that the DeConto and Pollard paper will mark a critical threshold in social awareness and willingness to take action. The April 22 signing of the Paris Climate Agreement will help too. I think we are at a moment in time when every Who in Whoville who has been sitting on the sidelines and not taking this climate change business personally, might pause for a moment to consider what’s at stake for our children. And decide that this game just isn’t working for us.

Melt waterfall into Nansen ice shelf fracture in Antarctica. Photo © C. Yakiwchuck / European Space Agency / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Melt waterfall into Nansen ice shelf fracture in Antarctica. Photo © C. Yakiwchuck / European Space Agency / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Let’s take me for example. I talk like an eco-champ, but I have only taken the run-of-the-mill convenient lifestyle changes necessary to avoid being totally eco-lame. I compost. I sort-of recycle. I ride my bike when the weather is nice. I insulated my attic. I do not live in a McMansion. I never eat beef or shrimp – except when it is served to me unsolicited, in which case I devour it. Please don’t ask me about the minivan or how many jets I hop each year. I took the carbon calculator and I’m WAY above the global average. It’s time to fold the hand I’m playing. Sound familiar? I know many of my fellow eco-champs are playing a similar game.

The good news is, it’s not double or nothing. DeConto and Pollard’s predictions don’t have to come true if we cut it out with the carbon pollution binge fest. It’s a choice between a double-dog-dare disaster, or a safer greener world. Getting friendly with Mother Nature is not going to be easy, but it is going to be way fun.

So, here’s my 2020 Climageddon To Do List:

  • Figure out how to travel less and stop buying useless stuff so I can do the following:
  • Buy a 100% electric model 3 Tesla. It’s drop dead gorgeous, it’s finally going to be affordable, and it out-performs every car in its class on every level. Ok, it takes 20 minutes to fill the tank – but I need a Rainforest Alliance certified latte every 215 miles anyhow.
  • Get some serious solar panels for our house, and our Tesla. The costs keep coming down.
  • Buy and reforest 20 acres of pastureland here in the Shenandoah Valley to offset our remaining carbon footprint (or just donate to The Nature Conservancy).
  • Stop eating beef and pork, and start hunting for venison on those 20 acres.

Here’s why actually doing my 2020 Climageddon To Do list is going to be Totally Awesome:

  • A vision: I am looking across at my older brother in his Porsche 911, from the driver’s seat of my Tesla Model 3. We are at a stoplight. The light turns green. All of a sudden his Porsche – engine screaming – is in the rear view mirror. New climate technology rocks.
  • Fireflies at dusk, filtering through the young trees growing up in my restored cattle pasture.
  • Trout returning to the stream running through my 20 acres, as the trees shade and cool the water, which is now crystal clear because tree roots lock down the soil.
  • Starry, starry nights by the campfire with my family and friends. We are frying up venison steaks and watching the fireflies weave through the young tree branches on our 20 acres. For me, the original climate technology – photosynthesis – rocks even more.
  • My grandkids get to visit the neighborhood I grew up in on Manhattan without a SCUBA suit.

What’s on your Climageddon “to do” list? What are you most looking forward to in a cleaner, greener future?

Bronson Griscom

I am an ecological accountant for The Nature Conservancy. What gets me up in the morning is this question: How can nature help us solve climate change? To explain this, let’s start with the fundamentals: CO2 is the largest cause of climate change. Through a magical process called photosynthesis, trees suck CO2 out of the air, turn the C into cellulose (wood), and release the O2 (oxygen) back into the air. In other words, forests, wetlands, and grasslands are a big climate change solution. More from Bronson

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6 comments

  1. You forgot: cut down on flying. Meet virtually. Yes, its hard. That’s ok, it’s better for the planet, and for you.

    1. Totally agreed! That’s what I meant by first item on the list: “Figure out how to travel less…”

  2. The Great Climate Change Bamboozle

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
    H. L. Mencken

    Earth’s carbon cycle contains 45,000 Gt (E15 gr) +/- 850 GT of stores and reservoirs with a couple hundred Gt/y +/- ?? ebbing and flowing between those reservoirs. Mankind’s gross contribution over 260 years was 555 Gt or 1.2%. (IPCC AR5 Fig 6.1) Mankind’s net contribution, 240 Gt or 0.53%, (dry labbed by IPCC to make the numbers work) to this bubbling, churning caldron of carbon/carbon dioxide is 4 Gt/y +/- 96%. (IPCC AR5 Table 6.1) Seems relatively trivial to me. IPCC et. al. says natural variations can’t explain the increase in CO2. With these tiny percentages and high levels of uncertainty how would anybody even know?

    Mankind’s alleged atmospheric CO2 power flux (watt is power, energy over time) increase between 1750 and 2011, 260 years, was 2 W/m^2 of radiative forcing. (IPCC AR5 Fig SPM.5) Incoming solar RF is 340 W/m^2, albedo RF reflects 100 W/m^2 +/- 30 (can’t be part of the 333), 160 W/m^2 reaches the surface (can’t be part of the 333), latent heat RF from the water cycle’s evaporation is 88 W/m2 +/- 8. Mankind’s 2 W/m^2 contribution is obviously trivial, lost in the natural fluctuations.

    One popular GHE theory power flux balance (“Atmospheric Moisture…. Trenberth et. al. 2011 Figure 10) has a spontaneous perpetual loop (333 W/m^2) flowing from cold to hot violating three fundamental thermodynamic laws. (1. Spontaneous energy out of nowhere, 2) perpetual loop w/o work, 3) cold to hot w/o work, 4) doesn’t matter because what’s in the system stays in the system) Physics must be optional for “climate” science. What really counts is the net RF balance at ToA which 7 out of 8 re-analyses considered by the above cited paper concluded the atmosphere was cooling, not warming. Of course Trenberth says they are wrong because their results are not confirmed by the predicted warming, which hasn’t happened for twenty years.

    Every year the pause/hiatus/lull/stasis continues (IPCC AR5 Box TS.3) IPCC’s atmospheric and ocean general circulation models diverge further from reality.

    As Carl Sagan observed, we have been bamboozled, hustled, conned by those wishing to steal our money and rob us of our liberties. Hardly a new agenda.

    BTW I have a BSME same as Bill Nye so I’m as much a scientist as he is.

    1. Hi Nicholas, I am saddened that you question my motives, and those of most in the scientific community. You misunderstand two fundamentals: (i) how the scientific community operates, and (ii) the difference between noise and signal.

      It is the business of scientists to separate noise from signal. Just because there’s lots of noise, doesn’t mean you can’t hear messages. Some of those messages are rather important.

      The scientific community is not motivated to falsely alarm the general public. On the contrary, scientists are subjected to years of rather psychologically brutal disciplinary training to avoid false group-think alarms. This training starts in graduate school and continues with the peer-review process. The boot camp training we receive is this: (i) be very risk-averse about drawing conclusions that might not be supported by observed data, (ii) try to avoid agreeing with other scientists (agreement is less scientifically interesting). This is not training I recall receiving in college. This may be why folks with bachelors degrees are not usually referred to as scientists. While I think Bill Nye is a great communicator, if you are questioning Nye’s credentials (alongside yours) as a scientist, I would not disagree with you.

      In any case, a trained scientist is like a dog that doesn’t like to bark, and really doesn’t like to bark with other dogs. When a whole lot of science dogs start to bark, my suggestion is this: don’t question the dogs’ motives or tell them to shut up. Get out of your chair and look out of the window.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful post Bronson, I’m about to share on social … The only inaccuracy is that when you pull up to your older brother ( that would be me), he’s going to be driving the souped-up version of the Tesla model three with a big “ludicrous acceleration” button, and he’s going to smoke you. Love the green tech!

  4. Hey Bronson –
    The next time your carbon propelled lands in San Francisco, come visit us at SaveNature.Org and see how we are about reach 500,000 served…..that is students here in the greater Bay Area with climate crushing actions. Anytime – give a call or email me at norm@savenature.org. Nice work, keep it up!