Worse than we thought: Climate uncertainties turning into harsh facts

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Beware uncertainty! It can cut both ways - something the climate change deniers want us to ignore at our peril.

The well-funded deniers have taken advantage of the great amounts of uncertainty about climate science, climate change, and the interlocking web of life that is nature, the nature on which humanity depends for its existence.

And they have been correct that there has been and continues to be much uncertainty. Climate models and projections are guesstimates, not absolute proof. The world's climate system is complex and interacts in sometimes unexpected ways.

But the climate change deniers imply, or state outright, that all this uncertainty means that things might not be so bad. They want people to conclude that there is nothing but upside to it.

The problem is that uncertainty can work the other way too. It can mean that things are much worse than we thought - and we already thought they were pretty bad.

For example, one of the uncertainties about climate change has been about exactly how the systems of cloud formation affect climate. Do clouds reflect, deflect, or absorb the sun's rays? To what degree? Does cloud cover make climate change better or worse? We haven't known.

But a new study, published in Nature, a scientific establishment journal of record, peer reviewed and fact-checked, shows that as the climate changes and warms significantly, cloud formation changes as well, and a warming climate will decrease our cloud cover. As a result there will be fewer lower-level clouds to ameliorate the earth's warming.

What this means is that the predictions up til now, based on calculations that did not include any cloud-related factors, have underestimated how much the climate will heat up by the end of the century.

As we learn more, some of the uncertainty disappears. It is replaced by a certainty that if we don't act soon and in radical fashion to address the causes of climate change, we will sweep past the conservative estimates of 2 degrees Celsius of climate change. That figure might (there's that uncertainty again) keep climate change from affecting humanity and natural systems in catastrophic ways. But the new calculations, taking into account the new certainties about clouds, project an increase of 4 degrees Celsius (about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, double the already-dire predictions of mainstream climate scientists.

As other studies have suggested, the most drastic impacts of climate change will likely come from those effects we don't fully understand yet.

Realistic optimism needs to be based on facts, on reality, on demonstrated understanding of how the world works. The laws of physics can't be repealed or annulled by legislative action. And the uncertainty about how bad climate change is going to get can mean it will get a lot worse a lot sooner than even the most dire projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations body of scientists charged with evaluating the latest in climate science.

All these predictions can be depressing. But the hopeful signs come from the growing movements around the world for curbing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing the many related environmental problems we face. The divestment movement, the anti-fracking movement, the many cities and states as well as countries that are taking real action, the positive steps from the Obama administration such as regulating existing and future coal-powered plants and increasing auto standards, all will help, even though they are not yet anywhere near enough to address the enormity of the problems. What is needed is a massive worldwide movement, inclusive of many organizations, many strategies, and many fronts.

Photo: Flickr (CC)

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  • First, I should make clear that I am not suggesting that the increased projections about climate change are not caused by cloud formation. Climate is a complex equation which includes greenhouse gases that occur naturally, greenhouse gases that have been emitted historically, greenhouse gases that are currently being emitted, cloud formation, the ability of the oceans to absorb emissions--and the degree to which that absorption increases the ocean's acidity, deforestation and reforestation, the amount of the earth's surface covered by highly reflective ice, to mention just a few of the variables. Cloud cover doesn't cause any of it, but it is one aspect of this complicated worldwide system, one we have not sufficient understood up till now.

    Second, E.E.W. Clay, you are correct that the divestment movement offers ways for millions of people worldwide to engage in struggle around this issue, that some of the first and most destructive impacts of global warming will happen (and are happening) in Africa, and that the Communist movement needs to give this much more attention. We can contribute much in our understanding of the fight for unity across many issues, many movements, and a]many organizations, as well as unity across borders. A key factor in the degree of success of the environmental movement will be the extent to which it can engage with the labor movement, and that is part of our role, to encourage such alliances.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Posted by Marc Brodine, 01/03/2014 6:25pm (9 months ago)

  • Thanks Marc Brodine for this informative article, written in plain language, about the facts and conditions surrounding working people and their fragile world life environment.
    Our whole fauna and flora, including sea life and life with the vast variety of people and species in Mother Africa are at peril, of which global warming is maybe its rudest reminder and menace.
    Would it not be the case that Southern Africa as a whole, with South Africa in particular, the subject of the divestment and Apartheid movement, would be the focus of"a tangible way to become engaged", as you put it, and a guide for the environmental movement, in all its rich variety?
    Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Communist Parties would focus on environmental work, stressing worker health, their families' health, and how trade unionism could aid and affect these?
    Such a movement could galvanize the whole world to support labor's rights, in a active sense, in an international context, with particular attention to the millions of "working poor", who are often weakly organized or unorganized, and therefore, a weak link in international working class unity.
    Such a movement could be tremendously useful in studying and protecting life forms, in, for instance, Madagascar.
    The growing interdependency of the forces of life and nature make it necessary for all workers to unify, and the workers of North, Central and South America, must do so, with the whole of Southern Africa, from Angola to Tanzania to Zimbabwe, but also with animals and plants, and all of life's media, for all life on earth is dependent on this unity.
    Modern industry, as Marx explained, make this unity both possible and necessary, should life on earth survive in a positive, deliberate way, conscious of the oneness between humankind and nature.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/03/2014 2:24pm (9 months ago)

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