Climate Change Messes with Texas

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The discussion around the catastrophe in Texas is politically informative but it misses the main point. The strong polar cold that has dipped into the south of North America is a manifestation of climate change. Texans should plan to upgrade their grid and improve the ability of their power sources to function in cold because this will happen again. Methane pipelines and pumping stations failed as the system froze. As has been explained in the media, in the 1930s Texas decided to build its own grid and supply its own power to avoid federal regulation and collaboration with other states. I am sure that we will learn more as the finger pointing becomes more comprehensive, but frozen windmills are in no way a cause of this failure. Texas gets between 7 and 20 percent of its power from renewables and prior to this failure renewables were generating less than 10 percent.

Climate change is driving this phenomenon. There is discussion in the scientific community about the mechanisms and this reveals inadequacies in the models. Because of the failure of the models to replicate how Arctic Amplification might cause the intensely cold polar vortex, some scientists continue to claim that the linkage does not exist, or at least that it is unproven. At this point in the long discussion of this issue, the argument that the link does not exist does not represent respectable hypothesis testing. In my view, this is irresponsible scientific reticence as articulated some years ago by James Hansen. It is a typical CYA maneuver that scientists use to avoid being criticized by their colleagues with all the attendant damage to their ability to publish and get grants. No scientist wants to be seen as a crank, but reticence on well documented phenomena serves no one. While overstating the damages and dangers can result in fatalism, it is OK to be wrong.

The failure of the models notwithstanding, the empirical processes are clear and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt a quantitative linkage between Arctic Amplification and the deep winter cold of the midlatitudes in North America. A list of papers that discuss the polar vortex and its relationship to climate change can be found here: https://www.nature.com/collections/bfihgidbhc These are behind a paywall, but if you can access a university net you will be able to download them. (Also if you live in a large metro area, your public library will likely have access.) I am hopeful that the modeling community can embrace this failure and reassess how these massively complex models could miss something so apparently obvious and important.

Impact of the polar vortex has been sharpening and occurring with increasing frequency during winters for almost 20 years. This deep freeze will happen again, and the critical question that needs to be addressed by the models is the degree of extreme weather that will result. Until the missing pieces of the models are found and fixed, we will be limited in our ability to manage disaster risk reduction.

Globally there are other phenomena that are beginning to manifest and these require better models to understand. The most important of these are related to how heat transfer occurs throughout the ocean thermohaline conveyor system. Processes driven by the movement of freshwater and thermal energy could cause climate feedbacks that are hard to predict and may accelerate the overall disruption of the Earth System.

During 2019 and 2020 the first runs of the current generation of coupled inter-comparison models (CMIP6) projected warming above 6˚C by 2100. This extreme has been solidly rejected by the scientific community. The modelers must acknowledge and refine how they refer to their models before this next generation is used as the basis for inappropriately projecting socioeconomic and ecological processes. The Relative Concentration Pathways of the 5th IPCC assessment and the associated coupled inter-comparison models (CMIP5 and derivatives) have generated hundreds of papers, but many of these are not particularly useful because we know that the models are at best a rough approximation of possible outcomes.

The 6th IPCC assessment should set a different standard for use of the models and instead emphasize empirical relationships and the drivers of various scenarios. We need to know what is likely and what we don’t know, not only what complex models may project for our future. We must make a greater effort to educate the press and public about the nature and purposes of these scenario analyses. Most readers think that models are intended to predict the future, but this is simply wrong. Models project, not predict, certain outcomes based on sensitivity analyses and system responses to specified drivers. It is the drivers that are far more informative than the models themselves because the drivers are actionable.

(If I have to explain to students another full page of a journal with tiny maps of the globe representing different RCPs as modified by different massively complex models, I will stick a knife in my head.)

Bottomline: Get used to Global Weirding. This will be a fact of life for as long a humanity chooses to manage the climate system and the biosphere. Plan on decades and likely centuries of changes that will affect all aspects of civilization. Above all, we must keep the global average temperature rise relative to pre-industrial to 3˚C or below. Although rather arbitrary, many in the scientific community see this amount of warming as the limit beyond which changes will be catastrophic for most ecosystems and organisms.

I am quite certain that 1.5˚C is simply impossible at this point, and I think it unlikely that we can develop the processes within a neoliberal global economy to stay below 2˚C. I think it a virtual certainty that developed nations will geoengineer the Earth System to avoid catastrophic warming, while continuing to give the criminal fossil fuel industry a pass for continued emissions. Geoengineering is an unimaginably dangerous experiment with manifold side effects, known and unknown, of varying degrees of severity.

The coming decades will test our ability to cooperate with each other and build an adaptive fossil-free sustainable civilization. Unless there is a sea change in the extreme politics of the US, such collaboration and cooperation will be hard to achieve. Reconciliation is not possible when one side has an almost religious belief that they are at war with the other. This is the absolute worst time for US democracy to fail. We need to find common ground as we address the gravest threat to civilization since we wandered out of Africa. I am not sanguine that we can achieve this in time to make a difference for our descendants.

At a personal level I am faced with the difficult calculation of when to walk away. For over 30 years climate change and ecosystem disruption have been my primary areas of scholarship and program development. I have just a shred of hope that the final 10 years or so of my productive life can make any difference. I am alarmed, but not really surprised, that I don’t have a clue as to how I would live my life if I walk away from this mission. Focus on climate change has strained the bonds of more than a few academic families. This work has always been lonely and emotionally expensive.

Environmental scientist and educator; forest and climate change ecologist.

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