Modern climate change is 10x faster than historic global warming mass extinction events

There have been several mass extinction events in the history of the earth, most of them caused by global warming due to “sudden” releases of carbon into the atmosphere, and it only took an increase of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius to cause the cataclysm. The current carbon emissions rate is 10 to 100x faster than during those events. And we’re already a quarter of the way there in terms of warming.

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The current warming trends, RCP 8.5 and RCP 4.5, refer to estimates of carbon emissions under high and moderately low projections by the International Panel on Climate Change. The straight lines on the extinction events are approximate; there may have been episodic spurts and stops as different thresholds, positive feedback loops, and other natural events occurred. But these lines connect the dots we have.

The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Land animals with backbones didn’t really evolve until 300 million years ago (mya), so we’ll start there.

The most massive mass extinction event in the history of the earth was the End-Permian extinction event (also known as the Permian-Triassic extinction event or the Great Dying) 252 mya. It was caused by a massive release of carbon. The equatorial regions, both on land and in the ocean, were too hot for most life forms, including plants. The cause of the warming event is debated, but was most likely due to a series of volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps that lasted two million years. The extinction occurred during an initial 60,000 year period, which is “sudden” in geologic terms. Recovery of the ecosystem, basically a whole new evolutionary period to create new animals, took 2 to 10 million years.

The End-Triassic extinction event came next, 201 mya. It was also associated with volcanic activity and the massive release of carbon, this time from the mid-Atlantic ridge. It probably triggered a positive feedback loop, with melting permafrost releasing tons of methane. The extinction period, affecting plants and animals, lasted about 10,000 years and paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs dominated after that, until all but the avian dinosaurs (the ones that evolved into birds) were wiped out by another mass extinction event 66 mya. This may have been caused by a comet or asteroid striking the earth, or by extreme volcanic activity creating global warming similar to the other events here (8 degrees Celsius over 40,000 years). This one is not shown on the graph.

Finally, there was the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) and associated extinction event 56 mya. Likely caused by a combination of carbon and methane releases, this global warming event is the most recent, offers the most evidence and information, and is most analogous to climate change today. The continents were in roughly similar positions as today. The warming, 5 degrees Celsius in about 5,000 years, wiped out much benthic marine life, pushed the tropics to Wyoming and alligators to the Arctic Circle, warmed oceans to 97 degrees, and made the equatorial regions too hot for many species. The PETM is well-studied, with hundreds of papers available on-line, plus quite a bit of media coverage.

The high temperatures lasted for about 20,000 years. Eventually, the Arctic Ocean became covered with algae. These algae slowly absorbed CO2. When it died, it sank, taking the carbon with it to the bottom of the sea, lowering the carbon in the atmosphere and cooling the earth back to normal. This process took 200,000 years.

Climate change during these past events, considered rapid in geologic time, would have scarcely been noticed by animals on the ground. Animals didn’t go extinct by dropping dead; they just had a lower reproductive rate such that their populations slowly declined until none were left. Also, they evolved. In fact, there was a pulse of evolution during the PETM, producing, among other things, the first primates.

The current warming is 10 times faster than during the PETM. It is noticeable within the lifespan of an individual animal. Adaption thru evolution is not an option. Scientists mince no words:

“We conclude that, given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. We suggest that such a ‘no-analogue’ state represents a fundamental challenge in constraining future climate projections. Also, future ecosystem disruptions are likely to exceed the relatively limited extinctions observed at the PETM.”  – Zeebe (2016)

The PETM raised average earth surface temperatures 5 C. We’re at 1.1 C now, with probably up to 2 C already built into the system, meaning we’ll reach that even if we stop all carbon emissions tomorrow. We’re likely to reach 2 C even if we dramatically reduce emissions and successfully implement Direct Air Capture of ambient CO2 in the atmosphere. Assuming business as usual, we may reach PETM levels in 140 years.

The international climate report in three diagrams: The world at a crossroads

On October 6, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (known at “SR15”), looking at the benefits of keeping global warming under 1.5 °C, as compared to 2.0 °C, and the potential pathways to get there. The report was commissioned after the Paris Agreement of 2015, which subjected nearly every nation in the world to voluntary goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are already at 1.0 °C and climbing, so this is a late-in-the-game analysis.

The results, based on the latest science, are sobering. While past IPCC reports were known for being rather conservative, largely due to political pressure, this one is more direct, practically screaming for a radical reduction in fossil fuel use (which must fall to near zero by 2060 even with a technological breakthrough in carbon sequestration). When it was approved, participating scientists cried tears of joy that their report, dire as it is, was allowed to be published as it was.

The full report, a little over 1,000 pages, is available in chapters here.  It provides important details regarding the effects of climate change from region to region.

A 34-page summary for policy-makers is available here.

But even that summary is full of technical jargon that most politicians and members of the public would find cumbersome. Here I’ve taken some of the most important diagrams from the summary and modified and annotated them.  Here is the report in three diagrams:

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Oil companies have researched climate change for 50 years– accurately

Long before climate change was controversial, before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, before the public was even aware of greenhouse gases and sea level rise, the oil industry Oaklandtimelineknew pretty much what we now know today. They have been studying, researching, and modeling climate change as a result of their greenhouse gas emissions for over 50 years. Their research was in concert with the scientific community and decades ahead of public knowledge of the problem. Their predictions were typically exactly in line with the rest of the scientific world, and actually more aggressive than predictions by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The evidence is all laid out in the First Amended Complaint by the City of Oakland and State of California in their climate change lawsuit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell.

The case was recently dismissed, but more like it are sure to come. The full complaint, which also includes a nice summary of climate change and its future impacts on the City of Oakland, is available at this webpage (scroll down to 04/03/2018 Complaint).

A recent piece in the New York Times Magazine lays out how the government knew all this too, back in the 1980s, when Republicans and the oil industry agreed it was a problem, but then did nothing.

Here I re-post from Oakland’s First Amended Complaint the section on Big Oil’s knowledge and research of climate change:

DEFENDANTS HAVE PRODUCED MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF FOSSIL FUELS DESPITE HAVING FULL KNOWLEDGE FROM THEIR IN-HOUSE SCIENTIFIC STAFF, OR FROM API, THAT FOSSIL FUELS WOULD CAUSE GLOBAL WARMING.

For decades, Defendants have known that their fossil fuel products pose risks of “severe” and even “catastrophic” impacts on the global climate through the work and warnings of their own scientists and/or through their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (“API”). Defendants, large and sophisticated companies devoted to researching significant issues relevant to fossil fuels, also were aware of significant scientific reports on climate change science and impacts at the time they were issued. Yet each Defendant decided to continue its conduct and commit itself to massive fossil fuel production. This was a deliberate decision to place company profits ahead of human safety and well-being and property, and to foist onto the public the costs of abating and adapting to the public nuisance of global warming.

The API is a national trade association that represents the interests of America’s oil and natural gas industry. At all relevant times, Defendants, their corporate predecessors and/or their operating subsidiaries over which they exercise substantial control, have been members of the API. On information and belief, the API has acted as Defendants’ agent with respect to global warming, received funding from Defendants for the API’s global warming initiatives, and shared with Defendants the information on global warming described herein.

Beginning in the 1950s, the API repeatedly warned its members that fossil fuels posed a grave threat to the global climate. These warnings have included, for example, an admission in 1968 in an API report predicting that carbon dioxide emissions were “almost certain” to produce “significant” temperature increases by 2000, and that these emissions were almost certainly attributable to fossil fuels. The report warned of “major changes in the earth’s environment” and a “rise in sea levels,” and concluded: “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.” Similar warnings followed in the ensuing decades, including reports commissioned by the API in the 1980s that there was “scientific consensus” that catastrophic climate change would ensue unless API members changed their business models, and predictions that sea levels would rise considerably, with grave consequences, if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 continued to increase.

The API’s warnings to Defendants included:

  • a) In 1951, the API launched a project to research air pollution from petroleum products, and attributed atmospheric carbon to fossil fuel sources. By 1968, the API’s scientific consultant reported to the API that carbon dioxide emissions were “almost certain” to produce “significant” temperature increases by 2000, and that these emissions were almost certainly attributable to fossil fuels. The report warned of “major changes in the earth’s environment” and a “rise in sea levels,” and concluded: “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”
  • b) Between 1979 and 1983, the API and Defendants, their predecessors, and/or agents formed a task force to monitor and share climate research, initially called the “CO2 and Climate Task Force” and later renamed the “Climate and Energy Task Force” (“Task Force”). The API kept and distributed meeting minutes to Task Force members. Task Force members included, in addition to API representatives, scientists from Amoco (a predecessor to BP); Standard Oil of California, Texaco, and Gulf Oil Corp. (predecessors to Chevron); Exxon Research and Engineering and Mobil (predecessors to or subsidiaries of current Exxon); Shell; and others. In 1980, the Task Force invited Dr. J.A. Laurman, a “recognized expert in the field of CO2 and climate,” to make a presentation. Attendees to the presentation included scientists and executives from Texaco (a predecessor to Chevron), Exxon, and SOHIO (a predecessor to BP). Dr. Laurman’s written presentation informed the Task Force that there was a “Scientific Consensus on the Potential for Large Future Climatic Response to Increased CO2 Levels.” He further informed the Task Force in his presentation that, though the exact temperature increases were difficult to predict, the “physical facts agree on the probability of large effects 50 years away.” He warned the Task Force of a 2.5 ºC [4.5 ºF] global temperature rise by 2038, which would likely have “MAJOR ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES,” and a 5 ºC [9 ºF] rise by 2067, which would likely produce “GLOBALLY CATASTROPHIC EFFECTS.” He also suggested that, despite uncertainty, “THERE IS NO LEEWAY” in the time for acting. API minutes show that the Task Force discussed topics including “the technical implications of energy source changeover,” “ground rules for energy release of fuels and the cleanup of fuels as they relate to CO2 creation,” and researching “the Market Penetration Requirements of Introducing a New Energy Source into World Wide Use.” The Task Force even asked the question “what is the 50 year future of fossil fuels?”
  • (c) In March 1982, an API-commissioned report showed the average increase in global temperature from a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and projected, based upon computer modeling, global warming of between 2 and 3.5 ºC [3.6 to 6.3 ºF]. The report projected potentially “serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival,” and noted that “the height of the sea level can increase considerably.”

On information and belief, Defendants were aware of the industry Task Force and API findings described above, which were distributed by the API to its members. Each Defendant (or its predecessor) was a member of the API at relevant times, or had a subsidiary that was a member of the API at relevant times. Each subsidiary passed on information it learned from the API on climate change to its parent Defendant (or Defendant’s predecessor) and acted as the agent for its parent company, which remained in charge of setting overall production levels in light of climate change and other factors.

On information and belief, each Defendant was also actually aware (at the time they were made) of public statements on climate change described above, including the 1979 National Academy of Science findings and Dr. Hansen’s 1988 testimony. Because these statements were centrally relevant to Defendants’ ongoing investment of billions of dollars in fossil fuel production and billions of dollars in profits, and because Defendants employed experts charged with evaluating climate change and other energy and regulatory trends, Defendants were in a superior position to appreciate the threat described in these statements. Defendants’ representatives attended congressional hearings on climate change beginning as early as the late 1970s.

In addition to the API information, some of the Defendants produced their own internal analyses of global warming. For example, newly disclosed documents demonstrate that Exxon internally acknowledged in the late 1970s and early 1980s that its products posed a “catastrophic” threat to the global climate, and that fossil fuel use would have to be strictly limited to avoid severe harm:

  • a) Exxon management was informed by its scientists in 1977 that there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. The presentation summarized a warning from a recent international scientific conference that “IT IS PREMATURE TO LIMIT USE OF FOSSIL FUELS BUT THEY SHOULD NOT BE ENCOURAGED.” The scientist warned management in a summary of his talk: “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
  • b) In a 1979 Exxon internal memo, an Exxon scientist calculated that 80% of fossil fuel reserves would need to remain in the ground and unburned to avoid greater than a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • c) In a 1981 internal Exxon memo, a scientist and director at the Exxon Research and Engineering Company warned that “it is distinctly possible” that CO2 emissions “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”
  • d) A year later, the same scientist wrote another memo to Exxon headquarters, which reported on a “clear scientific consensus” that “a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise of (3.0 ± 1.5) ºC [2.7 ºF to 8.1 ºF].” The clear scientific consensus was based upon computer modeling, which Exxon would later attack as unreliable and uncertain in an effort to undermine public confidence in climate science. The memo continued: “There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
  • e) In November 1982, an Exxon internal report to management warned that “substantial climatic changes” could occur if the average global temperature rose “at least 1ºC [1.8 ºF] above [1982] levels,” and that “[m]itigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” The report then warns Exxon management that “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered,” including the risk that “if the Antarctic ice sheet which is anchored on land should melt, then this could cause a rise in sea level on the order of 5 meters.” The report includes a graph demonstrating the expected future global warming from the “CO2 effect” demonstrating a sharp departure from the “[r]ange of natural fluctuations.” This graph is attached hereto as Exhibit 3.
  • oakland1
  • f) By 1983, Exxon had created its own climate models, which confirmed the main conclusions from the earlier memos. Starting by at least the mid-1980s, Exxon used its own climate models, and governmental ones to gauge the impact that climate change would have on its own business operations and subsequently took actions to protect its own business assets based upon these modeling results.

Exxon’s early research and understanding of the global warming impacts of its business was not unique among Defendants. For example, at least as far back as 1970, Defendants Shell and BP began funding scientific research in England to examine the possible future climate changes from greenhouse gas emissions. Shell produced a film on global warming in 1991, in which it admitted that there had been a “marked increase [in global temperatures] in the 1980s” and that the increase “does accord with computer models based on the known atmospheric processes and predicted buildup of greenhouse gases.” It acknowledged a “serious warning” that had been “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists” in 1990. In the film, Shell further admits that by 2050 continued emissions of greenhouse gases at high levels would cause a global average temperature increase of 1.5 to 4º C (2.7 to 7.2º F); that one meter of sea level rise was likely in the next century; that “this could be disastrous;” and that there is a “possibility of change faster than at any time since the end of the ice age, change too fast, perhaps, for life to adapt without severe dislocation.”

The next section is entitled,

DESPITE THEIR EARLY KNOWLEDGE THAT GLOBAL WARMING WAS REAL AND POSED GRAVE THREATS, DEFENDANTS PROMOTED FOSSIL FUELS FOR PERVASIVE USE WHILE DOWNPLAYING THE REALITY AND RISKS OF GLOBAL WARMING.

The document also includes this graph:

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The graph compares the greenhouse gas emissions trajectory necessary to prevent global warming from exceeding a 2º C increase over the pre-industrial temperature (IEA 450 from International Energy Agency) to BP, Exxon and Shell’s projections of total worldwide future emissions that they use to make long-term business plans.

Wikipedia provides a nice history of climate change research. Global warming as a result of CO2 emissions was first described in 1896. The theory attracted more attention in the 1950s. The term “greenhouse” was used in a government report in 1965. However, it was not until the mid-1970s that a scientific consensus began to emerge on the level of global warming associated with CO2 emissions. The oil companies not only followed it closely, but developed their own models that corroborated the science. The dangers of global warming did not attract public attention until 1988, long after Big Oil had thoroughly studied it and knew of its impacts.