Climate Change is Not Debatable

Energy Aware

Climate change is not debatable and yet the debates continue. The debates are a distraction from making any progress on addressing the problem.

There are in fact three very different climate-change debates going on today: a scientific debate, a world leadership debate, and a public debate.

Most scientists agree that climate change is a real and existential problem (Figure 1). The scientific debate is about how much of a threat climate change is to human life and civilization.

World leadership generally agrees with scientists but believes that there is a technology solution for carbon emissions. The leadership debate is about which technology will reverse or slow CO2 emissions.

The public is more divided about the seriousness of climate change partly because of populist influencers who peddle the narrative that climate change is a hoax. The public generally accepts that climate change is real but does not believe it is the most important problem facing the world. The public debate is whether doing something about climate change is worth the cost.

Figure 1.There are three different climate-change debates. Source: Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The Scientific Paradigm

These categories of debates are, of course, broad generalizations but they help to explain why there has been little progress addressing the problem of a warming planet.

Let me be very clear about one thing: the ruling scientific paradigm today is that climate change is caused by CO2 emissions linked largely to burning fossil fuels.

That is not debatable.

The tiresome populist argument that climate change is a hoax, however, goes on because many people are psychologically unwilling to accept that this is the best explanation for a warming earth.

Global warming is an empirical fact. That is not debatable.

The mean surface temperature of the earth has increased to nearly  1° Celsius more than the 100-year average (Figure 2). It is expected to approach the dangerous level of  1.5° Celsius more than that 100 year average in the next few years.

Figure 2. Global average surface temperature. Source: NOAA

Out of more than 88,000 peer-reviewed papers on climate change since 2012, 97% supported the ruling paradigm. Deniers point to a handful of scientists who disagree and say that this “so-called consensus” is wrong; or they cite a few incorrect forecasts about climate change and say that this proves that climate-change is a hoax.

That is wrong and dishonest. The overwhelming agreement among scientists is not debatable. It is what defines the current scientific paradigm.

A paradigm is a theory that seems to explain observed facts better than competing theories. It is a set of universally recognized interpretations of data, methodological processes and concepts by the present scientific community.

Thomas Kuhn was a renowned physicist whose 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions defined the paradigm in modern scientific work.

“Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute.
–Thomas Kuhn

That doesn’t mean that the paradigm is correct for all time. It merely means that it is the explanation that best integrates all available data.

Kuhn stated that a  paradigm is established when a world-view or theory is “embraced by almost all practitioners” and becomes part of the practice of  “normal science.” The ruling paradigm is accepted as a first principle in new published research. It no longer needs to be proven each time it is stated because it is broadly accepted.

This is how science has worked for centuries. There is nothing special about the climate-change paradigm that didn’t apply to plate tectonics, germ theory, quantum mechanics or any new scientific paradigm.

When debate within the competitive and contentious scientific community devolves from a roar to a whimper, a new paradigm is established.

The Populist Argument is Wrong

The main populist objections to the ruling scientific paradigm include:

  • that climate is always changing and is part of a natural process;
  • that there were higher CO2 and temperature levels during the time of dinosaurs and life went on just fine;
  • that some predictions about the timing of climate change were wrong;
  • and that CO2 and warming don’t correlate perfectly.

These shop-worn objections have been around for decades and have been debunked or shown to be without material substance in the larger systemic context.

For example, dinosaurs had a vastly different tolerance to temperature and CO2 than humans. There may have been 20 million dinosaurs on earth at their peak during the Cretaceous period about 66 million years ago. They lived relatively simple lives in small herds or alone.

There are now 8 billion humans living in a complexly connected civilization that relies on global supply chains to move goods and services all around the planet. Comparing the present and near-future for humans to conditions for now-extinct creatures in the deep geological past is simply absurd.

Another example: climate-change deniers can easily find  a few credentialed climate experts who disagree with the ruling paradigm—just like every attorney can find expert witnesses whose testimony supports his client’s plea.

Similarly, it is easy to find a climate expert who made a prediction that didn’t come true. Human history is littered with bad predictions and dissenting experts. Failed predictions and even bad scholarship are sadly found in many areas of society, not only in climate science. But the exceptions do not prove the rule.

Paradigms are explanations. There is no requirement that we like them. Einstein never liked quantum theory but he could not support his belief except to say that, “I, at any rate, am convinced that [God] does not throw dice.”

The climate-change debate, however, is not a competition. There is more than adequate information to suggest that climate change presents some probable risk to human prosperity and to other species. Like it or not, the scientific debate about climate change ended years ago.

Technology Won’t Save Us

Figure 3 is the single most important chart for understanding that the climate debate is about more than just carbon emissions.

It shows the normalized and scaled correlation between economic growth (GDP), the human material footprint on earth’s ecosystems, carbon emission (CO2) levels, and human population.

Climate change is not just about the carbon that human activities produce but how effectively earth’s forests, oceans and atmosphere are able to process those emissions. That is 100% correlated with economic growth. Economic growth is 100% correlated with energy consumption. All are directly related to population growth.

The conclusion is clear: carbon emissions and overshoot of planetary boundaries are unlikely to decrease as long as world GDP and population continue to increase. All four factors in Figure 3 are related. Nothing can really be done about reducing carbon emissions without also reducing population, humanity’s ecological footprint, and GDP.

Figure 3. Carbon emissions (CO2) and overshoot of planetary boundaries (material footprint) are unlikely to decrease as long as world GDP and population continue to increase. Source: World Bank (GDP), World Bank (population), Global Carbon Atlas, Global Material Flows Database & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Figure 3 is not debatable. You don’t have to like it or agree. It is historical fact.

The path that world leadership is following is based on technology optimism.

When the International Energy Agency issued its Net Zero by 2050 report in May 2021, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry made these comments.

“I am told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have. That’s just a reality…You don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things that we know we have to achieve. That’s the brilliance of some of the things that we know how to do.”

Figure 3 indicates that Mr. Kerry is totally wrong.

He is wrong because he and world leadership are only focused on carbon emissions. But emissions are not the problem. They are the result of the problem. CO2 emissions are simply the waste produced by 8 billion people consuming energy every day. The problem cannot be solved by addressing the symptom without also addressing the causes.

World leaders and many climate activists have carbon tunnel vision (Figure 4). They do not see that carbon emissions are a systems problem.

Figure 4. Carbon tunnel vision. Source: Jon Konietzko.

In fact, climate change itself is a systems problem. It is a symptom of too many humans, using too many resources, producing too much waste and overshooting earth’s capacity to recover. Humans have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet.

The original meaning of carrying capacity was the amount of cargo a ship could carry without a risk of sinking. Our ship is Planet Earth and we have overloaded it with people consuming its resources and polluting its land, water and air.

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions have failed and will probably continue to fail. The dashed green line in Figure 5 is the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 1.5° C pathway to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is what must happen to avoid serious climate-change risks to humans and the planet.

The most likely projection (black line) suggests that the world is seriously off-track in meeting that net zero pathway.  It seems that even the more dangerous 2.0° C pathway may also be exceeded.

Figure 5. Global CO2 emissions will flatten in the most likely case but warming will exceed the 2° C pathway. Source: EIA, IEA, OWID, McKinsey & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

How is it possible that things look so bad in spite of all the laws, regulations, technology and money devoted to the problem?

It is because all models and projections (including the IPCC scenarios) assume continued population and economic growth.

IEA’s net zero scenario in Figure 4  includes an approximate doubling of world economic growth by 2050 averaging 3.1% from 2020 to 2050. The EIA case assumes 1.7% economic growth for OECD countries and 2.6% for non-OECD countries.

Without a change in population and economic growth, temperatures will enter a danger zone for life on the planet in the next few years.

That is not an alarmist statement. It is common sense. It is the inevitable result of historical data trends.  If the trends don’t change, the outcome is unlikely to change.

There’s really nothing to debate.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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4 Comments

  1. Geoff on July 17, 2023 at 4:09 am

    Art,
    Thanks again for your perspective.

    You state:

    The mean surface temperature of the earth has increased to nearly 1° Celsius more than the 100-year average (Figure 2). It is expected to approach the dangerous level of 1.5° Celsius more than that 100 year average in the next few years.

    It depends on where one defines an appropriate/meaningful baseline – 1901-2000 or some other baseline.
    It depends on the duration of the event – daily, weekly, monthly, or annual average, or something longer-term.

    Climate scientist Dr James E Hansen and colleagues at Columbia University’s Earth Institute use the 1880-1920 global mean surface temperature as a baseline. Per a communication dated 12 Jan 2023 titled Global Temperature in 2022, the top-10 warmest years (annual average) in the instrumental record, based on GISS temperature analysis, so far has been:

    Rank _ Year_ _ _ Anomaly relative to 1880-1920 baseline
    #01 _ _ 2020 _ _ +1.29 °C
    #02 _ _ 2016 _ _ +1.28 °C
    #03 _ _ 2019 _ _ +1.24 °C
    #04 _ _ 2017 _ _ +1.19 °C
    #05 _ _ 2015 _ _ +1.165 °C
    #05 _ _ 2022 _ _ +1.162 °C
    #07 _ _ 2021 _ _ +1.12 °C
    #07 _ _ 2018 _ _ +1.12 °C
    #09 _ _ 2014 _ _ +1.01 °C
    #10 _ _ 2010 _ _ +0.99 °C
    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2023/Temperature2022.12January2023.pdf

    It seems the Earth System has already breached the +1.5 °C warming threshold multiple times on a daily average basis (relative to the IPCC 1850-1900 baseline), and perhaps occasionally on a weekly average basis. It seems a breach on a monthly basis is fast approaching (possibly in this month?), and is also becoming increasingly likely on an annual basis, perhaps for next year (2024). That means a longer-term breach is more likely later this decade.
    https://twitter.com/EliotJacobson/status/1680640429275103233

    Warming is only going to accelerate while the Earth Energy Imbalance (EEI) keeps getting larger. The 36-month step average EEI is currently equivalent to the energy released from 11.35 Hiroshima nuclear bomb magnitude equivalents per second.
    https://twitter.com/EliotJacobson/status/1680739522462752770

    Climate scientist Kevin Anderson recently said in the YouTube video titled A True Paradise: WHERE WE ARE HEADING – Kevin Anderson, published 8 Jun 2023, from time interval 0:02:52:

    When we think about 3 or 4 degrees Centigrade, let’s be clear: We have no historical precedent in human history for these sorts of temperature changes, and they are occurring overnight, and they don’t just occur across this century. Firstly, we know that things like sea level rise will keep going for hundreds of years after that, and that we are locking-in, absolutely locking-in really high levels of sea level rise, maybe 7, 8 or more metres. So we may only across this century see one or two metres, which will be devastating for many of our coastal cities. And of course, most of the population of the world live near the coast. So that will be devastating for our existing communities. But we are locking-in this devastation for centuries to come, but we are also changing very significantly how we will produce our food, whether we will produce enough food, where will our food be produced, and that’s because we’re changing the complete weather patterns of our society, of our Earth. We’re changing rainfall patterns. We’re changing insect pollination of our crops. So all of this plays out, one disaster after another. So any single one of them we might think, oh, we can resolve, we can deal with that, but when you bring all of these together, occurring almost overnight, you’re talking about the collapse of our modern society. You’re talking about the collapse of most of our sort of emblematic ecosystems. So this is not a future that we should be in any way be, we should be heading towards, and we should be doing everything we can to avoid it. The sad state of affairs is, though, that we’re doing nothing to avoid it. There is plenty of talk, but no action. And what we have to bear in mind is the climate only responds to action. The physics responds to how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere. So we can talk about efficiency, we can talk about green growth and all of this stuff. It’s meaningless! What really matters is keeping the emissions out of the atmosphere.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_FtS_HNbkc

    Co-head of Research Department on Earth System Analysis of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of Physics of the Oceans at the University of Potsdam, Professor Stefan Rahmstorf tweeted on 25 May 2023:

    The area no longer inhabitable for humans (purple) changes depending on the extent of global warming. Current study from Nature Sustainability, https://nature.com/articles/s41893-023-01132-6

    The tweet included a gif animation showing areas of the globe (in purple) that would be considered no longer habitable (MATs ≥ 29 °C).
    https://twitter.com/rahmstorf/status/1661450321766371329/photo/1

    Indeed, if the trends don’t change, the outcome is unlikely to change.

  2. Jay on June 30, 2023 at 11:46 pm

    N.O.T.E.D. is my acronym for what you would call Climate-Denial. Address these and you will benefit your argument. N – Nuclear, why not the push for nuclear and now micro-nuclear energy. O – Other Nations, seems to me that China and India are significant CO2 emitters; how do we rein them in? Not so much of an effort thus far. T – Totalitarian Government Control, This one is purely political and not a question for the scientific community but face it Climate Change is a Marxist’s Wet Dream. E – Everything (as in) they lie about everything! We might be led (in the USA) to more people believing the credibility regarding the crisis many scientists are claiming Climate Change is; but our political leaders lie about sooooo much (way too much to list) hard to believe them on this (or anything else) D – Decades (False crisis claims for) Like back in the 70’s it was climate cooling, and so many false and/or exaggerated claims since. Look there’s nothing wrong with crying out “WOLF” when an actual wolf shows up.. but you should get the skepticism. (I note you covered this in the article) And this is why so many go about their lives not considering CC the BIG deal you would like us to. This is for your benefit, I’m just sayin’

  3. […] problem facing the world. It is a symptom of the much larger problem of overshooting earth’s carrying capacity. This means that humans are using natural resources and polluting at rates beyond the planet’s […]

  4. EnergyAndEntropy on June 22, 2023 at 9:56 am

    How many people are needed to extract 8 billion tonnes of coal annually, 100 million of barrels of oil and atmospheres of natural gas daily – by hand – with buckets and ropes?
    The answer is: 8 billion people – flat out, 24/7 – strong.
    Fossil fuels don’t come from thousands of feet deep in the underground to the surface and then to the end point of use – on the flying carpet – they need people…
    This is no matter how in the process people specialise to perform that task as Prime Ministers, prostitutes, soldiers, plumbers, doctors, artists, writers, scientists, bloggers, climate change activists and all others – they all actually marching behind-scene 24/7 to extract fossil fuels….
    Let any one call now for a reduction in fossil fuels exports from war-torn nations – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Russia, Sudan – and he/she will be eaten alive by all – including the climate change movement.
    Nikola Tesla, Einstein, Huxley, Orwell and Turing should be forgiven for thinking their systems can last forever – finite fossil fuels are dangerously hypnotic to humans and their mental capacity.
    Humans were not ready morally, ethically and intellectually to start the mass extraction of fossil fuels with the advent of the steam engine 300 years ago.
    The Magna Carta requires now overhauling – adding to it the right for humans to understand what Energy really is;
    “In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.
    Time taken in stocking energy to build an energy system, adding to it the time taken in building the system will always be longer than the entire useful lifetime of the system.
    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can deliver sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.
    Energy, like time, flows from past to future” (2017).

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