24 February 2023

Faster, higher, hotter: What we learned about the climate system in 2022 (3)

Third in a 3-part series  |  Part 1  |  Part 2

by David Spratt

So far this series has looked at:

  1. Emissions trends
  2. The 1.5°C target
  3. Overshooting and cooling back to 1.5°C
  4. The likelihood of achieving the 2°C target
  5. 2°C degrees is not a point of system stability
  6. We are heading towards 3°C or more
  7. System-level change and tipping points are happening faster than forecast

This post looks at cascading risks, climate extremes and necessary actions.

8    Risks are cascading, and underestimated 

Climate system feedbacks can drive abrupt, non-linear change that is difficult to model and forecast, with the Earth moving to dramatically different conditions. Such changes may be irreversible on relevant time frames, such as the span of a few human generations. Major tipping points are interrelated and may cascade, so that interactions between them lower the critical temperature thresholds at which each tipping point is passed.

Climate models do not yet incorporate key processes, and therefore are deficient, especially when projecting abrupt change, system cascades, and changes in the cryosphere and in the carbon cycle. Whether it be permafrost, Greenland or West Antarctica (and hence sea-level rises), the story is the same. Current climate models are not capturing all the risks, such as the stalling of the Gulf Stream, polar ice melt and the uptick in extreme weather events. Thus Earth system and Integrated Assessment Model projections, and their use in determining carbon budgets, are not reliable. It is important that observations, semi-empirical models, expert elicitations, and lessons from past climates are given more weight, given current model deficiencies.

22 February 2023

Faster, higher, hotter: What we learned about the climate system in 2022 (2)

Second in a 3-part series  |  Part 1   |  Part 3

by David Spratt

The first part in this series looked at:

  1. Emissions trends, 
  2. The 1.5°C target, 
  3. Overshooting and cooling back to 1.5°C, and 
  4. The likelihood of achieving the 2°C target.

This post looks at system stability at 2°C, warming at 3°C, and feedbacks and cascades.

5    2°C degrees is not a point of system stability

Even sharp reductions in emissions will not be enough to avoid crossing the 1.5°C threshold, nor the 2°C threshold, given the record-breaking use of fossil fuels in 2022 and the forecasts.

Yet it is a big mistake to think we can stabilise or “park” the Earth System at around 2°C and expect it to stay there, says Will Steffen.  Earth’s climate history shows 2°C is not a point of system stability, but a signpost on a road to a hotter planet. 

When projections in late 2021 showed future warming of around 2.7°C, Potsdam Institute Director Johan Rockström responded: “I barely even want to talk about 2.7°C… If we go beyond 2°C, it’s very likely that we have caused so many tipping points that you have probably added another degree just through self-reinforcing changes. And that’s without even talking about extreme events.” 

20 February 2023

Faster, higher, hotter: What we learned about the climate system in 2022 (1)

First in a 3-part series  | Part 2 Part 3

by David Spratt

Beyond all the hype and all the anxiety about climate policymaking, the upbeat newsmaking about energy transitions and the growing dread of civilisational collapse, what have we learned about the climate system in the last year?  Here are some key observations drawn from research and data published in 2022.

1    Record emissions 

Covid supply-chain disruption and the war in Ukraine have distracted from the task of rapid emissions reductions and contributed to inflation, falling real wages and a political focus on cost-of-living pressures. The war has disrupted energy markets, driven a return to coal whose use is at an all-time high, prompted an increase in emissions-intensive arms production and use, and become an excuse for governments to delay climate action. 

01 February 2023

Will Steffen’s crucial climate ideas on “Hothouse Earth”, tipping cascades and non-linearity

By David Spratt 

The eminent Australian climate scientist, and former Labor government advisor and head of climate at ANU, Will Steffen, who died early this week from complications following cancer surgery, will be remembered for some of the big, crucial ideas he and his collaborators contributed to the understanding of the Earth System, particularly planetary boundaries, climate tipping point vulnerabilities and cascades, risk and nonlinearity, and the “Hothouse Earth” scenario. 

Particularly in the last few years, Steffen was very clear and forthright in communicating the threat and the dynamics of the climate system, and the trajectory towards collapse:

"Given the momentum in both the Earth and human systems, and the growing difference between the ‘reaction time’ needed to steer humanity towards a more sustainable future, and the ‘intervention time’ left to avert a range of catastrophes in both the physical climate system (e.g., melting of Arctic sea ice) and the biosphere (e.g., loss of the Great Barrier Reef), we are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse … That is, the intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.”

28 November 2022

Over half of all fossil fuels are extracted by just seven countries, as world heads to 3°C of warming

Shane White from www.worldenergydata.org has put together three very useful charts breaking down coal, oil and gas extraction by nation. 


And the bottom line? The charts show that in 2021, just over half of all fossil fuels was extracted by just seven countries:

  • China
  • USA
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Russia
  • Canada
  • Iraq, and  
  • Iran.

At a glance:

  • Coal: China alone accounted for just over half of total world coal production in 2021, and 11 countries produced 1% or more accounting for 93.7%.
  • Oil: Five countries accounted for just over half (US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and Iraq). 19 countries produced 1% or more accounting for 87.8% of 2021 world total oil production.
  • Gas: Four countries produced just over half (US, Russia, Iran and China). 18 countries produced 1% or more accounting for 84.4% of 2021 world total gas production.

20 November 2022

Brace for impact. International aviation Net Zero 2050 flightpath crashes in Melbourne.

by Mark Carter, Flight Free Australia

This week Flight Free Australia and Extinction Rebellion picketed the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Slot Conference in Melbourne to protest the airport and airline fossil fuel industry’s emissions expansion plans.

[A landing slot is permission for an airline to take off and land a particular regular flight at an airport.]

Right now we’re the middle of the climate emergency.  

Right now, Melbourne Airport wants to increase its flight emissions by around 60%, creating an extra 160 million tonnes — 50 times more than they admit — by 2046 from flights enabled by its proposed third runway.

28 September 2022

Not on the same page: When science and politics collide in climate communication

by David Spratt 

Not on the same page?
Click image to enlarge.

Updated 29 September 2022

A significant paper on climate tipping points was published on 9 September, Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points. Having co-written a non-specialist’s overview on tipping points earlier this year, entitled Climate Dominoes, I looked forward to the new paper’s conclusions. 

But on the very first page, there was a sense of science and politics on a collision course: the conclusions about appropriate climate goals did not seem to match the evidence, as I will explain below.

Now this is not a new story, but it points to the need to disentangle political conclusions from physical evidence. Often scientific reports and papers pull their punches, especially when it comes to IPCC, as we documented in our Breakthrough report, What Lies Beneath: The understatement of existential climate risks.   But such reticence is not restricted to the IPCC.

The reasons for scientific reticence in the climate field are many, and may include:

02 September 2022

Pakistan is a hotspot for climate-driven human security crises

by David Spratt

A nation’s capacity to respond to climate risks by adaptation  is significantly dependent on its capacity, reflected in the nation’s economic capacity, and poor countries are more vulnerable.

In Pakistan’s case, that vulnerability is magnified by the extent of climate-driven change in the Himalayas and to the south Asian monsoons, as well as ever-more-extreme events: heat waves beyond human tolerance and flooding that has just submerged one-third of the country, killed up to 80% of livestock according to some reports, destroyed a million homes and 2200 miles of roads, and displaced more than 33 million people. “We are witnessing the worst flooding in the history of the country,” said Dr Fahad Saeed, a climate scientist with the Climate Analytics group, who is based in Islamabad.

10 August 2022

High-profile paper on “catastrophic” climate impacts echoes our "What Lies Beneath" analysis on fat-tail, existential risks and IPCC reticence, published four years ago

By David Spratt

Last week, just as a new paper on catastrophic climate risks was hitting the media, I received an email:

“It would appear some scientists are now, finally, openly speaking about what you yourself have long been describing as the 'high end' or 'fat tail' risks associated with climate change and want UN scientists to look into the risks of catastrophic climate change. Here's the link to the article on the BBC website…  On two occasions when reading this article I did punch the air on your behalf; when it mentions the need for more emphasis on tipping points and for the IPCC to produce a special report on catastrophic climate failure..”

It wasn’t the only one. 

08 July 2022

"Biggest scandal in climate policy"– Interview with Operaatio Arktis

by David Spratt

Operaatio Arktis (Operation Arctic) is a group of young Finnish activists campaigning to protect the Arctic. Their message is simple: "If you are an activist, politician or educator of any kind, put climate repair technologies on your agenda. We need to re-freeze the Arctic." Follow @OperaatioArktis on Instagram.

What are they talking about?  Ideas such as those coming from the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, led by Sir David King, for marine cloud brightening or other interventions that could cool the Arctic and arrest the cascade of warming events and tipping points emanating from the Arctic that will otherwise overturn human civilisation.

Recently a discussion was recorded with Operaatio Arktis, and is available here. We talked about some big-picture issues and why the public, policy makers and even many activists have a way-too-optimistic view of the state of our climate system: tipping points, the scandal of Integrated Assessment Models, the IPCC, UNFCCC climate policies, understanding existential risks, and how to communicate these stories.

Cooling the Arctic will be the focus of the 2022 Arctic Circle Assembly at Reykjavik, 13-15 October. 



27 June 2022

Defence agencies ‘accelerating’ risk of ‘Hothouse Earth’, US military study warns

The actions of government military and intelligence agencies are increasing the ‘hyperthreat’ of climate and environmental change, according to new research.

by Nafeez Ahmed, first published at Byline Times

A new landmark study published by the US Marine Corps University concludes that the activities of government military and intelligence agencies over the next decade are accelerating the likelihood of triggering a worst-case ‘Hothouse Earth’ scenario that would make the planet “unliveable for most species”.

These agencies, the study argues, have become the biggest danger to planetary security, by in effect working to accelerate the “hyperthreat” of climate and environmental change.

The research study – published in two parts in the US Marine Corps University Press’ digital journal and in the Spring 2022 edition of its peer-reviewed Journal of Advanced Military Studies – applies war theory and military strategy to the dynamics of the climate and ecological crises.

21 June 2022

Philip Sutton, pioneer climate and environmental activist

by Luke Taylor, first published at The Guardian

Philip Sutton, environmental activist; born 2 March 1951, died 13 June 2022

Photo: Thom Rigney/Breakthrough
Philip Sutton, who has died suddenly aged 71, was a pioneer of the climate emergency movement and a powerful influence on environmental campaigners in Australia and internationally.

Sutton’s work challenged the prevailing paradigm of a “reform as usual”, incremental-change strategy based on unclear goals. He campaigned on an understanding that climate risks threatened the future of the planet and of humanity, and therefore required a society-wide mobilisation at an emergency scale and speed. Sutton argued that getting into emergency mode rapidly was the central challenge for the climate movement.

This understanding was expounded in the 2008 book Climate Code Red: the Case for Emergency Action, written with David Spratt, which codified the term “climate emergency”, and shocked many readers into becoming climate activists. The book played a major role in shifting the narrative on the level of climate risk and our required response. Climate Code Red’s risk and impact assessments and climate system repair fundamentals have since been validated by mainstream analysis.

10 June 2022

Model-based net-zero scenarios, including those of the IPCC, aren’t worth the paper they are written on, say leading economists

Cr: Merriam-Webster

By David Spratt, first published at Breakthrough

World-leading economists have blown a hole right through the middle of the main tool used to produce the net-zero scenarios embraced by climate policymakers.

In a new paper, Sir Nicholas Stern, Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz and Charlotte Taylor conclude that climate-energy-economy Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which are the key tool in producing emission-reduction scenarios, “have very limited value in answering the two critical questions” of the speed and nature of emissions reductions and “fail to provide much in the way of useful guidance, either for the intensity of action, or for the policies that deliver the desired outcomes”.  The research paper is The economics of immense risk, urgent action and radical change: towards new approaches to the economics of climate change.

Now this is a big thing, because IAMs are at the centre of the IPCC Working Group III report on mitigation, and “have played a major role in IPCC reports on policy, which, in turn, have played a prominent role in public discussion. They continue to play a very powerful role in the research activities of economists working on climate change.” 

02 June 2022

We need to talk about climate interventions, as tipping point dominoes fall

Download the report

by David Spratt 

The need to cool the planet in order to avoid collapse scenarios needs to be taken seriously.

Breakthrough recently released Climate dominoes: Tipping points risks for critical climate systems, a report on climate system tipping points and cascading effects. 

This is based on our blog series earlier this year, now with a foreword by Sir David King, the former UK chief scientist and founder of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. King writes that: 

“... there is a blind-spot in the IPCC analysis, in that the severity of human influence on our planetary ecosystems is leading us toward a range of irreversible tipping points; uncertainties about which we have limited knowledge. The first of these, in the Arctic Circle region, appears already to have tipped, leading to the series of devastating extreme weather events around the Northern Hemisphere last summer. This blind-spot is the subject of Breakthrough’s latest Climate Dominoes report, which is a critically important analysis of the state of the world today and the immediate threat to our global economic systems from these tipping points. It is a sober call for all countries to follow a critical analysis pathway for dealing with climate change as the emergency that it is. It should be read and acted on by governments and their advisors, by the financial communities of the world, and by scientists, engineers, social scientists and philosophers. Precautionary action is needed now to avoid, to the extent possible, further tipping points being triggered.” 

17 May 2022

1.5 degrees Paris climate target not ‘safe or appropriate’ given climate tipping point risks, ‘major rethink’ required: new report

Download the report

Climate tipping points in the Antarctica, the Arctic and the Amazon are at risk of being reached before or at the current level of global warming of 1.2 degrees Celsius, requiring a “major rethink” of global climate goals and the action necessary to achieve them, according to a report released today.

A ‘tipping point’ is a threshold at which a small change initiates a larger, more critical change, taking the climate system from one state to a discreetly different state, which may be abrupt and irreversible. 

Climate Dominoes: Tipping point risks for critical climate systems,is published by Breakthrough - National Centre for Climate Restoration. Co-authored by former head of the Australian Coal Association Ian Dunlop and Breakthrough’s Research Director, David Spratt, the report outlines the scientific evidence that critical climate tipping points are already being reached in Antarctica, the Arctic, Greenland Ice Sheet, the Amazon rainforest and for coral reefs.

05 May 2022

Tullamarine’s dream of a third runway is an emissions nightmare

by Mark Carter

Aviation is gearing up to be once more the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. And MelbourneAirport is planning to play its part.

It’s now asking the federal transport minister to approve a third runway that will create cumulative emissions,estimated at around 160 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) out to 2046 from additional flights.

Australia Pacific Airports (Melbourne) Pty Ltd (APAM), Melbourne Airport’s owner, seems to be in denial about our climate reality. It understates Third Runway emissions, its assessment of climate risk to the runway is cavalier, and it ignores realistic threats to passenger growth.

03 May 2022

Are renewables decreasing global fossil fuel use?

by David Spratt

Recently Shane White, who blogs at worldenergydata.org, alerted me to a recent report, Boom and Bust Coal 2022: Tracking the global coal plant pipeline, compiled by by Global Energy Monitor in association with CREA, E3G, Sierra Club, SFOC, Kiko Network, CAN Europe, LIFE, and Bangladesh Groups. The report points to a net increase in the global coal-power fleet of 18.2 gigawatts (GW) in 2021.

Whilst the pace of solar and wind energy construction is accelerating, it is not making significant inroads into the quantity of emissions from fossil-fuel based energy systems. Recently Mark Diesendorf from the University of NSW noted that: "We must confront a hard fact: In the year 2000, fossil fuels supplied 80% of the world’s total primary energy consumption. In 2019, they provided 81%.” 

22 April 2022

“Climate greatest threat to Australia’s security,” ex-defence chief says

Former Chief of Australian Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie during a press conference at the Fuel Security Summit in Sydney. (AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi).

by Michael Mazengarb, first published at RenewEconomy

National security experts have called on Australian voters to use the federal election to support candidates that back strong action on climate change, saying Australia has “squandered” the last two decades.

Speaking at the Smart Energy Council’s Emergency Fuel Summit in Sydney, retired admiral Chris Barrie described climate change as the single biggest threat to Australia’s national security. Barrie currently serves on the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group and said the group saw national climate policy failures as putting Australia at risk.

“We consider that climate change now represents the greatest threat to the future and security of Australia,” Barrie said.

24 March 2022

Retired senior defence leaders name climate disruption as "clear and present danger", call for 2030 decarbonisation goal

by David Spratt

Seventeen senior retired Australian defence leaders have described climate disruption as an "existential threat" and a "clear and present danger", calling for accelerating action with a 2030 decarbonisation goal.

The call came in an open letter to Australia's political leaders, which was also published as a full-page statement in the national The Australian newspaper on 23 March.  Amongst the signatories are Admiral Chris Barrie, the former chief  of the Australian Defence Force, and Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn AO, the former deputy chief of the Royal Australian Air Force.   The letter is available here.

22 March 2022

Existential climate risk management on ClimateGenn

by David Spratt

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with journalist Nick Breeze, who writes for The Ecologist as well as running his excellent ClimateGenn site (genn.cc). 

The podcast /video are now available. Nick describes our conversation as:

"In this ClimateGenn episode I am speaking with Research Director of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, David Spratt, about assessing climate risk and why incremental tweaks to reduce emissions are failing us.

"We also discuss IPCC forecasts, political failure, and how change is possible but it requires a huge mobilisation of resources, coupled with public and political participation and leadership of the Zelensky variety.