Confronting the realities of our climate crisis

Talk to Climate Action Canberra 8 April 2009 by Walter Jehne
Here is the basic text. Although this paper may not appear to be directly relevant to, I am pleased to host Walter's talk - for three reasons:

1. Walter here gives a beautiful picture of systems in our biosphere, and that - as a model of the Pleistocene - is relevant

2. The paper has very significant things to say about climate change

3. Walter is a good friend of mine.

Thank you Climate Action Canberra for this opportunity to talk with you. Thank you also to the ANU's Fenner School for use of the Radiata Room, 40 years since I left it.

By way of introduction I am a soil microbiologist/ecologist with 15 years of research in CSIRO in the Divisions of Forestry, Tropical Crops and Pastures and Soils and with the Australian government in agriculture and industry in developing innovation strategies.

Since retiring I have been involved in innovation projects with The Sustainability Science Team, Healthy Soils Australia and like bodies, including research on the biology and hydrology of climate [1].

In this we have used a new approach, Systems Mapping, to analyse the peer reviewed evidence on climate processes to develop a wider understanding of climate dynamics and their consequences than may be possible via just simple assumptions and models.

Similar to Forensic Pattern Analysis, this ‘jig saw’ approach may help in identifying ‘what done it’, ‘its consequences’ and ‘how do we fix it’ and to substantiate this case.

The bad news is that our climate crisis may be far more urgent, serious and unless addressed terminal than projected by the IPCC models and scenarios.

As such Australia's current proposed approaches such as the 5% Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme may be totally ineffective in meeting this imperative.

Conversely, the good news is that there may be ways that this new understanding can still avoid climate meltdown within the next decades, provided we act urgently now.

Time is both our most limited resource and greatest risk, for it is now:

So after over $50b in research funding, numerous reports and 20 years of analysis, debate, denial, delay, dis-information and deception; what is the reality?

Are we facing meltdown? When? Can changing light globes or a virtual 5% target in a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (the proposed Australian CPRS) save us from meltdown? What is the reality?

How does this relate to the evidence that:

As a result do we need to accept that:

So what do we need to expect from these locked in dangerous climate feedbacks?

A review of the science of and risks from these feedbacks by the Hadley Centre in 2005 which was not considered in the 2007 IPCC report and warnings has confirmed that:

More seriously field evidence has confirmed that many of these feedback processes are already unstable and accelerating, even with our mean 0.7ºC warming to date and that:

Closer to home we also have indisputable evidence that southern and eastern Australia is aridifying due to systemic climate changes for the past 100 years. This will seriously alter the viability of many bio-systems and our water, food and economic security.

Consequently we must urgently face the reality that:

The simple reality is that we are locked into this climate crisis and collapse.

The scientific evidence tells us that we may have already gone over the cliff.

Although the Austrtalian Government knows this, and has acknowledged it such as in the recent (2009) Parliamentary Treaty Committee report, it can’t tell us as well as maintain stable order.

So what can we do?

Fortunately we may still have a safe natural way to avoid these dangerous consequences.

However to take this last chance we need to be prepared to act urgently to:

So how can we cool climates?

As we speak, and based on the reality that it is now too late to avoid climate crises by reducing CO2 emissions, President Obama is being pressured to sanction the Faustian bargain of Geo-engineering. Of artificially altering the global atmosphere to cool the planet through technologies such as:

The Faustian ‘down side’ is that ‘social democracies’ may have to accept:

However we also have safe options to naturally cool regions and the planet.

We can do this by simply by restoring former cloud levels and cloud albedo effects.

Very simply, Earth receives on average 342 w/m2 of solar energy at the top of the troposphere and needs to re-transmit the same amount to sustain a stable climate.

Humans have altered a range of natural re-transmission processes and thereby induced a global warming of 1.6w/m2 plus a locked in further warming of some 1 w/m2 to date.

It follows that we must urgently re-establish the natural balance between heat in and out.

The most effective, safest and timely way to do this is to restore former cloud levels.

Clouds can naturally provide from a 0 to 200 w/m2 cooling effect and for the past 3.5 billion years have naturally reflected 30% of the incident solar energy back out to space.

Indeed a 2-3% increase in cloud levels would have an albedo cooling effect equivalent to reducing the CO2 component to the greenhouse effect to the pre industrial levels of 1750.

Most importantly once induced, such controlled cloud cooling can be effective in days.

By contrast CO2 emission reduction or CO2 draw down strategies can not be effective within many decades due to the natural ocean buffer and lag effects. Even draw down strategies will take far too long to be able to avoid dangerous climate meltdown by 2030. 

While there is always more to know, our understanding of atmospheric physics and the hydrology and microbiology of clouds is advanced enough to be able to responsibly take this safe, natural last chance to prevent otherwise inevitable meltdown.

Clouds of course also often come with a silver lining. Their restoration may be critical to restoring the rainfall decline due to climate change.

Whereas higher temperature and sea level rises will have serious consequences, by far the earliest and most crippling impact of climate change will be the systemic aridification of many regions such as in southern Australia and, with it, our water and food security.

Unless addressed this decade much of Australia’s current agri-systems and communities will have collapsed by 2030 due to this aridification, well before it is flooded by rising sea levels.

Consequently the restoration of natural cloud cooling and rainfall processes are not just synergistic and beneficial, but also essential if we are to avoid meltdown in time.

So how can we restore these cloud and rainfall processes?

Simply and safely by bio-mimicking how nature both cooled the planet and drew down CO2 levels from over 1,000 ppm over the past 100 million years.

Our challenge is to do this in just 10 years.

However, as in nature, all we need to do is to restore suitable forest areas so as to restore the microbial processes and hydrological cycles responsible for nucleating the current persistent humid hazes into dense high albedo cooling clouds and rain.

Humans over civilization have cleared some 6.3 of the earth’s 8 b Ha of primary forests. This has released over 6,000 GTC from biomass and the related degradation of topsoils.This deforestation also fundamentally altered the natural transpiration, latent heat dynamics but particularly the nucleation and retention of water in the atmosphere.

These water based processes govern over 95% of the global heat dynamics and balance.

By contrast, the CO2 component of the greenhouse effect influences 5% of this balance.

So what governs these water based global heat dynamics? And how can we manage them?

How much, how long and in what form water is held in the atmosphere, and hence its warming and cooling effect, is governed substantially by the microbiology of aerosols.

Humans, by radically altering natural aerosol levels and processes, have grossly altered the nucleation of haze and precipitation droplets in the air and through that their relative warming and cooling effect and hence our climate and future.

Although the atmospheric physics governing these processes is complex, it is understood and provides us with the means of restoring these natural processes and heat dynamics.

Restoring suitable forests to restore global hydrologies and heat dynamics.

As forests are critical in regulating the atmosphere’s water and hence heat dynamics, it follows that to avoid the climate crisis we need to restore suitable forests and regional hydrologies and heat dynamics, hopefully in time.

To do that we need a conducive policy context as well as:

However, to restore such forests - and their hydrological cloud cooling and rainfall effects - we also need to restore the water infiltration and holding capacity of these forest soils.

To do that we have to restore the structure of these soils by restoring their organic matter levels which also greatly enhances their resilience in the face of pending climate stresses.

Consequently, as in nature, restoring these forests, soils and their cooling hydrologies will necessitate the bio-sequestration of substantial quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.

Fortunately we have all the knowledge and means to do this practically and profitably.

Australia alone has over 500m Ha of degraded rangelands most of which formerly supported a protective shelterwood and would benefit from its partial restoration.

Globally the UNEP estimates that there are over 2 b Ha of such degraded rangelands.

Practical integrated agriculture and forestry can reliably bio-sequester some 20 TC/Ha/an. Extended to restore just 20% of Australia’s rangeland area this could bio-sequester some 2 GTC/an, or over ten times Australia’s and 25% of the world’s current CO2 emissions.

Extended globally such land and hydrological restoration together with efficiencies and cleaner technologies could readily bio-sequester up to 35 GTC/an, four times our emissions so as to draw down past emissions, cool regions and restore essential rainfalls.

Provided there was a valid externality price on carbon pollution, such restoration efforts and the draw down of past emissions could also be done profitably and autonomously.

Such restoration and bio-sequestration strategies may also aid the viability and health of regionally communities as well as national economies and help offset the serious impacts from our deepening global financial and economic collapse.

Effecting the needed changes, hopefully in time.

Although we still have safe, natural and highly effective ways to avoid climate meltdown, we also need to be realistic about the major impediments constraining such solutions.

For over 30 years vested interests and politics has successfully trapped the climate debate into the dead end of the simplistic CO2 greenhouse assumptions so as to externalize the problem to the international ‘commons, the future, the environment and our children.

Unfortunately, this has provided thirty years of delay and $50b for research, talk, virtual agreements and more talk, it has also locked in vested policy and academic inertia for the status quo.

Changing that status quo is difficult. Most civilizations, or sophisticated systems, collapse and are replaced rather than adapt or evolve when faced with new realities, precisely because their vested inertias make the available solutions and change difficult to effect.

Hence our status quo political focus is also on palliative mis-information, changing light globes, the CPRS; or pressure for Faustian offers ‘we cant refuse’ like geo-engineering.

Although there remains one last safe natural option to avoid climate meltdown within decades, we the community need to take responsibility for our environment and our children’s future.

To do this we must ensure there is open critical debate of all options, take responsibility and direct our political servants to take the available effective options, hopefully in time.

Thank you



1. For more of Walter Jehne's research on climate change follow the links from this page    Back to text

Evfit home    On to a discussion of why people are reluctant to act effectively to deal with climate change

Last up-dated 21 May 2009