Two real climate downers

The permafrost in the arctic prevents an enormous mass of peat from decaying.  When it thaws, the carbon in the peat goes into the air as CO2 (if we’re lucky) or CH4 (if we’re not: methane is 25 times more warming than CO2).  How about 1.5 trilllion tons, twice as much as is in the atmosphere now?  Note that this process is self-accelerating: the warmer it gets, the faster the permafrost melts. Added to what we know about methane under the Siberian ice shelf, also melting and beginning to release that puff of trouble, it’s not exaggerating to call this terrifying. Not alarming or troubling; catastrophic.  Decay of the arctic peat is irreversible; there’s no way plants can take up that much carbon, and it certainly can’t be put back into the melted tundra.

If that isn’t enough to spoil your day, consider that arctic sea ice, whose melting is a big part of permafrost thawing, is going faster than anyone thought it would (ht: Brad DeLong).

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Two real climate downers”

  1. I wouldn’t worry about it. Capitalism efficiently allocates resources, so the rich will survive. And the poor? Well, they’ve always had it rough.

  2. Really, not to worry. Nothing to see here. Move along. Professor Kahn has an answer to this somewhere in his “economics” from the University of Chicago, if not exactly from the Chicago School. After all, Larry Summers himself, admittedly not of the Chicago School but an exceedingly great man nevertheless, has pronounced that including the economy within the biosphere “is not the way to look at it.” Very reassuring. Especially since, as someone has pointed out previously, Halliburton will get the contract for the amelioration of climate catastrophe through climate engineering. It’s all good!

  3. AIUI, first sunrise came two days early this year in Greenland. The volume of ice has decreased that much. But I would point out the methane disappearance in the Gulf after the oil spill. They may appear in colder water as well. We must hope. Otherwise, we must plan on that much more disruption.

  4. As long as we were futilely arguing over “whether” climate change was anthropogenic, it seemed under our control, marginal, incremental even. That first degree or two seemed well within our capacity to cope, with benefits to offset the costs and risks. There was time. Future generations would be richer, better able to cope. Responsible governments would cooperate to adopt sensible, clever schemes to price in the externalities and international cooperation and the vaunted market would ride to our rescue. But, alas, our politics has become reactionary and idiotic; our government, captured by a kleptocracy, all seems destined to spin hopelessly out of control. The peat will rot, the hydrates melt, the rain forest die in drought. The era of mass democracy gives way to a neo-feudalism of sociopathic elites, the brief promise of mass prosperity fading into a scam-economy of financial predation, the permanent unemployment and falling wages a mere prologue to engineered plagues, while the final assault on the ocean ecology and the last virgin resources, revealed by the melting arctic ice, accelerates. But, hey, if we make the sacrifices necessary for deficit reduction, we won’t have to worry about Social Security undermining our moral fiber.

  5. Wow, six comments and the only denialist point of view expressed is satirical. You caught them off-guard.

    Bruce, I’m not sure mass democracy hasn’t been a side effect of abundant cheap energy supplies.

  6. Not sure if methane is more scary than carbon dioxide. The lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide. Gotta think long game here.

  7. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Just look at the earthquake in New Zealand – that proves global warming is happening! You deniers make me sick! See the record cold this past winter? Global warming. The only way to stop it is for you to switch from a big car to a small one. That would fix the hot/cold/earthquake/hurricane/fire/flood/wind/snow problem.

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