Why was Charney so uncannily right back in 1979 when he estimated that doubling the stock of atmospheric carbon will increase global surface temperatures by 3ºC (plus/minus 1.5ºC)?
Since then vast armies of climate scientists have replicated the result. Study after study has found that the equilibrium climate sensitivity — how much will temperatures rise after accounting for feedback loops — to be basically in line with Charney‘s original estimate. Put simply, Charney (1979) is the most replicated scientific result of all time. Tabulated results of 142 independent scientific investigations since 2000 can be found here. Figure 1 displays the means.
There is, of course, uncertainty around these estimates. A recent meta study in Nature explained that while climate scientists have not been able to narrow the confidence intervals, there is now considerably greater confidence in those intervals. In fact, the uncertainty points to catastrophic heavy tail risks. Put simply, 3ºC is the baseline scenario, it may be considerably worse. The risk we face may turn out to as effective as the expenditure of all thermonuclear weapons in great power arsenals.
Of course, we are not dumping carbon into the atmosphere at the same rate over time. No sir, we are on the hockey stick. This means that doubling times become shorter and shorter as we ride the exponential curve up to our doom. When Charney made his calculations in 1979 we were dumping 5 billion metric tons per annum into the atmosphere. Now we are dumping 10 billion metric tons every year.
But the planet does not care about the rate of emissions. What matters is the stock of carbon in the atmosphere; that’s what governs the degree of warming. As long as more is flowing from the tap (our emissions) into the tub (atmospheric stock of carbon) than is being drained by the sink (rain forests and oceans et cetera), the water level in the tub will keep rising. And it the doubling stock of carbon that Charney predicted would yield 3ºC warming of global surface temperatures.
How fast are we adding to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere is well captured by an exponential curve with growth parameter 0.022248 per annum, initialized at 280 particles per million (ppm) in the year 1800. In the past thirty years, 1990-2020, we’ve added as much to this stock as we did in the two centuries before. And we are on course to add the same amount in the next 18 years. If we do that, planetary catastrophe is all but certain.
The insidious nature of the hockey stick can be seen by looking at thirty-year additions to the stock of doom. If we keep going, we will add as much in the next thirty years as we have so far in all of human history. Because of the magic of compounding, we are in fact on course to achieve Charney‘s doubling by mid-century.
Greta Thunberg is right. ‘Our leaders are acting like children,’ says the 16-year-old. Not only must we ‘do something’, the scale of the looming catastrophe is such that every other policy goal must now be subordinated to this goal. There is very little slack. This is no longer about 2100, or even 2050. We have ten years. Unless we can reach a far-reaching global accord and transform the world economy beyond recognition in the coming decade, it’s over. We will be well and truly fucked. There will simply be no way to avoid catastrophic scenarios. By 2030, only the scale and depth of the catastrophe will still be up for negotiation.
The planetary catastrophe approaching exponentially fast may be framed in many ways. All reference frames draw our attention on some issues while leaving others out of focus. We may think in terms of the Anthropocene. That leaves out the real culprits responsible for the mess. We may see this as the closing of the global frontier; as the coda of the Capitalocene. This approach allows us see how the planetary crisis is tied at the hip to questions of economic and social justice. The most advanced version of this frame may be found in the work of Alyssa Battistoni. The fact that the planetary impasse is entangled with so many other important issues only raises the stakes of the fight.
It may sound parochial and misguided at first sight, but the only way to a credible solution is all-out securitization. Specifically, given the topology of global power and the matrix of global politics, the planetary impasse must now be recognized as the principal threat to US national security. Put simply, the planetary impasse trumps China, salafi jihadism, nuclear proliferation, right-wing populism, and every other threat by orders of magnitude. It must become the lodestar of US foreign policy and the organizing principle of US grand-strategy. For the foreseeable future the goal of US grand-strategy must be to obtain a credible solution to the planetary impasse. Everything else must be subordinated to this goal. This will require the United States to forgo other interests. In particular, this will require a far-reaching modus vivendi with China. The US national security and foreign policy community needs to get its head out of its ass. Our kids can live with an authoritarian China, even one that dominates the Western Pacific. But they cannot live with a China powered by coal-fired plants.
China produces 30 percent of the world’s emissions, twice as much as the United States and as much as the US, UK, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and Canada combined. The following table displays global contributions. The import could not be more obvious. It is mathematically impossible for the West to solve this problem on its own. That’s Toozian pessimism. Given the scale of the challenges facing the rising nations, particularly given the strength of the social forces now evident in India and China, the greatest challenge for a future social democratic administration will be persuading the rising powers to subordinate their national goals to the planetary goal. Make no mistake: This is going to be a very, very hard nut to crack. It will require tremendous flexibility — in terms of fiscal transfers, technology transfers, and geopolitical accommodation. But we have run out of options. There is no alternative to a far-reaching global accord. And this will consume every last ounce of energy of the next administration, with little bandwidth left to deal with even the most pressing of the other issues. This is as it should be. The ultimate objective of grand-strategy has always been, and will always be, survival.
Postscript. But the most important reason why securitization is the right discursive strategy has to do with the structure of political discourse in the United States. It will not be enough to win the Presidency and change the balance of power in Congress. For even after you’ve done that you will still have to fight and defeat vast forces that will be mobilized to throw a wrench in the attempted transformation. The forces opposed to any serious action are so powerful that they managed to impose discipline on the Republican party; discipline that became manifest in the party’s reversal on climate change after John McCain’s failed bid for the White House. They will mobilize their practically limitless resources. They will pay a thousands pens to write and a thousand heads to talk. Their discursive strategy can be predicted in advance: “Hard-working Americans need jobs.” That’s precisely why it has to become a question of national security. For there is no other retort to “Your plan threatens American jobs” than “It’s a question of national security.”
Only national security trumps the discourse that has long been used to shut down green initiatives. The fact that the planetary impasse is a threat to the security of all nations should not distract us from the discursive solution that was discovered by Truman. Whether or not a Cold War was necessary, the discourse of the Cold War (the reproduction of the image of the Soviet Union as a first-order threat to US national security) was necessary to get Congress to authorize and American people to pay for a military instrument called for by the grand-strategy of containment.
With the Soviet capitulation, panic set in. The diachronic pattern reveals the structure at play. ‘I am running out of demons’, wailed Colin Powell. Defense intellectuals tried ‘military sophistication of Third World dictators’, ‘weapon states’, ‘backlash states’, and the one that stuck, ‘rogue states’. The combined GDP of all “rogues” never exceeded that of New York. It’s within the envelope of this rigidity that the United States will find its own foot in 2003. The problem was obvious. The goal of the discourse disguised as grand-strategy was to defend the military instrument from Congress and the American people. Grand-strategy dictates the military instrument; not the other way around.
At the present conjuncture, securitization is over determined by (not entirely) exogenous developments in Asia. China produced more concrete in two years than the United States did in the entire twentieth century. It is perhaps only to be expected that containment would come back on the agenda. Even though Martin Wolf kicked it off splendidly, there was a problem. Was it even possible for the West to out-compete China? Wolf appealed to the liberal democratic discourse. But there was a whiff of absurdity in the air. We know that there will only be one exit from Cold War, detente, for neither great power can be eliminated. That offers the obvious prospect of using the future to discount the medium term by going straight to detente. We may call that a modus vivendi sensu stricto.
US foreign policy in the planetary impasse calls for a wholesale reorientation of grand-strategy. There is no other solution to the planetary impasse. The question is not if but when. The United States will be eventually forced to treat the planetary impasse as the overriding national security priority. But if it does so later it will be exponentially worse off because of the nature of the hockey stick. Recall that the exponential grows faster than all polynomials of degree n for n=1,…,∞. How much worse will we be by starting off at a later time T > 0? The answer is literally exp(a*T)/a, where a is estimated to be around 0.022248=12*0.001854, as below.
|27||UNITED ARAB EMIRATES||0.62%||57641|
|59||TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO||0.14%||12619|
|60||HONG KONG SPECIAL ADMINSTRATIVE REGION OF CHINA||0.14%||12605|
|82||BOSNIA and HERZEGOVINA||0.07%||6063|
|99||COTE DE IVOIRE||0.03%||3012|
|114||REPUBLIC OF CAMEROON||0.02%||1910|
|119||PAPUA NEW GUINEA||0.02%||1723|
|130||REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA||0.01%||1345|
|132||DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO (FORMERLY ZAIRE)||0.01%||1274|
|142||OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY||0.01%||774|
|156||LAO PEOPLE S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC||0.01%||533|
|157||REPUBLIC OF SOUTH SUDAN||0.00%||408|
|161||MACAU SPECIAL ADMINSTRATIVE REGION OF CHINA||0.00%||350|
|171||SAINT MARTIN (DUTCH PORTION)||0.00%||200|
|180||ANTIGUA & BARBUDA||0.00%||145|
|187||TIMOR-LESTE (FORMERLY EAST TIMOR)||0.00%||128|
|191||BONAIRE, SAINT EUSTATIUS, AND SABA||0.00%||88|
|192||CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC||0.00%||82|
|197||ST. VINCENT & THE GRENADINES||0.00%||57|
|198||TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS||0.00%||56|
|201||BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS||0.00%||49|
|204||FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA||0.00%||41|
|208||SAO TOME & PRINCIPE||0.00%||31|
|210||ST. PIERRE & MIQUELON||0.00%||21|
|213||FALKLAND ISLANDS (MALVINAS)||0.00%||15|
|217||WALLIS AND FUTUNA ISLANDS||0.00%||6|