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Hansen writes: "The more we allow the Faustian debt to build, the more unmanageable the eventual consequences will be. Yet globally there are plans to build more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants and plans to develop some of the dirtiest oil sources on the planet. These plans should be vigorously resisted."

Climatologist Dr. James Hansen. (photo: NASA)
Climatologist Dr. James Hansen. (photo: NASA)

Doubling Down on Our Faustian Bargain

By Dr. James Hansen, Reader Supported News

02 April 13


umanity's Faustian climate bargain is well known. Humans have been pumping both greenhouse gases (mainly CO2) and aerosols (fine particles) into the atmosphere for more than a century. The CO2 accumulates steadily, staying in the climate system for millennia, with a continuously increasing warming effect. Aerosols have a cooling effect (by reducing solar heating of the ground) that depends on the rate that we pump aerosols into the air, because they fall out after about five days.

Aerosol cooling probably reduced global warming by about half over the past century, but the amount is uncertain because global aerosols and their effect on clouds are not measured accurately. Aerosols increased rapidly after World War II as fossil fuel use increased ~5 percent/year with little pollution control (Fig. 1). Aerosol growth slowed in the 1970s with pollution controls in the U.S. and Europe, but accelerated again after ~2000.

Fig. 1. CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuel use and cement manufacture, update of a figure using recent data.

Fig. 2. Annual increase of CO2 at Mauna Loa. The 12-month running mean reduces the double noise in the 12-month change. Blue asterisks show the end-of-year 12-month change often reported in the media.

The rapid growth of fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the past decade is mainly from increased coal use (Fig. 1), mostly in China with little control of aerosol emissions. It is thus likely that there has been an increase in the negative (cooling) climate forcing by aerosols in the past decade, as suggested by regional aerosols measurements in the Far East, but until proper global aerosol monitoring is initiated, as discussed below, the aerosol portion of the amplified Faustian bargain remains largely unquantified.

In our current paper we describe another component to the fossil fuel Faustian bargain, which is suggested by a careful look at observed atmospheric CO2 change (Fig. 2). The orange curve in Fig. 2 is the 12-month change of CO2 at Mauna Loa. This curve is quite "noisy," in part because it has double noise, being affected by short-term variability at both the start-point and end-point in taking the 12-month difference in CO2 amount. A more meaningful measure of the CO2 growth is provided by the 12-month running mean (red curve in Fig. 2). The temporal variability of the red curve has physical significance, most of the variability being accounted for by the Southern (El Nino-La Nina) Oscillation and the Pinatubo volcanic eruption in the early 1990s, as discussed in our paper.

NOAA recently reported the second largest annual CO2 increase in their Mauna Loa record. What they report is the end-of-year change in the noisy orange curve, the end-of-year values being indicated by blue asterisks in Fig. 2. It is practically certain that still larger CO2 increases will soon be reported, because of the huge increase of the rate of fossil fuel CO2 emissions in the past decade (black curve in Fig. 1), indeed we must expect reports of annual CO2 increases exceeding 3 ppm CO2.

An interesting point, however, is the failure of the observed increases in atmospheric CO2 to increase as rapidly as the fossil fuel source has increased. This fact is contrary to suggestions that terrestrial and ocean carbon sinks are tending to saturate as CO2 emissions continue.

An informative presentation of CO2 observations is the ratio of annual CO2 increase in the air divided by annual fossil fuel CO2 emissions, the "airborne fraction" (Fig. 3, right scale). This airborne fraction, clearly, is not increasing. Thus the net ocean plus terrestrial sink for carbon emissions has increased by a factor of 3 to 4 since 1958, accommodating the emissions increase by that factor.

Fig. 3. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions (left scale) and airborne fraction, i.e., the ratio of observed atmospheric CO2 increase to fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Final three values are 5-, 3- and 1-year means.

Remarkably, the airborne fraction has declined since 2000. The seven-year running mean had remained close to 60 percent up to 2000, except for the period affected by Pinatubo. The airborne fraction is affected by factors other than the efficiency of carbon sinks, most notably by changes in the rate of fossil fuel emissions. However, the change of emission rate in 2000 from 1.5 percent/year to 3.1 percent/year (Fig. 1), other things being equal, would have caused a sharp increase of the airborne fraction (because a rapid source increase provides less time for carbon to be moved downward out of the ocean's upper layers). A decrease in land use emissions during the past decade might contribute a partial explanation for the decrease of the airborne fraction, but something more than land use change seems to be occurring.

We suggest that the surge of fossil fuel use, mainly coal, since 2000 is a basic cause of the large increase of carbon uptake by the combined terrestrial and ocean carbon sinks. One mechanism by which fossil fuel emissions increase carbon uptake is by fertilizing the biosphere via provision of nutrients essential for tissue building, especially nitrogen, which plays a critical role in controlling net primary productivity and is limited in many ecosystems. Modeling and field studies confirm a major role of nitrogen deposition, working in concert with CO2 fertilization, in causing a large increase in net primary productivity of temperate and boreal forests. A plausible addition of 5 TgN/year from fossil fuels and net ecosystem productivity of 200 kgC per kgN16 yields an annual carbon drawdown of 1 GtC/year, which is of the order of what is needed to explain the post-2000 anomaly in airborne CO2.

Independent of a possible aerosol effect on the carbon cycle, it is known that aerosols are an important climate forcing. IPCC17 concludes that aerosols are a negative (cooling) forcing, probably between -0.5 and -2.5 W/m2. Hansen et al., based mainly on analysis of Earth's energy imbalance, derive an aerosol forcing -1.6 ± 0.3 W/m2, consistent with an analysis of Murphy et al. that suggests an aerosol forcing about -1.5 W/m2. This large negative aerosol forcing reduces the net climate forcing of the past century by about half.

Reduction of the net human-made climate forcing by aerosols has been described as a "Faustian bargain," because the aerosols constitute deleterious particulate air pollution. Reduction of the net climate forcing by half will continue only if we allow air pollution to build up to greater and greater amounts. More likely, humanity will demand and achieve a reduction of particulate air pollution, whereupon, because the CO2 from fossil fuel burning remains in the surface climate system for millennia, the "devil's payment" will be extracted from humanity via increased global warming.

So is the new data we present here good news or bad news, and how does it alter the "Faustian bargain"? At first glance there seems to be some good news. First, if our interpretation of the data is correct, the surge of fossil fuel emissions, especially from coal burning, along with the increasing atmospheric CO2 level is "fertilizing" the biosphere, and thus limiting the growth of atmospheric CO2. Also, despite the absence of accurate global aerosol measurements, it seems that the aerosol cooling effect is probably increasing based on evidence of aerosol increases in the Far East.

Both effects work to limit global warming and thus help explain why the rate of global warming seems to be less this decade than it has been during the prior quarter century. This data interpretation also helps explain why multiple warnings that some carbon sinks are "drying up" and could even become carbon sources, e.g., boreal forests infested by pine bark beetles and the Amazon rain forest suffering from drought, have not produced an obvious impact on atmospheric CO2.

However, increased CO2 uptake does not necessarily mean that the biosphere is healthier or that the increased carbon uptake will continue indefinitely. Nor does it change the basic facts about the potential magnitude of the fossil fuel carbon source and the long lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the surface carbon reservoirs (atmosphere, ocean, soil, biosphere) once the fossil fuels are burned. Fertilization of the biosphere affects the distribution of the fossil fuel carbon among these reservoirs, at least on the short run, but it does not alter the fact that the fossil carbon will remain in these reservoirs for millennia.

The principal implication of our present analysis relates to the Faustian bargain. Increased short-term masking of greenhouse gas warming by fossil fuel particulate and nitrogen pollution is a "doubling down" of the Faustian bargain, an increase in the stakes. The more we allow the Faustian debt to build, the more unmanageable the eventual consequences will be. Yet globally there are plans to build more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants and plans to develop some of the dirtiest oil sources on the planet. These plans should be vigorously resisted. We are already in a deep hole -- it is time to stop digging.

The tragedy of this science story is that the great uncertainty in interpretations of the climate forcings did not have to be. Global aerosol properties should be monitored to high precision, similar to the way CO2 is monitored. The capability of measuring detailed aerosol properties has long existed, as demonstrated by observations of Venus. The requirement is measurement of the polarization of reflected sunlight to an accuracy of 0.1 percent, with measurements covering the spectral range from near ultraviolet to the near-infrared at a range of scattering angles, as is possible from an orbiting satellite. Unfortunately, the satellite mission designed for that purpose failed to achieve orbit, suffering precisely the same launch failure as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO). Although a replacement OCO mission is in preparation, no replacement aerosol mission is scheduled. your social media marketing partner


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We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+6 # Walter J Smith 2013-04-02 10:10
We need to get more politicians breathing hair spray and spray paints!

It isn't working fast enough leaving them merely sniffing money and other glues.
-24 # MidwestTom 2013-04-02 10:13
Everyone should read this weeks Economist magazine. They have long been believers in, and promoters of Greenhouse Gas and a warming earth; however, in this weeks issue they indicate that they are developing serious doubts. According to the article the earth was warming until 2005, since then it has stopped warming despite the increases in greenhouse gases, and this past winter appears as if it will colder than normal. Global warming is certainly not universally accepted.
+16 # Helen 2013-04-02 11:14
Sorry, Tom. I'm not a scientist, but I respect Dr. Hansen and the 97 percent of climate scientists who have studied this, made records, and now agree that carbon emissions are causing global warming and disastrous weather extremes. Why, if not invested in the coal industry, would anyone prefer to live with dirty smokestacks and polluted water? Why NOT clean up our act, in any case? As for reading, do have a look at Elizabeth Rosenthal's article "Life After Oil and Gas" (New York Times, March 23) and find out what is going on in other forward-looking countries.
-4 # 2013-04-02 12:23

Please do read The Economist article. You can get it by googling "The Economist A Sensitive Matter" The editors at The Economist are true blue climate change advocates and have no connections to the so-called "deniers."

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+3 # Ken Halt 2013-04-03 00:52
+3 # head out the window 2013-04-02 22:05
tom just missed the whole point of hansen's article, he just explained why the planet is not warming as much as expected. there also was a giant switch to natural gas, a major world recession reducing industrial and vehicle emissions below expected levels. doesnt change the outcome.
+4 # dkonstruction 2013-04-02 14:37
Thanks for letting all of know about The Economist article, however, I must disagree with your takeaway i.e., that "Global warming is certainly not universally accepted" or that The Economist is now developing serious doubts." The article concludes by saying:

"Since CO₂ accumulates in the atmosphere, this could increase temperatures compared with pre-industrial levels by around 2°C even with a lower sensitivity and perhaps nearer to 4°C at the top end of the estimates. Despite all the work on sensitivity, no one really knows how the climate would react if temperatures rose by as much as 4°C. Hardly reassuring."

In addition, since The Economist piece does not address the current paper that Hansen refers to in his piece so to say that The Economist piece is any way refutes or is a rebuttal to the arguments that Hansen is making isn't true and one could argue that The Economist piece deliberately misleads the reader as to what Hansen is saying by simply noting his observation that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”

But, again, thanks for pointing us to The Economist piece which I too recommend that people read and decide for themselves what it is and is not saying.
-18 # brycenuc 2013-04-02 10:27
If Hansen is limiting our climate system to the atmosphere, CO2 only stays in it for an average of about 4 years, not millennia. If he is calling the biosphere our climate system, then it stays forever. There are so many ways that the CO2 hysteria is refuted, it is a pox on mankind's intellect that it has gained so much traction. Fortunately, that hysteria is being steadily eroded as more and more of Hansen & Co.'s prior dire predictions are falling by the wayside and the data and analyses used by the scare mongers are being shot full of holes.
-10 # 2013-04-02 12:17

Correct. Hansen himself has recently admitted that that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.” It appears that our climate is not as sensitive to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses as had been thought.

And Kevin Trenberth of CRU, another leading global warming alarmist, expressed perplexity that none of the published models accurately predicted the current plateauing of temperatures.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+5 # dkonstruction 2013-04-02 14:39

Correct. Hansen himself has recently admitted that that “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.” It appears that our climate is not as sensitive to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses as had been thought.

And Kevin Trenberth of CRU, another leading global warming alarmist, expressed perplexity that none of the published models accurately predicted the current plateauing of temperatures.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts

Your conclusion that it "appears that our climate is not as sensitive to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses as had been thought." is not what The Economist piece says so this is misleading. The Economist piece does talk about how this recent 5-year period where the mean global temperature was flat is still not well understood but they draw no definitive conclusions at all so it is not fair to make it seem as they do.
+4 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-04-02 10:56
Thanks for good hard science.
-8 # 2013-04-02 12:13
The science is OK (even if it omits many pertinent considerations) but Hansen's concrete advice "to resist" plans to build more fossil fuel plants is less than useful. Since virtually all of these planned plants are in China or India or a handful in other developing nations, what is Hansen suggesting?

Presumably he would not want us to go to war with China or India. Clearly, China and India are not going to abandon their plans to bring reliable electricity to their people voluntarily. And they probably shouldn't since reliable energy sources are a matter of life and death in developing nations.

The climate change alarmism is rather silly since there is no concrete action that we or Europe could take that would make an appreciable difference in greenhouse gas emissions short of all-out war. That, of course, would work (reducing the number of people demanding electricity would limit greenhouse gas emissions whether we won the war or not), but it would appear that that solution would be worse than trying to adapt to a warmer climate.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+5 # Ken Halt 2013-04-03 01:11
lnason: Your thesis equates resisting plans to build more fossil fuel plants to waging war on China. False analogy, the "all or nothing" that typifies conservative thought. The use of the phrase "...climate change alarmism..." reveals the non-scientific basis of your argument. We don't have to go to war with China in order to make them see the benefits of reduced atmospheric pollution, Chinese citizens are even now suffering the dire consequences of particulate pollution. While you choose to ignore it, the evidence of global warming, caused by CO2, is becoming more and more irrefutable. Intelligent people who devote their life's work to the subject find the evidence compelling. You have the freedom to choose ignorance. Enjoy it while you can.
+10 # Farafalla 2013-04-02 14:39
We should keep in mind that aerosols, which are particulates for the most part, also play a role in warming despite the increased opacity they create in the atmosphere. These particulates settle on snow and ice darkening their surface and increasing the heat they absorb. The melting of the Arctic ice cap is a product of both, higher temps and darker ice. So aerosols go both ways despite their net cooling effect.

I would be great to discover that Hansen and 98% of climate scientists are wrong and that we can keep pedal to the metal in fossil fuel burning. But the deniers that weigh in here every time are probably the wrong ones. I wonder if they will deny their denial when methane is added in serious quantities to the mix of GHGs? That gas is 23x more heat trapping than CO2. Earth will survive. We won't.
+5 # Nominae 2013-04-02 16:53
I find it highly amusing that, presumably having read this article, written by a highly acclaimed scientist, posters with absolutely *no* background or *knowledge of* science in general, seem to fancy themselves to be easily *as* qualified to hold forth on these subjects of scientific inquiry as is Dr. Hansen.

Is this the result of having gone through school when all that was being taught was "self-esteem" ? When everyone got a trophy simply because their blood was still successfully circulating through their veins ?

Because I cannot imagine any other reason behind the incomprehensibl e hubris demonstrated by the total non-scientists who somehow seem to imagine themselves to be eminently qualified to critique the work, and to question the conclusions of, the *actual* scientific community. You know, those educated and trained in science, those who actually DO this work every day for a *living* ?

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