America woke up on Monday to new, and dire, climate news: A new scientific study suggests that we have been vastly underestimating the climate feedback loop caused by reduced cloud cover in a warming world. Clouds, being reflective, reflect sunlight that would otherwise warm the planet; as temperatures and carbon dioxide increase, cloud cover decreases.
What is significant about the new research findings is that they suggest a "tipping point" beyond which things become very dire, and very fast—and that we are very close to that tipping point right now.
The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million — a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.
Within a century, then, there may be an additional 14 degrees Fahrenheit of warming that previous models haven't accounted for. And 14 degrees of warming, within a century, is a level of calamity far beyond any plausible mitigation attempts. Sea level rise would happen far more rapidly; croplands worldwide would turn unviable; every ecosystem on the planet would be thrown into chaos. The resulting loss of snowpacks, permafrost, glaciers, and Antarctic ice would each compound the effects. All told, it points to precisely the sort of "feedback loop" that climate scientists have long feared, a measure of carbon concentration beyond which the climate does not change gradually, but as if a switch were flipped.
Geological records have long suggested that the Earth's climate has a history of changes far more extreme than our past models could account for. These findings are another attempt to understand why—and to find the exact numbers beyond which things turn from catastrophic to apocalyptic.
That is the news as of this Monday, Feb. 25. Also in the news, however, is that Trump's team of criminals and crackpots is prepared to announce a new "ad hoc" working group devoted exclusively to undermining the credibility of the government's own National Climate Assessment.
The administration intends to fill the group with longstanding climate skeptics, including those with financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. It is the brainchild of the astonishingly loony ultra-skeptic William Happer, now installed as a senior director in Trump's National Security Council, a man who has compared efforts to limit carbon emissions to the Holocaust.
And the panel is to be set up as an "ad hoc" group, not a formal committee, to evade federal transparency rules requiring public meetings and public records. This is a change from Happer's original plan, and no doubt one that was required by the sketchiness of those being recruited for the task.
This week's news, then, is already doubly dire. We have just learned there is credible reason to think the sort of apocalyptic climate change that scientists had seen in the geological records is not hundreds of years away, but on our very doorstep. And we have learned that the formal conservative, Republican, Trumpian response to government's own climate warnings will be the creation of a new group of fossil fuel-tied skeptics who will attempt to rebut the scientific evidence with, one presumes, the usual links to pseudoscience and YouTube videos.
Leaders of the climate movement have long warned that we cannot give in to despair—that no matter how long we wait to combat climate change, it is still far preferable to abandoning hope that such things can even be mustered. But it is difficult to take that advice to heart, watching the ever-more-extraordinary efforts by the powerful to shove us all off the cliff together.