On January 20, 2021, the new Biden-Harris Administration is almost certain to release a flurry of executive orders rolling back 4 years of Donald Trump’s policy of carbon pollution friendly climate denial. The United States will rejoin the Paris Climate accord, order the EPA to take steps to roll back Trump's attacks on the Obama clean power plan and automotive gas mileage improvement.
A key part of Biden’s climate policy is a 2 trillion dollar green infrastructure plan to mitigate the effects of climate change while creating Green jobs. The ease or difficulty behind spending and legislative initiatives, of course, will depend on the results of Jan. 6 Georgia special elections that could mean Democratic control of the Senate.
The climate challenge
Globally, what must be done is much more than reducing human-based carbon pollution (and other greenhouse gases) from the current yearly 37 billion tons (gigatons) of carbon dioxide pollution to net-zero by 2050, the politically most poplar year. But net-zero is not enough to save us from horrendous climate consequences. While slashing current emissions, we must also remove many gigatons of carbon dioxide from atmosphere and ocean and sequester it in soil and biomass on land and sea.
There is no global thermostat that we can magically turn up or turn down. We cannot wait yet another ten years before taking emergency action not only to slash human carbon emissions and, crucially recapture existing carbon from air and ocean through appropriate agricultural and aquaculture practices.
The consequences of climate change are non-linear and subject to chaotic dynamics and strange attractors. This means that the familiar logistic S curve that characterizes long-term semi-stable systems like population are all to prone, if the rate of increase is too fast, to fall prey to sudden and radical changes, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Too much carbon, too quickly will unleash planetary climate and geophysical consequences. Temperature rises, ice and permafrost melts, the ocean thermohaline circulation fails, storms worsen, floods and drought increases, huge fires consume forest land, sea levels rise, crops fail...
Non-linear change in climate can mean geophysical changes that persist for hundreds of thousands of years and change very slowly on a hot house earth. For example, the Eocene thermal maximum some 55.5 million years ago caused by volcanism for an estimated 50,000 years released 44,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Temperature increased from 5-8 degrees Centigrade, melted all the ice and permafrost. Temperature and carbon oxide levels only decreased after enormous matts of azolla, growing in the warm arctic ocean, reduced the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.
The building blocks of life are proteins formed by amino acids containing carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen from air and water. Excess carbon in atmosphere and ocean will eventually create an effective and healing response from the biosphere.
Sustainability means the biosphere and the geosphere co-evolve. Change in one leads to change in the other. Sustainability is the ability of life to respond to all changes in ways that have allowed survival from periodic mass extinctions and to once again thrive.
And now humanity has become the cause of global climate disruption and a self-conscious participant in global processes of sustainability for healing response to excess that threatens climate catastrophe. That’s good news. Globally, we hold the future and the lives of many other species in our hands.
As Lincoln understood, the country cannot exist, half slave and half free. It must be one or another. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Similarly, a world cannot be half sustainable and half polluting, half rich and half poor, and expect to stop and reverse the consequences of global climate catastrophe.
Joe Biden’s most crucial mission is leadership on the international level. The world’s biggest economy can work with China, India, and the rest of the G-20 to undertake effective global climate action, not only to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions, but, at the same, to remove many gigatons of carbon from air and ocean into biomass on land and ocean, and into the soil.
President Xi is likely to welcome opportunities to pursue global efforts for accelerated renewable energy and carbon dioxide sequestration. China is already the global leader in solar, wind, and reforestation. China Grid, the world’s largest utility, wants to help wire the world for continental-scale renewable energy grids. Building an ecological civilization is the official Chinese policy. Although China has become the world’s largest current carbon emitter, China is well on its path to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. China’s history is to under promise and over-deliver.
It’s important to remember that the United States and Europe are responsible historically for the great majority of historical carbon emissions. The United States released 400 gigatons of carbon dioxide since 1751, 25% of the global total. This is compared to China’s 210 billion tons, and the 28 countries of the EU with 22%.
It is essential for the world’s leading economies to go all-in on climate change the productive investment of the trillions needed to build the infrastructure for global sustainability and to make global economic growth mean ecological improvement. This is a world of hundreds of millions of sustainable jobs, sustainable communities and global convergence on social and ecological justice.
Existing conditions: understanding real numbers
We have already raised atmospheric carbon from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to over 400 ppm today, and climbing from 413.50 ppm on Nov. 16 to 413.53 ppm on November 20, 2020, measured at the Mauna Loa Global Monitoring Laboratory in Hawaii. You can track Mauna Loa atmospheric carbon dioxide on line.
Today, the annual carbon dioxide growth rate is around 2.5ppm a year. Another 30 years of this means another 75ppm in the atmosphere or around 488 ppm carbon dioxide. According to the US government, the last time carbon dioxide was at 2020 levels was more than 3 million years ago. The temperature then was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) hotter than pre-industrial times. Sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today. Not a good future for the world’s coastal cities and farmland.
A small percentage of carbon dioxide that does not get sequestered in soil and biomass or dissolved into oceans ends up in the atmosphere leading to a relentless increase in atmospheric carbon concentrations and consequent global warming and climate change. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water it becomes carbonic acid. Since pre-industrial times, ocean acidity has increased by 30%.
According to UNESCO, for marine organisms this increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity for the last 20 million years. Under business and carbon dioxide pollution as usual scenarios for carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans could become 150% more acidic than preindustrial times by 2100. This can have catastrophic consequences. We risk dissolving the shells of plankton, the base of the ocean food chain and responsible for much of global oxygen production. Anther uncontrolled experiment by industrial humanity.
Stopping the march toward self-destruction means more than solar panels and wind machines and high efficiency everything and taking advantage of increasing second law of thermodynamic efficiency improvements. It means removing carbon dioxide from air and water most efficaciously by reforestation, planting billions of trees, agricultural methods to bank gigatons of carbon in the soil, and to build global coastal aquaculture cultivating plantations of kelp and azolla that can sequester the enormous amount of carbon while providing food and sustainable energy and millions of jobs.
Globally, the challenge is to both reduce average human carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per person to an average of less than 3 tons per person per year (2.6 tons per person with an 8 billion global population)for a global total of around a sustainable level of 21 gigatons at the same time that can be dealt with by natural processes that keep carbon dioxide levels in check.
THE average U.S. carbon dioxide per person per year is 16.2 tons while the global average is 4.8 tons. This means that many countries that are not highly industrialized are not major carbon emitters. Chad, Niger, Central African Republic emit only .1tons per person per year. Some European countries are close to the world average. France 5.5 tons. UK 5.8 tons. China 6.9 tons. The task is obviously much more onerous for the big polluters like the U.S to get to a 2.6 ton standard.
At the same time, we must, through aquaculture and agriculture, remove and sequester yearly many gigatons of carbon dioxide from air and ocean. Yes, it’s nice to bring human carbon dioxide emissions to zero. But when we are working to get to zero it’s absolutely crucial to be planting trees, growing crops in the oceans, and changing the face of agriculture to grow enormous amounts of food for a hungry world population while removing carbon dioxide from air and water.
The political policy front
The United States, in fact, has been one of the only nations that has politicized the existence of climate change instead of debating the best ways to move ahead. Climate change is usually not a left or right issue. In the U.S in the 1980s, John McCain ran for the Republican Presidential nomination on a platform to deal with climate change as a moral imperative in the years just before the Republican Party crawled into the oil barrel.
For a new Biden administration in Jan. 2021, winning Senate control or not, there has already been broad bi-partisan agreement in 2020 on clean energy initiatives, the American Energy Innovation Act co-sponsored by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski R-AL Chair of Senate Energy and Resources Committee and ranking member Joe Manchin D-WV.
The legislation calls for a variety of significant initiatives in energy efficiency and water conservation and renewable development. These will be welcome, but the American Energy Innovation Act is far from what’s needed to help stop and reverse climate change.
What’s crucial are what’s accomplished by 2030 and not just pledges to reach net-zero carbon by 2050. A failure to undertake concerted global climate action by 2030 is likely to be catastrophic, moving us closer to irreversible global geophysical changes unleashed, for example, by gigatons methane hydrates freed from melting arctic permafrost and seabed methane hydrates as the temperature continues to warm.
There are positive signs.
In the UK, for example, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives just submitted in November an aggressive 10 point climate change agenda. “My 10-point plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net-zero by 2050,” according to the PM. Planned is enough offshore wind to power every British home by 2030. The UK will also stop selling new diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2030 and hybrid cars by 2035.
Political debate in the UK is focused more on the speed of implementation and the proper balance of tools to use, for example, the extent of nuclear use and more support for land based solar and wind.
Joe Biden has a very good opportunity to assert global climate leadership starting in Jan. 2021 by rejoining the Paris Accord and the WHO. This can lead to accelerating positive change. The time has come. 2021 has the potential to become globally an epochal year that maybe historically significant as the start globally of an ecological turn.
The 21st and 22nd centuries may become the time for the rise of a sustainable ecological civilization. This is an era when economic growth will lead to ecological improvement and a global convergence on sustainable norms for all the world’s people in the common pursuit of social and ecological justice and global ecological economic growth.
Biden Plan: The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice & The Biden Plan To Build A Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure And An Equitable Clean Energy Future.
Historical National Carbon Dioxide Contributions: Our World In Data.
Most Atmospheric Carbon for 3 million years: U.S. Govt. Climate News.
Ocean Acidification: UNESCO.
Azolla and Ecocene Thermal Maximum: Science.gov.
National Carbon Dioxide Per Person Per Year: Our World in Data.