The Great CO2 Cleanup: Backing Out of the Danger Zone

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Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem, often described as the rainforests of the ocean. Over a million species, most not yet described [] , are estimated to populate coral reef ecosystems generating crucial ecosystem services for at least million people in tropical coastal areas. These ecosystems are highly vulnerable to the combined effects of ocean acidification and warming.

Acidification arises as the ocean absorbs CO 2 , producing carbonic acid [] , thus making the ocean more corrosive to the calcium carbonate shells exoskeletons of many marine organisms. Geochemical records show that ocean pH is already outside its range of the past several million years [] — [].

Warming causes coral bleaching, as overheated coral expel symbiotic algae and become vulnerable to disease and mortality []. Coral bleaching and slowing of coral calcification already are causing mass mortalities, increased coral disease, and reduced reef carbonate accretion, thus disrupting coral reef ecosystem health [40] , []. Loss of the three-dimensional coral reef frameworks has consequences for all the species that depend on them.

Loss of these frameworks also has consequences for the important roles that coral reefs play in supporting fisheries and protecting coastlines from wave stress. Consequences of lost coral reefs can be economically devastating for many nations, especially in combination with other impacts such as sea level rise and intensification of storms. Changes in the frequency and magnitude of climate extremes, of both moisture and temperature, are affected by climate trends as well as changing variability.

Extremes of the hydrologic cycle are expected to intensify in a warmer world. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so precipitation can be heavier and cause more extreme flooding. Higher temperatures, on the other hand, increase evaporation and can intensify droughts when they occur, as can expansion of the subtropics, as discussed above. Global models for the 21st century find an increased variability of precipitation minus evaporation [P-E] in most of the world, especially near the equator and at high latitudes [].

Some models also show an intensification of droughts in the Sahel, driven by increasing greenhouse gases []. Observations of ocean salinity patterns for the past 50 years reveal an intensification of [P-E] patterns as predicted by models, but at an even faster rate. Precipitation observations over land show the expected general increase of precipitation poleward of the subtropics and decrease at lower latitudes [1] , [26].

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Evidence for widespread drought intensification is less clear and inherently difficult to confirm with available data because of the increase of time-integrated precipitation at most locations other than the subtropics. Data analyses have found an increase of drought intensity at many locations [] — [] The magnitude of change depends on the drought index employed [] , but soil moisture provides a good means to separate the effect of shifting seasonal precipitation and confirms an overall drought intensification [37].

The likelihood of occurrence or the fractional area covered by 3-standard-deviation hot anomalies, relative to a base period — that was still within the range of Holocene climate, has increased by more than a factor of ten. Large areas around Moscow, the Mediterranean region, the United States and Australia have experienced such extreme anomalies in the past three years. Heat waves lasting for weeks have a devastating impact on human health: the European heat wave of summer caused over 70, excess deaths [].

This heat record for Europe was surpassed already in []. The number of extreme heat waves has increased several-fold due to global warming [45] — [46] , [] and will increase further if temperatures continue to rise.

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Impacts of climate change cause widespread harm to human health, with children often suffering the most. Food shortages, polluted air, contaminated or scarce supplies of water, an expanding area of vectors causing infectious diseases, and more intensely allergenic plants are among the harmful impacts [26]. More extreme weather events cause physical and psychological harm.

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IPCC [26] projects the following trends, if global warming continue to increase, where only trends assigned very high confidence or high confidence are included: i increased malnutrition and consequent disorders, including those related to child growth and development, ii increased death, disease and injuries from heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts, iii increased cardio-respiratory morbidity and mortality associated with ground-level ozone. While IPCC also projects fewer deaths from cold, this positive effect is far outweighed by the negative ones.

Growing awareness of the consequences of human-caused climate change triggers anxiety and feelings of helplessness [] — []. Children, already susceptible to age-related insecurities, face additional destabilizing insecurities from questions about how they will cope with future climate change [] — []. Exposure to media ensures that children cannot escape hearing that their future and that of other species is at stake, and that the window of opportunity to avoid dramatic climate impacts is closing.

The psychological health of our children is a priority, but denial of the truth exposes our children to even greater risk.

‘Silver bullet’ to suck CO2 from air and halt climate change ruled out

Health impacts of climate change are in addition to direct effects of air and water pollution. A clear illustration of direct effects of fossil fuels on human health was provided by an inadvertent experiment in China during the — period of central planning, when free coal for winter heating was provided to North China but not to the rest of the country. Analysis of the impact was made [] using the most comprehensive data file ever compiled on mortality and air pollution in any developing country.

A principal conclusion was that the million residents of North China experienced during the s a loss of more than 2. The degree of air pollution in China exceeded that in most of the world, yet assessments of total health effects must also include other fossil fuel caused air and water pollutants, as discussed in the following section on ecology and the environment.


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The Text S1 has further discussion of health impacts of climate change. The ecological impact of fossil fuel mining increases as the largest, easiest to access, resources are depleted []. A constant fossil fuel production rate requires increasing energy input, but also use of more land, water, and diluents, with the production of more waste []. The increasing ecological and environmental impact of a given amount of useful fossil fuel energy is a relevant consideration in assessing alternative energy strategies.

Coal mining has progressively changed from predominantly underground mining to surface mining [] , including mountaintop removal with valley fill, which is now widespread in the Appalachian ecoregion in the United States. Forest cover and topsoil are removed, explosives are used to break up rocks to access coal, and the excess rock is pushed into adjacent valleys, where it buries existing streams.

Burial of headwater streams causes loss of ecosystems that are important for nutrient cycling and production of organic matter for downstream food webs []. The surface alterations lead to greater storm runoff [] with likely impact on downstream flooding. Water emerging from valley fills contain toxic solutes that have been linked to declines in watershed biodiversity []. Even with mine-site reclamation intended to restore pre-mined surface conditions, mine-derived chemical constituents are found in domestic well water []. Reclaimed areas, compared with unmined areas, are found to have increased soil density with decreased organic and nutrient content, and with reduced water infiltration rates [].

Reclaimed areas have been found to produce little if any regrowth of woody vegetation even after 15 years [] , and, although this deficiency might be addressed via more effective reclamation methods, there remains a likely significant loss of carbon storage []. Oil mining has an increasing ecological footprint per unit delivered energy because of the decreasing size of new fields and their increased geographical dispersion; transit distances are greater and wells are deeper, thus requiring more energy input [].

Useful quantitative measures of the increasing ecological impacts are provided by the history of oil development in Alberta, Canada for production of both conventional oil and tar sands development. The area of land required per barrel of produced oil increased by a factor of 12 between and [] leading to ecosystem fragmentation by roads and pipelines needed to support the wells [].

Additional escalation of the mining impact occurs as conventional oil mining is supplanted by tar sands development, with mining and land disturbance from the latter producing land use-related greenhouse gas emissions as much as 23 times greater than conventional oil production per unit area [] , but with substantial variability and uncertainty [] — []. Although mined areas are supposed to be reclaimed, as in the case of mountaintop removal, there is no expectation that the ecological value of reclaimed areas will be equivalent to predevelopment condition [] , [].

Landscape changes due to tar sands mining and reclamation cause a large loss of peatland and stored carbon, while also significantly reducing carbon sequestration potential []. Lake sediment cores document increased chemical pollution of ecosystems during the past several decades traceable to tar sands development [] and snow and water samples indicate that recent levels of numerous pollutants exceeded local and national criteria for protection of aquatic organisms [].

Gas mining by unconventional means has rapidly expanded in recent years, without commensurate understanding of the ecological, environmental and human health consequences []. A large fraction of the injected water returns to the surface as wastewater containing high concentrations of heavy metals, oils, greases and soluble organic compounds [].

Management of this wastewater is a major technical challenge, especially because the polluted waters can continue to backflow from the wells for many years []. Numerous instances of groundwater and river contamination have been cited []. High levels of methane leakage from fracking have been found [] , as well as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds []. Methane leaks increase the climate impact of shale gas, but whether the leaks are sufficient to significantly alter the climate forcing by total natural gas development is uncertain [].

Overall, environmental and ecologic threats posed by unconventional gas extraction are uncertain because of limited research, however evidence for groundwater pollution on both local and river basin scales is a major concern []. The ecological and environmental implications of scenarios with carbon emissions of GtC or greater, as discussed below, would be profound and should influence considerations of appropriate energy strategies. Already there are numerous indications of substantial effects in response to warming of the past few decades.

That warming has brought global temperature close to if not slightly above the prior range of the Holocene. We conclude that an appropriate target would be to keep global temperature at a level within or close to the Holocene range.

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We must quantitatively relate fossil fuel emissions to global temperature in order to assess how rapidly fossil fuel emissions must be phased down to stay under a given temperature limit. Thus we must deal with both a transient carbon cycle and transient global climate change. Global climate fluctuates stochastically and also responds to natural and human-made climate forcings [1] , []. We first define our method of calculating atmospheric CO 2 as a function of fossil fuel emissions. We then define our assumptions about the potential for drawing down atmospheric CO 2 via reforestation and increase of soil carbon, and we define fossil fuel emission reduction scenarios that we employ in our study.

Finally we describe all forcings employed in our calculations of global temperature and the method used to simulate global temperature. The carbon cycle defines the fate of CO 2 injected into the air by fossil fuel burning [1] , [] as the additional CO 2 distributes itself over time among surface carbon reservoirs: the atmosphere, ocean, soil, and biosphere.

We use the dynamic-sink pulse-response function version of the well-tested Bern carbon cycle model [] , as described elsewhere [54] , [].


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Specifically, we solve equations 3—6, 16—17, A. Historical fossil fuel CO 2 emissions are from Boden et al. This Bern model incorporates non-linear ocean chemistry feedbacks and CO 2 fertilization of the terrestrial biosphere, but it omits climate-carbon feedbacks, e. Therefore our results should be regarded as conservative, especially for scenarios with large emissions.

A pulse of CO 2 injected into the air decays by half in about 25 years as CO 2 is taken up by the ocean, biosphere and soil, but nearly one-fifth is still in the atmosphere after years Fig. Eventually, over hundreds of millennia, weathering of rocks will deposit all of this initial CO 2 pulse on the ocean floor as carbonate sediments [].