Tag Archives: climate science

Trust A Climate Scientist?


If you trust a climate scientist you are more likely to be a liberal Democrat. And, if you tend to be highly skeptical of climate science, scientific consensus, climate change causes, and even ways to address climate change, then you’re more likely to be a Republican.

A fascinating study from the Pew Research Center sheds more light on the great, polarized divide between the left and the right.

For instance, 70 percent of liberal Democrats “trust climate scientists’ a lot to give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change, compared with just 15% of conservative Republicans.” Further, just over half (54 percent) of liberal Democrats “say climate scientists’ understand the causes of climate change very well”, which compares with only 11 percent of conservative Republicans.

From Pew Research Center:

Political fissures on climate issues extend far beyond beliefs about whether climate change is occurring and whether humans are playing a role, according to a new, in-depth survey by Pew Research Center. These divisions reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research.

Specifically, the survey finds wide political divides in views of the potential for devastation to the Earth’s ecosystems and what might be done to address any climate impacts. There are also major divides in the way partisans interpret the current scientific discussion over climate, with the political left and right having vastly divergent perceptions of modern scientific consensus, differing levels of trust in the information they get from professional researchers, and different views as to whether it is the quest for knowledge or the quest for professional advancement that drives climate scientists in their work.

This survey extensively explores how peoples’ divergent views over climate issues tie with people’s views about climate scientists and their work. Democrats are especially likely to see scientists and their research in a positive light. Republicans are considerably more skeptical of climate scientists’ information, understanding and research findings on climate matters.

Read the entire article here.

Infographic: Trust in climate science is low among Republicans; considerably higher among liberal Democrats. Courtesy: Pew Research Center.

Climate Change Equals Less Weather Predictability


Severe weather often leads to human tragedy, and of course our crops, pets and property suffer too, as well as untold damage to numerous ecosystems. But whenever I see or read about a weather-induced catastrophe — local flooding or a super-typhoon halfway around the world — one thought always comes to mind: what kind of weather will my children face as long-term climate change takes hold.

Climate science offers continued predictions of doom and gloom: rising ocean levels, disappearing glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, more extreme weather.

But climate science also tells us that long-term climate change will make for generally less predictable weather. Our present day meteorologists armed with powerful computational climate models have become rather good at forecasting weather on local and global levels. Generally, we have a reasonably good idea of what our local weather will be tomorrow or next week or next month.

But a warming and changing climate adds much more uncertainty. William B. Gail, founder of the Global Weather Corporation and past president of the American Meteorological Society, cautions: there is a growing likelihood of increased unpredictability of our weather systems. Indeed, he predicts a new dark age, where climate change destroys our current understanding of weather patterns and undermines all our current, predictive weather models and forecasts. This is a huge problem for those of us who depend on accurate weather analytics for our livelihoods, especially farmers, fishing industries, aviation, ground transportation, and construction.

From NYT:

Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.

To comprehend how this could occur, picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence. Significant global warming has occurred, as scientists predicted. Nature’s longstanding, repeatable patterns — relied on for millenniums by humanity to plan everything from infrastructure to agriculture — are no longer so reliable. Cycles that have been largely unwavering during modern human history are disrupted by substantial changes in temperature and precipitation.

As Earth’s warming stabilizes, new patterns begin to appear. At first, they are confusing and hard to identify. Scientists note similarities to Earth’s emergence from the last ice age. These new patterns need many years — sometimes decades or more — to reveal themselves fully, even when monitored with our sophisticated observing systems. Until then, farmers will struggle to reliably predict new seasonal patterns and regularly plant the wrong crops. Early signs of major drought will go unrecognized, so costly irrigation will be built in the wrong places. Disruptive societal impacts will be widespread.

Such a dark age is a growing possibility. In a recent report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that human-caused global warming was already altering patterns of some extreme weather events. But the report did not address the broader implication — that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts.

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

But as Earth warms, our historical understanding will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge. Some patterns will change significantly; others will be largely unaffected, though it will be difficult to say what will change, by how much, and when.

The list of possible disruptions is long and alarming. We could see changes to the prevalence of crop and human pests, like locust plagues set off by drought conditions; forest fire frequency; the dynamics of the predator-prey food chain; the identification and productivity of reliably arable land, and the predictability of agriculture output.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image pair of Muir Glacier and melt, Alaska. Left photo taken in 1882, by G.D. Hazard; Right photo taken in 2005 by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy: Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. NASA.


Congressional Climate Science Twilight Zone


By its own actions (or lack thereof) and admissions the US Congress is a place where nothing gets done, and that nothing is done by non-experts who know nothing — other than politics, of course. So, when climate science skeptics in the US Senate held their most recent, “scientific” hearing, titled: “Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”, you can imagine what ensued.

Without an ironic nod to the name of their own hearing, Senators proceeded to inquire only from scientists who support the idea that human created climate change is a myth. Our Senators decried the climate change lobby for persecuting this minority, suggesting that their science should carry as much weight as that from the other camp. Yet this sham of an “open inquiry” fails to recognize that 99 percent of peer-reviewed climate science is unequivocal in pointing the finger at humans. Our so-called leaders, yet again, continue to do us all — the whole planet — a thorough disservice.

By the way, the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness is chaired by Senator Ted Cruz. He believes that his posse of climate change deniers are latter-day Galileo Galileis — a persecuted minority. But he fails to recognize that they are in the minority because the real science shows the minority to be wrong; Galileo was in the minority, but he was backed by science, not dogmatic opinion. I think Senator Cruz would make a great president, in the time of Galileo Galilei, since that is where his understanding of “science” and the scientific method still seems to reside.

From Wired:

You are entering the world of another dimension—a dimension of sight (look at the people who don’t like scientists), of sound (people talking a lot), and of mind (well, maybe not so much). There’s the signpost for the Dirksen Senate Office Building up ahead. Your next stop: Senator Ted Cruz’s hearing on climate change earlier this week, which felt very much like something from the Twilight Zone.

Cruz himself is an intense guy in a dark suit—but that’s where the evident similarities between the senator and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling end. Serling was an abject, romantic humanist. Cruz’s hearing was more like one of the side-shifted worlds Twilight Zone stories always seemed to happen in, at the crossroads of science and superstition, fear and knowledge.

Stranger than the choreography and theatrics (police tossed a protester, Cruz spent plenty of time denouncing a witness who either didn’t show up or wasn’t invited, and a Canadian blogger barely contained his anger during a back-and-forth with Democratic Senator Ed Markey) was the topsy-turvy line of questioning pursued by Cruz, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness.

He opened the hearing—“Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”—with a tale of a 2013 expedition by New Zealand scientists. They were investigating Antarctic sea ice—”ice that the climate-industrial complex had assured us was vanishing,” Cruz said. “It was there to document how the ice was vanishing in the Antarctic, but the ship became stuck. It had run into an inconvenient truth, as Al Gore might put it. Facts matter, science matters, data matters.”

So OK. To bolster that us-versus-them narrative, Cruz invited scientists who believe they are being persecuted (or denied government funding)—just like Galileo was by the Catholic Church, they kept saying.

The other side of the aisle responded that these scientists aren’t being funded because their research and ideas don’t measure up to peer-review standards—or are just plain wrong.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Demon Town cemetery in Majuro has lost many graves during a decade of constant inundations. The local people have moved their relatives’ remains and graves further inland, 2008. Courtesy of The Marshall Island Journal / Guardian Newspapers.

PhotoMash: Climate Skeptic and Climate Science

Aptly, today’s juxtaposition of stories comes from the Washington Post. One day into the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris, France, US House of Representatives’ science committee chair Lamar Smith is still at it. He’s a leading climate change skeptic, an avid opponent of the NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration) and self-styled overlord of the National Science Foundation (NSF). While Representative Smith seeks to politicize and skewer science, intimidate scientists and trample on funding for climate science research (and other types of basic science funding), our planet continues to warm.


If you’re an open-minded scientist or just concerned about our planet this is not good.

So, it’s rather refreshing to see Representative Smith alongside a story showing that the month of December could be another temperature record breaker — the warmest on record for the northern tier of the continental US.

Images courtesy of the Washington Post, November 30, 2015.

Conservative Dogma and Climate Science and Social Justice


You would not be correct in labeling the Catholic Church a hotbed of progressive thought. It’s very foundation is steeped in tradition and dogma. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that most secular politicians in the United States, of all stripes, would have a better grasp of current realities and even science than an establishment conservative church.

Yet, the Vatican has just released a new papal encyclical, On Care For Our Common Home, on the environment that decries the ecological and humanitarian crisis wrought by climate change. You read this correctly — the pope seems to understand and embrace the science of climate change and the impact of humans. In addition to acceptance of scientific principle the encyclical paints our ongoing destruction of the planet and its climate as an issue of social justice. The pope is absolutely correct — the poor suffer unequally from the strife enabled and enacted by the rich.

Ironically, many of the pope’s Republican followers — let’s call them crusading climate science deniers — in the US Congress are of another mind. They’ve been quite vociferous of late, arguing that the pope would best serve his flock by sticking to communion and keeping his nose out of scientific, environmental and political debate. I used to think that most Republicans, including Catholics, derived their denial of climate science — and perhaps most science — from a strict devotion to their god. But, now that one of God’s representatives on Earth backs mainstream climate science what are the Republican believers to do?

One day after Pope Francis released this sweeping document, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican and Catholic, had this to say:

“… I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” 

Par for the course. One wonders where Governor Bush, Senator Inhofe and their colleagues actually do get there economic policy, and more importantly where do they learn about science, if any at all. We’ll have to leave the issue of social justice aside for now — one battle at a time.

Dear God, you do work in such mysterious ways!

An excerpt below from the Vatican’s encyclical on the environment. Read it in full here.

The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilised in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesise nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the Earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the Earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy. Worldwide there is minimal access to clean and renewable energy. There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies. Some countries have made considerable progress, although it is far from constituting a significant proportion. Investments have also been made in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread.

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest. For example, the depletion of fishing reserves especially hurts small fishing communities without the means to replace those resources; water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. The impact of present imbalances is also seen in the premature death of many of the poor, in conflicts sparked by the shortage of resources, and in any number of other problems which are insufficiently represented on global agendas. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people.

Read more here.

Image: “The Blue Marble”, iconic photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). Courtesy of NASA. Public domain.

MondayMap: Drought Mapping

US-droughtThe NYT has an fascinating and detailed article bursting with charts and statistics that shows the pervasive grip of the drought in the United States. The desert Southwest and West continue to be parched and scorching. This is not a pretty picture for farmers and increasingly for those (sub-)urban dwellers who rely upon a fragile and dwindling water supply.

From the NYT:

Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 34 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of July 22.
Things have been particularly bad in California, where state officials have approved drastic measures to reduce water consumption. California farmers, without water from reservoirs in the Central Valley, are left to choose which of their crops to water. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and surrounding states are also suffering from drought conditions.
The relationship between the climate and droughts is complicated. Parts of the country are becoming wetter: East of the Mississippi, rainfall has been rising. But global warming also appears to be causing moisture to evaporate faster in places that were already dry. Researchers believe drought conditions in these places are likely to intensify in coming years.
There has been little relief for some places since the summer of 2012. At the recent peak this May, about 40 percent of the country was abnormally dry or in at least a moderate drought.

Read the entire story and see the statistics for yourself here.

Image courtesy of Drought Monitor / NYT.



Over the coming years the words “Thwaites Glacier” will become known to many people, especially those who make their home near the world’s oceans. The thawing of Antarctic ice and the accelerating melting of its glaciers — of which Thwaites is a prime example — pose an increasing threat to our coasts, but imperil us all.

Thwaites is one of size mega-glaciers that drain into the West Antarctic’s Amundsen Sea. If all were to melt completely, as they are continuing to do, global sea-level would be projected to rise an average of 4½ feet. Astonishingly, this catastrophe in the making has passed a tipping-point — climatologists and glaciologists now tend to agree that the melting is irreversible and accelerating.

From ars technica:

Today, researchers at UC Irvine and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have announced results indicating that glaciers across a large area of West Antarctica have been destabilized and that there is little that will stop their continuing retreat. These glaciers are all that stand between the ocean and a massive basin of ice that sits below sea level. Should the sea invade this basin, we’d be committed to several meters of sea level rise.

Even in the short term, the new findings should increase our estimates for sea level rise by the end of the century, the scientists suggest. But the ongoing process of retreat and destabilization will mean that the area will contribute to rising oceans for centuries.

The press conference announcing these results is ongoing. We will have a significant update on this story later today.

UPDATE (2:05pm CDT):

The glaciers in question are in West Antarctica, and drain into the Amundsen Sea. On the coastal side, the ends of the glacier are actually floating on ocean water. Closer to the coast, there’s what’s called a “grounding line,” where the weight of the ice above sea level pushes the bottom of the glacier down against the sea bed. From there on, back to the interior of Antarctica, all of the ice is directly in contact with the Earth.

That’s a rather significant fact, given that, just behind a range of coastal hills, all of the ice is sitting in a huge basin that’s significantly below sea level. In total, the basin contains enough ice to raise sea levels approximately four meters, largely because the ice piled in there rises significantly above sea level.

Because of this configuration, the grounding line of the glaciers that drain this basin act as a protective barrier, keeping the sea back from the base of the deeper basin. Once ocean waters start infiltrating the base of a glacier, the glacier melts, flows faster, and thins. This lessens the weight holding the glacier down, ultimately causing it to float, which hastens its break up. Since the entire basin is below sea level (in some areas by over a kilometer), water entering the basin via any of the glaciers could destabilize the entire thing.

Thus, understanding the dynamics of the grounding lines is critical. Today’s announcements have been driven by two publications. One of them models the behavior of one of these glaciers, and shows that it has likely reached a point where it will be prone to a sudden retreat sometime in the next few centuries. The second examines every glacier draining this basin, and shows that all but one of them are currently losing contact with their grounding lines.


The data come from two decades worth of data from the ESA’s Earth Remote Sensing satellites. These include radar that performs two key functions: peers through the ice to get a sense of the terrain that lies buried under the ice near the grounding line. And, through interferometry, it tracks the dynamics of the ice sheet’s flow in the area, as well as its thinning and the location of the grounding line itself. The study tracks a number of glaciers that all drain into the region: Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, and Smith/Kohler.

As we’ve covered previously, the Pine Island Glacier came ungrounded in the second half of the past decade, retreating up to 31km in the process. Although this was the one that made headlines, all the glaciers in the area are in retreat. Thwaites saw areas retreat up to 14km over the course of the study, Haynes retracted by 10km, and the Smith/Kohler glaciers retreated by 35km.

The retreating was accompanied by thinning of the glaciers, as ice that had been held back above sea levels in the interior spread forward and thinned out. This contributed to sea level rise, and the speakers at the press conference agreed that the new data shows that the recently released IPCC estimates for sea level rise are out of date; even by the end of this century, the continuation of this process will significantly increase the rate of sea level rise we can expect.

The real problem, however, comes later. Glaciers can establish new grounding lines if there’s a feature in the terrain, such as a hill that rises above sea level, that provides a new anchoring point. The authors see none: “Upstream of the 2011 grounding line positions, we find no major bed obstacle that would prevent the glaciers from further retreat and draw down the entire basin.” In fact, several of the existing grounding lines are close to points where the terrain begins to slope downward into the basin.

For some of the glaciers, the problems are already starting. At Pine Island, the bottom of the glacier is now sitting on terrain that’s 400 meters deeper than where the end rested in 1992, and there are no major hills between there and the basin. As far as the Smith/Kohler glaciers, the grounding line is 800 meters deeper and “its ice shelf pinning points are vanishing.”

What’s next?

As a result, the authors concluded that these glaciers are essentially destabilized—unless something changes radically, they’re destined for retreat into the indefinite future. But what will the trajectory of that retreat look like? In this case, the data doesn’t directly help. It needs to be fed into a model that projects the current melting into the future. Conveniently, a different set of scientists has already done this modeling.

The work focuses on the Thwaites glacier, which appears to be the most stable: there are 60-80km before between the existing terminus and the deep basin, and two or three ridges within that distance that will allow the formation of new grounding lines.

The authors simulated the behavior of Thwaites using a number of different melting rates. These ranged from a low that approximated the behavior typical in the early 90s, to a high rate of melt that is similar to what was observed in recent years. Every single one of these situations saw the Thwaites retreat into the deep basin within the next 1,000 years. In the higher melt scenarios—the ones most reflective of current conditions—this typically took only a few centuries.

The other worrisome behavior is that there appeared to be a tipping point. In every simulation that saw an extensive retreat, rates of melting shifted from under 80 gigatonnes of ice per year to 150 gigatonnes or more, all within the span of a couple of decades. In the later conditions, this glacier alone contributed half a centimeter to sea level rise—every year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, 2012. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

It’s Happening Now


There is one thing wrong with the dystopian future painted by climate change science — it’s not in our future; it’s happening now.

From the New York Times:

Climate change is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, scientists reported on Monday, and they warned that the problem was likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.

The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants, which is killing some creatures or stunting their growth, the report found.

Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting, allowing it to decay into greenhouse gases that will cause further warming, the scientists said. And the worst is yet to come, the scientists said in the second of three reports that are expected to carry considerable weight next year as nations try to agree on a new global climate treaty.

In particular, the report emphasized that the world’s food supply is at considerable risk — a threat that could have serious consequences for the poorest nations.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said at a news conference here on Monday presenting the report.

The report was among the most sobering yet issued by the scientific panel. The group, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to clarify the risks of climate change. The report is the final work of several hundred authors; details from the drafts of this and of the last report in the series, which will be released in Berlin in April, leaked in the last few months.

The report attempts to project how the effects will alter human society in coming decades. While the impact of global warming may actually be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace, the report said.

It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.

“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.

The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The scientists emphasized that climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.

Studies have found that parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out because of climate change, and some experts believe that droughts there have contributed to political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa.

In much of the American West, mountain snowpack is declining, threatening water supplies for the region, the scientists said in the report. And the snow that does fall is melting earlier in the year, which means there is less melt water to ease the parched summers. In Alaska, the collapse of sea ice is allowing huge waves to strike the coast, causing erosion so rapid that it is already forcing entire communities to relocate.

“Now we are at the point where there is so much information, so much evidence, that we can no longer plead ignorance,” Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said at the news conference.

The report was quickly welcomed in Washington, where President Obama is trying to use his executive power under the Clean Air Act and other laws to impose significant new limits on the country’s greenhouse emissions. He faces determined opposition in Congress.

“There are those who say we can’t afford to act,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

Amid all the risks the experts cited, they did find a bright spot. Since the intergovernmental panel issued its last big report in 2007, it has found growing evidence that governments and businesses around the world are making extensive plans to adapt to climate disruptions, even as some conservatives in the United States and a small number of scientists continue to deny that a problem exists.

“I think that dealing effectively with climate change is just going to be something that great nations do,” said Christopher B. Field, co-chairman of the working group that wrote the report and an earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. Talk of adaptation to global warming was once avoided in some quarters, on the ground that it would distract from the need to cut emissions. But the past few years have seen a shift in thinking, including research from scientists and economists who argue that both strategies must be pursued at once.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Greenland ice melt. Courtesy of Christine Zenino / Smithsonian.

Sea Levels Just Keep Rising, Really


The rise in the global sea level is not a disputable fact, as some would still have you believe. The sea level is rising and it is rising faster. It is a fact backed by evidence. Period. This fact has been established through continuous, independent and corroborated scientific studies in many nations across all continents by thousands of scientists.

And, as the oceans rise communities that touch the water face increasing threats. A growing number of areas now have to plan and prepare for more frequent and more prolonged tidal erosion and storm surges. Worse still, some communities, in increasing numbers, have to confront the prospect of complete resettlement caused by the real danger of prolonged and irreversible flooding. Today it may be some of the low lying areas of Norfolk, Virginia or a remote Pacific Island; tomorrow it may be all of downtown Miami and much of the Eastern Seaboard of the US.

From the New York Times:

The little white shack at the water’s edge in Lower Manhattan is unobtrusive — so much so that the tourists strolling the promenade at Battery Park the other day did not give it a second glance.

Up close, though, the roof of the shed behind a Coast Guard building bristled with antennas and other gear. Though not much bigger than a closet, this facility is helping scientists confront one of the great environmental mysteries of the age.

The equipment inside is linked to probes in the water that keep track of the ebb and flow of the tides in New York Harbor, its readings beamed up to a satellite every six minutes.

While the gear today is of the latest type, some kind of tide gauge has been operating at the Battery since the 1850s, by a government office originally founded by Thomas Jefferson. That long data record has become invaluable to scientists grappling with this question: How much has the ocean already risen, and how much more will it go up?

Scientists have spent decades examining all the factors that can influence the rise of the seas, and their research is finally leading to answers. And the more the scientists learn, the more they perceive an enormous risk for the United States.

Much of the population and economy of the country is concentrated on the East Coast., which the accumulating scientific evidence suggests will be a global hot spot for a rising sea level over the coming century.

The detective work has required scientists to grapple with the influence of ancient ice sheets, the meaning of islands that are sinking in Chesapeake Bay, and even the effect of a giant meteor that slammed into the earth.

The work starts with the tides. Because of their importance to navigation, they have been measured for the better part of two centuries. While the record is not perfect, scientists say it leaves no doubt that the world’s oceans are rising. The best calculation suggests that from 1880 to 2009, the global average sea level rose a little over eight inches.

That may not sound like much, but scientists say even the smallest increase causes the seawater to eat away more aggressively at the shoreline in calm weather, and leads to higher tidal surges during storms. The sea-level rise of decades past thus explains why coastal towns nearly everywhere are having to spend billions of dollars fighting erosion.

The evidence suggests that the sea-level rise has probably accelerated, to about a foot a century, and scientists think it will accelerate still more with the continued emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air. The gases heat the planet and cause land ice to melt into the sea.

The official stance of the world’s climate scientists is that the global sea level could rise as much as three feet by the end of this century, if emissions continue at a rapid pace. But some scientific evidence supports even higher numbers, five feet and beyond in the worst case.

Scientists say the East Coast will be hit harder for many reasons, but among the most important is that even as the seawater rises, the land in this part of the world is sinking. And that goes back to the last ice age, which peaked some 20,000 years ago.

As a massive ice sheet, more than a mile thick, grew over what are now Canada and the northern reaches of the United States, the weight of it depressed the crust of the earth. Areas away from the ice sheet bulged upward in response, as though somebody had stepped on one edge of a balloon, causing the other side to pop up. Now that the ice sheet has melted, the ground that was directly beneath it is rising, and the peripheral bulge is falling.

Some degree of sinking is going on all the way from southern Maine to northern Florida, and it manifests itself as an apparent rising of the sea.

The sinking is fastest in the Chesapeake Bay region. Whole island communities that contained hundreds of residents in the 19th century have already disappeared. Holland Island, where the population peaked at nearly 400 people around 1910, had stores, a school, a baseball team and scores of homes. But as the water rose and the island eroded, the community had to be abandoned.

Eventually just a single, sturdy Victorian house, built in 1888, stood on a remaining spit of land, seeming at high tide to rise from the waters of the bay itself. A few years ago, a Washington Post reporter, David A. Fahrenthold, chronicled its collapse.

Aside from this general sinking of land up and down the East Coast, some places sit on soft sediments that tend to compress over time, so the localized land subsidence can be even worse than the regional trend. Much of the New Jersey coast is like that. The sea-level record from the Battery has been particularly valuable in sorting out this factor, because the tide gauge there is attached to bedrock and the record is thus immune to sediment compression.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The last house on Holland Island in Chesapeake Bay, which once had a population of almost 400, finally toppled in October 2010. Courtesy of Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post.

Mid-21st Century Climate

Call it what you may, but regardless of labels most climate scientists agree that our future weather systems are much more likely to be more extreme: more prolonged and more violent.

From ars technica:

If there was one overarching point that the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report took pains to stress, it was that the degree of change in the global climate system since the mid-1950s is unusual in scope. Depending on what exactly you measure, the planet hasn’t seen conditions like these for decades to millennia. But that conclusion leaves us with a question: when exactly can we expect the climate to look radically new, with features that have no historical precedent?

The answer, according to a modeling study published in this week’s issue of Nature, is “very soon”—as soon as 2047 under a “business-as-usual” emission scenario and only 22 years later under a reduced emissions scenario. Tropical countries will likely be the first to enter this new age of climatic erraticness and could experience extreme temperatures monthly after 2050. This, the authors argue, underscores the need for robust efforts targeted not only at protecting those vulnerable countries but also the rich biodiversity that they harbor.

Developing an index, one model at a time

Before attempting to peer into the future, the authors, led by the University of Hawaii’s Camilo Mora, first had to ensure that they could accurately replicate the recent past. To do so, they pooled together the predictive capabilities of 39 different models, using near-surface air temperature as their indicator of choice.

For each model, they established the bounds of natural climate variability as the minimum and maximum values attained between 1860 and 2005. Simultaneously crunching the outputs from all of these models proved to be the right decision, as Mora and his colleagues consistently found that a multi-model average best fit the real data.

Next, they turned to two widely used emission scenarios, or Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) as they’re known in modeling vernacular, to predict the arrival of different climates over a period extending from 2006 to 2100. The first scenario, RCP45, assumes a concerted mitigation initiative and anticipates CO2 concentrations of up to 538 ppm by 2100 (up from the current 393 ppm). The second, RCP85, is the trusty “business-as-usual” scenario that anticipates concentrations of up to 936 ppm by the same year.

Timing the new normals

While testing the sensitivity of their index, Mora and his colleagues concluded that the length of the reference period—the number of years between 1860 and 2005 used as a basis for establishing the limits of historical climate variability—had no effect on the ultimate outcome. A longer period would include more instances of temperature extremes, both low and high, so you would expect that it would yield a broader range of limits. That would mean that any projections of extreme future events might not seem so extreme by comparison.

In practice, it didn’t matter whether the authors used 20 years or 140 years as the length of their reference period. What did matter, they found, was the number of consecutive years where the climate was out of historical bounds. This makes intuitive sense: if you consider fewer consecutive years, the departure from “normal” will come sooner.

Rather than pick one arbitrary number of consecutive years versus another, the authors simply used all of the possible values from each of the 39 models. That accounts for the relatively large standard deviations in the estimated starting dates of exceptional climates—18 years for the RCP45 scenario and 14 years for the RCP85 scenario. That means that the first clear climate shift could occur as early as 2033 or as late as 2087.

Though temperature served as the main proxy for climate in their study, the authors also analyzed four other variables for the atmosphere and two for the ocean. These included evaporation, transpiration, sensible heat flux (the conductive transfer of heat from the planet’s surface to the atmosphere) and precipitation, as well as sea surface temperature and surface pH in the ocean.

Replacing temperature with, or considering it alongside, any of the other four variables for atmosphere did not change the timing of climate departures. This is because temperature is the most sensitive variable and therefore also the earliest to exceed the normal bounds of historical variability.

When examining the ocean through the prism of sea surface temperature, the researchers determined that it would reach its tipping point by 2051 or 2072 under the RCP85 and RCP45 scenarios, respectively. However, when they considered both sea surface temperature and surface pH together, the estimated tipping point was moved all the way up to this decade.

Seawater pH has an extremely narrow range of historical variability, and it moved out of this range 5 years ago, which caused the year of the climate departure to jump forward several decades. This may be an extreme case, but it serves as a stark reminder that the ocean is already on the edge of uncharted territory.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Salon.

Only Three Feet

Three feet. Three feet is nothing you say. Three feet is less than the difference between the shallow and deep ends of most swimming pools. Well, when the three feet is the mean ocean level rise it becomes a little more significant. And, when that three feet is the rise predicted to happen within the next 87 years, by 2100, it’s, well, how do you say, catastrophic.

A rise like that and you can kiss goodbye to your retirement home in Miami, and for that matter, kiss goodbye to much of southern Florida, and many coastal communities around the world.

From the New York Times:

An international team of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change contrarians, as probably related to short-term factors. The report emphasizes that the basic facts giving rise to global alarm about future climate change are more established than ever, and it reiterates that the consequences of runaway emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level, and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

The “extremely likely” language is stronger than in the last major United Nations report, published in 2007, and it means the authors of the draft document are now 95 percent to 100 percent confident that human activity is the primary influence on planetary warming. In the 2007 report, they said they were 90 percent to 100 percent certain on that issue.

On another closely watched issue, however, the authors retreated slightly from their 2007 position.

On the question of how much the planet could warm if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere doubled, the previous report had largely ruled out any number below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The new draft says the rise could be as low as 2.7 degrees, essentially restoring a scientific consensus that prevailed from 1979 to 2007.

Most scientists see only an outside chance that the warming will be as low as either of those numbers, with the published evidence suggesting that an increase above 5 degrees Fahrenheit is likely if carbon dioxide doubles.

The new document is not final and will not become so until an intensive, closed-door negotiating session among scientists and government leaders in Stockholm in late September. But if the past is any guide, most of the core findings of the document will survive that final review.

The document was leaked over the weekend after it was sent to a large group of people who had signed up to review it. It was first reported on in detail by the Reuters news agency, and The New York Times obtained a copy independently to verify its contents.

It was prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a large, international group of scientists appointed by the United Nations. The group does no original research, but instead periodically assesses and summarizes the published scientific literature on climate change.

“The text is likely to change in response to comments from governments received in recent weeks and will also be considered by governments and scientists at a four-day approval session at the end of September,” the panel’s spokesman, Jonathan Lynn, said in a statement Monday. “It is therefore premature and could be misleading to attempt to draw conclusions from it.”

The intergovernmental panel won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007 for seeking to educate the world’s citizens about the risks of global warming. But it has also become a political target for climate contrarians, who helped identify several minor errors in the last big report from 2007. This time, the group adopted rigorous procedures in hopes of preventing such mistakes.

On sea level, one of the biggest single worries about climate change, the new report goes well beyond the one from 2007, which largely sidestepped the question of how much the ocean could rise this century.

The new report lays out several scenarios. In the most optimistic, the world’s governments would prove far more successful at getting emissions under control than they have been in the recent past, helping to limit the total warming.

In that circumstance, sea level could be expected to rise as little as 10 inches by the end of the century, the report found. That is a bit more than the eight-inch rise in the 20th century, which proved manageable even though it caused severe erosion along the world’s shorelines.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

Earth as the New Venus

New research models show just how precarious our planet’s climate really is. Runaway greenhouse warming would make a predicted 2-6 feet rise in average sea levels over the next 50-100 years seem like a puddle at the local splash pool.

From ars technica:

With the explosion of exoplanet discoveries, researchers have begun to seriously revisit what it takes to make a planet habitable, defined as being able to support liquid water. At a basic level, the amount of light a planet receives sets its temperature. But real worlds aren’t actually basic—they have atmospheres, reflect some of that light back into space, and experience various feedbacks that affect the temperature.

Attempts to incorporate all those complexities into models of other planets have produced some unexpected results. Some even suggest that Earth teeters on the edge of experiencing a runaway greenhouse, one that would see its oceans boil off. The fact that large areas of the planet are covered in ice may make that conclusion seem a bit absurd, but a second paper looks at the problem from a somewhat different angle—and comes to the same conclusion. If it weren’t for clouds and our nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the Earth might be an uninhabitable hell right now.

The new work focuses on a very simple model of an atmosphere: a linear column of nothing but water vapor. This clearly doesn’t capture the complex dynamics of weather and the different amounts of light to reach the poles, but it does include things like the amount of light scattered back out into space and the greenhouse impact of the water vapor. These sorts of calculations are simple enough that they were first done decades ago, but the authors note that this particular problem hadn’t been revisited in 25 years. Our knowledge of how water vapor absorbs both visible and infrared light has improved over that time.

Water vapor, like other greenhouse gasses, allows visible light to reach the surface of a planet, but it absorbs most of the infrared light that gets emitted back toward space. Only a narrow window, centered around 10 micrometer wavelengths, makes it back out to space. Once the incoming energy gets larger than the amount that can escape, the end result is a runaway greenhouse: heat evaporates more surface water, which absorbs more infrared, trapping even more heat. At some point, the atmosphere gets so filled with water vapor that light no longer even reaches the surface, instead getting absorbed by the atmosphere itself.

The model shows that, once temperatures reach 1,800K, a second window through the water vapor opens up at about four microns, which allows additional energy to escape into space. The authors suggest that this could be used when examining exoplanets, as high emissions in this region could be taken as an indication that the planet was undergoing a runaway greenhouse.

The authors also used the model to look at what Earth would be like if it had a cloud-free, water atmosphere. The surprise was that the updated model indicated that this alternate-Earth atmosphere would absorb 30 percent more energy than previous estimates suggested. That’s enough to make a runaway greenhouse atmosphere stable at the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

So, why is the Earth so relatively temperate? The authors added a few additional factors to their model to find out. Additional greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane made runaway heating more likely, while nitrogen scattered enough light to make it less likely. The net result is that, under an Earth-like atmosphere composition, our planet should experience a runaway greenhouse. (In fact, greenhouse gasses can lower the barrier between a temperate climate and a runaway greenhouse, although only at concentrations much higher than we’ll reach even if we burn all the fossil fuels available.) But we know it hasn’t. “A runaway greenhouse has manifestly not occurred on post-Hadean Earth,” the authors note. “It would have sterilized Earth (there is observer bias).”

So, what’s keeping us cool? The authors suggest two things. The first is that our atmosphere isn’t uniformly saturated with water; some areas are less humid and allow more heat to radiate out into space. The other factor is the existence of clouds. Depending on their properties, clouds can either insulate or reflect sunlight back into space. On balance, however, it appears they are key to keeping our planet’s climate moderate.

But clouds won’t help us out indefinitely. Long before the Sun expands and swallows the Earth, the amount of light it emits will rise enough to make a runaway greenhouse more likely. The authors estimate that, with an all-water atmosphere, we’ve got about 1.5 billion years until the Earth is sterilized by skyrocketing temperatures. If other greenhouse gasses are present, then that day will come even sooner.

The authors don’t expect that this will be the last word on exoplanet conditions—in fact, they revisited waterlogged atmospheres in the hopes of stimulating greater discussion of them. But the key to understanding exoplanets will ultimately involve adapting the planetary atmospheric models we’ve built to understand the Earth’s climate. With full, three-dimensional circulation of the atmosphere, these models can provide a far more complete picture of the conditions that could prevail under a variety of circumstances. Right now, they’re specialized to model the Earth, but work is underway to change that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Venus shrouded in perennial clouds of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid, as seen by the Messenger probe, 2004. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

More CO2 is Good, Right?

Yesterday, May 10, 2013, scientists published new measures of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). For the first time in human history CO2 levels reached an average of 400 parts per million (ppm). This is particularly troubling since CO2 has long been known as the most potent heat trapping component of the atmosphere. The sobering milestone was recorded from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii — monitoring has been underway at the site since the mid-1950s.

This has many climate scientists re-doubling their efforts to warn of the consequences of climate change, which is believed to be driven by human activity and specifically the generation of atmospheric CO2 in ever increasing quantities. But not to be outdone, the venerable Wall Street Journal — seldom known for its well-reasoned scientific journalism — chimed in with an op-ed on the subject. According to the WSJ we have nothing to worry about because increased levels of CO2 are good for certain crops and the Earth had historically much higher levels of CO2 (though pre-humanity).

Ashutosh Jogalekar over at The Curious Wavefunction dissects the WSJ article line by line:

Since we were discussing the differences between climate change “skeptics” and “deniers” (or “denialists”, whatever you want to call them) the other day this piece is timely. The Wall Street Journal is not exactly known for reasoned discussion of climate change, but this Op-Ed piece may set a new standard even for its own naysayers and skeptics. It’s a piece by William Happer and Harrison Schmitt that’s so one-sided, sparse on detail, misleading and ultimately pointless that I am wondering if it’s a spoof.

Happer and Schmitt’s thesis can be summed up in one line: More CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing because it’s good for one particular type of crop plant. That’s basically it. No discussion of the downsides, not even a pretense of a balanced perspective. Unfortunately it’s not hard to classify their piece as a denialist article because it conforms to some of the classic features of denial; it’s entirely one sided, it’s very short on detail, it does a poor job even with the little details that it does present and it simply ignores the massive amount of research done on the topic. In short it’s grossly misleading.

First of all Happer and Schmitt simply dismiss any connection that might exist between CO2 levels and rising temperatures, in the process consigning a fair amount of basic physics and chemistry to the dustbin. There are no references and no actual discussion of why they don’t believe there’s a connection. That’s a shoddy start to put it mildly; you would expect a legitimate skeptic to start with some actual evidence and references. Most of the article after that consists of a discussion of the differences between so-called C3 plants (like rice) and C4 plants (like corn and sugarcane). This is standard stuff found in college biochemistry textbooks, nothing revealing here. But Happer and Schmitt leverage a fundamental difference between the two – the fact that C4 plants can utilize CO2 more efficiently than C3 plants under certain conditions – into an argument for increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

This of course completely ignores all the other potentially catastrophic effects that CO2 could have on agriculture, climate, biodiversity etc. You don’t even have to be a big believer in climate change to realize that focusing on only a single effect of a parameter on a complicated system is just bad science. Happer and Schmitt’s argument is akin to the argument that everyone should get themselves addicted to meth because one of meth’s effects is euphoria. So ramping up meth consumption will make everyone feel happier, right?

But even if you consider that extremely narrowly defined effect of CO2 on C3 and C4 plants, there’s still a problem. What’s interesting is that the argument has been countered by Matt Ridley in the pages of this very publication:

But it is not quite that simple. Surprisingly, the C4 strategy first became common in the repeated ice ages that began about four million years ago. This was because the ice ages were a very dry time in the tropics and carbon-dioxide levels were very low—about half today’s levels. C4 plants are better at scavenging carbon dioxide (the source of carbon for sugars) from the air and waste much less water doing so. In each glacial cold spell, forests gave way to seasonal grasslands on a huge scale. Only about 4% of plant species use C4, but nearly half of all grasses do, and grasses are among the newest kids on the ecological block.

So whereas rising temperatures benefit C4, rising carbon-dioxide levels do not. In fact, C3 plants get a greater boost from high carbon dioxide levels than C4. Nearly 500 separate experiments confirm that if carbon-dioxide levels roughly double from preindustrial levels, rice and wheat yields will be on average 36% and 33% higher, while corn yields will increase by only 24%.

So no, the situation is more subtle than the authors think. In fact I am surprised that, given that C4 plants actually do grow better at higher temperatures, Happer and Schmitt missed an opportunity for making the case for a warmer planet. In any case, there’s a big difference between improving yields of C4 plants under controlled greenhouse conditions and expecting these yields to improve without affecting other components of the ecosystem by doing a giant planetary experiment.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Sierra Club.


Geoengineering As a Solution to Climate Change

Experimental physicist David Keith has a plan: dump hundreds of thousands of tons of atomized sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere; watch the acid particles reflect additional sunlight; wait for global temperature to drop. Many of Keith’s peers think this geoengineering scheme is crazy, least of which are the possible unknown and unmeasured side-effects, but this hasn’t stopped the healthy debate. One thing is becoming increasingly clear — humans need to take collective action.

[div class=attrib]From Technology Review:[end-div]

Here is the plan. Customize several Gulfstream business jets with military engines and with equipment to produce and disperse fine droplets of sulfuric acid. Fly the jets up around 20 kilometers—significantly higher than the cruising altitude for a commercial jetliner but still well within their range. At that altitude in the tropics, the aircraft are in the lower stratosphere. The planes spray the sulfuric acid, carefully controlling the rate of its release. The sulfur combines with water vapor to form sulfate aerosols, fine particles less than a micrometer in diameter. These get swept upward by natural wind patterns and are dispersed over the globe, including the poles. Once spread across the stratosphere, the aerosols will reflect about 1 percent of the sunlight hitting Earth back into space. Increasing what scientists call the planet’s albedo, or reflective power, will partially offset the warming effects caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases.

The author of this so-called geoengineering scheme, David Keith, doesn’t want to implement it anytime soon, if ever. Much more research is needed to determine whether injecting sulfur into the stratosphere would have dangerous consequences such as disrupting precipitation patterns or further eating away the ozone layer that protects us from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Even thornier, in some ways, are the ethical and governance issues that surround geoengineering—questions about who should be allowed to do what and when. Still, Keith, a professor of applied physics at Harvard University and a leading expert on energy technology, has done enough analysis to suspect it could be a cheap and easy way to head off some of the worst effects of climate change.

According to Keith’s calculations, if operations were begun in 2020, it would take 25,000 metric tons of sulfuric acid to cut global warming in half after one year. Once under way, the injection of sulfuric acid would proceed continuously. By 2040, 11 or so jets delivering roughly 250,000 metric tons of it each year, at an annual cost of $700 million, would be required to compensate for the increased warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide. By 2070, he estimates, the program would need to be injecting a bit more than a million tons per year using a fleet of a hundred aircraft.

One of the startling things about Keith’s proposal is just how little sulfur would be required. A few grams of it in the stratosphere will offset the warming caused by a ton of carbon dioxide, according to his estimate. And even the amount that would be needed by 2070 is dwarfed by the roughly 50 million metric tons of sulfur emitted by the burning of fossil fuels every year. Most of that pollution stays in the lower atmosphere, and the sulfur molecules are washed out in a matter of days. In contrast, sulfate particles remain in the stratosphere for a few years, making them more effective at reflecting sunlight.

The idea of using sulfate aerosols to offset climate warming is not new. Crude versions of the concept have been around at least since a Russian climate scientist named Mikhail Budkyo proposed the idea in the mid-1970s, and more refined descriptions of how it might work have been discussed for decades. These days the idea of using sulfur particles to counteract warming—often known as solar radiation management, or SRM—is the subject of hundreds of papers in academic journals by scientists who use computer models to try to predict its consequences.

But Keith, who has published on geoengineering since the early 1990s, has emerged as a leading figure in the field because of his aggressive public advocacy for more research on the technology—and his willingness to talk unflinchingly about how it might work. Add to that his impeccable academic credentials—last year Harvard lured him away from the University of Calgary with a joint appointment in the school of engineering and the Kennedy School of Government—and Keith is one of the world’s most influential voices on solar geoengineering. He is one of the few who have done detailed engineering studies and logistical calculations on just how SRM might be carried out. And if he and his collaborator James ­Anderson, a prominent atmospheric chemist at Harvard, gain public funding, they plan to conduct some of the first field experiments to assess the risks of the technique.

Leaning forward from the edge of his chair in a small, sparse Harvard office on an unusually warm day this winter, he explains his urgency. Whether or not greenhouse-gas emissions are cut sharply—and there is little evidence that such reductions are coming—”there is a realistic chance that [solar geoengineering] technologies could actually reduce climate risk significantly, and we would be negligent if we didn’t look at that,” he says. “I’m not saying it will work, and I’m not saying we should do it.” But “it would be reckless not to begin serious research on it,” he adds. “The sooner we find out whether it works or not, the better.”

The overriding reason why Keith and other scientists are exploring solar geoengineering is simple and well documented, though often overlooked: the warming caused by atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup is for all practical purposes irreversible, because the climate change is directly related to the total cumulative emissions. Even if we halt carbon dioxide emissions entirely, the elevated concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere will persist for decades. And according to recent studies, the warming itself will continue largely unabated for at least 1,000 years. If we find in, say, 2030 or 2040 that climate change has become intolerable, cutting emissions alone won’t solve the problem.

“That’s the key insight,” says Keith. While he strongly supports cutting carbon dioxide emissions as rapidly as possible, he says that if the climate “dice” roll against us, that won’t be enough: “The only thing that we think might actually help [reverse the warming] in our lifetime is in fact geoengineering.”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

Climate Change Report

No pithy headline. The latest U.S. National Climate Assessment makes sobering news. The full 1,146 page report is available for download here.

Over the next 30 years (and beyond), it warns of projected sea-level rises along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, warmer temperatures across much of the nation, and generally warmer and more acidic oceans. More worrying still are the less direct consequences of climate change: increased threats to human health due to severe weather such as storms, drought and wildfires; more vulnerable infrastructure in regions subject to increasingly volatile weather; and rising threats to regional stability and national security due to a less reliable national and global water supply.

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded.

A draft of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, released on Friday, said observable change to the climate in the past half-century “is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuel,” and that no areas of the United States were immune to change.

“Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience,” the report said.

Months after Superstorm Sandy hurtled into the U.S. East Coast, causing billions of dollars in damage, the report concluded that severe weather was the new normal.

“Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense, including heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts,” the report said, days after scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared 2012 the hottest year ever in the United States.

Some environmentalists looked for the report to energize climate efforts by the White House or Congress, although many Republican lawmakers are wary of declaring a definitive link between human activity and evidence of a changing climate.

The U.S. Congress has been mostly silent on climate change since efforts to pass “cap-and-trade” legislation collapsed in the Senate in mid-2010.

The advisory committee behind the report was established by the U.S. Department of Commerce to integrate federal research on environmental change and its implications for society. It made two earlier assessments, in 2000 and 2009.

Thirteen departments and agencies, from the Agriculture Department to NASA, are part of the committee, which also includes academics, businesses, nonprofits and others.


The report noted that of an increase in average U.S. temperatures of about 1.5 degrees F (.83 degree C) since 1895, when reliable national record-keeping began, more than 80 percent had occurred in the past three decades.

With heat-trapping gases already in the atmosphere, temperatures could rise by a further 2 to 4 degrees F (1.1 to 2.2 degrees C) in most parts of the country over the next few decades, the report said.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

Climate change: Not in My Neigborhood

It’s no surprise that in our daily lives we seek information that reinforces our perceptions, opinions and beliefs of the world around us. It’s also the case that if we do not believe in a particular position, we will overlook any evidence in our immediate surroundings that runs contrary to our disbelief — climate change is no different.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

We all know it’s hard to change someone’s mind. In an ideal, rational world, a person’s opinion about some topic would be based on several pieces of evidence. If you were to supply that person with several pieces of stronger evidence that point in another direction, you might expect them to accept the new information and agree with you.

However, this is not that world, and rarely do we find ourselves in a debate with Star Trek’s Spock. There are a great many reasons that we behave differently. One is the way we rate incoming information for trustworthiness and importance. Once we form an opinion, we rate information that confirms our opinion more highly than information that challenges it. This is one form of “motivated reasoning.” We like to think we’re right, and so we are motivated to come to the conclusion that the facts are still on our side.

Publicly contentious issues often put a spotlight on these processes—issues like climate change, example. In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, researchers from George Mason and Yale explore how motivated reasoning influences whether people believe they have personally experienced the effects of climate change.

When it comes to communicating the science of global warming, a common strategy is to focus on the concrete here-and-now rather than the abstract and distant future. The former is easier for people to relate to and connect with. Glazed eyes are the standard response to complicated graphs of projected sea level rise, with ranges of uncertainty and several scenarios of future emissions. Show somebody that their favorite ice fishing spot is iced over for several fewer weeks each winter than it was in the late 1800s, though, and you might have their attention.

Public polls show that acceptance of a warming climate correlates with agreement that one has personally experienced its effects. That could be affirmation that personal experience is a powerful force for the acceptance of climate science. Obviously, there’s another possibility—that those who accept that the climate is warming are more likely to believe they’ve experienced the effects themselves, whereas those who deny that warming is taking place are unlikely to see evidence of it in daily life. That’s, at least partly, motivated reasoning at work. (And of course, this cuts both ways. Individuals who agree that the Earth is warming may erroneously interpret unrelated events as evidence of that fact.)

The survey used for this study was unique in that the same people were polled twice, two and a half years apart, to see how their views changed over time. For the group as a whole, there was evidence for both possibilities—experience affected acceptance, and acceptance predicted statements about experience.

Fortunately, the details were a bit more interesting than that. When you categorize individuals by engagement—essentially how confident and knowledgeable they feel about the facts of the issue—differences are revealed. For the highly-engaged groups (on both sides), opinions about whether climate is warming appeared to drive reports of personal experience. That is, motivated reasoning was prevalent. On the other hand, experience really did change opinions for the less-engaged group, and motivated reasoning took a back seat.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of: New York Times / Steen Ulrik Johannessen / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.[end-div]



Pluralistic Ignorance

Why study the science of climate change when you can study the complexities of climate change deniers themselves? That was the question that led several groups of independent researchers to study why some groups of people cling to mistaken beliefs and hold inaccurate views of the public consensus.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

By just about every measure, the vast majority of scientists in general—and climate scientists in particular—have been convinced by the evidence that human activities are altering the climate. However, in several countries, a significant portion of the public has concluded that this consensus doesn’t exist. That has prompted a variety of studies aimed at understanding the large disconnect between scientists and the public, with results pointing the finger at everything from the economy to the weather. Other studies have noted societal influences on acceptance, including ideology and cultural identity.

Those studies have generally focused on the US population, but the public acceptance of climate change is fairly similar in Australia. There, a new study has looked at how societal tendencies can play a role in maintaining mistaken beliefs. The authors of the study have found evidence that two well-known behaviors—the “false consensus” and “pluralistic ignorance”—are helping to shape public opinion in Australia.

False consensus is the tendency of people to think that everyone else shares their opinions. This can arise from the fact that we tend to socialize with people who share our opinions, but the authors note that the effect is even stronger “when we hold opinions or beliefs that are unpopular, unpalatable, or that we are uncertain about.” In other words, our social habits tend to reinforce the belief that we’re part of a majority, and we have a tendency to cling to the sense that we’re not alone in our beliefs.

Pluralistic ignorance is similar, but it’s not focused on our own beliefs. Instead, sometimes the majority of people come to believe that most people think a certain way, even though the majority opinion actually resides elsewhere.

As it turns out, the authors found evidence of both these effects. They performed two identical surveys of over 5,000 Australians, done a year apart; about 1,350 people took the survey both times, which let the researchers track how opinions evolve. Participants were asked to describe their own opinion on climate change, with categories including “don’t know,” “not happening,” “a natural occurrence,” and “human-induced.” After voicing their own opinion, people were asked to estimate what percentage of the population would fall into each of these categories.

In aggregate, over 90 percent of those surveyed accepted that climate change was occurring (a rate much higher than we see in the US), with just over half accepting that humans were driving the change. Only about five percent felt it wasn’t happening, and even fewer said they didn’t know. The numbers changed only slightly between the two polls.

The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don’t think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace.

Among those who took the survey twice, the effect became even more pronounced. In the year between the surveys, they respondents went from estimating that 30 percent of the population agreed with them to thinking that 45 percent did. And, in general, this group was the least likely to change its opinion between the two surveys.

But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn’t occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Flood victims. Courtesy of NRDC.[end-div]

An Answer is Blowing in the Wind

Two recent studies report that the world (i.e., humans) could meet its entire electrical energy needs from several million wind turbines.

[div class=attrib]From Ars Technica:[end-div]

Is there not enough wind blowing across the planet to satiate our demands for electricity? If there is, would harnessing that much of it begin to actually affect the climate?

Two studies published this week tried to answer these questions. Long story short: we could supply all our power needs for the foreseeable future from wind, all without affecting the climate in a significant way.

The first study, published in this week’s Nature Climate Change, was performed by Kate Marvel of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with Ben Kravitz and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Their goal was to determine a maximum geophysical limit to wind power—in other words, if we extracted all the kinetic energy from wind all over the world, how much power could we generate?

In order to calculate this power limit, the team used the Community Atmosphere Model (CAM), developed by National Center for Atmospheric Research. Turbines were represented as drag forces removing momentum from the atmosphere, and the wind power was calculated as the rate of kinetic energy transferred from the wind to these momentum sinks. By increasing the drag forces, a power limit was reached where no more energy could be extracted from the wind.

The authors found that at least 400 terawatts could be extracted by ground-based turbines—represented by drag forces on the ground—and 1,800 terawatts by high-altitude turbines—represented by drag forces throughout the atmosphere. For some perspective, the current global power demand is around 18 terawatts.

The second study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Mark Jacobsen at Stanford and Cristina Archer at the University of Delaware, asked some more practical questions about the limits of wind power. For example, rather than some theoretical physical limit, what is the maximum amount of power that could actually be extracted by real turbines?

For one thing, turbines can’t extract all the kinetic energy from wind—no matter the design, 59.3 percent, the Betz limit, is the absolute maximum. Less-than-perfect efficiencies based on the specific turbine design reduce the extracted power further.

Another important consideration is that, for a given area, you can only add so many turbines before hitting a limit on power extraction—the area is “saturated,” and any power increase you get by adding any turbines ends up matched by a drop in power from existing ones. This happens because the wakes from turbines near each other interact and reduce the ambient wind speed. Jacobsen and Archer expanded this concept to a global level, calculating the saturation wind power potential for both the entire globe and all land except Antarctica.

Like the first study, this one considered both surface turbines and high-altitude turbines located in the jet stream. Unlike the model used in the first study, though, these were placed at specific altitudes: 100 meters, the hub height of most modern turbines, and 10 kilometers. The authors argue improper placement will lead to incorrect reductions in wind speed.

Jacobsen and Archer found that, with turbines placed all over the planet, including the oceans, wind power saturates at about 250 terawatts, corresponding to nearly three thousand terawatts of installed capacity. If turbines are just placed on land and shallow offshore locations, the saturation point is 80 terawatts for 1,500 installed terawatts of installed power.

For turbines at the jet-stream height, they calculated a maximum power of nearly 400 terawatts—about 150 percent of that at 100 meters.

These results show that, even at the saturation point, we could extract enough wind power to supply global demands many times over. Unfortunately, the numbers of turbines required aren’t plausible—300 million five-megawatt turbines in the smallest case (land plus shallow offshore).

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Air Conditioning in a Warming World

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

THE blackouts that left hundreds of millions of Indians sweltering in the dark last month underscored the status of air-conditioning as one of the world’s most vexing environmental quandaries.

Fact 1: Nearly all of the world’s booming cities are in the tropics and will be home to an estimated one billion new consumers by 2025. As temperatures rise, they — and we — will use more air-conditioning.

Fact 2: Air-conditioners draw copious electricity, and deliver a double whammy in terms of climate change, since both the electricity they use and the coolants they contain result in planet-warming emissions.

Fact 3: Scientific studies increasingly show that health and productivity rise significantly if indoor temperature is cooled in hot weather. So cooling is not just about comfort.

Sum up these facts and it’s hard to escape: Today’s humans probably need air-conditioning if they want to thrive and prosper. Yet if all those new city dwellers use air-conditioning the way Americans do, life could be one stuttering series of massive blackouts, accompanied by disastrous planet-warming emissions.

We can’t live with air-conditioning, but we can’t live without it.

“It is true that air-conditioning made the economy happen for Singapore and is doing so for other emerging economies,” said Pawel Wargocki, an expert on indoor air quality at the International Center for Indoor Environment and Energy at the Technical University of Denmark. “On the other hand, it poses a huge threat to global climate and energy use. The current pace is very dangerous.”

Projections of air-conditioning use are daunting. In 2007, only 11 percent of households in Brazil and 2 percent in India had air-conditioning, compared with 87 percent in the United States, which has a more temperate climate, said Michael Sivak, a research professor in energy at the University of Michigan. “There is huge latent demand,” Mr. Sivak said. “Current energy demand does not yet reflect what will happen when these countries have more money and more people can afford air-conditioning.” He has estimated that, based on its climate and the size of the population, the cooling needs of Mumbai alone could be about a quarter of those of the entire United States, which he calls “one scary statistic.”

It is easy to decry the problem but far harder to know what to do, especially in a warming world where people in the United States are using our existing air-conditioners more often. The number of cooling degree days — a measure of how often cooling is needed — was 17 percent above normal in the United States in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, leading to “an increase in electricity demand.” This July was the hottest ever in the United States.

Likewise, the blackouts in India were almost certainly related to the rising use of air-conditioning and cooling, experts say, even if the immediate culprit was a grid that did not properly balance supply and demand.

The late arrival of this year’s monsoons, which normally put an end to India’s hottest season, may have devastated the incomes of farmers who needed the rain. But it “put smiles on the faces of those who sell white goods — like air-conditioners and refrigerators — because it meant lots more sales,” said Rajendra Shende, chairman of the Terre Policy Center in Pune, India.

“Cooling is the craze in India — everyone loves cool temperatures and getting to cool temperatures as quickly as possible,” Mr. Shende said. He said that cooling has become such a cultural priority that rather than advertise a car’s acceleration, salesmen in India now emphasize how fast its air-conditioner can cool.

Scientists are scrambling to invent more efficient air-conditioners and better coolant gases to minimize electricity use and emissions. But so far the improvements have been dwarfed by humanity’s rising demands.

And recent efforts to curb the use of air-conditioning, by fiat or persuasion, have produced sobering lessons.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Parkland Air Conditioning.[end-div]

Extreme Weather as the New Norm

Melting glaciers at the poles, wildfires in the western United States, severe flooding across Europe and parts of Asia, hurricanes in northern Australia, warmer temperatures across the globe. According to a many climatologists, including a growing number of ex-climate change skeptics, this is the new normal for our foreseeable future. Welcome to the changed climate.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

BY many measurements, this summer’s drought is one for the record books. But so was last year’s drought in the South Central states. And it has been only a decade since an extreme five-year drought hit the American West. Widespread annual droughts, once a rare calamity, have become more frequent and are set to become the “new normal.”

Until recently, many scientists spoke of climate change mainly as a “threat,” sometime in the future. But it is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires.

Future precipitation trends, based on climate model projections for the coming fifth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate that droughts of this length and severity will be commonplace through the end of the century unless human-induced carbon emissions are significantly reduced. Indeed, assuming business as usual, each of the next 80 years in the American West is expected to see less rainfall than the average of the five years of the drought that hit the region from 2000 to 2004.

That extreme drought (which we have analyzed in a new study in the journal Nature-Geoscience) had profound consequences for carbon sequestration, agricultural productivity and water resources: plants, for example, took in only half the carbon dioxide they do normally, thanks to a drought-induced drop in photosynthesis.

In the drought’s worst year, Western crop yields were down by 13 percent, with many local cases of complete crop failure. Major river basins showed 5 percent to 50 percent reductions in flow. These reductions persisted up to three years after the drought ended, because the lakes and reservoirs that feed them needed several years of average rainfall to return to predrought levels.

In terms of severity and geographic extent, the 2000-4 drought in the West exceeded such legendary events as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While that drought saw intervening years of normal rainfall, the years of the turn-of-the-century drought were consecutive. More seriously still, long-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that this drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years. Though there have been many extreme droughts over the last 1,200 years, only three other events have been of similar magnitude, all during periods of “megadroughts.”

Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal: climate models point to a warmer planet, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions. Planetary warming, in turn, is expected to create drier conditions across western North America, because of the way global-wind and atmospheric-pressure patterns shift in response.

Indeed, scientists see signs of the relationship between warming and drought in western North America by analyzing trends over the last 100 years; evidence suggests that the more frequent drought and low precipitation events observed for the West during the 20th century are associated with increasing temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere.

These climate-model projections suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness by the end of the century and that a coming megadrought — a prolonged, multidecade period of significantly below-average precipitation — is possible and likely in the American West.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of the Sun.[end-div]

A Climate Change Skeptic Recants

A climate change skeptic recants. Of course, disbelievers in human-influenced climate change will point to the fact that physicist Richard Muller used an op-ed in the New York Times as evidence of flagrant falsehood and unmitigated bias.

Several years ago Muller set up the Berkeley Earth project, to collect and analyze land-surface temperature records from sources independent of NASA and NOAA. Convinced, at the time, that climate change researchers had the numbers all wrong, Muller and team set out to find the proof.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

CALL me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

These findings are stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that defines the scientific and diplomatic consensus on global warming. In its 2007 report, the I.P.C.C. concluded only that most of the warming of the prior 50 years could be attributed to humans. It was possible, according to the I.P.C.C. consensus statement, that the warming before 1956 could be because of changes in solar activity, and that even a substantial part of the more recent warming could be natural.

Our Berkeley Earth approach used sophisticated statistical methods developed largely by our lead scientist, Robert Rohde, which allowed us to determine earth land temperature much further back in time. We carefully studied issues raised by skeptics: biases from urban heating (we duplicated our results using rural data alone), from data selection (prior groups selected fewer than 20 percent of the available temperature stations; we used virtually 100 percent), from poor station quality (we separately analyzed good stations and poor ones) and from human intervention and data adjustment (our work is completely automated and hands-off). In our papers we demonstrate that none of these potentially troublesome effects unduly biased our conclusions.

The historic temperature pattern we observed has abrupt dips that match the emissions of known explosive volcanic eruptions; the particulates from such events reflect sunlight, make for beautiful sunsets and cool the earth’s surface for a few years. There are small, rapid variations attributable to El Niño and other ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream; because of such oscillations, the “flattening” of the recent temperature rise that some people claim is not, in our view, statistically significant. What has caused the gradual but systematic rise of two and a half degrees? We tried fitting the shape to simple math functions (exponentials, polynomials), to solar activity and even to rising functions like world population. By far the best match was to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice.

Just as important, our record is long enough that we could search for the fingerprint of solar variability, based on the historical record of sunspots. That fingerprint is absent. Although the I.P.C.C. allowed for the possibility that variations in sunlight could have ended the “Little Ice Age,” a period of cooling from the 14th century to about 1850, our data argues strongly that the temperature rise of the past 250 years cannot be attributed to solar changes. This conclusion is, in retrospect, not too surprising; we’ve learned from satellite measurements that solar activity changes the brightness of the sun very little.

How definite is the attribution to humans? The carbon dioxide curve gives a better match than anything else we’ve tried. Its magnitude is consistent with the calculated greenhouse effect — extra warming from trapped heat radiation. These facts don’t prove causality and they shouldn’t end skepticism, but they raise the bar: to be considered seriously, an alternative explanation must match the data at least as well as carbon dioxide does. Adding methane, a second greenhouse gas, to our analysis doesn’t change the results. Moreover, our analysis does not depend on large, complex global climate models, the huge computer programs that are notorious for their hidden assumptions and adjustable parameters. Our result is based simply on the close agreement between the shape of the observed temperature rise and the known greenhouse gas increase.

It’s a scientist’s duty to be properly skeptical. I still find that much, if not most, of what is attributed to climate change is speculative, exaggerated or just plain wrong. I’ve analyzed some of the most alarmist claims, and my skepticism about them hasn’t changed.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Global land-surface temperature with a 10-year moving average. Courtesy of Berkeley Earth.[end-div]

Two Degrees

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben has been writing about climate change and environmental issues for over 20 years. His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989, and is considered to be the first book aimed at the general public on the subject of climate change.

In his latest essay in Rolling Stone, which we excerpt below, McKibben offers a sobering assessment based on our current lack of action on a global scale. He argues that in the face of governmental torpor, and with individual action being almost inconsequential (at this late stage), only a radical re-invention of our fossil-fuel industries — to energy companies in the broad sense — can bring significant and lasting change.

Learn more about Bill McKibben, here.

[div class=attrib]From Rolling Stone:[end-div]

If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven’t convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

Not that our leaders seemed to notice. Last month the world’s nations, meeting in Rio for the 20th-anniversary reprise of a massive 1992 environmental summit, accomplished nothing. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who flew in for the first conclave, Barack Obama didn’t even attend. It was “a ghost of the glad, confident meeting 20 years ago,” the British journalist George Monbiot wrote; no one paid it much attention, footsteps echoing through the halls “once thronged by multitudes.” Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.

When we think about global warming at all, the arguments tend to be ideological, theological and economic. But to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math. For the past year, an easy and powerful bit of arithmetical analysis first published by financial analysts in the U.K. has been making the rounds of environmental conferences and journals, but it hasn’t yet broken through to the larger public. This analysis upends most of the conventional political thinking about climate change. And it allows us to understand our precarious – our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless – position with three simple numbers.

The First Number: 2° Celsius

If the movie had ended in Hollywood fashion, the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 would have marked the culmination of the global fight to slow a changing climate. The world’s nations had gathered in the December gloom of the Danish capital for what a leading climate economist, Sir Nicholas Stern of Britain, called the “most important gathering since the Second World War, given what is at stake.” As Danish energy minister Connie Hedegaard, who presided over the conference, declared at the time: “This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we get a new and better one. If ever.”

In the event, of course, we missed it. Copenhagen failed spectacularly. Neither China nor the United States, which between them are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, was prepared to offer dramatic concessions, and so the conference drifted aimlessly for two weeks until world leaders jetted in for the final day. Amid considerable chaos, President Obama took the lead in drafting a face-saving “Copenhagen Accord” that fooled very few. Its purely voluntary agreements committed no one to anything, and even if countries signaled their intentions to cut carbon emissions, there was no enforcement mechanism. “Copenhagen is a crime scene tonight,” an angry Greenpeace official declared, “with the guilty men and women fleeing to the airport.” Headline writers were equally brutal: COPENHAGEN: THE MUNICH OF OUR TIMES? asked one.

The accord did contain one important number, however. In Paragraph 1, it formally recognized “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” And in the very next paragraph, it declared that “we agree that deep cuts in global emissions are required… so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” By insisting on two degrees – about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit – the accord ratified positions taken earlier in 2009 by the G8, and the so-called Major Economies Forum. It was as conventional as conventional wisdom gets. The number first gained prominence, in fact, at a 1995 climate conference chaired by Angela Merkel, then the German minister of the environment and now the center-right chancellor of the nation.

Some context: So far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.” NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet’s most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: “Some countries will flat-out disappear.” When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, “One degree, one Africa.”

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it’s fair to say that it’s the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world’s carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it’s become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Emissions from industry have helped increase the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, driving climate change. Courtesy of New Scientist / Eye Ubiquitous / Rex Features.[end-div]

The North Continues to Melt Away

On July 16, 2012 the Petermann Glacier in Greenland calved another gigantic island of ice, about twice the size of Manhattan in New York, or about 46 square miles. Climatologists armed with NASA satellite imagery have been following the glacier for many years, and first spotted the break-off point around 8 years ago. The Petermann Glacier calved a previous huge iceberg, twice this size, in 2010.

According to NASA average temperatures in northern Greenland and the Canadian Arctic have increased by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 30 years.

So, driven by climate change or not, regardless of whether it is short-term or long-term, temporary or irreversible, man-made or a natural cycle, the trend is clear — the Arctic is warming, the ice cap is shrinking and sea-levels are rising.

[div class=attrib]From the Economist:[end-div]

STANDING ON THE Greenland ice cap, it is obvious why restless modern man so reveres wild places. Everywhere you look, ice draws the eye, squeezed and chiselled by a unique coincidence of forces. Gormenghastian ice ridges, silver and lapis blue, ice mounds and other frozen contortions are minutely observable in the clear Arctic air. The great glaciers impose order on the icy sprawl, flowing down to a semi-frozen sea.

The ice cap is still, frozen in perturbation. There is not a breath of wind, no engine’s sound, no bird’s cry, no hubbub at all. Instead of noise, there is its absence. You feel it as a pressure behind the temples and, if you listen hard, as a phantom roar. For generations of frosty-whiskered European explorers, and still today, the ice sheet is synonymous with the power of nature.

The Arctic is one of the world’s least explored and last wild places. Even the names of its seas and rivers are unfamiliar, though many are vast. Siberia’s Yenisey and Lena each carries more water to the sea than the Mississippi or the Nile. Greenland, the world’s biggest island, is six times the size of Germany. Yet it has a population of just 57,000, mostly Inuit scattered in tiny coastal settlements. In the whole of the Arctic—roughly defined as the Arctic Circle and a narrow margin to the south (see map)—there are barely 4m people, around half of whom live in a few cheerless post-Soviet cities such as Murmansk and Magadan. In most of the rest, including much of Siberia, northern Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and northern Scandinavia, there is hardly anyone. Yet the region is anything but inviolate.

Fast forward

A heat map of the world, colour-coded for temperature change, shows the Arctic in sizzling maroon. Since 1951 it has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average. In that period the temperature in Greenland has gone up by 1.5°C, compared with around 0.7°C globally. This disparity is expected to continue. A 2°C increase in global temperatures—which appears inevitable as greenhouse-gas emissions soar—would mean Arctic warming of 3-6°C.

Almost all Arctic glaciers have receded. The area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by almost a fifth since 1966. But it is the Arctic Ocean that is most changed. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s the minimum extent of polar pack ice fell by around 8% per decade. Then, in 2007, the sea ice crashed, melting to a summer minimum of 4.3m sq km (1.7m square miles), close to half the average for the 1960s and 24% below the previous minimum, set in 2005. This left the north-west passage, a sea lane through Canada’s 36,000-island Arctic Archipelago, ice-free for the first time in memory.

Scientists, scrambling to explain this, found that in 2007 every natural variation, including warm weather, clear skies and warm currents, had lined up to reinforce the seasonal melt. But last year there was no such remarkable coincidence: it was as normal as the Arctic gets these days. And the sea ice still shrank to almost the same extent.

There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned. Because the atmosphere is shedding less solar heat, it is warming—a physical effect predicted back in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist. But why is the Arctic warming faster than other places?

Consider, first, how very sensitive to temperature change the Arctic is because of where it is. In both hemispheres the climate system shifts heat from the steamy equator to the frozen pole. But in the north the exchange is much more efficient. This is partly because of the lofty mountain ranges of Europe, Asia and America that help mix warm and cold fronts, much as boulders churn water in a stream. Antarctica, surrounded by the vast southern seas, is subject to much less atmospheric mixing.

The land masses that encircle the Arctic also prevent the polar oceans revolving around it as they do around Antarctica. Instead they surge, north-south, between the Arctic land masses in a gigantic exchange of cold and warm water: the Pacific pours through the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska, and the Atlantic through the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.

That keeps the average annual temperature for the high Arctic (the northernmost fringes of land and the sea beyond) at a relatively sultry -15°C; much of the rest is close to melting-point for much of the year. Even modest warming can therefore have a dramatic effect on the region’s ecosystems. The Antarctic is also warming, but with an average annual temperature of -57°C it will take more than a few hot summers for this to become obvious.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Sequence of three images showing the Petermann Glacier sliding toward the sea along the northwestern coast of Greenland, terminating in a huge, new floating ice island. Courtesy: NASA.[end-div]

King Canute or Mother Nature in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas?

Legislators in North Carolina recently went one better than King C’Nut (Canute). The king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden during various periods between 1018 and 1035, famously and unsuccessfully tried to hold back the incoming tide. The now mythic story tells of Canute’s arrogance. Not to be outdone, North Carolina’s state legislature recently passed a law that bans state agencies from reporting that sea-level rise is accelerating.

The bill From North Carolina states:

“… rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”

This comes hot on the heals of the recent revisionist push in Virginia where references to phrases such as “sea level rise” and “climate change” are forbidden in official state communications. Last year of course, Texas led the way for other states following the climate science denial program when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had commissioned a scientific study of Galveston Bay, removed all references to “rising sea levels”.

For more detailed reporting on this unsurprising and laughable state of affairs check out this article at Skeptical Science.

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

Less than two weeks after the state’s senate passed a climate science-squelching bill, research shows that sea level along the coast between N.C. and Massachusetts is rising faster than anywhere on Earth.

Could nature be mocking North Carolina’s law-makers? Less than two weeks after the state’s senate passed a bill banning state agencies from reporting that sea-level rise is accelerating, research has shown that the coast between North Carolina and Massachusetts is experiencing the fastest sea-level rise in the world.

Asbury Sallenger, an oceanographer at the US Geological Survey in St Petersburg, Florida, and his colleagues analysed tide-gauge records from around North America. On 24 June, they reported in Nature Climate Change that since 1980, sea-level rise between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts, has accelerated to between 2 and 3.7 millimetres per year. That is three to four times the global average, and it means the coast could see 20–29 centimetres of sea-level rise on top of the metre predicted for the world as a whole by 2100 ( A. H. Sallenger Jr et al. Nature Clim. Change http://doi.org/hz4; 2012).

“Many people mistakenly think that the rate of sea-level rise is the same everywhere as glaciers and ice caps melt,” says Marcia McNutt, director of the US Geological Survey. But variations in currents and land movements can cause large regional differences. The hotspot is consistent with the slowing measured in Atlantic Ocean circulation, which may be tied to changes in water temperature, salinity and density.

North Carolina’s senators, however, have tried to stop state-funded researchers from releasing similar reports. The law approved by the senate on 12 June banned scientists in state agencies from using exponential extrapolation to predict sea-level rise, requiring instead that they stick to linear projections based on historical data.

Following international opprobrium, the state’s House of Representatives rejected the bill on 19 June. However, a compromise between the house and the senate forbids state agencies from basing any laws or plans on exponential extrapolations for the next three to four years, while the state conducts a new sea-level study.

According to local media, the bill was the handiwork of industry lobbyists and coastal municipalities who feared that investors and property developers would be scared off by predictions of high sea-level rises. The lobbyists invoked a paper published in the Journal of Coastal Research last year by James Houston, retired director of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ research centre in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Robert Dean, emeritus professor of coastal engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They reported that global sea-level rise has slowed since 1930 ( J. R. Houston and R. G. Dean J. Coastal Res. 27 , 409 – 417 ; 2011) — a contention that climate sceptics around the world have seized on.

Speaking to Nature, Dean accused the oceanographic community of ideological bias. “In the United States, there is an overemphasis on unrealistically high sea-level rise,” he says. “The reason is budgets. I am retired, so I have the freedom to report what I find without any bias or need to chase funding.” But Sallenger says that Houston and Dean’s choice of data sets masks acceleration in the sea-level-rise hotspot.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Policymic.[end-div]

The Debunking Handbook

A valuable resource if you ever find yourself having to counter and debunk a myth and misinformation. It applies equally regardless of the type of myth in debate: Santa, creationism, UFOs, political discourse, climate science denial, science denial in general. You can find the download here.

[div class=attrib]From Skeptical Science:[end-div]

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download. Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there’s no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation.

The Handbook explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds. Communicators need to be aware of the various backfire effects and how to avoid them, such as:

  • The Familiarity Backfire Effect
  • The Overkill Backfire Effect
  • The Worldview Backfire Effect

It also looks at a key element to successful debunking: providing an alternative explanation. The Handbook is designed to be useful to all communicators who have to deal with misinformation (eg – not just climate myths).

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

The Climate Spin Cycle

There’s something to be said for a visual aide that puts a complex conversation about simple ideas into perspective. So, here we have a high-level flow chart that characterizes one on the most important debates of our time — climate change. Whether you are for or against the notion or the science, or merely perplexed by the hyperbole inside the “echo chamber” there is no denying that this debate will remain with us for quite sometime.

[div class=attrib]Chart courtesy of Riley E. Dunlap and Aaron M. McCright, “Organized Climate-Change Denial,” In J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard and D. Schlosberg, (eds.), Oxford
Handbook of Climate Change and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.[end-div]

A Medical Metaphor for Climate Risk

While scientific evidence of climate change continues to mount and an increasing number of studies point causal fingers at ourselves there is perhaps another way to visualize the risk of inaction or over-reaction. So, since most people can leave ideology aside when it comes to their own health, a medical metaphor, courtesy of Andrew Revkin over at Dot Earth, may be of use to broaden acceptance of the message.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Paul C. Stern, the director of the National Research Council committee on the human dimensions of global change, has been involved in a decades-long string of studies of behavior, climate change and energy choices.

This is an arena that is often attacked by foes of cuts in greenhouse gases, who see signs of mind control and propaganda. Stern says that has nothing to do with his approach, as he made clear in “Contributions of Psychology to Limiting Climate Change,” a paper that was part of a special issue of the journal American Psychologist on climate change and behavior:

Psychological contributions to limiting climate change will come not from trying to change people’s attitudes, but by helping to make low-carbon technologies more attractive and user-friendly, economic incentives more transparent and easier to use, and information more actionable and relevant to the people who need it.

The special issue of the journal builds on a 2009 report on climate and behavior from the American Psychological Association that was covered here. Stern has now offered a reaction to the discussion last week of Princeton researcher Robert Socolow’s call for a fresh approach to climate policy that acknowledges “the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every ’solution’ carries risk.” Stern’s response, centered on a medical metaphor (not the first) is worth posting as a “Your Dot” contribution. You can find my reaction to his idea below. Here’s Stern’s piece:

I agree with Robert Socolow that scientists could do better at encouraging a high quality of discussion about climate change.

But providing better technical descriptions will not help most people because they do not follow that level of detail.  Psychological research shows that people often use simple, familiar mental models as analogies for complex phenomena.  It will help people think through climate choices to have a mental model that is familiar and evocative and that also neatly encapsulates Socolow’s points that the news is unwelcome, that science is incomplete, and that some solutions are dangerous. There is such a model.

Too many people think of climate science as an exact science like astronomy that can make highly confident predictions, such as about lunar eclipses.  That model misrepresents the science, does poorly at making Socolow’s points, and has provided an opening for commentators and bloggers seeking to use any scientific disagreement to discredit the whole body of knowledge.

A mental model from medical science might work better.  In the analogy, the planet is a patient suspected of having a serious, progressive disease (anthropogenic climate change).  The symptoms are not obvious, just as they are not with diabetes or hypertension, but the disease may nevertheless be serious.  Humans, as guardians of the planet, must decide what to do.  Scientists are in the role of physician.  The guardians have been asking the physicians about the diagnosis (is this disease present?), the nature of the disease, its prognosis if untreated, and the treatment options, including possible side effects.  The medical analogy helps clarify the kinds of errors that are possible and can help people better appreciate how science can help and think through policy choices.

Diagnosis. A physician must be careful to avoid two errors:  misdiagnosing the patient with a dread disease that is not present, and misdiagnosing a seriously ill patient as healthy.  To avoid these types of error, physicians often run diagnostic tests or observe the patient over a period of time before recommending a course of treatment.  Scientists have been doing this with Earth’s climate at least since 1959, when strong signs of illness were reported from observations in Hawaii.

Scientists now have high confidence that the patient has the disease.  We know the causes:  fossil fuel consumption, certain land cover changes, and a few other physical processes. We know that the disease produces a complex syndrome of symptoms involving change in many planetary systems (temperature, precipitation, sea level and acidity balance, ecological regimes, etc.).  The patient is showing more and more of the syndrome, and although we cannot be sure that each particular symptom is due to climate change rather than some other cause, the combined evidence justifies strong confidence that the syndrome is present.

Prognosis. Fundamental scientific principles tell us that the disease is progressive and very hard to reverse.  Observations tell us that the processes that cause it have been increasing, as have the symptoms.  Without treatment, they will get worse.  However, because this is an extremely rare disease (in fact, the first known case), there is uncertainty about how fast it will progress.  The prognosis could be catastrophic, but we cannot assign a firm probability to the worst outcomes, and we are not even sure what the most likely outcome is.  We want to avoid either seriously underestimating or overestimating the seriousness of the prognosis.

Treatment. We want treatments that improve the patient’s chances at low cost and with limited adverse side effects and we want to avoid “cures” that might be worse than the disease.  We want to consider the chances of improvement for each treatment, and its side effects, in addition to the untreated prognosis.  We want to avoid the dangers both of under-treatment and of side effects.  We know that some treatments (the ones limiting climate change) get at the causes and could alleviate all the symptoms if taken soon enough.  But reducing the use of fossil fuels quickly could be painful.  Other treatments, called adaptations, offer only symptomatic relief.  These make sense because even with strong medicine for limiting climate change, the disease will get worse before it gets better.

Choices. There are no risk-free choices.  We know that the longer treatment is postponed, the more painful it will be, and the worse the prognosis.  We can also use an iterative treatment approach (as Socolow proposed), starting some treatments and monitoring their effects and side effects before raising the dose.  People will disagree about the right course of treatment, but thinking about the choices in this way might give the disagreements the appropriate focus.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times.[end-div]

Mr.Carrier, Thanks for Inventing the Air Conditioner

It’s #$% hot in the southern plains of the United States, with high temperatures constantly above 100 degrees F, and lows never dipping below 80. For that matter, it’s hotter than average this year in most parts of the country. So, a timely article over at Slate gives a great overview of the history of the air conditioning system, courtesy of inventor Willis Carrier.

[div class=attrib]From Slate:[end-div]

Anyone tempted to yearn for a simpler time must reckon with a few undeniable unpleasantries of life before modern technology: abscessed teeth, chamber pots, the bubonic plague—and a lack of air conditioning in late July. As temperatures rise into the triple digits across the eastern United States, it’s worth remembering how we arrived at the climate-controlled summer environments we have today.

Until the 20th century, Americans dealt with the hot weather as many still do around the world: They sweated and fanned themselves. Primitive air-conditioning systems have existed since ancient times, but in most cases, these were so costly and inefficient as to preclude their use by any but the wealthiest people. In the United States, things began to change in the early 1900s, when the first electric fans appeared in homes. But cooling units have only spread beyond American borders in the last couple of decades, with the confluence of a rising global middle class and breakthroughs in energy-efficient technology. . . .

The big breakthrough, of course, was electricity. Nikola Tesla’s development of alternating current motors made possible the invention of oscillating fans in the early 20th century. And in 1902, a 25-year-old engineer from New York named Willis Carrier invented the first modern air-conditioning system. The mechanical unit, which sent air through water-cooled coils, was not aimed at human comfort, however; it was designed to control humidity in the printing plant where he worked.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image of Willis Carrier courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.[end-div]

Green Bootleggers and Baptists

[div class=attrib]Bjørn Lomborg for Project Syndicate:[end-div]

In May, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change made media waves with a new report on renewable energy. As in the past, the IPCC first issued a short summary; only later would it reveal all of the data. So it was left up to the IPCC’s spin-doctors to present the take-home message for journalists.

The first line of the IPCC’s press release declared, “Close to 80% of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies.” That story was repeated by media organizations worldwide.

Last month, the IPCC released the full report, together with the data behind this startlingly optimistic claim. Only then did it emerge that it was based solely on the most optimistic of 164 modeling scenarios that researchers investigated. And this single scenario stemmed from a single study that was traced back to a report by the environmental organization Greenpeace. The author of that report – a Greenpeace staff member – was one of the IPCC’s lead authors.

The claim rested on the assumption of a large reduction in global energy use. Given the number of people climbing out of poverty in China and India, that is a deeply implausible scenario.

When the IPCC first made the claim, global-warming activists and renewable-energy companies cheered. “The report clearly demonstrates that renewable technologies could supply the world with more energy than it would ever need,” boasted Steve Sawyer, Secretary-General of the Global Wind Energy Council.

This sort of behavior – with activists and big energy companies uniting to applaud anything that suggests a need for increased subsidies to alternative energy – was famously captured by the so-called “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of politics.

The theory grew out of the experience of the southern United States, where many jurisdictions required stores to close on Sunday, thus preventing the sale of alcohol. The regulation was supported by religious groups for moral reasons, but also by bootleggers, because they had the market to themselves on Sundays. Politicians would adopt the Baptists’ pious rhetoric, while quietly taking campaign contributions from the criminals.

Of course, today’s climate-change “bootleggers” are not engaged in any illegal behavior. But the self-interest of energy companies, biofuel producers, insurance firms, lobbyists, and others in supporting “green” policies is a point that is often missed.

Indeed, the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory helps to account for other developments in global warming policy over the past decade or so. For example, the Kyoto Protocol would have cost trillions of dollars, but would have achieved a practically indiscernible difference in stemming the rise in global temperature. Yet activists claimed that there was a moral obligation to cut carbon-dioxide emissions, and were cheered on by businesses that stood to gain.

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here[end-div]