Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Continuing a Theme

The Nordhaus & Shellenberger piece certainly has kicked up a lot of dust, including from someone whose work I normally enjoy.  Tom Toles issued his own ranting screed at the Washington Post yesterday.  It includes most of the same over-the-top grousing about the N&S piece as other writers.  But it includes a couple of things I’d like to highlight for additional discussion.

The ‘concern’ is that as a tactic it can ‘backfire’ and not win over conservatives to climate change action. Not win over conservatives! The article doesn’t place ALL the blame on faulty environmentalist tactics. It pauses to include what may be the most understated disclaimer in history: “Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.” Some! Really???

At what point will people realize that if we nullify conservative’s work against climate action, then the very thing Toles and others claim to care about so deeply will finally happen: widespread and robust climate action?!  No, Tom is right.  We should continue the same strategies that failed for 30+ years, because one day, gosh darn it, they’ll magically work.  It’s quite simple really: identify and work via values and tactics that resonate with conservatives to achieve the same goal that working via different values and tactics that resonate with liberals.  This is where tribalism rears its ugly head big time.  Instead of recognizing inherent worldview differences and expending effort to talk to conservatives differently than liberals, it is much easier to shut your brain down and scream about how conservatives are “others” and should therefore be banned from all decision-making.  What a wonderful strategy!  Obviously it’s worked since so many conservatives are voting for carbon taxes and setting up subsidies for renewable energy and … that’s right, none of that is happening, is it?

N&S pointed out that many environmentalists work against their stated goals by purposefully shutting out 1/3 of the population.  That doesn’t sit well with Toles or Romm or many others.

Here is the second thing Toles writes that irks me:

If environmentalists aren’t careful, it says, sufficient support for an adequate policy response might go away. Go away! As though it was ever even close to being there in the first place. They cite Al Gore’s 2006 ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as contributing to backlash and division. Do they think no one has any memory whatsoever? Let me remind those who don’t. Before “Inconvenient Truth’ there was close to ZERO widespread public concern about climate change.

How close to ZERO was there, Tom?  Let’s check the first thing that comes up when I Google search ‘global warming polling 1980′:

 photo GlobalWarmingPollingGallup1989-2013_zpsf586fd1f.gif

Well, would you look at that – somebody polled Americans for decades now – who would have thought?  It turns out that 50-72% of Americans worrying a great deal or a fair amount is close to ZERO in Tom’s world.  That’s enlightening.  Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in early 2006.  In Gallup polling, worry jumped from 51% in 2004 to 62% in 2006 and 66% in 2008.  So yes, Truth likely brought American’s attention back to the issue in a way that other efforts did not.  Note however a couple of things this time series shows us: support was higher in 1999 and 2000 than 2008.  So Truth wasn’t the most effective strategy.  Also, worry post-2008 fell back to 2004 levels: 51%.  Worry was falling in 2009 – when Waxman and Markey were writing their cap-and-trade legislation – through 2010 – when the legislation failed to pass Congress.  That was despite having a Democratic President and a Democratic-led House and Senate.  That combination will not repeat itself any time soon.  So what should liberals do?  Find alternate tactics to motivate conservatives instead of denigrating and alienating them?  That sounds crazy to me.

Gallup’s page has plenty of other interesting results to chew over.  I will include one more in this post for illustrative purposes because it gets at the heart of what N&S really wrote about.  Gallup started asking in 1997 whether people thought global warming was a threat in their lifetime.  Guess what the majority answer was.  That’s right: most people said “no”.  Most people (50%-69%) hold this belief at the same time they believe that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.

What does that mean?  It means that people view the problem as a distant threat that will impact others before Americans.  There is scientific truth behind this belief.  The first reports of impacts were on Asians and Africans.  Those same populations will continue to be disproportionately affected in the coming decades, as the IPCC AR5 reported this year.

N&S’s post was an attempt to change this perception.  If scientists employ “communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change,” more people are likely to view climate change as a direct threat to their own lives.  If that happens, support for climate action will break through traditional barriers.  But I guess Toles, Romm, and others aren’t really interested in that.  They’re interested in this topic on ideological grounds: so long as liberals beat conservatives and people with slightly different worldviews, they’re happy.


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On hit pieces and legions of destroyed strawmen

There is an ongoing case of intensifying tribalism in a part of the climate activist population.  There are prolific bloggers and twitter users that spend time attacking anyone – and I mean anyone – who doesn’t agree with them 100% of the time on every aspect of climate change activism.  Unfortunately, this leads to them making narrow interpretations, setting up and destroying strawmen, and writing obscenely character assassinations. Their works are becoming competitive: who can write the most damaging screed, or use the biggest set of words, etc.  They moved away in some respects from attacks on what they label ‘denier’s’ to people that actually agree with them on the seriousness of future climate change effects but offer differing prescriptions about what to do.  In their zeal to knock someone else down and establish themselves as the sole and ultimate arbiters of not only physical scientific truth, but also social scientific truth, they seem to forget about their core mission: motivate an apathetic public to apply political pressure to mitigate future climate change.

In the newest example, Climate Progress’ Joe Romm entitled this piece, The Brutally Dishonest Attacks On Showtime’s Landmark Series On Climate Change, which starts out with:

For instance, the piece [Global Warming Scare Tactics] repeats the tired and baseless claim that Al Gore’s 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth” polarized the climate debate.

For a piece with “Brutally Dishonest” in its lede, you might expect honestly within.  Unfortunately, this piece, like so many others, is prejudiced by Romm’s vitriol for the authors.  Here is what the piece actually says about “An Inconvenient Truth”:

For instance, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” popularized the idea that today’s natural disasters are increasing in severity and frequency because of human-caused global warming.

See the subtle difference?  Nordhaus & Shellenberger actually wrote that Truth popularized the misconception that global warming has already increased the severity and frequency of natural disasters.  They did not write about the larger climate debate.  This argument is one Romm (and many others) is particularly fond of, but isn’t supported by their ultimate arbiter of climate information, the IPCC, which wrote about the lack of such a signal in the recently released Working Group II report: “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses… loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change (AR5 10.7.3)” and in a report dedicated to extreme weather: “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas (Miller et al., 2008; Bouwer, 2011), and to underlying societal trends – demographic, economic, political, and social – that shape vulnerability to impacts (Pielke Jr. et al., 2005; Bouwer et al., 2007). Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.”

Moreover, the authors continued to write that there were other influences beyond “Inconvenient Truth” including two other favorite targets of Romm’s: “Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.”

Probably the most critical aspect of missing climate action within the past decade went untreated by Romm: the Great Recession.  As a direct result of millions of Americans losing their jobs and houses, the depth of their concern for the environment understandably fell.  Millions more Americans knew somebody (or many somebodies) who lost their jobs and/or houses through no fault of their own.  That phenomenon had a chilling effect on American’s willingness to stick their necks out for an issue that is not impacting them to the same degree: climate change.  The 2009 Waxman and Markey could not have introduced their climate legislation at a worse time in contemporary history.  Congress provided 1/3 to 1/2 the stimulus that experts on the Great Depression said was required to restore America to full employment again.  With little hope of robust economic recovery, climate change was very much a background issue.  We’re still dealing with the short-sightedness of a paltry stimulus plan that agencies executed haphazardly.

Romm also dismisses the next part of the article – the part that he and other activists should really spend some time digesting: how to talk about climate change.  Again, activists fill blog posts and tweets with disaster porn language: apocalypse, catastrophe, end of civilization, end of the world!!!  Given the evangelical bent of many Americans, they view climate change as an act of God, not mankind.  That fundamental shift in perception turns anything else activists have to say about the topic into rubbish for many Americans.

There is a 2009 study entitled, “Fear Won’t Do It” by Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia in the UK – the same institution that was the target of an illegal email hack some years back.  The study concluded:

Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern, they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.

Well, look at that.  Denial is a natural response to disaster language and imagery that climate activists routinely employ in their communication attempts.  They go on to recommend more personally meaningful imagery and language:

The results demonstrate that communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change.

This kind of communication inherently requires more effort, which might very well be part of the reason why it isn’t employed more often by activists.  We’re all searching for paths of least resistance and quick returns on our efforts.  But if activists really believe that global warming is the penultimate problem of our species, they should be as interested in social science results as physical science results.  Pressing the latter while ignoring the former hasn’t achieved goals on the time-frame activists say is required to “avert catastrophe”.


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IPCC’s Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Report Issued

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report’s Working Group II (AR5 WGII) issued their report today.  I do agree with some of the opining characterizing the report as ‘alarmist’ – from the standpoint that I don’t think there is enough information presented simultaneously regarding opportunities for action.  People don’t respond well to persistent negative messages.  Would climate activists subject their children to daily messages of upcoming death, devastation, and the collapse of civilization?  If not, then why do they think adults are any better at handling the same messaging?

That said, I believe that scientists settled the science years ago.  I think it is highly unlikely scientists will identify anything fundamental to change that science in business as usual activities.  What will change is the climate’s response to activities changed by policy.  With new and updated policies, mitigation and adaptation will occur.  Therefore, I spend as much or more time on policy discussion than science discussion, using the science as my foundation.  As the picture on this blog emphasizes, I operate as a bridge between these two distinct sides of the problem.  Scientists typically don’t understand policy processes (to the point they eschew social science findings and believe physical scientists should exclusively inform and decide policy), while policymakers continue to ask for more actionable information.

What follows is a summary of high-level results (Summary for Policymakers) from this new report. I want this post to serve as something I can point to repeatedly in the future for these results.

OBSERVED IMPACTS, VULNERABILITY, AND ADAPTATION IN A COMPLEX AND CHANGING WORLD

1. In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.

2. In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence).

3. Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence).

4.  Negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).

5. At present the world-wide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified (small-medium confidence).

6. Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and form multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence).  These differences shape differential risks from climate change.

7. Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).

8. Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty (high confidence).

9. Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence).

Number 6 tells me that differential risk can be reduced by helping developing countries develop more quickly.  They will bear the early and severe brunt of climate change effects despite contributing the smallest portion of anthropogenic climate change forcing.  Despite this, most climate activists want to keep these countries in their current state by preventing them from industrializing.

Number 7 is relevant to the climate activist vs. Pielke Jr. brouhaha (which activists claim means very little to them at the same time they issue post after post and tweet after tweet regarding their personal opinion of Pielke).  The IPCC states: “For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors” (emphasis mine).  What this tells me is human systems are vulnerable to today’s climate, which has a small fraction of human influence (read: overwhelmingly most influence is natural).  The focus then should be on preparing for today’s climate variability as primary steps toward dealing with tomorrow’s variability.  I don’t hear enough from today’s climate activists how today’s infrastructure can’t handle today’s climate variability.  Most of what I hear deals with 2050 or 2100 – dates when most of us will be dead.  Why not focus instead on today’s infrastructure, which we know are deficient?  Indeed, this is exactly what the report suggests we do.

The Summary continues with Adaptation Experience:

1. Adaptation is becoming embedded in some planning exercises, with more limited implementation of responses (high confidence).

2. Adaptation experience is accumulating across regions in the public and private sector and within communities (high confidence).  Governments at various levels are starting to develop adaptation plans and policies to integrate climate-change considerations into broader development plans.

It’s late in the <2C warming game for these adaptations to take place, but at least people are initiating them somewhere.  Municipalities and collections thereof are the hotspot for climate adaptation and mitigation plans and policies.  In the US, national policy is virtually nonexistent.  My hope is that local policies grow in scale.  We need to start evaluating plans and policies to inform additional locales as well as scale them up for larger governmental entities – how do they need to change for state and regional levels, for instance?

I’ll have more on this and related topics in the future as I continue to read through the report.


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February 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 398.033ppm

During February 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 398.03 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 398.03 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any February in recorded history.  This year’s February value is approximately 1.23 ppm higher than February 2014′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is within that range, albeit smaller than some other recent months.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data).  May 2013′s record will hold until the end of this month when the annual cycle pushes a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past however, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February or March 2015 … you get the idea.)

 photo co2_widget_brundtland_600_graph_201403_zps43e6baf6.gif

Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in February from 1959 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

 photo CO2_concentration_5y_trend_NOAA_201402_zps4a54618c.png

Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred five months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred nine months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

The data in this graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

 photo CO2_concentration_50y_trend_NOAA_201402_zps39a12c50.png

Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system within the past 15 years has almost exclusively gone into the deep ocean.  This is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states.  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will be more apparent near the Earth’s surface.  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere and secondarily how effective CO2 removal in the future is.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


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Climate News & Opinion Links – March 26 2014

I’ve collected a number of interesting climate and energy related news releases, stories, and opinion pieces in the past couple of weeks.  In no particular order:

The only way we will take large-scale climate action is if there are appropriate price signals in markets – signals that reach individual actors and influence their activities.  One step in the right direction was phasing out federal subsidies for high-risk coastal properties’ flood insurance policies, as Congress did in 2012.  This had the expected effect of increasing premiums for policy holders.  Unsurprisingly, people don’t want to pay more to live in their high-risk homes.  So they complained to their representatives, who responded by passing new legislation … reinstating government subsidies.  Taxpayers across the country are shoveling good money after bad for a select handful of wealthy people to build without mitigating risk to their homes or paying the true economic costs of their lifestyle decisions.  We will pay for them to rebuild again and again (remember: sea levels will rise for centuries) unless we as a society decide to stop.

Tesla is entering the energy industry.  This could be a game changer in terms of home solar energy and electric vehicles, no matter how Tesla comes out in the long-term.

20 years of IPCC effort and “achievement”.  With no robust international climate agreement after 20 years’ of work, I have a hard time accepting the claim the IPCC has achieved much of anything except an excessive bureaucracy and huge reports that few people read.

News that’s not really news: Asia will be among those hardest hit by climate change.  This isn’t a new result, but something that the IPCC’s WGII report will report on with increased confidence in 2014 versus 2007 (see above statement).  The number of people living close to coasts in Asia dwarf the total population of countries who historically emitted the most greenhouse gases.  That was true in 2007 and will be true in the future.  It will take a generation or more before effects on developed nations generate widespread action.

New research (subs. req’d) indicates ice gains in Antarctica’s Ross Sea will reverse by 2050.  Recent temperature and wind current patterns will shift from their current state to one that encourages rapid ice melt, similar to what the Arctic experienced in the past 20 years or so.

An El Nino might be developing in the tropical Pacific.  The anomalous heat content traveling east via an Equatorial Kelvin Wave rivals that of the 1997-1998 El Nino, which was the strongest in recorded history.  Earlier this month, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued an El Nino Watch, citing a 50% probability that an El Nino would develop in summer or fall 2014, based in part on projections such as Columbia University’s.  El Nino is the warm phase of the ENSO phenomenon.  Warm ocean waters move from the western to eastern Pacific, affecting global atmospheric circulations.  Related to science policy, one result of Congress’ austerity approach to the economy is  monitoring buoys’ degradation in the Pacific Ocean.  NOAA helped deploy a widespread network of buoys following the 1982-1983 El Nino which helped track the progress of the 1997-1998 El Nino with greatly improved fidelity.  That network is operating at less than 75% of its designed capacity, hampering observations.  If we can’t observe these impactful events, we can’t forecast their effects.  This negatively impacts business’ and peoples’ bottom line.

Finally, I want to make some observations regarding goings-on within the climate activist community.  Vocal critics recently spent a lot of energy on hit pieces, this being only one example (poorly written with little on science, heavy on “he-saids”, with an overdose of personal insults and vindictive responses to anyone who didn’t agree with the piece, including my comments).  These writings demonstrate something rather simple to me: if you do not agree with 100% of what the activist consensus is, you’re no better than people the activists label ‘deniers’.  Additionally, the their argument is absurd: social scientists have no business analyzing climate data or commenting on activist’s claims.  Why is this absurd?  Because they simultaneously hold the contradictory belief that physical scientists should have exclusive input and decision-making power over climate policy (a social creation).  Furthermore, implicit in their messaging is social scientists don’t have the right kind of expertise to participate in “serious” discussions.  These efforts to deligitimize someone they don’t believe should participate (how very elitist of them) is reminiscent of efforts by many in the Republican party to deligitimize Barack Obama’s presidency simply because of his race.  Nothing is gained and much is lost by these efforts.  How does this advance the climate discussion to people not currently involved, which will need to happen if we are to ever take any kind of large-scale climate action?

Additional lack of critical thought is found in this post, mostly in this penultimate paragraph:

I’ve said before that I think people can believe what they want, as long as they don’t try to act on those beliefs in a way that interferes with others’ lives. When they deny the reality of global warming, and preach it to their flock, that’s exactly what they’re doing (incidentally, a large fraction of Americans believe to some extent the Bible is literally true).

The very same complaint is made by the people the author derides in this paragraph and post but in reverse and it’s one of the biggest reasons why we’ve taken so little climate action.  The author’s condescension is plainly evident for those who don’t believe exactly as he does. Instead of trying to reach out to people with different beliefs (and underlying value systems), he takes the lazy route and spends time insulting them.  Have you ever believed in something you didn’t previously after someone insulted you?  No, it’s an absurd and self-defeating strategy.  These basic problems underlie most climate change discussions and people retrench their positions instead of trying to step into other’s shoes.  I’m not sure how much this has to change before we undertake more widespread and effective climate mitigation strategies.


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Newest Climate Change Consensus Document Won’t Matter…

It won’t matter unless and until physical scientists leverage expertise outside of their silos and stop executing failed strategies.  In addition to summary after summary of government sanctioned peer-reviewed scientific conclusions, scientists now think they need to report on the perceived consensus on individual bases of those conclusions in order to spur the public to action.  Regardless of their personal political leanings, scientists are very conservative job actors.  They have long-held traditions that are upheld at every turn, which reduces the urgency of their statements.  As an analogy, think of a bunch of people sitting down who think for long time periods before any action is ever taken.  First, they calmly say there is a situation that requires near-immediate action.  Then they say it a little louder.  Then a handful start yelling because you’re not responding to their carefully crafted words and they think that you just didn’t hear them or you just aren’t smart enough to understand those carefully crafted words.  Then they start screaming because they’re convinced you’re an idiot and screaming will definitely work where yelling and saying those words didn’t work before.

Well, the screaming isn’t helping, is it?  You’re not an idiot.  The volume of words isn’t the issue.  The issue is you are motivated by things outside of the climate realm – things like having a job; a job that pays a living wage so you can pay for your mortgage and car payment and keep your children educated and happy.  An existence in an affluent world that allows you the time and energy to think of complex problems beyond your perceived immediate needs.  If those needs aren’t met – if you have insecure affluence – you place climate change and the environment far down on a list of priorities – just like a majority of other Americans.

But the newly released “American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society with a membership of 121,200 scientists and “science supporters” globally” report won’t change this dynamic.  While it is important that the AAAS engages scientists and the society it serves, this report is unfortunately just the latest effort by a group of physical scientists that ignores science results outside of their discipline to try to convince Americans that immediate and drastic action is necessary.  Like previous efforts, this one will not spur people to action, mostly because the actions listed are about limits, stopping, restricting, reversing, preventing, and regulating.  The conceptual model from which these words arise works in direct contrast to the fundamentals of American culture.  We are a people who are imaginative, who innovate, who invest.

As I have written before, there is no way we will achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions without substantial investment into innovation of new technologies that we research, develop, and deploy at scale.  There is nothing limiting or restrictive about this framework.  It it the opposite of those things.  This framework recognizes and sets out to achieve opportunities; it allows for personal and cultural growth; it is in sync with the underlying cultural fabric of this country.  It directly addresses people’s perception of the security of their affluence in the same way that developing countries’ economic growth allows people to move beyond basic material needs to higher order needs.

The reality of insecure affluence among many Americans today might be an indirect outcome of the 1%’s efforts to increase wealth disparity, but it is real.  We have to address that disparity first in order to address the real, valid perceptions of insecure affluence.  Only after Americans feel their personal wealth is secure will they have the resources to devote to higher order needs such as global climate change.  That can happen with concerted focus on investing and innovating a post-carbon economy.  But you won’t see that at the top of any policy prescription from the majority of climate scientists.


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Future Emissions Scenario Requirements Part II

Ask and ye shall receive.  I recently wrote about what future GHG emissions scenarios included in terms of emission reduction requirements.  I have maintained for some time now that most of the IPCC’s emission and concentration scenarios are essentially useless for practical planning purposes.  Sure, they’re interesting academically, but we climate scientists can’t just study something for the sake of studying it in today’s tight federal budget environment.

In that post, I showed some graphics from a 2013 Nature paper which combined historical emissions as well as projected emissions.  Due to the article’s age, I had to search for additional data which showed more recent emissions.  I also showed a simple calculation of projected emissions assuming constant 2.1% annual emissions growth and how different emissions growth would have to be in order to achieve an emissions scenario many scientists characterize as ‘doable’: RCP4.5.

Well, a new Nature Climate Change paper (26Feb2014) updates the 2013 graph I showed, with some small changes:

 photo CO2_Emissions_AR5_Obs_Nature_article_zps1e766d71.jpg
Figure 1. Historical (black dots) and projected CO2 emissions from a Nature Climate Change article (subs. req’d).  Bold colored lines (red (RCP8.5), yellow (RCP4.5), green (RCP6), and blue (RCP2.6)) represent IPCC AR5 RCP-related emission scenarios.

Note that this figure shows exactly what I wrote about in my earlier post: historical emissions are tracking at or above the RCP8.5 scenario.  They also exceed the other three scenarios so far in the early 21st century.  These differences are relatively small so far (they will grow with time), but the trend difference between historical and RCP2.6 is already important.  As the figure shows, if we wanted to match RCP2.6 (and keep 2100 global mean annual temperatures near 2C above pre-industrial), emissions would have to be declining for multiple years already.  They aren’t.  Our actual annual emissions already exceed the annual maximum assumed by RCP2.6.  If we were to match RCP2.6 at some time in the future, emission reductions would have to be larger than RCP2.6 assumes, which is currently technologically impossible.

The figure also shows that if we continue at or along the RCP8.5 pathway, we will exceed the 2°C policy target by approximately 2046.  The paper begins with this short and sweet abstract:

It is time to acknowledge that global average temperatures are likely to rise above the 2 °C policy target and consider how that deeply troubling prospect should affect priorities for communicating and managing the risks of a dangerously warming climate.

And it includes this well-written paragraph:

This global temperature target has brought a valuable focus to international climate negotiations, motivating commitment to emissions reductions from several nations. But a policy narrative that continues to frame this target as the sole metric of success or failure to constrain climate change risk is now itself becoming dangerous, because it ill-prepares society to confront and manage the risks of a world that is increasingly likely to experience warming well in excess of 2°C this century.

I wouldn’t have used the term `dangerous` because it conveys a judgmental aspect to an objective statement.  But that’s personal style.  I agree completely with the underlying message.  If we have a small (I would say nearly zero) chance of keeping warming below 2°C this century, then 2°C shouldn’t be the target.  We can make an infinite number of possible targets, but most of them will be unachievable.  How much effort should we put into such targets?  How supportive of additional climate policies will the public be if initial targets fail early?  These aren’t simply academic questions.  Many climate activists think they’re convinced of how important action is, but their rhetoric doesn’t support that conviction.  They’re more ideological than they’d care to admit.

I met someone at a talk at the University of Colorado on Monday and ended up having lunch with them to exchange economic information for climate information.  I tried to convince them of the need to switch targets now, to no avail.  I ran into a basic problem of climate communication.  This person has a worldview and I was in the unenviable position of trying to modify that worldview.  Just as many climate communicators try to do with climate skeptics.  It’s incredibly difficult to do this because you’re dealing with a lifetime of information and experience overlaying a biology that is predisposed to that very worldview.

I will continue to post about historical versus projected emission/concentration pathways.  If activists really are supportive of the objective science as they claim, I think they will eventually shift their target.  They will of course have to come to terms with what they will initially perceive as a failure.  But the faster they can do that, the sooner we can set more reasonable and achievable targets and start making headway towards mitigation.


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January 2014 CO2 Concentrations: 397.80ppm

During January 2014, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography measured an average of 397.80 ppm CO2 concentration at their Mauna Loa, Hawai’i Observatory.

This value is important because 397.80 ppm is the largest CO2 concentration value for any January in recorded history.  This year’s January value is approximately 2.34 ppm higher than January 2013′s.  Month-to-month differences typically range between 1 and 2 ppm.  This particular year-to-year jump is just outside of that range, but is smaller than some other recent months.  For example, February 2012’s year-over-year change was +3.37 ppm and May 2012’s change was +3.02 ppm.  Of course, the unending long-term trend toward higher concentrations with time, no matter the month or specific year-over-year value, as seen in the graphs below, is more significant.

The yearly maximum monthly value normally occurs during May. 2013 was no different: the 399.89ppm mean concentration in May 2013 was the highest recorded value (neglecting proxy data).  May 2013′s record will hold until the end of this month when the annual cycle pushes a monthly value above this record.  Just like in years past however, May 2014 is likely to set another new all-time monthly record (until February 2015 … you get the idea.)

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Figure 1 – Time series of CO2 concentrations measured at Scripp’s Mauna Loa Observatory in January from 1959 through 2014.

How do concentration measurements change in calendar years?  Let’s take a look at two charts that set that context up for us:

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Figure 2 – Monthly CO2 concentration values (red) from 2010 through 2014 (NOAA). Monthly CO2 concentration values with seasonal cycle removed (black). Note the yearly minimum observation occurred four months ago (red curve) and the yearly maximum value occurred eight months ago. CO2 concentrations will increase through May 2014, as they do every year, before falling again towards this year’s minimum value.

This graph doesn’t look that threatening.  What’s the big deal about CO2 concentrations rising a couple of parts per million per year anyway?  The problem is the long-term rise in those concentrations and the increased heating they impart on our climate system.  Let’s take a longer view – say 50 years:

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Figure 3 – 50 year time series of CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory (NOAA).  The red curve represents the seasonal cycle based on monthly average values.  The black curve represents the data with the seasonal cycle removed to show the long-term trend (as in Figure 2).  This graph shows the relatively recent and ongoing increase in CO2 concentrations.

The big deal is, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 increases the radiative forcing toward the Earth, which over time increases the amount of energy in our climate system as heat.  This excess and increasing heat has to go somewhere or do something within the climate system because the Earth can only emit so much long wave radiation every year.  The extra heat added to the climate system within the past 15 years has almost exclusively gone into the deep ocean.  This is the result of low-frequency climate oscillations’ recent states.  That process cannot and will not last forever.  Within the next 5-15 years, those oscillations will switch phase and the excess energy will be more apparent near the Earth’s surface.  Meanwhile, the extra oceanic heat will continue to expand the ocean’s volume, which will further increase global mean sea level.

CO2 concentrations are increasing at an increasing rate – not a good trend with respect to minimizing future warming.  Natural systems are not equipped to remove CO2 emissions quickly from the atmosphere.  Indeed, natural systems will take tens of thousands of years to remove the CO2 we emitted in the course of a couple short centuries.  Moreover, human technologies do not yet exist that remove CO2 from any medium (air or water).  They are not likely to exist at a large-scale for some time.  Therefore, the general CO2 concentration rise in the figures above will continue for many years, with effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

Instead of just the past 50 years, here is a 10,000 year view of CO2 concentrations from ice cores (blue and green curves) to compare to the recent Mauna Loa observations (red):

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Figure 4 – Historical CO2 concentrations from ice core proxies (blue and green curves) and direct observations made at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i (red curve).

This longer time series demonstrates how the curves in Figures 1 and 2 look when viewed against 10,000 additional years’ data.  Clearly, concentrations are significantly higher today than they were for thousands of years in the past.  While never completely static, the climate system our species evolved in was relatively stable in this time period.  You can see this by the relatively small changes in concentration over many hundreds of years.  Recent concentrations are an obvious aberration to recent history.

Alternatively, we could take a really, really long view:

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Figure 5 – Historical record of CO2 concentrations from ice core proxy data (red), 2008 observed CO2 concentration value (blue circle), and 2 potential future concentration values resulting from lower (green circle) and higher (yellow circle) emissions scenarios used in the IPCC’s AR4.

Note that this graph includes values from the past 800,000 years, 2008 observed values (12ppm less than this year’s average value will be) as well as the projected concentrations for 2100 derived from a lower emissions and higher emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment report.  It is clear that our planet’s climate existed within a range of CO2 concentrations between 200 and 300 ppm over the past 800,000 years.  Indeed, you would have go back millions of years into the geologic history of the planet to find the last time CO2 concentrations were near 400 ppm.  And let me be clear, the global climate then was much different from today: the globe was much warmer, there were no polar ice caps, and ecosystems were radically different from today’s.  That’s not to say today’s climate is “better” or “worse” than a paleoclimate.  It is to say that today’s ecosystems do not exist in the climate humans are forcing on the planet.

If our current emissions rate continues unabated, it looks like a tripling of average pre-industrial (prior to 1850) concentrations will be our future reality: 278ppm * 3 = 834ppm.  This graph also clearly shows how significant projected emission pathways could be when we compare them to the past 800,000 years.  It is important to realize that we are currently on the higher emissions pathway (towards 800+ppm; yellow dot), not the lower emissions pathway.

The rise in CO2 concentrations will slow down, stop, and reverse when we decide it will.  Doing so depends primarily on the rate at which we emit CO2 into the atmosphere and secondarily how effective CO2 removal in the future is.  We can choose 400 ppm or 450 ppm or almost any other target (realistically, 350 ppm seems out of reach within the next couple hundred years).  Our concentration target value choice is dependent on the type of policies we decide to implement.  It is our current policy to burn fossil fuels because we think doing so is cheap, although current practices are massively inefficient and done without proper market signals.  We will widely deploy clean sources of energy when they are cheap; we control that timing.  We will remove CO2 from the atmosphere if we have cheap and effective technologies and mechanisms to do so, which we also control to some degree.  These future trends depend on today’s innovation and investment in research, development, and deployment.  Today’s carbon markets are not the correct mechanism, as they are aptly demonstrating.  But the bottom line remains: We will limit future warming and climate effects when we choose to do so.


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California’s Ongoing Drought & Related Climate News

California’s drought is severe and lengthy.  2013 was a record dry year for areas in the state with extensive data records: Los Angeles’s 3.60″ (14.93″ normal) and San Francisco’s 5.59″ (23.65″ normal) among others.  Recent research characterized California as drier than at any time in the past 500 years (an important point that I’ll return to below).  California experienced three consecutive very dry years (2011-2013), and 2014 provided little difference so far.  This dryness and the ensuing drought conditions are part of a longer term decadal-plus drought affecting the southwest US since 2000.

Additional metrics include:

Seventeen rural communities in California are in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days, according to a list compiled by state officials. As the drought goes on, more communities are likely to be added to the list.

With only about seven inches of rain in California in 2013 — far below the average of 22 inches — wells are running dry and many reservoirs are about 30 percent full (including Folsom Lake, shown above).

The Sierra snowpack, where California gets about a third of its water, was 88 percent below average as of Jan. 30.

Soon, people will face a lack of fresh water to their homes.  With reservoirs at record low levels, farmers will not be able to plant the crops they want which will reduce our food availability and increase food prices later this year.  This means the impacts will be local and national.  Moving forward, legal fights over very limited water will likely occur.  Folks are about to find out they water they’ve taken for granted is legally obligated to other users.  No one knows what the results will be, but many people have feared this very set of circumstances for a long time.

It would take between 8″ and 16″ of liquid water across most of California to break the drought.  That is unlikely to happen any time soon.  California’s drought is directly related to the snowy winter the eastern half of the nation experienced due to the persistent high-amplitude anomalous jet stream.  High pressure pushed the jet stream to the north over the western US while low pressure allowed the jet stream to dive south over the eastern US.  Usually such a pattern breaks down after a short time.  This winter’s jet stream has been essentially stuck for months now.

In related news, Arctic albedo decreased more than previously thought due to melting Arctic sea ice.  This phenomenon warms the Arctic, including the Arctic Ocean, which affects other parts of the globe, including the US.

And now back to the interesting point I wrote about above: CA is drier than at any point in the past 500 years.  Not forever, 500 years.  That means CA has been this dry in the past (the relatively recent past, in geologic time scales).  Moreover, we should all recall that CO2 concentrations were much lower 500 years ago than they are today.  That means that CA’s dryness is to some extent caused by natural variability.  The scientific question then becomes: “How much?”  Climate attribution studies remain at the forefront of climate research, which is another way of saying we don’t know how much natural variability plays a role in today’s dryness.

A NY Times article captured this recently:

While a trend of increasing drought that may be linked to global warming has been documented in some regions, including parts of the Mediterranean and in the Southwestern United States, there is no scientific consensus yet that it is a worldwide phenomenon. Nor is there definitive evidence that it is causing California’s problems.

The article notes that there are significant similarities between this drought and a similar drought in 1976-77.  What we do know is that temperatures are higher during this drought than they were in 1976-77, which exacerbates the drought’s effects.  What precipitation fell in 2013 evaporated more quickly than before because of warmer temperatures.  So we can say that a similar drought is occurring in a warmer environment, which is something relatively new and noteworthy.

An important point is that this drought is occurring in a world with higher CO2 concentrations than in 1976 or in the 1500s.  But this drought is similar to previous droughts.  Today’s higher CO2 concentrations aren’t the dominant cause of this drought.  Droughts later this century will likely have a more noticeable human fingerprint, but this drought could have (and did) occur in contemporary history.  There is nothing about today’s state of the climate (or 1970′s or 1930′s state of the climate) that precludes this drought.  Quite the opposite is true: this drought belongs to the state of the climate today, not tomorrow.

It is true that the southwest has been in some level of drought condition for 15 years or so.  Those conditions also exist in today’s climate.  They might also exist in the end of the century’s climate, but they will exhibit characteristics that we can’t foresee with any accuracy today.  That said, there are people today in the southwest US that this drought impacts.  That is the reality regardless of the anthropogenic or natural influence on the climate system.  The demand on annual available water now exceeds the supply.  That reality will increasingly shape the southwest in the near future, not the distant future.  Increasingly restrictive water usage policies are more likely than not.

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