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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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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.


NOAA Sea-Level Rise Report Issued – Dec 2012

This is a busy time of year for the sciences with the annual American Geophysical Union’s and the international Conference of Parties meetings occurring simultaneously.  NOAA has issued a number of reports in recent days, none of which are overflowing with good news.  Today, NOAA released their Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment.  It was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee and consists of a review and synthesis of recent scientific publications examining global sea level change.

Why is this report important?  “More than 8 million people in the US live in areas at risk of coastal flooding. Along the Atlantic Coast alone, almost 60 percent of the land that is within a metre of sea level is planned for further development, with inadequate information on the potential rates and amount of sea level rise.”  The public, policymakers and planners need to know what to expect with respect to sea-level rise this century: where should development occur or be restricted and why?

The report is based on four plausible scenarios.  Scenario 1 is simply a linear extrapolation of the historical sea-level rise (SLR) rate out to 2100.  Scenario 2 is based only on projected ocean warming.  Scenario 3 builds on 2 by adding recent ice sheet loss (land-based).  Scenario 4 reflects ocean warming and the maximum plausible contribution of ice sheet loss and glacial melting.  Scenario 1 is appropriate for communities which can assume high risk or for short-term projects.  Scenario 4, in contrast, is meant for places which can’t accept risk.

Here are the scenario SLR values by 2100:


Note that these values are not predictions, but are projections.  That is, NOAA isn’t saying that if X and Y happen, then the Intermediate-High scenario is a prediction.  The scenarios present a framework for policymakers and the public to use to make decisions.

Here is a time series graph of historical and projected SLR:


The range of potential SLR shown in the table and figure above might lead some to conclude that ‘high confidence” in that range is misplaced by NOAA.  This is a gross misinterpretation of what is presented.  The level of uncertainty, which will always exist, is actually useful to policymakers.  Given this range of projections, people can leverage local and regional knowledge to come to better decisions than they would without this range.  Something quantified is better than a big shrug when planning, after all.

With the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut requesting $80 Billion to clean up and rebuild (better) after Hurricane Sandy, future projections of sea-level rise can obviously provide guidance regarding what and how to rebuild in addition to where to rebuild.  Policy development and planning will have to take these and other projections into heavier account this century than they did last century.  An estimate of how many billions of dollars can potentially be saved by incorporating this information would also be useful.


CO2 Emissions Continue to Track At Top of IPCC Range

A new Nature Climate Change editorial (subs. req.) has a very useful graph (2 variants) that I have been looking for:


Note first the y-axis: global CO2-emissions in Petagrams of carbon per year.  This unit is different from the other common unit used: CO2 concentrations.  The emissions eventually lead to the concentrations.  This is only the CO2 emissions, not CO2-equivalent, which might be a better variable but introduces more complexity in analysis.

Let’s go through the lines on the graph before we discuss them.  The “IS92″ lines (a-f; light blue dashed) were the emission scenarios developed for the 1992 Supplementary Report to the IPCC Assessment.  There are 40 SRES scenarios shown (thin green lines) and 6 illustrative scenarios (thick green dashed lines) that the IPCC developed for the 4th Assessment Report (AR4).  These are the scenarios most people discuss: A1B, B2, etc.  For the upcoming AR5, CO2 emissions form the basis of the scenarios.  There are ways to convert from one to the other, which is how all of these different scenarios can be plotted together.  The AR5 scenarios are labeled according to the anomalous forcing value expected in the year 2100 and a “Representative Concentration Pathway”.  Thus, RCP3 represents 3 W/m^2 forcing due to CO2 concentrations.  You can see what has to happen to global emissions to achieve this relatively low forcing value by the end of the century.  Alternatively, there is an RCP4.5, RCP6, and RCP8.5 pathway.  As a side note, my work will likely utilize the RCP8.5 pathway because we will most likely continue to move down this pathway for the foreseeable future.

Historical emissions are the black dots/line.  The estimate for 2012 emissions is the red dot.  It is obvious to see that our historical emissions has tracked near the top of any set of emissions scenarios (IS92-E, IS92-F, A1FI, A2, and A1B) and not the middle or bottom.  That has implications in climate policy because most scientific studies performed to date have focused on the low to moderate scenarios.  The reason is simple: most climate scientists thought there would be no chance of inaction once people saw what was likely to happen using even low or moderate emission scenarios.  In general, scientists were wrong.  The world has continued to increase the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, with “average annual growth rates of 1.9% per year in the 1980s, 1.0% per year in the 1990s, and 3.1% per year since 2000,” as I’ve covered in 2011 and earlier in 2012.  The post-2000 increase is largely due to China and India.

The lead author of the report posted different form of this graph and included yet another call to action that the world will ignore:


A quick note: the RCP3 scenario’s absurdity becomes more clear post-2060: emissions have to turn negative to achieve 3 W/m^2 by 2100!  Is anyone aware of technologies that remove emissions from the atmosphere in excess of what we emit to the atmosphere?  Put another way, emissions would have to decrease to near-zero in addition to deployment of removal infrastructure.  I obviously wasn’t involved scenario development, but it strikes me as incredibly myopic to include this pathway in climate scenarios: it exists only as a fantasy, especially when you realize that important feedback processes are still not understood well enough to include them in modeling efforts.

The main point of this graph is valid though: on our current emissions trajectory, global warming of 4–6.1 °C is likely.  Given recent studies showing more sensitivity to temperature changes one order of magnitude less than this that has already started to generate real-world changes, no one can say with certainty what a 4°C rise in global temperature above the pre-industrial average will cause.

Now, I must make a very important point here.  This does not mean the end of civilization or the world.  Our species is remarkably adaptive to a wide range of conditions.  While our species has never lived in a world that warm, we have enormous advantages over our ancestors: technology.  The world might not look like it does today, and we will of course not live in the same way, but I firmly believe that whatever changes we make will allow the great majority of us to continue to live.

That is not to say that we should do nothing at all.  I have made quite clear that the current approach (UNFCCC & IPCC) has proven itself to not work.  I do not know exactly what the correct approach will be, but I think remaining in a failed paradigm is a bad idea moving forward.  We must make new efforts – the more the merrier in the short-term so we can evaluate what does and does not work.  My line of thought has developed to this: I think groups must initiate smaller efforts, and indeed I think in some cases they already have.  Regional cohesive groups generally know better what works for them and why.  A good place to start on a larger scale would be to work to understand why certain actions work in some places better than others and put policies in place to exploit those opportunities.

But 2°C is not achievable by any means that I can see.  Neither is 350ppm CO2 concentration.  Scientists and activists alike should cast aside these hard to understand numbers.  A focus on other goals: energy portfolios, land use, and adaptation plans make more sense (different numbers since we tend to operate that way).


Research: Climate Change Permanency

I’ve written a couple of posts on climate change basics (Gases, Forcing & Surface Temperature and Energy & Projections) that described how energy enters and moves through the climate system and some physical ramifications of emitting greenhouse gases.  This post will build on those in an important way by examining what is very likely to happen to the base climate system in response to increasing carbon emissions.  The operative word that is used throughout is: permanency.  The climate system has so far been slightly altered by our species’ emissions.  Most of the effects of that alteration won’t go away for hundreds of years.  As humans emit additional emissions, the effects grow.

For all intents and purposes, as far as our species is concerned, the climate system’s alteration will not go away for a long, long time – on the order of thousands of years.  That’s permanency as far as we’re concerned.  Or, as the paper I cite puts it: it’s irreversible.  Conditions will very likely not return to those we’ve experienced in our lifetimes and in the past few thousand years for many thousands of years into the future.  That’s the cold, hard scientific truth of the situation.  Now, people can decide for themselves whether such irreversibility or permanency is a “good” or “bad” thing – I won’t make normative judgments for anyone else but myself.  I don’t consider such a change a “good” thing.  The effects I will describe here are significant, but they are only those that are easily projected.  Many other effects that haven’t been considered or experienced by our species will almost certainly fall out as a result of projections discussed here.  Our civil institutions are not well equipped to handle even the first-order effects, let alone the compounding influence of effects upon effects.

On a personal note, I will not describe things as ‘catastrophic’ anymore.  I have hinted at this in some posts I’ve written in the past few months without much explanation.  The primary reason for this is using such language simply turns people off from considering the material.  I think we need more people engaged on this topic, not less, and will consider scientific results of language and framing as much as I consider climate science results (a post dealing with this specifically is in the works).  That said, I will continue to not spend many resources to engage the ideologically driven skeptic community.  They simply have a different worldview than I do and neither party will convince the other that their side is “correct”.  One goal of this blog is to inform those who are interested and to have civil, productive discussions of peer-reviewed climate science and the political/policy implications of that science.

So, before I delve into some details, words like `permanency` and `irreversible` will be used more frequently on this blog in the future.  I will not use words like catastrophic.  On that note…

Susan Solomon and her coauthors published a paper in 2008 entitled, “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions.”  The primary finding: climate change resulting from anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions is largely irreversible for 1,000s of years after the emissions stop.  As a result, atmospheric temperatures are likely to remain higher than present-day values, rainfall reductions during dry seasons are likely to occur across the planet, and sea level rise is likely to continue to occur for thousands of years even though the models they used did not include every physical process involved in the hydrologic cycle in addition to the noted lack of all first-order forcings.  The study gives us an idea of the type of temperature trends we are likely to experience for the next few thousand years as well as a conservative estimate of how high average global sea level rise will be.

In similar fashion as other modeling work, Solomon et al. allow CO2 concentrations to rise, then halt suddenly at some level in the future (reflecting a dramatic shift in human behavior such as radical technological innovation, etc.  I characterize this treatment of behavior as “magical” because there is never robust reasoning to adequately describe such behavior shifts).  Concentrations in the study rose at 2%/year to peak CO2 values of 450, 550, 650, 750, 850, and 1200 ppmv, followed by zero emissions after hitting each peak.  For reference, current annual CO2 concentrations average just over 390pppmv.  What occurs after the peaks is the interesting part of this paper, as the following graph shows:


The x-axis shows time in years out to the year 3000.  Pre-industrial CO2 concentrations are indicated by the dashed line near the bottom of the graph.  Without any effort at emissions’ mitigation, any one of these peaks is well within the realm of possibility. What happens after each peak?  An extended period of time during which CO2 concentrations remain much higher than pre-industrial levels.  Concentrations remain at levels between ~300 to ~800ppmv for the next thousand years, decreasing at decreasing rates during and after they reach their respective peaks.  What effect might this have on temperature?  The next graph in the paper demonstrates the simulated effects:


Each curve in this graph corresponds to the emissions lines in the previous graphs.  Temperatures remain at least 1°C warmer (and up to 4°C warmer) than those of the year 1800 for the next thousand years.  Temperatures do not decline at nearly the rate that CO2 concentrations do in the latter part of the millenium.  While CO2 concentrations remain higher throughout the period, “permanency” is evident by temperature trends through the year 3000.  What does that mean for the real world?  Whatever temperature shift takes place through the end of rising emissions stays in place for all intents and purposes for our species permanently.

Rising temperatures have many other effects on different earth systems, including sea levels.  Here are the sea level change projections from the Solomon et al. study:


Again, each line in this plot corresponds to an emissions scenario and a temperature trace in the two previous plots.  Note the y-axis on this plot: it only shows sea level rise due to thermal expansion.  Any additional water entering the world’s oceans resulting from melting glaciers or land-based ice sheets are not included in this projection.  Therefore, the reader can interpret this plot as a minimum of sea level rise through 3000.  The greatest rise obviously corresponds to the highest emissions scenario and the highest temperature rise.  0.4m rise in the minimum projected by this study and 1.9m is the maximum.  Similarly to the previous plots, sea level doesn’t decrease once emissions and temperatures stabilize.  Instead, they continue to slowly increase throughout the next millenium and remain high in essence in a permanent sense.

What’s obviously inaccurate with this study is the instantaneous cessation of CO2 emissions.  Many studies treat future emissions in similar fashion.  How emissions decrease in the future is of course a large unknown and therefore impossible to model with high accuracy.  Solomon et al. do acknowledge that their treatment of emissions is not meant to be realistic, but to “represent a test case whose purpose is to probe physical climate system changes”.  The primary lesson from this paper is relevant no matter the specific future emissions pathway: the longer emissions continue at any level close to 20th century levels, the longer it will take before concentrations stop rising and begin their slow descent in a planet with full carbon sinks, and temperatures and sea levels stabilize.  The point at which all of these conditions peak is, in the end, almost entirely up to us.

The policy implications of this and other studies are obvious and not-so-obvious.  Among the former: the willingness of coastal residents to incur higher infrastructure and other costs in future years versus their desire to implement policies designed to mitigate their situation; the willingness of non-coastal residents to keep funding federal insurance programs that allow others to live in high-risk zones; the way in which municipalities write zoning laws: for developers or for citizens; policy development that will help populations adapt to climate change effects in their region and/or that address mitigation on a larger scale; the priority assigned to programs that may or may not generate technological innovations that would lead to adaptive or mitigative strategies at some undefined point in the future (via government or business); how to address the need that policymakers have for information that will facilitate a balanced approach between short-term gain and long-term risk management.  Other implications exist, as I’m sure most readers can attest.  One result of this study is clear: we have locked in a certain amount of costs just as we’ve locked in a certain amount of warming and subsequent changes in multiple earth systems.

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2011 CO2 Emissions Up

In 2011, global emissions of carbon reached an all-time high of 31.6 Gigatonnes, according to preliminary IEA estimates.  That was 3.2% (1.0 Gt) higher than 2010 emissions.  The IEA has developed an energy pathway consistent with a 50% chance of limiting global temperature increases to only 2°C, which requires CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 Gt no later than 2017.  This reinforces statements I’ve made in the past year that a maximum of 2°C warming is no longer feasible.  There is no reason short of worldwide economic collapse that emissions will peak at or below 32.6 Gt prior to 2017.  As emissions continue, more warming and additional effects are locked into Earth’s climate system.  The good news is due to transfer of power generation from coal to natural gas (more natural gas plants as gas prices fell in 2009 and 2010), US CO2 emissions fell by 92 Mt (1.7%) from 2010 to 2011.  Indeed, emissions have fallen 7.7% from 2006 levels in the US.  A significant portion of that decrease was due to the economic troubles from which we still haven’t recovered, of course.  Do market forces exist to help reduce those emissions?  Absolutely they exist: taxes and permit systems.  Note that the second article includes a brief discussion of why previous environmental action was taken.  It cites the immediate identification of the causality behind environmental disasters.  I disagree with the author’s assessment that such an event will ever occur with respect to climate change.  I further disagree that such a “Climate Pearl Harbor” (as it has been described elsewhere) is the only means by which bottom-up action and support can be generated.


2010: Largest Increase in CO2 Emissions On Record -> Actions To Date Insufficient

I wanted to share just a few brief words on an article I saw in the Denver Post (from the AP) today: Greenhouse gas levels rise. Somewhat surprisingly, a reference to the article appeared on the top of the front page of the print edition of the paper. The story, at the back on 11A, was a little too filled with various quotes from experts in the field for my taste, with no real context for readers to grasp why the news is so important.

This graph encapsulates the importance of this news item:

What this graph shows is the observations of emissions (as calculated by the IEA) represented by the black curve and 5 of the 6 emissions scenarios used by the IPCC AR4 in colored lines. The SRES begin in 2000, which was the starting year used for future simulations in the AR4. You can clearly see the effects of the partial collapse of the global economy in 2009 emissions: they went from higher than the worst-case scenario to the middle of the pack.

In 2010, however, emissions jumped back up to the top of the pack, almost as if 2009 never even happened. I would be willing to bet the 2011 numbers will demonstrate a further increase.

The simplicity of this graph should in no way distract from the deep problems underlying the data: we continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases. As a result, we are locking in more and more future warming and ensuring a cascade of resultant effects that we can’t envision today. In contrast to some of my earlier posts, I want to make sure I don’t convey that I think those effects will be apocalyptic because I don’t think they will be.

There will be changes forced on us and on ecosystems worldwide as a result of these emissions. But what I want to start spending more time on are the solutions to the grand challenges we’re facing instead of just the depths of those challenges themselves.

In short, it is clear that actions taken to date with respect to emissions clearly have been unsatisfactory. That is because the approach to developing policies that could affect emissions have been woefully inadequate. I have solidified my opinion that the IPCC is not the best approach to dealing with the adaptation or mitigation strategies. Neither do I think that the Conference on Parties, which is set to meet in a handful of weeks to discuss roles and responsibilities for developed and developing countries, is suitable for the task. I’m not sure what the best approach is, but neither of these two primary tacks have proven themselves capable of dealing with the problem to date.


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