Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


Leave a comment

More on EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule: Podesta; Role of Science

I just found this article and wanted to point out a couple of things related to my post on the EPA’s proposed CO2 emissions rule.  The first (emphasis mine):

In a two-hour interview conducted just weeks before his return to Obama’s inner circle as White House Counsel, Podesta told me that the president had been willing to take risks and expend political capital on the climate issue. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” Podesta asked. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.

Podesta blamed Obama’s spotty climate record in part on the president’s top aides during his first term (aides who Podesta, as Obama’s transition director in 2008, helped select). The aides’ attitudes about climate change, Podesta recalled, were dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.

I agree with Podesta’s assessment that fifty years from now people will look back and judge that Obama and everyone else didn’t do enough to curtail GHG emissions and prevent a great deal of additional global warming.  That isn’t a slight on Obama’s character – or anyone else’s – it’s a statement on how I view action on the topic.

Isn’t it interesting that Podesta helped select the same aides who refused to push climate higher on the problem list?  Podesta is a smart guy – he knew what peoples’ pet issues were and what weren’t on their list of priorities.  So in the same interview that Podesta says Obama’s climate actions won’t seem like enough in fifty years, Podesta lays some blame at the feet of first-term aides who didn’t prioritize climate for the lack of Obama’s action.  Perhaps a little self-assessment didn’t make the article due to editing, but it would be nice to see people take responsibility for how we’ve gotten here.  That includes Democrats and climate activists right along with Republicans and skeptics.

The next quote really rankles me:

The Obama Administration’s newly proposed regulations on power plants illustrate how the president continues to fall short of what science demands in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change. From a scientific perspective, there is much less to these regulations than either industry opponents or environmental advocates are claiming.

[...]

The science he is faced with [...] demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.

This language implicitly assumes that what certain people want should take precedence over others.  The author, like many others, think they would like those certain people to be scientists instead of conservative theologians or accountants or any other person.  Science doesn’t demand anything in this or any other instance.  We use physical science to assess what the physical effects of GHGs have been and will be on the climate system.  That’s where physical science ends.  If you want to do anything about that information, you bring in social science – political science, sociology, environmental science, philosophy, etc.  Those fields have much to say about what to do and why a particular course of action might be desirable – see normative theory.

Too many people confuse the two.  Or more accurately in the climate change realm, they argue using physical science as a proxy in normative debates.  This is a large source of the polarization of science today.  Instead of using proxies, people should debate the core issues.  If the core issue is the political left versus right, the debate should be on value systems and specific values.  Instead, people drag climate science into the normative debate and among the results is the refusal to accept climate science as valid by skeptics.  This has more to do with perception of legitimate authority than the actual science.

Back to the science:

Podesta, however, acknowledged that Obama’s climate policy (as it stood last November) would not hit the 2°C target. “Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees,” he said, “but it doesn’t get you to two degrees.”

I wrote much the same thing.  The science is quite clear on this.  Whether you think the policy is bad or good or whether hitting or not hitting the 2°C target is a bad or good thing are separate discussions.  Personally, I think not hitting the 2°C target is a bad thing.  But I know that’s a normative judgment about a scientific result.  I therefore support more effective policy actions such as a carbon tax.

Again, this rule is merely proposed at this time.  EPA originally said it would propose the rule in 2011-2012, then put it on indefinite hold so Obama could run for re-election.  It will now face legal challenges.  It will not go into effect for at least two years, and quite possibly four to six years after all the legal challenges.  In that time frame, we will have at least one new president, who will put their choice for EPA administrator in place, who will be responsible for directing the agency on the rule’s implementation.  The rule will be effective until 2030 and will face two additional presidential election results.  Do climate activists think Republicans will leave the rule alone through 2030?  How do we square that with the knowledge the rule is far from sufficient to limit warming to <2°C?  What are the next policy steps with these real world boundaries?


1 Comment

Research: Antarctic Glaciers – What’s The Real Story?

Two new papers examine historical and projected Antarctic glacier behavior.  The research is illuminating.  Some of the commentary about it is downright confusing.  I’ll sort it out in this post.

From the source: West Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Collapsing at the highly respected journal Science.  This news intern’s article references a paper published in Science this week, “Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica.”  You can already see where some confusion arose: the actual science article itself used the key work “potentially” while the news piece trumpeting the article used the word “is”.  Potentially implies there is a chance the marine ice sheet may not collapse.  The news article headline completely misses that critical descriptive adverb.

Just as importantly, the news headline misses the operative time scale, which is of course of great importance.  The decision to not include the time scale leads casual readers to assume this collapse will happen soon.  Well, what is soon?  It depends on one’s perspective.  I think the time scale omission was purposeful, so as to boost readership.  Because if the headline had included the article’s values, few people would have paid much attention to it: 200 to 900 years.  Based on a computer model simulation, the authors suggest that the Thwaites Glacier may finish its collapse in two to nine centuries – nowhere near the operative time frame that people think about.  The article dances around the issue a bit in the first three paragraphs – long enough for the author to come out and report on what the paper actually said in my opinion.

If you’re interested, I’ve covered previous research findings on Antarctic glaciers, including in January 2009, November 2009, January 2010, and December 2012.

What is not in question is the science results.  The glacier is indeed melting faster than snowfall can replenish it, and this is increasingly due to human influence.  Once the edge of the glacier recedes past a ridge, the glacier’s melt will accelerate.  As most sea-based glaciers do, Thwaites holds back land-based ice.  As this ice melts, sea level rises.  Thus, the rate of sea level rise could increase from <0.25mm per year to >1mm per year due to all melting land-based glaciers.

The second paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011, the authors report on satellite data analysis showing that

Pine Island Glacier retreated 31 km at its center, with most retreat in 2005–2009 when the glacier un-grounded from its ice plain. Thwaites Glacier retreated 14 km along its fast-flow core and 1 to 9 km along the sides. Haynes Glacier retreated 10 km along its flanks. Smith/Kohler glaciers retreated the most, 35 km along its ice plain

Upstream of the 2011 grounding line, there remain no more physical obstacles (higher sea bed regions) that will hold back the glaciers.  Thus nothing remains to stop further melting of the basin.  These results are an independent corroboration of the Science paper results and build the body of literature on Antarctic glaciers.  Once Thwaites melts, the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet is at risk of melt.  There are other researchers who think the 200-900 year timeline is too slow because important feedbacks are not properly modeled.  But so far no evidence suggests the time scale is off by an order of magnitude (i.e., not 20-90 years).

Absent significant climatological shifts away from anthropogenically forced climate change, West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will continue to melt for centuries.  Sea levels will rise, probably at a faster rate than what we’ve seen historically.

But the presentation of these studies is disappointing.  Here are some places that covered this news.  I found probably the best headline at Slate: “Huge Antarctic Glacier Slow-Speed Collapse May Now Be Past Point of No Return“.  That gives the reader all the critical information.  Thwaites is huge, it will undergo slow-speed collapse, and that process is likely now irreversible.  Good on Slate.  The normally staid Jeff Masters’ somewhat less accurate headline: “Slow-Motion Collapse of West Antarctic Glaciers is Unstoppable, 2 New Studies Say“.  This is better than Science’s own headline, but notice the “is” in this one.  Again, I don’t think we can justifiably conclude based on science to date that the collapse is definitely unstoppable, as this headline claims.  Is it likely?  Yes, it is.  This headline doesn’t convey that.

And now the worst example, from an Environment America fundraising email: “Antarctica to melt completely”.  What?!  These two studies do not say Antarctica will melt completely; such an event will take at least thousands of years, even under the highest GHG emissions scenarios.  And again, there is no mention of any time line in the email header.  The email includes this nonsense: “The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now unstoppable – but we can still prevent even worse disasters, and President Obama is taking action right now.”  I’m not sure what they consider a worse disaster than the entire Antarctic ice sheet melting (they certainly don’t make a specific claim in their fundraising request).  They go on to include the worst type of messaging: “This is the nightmare scenario”.  Fantastic – shut down everybody’s response mechanisms with the worst possible language.  Moreover, if this is the nightmare scenario, what is the “worse disaster” they can prevent if only I send them money?  The email continues “As bad as this news is, we simply don’t have time for despair.”  Then why use language that causes despair?

This is exactly what the Science news piece tried to generate, and it worked.  Unfortunately, that’s where the working stops.  People that know about Antarctic glaciers melting are already taking action.  People that don’t won’t do so just because of this email.  It operates from the wrong frame and doesn’t engage alternative values.  It doesn’t engage and it doesn’t present opportunities.  But it’s what prominent environmental groups do and it’s why there has been polarization and inaction surrounding the issue. They continue to squander time and resources.


Leave a comment

Climate Communication: Case Study

Climate Communication

What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?  Is it carbon dioxide, hydrogen, helium, or radon?

I’ll give you an opportunity to think about your answer.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

60% of 2013 Pew poll respondents answered correctly: carbon dioxide.

What was the political affiliation of those correct responders: Democratic, Unaffiliated, or Republican?

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

There was no statistically significant difference between the responders’ affiliation, but Republicans were somewhat more likely than Unaffiliateds and Democrats to answer correctly:

 photo PewPoll-CO2andTempbyPoliticalParty_zps96cdd163.png

What a minute.  Does that make sense?  More Democrats than Republicans believe that humans are causing global warming, but they don’t know the most fundamental fact about the topic.  Conversely, more Republicans do not believe the human-global warming relationship, but know that CO2 is a GHG and causes the atmosphere to warm.  Don’t climate activists rail against Republicans for dismissing facts or being uneducated?  They sure do, and I  think it increasingly hurts their cause.

In a nutshell, it’s not about education.  Belief statements about climate change don’t convey science knowledge; they express who people are.

This is a very good piece, which Dan Kahan delivered at Earthday “Climate teach in/out” at Yale University last month.  The  upshot: What you “believe” about climate change doesn’t reflect what you know; it expresses *who you are*.  This flies in the face of the approach many physical scientists (and academic faculty) take.  According to them, people are stupid and need only be filled with knowledge they possess.  That isn’t the case at all.  Instead, people respond to this and similar questions according to their identification with a cultural group.  As Kahan writes:

It [the result of taking the “wrong” position in relation to a cultural group] could drive a wedge—material, emotional, and psychological—between individual the people whose support are indispensable to his or her well-being.

And note this doesn’t just apply to evangelical Christians, a group many climate activists derogatorily cite.  This applies just as equally to those climate activists – which explains ideological positions entrenchment on the topic of climate change, evolution, the Big Bang, etc.

Kahan continues:

But while that’s the rational way for people to engage information as individuals, given what climate change signifies about their cultural identities, it’s a disaster for them collectively.  Because if everyone does this at the same time, members of a culturally diverse democratic society are less likely to converge on scientific evidence that is crucial to the welfare of all of them.

So there’s more helplessness as a result of climate change?  No, there’s not.  Kahan offers a solution and well stated opinion on where things stand:

If we want to overcome it, then we must disentangle competing positions on climate change from opposing cultural identities, so that culturally pluralistic citizens aren’t put in the position of having to choose between knowing what’s known to science and being who they are.

[...]

That means you, as a science communicator, can enable these citizens to converge on the best available evidence on climate change.

But to do it, you must banish from the science communication environment the culturally antagonistic meanings with which positions on that issue have become entangled—so that citizens can think and reason for themselves free of the distorting impact of identity-protective cognition.

If you want to know what that sort of science communication environment looks like, I can tell you where you can see it: in Florida, where all 7 members of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners — 4 Democrats, 3 Republicans — voted unanimously to join Broward County (predominantly Democratic), Monroe County (predominantly Republican), and Miami-Dade County (predominantly Republican) in approving the Southeast Climate Compact Action plan, which, I quote from the Palm Beach County Board summary, “includes 110 adaptation and mitigation strategies for addressing seal-level risk and other climate issues within the region.”

I’ll tell you another thing about what you’ll see if you make this trip: the culturally pluralistic, and effective form of science communication happening in southeast Florida doesn’t look anything  like the culturally assaultive “us-vs-them” YouTube videos and prefabricated internet comments with which Climate Reality and Organizing for America are flooding national discourse.

And if you want to improve public engagement with climate science in the United States, the fact that advocates as high profile and as highly funded as that still haven’t figured out the single most important lesson to be learned from the science of science communication should make you very sad.

Those last two paragraphs convey my sentiments well.  Climate activists rail against skeptics as uneducated and ideologically motivated.  They label them anti-scientific and Luddites.  They try to put themselves on the high ground of the debate landscape by claiming the science flag.  Unfortunately, they focus their attention singularly on physical science and discount social science results.  While they do this, they alienate potentially receptive audiences and ensure the pace of climate action remains glacial.

There are proven ways to better communicate climate risk to a culturally pluralistic population.  Small examples are available for study and emulation.  We need to break old communication habits and adopt new ones.


Leave a comment

Climate and Energy Stories May 11, 2014

The following are stories that I recently found interesting:

Research: Natural Variations in Atlantic Drive Extreme Winters (abstract here).  This research identifies the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation as the primary driver of blocking patterns (via the North Atlantic Oscillation) that have caused extreme cold winters over Europe and east US in recent years.  This Oscillation is a natural feature of the climate system.  This means that anthropogenic effects on extreme winters are likely not the dominant factor.  This challenges many climate activists’ statements that extreme weather we experience today are man-made.  The actual message is more nuanced.  The work combines 20th century observations with climate model results.  They write “A negative NAO in winter usually goes hand-in-hand with cold weather in the eastern US and north-western Europe.” The observations also suggest that it takes around 10-15 years before the positive phase of AMO has any significant effect on the NAO.  The AMO has been positive since the early 1990s.

German electricity demand and generation changing, but are the assumptions valid?  The figure below shows German government power generation historically and for the next 15 years:

 photo Germanpowergenerationprojection201405_zps8395b943.png

As indicated in the graphic, fossil power generation could hold constant until 2029, then decline as additional renewable power comes online.  In the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Germany is decommissioning their nuclear power plants.  What I find interesting in this graphic is Germany projects renewables will pick up the electricity generation lost by nuclear power in the next 15 years as well as satisfy new electric demand.  Only after that would renewables eat into fossil power generation.  I’m not an expert on the German energy system, but I do know based on my expertise that this projection means Germany will not accelerate system decarbonization until 2030, give or take a few years.  By direct consequence, Germany’s CO2 emissions will likewise not decline until 2030.  This provides additional evidence that CO2 emissions will not decline soon enough to avoid 2C warming by 2100.  We don’t have 15 more years to act if that’s really the goal.  Emissions have to start declining in 2014-2015 if 2C is the goal.  This projection tells me Germans are more willing to accept unknown but certain and common climate change risks but are unwilling to accept known but rare nuclear power risks.

Two new solar projects will be built in Arizona.  This news isn’t terribly unique; companies make similar releases regularly now.  What I wanted to point out is the scale of the projects compared to the scale of electricity needed.  These systems will generate 42.76MW of electricity.  The mean size of a coal plant in the US is 667MW.  Thus, 15-16 new solar projects of this size have to be built to substitute solar generation for one coal plant.  Remember, then number of coal plant retirements is increasing.  Demand is also increasing.  As in the case of the graphic above, renewable energy generation has to replace existing generation but also meet demand that doesn’t currently occur.  In 2012, coal generated 1,514,043 thousand MWh, natural gas generated 1,225,894 thousand MWh, and renewables generated 218,333 thousand MWh (141,000 by wind; 4,000 by solar).  To displace coal and later natural gas in the next 50 years, we have to boost the number of solar and wind projects by 10-100X.  I cheer every new project announcement; we need many more of them.

3 Dont’s: Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, says there are at least three things “we know that you shouldn’t do,” when communicating the science: don’t use language people don’t understand, don’t use too many numbers, and don’t talk about “plants, penguins and polar bears” instead of people. Maibach says another error is talking about the threat of climate change without giving people solutions.

Guess what most activists do (and did historically)?  They use inappropriate language, they talk mostly about numbers, and they talk about polar bears.  Moreover, they talk about threats (devastation, civilization ending, epic disasters, apocalypse , trouble, strife, etc.) and don’t offer solutions.  Is it any wonder most people remain disconnected on the topic?  It’s not to me.  What makes this worse?  People “aggressively filter” information that doesn’t conform to their worldview.  The more education they have, they more they filter that information.  Thus, climate believers are more likely to believe in climate change with more education and climate skeptics are more likely not to believe in climate change.  It’s not a matter of education; it’s a matter of values.  Climate communicators therefore need to talk to people about people in their local setting, not obscure numbers of global phenomena.

Among other things, the EIA’s January report shows total January energy production in 2014 than 2013 or 2012.  Most of the renewable energy in the graphs are hydroelectric, not wind or solar, which continue to lag far behind other generation sources despite recent year-over-year percentage increases.  It also shows that contrary to pro-fossil fuel industry claims, the cost of residential energy continued to hold steady, as it has for 30 years now.  In other words, adding renewable energy doesn’t significantly impact energy costs.

As the US shifts from coal to natural gas (not coal to renewables), US GHG emissions falls led developed countries in 2012: by 3.4% vs. 1.3% for the EU (see German energy generation above).  That’s one way to measure progress.  Another: actual EU emissions are far lower than US emissions compared to 1990.  That means the US, as the 2nd largest GHG emitter worldwide, has a very long way to go before it achieves stated climate goals.  The Obama administration for instance has a recent talking point that the US will meet 2020 GHG emission cut goals due to their leadership.  The big devil in the details: they’re using 2005 emissions instead of 1990 emissions.  Even if you don’t know the exact numbers, you should be able to state with confidence that 2005 US emissions were higher than 1990 emissions because we weren’t deploying renewable energy, our population grew, and our demand per person grew.  Well, the EU’s emission cuts reference their 1990 levels.  Moreover, peak US GHG emissions occurred in 2005.  It’s easy to hit big percentage cuts from a maximum value; it’s much harder to hit those same percentage cuts from an intermediate value.  The US would have to cut all emissions from 1990 to 2005 and then an additional amount from 1990 to achieve Kyoto goals.  We will not achieve that by 2020 under current policies because we never wanted to.  We may not achieve a 17% reduction in 1990 emissions by 2030.  This constitutes a persuasive argument that <2C warming by 2100 will not occur.

In rereading my list of topics to cover in this post, I found a couple that deserve more singular attention.  More to come later this week.


Leave a comment

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.


1 Comment

Research: New Land Surface Warming Paper & Post

A quick word and some questions on a SkepticalScience post that discusses yet another warming analysis that comes up with the same answer than other studies have.   The post itself is good if you want a paper summary.  Where I think it needs attention is the “so what” part.  I’ll start with the concluding paragraph because it is what triggered a desire to actually write something about the post instead of walking away from it.

How much more evidence do we need?  The accuracy of the instrumental global surface temperature record is essentially settled science at this point.  The Earth is warming, it’s warming very fast, and continuing to deny this fact is a waste of time.

Many researchers and activists won’t like my answer: we don’t need much more scientific evidence.  Indeed, I would argue that the science largely weighed in years ago and additional information has only provided small-scale refocusing on parts of the issue.  Scientists haven’t discovered anything truly transformative in many years.  Are fields advancing as a result of new observations, methodologies, and expertise.  Yes, but that doesn’t answer Dana’s question.  What climate field advancement will be the one that magically triggers a switch in skeptics’ minds?  What new data set or analysis technique will do the trick?  I argue that no such advancement will ever occur.  Do we really believe that nobody has yet been smart enough to develop the one advancement that unlocks universal understanding of a complex topic?  That’s clearly an absurd assumption, but it seems to permeate this and other similar posts.  The spectrum of people who care about this topic have made up their minds (whether through tribalism or critical thought).  I will not convince any large number of skeptics to accept my argument any more than Hansen, Gore, or McKibben.  And here is where things get raw: strategies that those activists and most others have employed will not convince those people who don’t care about this topic.  As voices get more shrill and combative, more people tune the arguers out.

So if the evidence isn’t the problem, what is?  I believe the problem is the use of climate science as a proxy for a values fight.  Most people are unwilling to identify and fight about their values; it is much easier to throw climate science in the middle of the ring to fight for them.  Skeptics challenge the “facts” because of their beliefs and value system.  Advocates challenge the skeptics because of their beliefs and value system, not because of the “facts”.  Both groups try to bludgeon each other with “facts” and in so doing talk past each other, not to each other.  What concerns do skeptics have regarding climate change; how can advocates listen and address those concerns and vice versa.  Bypassing others’ concerns is the thing that wastes time.  So why do advocates and skeptics do it so much?


6 Comments

Research: Volcanic Aerosols Largely Responsible for Recent Warming Slowdown

Climate change skeptics used the recent slowdown in observed surface warming to claim that 20th century warming was temporary and that the Earth would return to lower average annual temperatures.  They offered up many potential explanations for the slowdown, none of which make physical sense.  The Sun’s 11-year cycle (often used to explain away warming), a primary argument brought forth, is not the reason: this cycle’s solar maximum is near at hand, yet warming has slowed down recently.

Recently accepted research points to a viable physical explanation.  In addition to oceanic transport of heat to the deep ocean and recent La Nina events, sulfuric emissions from small and mid-sized volcanoes entered the lower stratosphere and reflected more incoming solar radiation than normal.  This research separated the effect of natural sulfur emissions from anthropogenic emissions, using a model, to determine the former had a much larger influence than thought.  Aerosol optical depth (AOD) is a calculated metric used to represent how opaque or transparent the atmosphere is to different radiation wavelengths.  The layer between 20 and 30 km increased 4-10% per year since 2000, which is a significant change from normal conditions – significant enough to have effects on Earth’s climate.

Here is one of the paper’s graphical results:

 photo AerosolOpticalDepth525nm-Neelyetal2013_zps8ba54484.png

Figure 1. Observed and modeled time series of stratospheric AOD from three latitude bands.  Satellite observations are represented by the black line.  Base-line model runs are in green. Model runs with the increase in anthropogenic emissions from China and India are in blue. The dashed blue line depicts a model run with 10x the actual increase in anthropogenic emissions. The model run with volcanic emissions is in red. The black diamonds and initials along the bottom of the plot represent the volcanic eruptions that were included in the model run. (Source: Neely paper; subs. req’d.)

As the caption says, satellite measurements are denoted by the thick black curve.  Note the large increase in AOD (higher opacity) over the tropics in the mid-2000s (b) and the large AOD increase over the northern mid-latitudes in the late-2000s (a).  While not a perfect fit to the observations, the model run with volcanic eruptions (red curve) does the best job of explaining the origin of the SO2.  Individual eruptions are indicated by black diamonds on the bottom of each sub-plot.  The effects of volcanic eruptions on climate are, in a general sense, well-known.  Injections of SO2 into the stratosphere reflects sunlight, which reduces the amount of energy entering the Earth’s climate system.  The difference between one large-scale eruption (e.g. Pinatubo in 1991) or many mid-sized eruptions in a short time-period (see above) is not large as far as the climate is concerned.

This could be good news as far as the climate is concerned, at least in the shorth-term.  If incoming energy were reflected back into space instead of being stored in the system, we can physically explain the observed temperature trend slowdown (see Figure 2) and treat the slowdown as real instead of waiting for that energy to transfer from the oceans to the atmosphere, for example.

There is also bad news however.  From the study (emphasis mine):

The significant portion of the radiative forcing due to increases in stratospheric aerosol from 2000 to 2010, interpreted as a mechanism of global cooling [Solomon et al., 2011], may now be completely attributed to volcanic sources and should not be considered a trend. Rather, the stratospheric aerosol layer should be treated as a natural source of radiative forcing that is continuously perturbed by volcanic injections of a range of sizes, and potentially other sources such as large fires.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130131_zpsdfcedaac.gif

Figure 2. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through January 2013 from NASA.

We can see from the 12-month running mean time series (lower-right in Figure 2) that NASA’s temperature index increased more slowly during the latter part of the 2000s than the 1990s.  Neely et al. suggest that there is no physical reason to conclude that slowdown is a trend of opposite sign than that seen throughout the 20th century.  In other words, once the SO2 precipitates from the stratosphere, as it eventually will, the background warming trend will re-establish itself.  Indeed, future warming will likely be stronger than past warming because CO2 concentrations have not decreased in the past ten years.  To the contrary, they have increased at a faster rate than before.  Greenhouse gases have simply had less incoming radiation to absorb than they did 10 years ago due to the recent presence of SO2 in the stratosphere.

Neely’s coauthor Brian Toon had this to say:

Toon of CU-Boulder’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. “But overall these eruptions are not going to counter the greenhouse effect. Emissions of volcanic gases go up and down, helping to cool or heat the planet, while greenhouse gas emissions from human activity just continue to go up.”

This situation provides a good example of another aspect of climate policy.  I wrote about geoengineering earlier this year as part of a Polar Sea Ice post (much more discussion took place here).  One proposed mechanism to reduce the impacts of climate change is human injection of SO2 into the stratosphere, which would mimic natural volcanic effects.  If we implemented such a strategy without simultaneously reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, then abruptly stopped the injection (due to lack of funds or international controversy), the resulting warming signal would be higher post-injection than pre-injection.  The result would be unprecedented due to the large warming signal such a halt would introduce to the climate system.

In one more respect then, policymakers have wasted the past decade.  Instead of developing and implementing climate mitigation policies, international inaction continued.  Once the atmosphere removes the SO2, the climate signal will be stronger than before.  We cannot and should not rely on future volcanic SO2 emissions to mitigate our GHG emissions.  The lack of robust policies is a choice, but it is not a wise long-term choice.


3 Comments

Research: West Antarctic Warming Greater Than Thought

A new article in Nature Geoscience, Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth (subs. req’d), presents up-to-date information on conditions of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).  The most common theme of climate science is present within this story: warming is occurring faster than scientists thought it was or projected just a few short years ago.  This study compares its results against similar efforts and confirms some of the fears of the cryosphere.  Large portions of both the Arctic and Antarctic are among the spots warming the fastest on Earth.  What does this mean?  It means accelerating sea level rise, influxes of fresh water into the world’s oceans, and rapidly changing ecosystems.  It means there are likely other effects of anthropogenic global warming occurring across the globe, but because our observation networks are sparse, we’re just not aware of them yet.

Two important figures from the paper:

Photobucket

Figure 1. Color shadings show the correlation between the annual mean temperatures at Byrd and the annual mean temperatures at every other grid point in Antarctica, computed using ERA-Interim 2-meter temperature time series from 1979 to 2011. The star symbol denotes the location of Byrd Station. The black circles denote the locations of permanent research stations with long-term temperature records.

The warming observed at Byrd Station is, by incorporating ERA-Interim reanalysis data, also exists across a significant portion of West Antarctica.  This development’s significance is this: the WAIS rests on bedrock and is grounded below sea level.  As the WAIS melts, the meltwater runs to the ocean from the land, raising sea levels.  If sea level around Antarctica rises high enough, the bottom of the WAIS will be exposed to water, which will hasten its melt.

Photobucket

Figure 2. Annual mean surface temperature change (trend×number of years) during 1958–2009 from the Byrd record (red and black circle) and from the CRUTEM4 data set (rest of map).

Figure 2 puts the Byrd warming into global context.  There are areas in the Arctic and now the Antarctic that have observed +2.4°C warming from 1958 through 2009.  The long time period is representative for climate and the non-zero warming represents change.  On a localized scale (WAIS), the warming observed at Byrd and likely at nearby locations probably counteracted the cooling resulting from increased circumpolar westerlies.  Those westerlies, as I’ve written about in my State of the Poles posts, were themselves the result of cooling in the Antarctic stratosphere as ozone depletion occurred.  In essence, the strong winds blowing across lines of longitude near Antarctica largely prevented warm air at higher latitudes from being blown across the continent.  The Byrd warming therefore presents an interesting case where this phenomenon isn’t the only one that occurs.

As the Montreal Protocol continues to reduce the amount of ozone-depleting substances in the stratosphere and the ozone layer replenishes itself, the anomalous westerlies will likely subside.  As additional warm air is advected over Antarctica, the continent will experience fuller effects of global warming.  In turn, the rest of the planet will experience the results of those effects.  This is an example of one science policy working while another science policy remains mostly flatlined.  The 2012 18th Conference of Parties continued to demonstrate that the same framework that allowed for the Montreal Protocol to be negotiated and successfully implemented has not and will not allow for a climate protocol.  Decades have passed while negotiators have tried time and again to do the same thing over and over.  A new approach is required.  Local, bottom-up efforts need to be expanded and stoked.  Someone somewhere has a much more effective set of solutions.  Heck, a bunch of someones somewheres have solution sets.  They need to be incubated and allowed to develop.  We need to take control of those strategies and processes.


5 Comments

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:

Photobucket

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:

Photobucket

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).


4 Comments

Antarctic Ice Shelves Melting Due To Deep Warm Ocean Water

Until just a few years ago, scientists were unsure why the global energy budget seemed to indicate that an enormous amount of energy couldn’t be accounted for.  Incoming and outgoing radiation is fairly straightforward to measure and a simple energy budget is easy to calculate.  Accounting for all of the movement of energy within Earth’s climate system imposes a great deal of complexity into the process.  Still, numerous attempts were made to try to track down what was growing into a very large amount of energy: was it erroneous measurements or calculations, or did we remain woefully ignorant of significant physical processes?

Then in 2009, two major papers were published that closed the majority of the unaccounted for energy in the climate system.  The excess energy was being stored as heat in the ocean, specifically the deep ocean.    The volume of the Earth’s oceans is estimated to be 1.332×109 km3.  That is obviously a very large volume within which energy can be stored.  What has happened over the course of the past century or so is warmer and warmer water has been forced down to the bottom of the world’s oceans.  Usually, warm water rises, but the water in question is just above the freezing point of fresh water.  At those temperatures, salinity has an increased role in controlling density.  Water sinks when sea ice forms because sea ice is made up of only pure water, leaving excess salt in the remaining ocean water.  As the salinity increases, the density also increases.  Water with higher density than what is surrounding it sinks and then is transported by ocean currents around the world.

It might surprise you to learn that ocean currents can take decades to centuries to complete one cycle around the entire globe.  That means that water that was warmed decades ago is now coming back to the places where it originally picked up that warmth.  In this case, water is upwelling off the Antarctic peninsula and it is having a very real physical effect on the region.  While localized now, that effect will soon cause additional effects across the globe.

One of the 2009 studies had this graph, showing where the excess energy was being stored:

Total Earth Heat Content from 1950 to 2003 (Murphy 2009).

This graph is troubling for a number of reasons.  One of the first things to notice is the land and atmosphere haven’t warmed up all that much, since 1950, compared to the ocean.  Next, it should be startlingly clear that a great deal of energy wasn’t being properly accounted. Third, if the ocean really is holding all this heat, shouldn’t someone have noticed before last year?  Indeed, a number of scientists speculated that the sea level rise recorded in the past 100 years was likely due to this phenomenon occurring.  Scientists being the careful people they are didn’t make pronouncements that they knew this was going on because … they didn’t have empirical proof of it.

By now, I hope a couple of things I’ve written about in this piece are starting to come together.  The ocean upwelling off the coast of Antarctica is carrying some of the energy it absorbed decades ago.  The heat anomaly of the ocean has only increased since then.  What might this mean in the future?  Well, let’s start answering that by looking at what this means in the present.  Here is a graphic put together by Douglas Martinson, a polar scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who gave a talk at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting.

Antarctic Ocean Heat

The warm upwelled water is being transported around the Antarctic continent by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, as you can see on the right side of the graphic.  Over the past 18 years, Martinson and his colleagues have measured the physical properties of the ocean around Antarctica and came to the startling conclusion that the majority of the heat anomalies they have measured have occurred since 1960.  Unfortunately, those anomalies have been growing exponentially ever since.  While the rise was tiny at first, exponential growth for 50 years means that now ocean water is a few degrees above freezing.  This warm water is coming up and running into ice sheets that are slowly being discharged from the Antarctic interior.  Not only do the ice sheets have to contend with anomalously warm air temperatures from above, they also are facing warm water temperatures from below.  And since water holds much more energy than air per unit volume, the warmer waters rising from the ocean depths will have a much greater impact, much sooner, on the ice sheets than the warmer air will.

Okay, so what about the future?

As for how fast the ice will melt and in what locations, that depends largely on whether the upwelling warm water comes in contact with the thick ice shelf that crowds the coast and holds the block the glaciers from reaching the sea.

That, in turn, depends on the winds which drive away the surface waters and make it possible for the deeper waters to rise to the surface, said senior researcher Robert Bindschadler of NASA’s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Now that the upwelling deep sea water is the clear cause of the melting ice shelf, rather than summer melt water, as had been thought in the past, it’s a question of how winds will change in a warming world and whether they will drive more warm water into the ice shelves.

For a short while longer, large-scale effects will remain muted.  Warmer waters will likely attack the ice shelves, but since the shelves’ ends are already floating in the ocean, this won’t affect global sea levels.  If the ice shelves are melted all the way back to their grounding zones on the Antarctic continent, then larger problems are at hand.  If the land-based ice sheets flow toward the ocean faster and faster, and if they come into contact with warmer ocean water, their melting will cause much faster global sea level rise.

As far as the 21st century is concerned, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is less stable than the Greenland ice sheet.  Why?  Because its grounding line is actually below sea level.  Imagine if the U.S. gulf coast was much colder than it is today, cold enough for ice sheets to be piled up on it.  The WAIS is like a hypothetical ice sheet sitting on the New Orleans area.  The real-world difference is the WAIS rests on bedrock that is an amazing 2km below sea level!  That bedrock is further below sea level than Denver, CO is above it.  If warm water ever gets to this area, a vicious cycle will begin.  That cycle wouldn’t stop until most or all of the WAIS melted, which could raise global sea levels by 10ft.  Moreover, the bedrock also slopes downward inland.

Now I want to tie a number of points raised all together.  The WAIS is an unstable ice sheet.  Outflow ice shelves extend into the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere.  Water is rising from the bottom of those oceans that is warmer than the water already there.  If predominant wind currents cause additional warm water to rise faster, the ice shelves floating in the oceans will melt from below.  They will melt faster than climate model projections made over the past 20 years have indicated because of the relative lack of understanding of polar weather and climate.

I want to ask you to recall the first graph in this post, the one that shows an increasing amount of heat energy that has been stored in the world’s oceans since 1950.  All that anomalous warmth hasn’t had a chance to be transported to the Antarctic yet.  Therein lies the scary part to this: Antarctica faces decades of increasingly warm waters rising off its shores.  That would be true if we stopped all of our greenhouse forcing tomorrow.  We won’t, of course, which means the Antarctic ice sheets face more and more of a threat every year.  The world at the end of the 21st century will look quite different than it did at the end of the 20th.  How different is up to us.

h/t ClimateProgress.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 290 other followers