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Or; A Scientific-Public Dictionary (abridged version)

For the use of scientists, when they wish to calculate how their work is being interpreted in ‘Public‘ , the native language of all who are not scientists.*

*Specific dialects of Public are not handled separately here, though in some of these, the meaning of a word or phrase can vary substantially, to the extent of meaning the opposite to its meaning in ‘Standard Public‘ . A paper is being prepared for those who wish to delve into the waters of the Journalese dialect (more properly, a Pidgin).

The left-hand column contains the word as used in scientific discourse or academic papers; the right-hand column contains the translation in Public.

Section 3: Climate

adaptation = inconvenience.

anthropogenic = someone else, other people.

(the) climate = the weather.

climate change = bad weather, alt. hurricanes.

climate science = science fiction.

consensus = conspiracy.

cryosphere = iceberg, alt. Polar bear.

data = random number, adapted to suit theory.

Day after tomorrow, The = climate science.

emission(s) = vehicle exhaust.

Global Warming = desert, burning forest. Alt: good weather.

hypothesis = wild guess.

implication = speculation, guess.

mitigation = taxation.

probability = guess.

rapid = immediate, tomorrow.

risk = (imminent) disaster.

95th percentile = guess with odds offered.

scientific method = guesswork by bespectacled people in white coats.

sea level rise = tsunami, alt. see ‘Day after Tomorrow, The’ .

THC slowdown = see ‘Day After Tomorrow, The’.

theory = guess.

very likely = reasonable guess.

Guest contributors are welcomed to provide or offer additions to the dictionary.

Be loved.

There is a lot of focus on the raw figures published today by Christian Aid in its report on projections of future human suffering resulting from social change in response to climate change and other factors. The low-graphic report can be read here.

The first thing to note is that most commentators have not referred to the largest and, to me, most unpalatable, causes of human displacement. A lot of emphasis is placed on the direct effects of drought, resource depletion and extreme weather events, sea level rise with its associated flooding, and, of course, food shortages.

On the other hand, little comment is made of the largest – by far the largest – cause of displacement; so-called ‘development displacement’. These are the unfortunate individuals who live in areas of economically strategic significance – places such as Sudan, where millions have been moved to allow for uninterrupted oil exploration, or Indonesia, where habitats such as rainforest are being removed for the development of palm-oil plantations, to service the increasing demand for biofuels, and large groups of people forcibly evacuated from land which they thought they owned.

Of the estimated one billion displaced people in 2050, 645 million are expected to be displaced by development, whilst climate changes are seen to be directly responsible for less than half that number.

In a sense, this report is no surprise; last year, the Hadley Centre produced an excellent scoping paper on developing countries and changing climates. The writing has been on the wall for some time.

But it is hard to separate out the direct climate impacts from the development impacts. Much of the development is taking place with climate change in mind, especially water and power schemes, land use changes and deforestation – most of the Amazon slash-and-burn is linked directly to soy bean farming, not only to provide cheap feed for beef production, but also to provide a source for ethanol, the current ‘favourite’ amongst petrol replacements.

Once again, we can see that it is not enough to look at the projected futures of the world in the light of one element or other of the system; the interconnectedness is becoming increasingly apparent. As the other major news item of the day – deforestation as a cause of global warming – should make readily apparent.

Looking for the solutions to future problems on a national or regional level is now too narrow-minded. We think we are ‘doing the right thing’ by changing our car from a petrol-driven to a biofuel motor, only to find that, as a consequence, irreplaceable rainforest is being cut down at an ever increasing rate. We support charities which are the absolute survival mechanism for millions of displaced, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden displaced people, only to find that this acts as a means for the countries which do the displacing to pass on responsibility for their own citizens. That such displacement is also often ethnic as well as economic should ring alarm bells throughout the world.

The two factors most likely to shape the next forty years are continuing climate change and global development, especially in the ‘developing nations’. The two are connected in many ways. It would be wrong to suggest that, therefore, developing nations should be restrained in their efforts to improve the wealth of their societies and the survival chances of the majority. Such efforts would, anyway, be in vain. As things stand, given the underlying economic model which drives investment, development and global economic growth as the only path for the best interest of the majority, this dilemma cannot be solved.

Some time ago, reading the various reports, projections and scenarios, an image came into my mind. It will not go away. This image is of an endless march, and endless stream of displaced people, forever deprived and needy, circling the Eurasian and African continents in a perpetual search for temporary respite. Unwanted by any one state (how could they cope), unstoppable by virtue of numbers, a hundred, two hundred million human beings on a pilgrimage to nowhere. A ragged column of bodies miles wide and hundreds of miles long, returning to a lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer, but this time, the hunt would be for any kind of sustenance, and the gathering would be of other people’s wealth, other people’s sustenance.

Yes, the consequences of climate change may well be severe. The consequences of climate change and development combined would multiply the severity many times over. We are standing at the crossroads. Perhaps the time has come to realise that the path onwards is not the way to a destination which we want to reach.

Be loved.

Two papers, one published in April and the other still at the discussion stage, caught my eye.

To a scientist in the subject, these may not seem important or novel; I don’t know. They have stuck in my mind though, so perhaps someone can offer some enlightenment.

The first: Objectively analysed air-sea heat fluxes for the Global Ice-free Oceans (1981-2005), by Yu and Weller, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, (WHOI) appeared last month in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS).

It is about the air-sea heat flux, how much heat has been transferred between the two mediums in the period since 1981.

The abstract says:


A 25-yr (1981–2005) time series of daily latent and sensible heat fluxes over the global ice-free oceans has been produced by synthesizing surface meteorology obtained from satellite remote sensing and atmospheric model reanalyses outputs. The project, named Objectively Analyzed Air–Sea Fluxes (OAFlux), was developed from an initial study of the Atlantic Ocean that demonstrated that such data synthesis improves daily flux estimates over the basin scale. This paper introduces the 25-yr heat flux analysis and documents variability of the global ocean heat flux fields on seasonal, interannual, decadal, and longer time scales suggested by the new dataset.

The study showed that, among all the climate signals investigated, the most striking is a long-term increase in latent heat flux that dominates the data record. The globally averaged latent heat flux increased by roughly 9 W m−2 between the low in 1981 and the peak in 2002, which amounted to about a 10% increase in the mean value over the 25-yr period. Positive linear trends appeared on a global scale, and were most significant over the tropical Indian and western Pacific warm pool and the boundary current regions. The increase in latent heat flux was in concert with the rise of sea surface temperature, suggesting a response of the atmosphere to oceanic forcing.

The second; The origin of the 1500-year climate cycles in Holocene North Atlantic records, Debret et. al. , Climates of the Past Discussions, March 2007,

deals with the causes of climate change. This is in an open access journal, so you can click on the link at the bottom and read the entire paper. The bit that caught my eye was:

These results reveal that the mysteriously regular 1,500-year climate cycles are linked with the oceanic circulation and not with variations in solar output as previously argued (Bond et al., 2001). In this light, previously studied marine sediment (Bianchi and McCave, 1999; Giraudeau et al., 2000), ice core (O’Brien et al., 1995) and dust records (Jackson et al., 2005) can be seen to contain the evidence of combined forcing mechanisms, whose relative influences varied during the course of the Holocene. Circum-Atlantic climate records cannot be explained by solar forcing, but require changes in ocean circulation, as suggested previously (Broecker et al., 2001; McManus et al., 1999).

What is it about these which made them stand out? I hardly know myself, but have put some thought into the question.

The first paper can been interpreted as supporting the argument that the oceans have warmed over the past 25 years or so. The paper suggest a 10% increase between 1981 and 2002. This would seem to match expectations of climate modellers reasonably well, though perhaps it is a bit higher than might be expected. But why does the warming ‘peak’ in 2002? What has happened since then to alter the picture?

It finally occurred to me that I was thinking about the Lyman & Willis paper, which has been much discussed on the blogs, about the first output of the ARGO measuring buoys, and the absence of warming in the upper ocean between 2003-2005. Put together, the two papers’ results (taking the L&W revision into account) seem to complement and support each other. So what, if anything, happened in 2002-2003 to reduce both the heat flux and the oceanic warming signals? Is this evidence of a climate ‘event’ five years ago which was somehow significant? What does it tell us about what to expect for the future? More on these questions at the end.

The second point about this paper is that it is pointing to an atmospheric response to oceanic warming; this would seem to match reasonably well with the AGW hypothesis, in the sense that ocean warming is to be expected, but leaves a question as to how the extra energy in the system might be transferred to the atmosphere, and the global average surface temperatures.

I originally liked the second paper because it struck me as an elegant piece of work. Debret et. al. have used wavelet analysis to separate out two forcings, solar and ocean circulation, in the climate record and allocate cyclical events to them. The attribution of the 1500-year cycle to ocean circulation changes is the important bit here.

I may have read the graphics/paper wrongly, but it looks to me that we are most of the way up the curve on a cyclical ocean warming phase. This would suggest that at least some of the recent warming (since 1910), can be attributed to natural cycles of climate change, rather than human-induced forcing via the atmosphere. No surprises there. But here is the rub: there may be a conflicting climate ‘moment’ due in the coming years, when we would expect the ocean cycle to turn and begin its ‘cooling’ phase, but the addition of WMGHGs has placed a new component of heat addition into the system; what happens then?

I am loath to talk of ‘tipping points’; the term smacks of alarmism and ‘doomsday’ scenarios, but my thoughts are now running along the lines of ‘key moments’ in the global climate system. A ‘key moment’ is a short period (less than a decade?), during which the climate system ‘hops’ into a subtly different regime. The nearest analogy might be quantum theory; rather than seeing the climate system as a purely linear progression, there may be some mileage in the notion that it also experiences ‘quantum jumps’, as it were. These would not be of the magnitude of an apocalyptic one-off ‘inversion’ or ‘crisis point’ (taken from catastrophe theory), but more discrete ‘steps’ in the progression of the global climate.

Was 2002-2003 a ‘quantum moment’ in the climate system? If we are approaching the end of a warming cycle of ocean circulation, when is the ‘step’ shift down, towards a new regime, due? Will the human element of climate forcing disrupt the cycles? If so, what will the consequences of this be?

On this occasion in particular, the contribution of someone who knows what they are talking about would be most helpful.

Be loved.

It appears to be that the issues of climate change as things stand are about what to do about it, and when to do it. In other words, should we adapt or mitigate, just adapt, or invest in mitigation as the focus of our efforts to manipulate the climate of the future?

A second area of discussion is what kind of manipulation/action is best: geoengineering has its champions, (hello, Heiko), as does adaptive engineering/social angineering, and, of course, emissions reduction.

Occasionally, but not often enough, there is a discussion of why we should act on climate change, or why one strategic approach is preferable to its alternatives. This issue, the matter of why, touches on a difficult and as yet unresolved field of study, Ethics. For those who aren’t sure, Ethics is, broadly, the study of the moral value of human conduct and the rules or principles which should govern it.

There are many areas of life which are studied from the ethical perspective: politics, social organisation, the environment (I’ll come back to environmental ethics), business, interpersonal relations, the list is quite exhaustive.

At bottom, what these studies have in common is an attempt to establish what is good or bad, right or wrong, in human actions and choices, and what rules should govern these.

We have become used to the idea that a certain attitude to the world and the ‘natural’ environment is, in itself, ‘good’; that we have some kind of duty, obligation or relationship to the non-human parts of the world which implies the need to care. We often criticize those who show disregard for ‘conservation’ or ‘sustainable living’. Often, there is an underlying division between the natural and the technological/built, or between individual action and corporate or state action; the latter being perceived as intrinsically self-interested, is by definition incapable of ‘caring’ sufficiently for ‘nature’, because the basic premise of its existence is exploitative.

But all of these notions betray an underlying personal stance – a set of values – which are more or less taken for granted. They are also, often, founded on misunderstandings or simplifications of types of human action, and of systems, in that they tend towards the oppositional/dualistic pattern of classification and evaluation.

Avoiding going too far down this tricky pathway, for the time being, the questions I want to ask are simple:

  • Why is climate change important?
  • Is Climate Ethics a subset of Environmental Ethics?
  • Do we know what rules or principles we are following when we think about how to manage climate change?
  • Should we ‘manage’ it at all?
  • How can we know what is the ‘best’ path of action if we are not clear about what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ action?
  • Is there an explicit contradiction involved in the progress paths of development and conservation?

There are a host of other questions and issues which, I would suggest, demand that we have an explicit and clear set of values in order to establish the rules for action, and inform the decisions which are to be made by us and on our behalf. Without knowing why we are making a given decision, taking a particular path into the future, we face the danger of simply wandering, ineffectually, towards an unspecified destination, without really understanding why we have even set out to get there in the first place.

Given the messages coming from climate science about the current state of the climate and the prospects for future changes, is it time for us to define an Environmental Imperative? And should such an imperative be anthropocentric or holistic?

If you have any ideas about what an Environmental Imperative might look like, please respond. I am still thinking about it.

Be loved.

This is a game everyone can play. All you have to do is consider each of the suggestions below, and attribute odds to it. You can do this in terms of percentages, or racing odds. Are you ready?

What are the odds that:

  1. The global average surface temperature will be the same in thirty years time as it is today?
  2. The temperature will have risen by less than 0.3C?
  3. The temperature will have risen by 0.3-0.5C in 2040?
  4. The temperature will have risen by more than 0.5C by 2040?
  5. Something other than CO2 will be found to be the main driving force behind warming?
  6. CO2 will be found to be less important than is currently estimated?
  7. The relationship between all the forcings and feedbacks in the climate will be better understood and the role of CO2 as principle verified?
  8. Sea levels will rise 0-10cm on average by 2040?
  9. Sea level will rise 10-20cm by 2040?
  10. Sea level will rise 20cm or more by 2040?
  11. Annual average Arctic sea ice levels will be the same in 2040 as they are today?
  12. Annual average Arctic sea ice levels will decline by 5-10% by 2040?
  13. Annual average Arctic sea ice levels will decline by 10% or more, by 2040?
  14. There will be fewer Tropical Cyclones in the next thirty years than there were in the last thirty?
  15. There will be more TCs in the next thirty years than there were in the last thirty?
  16. There will be no significant change in the number of TCs in the next thirty years?
  17. Atmospheric CO2 levels in 2040 will be less than 425 ppm (current level = 384)?
  18. Levels will be between 425-450 ppm?
  19. Levels will be greater than 450 ppm?
  20. The world’s oceans will sustain as much or more life in thirty years as they do now?
  21. Ocean life will decline by 10-25% by 2040?
  22. Ocean life will decline by more than 30% by 2040?
  23. There will be as much forest in 2040 as there is today?
  24. Forest areas will decrease globally by up to 10%?
  25. Forest areas will decrease globally by more than 10%?

Write down your answers on a piece of paper. Compare your answers to those of your friends and/or colleagues.

What do the odds say about what the world is going to look like in 2040? What are the odds that the world will be no worse off in thirty years than it is today? What are the odds that the pattern of change in climate and eco/biosystems will continue or become more severe? What are the chances that the global generations of 2040 will live with an increased risk of loss, suffering, hunger or conflict?

I have no intention of proposing my own odds. This is for you to work out what sort of world you are expecting, and what sort of world we are creating for the future.

Be loved.

Edit: Normally, the Old Man avoids circular blogging, but in this case an exception is worthy: Tamino has made a scientist’s stab at playing the odds game, and there are the comments of others, too.


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May 2007