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Back from a weekend in the West Country, several commenters and a couple of bits and pieces need a quick summary.
It was a mistake to suggest the term ‘quantum’ might be useful; it simply isn’t accurate enough, and permits people to obfuscate about quantum mechanics rather than deal with the issues. Given that the old man is likely to be lost in technical discussions of quark strangeness and charm, or s-matrix interactions, it’s probably best avoided. Mistakes happen. Still in search of suitable metaphors to describe to non-scientists what is happening with the climate, the current thought runs with hillwalking.
If you go for a walk in the hills, it is useful to know what sort of a climb you are going to face. Most walks involve a gentle ascent, followed by a steeper section, followed by a levelling off near the summit. On the journey to the summit, there are some lesser inclines and the odd descent, but the overall journey is uphill. Some people still claim that recent warming is a natural phenomenon which is going to change soon enough. As ‘evidence’, they cite 1998 as the warmest year on record (note, 2005 may or may not have been as warm or warmer), and point to the ‘slope’ of the temperature trend: ‘look; it’s levelling off; we are near the summit; no problem!’
This is not what the Global Climate Models persistently tell us. It also doesn’t fit with the physics of the atmosphere. We are past the lower level of the ascent, and are now climbing an increasingly steep slope. It looks like the slope is going to get steeper still (the rate of temperature increase is still accelerating). So it will be a while before we reach the upper slopes and can expect a levelling off.
What is in question is how far up the slope we are, how far we have to go, and how much extra hill there will be to climb once we reach the upper levels (we are collectively adding to the height of the summit by adding wmGHGs to the atmosphere). How far up we are depends on how much extra we add to the top whilst we are on the journey.
At the moment, we are adding to the height of the hill at a faster rate than ever before, but we can’t see this because we are still on the climb. We may be a quarter of the way up, maybe a third or half-way. ‘Alarmists’ are saying that we have to stop adding to the height of the hill, or we’ll get altitude sickness before we reach the summit and won’t make it; the hill will become too high to climb. Most scientists seem to think that, if we stop adding so much to the top, we’ll reach a more gentle slope and ease ourselves to the summit, but it’ll take it out of us. We should be somewhere between a third and half-way to the top.
It is easier to know where we are on the hill if we have a good map, with proper contours, produced by careful triangulation and measurement. If we go up the hill armed with a sketch drawn on the back of an envelope by a man in the pub, we’ll be less well placed to understand how much more of the journey still lies ahead of us. Global Climate Models are supposed to function as detailed maps, but some people claim they are no better than back-of-envelope sketches. It is probably fair to suggest that they show the slopes reasonable well, but not all of the details ahead; in this sense, they are probably a bit better than a sketch, but their reliability is a matter of uncertainty to us. But the details matter less than the overall slope and the final height.
And then there are those who point out that, if the slope we are on gets too steep, it will be so unstable that we are at risk of causing an avalanche or landslide, putting ourselves at extreme risk and permanently changing the nature of the hill.
BACK to the irony, on the radio this morning, the old man hears a reference to now former prime minister Mr Blair, saying that the floods which now beset the UK (a month’s rainfall in a day), are a prime example of why we must combat climate change. Score one to the old man. We respond best to threats which we experience directly; we can ignore mother saying; ‘Don’t put your hand there, its hot’, but we’ll learn when we’re standing crying because we got burned and she says; ‘there, you see, it is hot; you should keep away.’
So, how grown up can we be? Can we work out for ourselves whether or not to stick our hands in the fire, or will we have to wait for someone to say ‘I told you so…’ The old man’s experience of human nature suggests a miserable prognosis in this respect. Was it Hegel? ‘What we learn most often from history is that we never learn from history’. Great,that’s really cheered us all up. More later.
It’s almost a truism that many elements of the climate system respond to forcings and feedbacks in a non-linear fashion. There’s plenty of comment around the various blogs about the recent paper by Hansen et. al., which explores the possibility of rapid shifts in the ice sheets and the implications of this.
One of the important questions to be asked, is how rapidly can things change? Just out in the Journal of Climate is this, by Baines & Folland: Evidence for a rapid global climate shift across the late 1960’s. Apart from the intrinsic interest in the paper’s findings, that a lot of things changed before we were using satellites to systematically measure them, there is the additional interest of inferring both that there is an interconnectedness of elements within the system which respond in a concerted (monotonic?) manner, and that shifts in pattern can occur on a decadal time-scale.
The old man has commented on sea ice and sea level before, suggesting that a sea level rise of 1-1.5 metres by 2100, in response to increased loss of ice from the GIS and the WAIS, is not implausible. Hansen’s paper goes beyond this, suggesting that a BAU scenario of emissions is likely to result in a sudden collapse of the WAIS and a concomitant sea level rise in the range of some metres. The paper also implies that such an event could occur on the decadal, rather than centennial time-scale.
I don’t know what to make of the Hansen paper; it isn’t clear what it is telling us that is new or original, except the proposal that we should rethink the time-scale of ice sheet degradation, or the proposal that 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels is a plausible ‘tipping point’ for the onset of such a collapse.
A lot of time is spent by so-called ‘sceptics’ complaining that climate scientists are ‘alarmists’ (often based on media reporting of papers, rather than the papers themselves). This is to miss the point. What is known, or inferred, about the current climate and likely future trends, is a cause for concern insofar as it impacts on human society, in particular, relating to climate system shifts which change precipitation patterns or induce climate feedbacks. In this is included a concern about the rate at which change occurs, as this affects our ability to adapt effectively to changing circumstances in such ways as to minimise human loss or suffering.
But it is what is not known which is, arguably, the most significant object of ‘alarmism’ within the climate science community (inasmuch as there are some genuinely ‘alarmed scientists). If important elements of the system are non-linear in their response to progressive changes in temperature (and, by inference, concentrations of CO2), and if all that is known is that there is a point at which a rapid ‘quantum jump’ from one system state to another is initiated, then clearly, understanding what this ‘point’ is becomes critical. But we don’t know either whether such a ‘tipping point’ really does exist, or whether, if it does, how it relates to current and projected future global average temperatures.
What these two papers serve to illustrate is that it is likely that several changes will occur almost simultaneously, within a period of decades, once the stone at the top of the hill starts to roll. Secondly, they point out that we simply cannot be sure how close we are to such a point, but that it may be closer than we thought. There are those who will argue that worrying about such things is akin to worrying about what hides in the shadows, but in this case, we can be fairly sure that there is something in the shadows.
Totally sideways, but hopefully a cause for thought; recently, I’ve been wondering about 800 years. This number comes up fairly frequently. If you allow a little leeway, and say 750 years, you can also fit in D-O-type, or Bond-type patterns (half of a 1500 year pattern). My intuition tells me that this time-scale is important. My memory tells me that 750-800 years has passed (give or take) since the ‘MWP’. 800 years is also the ‘standard’ measure of lag in ice cores; it is also the estimate of time involved in a complete ‘rotation’ of the global oceanic circulation. It feels like it is significant, but, whilst a ‘pattern’ is plausible, its meaning is not clear. Is there anyone out there who can enlighten us on this? Is there a known cyclical pattern of climate change which places us at an 800 (or 750) year turning point? If so, is this significant? And, if so, to what extent is this exacerbated or overtaken by the impact of human forcings on the climate?
is that scientists consistently find themselves reminding the public that weather and climate are different things, but in the end, it is likely to be the weather which will make the most difference in the public perception of climate change and, arguably, in the political will to action.
That this should be obvious can be seen from the impact on public and political perception of Hurricane Katrina. Here was a real and visible manifestation of disaster, played out before our eyes, complete with the human tragedies and ineptitudes of response, which demonstrated without argument the power of the natural forces to overthrow the trappings of civilisation and human endeavour without rhyme or reason.
The fact that it was an event open to the media played a critical part in making it ‘real’; this was reality TV writ large. The fact that it seemed to touch an inclination amongst many of us to want to defer to the power of forces greater than us and impersonal to boot, the deus ex machina of apocalyptic imagination, helped fix it in our minds.
There is an interesting question to be asked whether we do in fact possess a sort of collective will to be punished – Benny Peiser might have something to say on this – and whether such events satisfy a deep psychological need deriving from contemporary social neuroses (I’m thinking of the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, here). It would be no surprise to find that such a phenomenon existed amongst the more religiously inclined of us, but there are other indicators that, in some elements of developed society, we share a collective awareness of the ‘justice’ of a collective ‘punishment’; whatever it is we have done, we want to feel ‘guilty’ about our very way of being. This is also manifested in certain types of environmentalism and ‘hard-green’ activism.
To the point: it seems that no amount of science, of advice from business or financial institutions, will serve to alert the public or policy makers to the current need for action to avoid future misery, in a way sufficient to guarantee real action. Some people have advocated ‘scientific alarmism’ as a mechanism of working on public perceptions, but this is too easily dismissed, and probably counter-productive, in that, the longer a warning of a future ‘disaster’ goes unrealised, the greater the cynicism about the probability of such an event (whether or not the cynicism is justified).
What is much more likely to have an impact on public perception and policy action is another ‘Katrina’; a present, physical and filmable manifestation of the power of natural forces to destroy human ‘civilisation’ indiscriminately and lead to costs, in life and property, and have enduring after-effects. That such events have happened in China, Australia, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere in the past year seems to have had little impact on the ‘big picture’ of our media-moderated imaginations; after all, many more people died last year in tropical cyclone events in the western Pacific region than were killed during Katrina; many more people were temporarily displaced in major storm events (up to a million at a time, on rare occasions) than those effected in the USA; weather-related disasters occur with reasonable frequency all around the world, leading to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage and loss, and yet..we don’t respond, on an international level; these are too distant to be meaningful. Unable to truly take in the vastness of the real global system, we interpret local experience as characteristic of global phenomena. So, when the house floods, we understand the problems; when the birdsong in the back garden stops one day; when our garden plants die of water stress, or we are made to observe water usage restrictions, then we become aware of the consequences of global climate change.
The irony is that it is likely to be a weather event, or a series of events, which will finally lead to a ‘breakthrough’ in our collective appreciation of the warnings of possible (likely) future danger. Of course I don’t want to wish disaster on anyone, but a change in perception is likely to come only on the back of something really extreme happening in real-time. It must be present, imminent, observable, on TV, tragic, unstoppable, and definitively not fiction.
If, for example, 2007 sees a heat wave in Europe comparable with 2003 or worse; if at least one major hurricane system makes damaging landfall in the USA, probably around a major population area; if drought conditions persist or worsen in existing water-stressed regions, causing actual losses; if the Arctic sea ice minimum is lower than ever before, if the global land surface/ocean temperature is higher than ever before (definitively higher than 1998, for example); if at least one major species is demonstrably pushed to the edge of extinction; if corn prices double, commodities become much more expensive; if petrol (gasoline) tops $90 per barrel; if water shortages make rivers run dry and cause restictions on every continent… then we might see a change in perception.
Back to my old game: what are the chances of most or all of these events coming to pass this year? It is always dangerous to make clear ‘predictions’ of future events; the passage of time tends to make fools of those who try it. But nobody said I wasn’t a fool. I believe that there is a good probability that the above scenario will unfold in 2007. I believe that there is a much higher probability that the scenario will unfold in one of the next four years, 2007-2010; I’d say that is is more or less certain to happen in one of the next four years (if you want a number; >90%).
It is my hope that such a year will see a ‘step-change’ in public and political perception of the risks of future climate change. It is my concern that such a year might also mark a ‘step-change’ in the climate system (though I feel this is less likely; evidence suggests we still have a way to go yet before warming induces a rapid transformation of global climate patterns).
I’d like to invite anyone who thinks my belief on this is ill-founded, or unduly ‘alarmist’, to respond with arguments or evidence which contradicts or demonstrates the unlikelihood of such an event, though I’d ask you to remain polite. It’s just an opinion, after all: one of the next four years will be, in weather terms, the most damaging of all time (as far as can be measured). It may be this year. It may be, conceivably, that more than one, or even all of the next four years, sees such a scenario unfold. In the final case, I might decide to move away from the coast and buy a small house inland with its own water supply.
Socrates would have understood; the more I blog, the more I realise how much there is out there which was previously unknown to me. During a quite spell in Blogostan, I was surfing the virtual waves when a link came up to a side presentation at Geneva last month by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. This linked to the release of their new climate and energy policy document, ‘Policy directions to 2050‘. I looked. I was struck; I delved. Then I thought of something.
This is no penny-ante organisation; one of the ‘big players’ in corporate/business response to climate change, at CEO level, and with 190+ members. Heck, just take a look at the pdf document; here is an object lesson in how to produce a tightly written, well presented and clear policy document. It is based on two previous publications, one of which sets out the ‘facts and trends‘ relating to energy and climate change, another which sets out the ‘pathways‘ to sustainable development.
An interesting side point is the ‘factual’ element of their presentation is based on both IPCC and IEA reports; it therefore takes a broader scope in defining the facts and the challenges than is common. The facts are certainly open to discussion, in particular, some of the assumptions being made about potential impacts of warming above 2C. But the whole makes an intriguing read for those of us who want to understand how to approach planning for the future in a ‘realistic’ way. If you like, it shows the ‘CEO mindset’ with respect to energy and climate change in the future.
So, what do they have to say? The policy document really is extremely concise and therefore hard to reduce fairly, but the conclusions reached are familiar: In order to sustain development and ensure economic stability, action is needed now to reduce emissions, shift energy production to less carbon-intensive sources, and adapt to expected changes. Although the numbers are slightly different, and some of the material could arguably be considered ‘conservative’ in its estimates, the WBCSD reaches the same broad conclusion as most climate scientists, the IPCC and all but the few remaining ‘hardline’ ‘sceptics’; Action and action now.
Then the thought came to me. One of the current favourite objections to action on emissions or energy production policy is founded on the supposed contradiction of increasing development (= energy demand growth) vs. emissions reduction. Procrastinators consistently argue that emissions regulations will lead to recession and therefore are not acceptable. The argument is based on the assumption that nothing takes priority over sustaining a stable global economy.
These documents, and I am sure much else produced by the WBCSD, put this argument in its place. Not only does the policy document show that sustainable development in the context of stable economy is possible, it also puts the case that, in the context of expected changes to climate, mitigation and adaptation is the best way to ensure economic stability in the future. So let’s lay some more ghosts to rest in the larger debate; the claim that mitigation necessarily implies recession is false. The claim that emissions regulations are anti-development is also false. The claim that action to reduce emissions now will result in less wealth to sustain development is false. The claim that corporations and businesses are unaware or unwilling to act or to respond to regulation is false.
Where does this leave the current state of play with regard to policies on climate, energy and emissions? Simple. The only players dragging their heels in this game now are our representatives, the various governments of the world (though some more than others). It seems that almost every sector of society is aware of at least some of the issues and some of the problems and is willing to both act and (in part) pay for effective action to be taken. So the questions remain, why did the G8 produce nothing of real import, and what will it take to get our leaders to do what must be done, sooner rather than later?
It’s been around for a few weeks, now, but worth bringing up because it says, in more formal and detailed terms, what is wrong with the UK’s erstwhile ‘climate policy’: this is the Tyndall Centre’s response to the Government paper on energy policy and climate change.
“…The Government has repeatedly committed to making its fair contribution to not
exceeding the 2°C temperature threshold separating acceptable and dangerous climate
change. This cannot be reconciled with the wholly inadequate measures contained
within the EWP. There remains a gaping chasm between the well-meaning rhetoric
underpinning the Government’s Climate Change Programme, Draft Climate Change Bill
and Energy White Paper and their continued refusal to sanction meaningful and
effective action to urgently reduce our escalating carbon emissions…”
“…To conclude, the climate-change premise of the Energy White Paper, Draft Climate
Change Bill and Climate Change Programme is admirable. By contrast, the content of
these three pillars of UK climate policy are not commensurate with the Government’s 2°C
commitment nor its claim to be providing “international leadership” through “the
credibility and influence” of its “domestic policies”. Given the Government’s
acknowledgement of the seriousness of the climate change threat, the EWP only serves
to reinforce the shameful political expediency of current UK climate policy…”
These aren’t just the ramblings of a blogger, or even a well-informed individual scientists. They are the considered (initial) response of a major international centre of climate change, energy and policy research, with a proportion of funding coming direct from government.
In the light of such a recognition of how useless responses have been so far, what comes next is a clear guide to a decarbonisation pathway for UK (and, by extension, global) energy policy.