Arctic code red: uncharted territory

by Bryan Walker on September 16, 2012

Nearly four years ago I reviewed Climate Code Red by Australians David Spratt and Philip Sutton. Even then the authors spoke of the recently released 2007 IPCC report as too conservative in its predictions. Here’s how I described their position:

The authors lament the limitations of the IPCC system, ascribing them partly to pressure from vested interests harboured by some countries, partly to the long process of gathering the information from published material and the early cut-off date for reports, and partly to scientists being uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms.  It adds up to a process so deficient as to be an unreliable and even misleading basis for policy-making.

They instanced particularly the diminishing Arctic sea ice and its amplifying consequences, the possibility of faster disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet, the vulnerability of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the likelihood of much higher sea rise than anticipated, as well as widespread species and eco-system destruction.

That was four years ago. In a recent striking article David Spratt reacts to the increased loss of Arctic summer sea ice by re-emphasising and extending the message that the science frame has changed considerably since the 2007 IPCC report. Climate changes and impacts are happening more quickly and at lower temperatures than expected, and he details some of them. He quotes Kim Holmen, Norwegian Polar Institute international director, saying that the big sea-ice melt of 2012 is “a greater change than we could even imagine 20 years ago, even 10 years ago”. It “has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system and we must adjust our science and we must adjust our feelings for the nature around us”.

The surprise that Holmen voices is echoed by many other scientists. Leading glaciologist Lonnie Thompson is one, writing to Suzanne Goldenberg:

“These observations are concerning as they point to the continuing increase in the rate at which global climate change is impacting on ice on this planet in all its forms from sea ice to glaciers and ice sheets.”

“When I was beginning my career we used to use the phrase “at glacier speed” to mean something changing very slowly, but that is no longer the case. Glaciologists have had to come to terms with the fact that ice can respond much faster to climate change than we ever thought possible. Certainly, the loss of ice on our planet is one of the most convincing pieces of evidence for global climate change and it is impossible to argue that they have a political agenda.”

Another is James Overland, reported in the Guardian:

These changes are happening much earlier than scientists thought, said James Overland, an oceanographer and researcher at the University of Washington.

“We’ve only had a little bit of global warming so far,” Overland said.

As the sea ice continues to decline, the jet stream will likely continue to slow more, and shift further north “bringing wild temperature swings and greater numbers of extreme events” in the future he said. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Guardian journalist Damien Carrington offers a thoughtful and sobering reflection:

Will this be the first great tipping point to tumble the world into a new and hostile climate regime, as the cooling, reflective ice vanishes? Will the new, warm Arctic radically alter the temperate weather enjoyed by Europeans, for whom global warming has seemed a distant concern?

We seem to be prepared to take that chance. The shrinking ice has not opened new leads for decisive global action to tackle climate change. Instead, in a vicious irony, the new channels are being exploited for oil and gas exploration, unearthing more of the very fuels driving the warming.

Decades from now, will today’s record sea ice low be seen as the moment when our Earthly paradise gave up the ghost and entered a hellish new era? I sincerely hope not, but with this global distress signal failing to attract attention, I fear the worst.

The failure of what is happening to attract attention or jolt policy makers is also David Spratt’s concern. He concludes his article:

…there is no indication that either of the major parties [in Australia] have a clue about this post-IPCC science frame. Nor are there many signs of the major environment and climate advocacy groups incorporating this understanding into their public communications.  Most of their campaigning is stuck in the IPCC 2007 frame.

Is this another form of climate science denial? Not the denial of the Murdoch press and the Moncktons and Plimers, but the denial of those who for the sake of political convenience live in a bubble of outmoded policy frames that have been superseded by the pace of events in the real, physical world.

I see no sign in New Zealand either that the major parties, or indeed any of the parties other than the Greens, are awake to the magnitude of what is unfolding in the Arctic and in many other impacts of climate change already being experienced around the globe. They are not pleasant to contemplate and they demand the kind of attention which politicians absorbed in immediate issues no doubt find it difficult to summon.

However it seems increasingly likely that the warming planet is approaching great disruptions. Some of them already look unavoidable. Mitigation can be undertaken, but until our policy makers take on board the full current reality of the science, the immensity of what is threatening, they’ll continue to justify exploiting the oil and gas of the Arctic or of the oceans surrounding New Zealand, or the coal of the Denniston plateau or the lignite of Southland. They’ll timorously delay the decarbonising of our economies. And we’ll continue on the road to climate disaster.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

bill September 16, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Sadly it really does appear that there’s not much that could conceivably happen that could lead to any such concerted action. That so much of the Western population has retreated into a kind of belligerent, studied stupidity has actually surprised me, and I thought I was fairly cynical – and certainly pessimistic!

I agree that it’s a different form/stage of Denial; idiot Denial has lost a lot of steam – and all credibility – in the face of overwhelming evidence of just how wrong they are (so much so that the poor loves have delightedly seized on the Lewandowsky affair as both an ideal displacement activity and focus for their considerable outraged hostility at discovering themselves squarely on the wrong side of History!)

But the very overwhelming nature of that evidence seems to lead to a broader Denial reaction that is (remarkably) simultaneously both faux insouciant and sullen – ‘I’m just going to pretend the hulking Mammoth newly emerged from the vanishing ice is not there, la la la (and may yet get bloody angry if anyone insists on pointing it out precisely because I can’t bear to acknowledge that it scares the beJaysus out of me…)’

And, again the Democracies face the problem encapsulated in the notion that ‘no-one ever rioted for austerity’ – they may still get Austerity of the officially approved hierarchic variety, of course, but that’s OK because that’s how things have always worked. The Responsible Parties tinker at the edges of the problem and hope that everyone has so much invested in pretending something’s being done that they’ll still win on the cognitively dissonant vote: the Irresponsible Parties, on the other hand, are at a considerable electoral advantage in promising blissful forgetting and more iPhones and Circuses, and are shot-through with the old-style idiot Deniers anyway, nothing-if-not-eager to prove that in any clash between themselves and Reality it’ll be Reality that has to go….

Quite a dilemma! I can cite Gramsci’s ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’ – Hell, what else can one do? – but I still feel rather queasy…

Dappledwater September 16, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Looks like the age of consequences came much faster than many climate scientists were willing to accept. And we’re only just passing over the threshold – mass coral bleaching, ocean acidification, Amazon Rainforest die-back, monster summer heatwaves, epic deluges and ongoing drought are going to be devastating to this global civilization.

You can’t increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide faster than it ever has in the last 300 millions years and expect the climate to play nice.

Rob Taylor September 17, 2012 at 10:03 am

Is this how the dinosaurs felt, as the sky brightened?

bill September 17, 2012 at 11:44 am

‘Ooooh, pretty… uh oh!’?

David Lewis September 17, 2012 at 11:38 am

For what its worth, Dr. Tad Pfeffer explained why the IPCC AR4 sea level projection was what it was in his Nye Lecture at last year’s AGU fall meeting in San Francisco.

When referring to the date the science assessed by the IPCC AR4 is, keep in mind that they had a cutoff date for scientific papers excluding those written before around January 2006.

And as far as politics tending to minimize or ignore science goes, study Dr. Kevin Anderson, former Director of the Tyndall Centre in the UK.

Basically, Anderson accepts that the scientific picture is far worse than was apparent when the science was assessed for the IPCC AR4 (“1 degree is the new 2″).

AND, at least according to him, ALL reports such as the Stern, or prominent stuff put out in the UK such as ADAM or AVOID, and including almost everything else available in the world in the way of studies that set up targets calling them “safe”, such as 450 pm or 2 degrees and assessed what would be involved if civilization were to try to meet such targets, that pronounced the target as achievable and consistent with prosperity and economic growth, were based on fudged data, impossible assumptions, et. cetera ad nauseum, so that people could feel good while civilization goes into the dumpster, or so that scientists wouldn’t have to bite the hand that feeds them by saying what the politicians were adopting as adequate action was total BS.

Anderson discusses his views in a lecture to the LSE, here. His latest paper, published last month in Nature Climate Change, is here.

Dappledwater September 17, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Thanks David. Kevin Anderson doesn’t sugarcoat things does he?

Neven September 17, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Thanks for this post, Bryan. I’ve linked to it in my latest blog post: Models are improving, but can they catch up?

Mr February September 17, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Thought provoking post.

Damien Carrington’s observation that an ice-free Artic will be seen as the new “goldrush” frontier for oil and gas extraction is what disappoints me the most about our societal response. Talk about putting out fire with gasoline.
Nick Smith and Tim Groser clearly want the “gasrush” and the “ligniterush” to happen in NZ too. Their approach needs to be called out for what it is ; policy denial, rather than science denial.

Kevin Anderson is very good. For my money, he is the British James Hansen. I listen to the LSE podcast whenever I feel I need to recharge my climate policy “backbone”.

David Lewis September 19, 2012 at 6:11 am

The problem with the LSE audio of Anderson is its just audio even though in the talk he constantly refers to his set of slides.

A video of Anderson making his presentation to the “4 Degrees and Beyond” conference held in the UK in 2009 with the slides showing in the background as he speaks is here.

A slide and audio presentation recorded in July 2011, I think at Tyndall, is here.

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