Living in a warmer world

This year really has started with a bang. An unusual concatenation of weather extremes — Britain’s stormy and wet winter – the wettest since records began, 250 years ago – the warm winter in Russia and Alaska, drought in California and Australian heatwaves — has caused many people to consider the role that climate change might have played in driving those weather events. For once, public debate has moved away from the tired old is it/isn’t it happening frame and into concern about what living in a warming world might actually mean for us all. This makes Jim Salinger’s latest book, Living In A Warmer World – How a changing climate will affect our lives (Bateman NZ, 2013) especially welcome.

Salinger has drawn on all the relationships he has built up over a 40 year career as a climate scientist, including a spell as president of the WMO Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, to bring together some of the world’s leading experts on climate impacts. Each is given a chapter to look at what might be coming down the road, and it makes for essential, if sobering reading.

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The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

It was clearly never Michael Mann’s wish to be embroiled in the public controversy that has been manufactured by the denial industry around his and his co-authors’ work. He’s a scientist first and foremost, the nine-year-old who wanted to know what it meant to go faster than the speed of light, the high school student whose idea of a fun Friday night was hanging out with his computer buddies writing programmes to solve challenging problems, the Ph.D candidate looking for a big-picture problem to which he could apply his maths and physics interests, the post-doctoral researcher wanting to pursue curiosity-driven science. “When we first published our hockey stick work in the late 1990s,” he explains, “I was of the belief that the role of a scientist was, simply put, to do science.”

In support of that belief he eschewed the notion of taking any position regarding climate change policy. But merely doing the science, resulting in the hockey stick graph which showed a rapid and unprecedented global warming in recent time by comparison with the proxy temperature records of the last thousand years, meant that he was catapulted willy-nilly into public attention. And not just attention, but attack and vilification by the denial campaign. The title of his book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines is no overstatement. He has battle scars.  However it’s not a conflict he is prepared to retire from.  He no longer thinks he should avoid communicating the societal implications of climate science. Quite the opposite. He points out that scientists who study climate science and its potential impacts understand better than anyone the nature of the climate change threat. It would be irresponsible in the extreme for scientists to leave the field to industry-funded climate change deniers to confuse and mislead the public and dissuade policy makers from taking appropriate action.

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Preparing for Climate Change

Preparing for Climate Change (Boston Review Books)

The global climate is changing. The impacts on human society are likely to be very serious. We would be foolish indeed not to plan ahead for coping strategies. Michael Mastrandrea and the late Stephen Schneider have produced a small book setting out what we can best do to be ready for what is in store.  Preparing for Climate Change is one of the Boston Review Books, a series of “accessible, short books that take ideas seriously”.

It’s a thoughtful, well-organised piece of writing which leads the reader by steps through what is needed to prepare for what climate change will  bring. The first step is to understand that global warming is for real. It’s under way and it is largely due to anthropogenic forces. However predicting its future course is difficult because of two things we don’t know — how much more greenhouse gases humans will emit and exactly how the natural climate system will respond to those emissions. The temperature rises we face will depend on the level of emissions, and the range of projections for the year 2100 that the IPCC has estimated on the basis of six different scenarios is very wide, from as low as 1.1 degrees to as much as 6.4 degrees. The latter could be catastrophic. The former looks increasingly likely to be well surpassed. But even a comparatively low level of temperature rise would bring damaging changes for some communities and ecosystems. Indeed the 0.75 degree increase of the past century is already showing some worrying impacts.

The authors then outline the key vulnerabilities that need to be taken into consideration. They include glacier loss, melting ice sheets, sea level rise, higher infectious disease transmission, increases in the severity of extreme events, large drops in farming productivity especially in hotter areas, the loss of cultural diversity as people have to leave their historical communities, and an escalating rate of species extinction. Many of these can already be witnessed in their early stages, and the book provides examples from various parts of the globe. Additionally, however, there is the possibility of “surprises”, fast non-linear climate responses which may occur when environmental thresholds are crossed. Some can be imagined, such as a collapse of the North Atlantic ocean currents or the deglaciation of Greenland or the West Antarctic ice sheets. But because of the enormous complexities of the climate system there is also the possibility of unforeseeable surprises.

In the face of inherent uncertainty we have to proceed by risk assessment and risk management as we make our policy decisions.  Risk assessment is primarily a scientific enterprise. Risk management – deciding which risks to tolerate and which to try to avoid – is a political matter where values enter into play.  However the relationship between the two is complicated by the uncertainties of the scientific predictions. These uncertainties will be reduced as research proceeds under normal scientific practice, but answers of some kind are needed well before this time. There are policy decisions to be taken before there is a clear consensus on all the important scientific conclusions. The authors discuss type I and type II errors at this point. A type I error will be committed if we act to mitigate climate change and discover that our worries prove exaggerated and anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions cause little dangerous change. A type II error will be committed if we delay action until greater certainty is established and in the process allow serious damage to occur. We have a choice as to which type of error it is better to avoid.

What actions does sensible risk management indicate? We know that reducing emissions will reduce the level of temperature increase that would otherwise occur, but we also know that further climate change will happen no matter how quickly we are able to reduce emissions. We must therefore both try to limit future emissions and at the same time adapt to what we cannot escape.  Mitigation and adaptation must be complementary and concurrent.

The authors recognise some adaptation as autonomous; it is reactive in response to the impacts of climate change. However they consider it vital to also plan adaptation. Planned adaptation may be reactive, but the book lays stress on planning which is anticipatory, as for example in the protection of coastal infrastructure.  Anticipatory adaptation is an investment, but one which may not be able to be afforded by poorer developing countries. The book notes that the Copenhagen Accord recognised this and included a commitment to provide resources for adaptation investment in such countries.

But adaptation measures can only go so far, and mitigation must be seriously pursued in tandem. Although the book focuses a good deal of its attention on how we can plan for adaptation it is clear that there must be a mix with mitigation measures adequate to keep adaptation manageable.  The third more drastic response to climate change of geoengineering is briefly considered, and described as desperate: understandable, but not what the situation demands as a first response.

Whatever mix of mitigation and adaptation we adopt the authors are firm that equity issues must be part of planning. The needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups must be a prominent consideration when forming climate policy.

The question of vulnerability is faced in their final chapter. They see vulnerability assessment as an essential tool to inform the development of climate change policies.  Exposure to stress, sensitivity to the exposure, and adaptive capacity are the three components which need to be considered. Mitigation reduces vulnerability by reducing exposure. Adaptation reduces vulnerability by turning adaptive potential into adaptive capacity. New Orleans before Katrina had quite high adaptive potential, but it was not realised and adaptive capacity was therefore low. Vulnerability assessment is a complex task and they argue for a close relationship between those on the ground in specific regions (bottom-up) and the climate-impact assessments of scientists (top-down). Again, questions of justice are high in their priorities.  We must be sure that marginalised countries and groups are not ignored as we tackle the potentially dangerous, irreversible climate events ahead.

For those familiar with the subject the ground the book covers is probably not new.  But the writers are authoritative and their treatment is well organised and logically ordered. It is also informed by a strong sense of humanity. Their book is an excellent short statement for the general reader and a useful summary analysis for those who appreciate a reminder of how the various elements fit together. Don’t be misled by the moderate tone or the acknowledgement of the uncertainty which must attend predictions of future change. The authors know they are writing of an urgent and pressing need to prepare in advance if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

[Help Hot Topic to meet its running costs by buying via Fishpond (NZ),, or Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]


Democracy under strain

I have recently often found myself thinking of a sentence in the late Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport, reviewed on Hot Topic a year ago. Towards the end of the book he reflected on the greed and short-term thinking which has led business interests to advance a campaign of confusion and doubt on the science of climate change, aimed at stalling action. It didn’t surprise him, but what worried him was that so many decent people are still taken in by it. Then came the sentence which reverberates almost daily for me:

What keeps me up at night is a disquieting thought: ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’


It is the run-up to the US mid-term elections which has ensured Schneider’s sentence nags so insistently. Candidate after candidate (mostly Republican) asseverates “I don’t believe in manmade global warming” or “I have not been convinced” or “I am sceptical about the science” or any of numerous similar positions which can be coupled with an assurance that he or she won’t back action to reduce emissions, and may even move aggressively to prevent it. As I read or, if I can bear it, listen, to these confident deniers, many of them articulate and well presented, I wonder where they find their assurance. Generally speaking they seem ignorant of the science. In fact their confidence seems in inverse proportion to their knowledge.

The clear message from the science simply doesn’t flow through society to these would-be decision makers. It is intercepted and at best muddied, at worst completely blocked. What is a coherent picture, supported by the vast majority of scientists with expertise in relevant fields, attested by highly reputable national academies of science and international  science organisations, somehow emerges in the hands of political candidates as variously highly debatable, deeply uncertain, or even the product of a vast conspiracy.

It is tempting to dismiss the candidates as a bunch of contemptible liars who cynically set the goal of gaining power well ahead of any regard for truth or human welfare. Maybe some of them are. But some of them no doubt genuinely think they are speaking truthfully when they voice their scepticism. They inhabit an intellectual world from which the real science has been excluded and they are unaware of the fact. The misinformers have done their work and constructed an alternative reality undisturbed by the need to take action against the threat of rising carbon emissions.

It’s a temporary alternative, and it only appears real.  Sooner or later the bitter truth will assert itself. But in the meantime the country on whom so much depends for effective action against global warming appears likely to spend a few more years in delay to the perceived benefit of vested interests.

To be elected these politicians need voters. They wouldn’t be saying the things they are about climate change if their sentiments weren’t shared by a wide slice of their constituencies.  Whole sectors of society have been taken in by the misinformation industry and its false assurances.

Climate science and the policies to respond to its message are complex, but hardly to the extent that they are incommunicable to the public at large. It is the “deliberate special interest distortion” and the “knee-jerk media balance” which Schneider saw as compounding the complexity and making it hard for democracy to deal with. Too hard, he sometimes feared. Many in America are probably sharing that anxiety right now.

I don’t know of any clever strategy to counter what we are seeing in the US. One hopes it will be largely confined there, though even if it is its effects will be felt throughout the world. All I can see is the need to continue to assert the key points, which were recently splendidly summarised by climatologist Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Joe Romm at Climate Progress reproduced them from the original essay in the journal Climatic Change. Somerville makes six points:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.
  6. The leading scientific organisations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results.

These are the bare bones. You can read the fuller and eloquent statements on Climate Progress or in the original longer essay. But the essential logic and plain good sense is apparent in the extract I have made. It seems to me to display the framework of what must be reiterated for as long as it takes for a democratic society to see clearly where the science is at and decide what should be done to address the threat it points to. Misinformation can only be answered with the truth of the matter.

Stephen Schneider 1945-2010

Stephen Schneider, one of the world’s most highly regarded and influential climate scientists, died today aged 65. The climate science community has responded with some heartfelt tributes. Real Climate carries a eulogyfrom Ben Santer which expresses the feelings of Schneider’s colleagues and the recognition he deserves for his understanding, his courage and his concern for our life on this planet. NZ’s Jim Salinger, at present in Brazil, forwarded his personal response to me earlier today:

My friendship with a great human being Stephen Schneider goes back to 1979. Others have written very eloquently and with feeling about him. As I write this I am numb at this loss of this friend of science, people and life on this planet. Steve was an extremely caring person to his friends as well to all life on earth. We both shared the ‘same page’ about the planet way back in 1979 when we first met. Since then, and as his friend Paul Ehrlich said even then he needed younger folk to follow him to keep reminding politicians and people about our responsibilities to people and the planet. Steve certainly did this and more. As a friend he was always there to help you, as a scientist he had a huge intellect but took pains to explain details on climate science in appropriate language, by using analogies suited to the audience and people he was addressing. He will be sorely missed by all of us, and planet earth has been a better place for his life on this world. My soulmate Carolyn and I had the pleasure of spending time with him only last month, on one evening singing Bob Dylan and other songs as he strummed his 12-string guitar. It was a privilege to know and share time with such a great man. And as Steve and I say in our culture at this time we wish Terry, Becca, Adam and family ‘Long Life’.


Here’s Schneider in 1979, when Jim first met him. 30 years on, Schneider’s careful presentation of the facts looks remarkably apropos [h/t Michael Tobis]:

Bryan Walker adds: It’s worth recalling some of the things he wrote in Science as a Contact Sport, which I recently reviewed for Hot Topic. Tim Flannery provided the introduction, in which he recalled first meeting Schneider at a conference in Japan a decade ago.

“His words on the danger of a changing climate to biodiversity hit like a thunderbolt, and from then on I was convinced of the truly dire nature of the threat that climate change is to our planet. His presentation was clear, packed with information, and funny. It was the last thing I expected from a great man addressing a serious topic, but I soon learned that one of Steve’s greatest assets is to bring humour to overly serious debates.”

On modelling, of which he was an early exponent:

“If you don’t model, you don’t know anything about the future.”

On the IPCC, in which he was a leading figure:

“IPCC represented the culture of community. We can’t asses complex systems science individually, nor can we solve the global policy problem without coalitions and communities with a common concern.”

In response to Senator James Inhofe when around 2007 he read a statement into the Congressional Record saying Schneider was the father of the greatest environmental hoax:

“I recall sending some email to his office thanking the senator for the honour, but respectfully declining as I have a thousand equally deserving colleagues.”

On the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples:

“No community should be forced from their home or their culture – whether a tropical reef island or a once frozen tundra.”

In response to a NZ reporter on the sacking of Jim Salinger from NIWA:

“Managers are a dime a dozen, world-class scientists very rare. Maybe the wrong guy at NIWA got sacked.”

On the attempts his students sometimes make to comfort him:

“You can at least say ‘I told you so’!”  “Nah,” I reply, “an ‘I told you so’ is really an ‘I failed you so’ – we just didn’t get it done.”

He worried over how many decent people are still taken in by the political chicanery of ideologists and special interests:

“What keeps me awake at night is a disquieting thought; ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’”

His concluding paragraph:

“But most important, for me, as grandparent, parent, and teacher, is to hum in your head often the lines of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song from decades ago.  The advice is still the most important thing any of us can do as individuals: ‘Teach your children well.’”

Schneider continued actively engaged right up to the time of his death.  It’s only a few weeks since we reported publication of the article he co-authored which investigated the relative credibility of climate researchers and contrarians.  Climate Science Watch interviewed him about the article.  A video clip of some of the interview, well worth watching, is included along with a full transcript.

He felt the full force of American right-wing fringe fury in recent times. He reported recently that he had received hundreds of violently abusive emails since last November, with the number picking up again following publication of  the recent article. He said he had observed an immediate, noticeable rise in emails whenever climate scientists were attacked by prominent right-wing US commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Earlier this year his name appeared on a “death list” on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry.

“The effect on me has been tremendous,” he said. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers…I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”

Sadly climate scientists have to endure many such attacks. But Schneider didn’t shrink from representing fairly and squarely the risks of climate change and the urgency of our need to face up to them. Vilified by a few, he will be honoured by many.