The Climate Crisis

by Bryan Walker on January 19, 2010

The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change

David Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf are notable climate scientists. They are also excellent communicators of the science to the general reader, as is apparent in their new book The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change. My review of Archer’s previous book The Long Thaw remarked on his ability to illuminate topics for the non-scientist. In this book the authors seek to provide an accessible and readable account of the “treasure trove” of the IPCC reports. They distinguish their work sharply from the Summaries for Policy Makers officially provided by the IPCC, which are negotiated between government representatives and exclude much of what scientists think and write in the full report. But while they draw heavily on the latest IPCC report and feature many of its informative graphs and tables, they also refer to new findings since the 2006 cut-off date for the report, and draw attention to weaknesses they sometimes see in the report.

Most of the book deals with global climate science, the focus of IPCC Working Group I, with subsequent brief attention given to the impacts of climate change (Working Group II) and to mitigation (Working Group III).

After looking back over the development of the science from its slow beginnings in the 19th century with the discoveries of Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius to the explosion of research in more recent years, the authors carefully explain the way in which the global temperature responds to the forcings of the various agents, warming in the case of the greenhouse gases, offset by some cooling through the effect of aerosols. There are no natural forcings, such as solar irradiance, that can explain the warming of the past five decades.

The global average warming of 0.8 degrees since the late nineteenth century and 0.6 degrees since the 1970s is unequivocally shown by measurements.  Other observed changes include significant changes in rainfall, both increases and decreases, and some changes in atmospheric circulation patterns.

A chapter on ice and snow acknowledges the uncertain scientific understanding of the behaviour of melting ice on the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic and the unpredictability of ice sheet flow. The faster than expected sea ice melting in the Arctic carries profound climatic implications.  Overall observations of snow and ice provide powerful support for the warming trend.

The oceans receive attention as a major player in the climate pattern. We know that they are heating up, to some degree lessening the warmth in the atmosphere – the authors calculate a temporary effect of 0.4 degrees.  Salinity is being affected – increasing in sub-tropical regions and declining in higher latitudes.  Sea level is rising steadily, albeit with regional natural oscillations. The speed with which the ocean is taking up large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere is making the water more acidic, a worrying trend likely to cause a severe threat to marine life if it continues.

Paleoclimatology studies support a key role for CO2 in regulating climate. They also tell us that Earth’s climate has the potential to flip abruptly from one mode of operation to another. They serve as a reality check for the climate models used to forecast Earth’s response to our CO2 release. The past strengthens the forecast.

The forecast is for warming somewhere between 2 degrees and 7 degrees depending on the IPCC scenario.  The authors regard it as unfortunate that all the IPCC scenarios are non-mitigation scenarios, intended to tell us what might happen if we do not take action to reduce emissions. They consider it a serious shortcoming that mitigation scenarios have not also been systematically assessed, though they are likely to be part of the next IPCC report. Other forecasts include changes in precipitation, which they note will probably have a bigger impact on human society and ecosystems than temperature changes. Sea level rise is likely to be higher than the limited forecast of the IPCC report, and the authors don’t rule out a rise by over one metre by the end of the century, noting that Hansen fears two metres by that date. Changes in ocean currents are uncertain and the authors at this point comment on the limitations of the use of climate models, also apparent in relation to ice sheet behaviour.  The low probability-high impact risks are difficult to assess. There may be a less than 10% risk of a shut-down of the Atlantic overturning circulation, but it would result in a massive change in the operation of the planet’s climate system. Ocean acidification will continue and worsen.

Against the accusation that the outlooks are alarmist they point to earlier IPCC projections which have turned out to be correct in the subsequent 18 years. In fact the faster than expected sea level rise and arctic sea-ice shrinking suggests that the IPCC in the past may have underestimated rather than exaggerated climate change, though they advance that possibility with caution.

In the last third of the book the authors move to discuss the impacts of climate change and how we might avoid it.  The expected impact on the world’s ecosystems is dire. Human society will suffer from water stress, from food insecurity, from coastal zone hazards due to rising sea level and from threats to health.  Adaptation will be necessary and can be very effective, but has no hope of coping with all the projected effects, especially over the long term. Mitigation is essential.  The book runs through some of the mitigation options offered by Working Group III.  However, noting that the consensus view the IPCC represents is regarded by some energy experts and engineers as too limited and conservative, the authors depart from the IPCC material for a time to provide a somewhat more visionary perspective, based on renewables, cogeneration, smart grids, heat pumps and electromobility. They refer to the surprise success story of wind power and look to a time later in the century when solar power could easily provide most of our energy needs.

In a final brief section the authors leave the IPCC to discuss policy matters.  In the course of the discussion they comment on the persistence of arguments against anthropogenic global warming which float around the internet and are repeated by gullible newspaper editors and systematically promoted by lobbyist organisations.

“We would personally be very relieved if anthropogenic global warming were to be disproven by some new scientific findings – we certainly do not “like” global warming. But at this point, the body of scientific evidence is so strong that the hope that this problem will go away by itself looks exceedingly remote…The good news is: we have the technological and economic capacity to meet this challenge.”

My background is teaching English and I appreciated seeing the book end with a lengthy quote from novelist Ian McEwan, known for his concern over climate change. He concludes:

“Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented sera of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?”

One hopes for a wide readership for this measured book which clearly and thoughtfully sets out the results of the work of a great many scientists. I’m not sure that rationality stands much of a chance in a world which gives high popularity ranking to the denialism of authors like Booker and Plimer and Singer, but for those readers who retain a desire to understand real science Archer and Rahmstorf are reliable and helpful guides.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Wrathall January 19, 2010 at 8:38 am

“…they point to earlier IPCC projections which have turned out to be correct…”

OK how about this one:

“World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown

A WARNING that climate change will melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 is likely to be retracted after a series of scientific blunders by the United Nations body that issued it….”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6991177.ece

Party’s over guys. Time to turn off the karaoke and call a taxi.

Doug Clover January 19, 2010 at 9:27 am

Yep it looks like a failure in the IPCC process that is very embarrassing for the Skeptics who despite their blog fervour did not find it. It was actual scientists who brought to it the attention of the scientific community and the IPCC. Where was McIntyre, to busy persecuting Michael Mann?

It would appear that the projection that the Himalaya glaciers will be gone by 2035 was wrong, it will take longer. Whew crisis adverted; well at least to a later generation.

Bryan Walker January 19, 2010 at 9:37 am

Steve, you’re quite right over that one, and the WWF who quoted the erroneous information in a 2005 report have been quick to express regret for not checking its origins. In relation to the IPCC’s use of the information WWF sensibly comment: “One isolated incident does not and should not be used to undermine the credibility of this outstanding and respected group of scientists who are at the forefront of climate change research.” However regrettable, it remains a minor blip in relation to the longer term threat to the glaciers.

But you and your denialist community will no doubt make a meal of it and exploit it to the limit as they continue their irresponsible attack on climate science.

May I interrupt your crowing by returning you to the actual claims of Archer and Rahmstorf about the earlier IPCC projections which have turned out to be correct. I quote the relevant sentences from the book:

“Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased very closely to what was expected. Global temperatures have risen close to what was projected in the second and third reports, well within the given uncertainty. (The First Assessment Report of 1990 calculated a somewhat greater warming, because it only looked at the effect of greenhouse gases and did not include the cooling effect of aerosol particles.)”

The Himalayan error which you seize on is in any case not relevant to the point Archer and Ramstorf are making since it appeared in the Fourth Assessment report and they are talking about earlier reports.

Rob Taylor January 19, 2010 at 9:46 am

So, a finding with no evidential backing has been identified and withdrawn; this is science in action, otherwise known as intellectual honesty.

What a contrast to denialist propaganda, repeated ad nauseum despite overwhelming evidence of falsehood. Take a lesson, Steve.

Steve Wrathall January 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

DC: I have never denied that there are real climate scientists faithfully following proper scientific procedure. The problem is the unscientific ones who rule the IPCC and rely on the WWF for a source- something you would be marked down for in a 100-level science paper.

Furthermore us “deniers” (why not deny nonsense?) have consistently said that the prediction of imminent Himalayan meltdown was fantasy:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUariMW_OvY
Your attempt to brush off this will prove as futile as your original attempt to brush off the Climategate emails: 2 months on and they are now firmly imbedded in the debate.

The most damning revelation is how claims based on absolute fairy dust get “sexed up” with every retelling , before they appear in the IPCC reports.

“In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was “speculation” and was not supported by any formal research.”

Pathetic.

Mr February January 19, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Another thoughtful book review by Bryan of an interesting book by climate scientists; another denialist rant from Steve Wrathall.

Has any one noticed Steve’s posts are all in the form “But I read on ‘www.wattsupwiththat.com/rant/scream/rant’ that irrelevant factoid X means the IPCC is a warmist conspiracy, so give up reading what real climate scientists say, you eco-commo-pinko-warmists”?

CM January 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

“But I read on ‘www.wattsupwiththat.com/rant/scream/rant’ that irrelevant factoid X means the IPCC is a warmist conspiracy, so give up reading what real climate scientists say, you eco-commo-pinko-warmists”

That is genius. I am going to borrow/steal that.

Richard Leckinger January 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Nice work Bryan. I confess I am still wading through Andy Reisinger’s new climate change book, but I’ll add this to the reading list!

Bryan Walker January 19, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Richard, this one doesn’t attempt as full a coverage of the Working Group II and III reports as Andy Reisinger’s does with his focus on students, and in that respect you’ll probably find it somewhat more relaxed reading. They complement each other quite well.

Steve Wrathall January 19, 2010 at 5:06 pm

OK Mr Feb, would you prefer the Stern report as a source?
http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/Chapter_3_How_climate_change_will_affect_people_around_the_world_.pdf
“Melting glaciers will increase flood risk during the wet season and strongly reduce dry-season water supplies to one sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian subcontinent, parts of China….”

This was one of the key disaster scenarios that has been used to conjure up hoardes of “climate refugees” and bully people into global energy rationing, and we now see that it based on pure fantasy. When will Stern retract and apologise?

Rob Taylor January 19, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Steve, you [expletive deleted], the glaciers are still melting – only the “gone-by” date is being reviewed.

Pathetic.

[A good word, used as a tag at The Standard, but a little too strong for polite company Rob. GR]

Bryan Walker January 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Joe Romm on Climate Progress has some sensible things to say about the error in a post which opens: “Good news: The Himalayan glaciers will probably endure past 2035. Bad news: If we don’t reverse our emissions trend soon, their disappearance is likely to become irreversible before then.”

Johnmacmot January 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm

That’s a succinct summation, Rob.

If anyone reading needs to check things out in regard to the Himalayan glacier situation, her are some relevant and recent papers (thanks to a poster on Open Mind who knows a lot more than I do… :-) )

http://www.ias.ac.in/currsci/jan102007/69.pdf
“Glacial retreat in Himalaya using Indian Remote Sensing satellite data”

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/igsoc/agl/2006/00000043/00000001/art00057
“Glacier variations in the Naimona’nyi region, western Himalaya, in the last three decades”

http://www.wrq.eawag.ch/organisation/abteilungen/surf/publikationen/2008_kehrwald.pdf
“Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources”

That is just a sampling, of course.

But I bet Steve will have some substantial evidence to back up his excitement above. You wouldn’t make such sweeping claims without knowing what you’re talking about…

Very long odds though!

PS: How do you tell when some of these characters are parodies?

Steve Wrathall January 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm

It is not on climate skeptics that the burden of “substantial evidence” lies. No one is denying that there has been a steady, global glacial retreat since the mid 1700s as the world has recovered from the Little Ice Age.

It is extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof. The extraordinary claim was that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035. This claim was endorsed by the IPCC, and served to back up numerous plans for energy rationing world wide. Including our latest ETS. And this claim now has been exposed as empty as a Copenhagen condom-vending machine.

So now you are all reduced to saying – but they will still be gone by…err…ummm. 2350? …orr 3250?? any takers for 5320??

Dappledwater January 19, 2010 at 11:41 pm

” It is extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof. The extraordinary claim was that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.” – Steve Wrathall.

And yet remove such a claim from the equation and nothing changes, still bad stuff headed our way. They stuffed up including such a claim – pure and simple.

You also bring out that “recovery from the Little Ice Age” comment again too Steve. If it’s a recovery, why is it now much warmer than the period preceding the Little Ice Age?.

mspelto January 20, 2010 at 9:34 am

The gone by date for the Himalayan glaciers is not a number that can be accurately assessed. The key is monitoring the ongoing changes in extent, and melt rate that identify their contribution to water resources and the extent at which they are changing. Not only are the glacier key for water supply, they are also key for hydropower Glacier such as on Zemu Glacier

Bryan Walker January 20, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Steve may have made off by now, and I guess RealClimate isn’t his favourite website, but they have a measured post on the Himalayan glacier error, in the course of which they note that it was in the Working Group II report, which doesn’t get the same amount of attention from the physical science community as the higher profile WG I report .

Mike C January 20, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Speaking of David Archer, if you missed it earlier, he has made his University of Chicago lecture series based on his books available for free online. Highly recommend.

Steve Wrathall January 21, 2010 at 9:34 am

BW, from your Realclimate link:
“Despite the enormous efforts devoted to producing its reports with the multiple levels of peer review, some errors will sneak through….”

And what does it say about the IPCC process that a claim that is immediately recognised as nonsense by what you affectionately call “cranks”, “deniers”, “potty” (insert Homer icon here) is just waved through by the elite of climate “researchers”?
This absurd claim of imminent glacial meltdown then sits there for 3 years, helping to shape public policies globally.
Also, isn’t it peculiar that these “errors” are always in one direction?
Is it any wonder that ordinary people now discount climate scare stories by at least an order of magnitude, and that the checks and balances of democracy are starting to put the brakes on the whole energy rationing project.

Bryan Walker January 21, 2010 at 10:04 am

Steve,
“And what does it say about the IPCC process?” It says that it is not perfect. RealClimate offers suggestion for improvement:
“In future reports (and the organisation for AR5 in 2013 is now underway), extra efforts will be needed to make sure that the links between WG1 and the other two reports are stronger, and that the physical science community should be encouraged to be more active in the other groups.”

But for heaven’s sake get a sense of perspective. It was a careless mistake. It in no way substantially alters the fearful reality of what lies ahead for upcoming generations if we carry on pouring GHG emissions into the atmosphere.

Johnmacmot January 21, 2010 at 10:14 am

The irony of Steve W’s comments above are that if any similar scrutiny and criticism was applied by the denialists like Steve to the books, papers, “research” that is trumpeted by denialists, there would be nothing left at all.

Put politely, the double standards are spectacular.

Rob Taylor January 21, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Absolutely – all the denialists can hope to do is confuse the issue at the margins, as the thermodynamic and quantum mechanical principles underpinning the science of AGW are the basis of all developed economies and modern life.

Unless Steve Wrathall and his ilk live in caves, burn dung for fuel and walk to work in the fields, they are hypocrites.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: