The Gore synthesis: where we are now, where we are heading, and what we need to do

by Gareth on January 22, 2013

This is the five minute condensed version of the talk I gave in Gore at the Coal Action Network Aotearoa Summerfest (a somewhat optimistic title, given the chilly and wet weather last weekend).

It’s too late to avoid damaging climate change, because it’s already happening. Weather extremes — floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and storms — are on the increase, dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice is affecting northern hemisphere weather patterns, and accelerating ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica points towards a rapid increase in sea level. And the climate commitment, the 30 years it will take the planet to get back into energy balance once atmospheric CO2 is stabilised, guarantees that we will see much worse long before we see any benefit from action we take today.

Everything we do now to cut emissions will help us to avoid the very worst impacts — the almost unimaginable stuff that will be happening by the middle of this century — so it’s really worth doing.

To avoid future damage being catastrophic, we need emissions cuts to be made as if this were wartime. The global economy has to be switched from fossil fuel burning to clean energy as fast as possible — as if our very civilisation depended on it, because it does. Every year of delay now is a year more in the 2040s and 2050s of the very worst the climate system will throw at us. Every year of delay will make the job harder.

We need to go beyond stabilising atmospheric CO2 levels, and remove much of carbon emitted since the industrial revolution if we are to avoid losing much of the low lying land to long term sea level rise.

We need to be working now to futureproof New Zealand (and everywhere else) as much as possible. We must not lock our economies into high emissions pathways by investing in fossil fuel extraction or emissions-intensive agriculture. We must put in place policies to deal with sea level rise as it happens, but they will have to focus on managed retreat — at least until atmospheric CO2 is on a downwards trend. We need to focus on developing economic and social resilience, to enable us to recover from the inevitable shocks caused by rapid climate change.

This has to be the reality that our governments confront. Getting them to face up to the full seriousness of climate change is not going to be easy, but it’s going to have to be done.


I often find that preparing a talk crystallises my thinking around an issue, and that was certainly the case here. Reviewing the climate events of the last year, looking forward to the near future, and considering our options as climate change begins to really bite left me feeling rather gloomy — but the energy and enthusiasm of the CANA crowd, committed to preventing lignite mining in Southland and to phasing out coal mining throughout New Zealand, did a lot to put a smile back on my face.

Below the fold is an expanded version of the notes I prepared for my talk, with links to supporting material (as I promised to the audiences in Gore)…

Where we are now

Every year since 1976 has been above 20th century average [NOAA National Climate Data Centre]

2012 9th/10th warmest year (see link above)

  • Warmest La Niña year
  • 9 out 10 warmest years this century
  • UKMO forecast new record in 2013 [Hot Topic]

Arctic sea ice rapid decline continues — new record minimum [National Snow and Ice Data Centre]

Greenland ice sheet record melt [Arctic Report Card]

NH weird weather linked to Arctic ice decline: In this section I described how the summer sea ice decline leads to a warm Arctic ocean in autumn and early winter, and the effect this has on jetstream behaviour (with much waving of arms). [Good overview at Climate Central]

Extreme weather is where climate bites

  • Aussie heatwave + fires
  • US warmest ever year
  • US drought
  • Floods & intense rainfall: – Pakistan, Nigeria, England’s wettest year
  • Sandy
  • The new normal

CO2 = 394 ppm – emissions still growing 2.5ppm per year [CO2Now]

Weak emissions policies: In this section, I described how the persistent framing of environmental protection as having to be balanced against economic activity, coupled with industry lobbying to reduce environmental protections and limit the costs of action to reduce emissions combine to create a lack of political will to address climate change. As a result national and international policies have been weakened or left becalmed.

Where we are heading

4ºC of warming is looking more and more likely… [World Bank report: Climate Progress, Hot Topic]

2ºC in rear view mirror: there’s still a chance, but it’s getting slimmer by the day

Sea level likely to rise 24 metres if atmospheric COs stabilises at 400 – 450 ppm [Science Daily]: the only question is how long it will take.

Scary stuff


Damaging climate change is unavoidable: climate commitment – 30 years warming in the pipeline

We have to cut net emissions to zero, then we have to take carbon out of the atmosphere

  • (but 300 would be better)
  • Oceans will work against us
  • Technology not ready (yet)

Need “wartime” emissions cuts

  • The longer you leave it, the harder it gets to cut
  • The longer you leave it, the worse the unavoidable damage
  • Geoengineering seems almost inevitable

Futureproofing NZ

  • Resilience
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Coastal retreat – Christchurch!
  • Do not lock economy into high emissions
  • Coal, lignite
  • Emissions intensive agriculture (dairy)

Coal deposits are not assets, they’re liabilities!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

noelfuller January 23, 2013 at 11:59 am

I was looking over the reference for the Younger Dryas and it occured to me that it could be taken as an analogue of geo-engineering, particularly with its very sudden termination plus a 7C temperature rise.

John ONeill January 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm

More likely an analogue of a major glacial collapse in Greenland or Antarctica, if the younger Dryas was triggered by a sudden flood of cold water from Lake Agassiz.
Sea level rise has been linked to increased volcanic activity, so we may be in for some more inadvertent ‘geoengineering’.
For a flavour of clmate manipulation directly working on greenhouse gas levels, rather than albedo, this paper on enhanced weathering of olivine is interesting. If coal mining can be phased out, there’ll be a lot of mining machinery and expertise which might be turned to lowering CO2 levels instead of raising them. ( The last 200 years of fossil fuel extraction could be viewed as a very rapid and selective episode of uplift and weathering. ) Carbonate rock would be a much more secure way of locking up carbon dioxide than pressurised reservoirs , which might leak on long timescales, or tree planting, when heat and drought can turn twenty years of work into smoke in a day. It would also lower ocean acidity.

Gareth January 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Or perhaps the latest from Jim Hansen, where he shows that if you force a model with lots of ice loss (think fleets of icebergs in the Atlantic and southern ocean), you can temporarily stall warming. Storms of his grandchildren, indeed…

Kiwiiano January 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Geo-engineering looks increasingly unlikely, according to ScienceDaily referenced report. The sheer tonnages involved in “rock dissolving” (40GT/year) and the carbon footprint of digging up all that olivine, grinding it to a fine powder, then shipping it to the ocean you want to dump it into, looks like a negative EROEI (as it were).

There’s no substitute for leaving the damn stuff in the ground.

noelfuller January 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Weathering Olivine is an attractive notion but I was going to ask if there had been any proof of concept trial. Where are those zero emissions diggers?

Kiwiano, could you have another go at providing that link.? If you do not have the html skills just inspect the Hansen link above from your browser’s view source menu although maybe you lost it just through a typo or putting something in wordpress does not respond to as a user input.

John ONeill January 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm

‘Where are those zero emissions diggers?’
Electric digger -
(The trucks will be diesel-electric.) Electricity from nuclear or other low-carbon source of your choice.
‘There’s no substitute for leaving the damn stuff in the ground.’
That’s like saying the best cure for a hangover is to not drink so much the night before. Even if you got the world population down to a thousand carbon neutral peasants in the next two years, they’d still suffer the consequences of what’s already in the biosphere, possibly including a runaway methane release from the arctic permafrost. If it was anything like the paleocene- eocene thermal maximum, they would not survive.
A cubic kilometre of olivine would remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At the moment we’re adding about thirty billion tons CO2 a year to it. Reversing that would be a massive undertaking, but on a scale similar to the current fossil fuel industry.

Kiwiiano January 23, 2013 at 11:00 pm

“Electric digger”
That’s what scares me, John, what would be the carbon footprint of that amazing beast? Or the carbon footprint of 30 billion tonnes of olivine delivered to an ocean somewhere? Or the consequences of dumping all that reactive chemical into the oceans? Massive indeed.
Sadly I fear 1000 carbon neutral peasants is what it may come down to, although I would much prefer to be totally wrong.

(BTW Noel: interesting to note that Safari no longer has any option to view the source. When did the bastards slip that one by us?)

Gareth January 23, 2013 at 11:37 pm

It’s in the “developer” menu, which you enable with a preference tick, IIRC, but I’m now using Firefox because Safari used to bog down my old Mac…

Kiwiiano January 23, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Sorry ’bout that, Chief. Something in WordPress(?) deleted it entirely….????
Let’s see if this sneaks it past
aich tee tee pee ://

noelfuller January 24, 2013 at 1:33 am

Having read both references all the way through it seems to me that the study you linked dos not consider the approach recommended in the study John linked to.

Schuiling and Tickell advocated a biological approach – fungi on land and lugworms on mud flats. They did not specify particles as small as 1 micron, rather 100 micron and indicated various locale variations that could take advantage of existing volcanic or mining resources, estmating carbon footprint at only 4% of carbon sequestered. They also acknowledged that this activity does not substitute for reduction of CO2 emissions – but where is an actual trialing of these biological methods of enhancing weathering to reduce olivine? A method of sequestering carbon that does not go up in smoke, or leak and which appears ecologically benign is needed and ought to be trialled.

Watch the deniers January 24, 2013 at 12:44 am

Gareth, a good post. And a necessary one. For some time I’ve been of the opinion that we’re going to hit 4c. This of course prompts thoughts about adaptation.

Though I’m not advocating these solutions or predicting future events, the following seems likely:

> geo-engineering
> planned retreats from coastal areas subjected to flooding
> planned retreats from agricultural areas no longer productive
> some of those “planned” retreats will be messy
> devolution of decision making and planning to state/city/local level in order to be more flexible in response
> a shrinking of the welfare state as resources are re-diverted to mitigation efforts and defence capabilities
> genetic modification of crops/livestock to become more resilient to extremes
> nuclear part of the mix, not just renewable energy

We will be forced to re-evaluate our values, and reassess our fears about such hot topics as GM and nuclear.

We need to talk about what a >4 Degree civilisation looks like: if it such a thing is possible.

We know, we all know about how much heat is trapped in the system; we now the trajectory for emissions is going the wrong way; we know we are within reach of tipping points; we pretty much know.

Let’s hope we’re wrong: so terribly wrong.

But our own form of denial needs to come to an end.

Such speculation may be criticized for scaring the punters, or inducing apathy. Of course the sceptics will mock such considerations. Let them.

Some of us need to be brave, and speculate about worst case scenarios.

Gareth January 24, 2013 at 9:05 am

It’s not worst case scenarios, WTD – we need to get everyone to appreciate where we’re heading, what the climate realities are. The middle of the road is scary enough.

(But you’ll find my personal worst case in The Burning World, if you’ll forgive the plug… ;-) )

Watch the deniers January 24, 2013 at 9:20 am

I agree – a crucial part of this process is educating the leaders and the broader public about the implications of a warmer world. Re plug: I’ve been minded to pick up the book :)

Gareth January 24, 2013 at 9:39 am

Watch your email.

noelfuller January 24, 2013 at 1:52 am

Hansen’s scenario brings to mind an awkward moment for me, back when those two icebergs approached Bluff within helicopter range. A group of us were discussing this and there sprang to my mind the idea that warming could result in local cooling with icebergs from Antarctica calved off glaciers and ice shelves all over the place. I started an argument resting on latent heat but just did not have enough icebergs to explain the current situation, or know enough to get out of the disbelief I landed myself in.

Hansen has the advantage of a model to push out the ice. I’m chuffed to find my notion was not so wild as it then seemed. However, as pointed out the big picture remains unchanged by local cooling effects.

Gareth January 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

One possible storyline for The Burning World involves a large chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf grounding on reefs/islands to the south of NZ, and basically acting as great lump of cold distorting the Southland weather. Not that anyone would notice… ;-)

David Lewis January 24, 2013 at 10:30 am

Hansen is discussing the effects of ice sheet disintegration because if civilization is not going to limit global warming to 2 degrees this is what civilization will face. The 2 degree limit was never regarded by the knowledgeable as “safe”. If warming could be limited to that extent, the odds were thought to be, really drastic things like the disintegration of the great ice sheets could be avoided.

Hansen’s paper brought to mind research that scientists who are studying California are trying to get more people to understand, i.e. what has been discovered about Atmospheric Rivers. What Hansen is saying magnifies the risk people studying Atmospheric Rivers see.

I live in the Pacific Northwest of the US, i.e. Seattle. I’ve often wondered how the extreme events climate change will be serving up will affect this area. It’s beginning to look like this area will become subject to events as catastrophic as the more powerful hurricanes that will be hitting the US Southeast. By the way, all West Coasts of continents can be affected.

Scientific American has an article on these Atmospheric Rivers (AR events) in their January 2013 issue. People living on the West Coast of North America are familiar with the mildest form of AR events, i.e. the so called Pineapple Express events. Scientists now know these extended very heavy rainstorms can be far larger and of greater duration than anything anyone living has experienced. An online supplement describes the worst flood since Europeans settled California, i.e. the flood of 1861-62. This flood appears to have turned the entire 6000 square mile Central Valley into an “inland sea” while flooding Sacramento for 6 months and bankrupting California. It is now attributed to an AR event.

There is evidence in California sediments of an event 50% larger than the 1861-62 event, i.e. one that happened around 1600. Scientists have also attempted to look into the future: they examined seven state of the art climate models to get an idea of what will happen to AR events as global climate change proceeds: every model examined spits out AR events “bigger than any of the historic megastorms”.

The USGS in an attempt to put all this into a form digestible by the general population and disaster planners, came up with a scenario called the ARkStorm (“AR” for driven by an Atmospheric River, “k” for supposedly once in a 1000 year, and “storm”, for duh, storm). Wikipedia has a page describing it.

The scenario is a downsized version of the lesser 1861-62 event rather than an examination of what scientists actually believe is the 1 in 1000 year event California experiences, i.e. the more severe year 1600 event. They examined a patently unrealistic scenario because, as the Sci-Am article states: “so no one could claim the scenario was unrealistic”. Why not. Instead of the 43 continuous days of rain dumped on California by the Atmospheric River event of 1861-62, the ARkStorm scenario assumes a 23 day event. I do some elementary arithmetic here and find that the ARkStorm scenario is 1/2 the size of what history records hit California in 1861-62, and 1/3 the size of what paleoclimate studies indicate is the worst AR event of the last 1000 years in California.

This is a very odd state of affairs we have arrived at: scientists hesitate to present the implications of their discoveries in certain fields. Is this an effect of fear of being attacked by denialist morons of the same type who are known to ultimately control funding for research?

Back to our action packed dumbed down ARkStorm scenario: Jeff Masters on his WunderBlog summed it up by calling it the “most expensive disaster in world history”, saying the USGS says it would cost $725 billion if it happened now.

Unfortunately, because an event 3 times the size of ARkStorm is what actually appears to be the “normal” 1 in 1000 year event in California, the cost of it looks to be in the $trillions. Something “bigger than any of the historic megastorms” if that means bigger than what happened in 1600 would cost if it hit now, obviously, would come to more than a bit north of $trillions.

Now here’s where Hansen’s latest calculation and thoughts magnify things. The climate models don’t include what he’s talking about because everyone supposedly “knows” the great ice sheets aren’t going to start disintegrating. (The image of Darth Vader warning the bounty hunters he’s just hired drifts into my mind: “No Disintegrations“.)

The models, according to AR researchers, project that “winds over the midlatitude Pacific are expected to weaken slightly”, “because the tropics and polar regions are projected to warm at different rates”. Even though there will be more water in the atmosphere, the net effect is, because winds are projected to be less powerful, AR events that are only a bit more numerous and able to transport a bit more water overall.

We were doing fine ignoring the events of 1861-62 and the year 1600 until now. Ignoring the unanimous model projections of an AR “bigger than any of the historic megastorms” can’t be that much more difficult. We’ll just live as usual and mint a few $trillion dollar coins when the time comes. Why spend a few percent of GDP and decarbonize?

But if what Hansen is musing about, i.e. the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets start to disintegrate shedding iceberg armadas into the oceans: “the high latitude cooling would increase latitudinal temperature gradients, thus driving powerful cyclonic storms”. More powerful winds driven by a higher temperature gradient between the warming tropics and the suddenly cooler polar regions means even bigger “bigger than any of the historic megastorms”.

Food for thought.

If you live on North America’s West Coast, or on any West Coast of a continent on the planet for that matter, you can think about Atmospheric Rivers the way people on hurricane coasts think about hurricanes. Oh, and dramatic sea level rise comes along with this. There were times in the past when sea level rose in excess of 15 feet per century for several centuries.

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