The road to ruin

by Bryan Walker on February 27, 2011

Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of Manchester has been sounding alarms about the inadequate rate of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for some years now. He’s done it again in a sobering paper written with colleague Alice Bows and recently published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (free access).

A Guardian article this week indicates some of the gist of the paper. Anderson points out that that policy advisers and policy makers are working on the basis of naïve and inappropriate assumptions which simply don’t obtain in reality. Growth rates in emissions are actually much higher than those used by most Integrated assessment models (IAMs) employed by researchers today, where climate change data is integrated with economic data. Emission peaks, even on an optimistic reckoning are not likely before 2020-2030 whereas most IAMs estimate 2010-2016. The IAMs also assume untested geoengineering, and a high penetration of nuclear power alongside untested ‘carbon capture and storage’ technologies.

Anderson’s calculations have shown that, if we want to aim for a high chance of not exceeding a 2 degree increase in global temperature by the end of the century, our energy emissions need to be cut by nearer 10% annually rather than the 2–4% that economists say is possible with a growing economy.

The models are producing politically palatable results. However, the reality is far more depressing and unfortunately many scientists are too afraid to stand up and say so for fear of being ridiculed.

“Our job is not to be liked but to give a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.”

Because policy makers are living with false hopes they are not engaging with the sweeping changes necessary for industrialised nations to drastically reduce their emissions.

“This requires radical changes in behaviour, particularly from those of us with very high energy consumption. But as long as the scientists continue to spread the message that we will be ok if we all make a few small changes, then climate change will never be on top of the policy agenda and we will fail to meet our international commitments to avoid a 2 degree rise.”

Climate change is not a problem to be addressed in the future, but a cumulative problem that needs to be tackled now. And this can only be done if researchers use realistic data and report brutally honest results, no matter how disturbing or depressing.

To turn to the paper. It points out that though the Copenhagen Accord reiterated the commitment to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees, it focused on global emission peak dates and longer-term reduction targets instead of facing up to cumulative emission budgets.  That focus belies seriously the scale and scope of mitigation necessary.  There was also lack of attention to the pivotal importance of emissions from non-Annex 1 (developing) nations in shaping available space for Annex 1 (developed countries) emission pathways. The paper provides a cumulative emissions framing to show what rapid emissions growth in nations such as China and India mean for mitigation rates elsewhere.

The consequence of focusing on end-point targets rather than facing up to emission pathways is that there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 degrees.

“Although the language of many high-level statements on climate change supports unequivocally the importance of not exceeding 2 degrees, the accompanying policies or absence of policies demonstrate a pivotal disjuncture between high level aspirations and the policy reality.”

In essence we are putting off what must be faced up to now:

“In general there remains a common view that underperformance in relation to emissions now can be compensated with increased emission reductions in the future. Although for some environmental concerns delaying action may be a legitimate policy response, in relation to climate change it suggests the scale of current emissions and their relationship to the cumulative nature of the issue is not adequately understood.”

We are also relying on an outdated understanding of the likely severity of the impacts of a 2 degree rise in global temperature:

“…it is reasonable to assume…that 2 degrees now represents a threshold, not between acceptable and dangerous climate change, but between dangerous and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change; in which case the importance of low probabilities of exceeding 2 degrees increases substantially.”

In relation to economic growth, the paper observes that if only a 2-4% level of emission reductions is compatible with economic growth, then it appears that:

“…(extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fuelled development within non-Annex 1 nations.”

The paper’s judgement as to the reality underlying the political talk:

“Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.”

The reader won’t argue with the authors’ description of their assessment of the climate challenge as “stark and unremitting”.

But they deny any negative intention:

“However, this paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well intentioned (though ultimately ineffective) approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community. This paper is intended as a small contribution to such a vision and future of hope”

Hot Topic readers may recall that Clive Hamilton’s book Requiem for a Species, reviewed here, drew on an earlier 2008 paper by Anderson and Bows and quotes Anderson at the 2009 Oxford conference where climate scientists looked at the implications of a 4 degree increase in global temperature: “The future looks impossible.” It’s a pretty slim hope that Anderson allows, but he’s right to puncture the false ones.

[John & Beverley Martin]

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Bingham February 27, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Despite its apparent robustness the Earth is very sensitive to change. Humans may be adaptive to temperature variation but the plants on which we depend are not. If the temperature changes 3c nearly all the plant life will die and we will not be far behind. With the CO2 at 391 and going up 3 points a year it is not a good scenario.

tom February 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm

regarding the earth’s energy imbalance

Please see the graph on page one on the link below showing current energy imbalance….

Then, can anyone here tell me what was happening between 1950 – 1960?

http://www.skepticalscience.com/Measuring-Earths-energy-imbalance.html

Thanks, Tom

Bob Bingham February 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm

If readings were available for earlier periods it would show that the world was in a much better energy balance. It was only in about 1960 that the world began to recover form the second world war and started to burn coal and oil in serious quantities.

tom February 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Bob

Thanks for your response. But like Thomas, you do not appear to have ansered my question?

Thanks
Tom

Thomas February 27, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Tom, perhaps you asked the wrong question.
The real question would have been: What happened between 1960 and 1975. And the answer is that during this time due to a large increase in industrial smog (SO2 had a lot to do with it) we actually industrially counteracted the AGW CO2 forcing effects. Then in the late 70ies clean air act laws came into place which bettered the situation in that sense and returned Earth to the state of imbalance it already had in the 60ies.
In fact some of the geo-engineering ideas being circulated to fight GW are to simulate the smog of the 60ties by injecting stratospheric SO2 to counterbalance GW forcing.

Carol Cowan February 28, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Hi Tom, between 1950 and 1960 the Arctic region reached what has been called “breaking point”. This is when it became noticeable that the Spring and Summer sea ice extent in the Arctic was becoming smaller. (see http://www.nativescience.org/issues/Corell NRF Town Hall Talk.f.pdf Page 29, which refers to Arctic Climate Impact Assessment 2004, also available online but which was too big for me to download). I would expect that the reduction in albedo began to have an impact then. This positive imbalance was not sustained because, I suspect, of the large increase in aerosols (sulphur dioxide, particulates etc) throughout the 1960’s which ‘overcame’ the warming effect for over a decade. I hope this helps.

[I’ve let this stand, Carol, but see below.]

tom February 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Thomas

Thanks for your response, but … I still want to ask my question, rather than be diverted from it.

Rather than be told I asked the wrong question, I hope someone may be able to answer the one I put; thereby explaining why the earth appears to have been in a state of energy imbalance (greater than today’s) from 1950 – 1960?

Thanks, Tom

Carol Cowan February 27, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Hi Tom, I assume you read the entire thread over at Skeptical Science, so … what do you think is going on between 1950 and 1960? Do you have any theories?
(PS I am not being a smarty-pants, I just want to hear what your ideas on this are)

tom February 27, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Hi Carol

Nope, wouldnt think that you were a smarty pants. Appreciuate the response.

Yes, I did read the entire thread. I’ve been trying to follow the AGW debate, and as far as I can see, an energy imbalance might be a prime indicator of AGW.

But when I see that there was a greater energy imbalance 1950 – 1960, I am naturally prompted to ask if anyone knows why? Or has a theory as to why?
I did not see any reference to this 1950 – 1960 imbalance inn that post, which I found a little bit surprising.

And no, I have no theories.

Tom

tom February 27, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Bob

Thanks for your response.
But like Thomas, you do not appear to have ansered my question?

Thanks
Tom

tom February 27, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Hi Carol

Nope, wouldnt think that you were a smarty pants. Appreciuate the response.

Yes, I did read the entire thread. I’ve been trying to follow the AGW debate, and as far as I can see, an energy imbalance might be a prime indicator of AGW.

But when I see that there was a greater energy imbalance 1950 – 1960, I am naturally prompted to ask if anyone knows why? Or has a theory as to why?
I did not see any reference to this 1950 – 1960 imbalance inn that post, which I found a little bit surprising.

And no, I have no theories.

Tom

Thomas February 27, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Hi Tom,

also look at the size of the error bars back then. The light blue lines.
It could well be that the truth of energy imbalance back then was less than the average would suggest and more in line with what we would perhaps intuitively expect. In modern times the error bars are much smaller and the signal clearer to be seen.
In any case I would think that if you add my suggestions together, a dampened imbalance during times of high smog before clean air acts and a large error bar back in the 50ties you can see sense in this.
Also in the historic past Earth has always gone through energy imbalance times as the record shows. Any major changes in Earth temperature in the past would have been preceded by times of energy imbalance.

tom February 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Thomas

thanks again for going to the trouble to respond.

By going to that site (with the energy imbalance graph), and reading the entire post plus hundreds of comments, I had hoped to gain some definitive understanding of HARD OBSERVABLE evidence for AGW.

But, as I pointed out to Carol, I was kinda surprised that neither did the author attempt to account for this 1950 – 1960 imbalance (odd given his unwavering insistence that AGW accounted for a similar (or even lesser) imbalance today, nor the commenters comment on it. It was as though nobody saw it – OR, they all know WHY the imbalance is also there 1950 – 1960, and don’t bother commenting on it because it is already so OBVIOUS to everyone..

Thus my query posted earlier, seeking an answer.

BUT … merely suggesting that errors in past measurements might “disappear” the trend, or alternatively replacing the graph with intuition is not doing it for me.

I would REALLY appreciate a REAL explanation or hypothesis.

Carol has even asked ME to explain it! But, the reason I asked is because I dont know!

And I would have thought that there would be an explanation of something SO obvious all ready to go. Here’s hoping!

Thanks again

Tom

Thanks
Tom

tom February 27, 2011 at 11:40 pm

Now that is wierd.

I ask a serious question, and I get no ticks.

Carol asks me to answer my own question, and she gets a “Like” tick.

Go figure.

Tom

tom February 27, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Thomas says:

“Any major changes in Earth temperature in the past would have been preceded by times of energy imbalance.”

Might that not be the case with regards to the present ? …. preceded by the 1950 – 1960 energy imbalance (if you accept it, rather than intuitively disappear it)

tom

Gareth February 27, 2011 at 11:57 pm

This is all a million miles off topic. Please address yourself to the subject of the post, or go ask your questions at SkS.

Tom February 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Hello Gareth

Ok, that’s fine, even though I notice you accept various other “off subject” comments on various threads.

I am surprised you did not suggest I simply wait until the subject of energy imbalance comes up on this blog, as I really would have thought that your enquiring mind would have relished the opportunty to address this question, rather than attempt to brush it off by suggesting I ask elsewhere. Please bear in mind the link to the energy imbalance article (with the graph) was recommended by one of your regular contributors some time ago, in answer to a request from another reader for some observational evidence for AGW.)

So just to confirm – you don’t like questions that no-one appears able to answer about the only piece of (purported) observational evidence to support AGW because it doesn’t pertain to the exact thread topic.

Must have hit a nerve, eh Gareth?

So thanks anyway. In confirmation, I note the question has remained unanswered despite several red herring attmpts to deter me from asking it.

Tom

Steve Bloom February 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm

Just for the record, I’ll answer it:

The basic answer is indeed aerosols. First, it’s well-established from studies of volcanic eruptions (most notably Pinatubo) that changes in aerosols do effect climate globally. As noted above, measurements of many things were poor at the time, thus those error bars, but there’s enough evidence pointing away from other possible causes (e.g. solar or natural variability) and toward aerosols to allow the conclusion to be drawn. Interestingly, a *reduction* in production of one aerosol (black carbon) due to more efficient industrial processes and reduced agricultural burning/forest fires appears to have had a big cooling impact due to reduced deposition on the Arctic ice. For more on all of this, probably it’s best to start by reading the relevant part of the IPCC AR4 WG1 full report. That won’t cover more recent material, but the new results described here are of interest. This wasn’t an attribution study, but it describes what we would expect from the increase in evapotranspiration (=> drier soils) that necessarily accompanies rising temperature.

BTW, since the energy imbalance is really just a slightly lagged and smoothed reflection of global surface temps and is constructed from less direct data sources, you’ll find that most of the discussion of the mid-century anomaly is with reference to the latter. I’d be surprised is Skeptical Science didn’t have at least one relevant article.

Finally, as far as direct evidence goes, I personally find the recent observed ocean and atmosphere circulation changes (e.g. the substantial poleward compression of the entire atmospheric circulation and the much-increased leakage of the Agulhas Current into the Atlantic, both strong indicators of a rapid shift toward a Pliocene-like climate state) to be far more riveting than global temps and energy balance, but YMMV.

Steve Bloom February 28, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Aha, I just noticed you said the “only” piece of evidence. That is an overwhelmingly ignorant statement, but fortunately ignorance is a curable condition: Read the whole WG1 report. Depending on how you categorize them, there are dozens to hundreds of independent lines of evidence.

Also, if you feel you haven’t been getting the responsiveness you would like, bear in mind that Gareth, Bryan and many of the other active participants here have a major distraction they’re trying to deal with just now. Myself, I’ve got plenty of time to respond, sitting here as I am in the sweet spot between two much, much larger faults. Anyway, cut them some slack.

RW February 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Whose sock puppet are you? You anti-AGW-ers are monumental bores.

Thomas February 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Tom, you should do a bit more research yourself.
You could have found this with ease:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-cooling-mid-20th-century-intermediate.htm

But from your posts I suspect that you are not after answers actually but are looking for straws to clutch to when defending your seeming predetermination of AGW denial.

… and yes, I suspect you are a sock puppet from the denier loonies camp

Gareth February 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm

No nerves hit, Tom. I just recognise a distract and run attempt (with added tone trolling) when I see it. Now why don’t you address the subject of the post, instead of trying to ascribe motivations to me? Then we might have an interesting discussion.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

tom February 28, 2011 at 4:01 pm

[snipped: you were warned. GR]

tom February 28, 2011 at 4:21 pm

[snipped: see above. GR]

Gareth February 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Everyone else: DNFTT.

Carol Cowan February 28, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Oh, I replied before I saw this Gareth. But I think I found an answer (because I became curious and did a search) and have replied to Tom. Maybe others will be able to expand on what I found.

Todd February 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Fortunately ignorance is a curable condition

I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

Thomas February 28, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Back to the topic: I think that probably in each and every one of us the true scale of the events to unfold and the true scale of the effort needed to prevent this are hard to realize. Perhaps the reality of the ChCh quake if anything else can be a small aid to the understanding required when dealing with massive interconnected issues.
And unfortunately bar some technological miracle that allows the rich and powerful to stay the way they are (rich and powerful, they need that for their motivation unfortunately) while using it to save the planet as an added bonus (I am sarcastic here), I am uncertain that we will muster the willpower to enact changes large enough to make a difference that can be seen on the future temp graphs without a magnifying glass…..

tom February 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

jeez Gareth, you guys really terrified of questions which might expose your underbelly, eh?

what sort of credibility is a site which hides (or bans) serious questions like that?

Enjoy your ride on the gravy train, mate.

Gareth February 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm

DNFTT (This one left standing so you can see the tactics).

jerry March 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Hi there everyone

You need to know that Gareth is censoring (not just “snipping” and saying so, but disappearing multiple comments altogether)

[Snipped: deleted comments have all been duplicates, saying the same thing, under various names with invalid email addresses. GR]

Jerry

[A sock puppet. GR]

Mike Palin March 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm
John D March 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Who will “Jerry” appear as next?

My bet is on Spike or Butch (that’s ma boy).

You really have to know the cartoon to know what I am talking about…

Gareth March 1, 2011 at 5:14 pm

It’s idiots like “tom” that have forced me to consider a new comments policy. I’ll be introducing one soon.

Rob Taylor March 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Apparently, Manfred, you frogot to take your spelling pills today…

RW March 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Yawn – another sock puppet. DNFTT.

L. Carey March 2, 2011 at 9:09 am

Bryan’s post is much better than the Guardian article. Wow, this is depressing, although it should hardly be surprising. Given the innate conservative nature of most scientists in virtually all fields, it should be obvious by now that rather than being a bunch of alarmists climate scientists have consistently erred on the lower side of the risk spectrum. And for the most part, policy makers have discounted the risk some more, the media even more and a big chunk of the public even further – we may be expecting nature to throw a bean bag at us, but it’s looking more and more like an approaching boulder. (BTW, Tom /Jerry appears to have succeeded admirably in his effort to derail this thread – Gareth’s new comment policy is eagerly anticipated.)

Bryan Walker March 2, 2011 at 10:15 am

L.Carey’s comment: “Given the innate conservative nature of most scientists in virtually all fields, it should be obvious by now that rather than being a bunch of alarmists climate scientists have consistently erred on the lower side of the risk spectrum.”

Let me add that as a non-scientist I have certainly never detected in my reading of the science any sign of climate scientists over-hyping their findings. In fact I have often been surprised at the moderate tone of their warnings and wondered whether the alarm I feel about what I’m reading may be because I’m not equipped to discern some tempering factor. And when a scientist like Hansen does come into the public arena and set out just how grave the risks are he does it in such a reasonable manner that the media hardly know how to treat him.

On the attempted derailing of the thread, yes it was disappointing to see the trivialising of this sombre subject, but I guess it’s typical of the cacophony of denial which is so desperately trying to prevent a rational response to the danger we face.

Steve Bloom March 2, 2011 at 11:50 am

“cacaphony of denial” is better IMHO. :)

Bryan Walker March 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Thank you Steve. I did indeed have it wrong, and have corrected it, though not to the also incorrect spelling you kindly offered. I used the word quite recently in my submission on the 50-50 target and hurried to check, but I had it right for that. So I’m calling it an error of haste.

L. Carey March 2, 2011 at 12:13 pm

“And when a scientist like Hansen does come into the public arena and set out just how grave the risks are he does it in such a reasonable manner that the media hardly know how to treat him.”

Exactly, leading to the contrarians arguing either (1) if a scientist adopts a moderate, academic tone, then he or she can be disregarded, since the problem can’t really be so very serious, because if it were that serious then scientists would be marching in the street wouldn’t they, or (2) if a scientist (such as Hansen) does march in the street and advocate policy positions, then he or she can be disregarded, since the scientist has become an “advocate” and therefore can’t be trusted.

Macro March 2, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I think it’s about time to start marching in the streets. If we all started marching in the streets, people would have to start taking notice. Scary I know! haven’t really done that since the early 90’s.
Hikoi anyone?

Steve Bloom March 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Finally got a chance to give it a first read, and one thing that stands out is the lack of any reference to Hansen’s work. .

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