Estimates of the sea level rise that will result from continued global warming continue to increase, with two recent papers adding more evidence that the IPCC AR4 projections were unrealistically low. The rise this century could be as high as 1.9 metres, and the long term response to a warming limited to 2ºC could be 6 – 9 metres the studies suggest. There are also signs that New Zealand planners are beginning to take the issue seriously, with Nelson and Wellington both considering the impacts of sea level rises of over a metre.
Catching up with some of the stuff that got lost in the Copenhagen hubbub, this morning I stumbled on a major new effort to provide interactive climate data and visualisations — the Climate Wizard. This amazing tool is the web front end to a collection of temperature and precipitation data and model projections, and allows the user to create custom maps of climate change over the last fifty years, and projections for the 2050s and 2080s for three IPCC scenarios across 16 models. It provides state-level detail for the USA, but coarser regional and global maps for the rest of the world. It can also create ensembles of model projections on the fly:
[Lead author] Girvetz recommends using one of the newest features added to the program, the ability to create an ensemble of some or all of the 16 models. Want to average the temperatures of, say, the 12 climate models that forecast the largest temperature increases? Climate Wizard can do so almost instantaneously. [Source]
The background to the Wizard (a joint effort of the University of Washington, University of Southern Mississippi and The Nature Conservancy) is described in this PLoS One paper.
Apart from being a very interesting way of looking into temperature data and projections, it is also a tool set that can be extended by the addition of extra data: the authors suggest they could include “simulations of global vegetation, fire, water runoff, species range shifts, agriculture, sea level rise, heat stroke, disease, and food security.” They also suggest that the Climate Wizard could provide a basis for web “mash-ups” with services like Google Earth/Maps to help with public education on climate change. Highly recommended.
I wrote a column early in December trying to discern reasons for hope even in the face of the likelihood that Copenhagen was not going to produce a legally binding agreement. In the event it not only did not produce a legal agreement, but endorsed an Accord quite different from the kind of document we were expecting. I’ve asked myself since whether the measure of cautious hope I expressed in advance was foolishly optimistic. Certainly some commentators have suggested so. But not all. Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress website has been upbeat about the Accord. And today he has drawn attention to an article in the Huffington Post by David Doniger, policy director of the US Natural Resources Defence Council’sclimate centre. Doniger hails the Accord as a gridlock breakthrough on three counts:
First, it provides for real cuts in heat-trapping carbon pollution by all of the world’s big emitters. Second, it establishes a transparent framework for evaluating countries’ performance against their commitments. And third, it will start an unprecedented flow of resources to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with climate impacts, protect their forests, and adopt clean energy technologies.
Doniger writes warmly of Obama’s personal involvement in forging the agreement and rescuing the conference from collapse. Brazil’s President Lula commented that it was unlike the kind of discussions that Heads of State normally have, and reminded him of his days as a trade union negotiator. I have read some accounts of the events which suggest that Obama showed little concern for climate change and was revealed as just another political leader manoeuvering to preserve the perceived interests of his own country ahead of those of the global community. It would be deeply disappointing if that were the case. Earlier this year I read both of Obama’s books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, as well as the collection of his election policies and speeches in Change We Can Believe In, and felt they represented an authentic and decent commitment to human welfare. I have written positively on Hot Topic several times about his unequivocal statements on climate change and the measures his administration has already begun to take to address it. “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all.” I certainly don’t want to hastily credit the possibility that this has all been shown up as nothing more than hot air.
Back to Doniger, who addresses some of the concerns he has seen expressed about the Accord. First is the argument that the Accord isn’t enough to keep us under 2 degrees. He concedes that the agreement is not in itself ambitious enough to achieve that, but points out that Obama was quite candid that it is only a first step. Doniger thinks a significant one:
The real goal going into Copenhagen was to get the U.S., China, and the other fast-growing developing countries to take their first steps to curb their emissions. That goal was achieved. And that was no mean feat.
A second expressed concern is that emission cuts aren’t specified. In reply Doniger points to the open enrollment period through to the end of January which allows countries to record their emission reduction commitments. He considers that a year ago the targets and policy announcements on offer today from big developing countries would have been unthinkable. The Accord creates a dynamic situation, with the potential for a virtuous circle of countries reinforcing their commitments over time in response to similar moves by others.
In reply to the objection that the commitments aren’t legally binding, Doniger replies that the Accord sidestepped “legally binding” in favour of action commitments from both the big developing countries and the U.S. Otherwise there was unlikely to have been an agreement. And there are other ways of getting there:
If countries can be bound by a web of interests and economic forces to make and follow through on commitments, that will mean more than any legalistic formulation of their duties.
In response to the objection that the Accord threatens the future of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Doniger points to the limitations of the Conference of the Parties in requiring consensus of all 193 countries – a requirement which finally resulted in the Conference agreeing to “take note” of the Accord rather than adopt it, because of the continuing opposition of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan.
Doniger expects the government of the new Accord is likely to depend in part on the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. Gareth noted in his Copenhagen post that the mix of this organisation covers just about all the necessary bases. This doesn’t mean the UNFCCC will necessarily have no function, as Doniger sees it, but it will need to find ways of working which do not leave it open to rogue obstructionists and it will need to embrace the new agreement wholeheartedly.
Finally Doniger addresses the claim that the Accord won’t move the Senate. It will:
[It] delivers the two principal things that swing Senators have demanded from the international process: meaningful commitments to reducing the emissions of key developing countries, and a transparent framework for evaluating their performance against those commitments.
Political disappointments are not hard to find in the issue of climate change. I’m willing to hope that the kind of analysis of the Accord that Doniger and others offer proves to have some substance.
It doesn’t seem to matter how long I live down here (and it will be 14 years, in a matter of weeks), I still think the man in the moon’s upside down, and Christmas carols don’t sound right when it’s 27ºC and you’ve just barbecued sausages for a Christmas Eve supper. Nevertheless, Hot Topic will be making determined efforts to be jolly, and if the surgical reconstruction of the turkey I’ve just boned goes to plan, then I’ll be far too stuffed to blog for a day or two. Bryan may have other ideas, but HT is likely to be on skeleton service for a week or so. I’ve got a couple of posts in mind, but Mum’s mince pies (the best in the world, of course) must come first. Compliments of the season to one and all, ignore the ghost of Christmas future for a few weeks, and here’s a little something to warm your heart…
Photos of James Hansen’s grandchildren have appeared not infrequently in his presentations in recent years. He obviously delights in them. But he also fears for them. The nature of that fear is spelt out in his newly published book Storms of my Grandchildren with its foreboding subtitle The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.
Last chance? As critical as that? In his lucid concluding summary statement Hansen points to climate system inertia as the reason. Currently inertia is protecting us from the full effects of the changes and can seem like a friend. But, as amplifying feedbacks begin to drive the climate towards tipping points, that same inertia will make it harder to reverse direction. The ocean, ice sheets and frozen methane on continental shelves all resist rapid change, but only for so long. And they are being subjected to human-made forcings far more rapid than any of the natural forcings of the past.
Science is at the core of the book, but Hansen has woven it into a narrative of his encounters with policy makers over the past eight years. In 2001 he was invited to explain current scientific thinking to the cabinet-level Climate Task Force. He focused on changes in climate forcings, in watts per square metre, between 1750 and 2000, using a graph which estimated the effects of a variety changes dominated by human activity. The information seems clear enough as Hansen shares it with us, but it obviously became muddied in the Task Force proceedings, especially when.contrarian Richard Lindzen was invited to the second meeting and focused on uncertainties as well as questioning the motives of “alarmist” scientists. Hansen’s belief that the new administration was serious about wanting to understand climate change looks a little naïve in retrospect. Incidentally Hansen himself is always aware of uncertainties in his science and careful to accord them proper status.
A further invitation to a different White House group in 2003 saw him centre his presentation this time on paleoclimate and the evidence from the past that large climate changes can occur in response to even small forcings. This topic is explored at some length, with occasional exhortations to readers to hang on if it seems to be getting too complicated. Feedback figures prominently here, as does climate sensitivity to doubled carbon dioxide. The non-carbon dioxide forcings such as methane and black soot attracted some interest at the meeting, but the administration by now seemed to share Richard Lindzen’s perspective and to distrust the scientific community. He records no further invitations to White House meetings.
2003 saw the publication of a paper by Hansen which questioned the IPCC and conventional approach to sea level rise. He explains in the book the evidence from paleoclimate studies of rapid sea level rise and discusses the part played by the huge reservoir of energy provided by the ocean and by ice sheet dynamics. If ice sheets begin to disintegrate we can expect no new stable sea level on any foreseeable timescale. Ocean and ice sheets each have response times of at least centuries.
In 2005 Hansen endured the events described by Mark Bowen’s book Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming, reviewed here. Some of this ground is traversed again here, and then Hansen offers readers the bad news that the dangerous threshold of greenhouse gases is actually lower than the 450 ppm he had accepted for some years, and goes on to explain how this change of mind occurred.
The name of Bill McKibben enters the scene at this point, for it was in response to his request for an appropriate parts per million figure for his website that Hansen settled with colleagues to re-examine the question. The result was the famous 2008 paper Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? and McKibben’s 350.org movement. The two climate impacts that Hansen believes should be at the top of the list that defines what is “dangerous” are sea level rise and species extinction. He explains how reduction of CO2 levels to 350 ppm would restore the planet’s energy balance.
Hansen is widely honoured and respected in the scientific community. He has also taken some pains to make his scientific work accessible to the general reader, as his website reveals. He is happy to accept writer Robert Pool’s description of him as a witness, meaning “someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent.”
Criticised for his incursions into the field of policy in more recent years, Hansen is unapologetic about it when he comes to draw conclusions from the research on the appropriate target level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty.” Should scientists deliver that conclusion and then leave it to the politicians to deal with it? Not in his experience. They will fudge the issue if they can. In particular he is scathing in his rejection of cap-and-trade schemes, which he considers will continue to allow fossil fuels to be burned. He favours instead a rising price on carbon applied at the source, with the fee returned to the population in equal shares. This insistence on the carbon tax method rather than emissions trading may well lack finesse, as his critics allege, but the suspicion of vested interests and of the influence of lobbyists which underlies it is surely justified.
He admits that the phasing out of coal emissions by 2030 is a huge challenge. Energy efficiency measures and renewable energy development will probably not in his view be sufficient to replace coal by then, and he eloquently pleads the case for 3rd and 4th generation nuclear plants.
A scary chapter looks at what he calls the Venus syndrome. Back in 1981 when he wrote his first comprehensive paper on the impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide he presumed that, as the reality of climate change became apparent, government policies would begin to be adapted in a rational way. He didn’t count on two challenges to that presumption. The first is the remarkable success of special interests in preventing the public at large from understanding the situation. The second is politicians’ almost universal preference for greenwash and fake environmentalism. All right, he says, what will happen if we go on burning and push the planet beyond its tipping point? After a careful discussion of consequences he concludes that if we burn all the reserves of oil, gas, and coal there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale it’s a dead certainty. Between times lie the storms which will be upon us during the lives of his grandchildren.
Small wonder the scientist has become a climate activist and places such hope as he can muster in the mobilisation of young people to demand appropriate actions from their governments. Activists are not gloom and doom merchants, and it’s clear that he hopes the general public will yet become aware of the real threat discerned by the science and demand the action so far avoided by politicians. All honour to him for the witness he bears.