Climate Code Red

Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action

This week I watched a short video clip of climatologist James Hansen inviting people to join an act of civil disobedience on March 2 at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC which  powers Congress with coal-based energy. In his laid-back but serious way he remarks it is hard to realise that climate change is an emergency.  This is the realisation that Melbourne-based authors David Spratt and Philip Sutton invite in their book Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action. The book was launched in July 2008 by the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser and has been commended by Hansen himself and many others.  It was also the basis of a 52-page advocacy report Climate Safety (pdf) issued by the Public Interest Research Centre in the UK in November and commented on warmly by George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Fred Pearce and many others.

The authors paint a sombre picture. They point out that the predictions of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change in its report last year are already being shown as too conservative. The loss of Arctic sea ice, thought likely to take a century, appears to be happening in a much shorter space of time. Rapid sea ice disintegration will mean less reflectivity, greater regional warming, and permafrost melt with release of uncertain levels of carbon dioxide and methane.

The way in which the pace of climate change can quicken as its early effects trigger amplifying consequences is carefully explained for the general reader. Thus we face the possibility of faster disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet than has before been thought likely, vulnerability in the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the likelihood of much higher sea rises than anticipated, as well as widespread species and eco-system destruction.

The authors lament the limitations of the IPCC system, ascribing them partly to pressure from vested interests harboured by some countries, partly to the long process of gathering the information from published material and the early cut-off date for reports, and partly to scientists being uncomfortable with estimates based on known but presently unquantified mechanisms.  It adds up to a process so deficient as to be an unreliable and even misleading basis for policy-making.

The book looks at what the atmospheric targets for a safe climate need to be.  Where we are now, if methane and nitrous oxide are included, is equivalent to 455 parts per million of CO2.  They estimate this indicates a global temperature rise of 2.1 degrees centigrade, at present delayed by the heat being used to warm the oceans (minus 0.6 degrees) and the short-term net cooling effect of aerosols (minus 0.7 degrees) to give today’s warming of 0.8 degrees.

They discuss the target of two degrees of global warming regarded by some as tolerable.  To stop at two degrees probably means a CO2 equivalent level of 400 ppm. We have already exceeded that level, but the climate system’s inertia would enable us to not exceed two degrees if we returned to 400 ppm after an overshoot.

But in their view two degrees is too dangerous, and the three degrees cap effectively being advocated by Australia’s government and others is a recipe for devastation. The book looks at what a safe climate means and what action is required to achieve it.  A safe climate includes such features as: retaining the full summer Arctic sea-ice cover, the full extent of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the full extent of the mountain glacier systems, including the Himalayas and the Andes; maintaining the ecological health and resilience of the tropical rainforests and coral reefs, with no loss of area or species;  maintaining the health and effectiveness of the natural carbon sinks; capping ocean acidity. To do this we need to cool the globe we have heated.

At this point they introduce the 2008 paper (pdf) by Hansen and others which considers a CO2 level of 300-325 ppm may be needed to restore Arctic sea ice to its area of 25 years ago.  They note that this would also be a reasonable boundary for achieving the other features of a safe climate.

Since the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already too high we must not only stop its emission but also draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Some geo-engineering with aerosols may be temporarily required, but only as a complement to ceasing emissions.

So far as the science is concerned we have an emergency. At this point the authors turn from the science to the political action required. Political pragmatism collides with scientific necessity. Current political targets are reckless. The book explores and rejects all the reasons given for inadequate responses ranging from hopelessness through claimed uncertainty to the impossibility of a full solution. Compromise will not do. There is no lack of technical or economic capacity to cut greenhouse gas emissions to close to zero, only of political and social will. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere can be reduced by greatly enhancing natural sinks such as tree and other biomass planting on a large scale and by agricultural charcoal stored in soils. But such measures are unlikely under politics as usual.  The authors counsel moving into emergency mode to produce the economic restructuring needed, using the example of wartime US when the economy was rapidly turned to service the war effort.  Against those who protest that action on climate change will cause economic harm they note that in wartime US unemployment fell, wages grew faster than inflation and company profits boomed.

The book pulls no punches, and that is probably its chief value.  It assembles the latest science and shows how we are preparing a possibly cataclysmic future if we carry on as usual. It makes it clear that the threat can’t be countered by partial measures, as many politicians still seem to think. To those who declare it impossible that the political world will ever gather enough resolution for the steps required it replies that politicians will find resolution enough if they recognise we face an emergency. In other words, the economics and politics must be guided by the science, which is stark and inescapable.
A slightly off-topic postscript:  The Heartland Institute also saw the Hansen videoclip mentioned at the beginning of this review.  Here’s their excited response:

“Demands for the firing of NASA astronomer and global-warming fear-monger James Hansen are spreading rapidly through the World Wide Web.

“Hansen’s latest escapade – a YouTube video in which the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences invites the public to “please join us” in forcibly occupying a D.C.-based coal-burning power plant – resulted in The Heartland Institute Monday calling attention to the growing chorus of voices urging President Barack Obama to fire Hansen. The astronomer has a tawdry record of doctoring climate data to fit his theory that the Earth is in a global-warming crisis, and he has demanded that scientists who disagree with him face a Nuremberg-style trial.”

Mark Bowen’s Censoring Science, recently reviewed on Hot Topic is obviously still relevant.

56 thoughts on “Climate Code Red”

  1. …and how about this, the possibility of a TV debate between John Kerry and George Will…says Kerry…

    ..A highly organized, well-funded movement to deny the reality of global climate change has been up and running for a long time, but it doesn’t change the verdict: the problem is real, it’s accelerating, and we have to act. Now. Not years from now…Stubborn or stupid — lets have a real debate and lets have it now.I know George Will well, I respect his intellect and his powers of persuasion — but I’d happily debate him any day on this question so critical to our survival…”

    Great news !

  2. Judging by the sheer ignorance George Will has displayed in his last two columns here and here he would be most unwise to debate with anyone who has done some reading in the climate science area. He obviously hasn’t. His intellect and powers of persuasion may be as worthy of respect as Kerry says, but his application certainly isn’t. He should knuckle down to some serious reading of even one book written by a working American climate scientist for the general reader. Archer, Ward, Broecker, Alley come immediately to mind, some of them reviewed on Hot Topic. For an analysis of Will’s columns have a look at Joseph Romm’s posts here and here.

  3. Yes, I’d prefer to see 2 scientists debate, but hey, this would be a big step forward, and may even lead to say Hansen debating.

    Imagine the networks scrambling to get on board…personally, I think this is John Kerry grandstanding and won’t get to air. But it would be great if it did !

  4. For goodness sake Ayrdale….

    It’s not about debates. Science is about research and evidence (scientific method) and publishing in a peer reviewed journal. This debate you want happens during the peer review process, not some ‘pop’ debate you want.

  5. …hi jonno. Seeing the question is of such importance I would imagine the idea of a series of debates involving protagonists would be welcomed by all concerned.

    And by the way, we wouldn’t have got this far debating without the truly accessible technology of the blogosphere.

    As WattsupWithThat says (Winner best science blog 2008)…
    “I get a kick out of Kerry’s line “This has to stop”. Okay then, please debate Mr. Will, put a stop to it Mr. Kerry!”

  6. Ayrdale, let me return you to the book this post reviews. Its authors report the work of climate science and recognise that it reveals a climate crisis facing humanity. The science is serious and considered. It has certainly not emerged without careful scrutiny and debate within the scientific community, as Jonno points out. The book’s claim is that our political and economic response must be adequate to the situation that the science reveals. George Will, who seems entirely ignorant of how scientists work, pours journalistic scorn on both the science and any attempt to respond to it politically. You perhaps don’t go quite as far as that, but the urging of delay which underlies many of your comments indicates that you simply don’t yet appreciate the seriousness of what the science reveals.

  7. Ayrdale

    Why am i not surprised you want a debate? This is, after all, the tried and true strategy of all cranks – keep a debate going so that the public continues to be confused about global warming. The tobacco industry employed the same, “doubt is our product” strategy for years – indeed some of the more prominent climate cranks like Fred Singer used to work for the tobacco industry.

    And as for Mr Will, I refer you to the folk over at Real Climate , who are climate scientists who regularly publish peer reviewed climate science, as opposed to a retired weather presenter.

  8. cindy, Ayrdale’s natural reply is ‘you don’t want a debate because you’re scared/you want to suppress debate about your religion’ – how will you get around that?

  9. Cindy, sigh no more, at least in relation to the technical hitch, though you may well want to sigh over Stephen’s comment. Gareth empowered me to go backstage and I’ve been able to edit your comment so that the links are available.

  10. No need to apologise Stephen; you’re probably, sadly, quite right about Ayrdale’s natural reply. It’s a common enough accusation from denialist circles, and they seem to have convinced themselves that it’s a telling one. But I won’t trespass on Cindy’s ground.

  11. cheers for the tech support Bryan.

    StephenR: sigh

    Come on, you must know the answer to this one.

    “Debate” in the scientific world, is carried out through a process of peer reviewed research. A research paper is produced. It is peer reviewed for rigorousness.

    If someone disagrees, they go off and do their own research, publishing their own peer reviewed research paper – proving, expanding on, or disproving the theory. It’s a debate, albeit a much more long-winded one.

    A “he said she said” debate between two scientists (sorry, crank vs scientist), as is the constant demand from the crank world, will not progress scientific understanding. It is aimed at cranks “winning” their cherry picked arguments – or not – with the public, so as to talk policymakers out of taking action on climate change. This is the way that cranks can get onstage.

    I shall hark back to the old quote which I’m always dragging out on these pages… Frank Luntz’s advice to Bush in ’01:

    “The scientific debate remains open. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

    It’s been the crank strategy ever since.

  12. Thanks cindy.

    A “he said she said” debate between two scientists (sorry, crank vs scientist), as is the constant demand from the crank world, will not progress scientific understanding.

    I should have added: as a method of bringing an issue out of academia (where as you say, the research rightly originates) and in to the public domain, debates are up there in the popularity stakes for the public. I would tentatively reckon that getting a scientist up there to merrily quash crank arguments wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen…or perhaps such events would be too open to obfustication?

  13. yup. he does.

    LUNTZ: It’s now 2006. Now I think most people will conclude that there is global warming taking place, and that the behaviour of humans is affecting the climate.

    transcript of a BBC Panorama programme Sept 2006.

    And about debates – the public sees two people arguing, doesn’t get the detail, is left with the perception there’s still a debate.

    Sure, there’s lots of bits of the global warming science which are still puzzling, and which scientists are still debating/working on, but not the bit that says it’s happening and that we’re causing it through the burning of oil, coal and gas.

  14. Well Stephen R and Cindy that’s very interesting.
    The debate goes on and we can each quote experts…and that points out that the science of climate change is obviously still not settled.
    See the ongoing Ibuki, CERN and Argos experiments.

    What is also not settled is the planet’s present cooling phase, in spite of rising CO2 levels, and if the science is not settled then the much loved precautionary principle simply won’t do.

    But what is settled is that whatever NZ decides to do it won’t make a blind bit of difference…

    And what is also settled is that Joe Public will not be bullied or frightened into radical measures…

    “… A few environmentalists on the left understand the profound defects of the radical green approach to politics, along with the conventional green approach to global warming. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, self-described “progressives” and authors of one of the most challenging recent books on the environment, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, recognize and lament the authoritarianism of conventional environmentalism…”

  15. What is also not settled is the planet’s present cooling phase

    You want to show us some evidence of the cooling phase.
    You seem pretty sure that climate change is a scam so why don’t you have a go at explaining to us where the science is wrong. And despite the evidence stacking up day by day, why we should risk our own futures and those of our kith and kin on your say so. You really need to give us some heavy duty information, not just links to book review sites and opinion pieces.

  16. Well, have a look at this.

    As I keep saying, the science is by no means settled…Headlined “No significant global warming since 1995”

    “The recovery of the earth’s climate from the little ice age started about 200 years ago, but the concentration of the atmospheric carbon dioxide started to increase significantly as late as in the 1950s, probably due to rapidly increased burning of fossil fuels.

    The climate recovery is still an ongoing process today. A natural warming rate of roughly 0.5 deg C /100 years has been the baseline for more than 100 years, but both short (a few years) and long (20 years) fluctuations around the baseline have occurred for natural but highly speculative reasons, for example a rapid warming in the 1930s followed by a cooling period, and recently again warming until about 1998.

    According to the UK climate panel IPCC, this last warming period has been forced by increased carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. There is however no proof of that and the theory of how carbon dioxide influences the global mean temperature is complicated and unreliable. And if the global temperature again starts to increase slower than the natural long-term trend of 0.5 deg C/100 years, or even starts to cool, we can be quite certain that the recent faster warming trends have been natural too…”

    No need to panic…

  17. …and interesting too, that the item you led off with, Hansen’s mass civil disobedience in Washington is likely to be a chilly affair…the forecast…

    Includes the Counties: District Of Columbia, Arlington/Falls Church/Alexandria

    Includes the cities: Washington, Alexandria, Falls Church

    Tonight…Snow. Snow accumulation of 4 to 8 inches. Brisk with lows in the lower 20s. North winds 20 to 25 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. Chance of snow near 100 percent.

    Monday…Cloudy. Snow likely in the morning…Then a chance of snow in the afternoon. Additional snow accumulation around an inch. Total snow accumulation 7 to 8 inches. Brisk with highs in the mid 20s. Northwest winds 20 to 25 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. Chance of snow 70 percent.”

    Oh the irony (and the publicity )…

  18. Oh where to start:

    “the science is by no means settled…Headlined ”
    No, headlines aren’t science –

    Oh the irony…
    Weather and climate are not the same thing

  19. Jonno and Ayrdale – I’ve intervened and edited to tone down Jonno’s exasperation, understandable though it is, and remove Ayrdale’s response which became no longer necessary. If I’ve removed anything important try again, but let’s try to keep it polite.

  20. Thank you Bryan, sorry about that, it was rude, but sometimes these cracks are just crazy and repeat themselves.

    “Washington is likely to be a chilly affair”

    That fits well in the climate change theory (a science term) that climate will become more extreme, not just warmer.

  21. So where is this evidence for a cooling phase, show us some numbers, some analysis by the folk that actually do the measurements would be useful. Have a look round and see if you can come up with something solid to back up your claim. Directing us to an opinion piece by an expert in waste water treatment is hardly cutting edge science.

  22. My problem with you Ayrdale is that you keep posting something, it gets debunked, and then you offer no counter argument. You just post something else and that gets debunked, and so on. You never respond to why you think you are right and provide no evidence to back your original posts (because it is clear that you are wrong). It is classic climate scepticism.

  23. And here’s the NY Times nicely summarising the two independent papers which destroyed Spencer’s theory and another showing that when the errors were corrected, it showed the troposphere to actually become WARMER.

    And regarding your facts and arts link, Ayrdale, the graphs are lovely but let’s see those years in context of the last 400,000 years, such as here .

  24. Can you please explain this ‘global cooling’ when every year this century appears ih the 10 hottest years on record list.

    It makes no sense what you’re on about Ayrdale… no sense at all!

  25. Climate science is ongoing and uncertain isn’t it ?
    That’s the issue of the day, to prove that the debate isn’t over, that the knowledge is incomplete, We don’t need to panic, (we have Rodney Hide and John Key here too to reassure us.)

    I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge Roy Spencer as a leader in his field, with integrity.

    This is what Spencer wrote in rebuttal on February 21st…

    The debate goes on…

  26. Ayrdale, I’m not prepared to tolerate a comment which describes Gore and greens in such nasty terms, and I’ve deleted part of it.

    I suggest to other commenters that we leave Ayrdale to it on this post. He will no doubt take this as evidence that he’s won something, but he’s going to think that however long we carry on.

  27. Ayrdale, I’m not prepared to tolerate a comment which describes Gore and greens in such nasty terms,

    That is a VERY harsh censorship regime you’re running there Bryan…I REALLY don’t think anyone needs to be protected from stuff like that. You can’t really be saying that someone accusing sceptics of using ‘power, fear and overstatement’ would be overstepping the bounds too?

  28. Stephen, Ayrdale’s comments were gratuitous. They didn’t arise out of the discussion on this post, and I don’t think a commenter can presume that the website is available for random abusive comment (which, by the way, your summary made appear much more restrained than I recall it being). Neither Gore nor greens have figured in the discussion. If you’re alleging bias I may point out that I have already interfered in the thread to protect Ayrdale himself.

  29. Jonno, I don’t ignore the others.

    I just point out that before we accept profound changes to our lives we have to be satisfied those profound changes are justified by the facts.
    And there is no consensus over the facts involving climate change/global waming.
    There are computer models, and there are scientists who advise us whether or not we should accept the computer predictions, there are scientists still working out how the planet regulates its temperature and their are politicians who see their political agendas advancing by taking up one side of the argument.

    We are witnessing history, and the debate is coming into our homes via the blogosphere and we have a chance to participate. Not to be panicked by bogeymen.

  30. “And there is no consensus over the facts involving climate change/global waming”

    Once again:

    And science is not about consensus, it’s about the peer reviewed evidence and the evidence for AGW is enormous, many countless studies.

    You still put forth arguments that have been debunked and still claim that you have evidence to prove AGW is not real.

  31. Jonno, the studies keep coming in thick and fast…this from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, New Jersey, suggests that natural variability has been underestimated by climate models, and this cooling trend (which I mentioned yesterday) may last another 30 years…

    “…It appears that global cooling recognition may be starting to make headway in the scientific community. We have this Discovery/MSNBC article about a NOAA scientist titled “Warming might be on hold, study finds“

    “…Earth’s climate continues to confound scientists. Following a 30-year trend of warming, global temperatures have flatlined since 2001 despite rising greenhouse gas concentrations, and a heat surplus that should have cranked up the planetary thermostat.”

    Worth a look ?

  32. I have read the news article immediately and make the following comments
    1 This hypothesis is still tentative and therefore should be treated with caution (it may be right, it may be wrong)
    2 Even if the effect is happening there is considerable uncertainty about its duration (a few years up to thirty)
    3 The authors do not conclude that there is any cooling going on, just that there might be a hiatus in warming occurring
    4 Once this short term cycle concludes (even thirty years is short) temperature rise is expected to return with a vengeance making up for any delayed warming (physics being what it is)
    5 The previous poster seems to be implying that as long as further temperature increases are not happening on our watch stuff our [collective] children and grandchildren.

  33. Yes thank you Doug, that’s a good synopsis, although with respect, there is certainly some planetary cooling going on, a propos to what the climate models predicted…”…even though temperatures should have gone up by 0.2 degrees Centigrade (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) during that time….”

    “…The discrepancy gets to the heart of one of the toughest problems in climate science — identifying the difference between natural variability (like the occasional March snow storm) from human-induced change.

    But just what’s causing the cooling is a mystery…”

    …and the mysteries and uncertainties about global warming and cooling remain.

  34. There is a saying in science

    “A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference”

    This study does NOT make a difference to the conclusion that human activity is warming the planet. It is commenting on the timing.

    There are mysteries (I prefer unknowns as to me mysteries implies unknowable, a concpet with which I am not comfortable), but based on how much we do know (which is a lot) the probability that these unknowns will make a ‘difference’ to our current conclusions is very small.

  35. …quite right Doug. The timing is important, as is the time scale…

    If this study is correct, that the planet’s warming may continue to slow down or even cease for up to 30 years, then it calls into question all our computer models which suggest otherwise. Wouldn’t you agree ?

    And in addition this study points out, as I have repeatedly said, that the science of climate change is not settled. If it was then we would surely have foreseen this period of non-warming, even though CO2 levels are increasing…

  36. “as I have repeatedly said, that the science of climate change is not settled”

    What has been settled is that humans adding extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has changed the climate.

    I really quest your statement, as you are not a scientist and have no scientific background, you really have no leg to stand on.

  37. on the 400,000 year timescale, 30 years ain’t much. Still got to drop considerably to get back to “normal”. Even if it flatlined for 30 years, we are all experiencing impacts of climate change now… and it ain’t pretty.

    Ask the people fleeing Victoria’s bushfires. Ask the Argentinian farmers who have lost 1million head of cattle in a record drought. Ask the people in the Catarets islands. Ask the insurance industry.

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