Clutching at straws

I’d like to return briefly to the fate of Kiribati as sea levels rise, following up my recent post on the conference of the Climate Vulnerable Forum held there last week.  The post made its way through Sciblogs to the  NZ Herald website where a number of people offered comments. The vigour of denial is as evident as always. The sea isn’t rising, or if it is it’s rising slowly enough for coral islands to adjust. The islanders aren’t looking after their environment — they’re blasting their coral reefs and leaving themselves open to the ravages of the sea. They should use their tourist income to do some reclamation to make up for erosion. Salt contamination is due to over-extraction of fresh water by a rising population. The islanders are playing this up in order to get money.

At greater length than the comments in the Herald, Richard Treadgold and Ian Wishart have devoted uncomplimentary posts about the article on their respective websites. Treadgold is fully satisfied that the sea level rise is very moderate, within the range that a coral island can be expected to cope with. He chides me for not being guided by the data he has found, and concludes that if there are problems on Kiribati they are not caused by sea level rise. He’s happy to lend them a hand if they need it, but not because of emotional blackmail or out of a guilty conscience.

Wishart is brutal. He quotes from a Kiribati foreign investment brochure which includes some environmentally foolish suggestions, and concludes:

“Stupid idiots are now seeing ocean rollers eroding their beaches, and trying to milk the climate change lark for all its worth to pay for their utter buffoonery.”

Climate change effects are always intertwined with other aspects of a society’s life. No doubt there are improvements that could be made to Kiribati’s handling of its environment, just as there are in New Zealand. But the attempt to explain away the impacts of climate change by pointing to such defects is clutching at straws. Sea level rise is an overwhelming and unavoidable consequence of global warming.  The science is not difficult to comprehend. Thermal expansion of the existing ocean must follow warmer temperatures. And when land-based ice melts or disintegrates it must end up in the ocean. There’s nothing uncertain about that. It is already under way. The only uncertainty is how much ice will be so transferred and how quickly.

Some commenters refer to the Webb and Kench study which, using historical aerial photos and high-resolution satellite images, reported most of 27 low-lying islands studied in the Pacific are holding their own and even growing.  Coral debris washed ashore is the reason. However Paul Kench points out that this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily continue able to provide human habitation. Nor is it apparent what the more rapidly rising future sea levels expected by many scientists might mean.

The people of Kiribati and other islands consider that they are already seeing the early effects and know it can only get worse. They live there. They experience what is happening on the ground. They are apprehensive. To throw piddling accusations at them or suggest that they have no reason for concern is heartless. Even worse is to claim that they are dishonestly inflating their concern in the hope of getting money from us. It’s true they will need assistance, but it’s in order to help them make what adaptation is possible to the encroaching threats. As Cancun draws nearer the goal set at Copenhagen to provide $100 billion annually from 2020 to assist poorer developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change is coming under the spotlight. “Challenging but feasible” was the conclusion of the recently finalised Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing which will be presented at Cancun. The executive summary on pages 5-8 indicates the wide variety of sources from which the money will need to come.

Heaven knows whether it will eventuate. But what is at stake is more than just the money. The big question is whether we can tackle the threats of climate change as a global community, recognising the obligation of the better off to help those who might otherwise be overwhelmed by its impacts. If we fail to do that for the kinds of reasons offered by some of the commenters I’ve referred to we may well be hastening the day in which we will all be overwhelmed.

46 thoughts on “Clutching at straws”

    1. First off, I do not support the massive corporate welfare that was so easily dished out during the height of crisis. But I would like to point out that you are comparing a one off payment to an annual commitment. At a rate of 5% 100B per year has a present value of $2 trillion (in 2020, less today).

      (I am not claiming that this makes the Copenhagen commitment greater than the banker bail out, unfortunately the banker bailout was still far larger 🙁 – just pointing out an annual payment is different to a one off one)

  1. I doubt that many climate scientists are members of the US plutocracy, which is why climate change mitigation is not getting funded.  Simon Johnson, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, author of 13 Bankers and a blogger at The Baseline Scenario wrote an article in the Atlantic back in May 2009 explaining the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. The intro said:

    The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

  2. I wonder if Webb and Kench actually visited the places they write about themselves and compared underwater evidence from before 1998 with today, or if they just compared images on screens in their labs.

    For anybody who has visited the coral reefs before 1998 and then compared them to today the coral reef decay and bleaching of corals would be easy to see. Where once vibrant underwater reefs protected the islands there are often half dead reefs covered in the rubble of dead corals. The decay is due to rising ocean temperatures and acidity and much has been written about the topic.

    Storms now heap more of this dead rubble onto the beaches than ever before. Where there is no healthy coral regenerating on the reef, the supply of that rubble will soon come to an end.

    What Webb and Kench describe may well be a very visible part of the destruction of these islands seen in action.
    I had the fortune to dive on several Pacific reefs before 1998 and in this decade and I saw these effects with my own eyes comparing the same reefs.

    1998 was a pivotal year for Pacific reefs as the amplification of the GW trend with a very strong El Nino caused a significant jump in shallow water temperatures in that year and provided a preview of what is in store globally.

  3. I recently went to Kiritimati (flying from Ireland) to investigate this problem.
    I cant agree more with authors of this article.
    It is the case of propaganda based on global warming lies.

    I shall provide my further take on this in my documentary which should be finalised in the middle of next year.
    For anyone interested in the topic, please get in touch with me trough email provided. I would love to exchange and discuss some facts about this.

    1. HI Woyteac!

      can you disambiguate your post please? Are you agreeing with Bryan Walkers post here or with the authors Webb and Kench that the islands are fine and who is spouting propaganda based on GW lies according to your opinion?


  4. Extrapolation of the imperfect nature of islander response, to the global climate disruption situation, suggests that we have to do even more now. The minimum won’t be enough.

    Also, note that skeptic criticism of the islanders might likely be directed more specificallly, at islander sea-level-problem-skeptics.

  5. This post illustrates, in a way, one of the points made quite forcefully by Gwynne Dwyer in “Climate Wars”–that being that humans have a serious tendency to squabble and blame each other when things aren’t going well. (Hence the “blame the locals” comments referred to in this post.)

    But finger-pointing and squabbling, seductive though they be, will not help in achieving emissions mitigation, nor in designing optimally effective adaptation strategies. Call it a human-human feedback affecting climate–and increasingly so, as things continue to get climatically worse (as we must for now expect them to continue to do.)

  6. “The science is not difficult to comprehend. Thermal expansion of the existing ocean must follow warmer temperatures.”

    And thermal contraction must follow cooler temperatures – simple.

  7. Current Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly Plot

    -2.8 dC just north of Kiribati.

    That means a thermal contraction of the ocean

    As Brian writes “The science is not difficult to comprehend”.

    So it should not be difficult then, to debate thermal conductivity versus radiative transfer.

    For example, the Gerlich and Tscheuschner criticism:-

    “3.8.1 The heat equation
    In many climatological texts it seems to be implicated that thermal radiation does not need to be taken into account when dealing with heat conduction, which is incorrect [175]. Rather, always the entire heat flow density q must be taken into account. This is given by the equation

    q = – lamda . grad T (115)

    in terms of the gradient of the temperature T. It is inadmissible to separate the radiation transfer from the heat conduction, when balances are computed.”

    I would be very interested to learn from Brian’s overview given that “The science is not difficult to comprehend”.

    He might also like to comment (from a scientific perspective) on G&T’s more controversial criticism:-

    “3.7 The assumption of radiative balance
    3.7.1 Introduction
    Like the physical mechanism in glass houses the CO2-greenhouse effect is about a comparison of two di fferent physical situations. Unfortunately, the exact defi nition of the atmospheric
    greenhouse e ffect changes from audience to audience, that is, there are many variations of the theme. Nevertheless, one common aspect lies in the methodology that a fictitious model computation
    for a celestial body without an atmosphere is compared to another fictitious model computation for a celestial body with an atmosphere. For instance, “average” temperatures are calculated for an Earth without an atmosphere and for an Earth with an atmosphere.
    Amusingly, there seem to exist no calculations for an Earth without oceans opposed to calculations for an Earth with oceans. However, in many studies, models for oceanic currents are included in the frameworks considered, and radiative “transport” calculations are incorporated too. Not all of these re finements can be discussed here in detail. The reader is referred to Ref. [156] and further references therein. Though there exists a huge family of generalizations, one common aspect is the assumption of a radiative balance, which plays a central role in the publications of the IPCC and, hence, in the public propaganda. In the following it is
    proved that this assumption is physically wrong.

    1. You know perfectly well I make no claim to be a scientist and I won’t be making the comment you invite. But the Real Climate Wiki indicates that there’s nothing in what you provide to alter my lay understanding of the science. I hope you’re not going to use this thread to try to gain attention for debunked material.

      1. I was hoping that you may have been able to give a reason for the climate model neglect of thermal conduction, especially at the ocean/atmosphere interface given the ease of comprehension you espouse but I guess not.

        So perhaps it’s better to stick to the simple scientific method of observation and recording.

        NOAA records fifty-five tide gauges in Europe. The average sea level “rise” is minus 1.08mm/year.

        Only three locations out of fifty-five are rising faster than 2mm/year. Twenty three locations have falling sea level.

        Average -1.08
        Murmansk 3.92
        Cuxhaven 2.44
        Tuapse 2.24
        North Shields 1.88
        Kalingrad 1.84
        Newlyn 1.71
        Sheerness 1.64
        Lagos 1.50
        Wismar 1.38
        La Coruna 1.31
        Cascais 1.27
        Marseille 1.20
        Genova 1.20
        Warnemunde 1.20
        Triesete 1.15
        Espjerg 1.05
        Fredericia 1.03
        Brest 1.00
        Gedser 0.94
        Slipshavn 0.93
        Maloy 0.93
        Liepaja 0.88
        Korsor 0.75
        Aberdeen 0.66
        Aarhus 0.56
        Klagshamn 0.53
        Kobenhavn 0.49
        Stavanger 0.42
        Hornbaek 0.25
        Frederickshavn 0.16
        Daugavgriva 0.16
        Kungholmsfort 0.00
        Goteborg -0.13
        Hirtshals -0.20
        Bergen -0.52
        Hamina -1.03
        Heimsjo -1.61
        Smogen -1.92
        Helsinki -2.41
        Hanko -2.76
        Landsort -2.85
        Narvik -3.09
        Turku -3.71
        Degerby -3.77
        Stockholm -3.94
        Oslo -4.53
        Mantyluoto -5.96
        Oulu -6.38
        Kaskinen -6.54
        Raahe -6.81
        Kemi -7.01
        Jakobstad -7.32
        Vaasa -7.36
        Ratan -7.75
        Furuogrund -8.17

        1. Mmm, yummy cherries! Regional figures are only relevant to that region. Globally the picture is clear.

          G&T are off-topic in this thread. They have been so widely debunked that your reliance on them says a great deal about your willingness to clutch at straws.

          1. “Globally the picture is clear.”

            Should read “Globally the picture was clear.” for that data.

            Time has moved on and we’ve had new data since then.

            With the SST cooling anomaly in the Pacific (and around the world) there’s not much chance of sea level rise for a while if the ocean is thermally contracting as it will be around Kiribati.

            “G&T are off-topic in this thread.”

            Fair enough.

            “They have been so widely debunked”

            By the same people that have to use model kludges to make up for the physics deficiencies in their models i.e they debunk themselves.

            1. What new data? The current satellite data is clear enough (check the link I provided).

              Local SST anomalies have little to do with local sea level. ENSO causes major changes in sea level by water movement — “sloshing” on a cross-Pacific scale if you like.

              All models are wrong, but some are useful. We have useful models of the earth system.

            2. “What new data? The current satellite data is clear enough (check the link I provided).”

              The link you provided only provides data up to the beginning of 2010. Since the beginning of 2010, sea level rise has fallen well below the trend line:

              “Local SST anomalies have little to do with local sea level. ENSO causes major changes in sea level by water movement — “sloshing” on a cross-Pacific scale if you like.”

              True, but the Pacific wide cool anomaly has almost reached New Guinea so the warm water has mostly been sloshed away except east of Japan and east of NZ.

              The sea temp immediately to the east and north of NZ however, is now -1.5 dC and when the wind direction comes off the sea, the coolness is noticeable, fishermen and beach walkers alike are commenting on this in the Bay of Plenty.

              This means the lower atmosphere (below PBL) is not being warmed by the ocean (conduction) to the same extent as the anomaly average ’85-’97 and OHC has plateaued since 2004 so there’s not much heat for expansion (sea level rise) or atmospheric warming.

              “All models are wrong, but some are useful. We have useful models of the earth system.”

              I don’t think the models have been given a chance even to predict the past. They might be able to predict the 30’s – 40’s warming/cooling if sunspot cycles and global brightening/dimming mechanisms were employed for example and the bogus forcings were thrown out. Until that happens there’s not much chance they can predict the past let alone 2011 and certainly not 2100.

              I note that model configurations for AR5 submissions are already obsolete before one submission has been posted (as happened with AR4). Using the NCAR CAM as an example, the AR4 submissions will use CAM4 but the CAM5 blurb states:

              “CAM has been modified substantially with a range of enhancements and improvements in the representation of physical processes since version 4 (CAM4). In particular, the combination of physical parameterization enhancements makes it possible to simulate full aerosol cloud interactions including cloud droplet activation by aerosols, precipitation processes due to particle size dependant behavior and explicit radiative interaction of cloud particles. As such the CAM5.0 represents the first version of CAM that is able to simulate the cloud-aerosol indirect radiative effects.”

              But no sign yet of conduction (at the ocean/atmosphere interface) or UHI (being called for by NCAR in-house) but their RTM is one of the better performers.

            3. RC2: I don’t think the models have been given a chance even to predict the past. etc

              You appear to be arguing from ignorance. All GCMs do hindcasts — reproducing the global climate over the last 150 years when fed with with the relevant forcings. You really should try and do some basic reading on the subject before trying to pontificate in front of the more knowledgeable.

              Same goes for much else in your comment.

            4. Re: Richard C2 @ November 17, 2010 at 2:30 pm

              I have seldom seen so many wrong statements and cherry-picks in one comment (and I’ve read plenty):

              1. Focus on time series of insignificant length
              2. Misunderstanding of seasonal variations in sea level rise
              3. Misunderstanding of noise in a time series
              4. Conflation of temperatures and anomalies
              5. Wrong on OHC
              6. Wrong on models and hindcasting
              7. Mentioning the rebunked UHI meme is similar to Godwin’s Law (automatically forfeits the argument)

              All that’s missing is the GCR meme and the it’s a natural cycle meme.

              The Yooper

            5. Clutching at straws for 1,2 and 3.

              4. Conflation of temperatures and anomalies
              5. Wrong on OHC

              You will have to address these to NOAA – it’s their data I’m quoting

              6. Wrong on models and hindcasting

              The IPCC says otherwise

              7. Mentioning the rebunked UHI meme is similar to Godwin’s Law (automatically forfeits the argument)

              See “Capturing heat islands in climate models”

            6. RC2: I’m arguing with the support of AR4 Figure 9.10.

              Not very convincingly. That graph shows how GHG forcing comes to dominate over natural variability since the 1950s, not that the hindcasts weren’t good. For that you need to look at this figure from FAQ 8.1:

              As you can see, the global temp (black) falls within the range of model variability over the last century, but the predictability (which is what the figure you use is talking about) improves as CO2 forcing becomes increasingly dominant.

        2. Richard C2, funny, funny! How come all the negative values without a single exception are from the Fennoscandian post-glacial land uplift area?

          I happen to live here, study this stuff, publish on it even. Are you dumb, or do you assume we are?

    2. RC2: What total bunkum. It reminds me of the senseless ramble often found on those sites run by mad scientists fiddling with their zero point energy etc…. the Internet has given a stage to people who like to concatenate meaningless scientific sounding phrases and post them to impress their mates…..

  8. Mike Hulme, writing in the Guardian, has low expectations for progress in Cancun:

    The post-mortem of COP15 showed how implausible the FAB deal wanted by NGOs – Fair, Ambitious and Binding – really was. The US Senate screwed Obama’s cap-and-trade bill. And no one believes that COP16 in Cancun later this month will be any different.

    Hume has a different view about the trajectory of the climate debate that is worth reading.

    It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof.

    Fred Krupp, writing in the Huffington Post is also looking for a new path forward:

    At the same time, we must accept the reality that climate change has a political problem. For too many people, opposing a solution to climate change has become a political and ideological dogma. As long as many in Congress feel required to oppose any measure in this area, we will not succeed. If we are going to de-carbonize our economy, we have to de-polarize the politics surrounding the conversation. It is worth remembering that no major environmental law has ever passed without substantial bipartisan support. This has always been the case — but the incoming Congress is a fresh reminder that bipartisanship must be the foundation of future progress.

    1. Hulme’s position is odd. He seems to want us to do something, but in defining that something he devolves into lots of mumbo-jumbo that could mean anything or nothing. The key point, as Joe Romm underlined in a post yesterday, is that we need to something now, and we have an international framework for action that could be made to work if the will was there.

      1. If you believe that negotiations are about the substantive issues, sadly, you will be right more than you are persuasive. That means that the truth, the facts, are only one argument in a negotiation. The people and the processes are much more important. This is particularly hard for people who are focused on the substance – doctors, engineers, financial experts – to accept. But, based on research, it is true. You can’t even use substantive issues to persuade effectively unless the other party is ready to hear about them.

        Stuart Diamond

    2. I made an effort to understand Hulme when I reviewed his book, but couldn’t agree with what I thought he was saying. I don’t see how being alarmed by the science of climate change excludes values and ethics – in my mind they’re part and parcel.

      1. What Professor Hume is saying is that if you were a character in Star Trek you would be a Vulcan.

        Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans.
        –Spock in ‘I, Mudd’

    1. I didn’t say it was refuted. It may well be a contributing factor, as the tenor of my post allows. But the accusation of the commenter was that the contamination had nothing to do with sea level rise but was caused by the habits of the local population.

      1. It seems to me though that with several feet of rainfall on an island each year that, as long as the ground water isn’t being depleted though extraction, there would still be a net outwards flow of ground water to the ocean, it doesn’t seem likely that a few cm rise in the average ocean level over decades should have a significant effect.

  9. At the time of the last IPCC report in 2007 sea level rise was
    not a problem or at least not sufficiently understood for the melting poles to be included. The level of research activity in this area is now huge and from the reports it is clear that we are expecting two meters or more by the end of the century. probably around one meter by 2050. One meter is catastrophic for Europe and the USA.
    When Europe has just lost London and Holland and the USA has just lost Louisiana and Florida do you think they will be putting their hand in there pocket to help the people of Kiribati?
    There are only 100,000 Kiribatis so they can be accommodated now but when it really starts to hurt all the doors will be closed. Get out while there is still some help available.

  10. Someone needs to start a save our state movement in Florida. Once a state like FL recognises the impact rising sea levels will have on its existence, and start demanding congress do something about it, other southern states will follow, and that will be the US onboard, and the world onboard. Job done. Perhaps activist groups need more focus on finding a way to convince those people that their homes and everything they own will be underwater in 50 years. It’s not about ideology, red vs. blue, telling people they can’t drive their big 4WD, it’s somehow getting them to understand what it will mean to be under water. E.g. start a campaign warning people not to buy property in these low laying areas, specify these areas, give out colourful detailed hazard maps of FL with likelihoods of what will be underwater when based on the current modelling, etc.

    1. Somebody should point out to to Senator Inhofe that he is favouring coal companies over farmers. If you look at the temperature forecasts for the grain belt area from NOAA there will be no farming in Oklahoma by 2060.
      He might get generous donations from the power companies but the farmers vote for him.
      Democracy can work.

      1. The trouble is that many farmers are only looking one or two seasons ahead! Talking 200 seasons ahead is just too much. It’s head in the sand and business as usual and Oklahoma agriculture is basically oil driven. They are too wedded to fossil fuels.

  11. “Stupid idiots are now seeing ocean rollers eroding their beaches, and trying to milk the climate change lark for all its worth to pay for their utter buffoonery.”

    Seems to me future historians/bloggers will be saying something similar about the U.S. regarding “stupid idiots” and paying for “their utter buffoonery”.

  12. You are misquoting again denialist fool 🙂

    [GR adds: this was in reply to some odd short comments from a bot or spammer, now deleted, see my comment below.]

    1. Only just noticed that. Hot Topic was attacked this morning by some bot or hacker trying to take control of WordPress — odd stuff like malformed urls etc. When I looked at my email at lunchtime, there were 312 attempts to get in via the “contact” form. None worked… 😉 (Crosses fingers). How odd that should happen on the first anniversary of the Climategate hackers breaking into RealClimate and trying to upload their payload of stolen files…

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