The Climate Show #22: Durban doubts & Renwick on extremes

A crisp and crunchy show this week, as Gareth and Glenn interview Dr James Renwick about the IPCC’s cautious new report on extreme weather and the riskier future we all face. With added ruminations on the potential slowdown in international action at the Durban conference, record greenhouse gas levels reached in 2010, the prospect of “hyper warming” and the release of some lightly warmed over stolen emails. No debunking a la Cook this week, but he’ll be back soon, and we have news of the world’s first hybrid jet aircraft.

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The Climate Show

News & commentary: [0:04:30]

Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020 — Ahead of critical talks and despite pledge for new treaty by 2012, biggest economies privately admit likelihood of long delay: Fiona Harvey in the Guardian

But Chris Huhne disagrees.

And Gummer, Prescott and Jay are more upbeat, as is Mark Lynas, adviser to the Maldives.

And just to underline how stupid that all is, the WMO reports record GHG levels in 2010
Reuters, WMO Bulletin.

Which might mean we’re on the way to “hyperwarming”.

Fresh round of hacked climate science emails leaked online: A file containing 5,000 emails has been made available in an apparent attempt to repeat the impact of 2009’s similar release.

Two year old turkey for Thanksgiving: CRU emails part deux, and Stephan Lewandowsky at The Conversation.

Interview [0:27:00]

Dr James Renwick, principal scientist, climate, at NIWA talks to us about the IPCC’s latest report – the SREX, or Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.

See also:, and all links to report here: Stormy weather: we’re making it worse, and there’s more on the way.

Solutions [0:54:00]

California hits 1GW of rooftop solar.

Turning Commercial Jets into Hybrids.

Google drops some projects… A “Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal” initiative launched to drive down the cost of generating solar power was listed among the Google undertakings being nixed. “At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level,” he added.

Thanks to our media partners: Idealog Sustain, SciblogsScoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

21 thoughts on “The Climate Show #22: Durban doubts & Renwick on extremes”

  1. Just to clarify the issue with sea level rise in the Pacific:

    Skeptical Science will have a post on this in a day or two, but the Pacific Islands happen to be in a ‘sea level rise hotspot.’ This is especially the case for the coral atolls of Tuvalu where sea level, since 1950, has risen at almost 3 times the global average.

    The paper that Jim Renwick refers to about changes in Pacific Island land area, Webb & Kench (2010), either by design or chance, is incredibly simplistic and misleading.

    Atolls in the Pacific have only been inhabited for around 2000 years, and this took place after a drop in regional sea level during the mid-Holocene. This exposed the solid reef foundations, known as pinned islets, and made the atolls stable and therefore suitable for habitation. When the solid reef foundations begin to be overtopped by the rising sea (mid to late 21st century) it will be game over.

    See SkS rebuttal: Coral atolls grow as sea levels rise

    And this doesn’t even address the issue of larger storm surges, and the changing background state of ENSO (El Nino/La Nina) affecting rainfall in the region.

    I make no bones about it, we need to be helping our Pacific Island cousins, not making it worse.

  2. Hyperwarming ???

    “DRAMATIC forecasts of global warming resulting from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide have been exaggerated, according to a peer-reviewed study by a team of international researchers.
    In the study, published today in the leading journal Science, the researchers found that while rising levels of CO2 would cause climate change, the most severe predictions – some of which were adopted by the UN’s peak climate body in its seminal 2007 report – had been significantly overstated….”

    1. Benny, the IPCC best estimate of climate sensitivity is 3°C per doubling of CO2 and this study has it at 2.4°C per doubling. It’s not a great deal different. There have been numerous estimates, both high and low. This just adds to the body of knowledge.

      What I find amazing is that the model match to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) data, has ocean surface temperatures only 2°C cooler than present! And yet this was enough to melt the kilometres thick continental ice sheets that covered North America, Europe and Asia!

      If correct, this has dreadful implications for both land-based and marine tropical species, because if they haven’t experienced much change throughout the ice age cycles, they will lack the adaptive ability to cope with the current rapid rate of temperature change. See Burrows (2011) -The Pace of Shifting Climate in Marine and Terrestrial Ecosystems

      I suspect you don’t bother trying to process this “sciencey” stuff, but if you did you might appear less silly.

      1. One thing many of the do nothing brigade overlook is that the 3C or 2.4C or 4.5C sensitivity applies _per doubling_ of CO2 concentration.

        The emissions trajectories they want us to follow will give a great deal more than just one doubling. And no-one knows what level of concentration or its inevitable heating will set off any one of the non-linear events …. Greenland/Antarctica melt, clathrate ‘bomb’, permafrost emissions, forests/oceans emitting rather than absorbing CO2.

        I am in no wise reassured that this particular revision of sensitivity numbers – still within the IPCC range – is just a little bit less.

        1. Ah, bringing facts into it! That’s elitism, you know.

          I actually think we’re often arguing with a mentality that simply cannot do ‘big picture’ or contextual thinking.

          ‘Max 3C rise per doubling.’ Now the Benny’s of this world never take the trouble to doubt scientific findings they like (in fact any one such study is always infallible while mere decades of weighing and collating the range of studies is always suspect and probably mendacious!)

          Therefore temps can never rise higher than that!

          He’s not precisely sure what the two words at the back of the sentence imply, but the whole debate’s been about ‘per doubling’ so that must be where the story ends, right?

          Further, because a rise of 3C is less than 4.5C or 6C, it must be utterly benign! Ahah! So there! Gotcha, Catastrophists! Seriously, if we feared we were looking at a rise of 12C, and a paper came out suggesting it most likely wouldn’t get any higher than 8, these same people would smugly proclaim that this was another outstanding reason to do nothing…

          Very similar things happen with regard to the end of the 21st Century, which has been cited so often as a key point to project consequences out to that a certain mindset seems to assume that when the point is reached either a: the world sort of just ends in that most real of senses – I don’t think about it, so it simply isn’t there, or b: everything sort of gets reset, or something, somehow. Either way there is no history, and no momentum through it. The oceans magically stop rising – or any continuing rise ceases to be perceived as a negative impact, because everyone loves the beach! – temperatures cease to trouble anyone, and, similarly, CO2 levels instantly become benign…

    1. Benny, the current situation is like playing Russian Roulette with a 6 chamber revolver where one of the chambers is loaded with the Hyperwarming bullet. The gun is aimed at the people living in the 22nd century and beyond. If it eventuates they will perish. There are our descendants. I have kids, do you?
      If I told you that some industrial process had a 1 in 6 chance to wipe out humanity, would you let that process carry on because some people currently get rich doing so?
      If I sold you a cheep airfare and told you that the plane has a 1 in chance to crash, would you board the flight?
      The general public will readily cry foul if there is a 1 in 10,000 chance that some compound they might encounter causes them to get cancer and rightfully so.
      But the Bennydales of this world are quite happy to take a 1 in 6 chance of exterminating our chances for a prosperous and liveable future to harvest just a bit more of the summer wine….
      If we do nothing then indeed the Show is over Benny but in a different way you think in your personal bubble of delusions.

  3. “a cheep airfare ”

    It must be absolutely inexplicable to you and others that your warnings carry so little weight.

    I question your precautionary principle and hysteria. “…If it eventuates they will perish…” I am not impressed by the chicanery demonstrated by many climate scientists. See Climategate. I don’t trust Al Gore to tell the (inconvenient) truth and I am encouraged by many in the environmental movement who admit to past lies and hyperbole. (See George Monbiot in the Guardian and Mark Lynas in the Daily Mail.)

    With the next failure in Durban, and the expiration of Kyoto (not to mention the economic meltdown in Europe) a new post-apocalyptic scenario will have to be created. I look forward to less moral blackmail, less dishonesty and hysteria and a little more engagement with political reality and the general public.

    Loosen up a little Mr D. It’s not as bad as you think.

  4. “That, and an inability to arouse public alarm.”

    Quite right and the reason for this is clear. Joe Public have carefully and impartially examined and considered the observational data, the paleoclimate record, without being swayed one way or the other by arguments advanced by climate skeptics. All these climate scientist toffs should simply abandon their research because the careful analysis of Joe Public indicates that there is no cause for alarm, and this is strongly backed by not one but thousands of skeptic web sites and blogs therein. So case closed.

  5. I don’t see how negotiations on an international climate treaty can proceed to an agreement that would actually stabilize the composition of the atmosphere at a level that would not cause DAI without more demand for such an agreement coming from the global population.

    The problem that is so worrying is that the planetary system is so large that the lag time between when the planet is being committed to DAI and when everyone realizes it must be avoided at all costs looks likely to cause, or to have caused already, a fatal delay.

    Consider the runup to WWII. BBC History aired an interview (Sept 2009) with historian Dan Todman, discussing how UK governments were limited in what they could do about mobilizing for war, until the population became really aroused about the threat posed by Hitler. I made a bit of a transcript of one part:

    Todman: “…the government believes that the way to end this war is to depose Hitler. And it thinks that can be done without a complete commitment of British wealth, of British power, of British personnel. And the problem is that it is not a limited aim, getting rid of the head of a totalitarian dictatorship, its a total aim. The only way to do it is to smash that dictatorship. So they misjudge how the war is going to be fought. But they’re not alone in doing that. I mean that’s a widespread misconception amongst the whole population. And the limits on their freedom of action are not just conceptual. Its not that Chamberlain and members of his Cabinet want to continue with business as usual because they are somehow bad people, or that because they believe that always, business must come before national survival. Its really more that they are trapped in a situation, where they can’t gain compliance on the part of the population, either on one side because of there’s a great belief in voluntarism, both from the left and from the right, there’s a strange situation in which you have both the Daily Express complaining about rationing, Beaverbrook launches a campaign against rationing in 1939, and the left also complaining about excessive compulsion.

    So really the Chamberlain government is trapped in a circumstance where it can’t generate the national will that’s necessary to fight a more total war, even as it becomes more and more convinced as it gets into the spring of 1940 that that is what it has to do. And really it is not until the circumstances change, until the fall of France, and this great threat to Britain that emotionally mobilizes the population, that ANY government can start to do that. And it has to be said that even when the Churchill government comes in in 1940 it takes a far more hesitant approach to the mobilization of domestic efforts than is often assumed. May to June 1940 is not as great and decisive a shift as we sometimes think in terms of things like rationing, and the conscription of women, those are events that take place much later in the war. And they’re very concerned, the Churchill coalition, to stay behind the demand curve, really, they’re operating inside the same set of limits as their predecessors, but they’re doing so in a drastically changed international circumstance.”

    When you think about politicians, consider Todman’s remarks about even the Churchill coalition being concerned “to stay behind the demand curve” for decisive action.

    In Canada, for instance, one would be national leader Stephane Dion, committed his Liberal Party to a “Green Shift” where taxes were going to be shifted to emissions of CO2 as opposed to being on income or consumption, and the position of Canada was going to be to become that of a leader in the global effort to do something about climate. His party went down to defeat, and Dion had to resign as leader, ensuring the ascendancy of a Canadian government that denies climate science even as it builds ports in the Arctic to take advantage of the climate change that is not happening to get ready to extract Arctic oil and other resources when the ice is gone. Canadians weren’t ready to follow the Liberals on what seemed like too dramatic of a response to an issue they aren’t that concerned about. And that party, the Liberals, have been in government for more years in the last century than any party in any country.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, David. The “demand curve” is an interesting way of describing the political problem. Building the sort of popular base that forces action is exactly what Bill McKibben’s trying to do, but it’s an uphill struggle with something that remains in most people’s minds – despite encroaching extremes – a problem for the future.

  6. Regarding your remark on The Climate Show about biofuels and aviation:

    There have been studies of how to make liquid fuels that would be carbon neutral and could be suitable for aviation, that are not biofuels. Los Alamos put out a “Green Freedom” concept study which attempted to flesh out what it would cost to extract CO2 from ambient air and convert it into gasoline or methanol. They came up with a figure of $4.60 a gallon for gasoline and $1.60 a gallon for methanol. The Los Alamos engineers selected what looked to them to be the lowest cost most immediately scalable low carbon power source to power their proposed plant, i.e. nuclear power, because “its capital costs are lower than wind or solar” and because the “lifecycle CO2 emissions associated with nuclear” are “lower than all other options except wind and hydroelectric”, but they noted that their plant design could easily use any form of low carbon power “if they become economically competitive”.

    $4.60 a gallon for a liquid fuel like gasoline made from CO2 extracted from air, even if its just a concept study and not a full scale plant demonstration, starts to flesh out what carbon neutral aviation would cost even if competition from humans for food crops limited the scale at which biofuels could be made.

  7. The “burn it all” scenario the “Hyperwarming” article discusses was discussed by Hansen during his AGU Bjerknes Lecture a few years ago. He stated that although his model “blows up” when he tries to get it to model what happens if that much CO2 is injected by humans, i.e. with all fast and slow feedbacks and over the longer term, he said it was his opinion that it was a dead certainty that the planetary system would heat up so much that the global ocean would boil away and all life on Earth would end. Hyperwarming indeed. He called this the “Venus Syndrome”. See: (He started his career studying Venus.) His minimum idea of hyperwarming is 250 feet of sea level rise.

    The hyperwarming article uses the phrase “previously unknown sources of positive feedback” but what it was referring to was feedbacks that the IPCC climate model studies do not include. Climate scientists know about them. Eg: No one knows when something like a reenactment of the PETM would occur when the methane clathrates that are known to exist today start to melt out and enter the atmosphere, so they don’t put it into models. But they know a geological time frame sudden release of methane into the atmosphere has happened before, and they know the “clathrate gun” looks to be fully charged up and ready to go now.

    Consider what triggers the ice ages, i.e. the tiny forcing that comes as the Earth’s orbit and spin axis is perturbed by the motions of other planets: less than 0.2 of a watt/m2. The CO2 and other GHG change and albedo change that actually causes the temperature to change is a feedback to this Milankovich cycle.

    Presumably it has been felt that to get the attention of policy makers and the general public you’d need to focus on some near term date like 2050, and something certain, like existing concentration of GHG especially CO2 and projections of emissions given the fossil fuel infrastructure and the rate at which it is being built.

    But the fact is that given the sensitivity anyone studying paleoclimate records can see, i.e. Canada covered with one mile thick of ice, or not, in response to the tiny forcing Milankovitch identified, and given the GHG already in the atmosphere that must commit Earth to much larger changes than are predicted now by any model, albeit over the next hundreds of years and millenia rather than next month, only returning the composition of the atmosphere to the preindustrial 280 ppm offers much hope of hanging on to a climate something like what existed as civilization evolved.

    That’s why Hansen calls all the talk about 450 ppm and 2 degrees C a “prescription for disaster”, and it is why he says there is too much GHG in the atmosphere already.

    His case that although it is possible that Earth had as much as 4000 ppm CO2 at times in the past and didn’t boil off its ocean, the Venus Syndrome is possible now, is that the Sun is hotter and the present human caused forcing is more rapid than any known increase in forcing of planetary history which doesn’t allow negative feedbacks such as rock weathering to come as fully into play.

    1. This comment got me reading what Hansen actually said. 10-20 W/m² of forcing in those slideshow notes enough for a Venus Syndrome.

      Specifying forcing is a much more concrete definition than relying on sensitivity. For instance, the extra forcing from CO₂, CH₄, N₂O and CCl₂F₂ adds up to about 2.26W/m².

      We know from Watts, Goddard et al (perpetual) that water vapour is 95% of the greenhouse effect, so to arrive at a total forcing figure we can simply multiply that 2.26W/m² by 20, and we’re already at 45W/m².

      A script for a black comedy is writing itself in my head, set in the year 3000, with humanity forced into small floating bubbles, with powerful futuristic air conditioners cooling their contents from the 60ºC average air temperature in cooler parts of the world, oceans in shallow parts of the world like the Amazonian Sea boiling, and a Christopher Mockton CCCXXVI, Viscount of the Bletchley seafloor, maintaining that this is all a part of a natural cycle, and it’s actually the Sun.

      1. Just to follow up – the Wikipedia article I linked to has a section on the percentage of the greenhouse effect attributable to water vapour. 66% to 85% including clouds. So, the multiplication factor would be no more than, say, 6. And actually, a real back-of-the-envelope calculation would also require the whole effect to be considered, ie, starting from black body.

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