We can run, but we can’t hide…

earthhour.jpg This article appeared in the Perspectives section of The Press yesterday, as part of the paper’s build up up to Earth Hour this weekend. I haven’t seen the letters page today, but I expect the usual suspects will be out in force… 😉

The news isn’t good. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advised two years ago that the evidence for global warming was unequivocal, the pace of change has speeded up. Summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has seen a dramatic decline, and in a worrying foretaste of what may be to come, methane — a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — has been found bubbling out of the ocean floor off Siberia. Down south, analysis of a core drilled into the seabed under the Ross Ice Shelf by a team including scientists from New Zealand (using Kiwi drilling expertise), demonstrates that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is unstable and likely to collapse if warming continues as we expect over the coming century. Experts are revising their projections of sea level rise upwards with each piece of bad news. A metre or more by the 2090s is now a real possibility.

For those who follow developments in the study of climate change, this is genuinely alarming news. In this field, familiarity with the facts does not breed any sort of complacency. But by drawing attention to the uncomfortable truth, I fully expect to be labelled an “alarmist” by those who argue for inaction.

It seems that there is a disconnect between the severity of the problem as it’s perceived by experts, and how it’s seen in the wider world. Climate change happens slowly in human terms — a big issue described by small numbers. It’s difficult to work up a sweat about a two degree increase in New Zealand’s annual average temperature (projected for the 2090s on one scenario) when a southerly change blowing up the east coast can drop the temperature by ten degrees in ten minutes. The reality is that two degrees means that even a cool year in the 2090s will be hotter than the hottest year New Zealand’s experienced in hundreds, probably thousands of years. A hot year will be scorching. Damaging droughts will be twice as frequent, the glaciers will be disappearing fast, severe floods will be more common and low-lying land will be lost to rising seas. With climate, little numbers bring big changes.

There are more uncomfortable facts we have to face. Significant changes in global climate are now inevitable. Nothing we can do, no amount of emissions reductions will prevent the planet warming up by around another 0.6ºC over the next 30 years, as the oceans “catch up” with the heat being trapped by the atmosphere. This will take the world to the brink of a two degree increase over the temperatures of 150 years ago. The dramatic changes we are already seeing are going to continue and get worse. The Arctic Ocean may be free of ice in summer, more ice shelves will collapse around Antarctica, and there’s nothing we can do stop it.

But we still have to reduce our carbon emissions — and soon. Every year we delay cutting emissions is a year of extra warming added on at the end of the catching up period. If we don’t cut emissions, we condemn those of us who will live in the second half of this century to rises of 3, 4, or 5 degrees (or more) — warming that will radically transform the face of the planet and cause the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

There’s also a wild card in play — that the warming we can’t avoid will be enough to cause large positive feedbacks to kick in. If too much methane is released from the East Siberian Shelf or the permafrost that rings the Arctic it could swamp any emissions reductions we make, and push the planet into rapid warming beyond any hope of human influence. At the moment we don’t know enough to even guess at the extent of the danger, but the methane is already bubbling…

We don’t have perfect knowledge of the climate system and how it will respond to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, but we already know enough to act. The direction of change is clear: it’s going to get hotter. We can’t be certain how hot it’s going to get, or exactly what that means for New Zealand. But the risks are not that the warming will be smaller than we expect, but that it will be larger. Will climate change be a challenge or a catastrophe? The evidence still suggests that it’s a challenge to which we can rise, but the possibility of catastrophic change can’t be ruled out.

Sadly, there are still people who remain to be convinced that we face any problem, or who argue we need more evidence before we take any action. In reality, “sceptics” who deny the need for action have their argument exactly the wrong way round. We have a mountain of evidence that suggests we need to act now to address a huge problem. To persuade the world that we need to do nothing, the sceptics require extraordinary proof. They need their own mountain, but all they have is a molehill. The balance of evidence is clear. The sceptics are on the wrong end of a seesaw, heading skywards.

If we’re lucky climate change will continue to be a relatively gradual process, slow enough for humans to adapt to, without too many big surprises in store. The world still has time to make emissions cuts deep enough to prevent the worst effects later this century. As a scientific conference in Copenhagen earlier this month concluded, inaction is now inexcusable.

19 thoughts on “We can run, but we can’t hide…”

  1. A quibble: the mere fact that “methane — a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — has been found bubbling out of the ocean floor off Siberia” is not necessarily of concern. Methane seeps from the ocean floor are not uncommon, and I believe there are some near New Zealand. This Wikipedia article gives some more information


    What would be of concern are any indications that emissions of methane from the Arctic are increasing with the melting of the permafrost. I have seen news articles suggesting this is the case. I should think the methane in this case would tend to come from bogs and lakes, not from the ocean floor.

  2. Reasonable point, Mark: there are certainly plenty of documented methane hydrate seeps around the world. On the Siberian Shelf, the people doing the work are pretty sure we’re seeing increases, and there has been a distinct uptick in global methane over the last two years. More in an upcoming post.

    The point I was making, however, is that it’s ominous, not comforting news…

  3. Gareth, is it possible to insert a search function within your blog? I ask because we could direct Mark H to the extended referenced discussions on methane that we engaged in late last year. This would direct Mark to primary sources, answer his comment, and save you needing to recap.

  4. Search function’s in the left sidebar: it searches all the blogs and sites in the climate blogroll, so a “methane” search will pick up everything here, and at RealClimate etc etc…

    Mark’s a regular. I’m sure he’s read my methane stuff, but being a scientist he’s a stickler for accuracy…

  5. I’m sure I have read your methane stuff, but I may not have been paying attention. So some pointers to previous discussion would be welcome. It didn’t take me too long to find this


    I see no strong evidence that what they’re observing is new or unusual for the area and I tend to agree with the “note of caution” expressed here


    PS: Stickler for accuracy or not, I have no particular expertise in the area of global methane budgets.

  6. you can of course always do a google site search by typing site:hot-topic.co.nz into Google, e.g.
    or go to the Google Advanced search page
    and type the site name into the Search within a site or domain: box.

    very useful for www detectives and this is how this study was conducted

  7. Gareth,
    I think anyone investigating methane release in the Arctic
    should start with Russian researcher Dr. Igor Semiletov and
    Swedish researcher Dr. Orjan Gustafsson and their weblogs
    from the cruise aboard the Yakov Smirnisky last summer.
    Dr. Semiletov’s paper with Dr. Natalia Shakhova at the EGU
    meeting in February of 2008 , and his paper at the
    AGU meeting in December of 2008, are the best summary
    references. As a physicist, I rather hope the Swedish Academy
    of Sciences will award them the Nobel prize in physics, although
    the prize in chemistry would probably be more appropriate:
    methane release from the Arctic is of such singular significance.
    In the years that I have read your website, I have been impressed
    with your brilliant skills in following in following climate science and
    making it generally accessible. The only reference that I would add
    that I have not already seen on your site, is the report from the
    greenhouse gas monitoring station on Mt. Zeppelin, Svalbard, Norway
    (TA-2480/2009 , page 16,
    on the web at http://www.sft.no/publikasjoner/2480):

    “The average annual growth rate [in observed concentration of
    methane] is +2.7 ppb per year for the period 2001-2007 this
    corresponds to an increase of 0.14% per year. Comparably the
    annual trend for the period 2001-2006 was +1.9 ppb thus last year’s
    increase has changed this by more than 40%.”

    I hope this helps.

  8. Gareth, you’ve hit on a crucial point in this post: the disconnect between expertise and how it’s seen in the wider world. This stems in part, I think, from the time frame.

    A commonly understood issue amongst disaster managers is the question of advance warning of predicted disasters. Too much advance warning breeds complacency; too little doesn’t give sufficient time to prevent/prepare/mitigate/evacuate. If the predicted disaster fails to occur on the predicted date, people who have been evacuated become restless, go home, and often die when the disaster finally happens (volcanic eruptions are a prime example). Getting the timing right plays a major role in disaster management. And of course crucially, before any response can be formulated, the nature of the disaster must be identified.

    If one regards climate change as a global disaster that requires a multi-pronged management strategy, and the IPCC 4th Assessment Report as a guideline for disaster managers, two things are immediately evident. The timing (generally ‘by the end of the century’) appears beyond the potential victims’ and even their children’s lifetimes. Moreover, rather than just one or two events, say a cyclone and subsequent mudslide, there are multiple events staggered over time, including events that intuitively may seem unrelated (to some), such as tectonic movements due to isostatic rebound and eustacy, escalating food costs and home insurance premiums, and tropical diseases migrating to temperate areas.

    I’ve encountered far too many people who interpret climate change predictions like weather forecasts. They perceive ‘climate change’ as a label that should be capable of being categorised, like a singular catastrophic guillotine swipe that could deal civilization a death blow…but 90 years from now, say, around midnight December 31st 2100. Given the technological and scientific achievements of the last 90 odd years, certainly humanity will have solved the climate problem by 2100, right? There is little or no comprehension that climate change is death by a thousand—or several thousand—cuts, and that the first cuts have already been made. This because science avoids (and rightfully so) labelling individual catastrophic events such as extreme weather events as specific evidence of climate change.

    Until disasters that effect us today—not the cumulative effect of disasters over the next 90 years—can unequivocally be labelled as climate change events, some elements of society will continue to slap bandaids on ‘cuts’ while assuring themselves there’s time for the next generation to fix the problem before the coup de grace.

    I’m happy to be proven wrong on this point, because if I’m right, the future’s not looking too good.

  9. No, the future’s looking grim all right.
    Probably best to stay in bed tomorrow for Earth Day, or is there a big deal planned for Huntly ?
    Interesting study coming up in Science re North Atlantic warming…

    “…Since 1980, the tropical North Atlantic has been warming by an average of a quarter-degree Celsius (a half-degree Fahrenheit) per decade. Though this number sounds small, it can translate to big impacts on hurricanes, which thrive on warmer water, says Amato Evan, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies and lead author of the new study. For example, the ocean temperature difference between 1994, a quiet hurricane year, and 2005’s record-breaking year of storms, was just one degree Fahrenheit.
    More than two-thirds of this upward trend in recent decades can be attributed to changes in African dust storm and tropical volcano activity during that time, report Evan and his colleagues at UW-Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a new paper. Their findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Science and publish online March 26. ”

    Key words…two thirds…dust storms…tropical volcano activity…

  10. Yes, it is interesting isn’t it Lawrence?
    And how extremely civil of you to invite me to share my thoughts with you all. Much appreciated old chap.

    Lawrence,the study suggests that warmer waters in the North Atlantic over the last 30 years are largely due to African dust storms and tropical volcanic eruptions…
    From that we could cautiously infer, (and must be so careful here Lawrence, I know you BSc types will be on to me like a ton of bricks if I get it wrong) that warmer waters in the North Atlantic may be contributing to hurricane formation and intensity…

    Now this is new, brand new, published in Science no less, (a fairly reputable organ I’m told, don’t read it regularly, must confess) and we all thought that extreme weather events had more to do with rising CO2 levels and farting farm animals. Wasn’t that what Al Gore said ? isn’t that the crux of the greenpeace argument ? and wasn’t hurricane Katrina meant to be an example of that to us ? and isn’t President Obama currently blaming US flooding on global warming ?
    And Lawrence, I’m possibly stretching things a tad too far here, I’m no science grad. after all, but couldn’t warmer Northern Atlantic water cause Northern Atlantic ice-melt ? Any chance of that ? I’m no oceanographer or paleontologist mind. And if only 30% of Northern Atlantic warming is due to a warming climate, then could it follow that only 30% of Northern Atlantic ice-melt is due to climate ?

    Are you still with me Lawrence ?

    It’s all quite complex, and has been made a little more complex with this paper hasn’t it ? And we were all told that the science was settled…but we’re all still learning aren’t we ?
    And as a non-science grad. unlike yourselves perhaps, we’ve (ie, the non-science grad. general public) have been led to believe that CO2 was largely responsible for increased ocean temperatures…not so apparently.

    May be drawing frightfully long bows here, Lawrence, but just commenting and asking you understand…Ciao…

  11. Thanks for the link Laurence.
    I read that and then back tracked to the UW-Madison site and picked up some more tidbits. Such as these dust storms might explain why the Atlantic is warming faster than the Pacific.
    Sounds like the dust is repeating the 1934 US or the current Mars warming effect.
    Some other interesting info there….

  12. Ayrdale, it was well past time that a political leader in the US said , as Obama has, what is overwhelmingly likely – that events such as the North Dakota flooding are driven by climate change. Joseph Romm in a Climate Progress post today on flooding reports Obama’s words: “I actually think the science around climate change is real. It is potentially devastating. If you look at the flooding that’s going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, ‘If you see an increase of two degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?’ That indicates the degree to which we have to take this seriously.“

    I don’t know how you and the denialist camp you belong to can continue to pour scorn on those who want to heed the warnings of climate science. Gareth’s article is a sober statement of the position revealed by the work of thousands of scientists. Failure to respond to it adequately will almost certainly condemn our children and grandchildren to severely diminished lives. Obama represents hope that the world’s most powerful nation may yet lead us to take up the achievable task of remedial action. The way in which your denialist sources scavenge any little shred they think they have found in the scientific literature which they can use to give the public the impression of a turnaround in scientific opinion is reprehensible. The human future is at stake here.

    And I wish you’d stop bleating about not being a science graduate. I’m not one either, but that doesn’t excuse us from making an effort to understand what scientists are talking about. And if it turns out that they’re mistaken I’m certain they’ll be the first to let us know. I don’t detect among them the slightest relish for the predictions they’re having to make.

  13. Well done Ayrdale, now you nip back and bone up on the issues through 2007 and 2008, we really need to get you up to speed on this. With climate change happening so fast and information coming out almost daily we really don’t want to be floundering round in the dark ages do we.
    And I don’t know who’s been telling you this but I am sure they‘re telling you porky’s.

    and we were all told that the science was settled

    When the science is settled “man will be God” and, yes, we are all still learning.

  14. Spot on, Ayredale: “Key words…two thirds…dust storms…tropical volcano activity…”

    My point exactly. You’re describing bullets. I’m interested in the smoking gun. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me.

    I’m not stating absolutely that climate change is the only smoking gun in this instance, however increasing desertification (and subsequent dust storms) and volcanic activity (due to isostacy and eustacy) are key symptoms of climate change.

  15. And if only 30% of Northern Atlantic warming is due to a warming climate, then could it follow that only 30% of Northern Atlantic ice-melt is due to climate ?

    30%! You would put it as high as that. Now that is scary, do you think perhaps the dust might be helping the CO2.?

  16. right, moving on from the whole cloimate sceptic stuff and towards action…

    Its good to see events like Earth Hour bringing so much attention to Climate Change, but I have to say, I fell it sends a deeply disempowering [pardon the sorta-pun] message to the public about how real progress is going to happen on Climate Change.

    We desperately need a peoples social movement on Climate Change and considering the deep shit we’re still in after 16 years of failed international negotiations we need one very fast indeed. Im sure most of you [apart from the cranks] will agree.

    I would like all of you to be aware of the upcoming Camp for Climate Action Aotearoa and particularly the national gathering that will be happening at Parihaka on the 24th-25th-26th April.

    So please take a look at http://www.climatecamp.org.nz , and if your up for it; please confirm your attendance here http://www.climatecamp.org.nz/THE%20GATHERING.html

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