Worrying about the near term

Much is being made of a new paper in Nature Geoscience in which the authors recalculate “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 °C.” Whether the authors are justified in their marginally optimistic conclusions — and there’s plenty of debate about that — there really isn’t much in the way of policy guidance here. Just look at this money quote in Nature:

“The Paris goal of 1.5 °C is not impossible — it’s just very, very difficult,” says lead author Richard Millar, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, UK.

Or as Millar and his colleagues put in in their abstract:

Hence, limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.

Yes, well. Ahem. “Challengingly deep” isn’t exactly cause for breaking out the champagne, now, is it? But there is a policy lesson hiding elsewhere in this paper, regardless of just how mind-bendingly difficult it will be to keep temperatures and sea-level rise to manageable levels.  What Millar et al. did was delve into the tricky world of short-term climate projections, which rely a heck of a lot on economic and technology factors.

The Nature story addresses the problem at the end.

Uncertainty about the details of humanity’s carbon budget don’t matter so much when scientists are modelling the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases over the course of centuries. But fine details matter a great deal when researchers are looking at what level of greenhouse-gas emissions would bump warming to 1.5 °C, because, in that case, scientists’ goal is to tease out the precise effects of heat-trapping gases over a few decades.

“When we start thinking about really ambitious mitigation goals in the really near term, everything starts to matter,” Millar says.

Consider that last line for a second. “Everything starts to matter.” That would include factors like short-lived radiative forcing elements such as fugitive methane emissions. Plenty of climatologists who focus on long-term modeling tend to pooh-pooh the influence of the methane that escapes into the atmosphere before it’s turned into CO2 in gas-fired power plants. And that makes sense because methane turns into CO2 in a matter of a few decades, so why worry about it? It’s how countries like the US and the UK can claim to have reduced carbon footprints by converting from coal to natural gas.

But in the near-term, say 20 years, methane is 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, so it has a massive potential impact, if only briefly, and even if only a small fraction of the natural gas leaks out from the wells and pipes. Indeed, those lower emission rates from switching to natural gas, while reducing CO2 levels, may actually increase total carbon emissions, in the near-term.

So if what you care about is what happens in the near-term, then natural gas and everything else really does matter. And what happens if the climate forcing resulting from briefly elevated methane emissions is enough to trigger positive feedback loop of carbon release from the permafrost or ocean depths? What are the implications for the expected need for carbon-drawdown technologies once we’ve peaked emissions, but end up with atmospheric carbon levels that are way too high? These are not esoteric questions.

Besides, from a political point of view, near-term effects are far more powerful motivators of policy-making than is the specter of a miserable world 100 years from now. Why not take advantage of this new understanding that “everything matters” and run with it?

 

 

 

The data gap problem

“The monitoring of the atmosphere, of the surface of the Earth, of what’s going on in the ocean and under the ice — all of that is overwhelmingly funded by the federal government.”

— Former Obama science adviser John Holdren

The other day a friend of mine who works in Beijing as a foreign correspondent suggested that of all the acts of stupidity committed by Donald Trump since assuming office, the thing that bothers him the least is the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. Haven’t we actually moved beyond relying on government to reduce carbon emissions? he asked. Isn’t the private sector basically doing that for us?

This is a common observation. And he wasn’t just speaking from the position of someone who’s paid to pay attention to what China is doing. A few months ago, you could read all sorts of exhortations about the apparent, or at least impending, decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth rates. Such predictions are practically a growth industry themselves. And it’s true so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Yes, wind and solar power are rapidly becoming economic options. But we haven’t been able to record a significant global decoupling, and nothing like that for any meaningful length of time. Even if it does come about, we still have to worry about the climate madness that’s already been baked into the system by the last 200 years of emissions.

The more troubling part of this idea is that it leads to complacency about the public sector’s role in dealing with climate disruption. To do that we need data. Lots of it. And this is why we should be worried about Trump and his allies, Paris or not.

The New York Times‘ Jon Gertner explores what might happen if and when some of the current crop of Earth-0bservation satellites fall out of the sky and aren’t replaced. His magazine piece, “What Could We Lose if a NASA Climate Mission Goes Dark?,” focuses on a pair of aging satellites that are the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE. At the beginning of this month, they were falling 250 feet a day. And when they burn up, as they will within months, there goes a massive amount of important data that climate analysts — including the people who are building Climate City here in Asheville, N.C. — need to be able to tell their clients how to anticipate the ecological changes that warming the world is already bringing.

… if Grace goes dark or perishes before then, there will be a break in NASA’s continuous observation of Earth’s gravity field and water dynamics. Climate researchers will be confronted with what’s known as a “data gap,” which can leave them at a loss for drawing scientific conclusions about environmental trends.

Replacements are getting ready, but they won’t be launched until sometime next year. Hence the data gap. And if the Trumpistas get their way, this sort of thing is going to become a new normal. As Gertner points out, “the recent Trump budget proposal … made the unusual request of turning off the Earth sensors on an orbiting spacecraft, Dscovr, to save $1.2 million.”

This kind of data-gathering is exactly what the private sector can’t do, nor should it. Elon Musk, for all his accomplishments and his desire to save the planet, isn’t interested in doing science experiments. He just wants to help governments carrying out that part of the plan. For one thing, scientists are terrible at predicting how useful their data will turn out to be, and how it will be applied. Corporations are loathe to take stabs in the dark. And then there’s the cost. Satellites are expensive and by their very nature, operate in a global context. Only governments — and international collaborations of governments — can afford to engage in these types of ventures. And there are other incompatibilities, as Gertner describes:

Private-sector satellite companies have in recent years been expanding the business of collecting and selling Earth observational data, but it’s very unlikely that such firms (or a group of tech philanthropists) could adequately replace NASA’s work. “These are projects that are too expensive or require a large and diverse group of collaborators that can only be assembled as an international project,” said Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman who is now the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Or this is work that has to be sustained for a longer period of time than any board of directors from a private company would consider, because it’s not clear enough that it would produce a return on investment in anyone’s lifetime.”

Another problem that occurs to me is the potential conflict between private and public interests. What happens if a firm that gathered some very useful datasets decides, for whatever reason, not to share them with the scientific community? Some things should never be kept secret.

So the next time you hear the claim that the free market will take care of climate change, the best response might be: Yeah, it’s great that business is finally getting on board. But business can’t do it alone, and in fact, without the active and aggressive participation of government, we’re not going to be able to handle existing climate trends, let alone what’s coming down the pipeline if we don’t get those same businesses to stop burning fossil fuels.

The limits of adaptation

The release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is, conceiveably, the most important environmental issue in the world today.

“Costs and benefits of carbon dioxide,” Nature, May 3, 1979

Actually, the scientific understanding of the dangers posed by rising CO2 levels date back much further — at least 100 years — but 1979 was a watershed year, with all sort of reports and high-level meetings organized in response to the growing recognition that we had a serious problem on our hands. Since then, no major corporation, government or organization can justify being taken by surprise by what’s happening in Houston this week. Eric Holthaus puts it bluntly in Politico Magazine:

We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.

Wagging an “I told you so” finger isn’t very helpful, though, and it’s not Holthaus’s main point. That would be pouring cold water on the idea that adaptation is a viable response to the mess we’re in. “Incremental” tweaks to the prevailing model for civilization aren’t going to cut it. He’s talking about the model in which large numbers of humans pave over large portions of the Earth with impermeable surfaces, not to mention doing exactly that in service of vast, sprawling industrial operations dedicated to the conversion of fossil carbon chains into liquid fuels.

Adapting to a future in which a millennium-scale flood can wipe out a major city is much harder than preventing that flood in the first place. By and large, the built world we have right now wasn’t constructed with climate change in mind. By continuing to pretend that we can engineer our way out of the worsening flooding problem with bigger dams, more levees and higher-powered pumping equipment, we’re fooling ourselves into a more dangerous future.

We will have to adapt, of course. More and more scientists have already turned their attention from the study of climate change to the provision of “climate services.” This embryonic sector is less interested in mitigating global warming, a certain degree of which is now baked into our ecosystem over the next few decades regardless of what we do about our carbon emissions, than in helping communities and corporations anticipate the effects of that warming and minimize the consequences. To be fair, most of these scientists-turned-consultants are also genuinely worried about the consequences and very much support aggressive mitigation efforts; it’s just that they know we are way past the point of no return on threats like sea-level rise, desertification, and catastrophic flooding.

But Holthaus and many other professional observers are calling for much more dramatic changes to our standard operating procedures than just making sure new developments aren’t built in floodplains. They’re talking about abandoning not just poorly-cited buildings, but entire communities. It is really hard to deny, if you want to be honest, that there are portions of New Orleans that simply shouldn’t be rebuilt, but left instead to the mercies of the ever-wandering Mississippi, land subsidence and the rising waters of the Delta. Likewise, the summer homes of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are probably not worth saving. Do desert cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., or Las Vegas, Nev., really make sense in the long term, what with the cost of importing water?

Pretty soon, for some communities, the only responsible answer to the question of “What do we do to combat the looming effects of climate change?” will be “Leave.” No one is keen on going there first, but it is inevitable. Most of us won’t turn into climate refugees, of course. But there will be sacrifice enough to go around, especially if you’re particularly enamored of private automobiles, golf, or beach houses. (Unless, that is, you’re a member of the upper 0.1%, who will be able to hold onto those kind of affectations regardless of what we do to the atmosphere.)

The alternative is to continue to pay the 11- or 12-figure price tags of Houston-scale floods and similar not-entirely natural disasters. And along with the economic costs will come social and political side effects. If you think the country is polarized now, just wait a few years. Indeed, why not wait a little more? We’ve been putting off making the hard decisions for almost 40 years now.

Image: Houston from Landsat

There’s no place like home (for now)

The number of people who still aren’t worried about climate change — or the number of voters willing to elect someone who feels that way, which is pretty much the same thing — is still depressingly high. But many others have long since moved on to the practical issues of how to respond to the consequent ecological disruption. This category includes scientists, artists, captains of industry, and those who are actually charged with dealing with the myriad problems involved.

They all seem to be coming to the same conclusion: humans would rather stay at home and adapt rather than move to safer territory. Not exactly the most draw-dropping of findings, I know. But how realistic is it?


PHOTO: Nature Climate Change
(DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3344)

A new paper in Nature Climate Change takes what could be considered a peek into the future by examining the response of the inhabitants of several small low-lying islands in the Philippines to the kind of inundation that rising sea levels are expected to bring. “Small-island communities in the Philippines prefer local measures to relocation in response to sea-level rise” uses the recent case of earthquake-generated subsidence on four islands on a barrier reef off the north coast of the major island of Bohol to see what people will do when faced with the choice of becoming climate refugees or toughing it out a home. “In doing so, the study will also challenge the notion that sea-level rise directly leads to migration,” write Laurice Jamero and her co-authors.

The islanders, mostly subsistence or artisan fishers, wouldn’t have had to move too far if they chose relocation. You can see Bohol from some of their homes, and there’s a good chance at least some of them could continue to pursue their livelihood even after relocation. I spent a couple of weeks in the region back in 2003, and am familiar with the communities in question, which is why this paper tweaked my interest. Even with water lapping at their doors (see image above), they chose to adapt. Why? Considering how different island life is to that of the nearby larger cities like Cebu, their decision isn’t hard to understand. The paper dances around the answer:

This paradox indicates that, more than environmental factors (that is, degree of flooding severity), the decision to relocate is influenced by social factors, such as the level of human adaptation strategies and the determination of communities to remain in their islands to secure their fishing-based livelihoods. It also therefore refutes the assumption of the mass migration theory that sea-level rise alone could directly lead to relocation. However, it remains to be seen whether there are social limits to adaptation by island communities, what the limiting factors might be (if any), and how these could be overcome.

In other words, people are homebodies.

Of course, things might be different if the seas were understood to keep rising. The strategies they used to adapt to a relatively modest increase (between 20 and 43 cm), including raising their homes on stilts and their walkways on stones, proved workable in the face of a one-time change. But they would rapidly become pointless if the world’s oceans rise as fast as James Hansen and company fear they will. (We’re talking multiple meters by the end of the century.) Migration might start to look like the only reasonable option under such scenarios. Most of these islands are only a metre or two above sea level at most.

Jamero et al. then make the point that it’s a lot easier for rich communities to build much more dramatic defenses, like sea walls, than it is for subsistence fishers to do the same, implying that developed-world responses are probably going to involve even more stubborn refusals to pick up and leave.

Indeed, this is what a growing list of science fiction authors are postulating. Coincidentally, just a few days before coming across that paper, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest epic, New York 2140. The novel picks up after two pulses of ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica have pushed up the ocean surface by 15 metres or so, turning New York City into Venice. Eventually, another Sandy-sized storm looms on the horizon and, well, spoilers ensue.

The point is that Robinson’s depiction of a city populated by people who refuse to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds parallels the one detailed by Jamero. I haven’t come across any decent cli-fi that is primarily concerned with migration. (Well, there is Stephen Baxter’s Flood, but that’s a wildly implausible story.)


PHOTO: Brett Duke/NOLA.com/Times-Picayune/Associated Press

Anyone anticipating that well-off Americans will be willing to become climate refugees is probably fooling themselves. Yes, it would cost untold billions to surround Manhattan with a seawall of any real use. But look what New Orleans has spent since Katrina —$15 billion — and yet “few here are confident the fixes can keep the city dry for long,” according to the Washington Post, reporting after this month’s rainfall overwhelmed the new pump network. And that was just rain; no hurricane required.

The rational response to rising sea levels would be to move away from the coast. Or least abandon communities that sit below sea level. But don’t tell that to the folks of NOLA. Or the Dutch, for that matter. Home is where the heart is. Besides, we’ve already got plenty of cause for internal migration in the form of a low unemployment rate and blue-collar jobs evaporating in the heat of automation, but few Americans are willing to go where the jobs are. This is in part because they can’t afford to live where the jobs are. So why would a migration forced, not by robots, but the loss of waterfront property, be any different?

By the way, this explains the “climate services” community emerging in Asheville, N.C., the one where private analysts use public climate data to help companies and communities make themselves more resilient to climate change. Seems there’s not a lot of money to made telling people where to go.

Not yet, anyway. But all bets are off if the worst-case scenarios start coming true. Deep roots are fine — until salt-water intrusion begins to rot them, that is.

 

Scare tactics: merits and lack thereof

In what New York Magazine is calling the most-read article in the publication’s history,   writes about what will happen if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels soon. In a nutshell: the climate “will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.”

This has made more than a few climatologists rather cross. The argument is that because “The Uninhabitable Earth” focuses on an unlikely worst-case scenario, and therefore might needless scare the public into inaction.

There are a few questionable statements regarding the science of climate change. You can see them in the annotated version, to which I’ve linked above, and in commentaries by the likes of Michael Mann, whose credentials are impeccable on these matters. But not that many mistakes. Indeed, if you look at a Climate Feedback‘s comprehensive scientific review of the whole thing (which is thousands of words long), Wallace-Wells does rather well for someone who hasn’t written much about climate change until now. So the real question about the wisdom of running the piece isn’t “Does it fairly describe the science?” but “Should we really be telling people how bad things might get?”

First, it helps to know that Wallace-Wells bent over backward to ensure readers were under no illusions about what the feature is all about:

What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.

The emphasis is mine, because it’s important. Wallace-Wells knows we’re not going to do nothing about global warming. But he and his editors at New York agreed that is fair to talk about the consequences of business as usual, even if that business is evolving rapidly (though probably not fast enough).

David Roberts of Vox comes down on the side of those who believe we shouldn’t be hiding the truth, even if it is scary. “Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good” is his response to the responses.

Over my 407 years in the climate-o-sphere, I’ve cycled through just about every school of thought on the right way to communicate climate change. What I’ve come to believe is that on this, as on most matters, nobody really knows anything. Even if there are accurate statements about how people in general respond to messages in general, they won’t tell you much about how you ought to communicate with the people you want to reach.

Here’s the thing about science communication theory: it’s complicated. I’ve been writing about greenhouse gas emissions and sinks for 30 calendar years now (longer even than Roberts’ hyperbolic 407) and the one thing everyone in this field can agree on is that we really have no clue about best practices.

For a while back in the early days of blogging, “framing” was the buzzword. But it turned out that that means either a) unethically spinning your message to make it more palatable to a given reader/listener/viewer or b) just using conventional hooks that journalists have been using all along. Then Al Gore came along with his famous/notorious Keynote presentations (as an Apple board member he wasn’t going to use PowerPoint), and talked about a “hope budget” so his army of presenters didn’t depress their audiences.

Do scare tactics spur populations to action, or do they paralyze? Obviously, it depends on the issue. Fear about overbearing government regulators seems to work pretty well in mobilizing gun owners to get out and vote, if recent history is any guide. And did all those pictures of mushroom clouds not lead to citizen movements that in turn led to nuclear disarmament treaties? And Wallace-Wells has another ally from an surprising source: Tech writer Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times points out that all the craziness about the Y2K bug 17 years ago was probably warranted, because it actually led to solutions for what would have been a nightmare scenario for anyone who uses a computer.

On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine situations in which, if you just tell people how bad things are but don’t give them the tools to do something about the threat, you’re probably only going to make matters worse. Cyncism is not a good thing for civilization to embrace.

The problem is climate change is a threat without precedent. Although some of the damage can already be seen — just ask residents of Vanuatu and other island states that are losing significant land mass to sea level rise at this moment — most of the really bad stuff is a generation or two removed from our here-and-now brains. We’ve never really faced this kind of challenge before, and so have no way to know what will and won’t work when it comes to getting people to care enough to change not just a few lightbulbs, but their choice of candidates for public office. Maybe fear will do the trick. Maybe we should emphasize the fact that just about every other facet of life will benefit from a low-carbon economy.

Every strategy is well represented in the climate communications business today. It’s no longer the purview of volunteer and semi-pro bloggers, but involves Pulitzer-winning websites and well-rounded teams at established national newspapers. The industry exists because everyone knows that most scientists aren’t very good at communicating their work themselves, and (with rare exceptions like Michael Mann) need the help of professionals dedicated and trained in the subject, which just happens to be the biggest public policy challenge of our time.

So when you read about scientists taking umbrage at the notion of discussing in public what business as usual means for the planet, first ask yourself one question. If even professional communicators can’t agree on whether scare tactics are wise, how likely is it that introverted lab rats with no communications background will have a deeper insight into a fundamental question about human cognition and behavior?

I still wish Wallace-Wells had treated a couple of items differently. This is why I think magazines like New York should not assign climate change stories to those without a science background. But I don’t think he was wrong to write “no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” My experience working alongside scientists who study things like climate change and other environmental problems makes it clear to me that they are by and large a conservative sort who loathe to be saddled with the label of alarmist, as the deniers are wont to call them. They prefer to couch their published predictions in cautious, moderate language. It’s only when you get them alone and off the record that they’ll admit how bleak things really are.

Maybe that’s the way science should be. But every now and then we need to hear the unvarnished truth.

 

 

The “bridge” fuel that wasn’t

Among those who spend their working lives and/or spare time worrying about climate change, there are many subjects that still provoke heated debates, so to speak. Chief among them is the wisdom or folly of turning to natural gas as a “bridge” between the carbon-intensive oil- and coal-dominated present and the clean renewable future that we all know is coming sooner or later. The opponents just found their case a little bit stronger thanks to another controversial issue: nuclear power.

Natural gas is, as anyone with a basic grasp of the fundamentals of greenhouse gas forcings can tell you, only  half as good at warming the atmosphere as coal. So replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas alternatives should get us half-way to cutting our emissions to zero. Right?

Well, not quite. Natural gas is almost entirely methane, which has 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a century, and several times that in the near-term. And as all operations involving natural gas also involves some release of methane directly into the air, the effect of that methane has to be added to the calculations used to compare the emissions impact of each fuel.

Let’s say for argument’s sake an operator could get “fugitive” emissions of methane down to 1 or 2 percent, which is quite possible, though much lower than what is probably the industry norm these days. Consider also that gas-fired plants are more efficient than coal. So the best-case scenario is gas will cut the effective warming of gas by 30 to 40 percent. Whether that is sufficient given the amount of time we have left before triggering irrevocably serious climate change is also a matter of some debate. After all, we know we need to get to zero, so why pour scare resources into switching to one alternative only to spend even more in a decade or so to switch again?

But all this is only relevant when comparing gas with coal, which supplies only about 40% of the American electricity mix. What about nuclear power? Its carbon footprint is measurable, but tiny compared with coal. So if you replace a nuke with a gas-fired plant, you’ve increased your emissions budget from near-zero to 100% of whatever the non-nuclear alternative was.

Geoffrey Lean at the Telegraph asks “Is shale gas killing nuclear power?” Several nuclear power plants in the U.S. are being replaced by gas, undoing a significant portion of whatever minor advantage gas presents in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Add to this the complicating factors of the cooling aerosols associated with coal, and natural gas is starting to look more than a little problematic.

Yes, natural gas can provide real carbon-emissions reductions in some situations. It’s relatively easy to install, the technology is well understood, and it’s a fossil fuel, so the status quo doesn’t feel so threatened. But the math suggests it isn’t going to do the trick.

The Barry Bonds of storms

BBW coverThe other day I found myself looking for reading material in a clinic waiting room and for the first time ever I picked up a copy of Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s not that I never used to care about business. I just found business publications and business journalists rarely demonstrated a decent level of understanding of the forces behind the financial numbers that dominated their reports. (And yes, I include The Economist in that generalization.)

But BBW was different. The edition contained a half dozen science, environment and technology stories that tweaked my interest and all of them were well written and illuminating.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to discover that the latest BBW trumpets a cover piece by Paul M. Barrett that “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” What was pleasantly surprising was the use of perhaps the best metaphor I’ve ever come across to describe the link between climate change and hurricanes, one that should  resonate with just about anyone:

“We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

The insight comes from Eric Pooley, formerly senior VP at the Environmental Defense Fund, and former editor at BBW. The metaphor fits nicely into another term, Frankenstorm, with its implication of humans tinkering with nature. CNN banned use of the term, but Joe Romm makes the case for it at Think Progress.

Let’s face it: science is fascinating and fun for a lot of us. But without the right language, we aren’t going to change many minds. We need more language that makes the case so clearly and convincingly that the listener, reader or viewer just has to accept it. Saying climate change has nothing to do with what just happened to New York City is like saying steroids have nothing to do with Bond’s RBIs. And who’s going to make that argument with a straight face?

Thanks, Eric.

Frankenstorm predicted

OK, no one can predict a specific weather event months in advance. But what we can do is anticipate expected frequency of events. Back in February of this year, Nature Climate Change published a paper, Physically based assessment of hurricane surge threat under climate change, (PDF bypasses Nature’s paywall) that predicted more frequent storm surges for New York City thanks to the changing climate.

Here’s the abstract:

Storm surges are responsible for much of the damage and loss of life associated with landfalling hurricanes. Understanding how global warming will affect hurricane surges thus holds great interest. As general circulation models (GCMs) cannot simulate hurricane surges directly, we couple a GCM-driven hurricane model with hydrodynamic models to simulate large numbers of synthetic surge events under projected climates and assess surge threat, as an example, for New York City (NYC). Struck by many intense hurricanes in recorded history and prehistory, NYC is highly vulnerable to storm surges. We show that the change of storm climatology will probably increase the surge risk for NYC; results based on two GCMs show the distribution of surge levels shifting to higher values by a magnitude comparable to the projected sea-level rise (SLR). The combined effects of storm climatology change and a 1 m SLR may cause the present NYC 100-yr surge flooding to occur every 3–20 yr and the present 500-yr flooding to occur every 25–240 yr by the end of the century.

Think about that. Storms that used to occur every 100 years can be expected between 5 and 33 times as often.

Are the winds shifting?

Maybe it’s just me, desperately searching for optimistic signals in the noise that dominates the mainstream coverage of climate change, but could there be something happening out there, something attesting to a new, more mature interpretation of the challenge facing society at large?

Item 1: The Economist publishes an impassioned lament. This from a magazine that for so long seemed althogether disinterested in the subject:

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. Everything else–the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack–all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth.

And that’s just the first half of the opening paragraph. Towards the end, the gloom descends even further.

Maybe the idea that Mali and Burkina Faso were once inhabited countries rather than empty deserts will seem queer, and the immiseration of huge numbers of stateless refugees thronging against the borders of the rich northern countries will be taken for granted. The absence of the polar ice cap and the submersion of Venice will have been normalised; nobody will think of these as live issues, no one will spend their time reproaching their forefathers…

A concession that an ecological crisis dwarfs those posed by mere financial forces is not what I expected from The Economist. It was a late-comer to responsible coverage of climate change and a reluctant convert at that. But this sort of thing suggests a conversion of Damascene proportions.

Item 2: Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, who writes despondently about Canada’s failure to address its embarrassing record on greenhouse gas emissions. Canada, you will probably already know, this week became the first, and so far only, nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Ibbitson is a center-right commentator in the Canadian sense, which means he is generally to the left of what passes for the center in the U.S., but tends to be more skeptical than supportive of “progressive” notions. This week, however, he made it clear he now shares at least some of the distress that has worked its way into the editorial desk at The Economist.

Canada gave its word to the world. Canada broke its word. The final confession was as shameful as it was inevitable. No one should feel anything other than ashamed. Not the Conservatives, not the Liberals, not us.

Ibbitson hits the nail on the head. Most green pundits would rather castigate Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives for doing the bidding of their petrol-dollar associates than admit the truth, which is that Canada withdrew from Kyoto because it would have been irresponsible not to. Canada’s GHG emissions have risen dramatically instead of falling as it committed to make happen under Kyoto. So if the country didn’t withdraw before the end of this year, it would have faced the need to spend billions on offsets or face sanctions.

The real problem can be traced to Jean Chretien’s Liberals, who frittered away more than a decade of economic prosperity by doing precisely nothing to move away from fossil-fuel-dependency and toward carbon-neutral alternatives. By the time the Conservatives took over in 2005, the bed was made, and there was never any chance Canada would meets its Kyoto commitments. So the only thing left to do was save the taxpayer a few pennies by getting out when the getting was good.

By using the language of shame, Ibbitson makes it clear that this is not just another in a long list of lost opportunities for Canada to lead by example. It is cause for some serious soul-searching in the not-so-great white North. The Economist makes a similar admission from Britain,

I am not holding my breath for comparable shifts in the U.S. But it would be nice.