Two degrees of separation

Compare and contrast:

The team’s new examination of the paleo-climate record now shows that “a global warming of a couple degrees Celsius would basically create a different planet,” Hansen warned. It’s different than the one that humanity, that civilization knows about. If we look at the paleo record, the target of two degrees Celsius is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” [Source]


I think that we look at two degrees as an important and serious goal which ought to guide what we do … it ought to inform our sense of what needs to be done. It might well cause us or anybody else to say, jeez, we need to do more. But we don’t see it as akin to a national target. [Source]

The first comes from a report by KQED on warnings from top NASA climatologist James Hansen, speaking at this week’s annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The second are the words of U.S. Climate Envoy Todd Stern, speaking at the COP17 talks in Durban, also this week.

Is Stern just having trouble staying abreast of recent events in the field that informs his job? Well, 10 months ago, a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society had this to say about the subject:

The analysis suggests that despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature at or below 2 °C. Moreover, the impacts associated with 2 °C have been revised upwards, sufficiently so that 2 °C now more appropriately represents the threshold between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’ climate change. Ultimately, the science of climate change allied with the emission scenarios for Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 nations suggests a radically different framing of the mitigation and adaptation challenge from that accompanying many other analyses, particularly those directly informing policy. [Source]

If you’re a sucker for this sort of thing, read David Roberts’s summary of the situation at Grist.

A hint that things may not be as bad as we thought

I would be remiss if I didn’t direct your attention to a new paper in Science that concludes, however tentatively, that the global climate may not be as sensitive to rising atmosheric CO2 levels as everyone has assumed. It is, after all, a rare dose of optimism in a field that has been characterized by “it’s worse than expected” findings for pretty much its entire history.

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Canada and the Kyoto Protocol

Word is Canada will give the world a lump of coal tar for Christmas:

Canada will announce next month that it will formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, CTV News has learned.

The Harper government has tentatively planned an announcement for a few days before Christmas, CTV’s Roger Smith reported Sunday evening.

Given the Canada was never on track to come anywhere close to achieving its Kyoto target of a 6% reduction in greenhouse gases relative to 1990 levels, the only consequence of the decision will be political rather than climatological. It’s worth noting that it looks like the protocol will meet its modest goals, with or without Canada:

Even including the [non-signatory] USA, whose emissions in 2008-2010 are 11 percent more than in 1990, the industrialised countries have on average reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 7.5 percent in the period 2008-2010, compared with 1990. Together they are well on course to achieve the [Kyoto] protocol, target of a collective average decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012 compared to the 1990 level. — PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

A climate change report for the Tea Party

“Major storms could submerge New York City in next decade” cries a randomly selected mainstream media outlet over a story about a new report warning residents that climate change could make life difficult in the not-too-distant future. The report, from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, is pretty standard stuff for those who have been paying attention to the growing link between global warming and extreme weather. And maybe it will spur New Yorkers to take the subject a bit more seriously.

But there’s a certain set who will welcome this 600-page conpendium of alarming research. After all, most Tea Partiers aren’t living in NYC, and most members of the far right persuasion have contempt for those do call the city home. So when they read that

By the mid-2020s, sea level rise around Manhattan and Long Island could be up to 10 inches, assuming the rapid melting of polar sea ice continues. By 2050, sea-rise could reach 2.5ft and more than 4.5ft by 2080 under the same conditions.

In such a scenario, many of the tunnels – subway, highway, and rail – crossing into the Bronx beneath the Harlem River, and under the East River would be flooded within the hour, the report said. Some transport systems could be out of operation for up to a month.

they will probably just say: “Good serves ’em right.” Proving only the political climate is now so absurd that scientists can’t win whatever they do.

The Task Force on Climate Remediation Research is wrong, and here’s why

It’s hard to argue against funding scientific research. But let me try.

This past week 18 experts assembled as the Task Force on Climate Remediation Research released the product of its collective wisdom. A creation of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which the New York TimesCornelia Dean describes as “a research organization based in Washington founded by four senators — Democrats and Republicans — to offer policy advice to the government,” the task force concluded that the U.S. should be spending unspecified sums on research into what is colloquially known as climate hacking. Most everyone knows it as geoengineering, but the policy center wonks decided “climate remediation” is a less scary term.

Joe Romm weighs in, and talks with former and current members of the task force (including one who quit out of frustation with where the group was headed), at Climate Progress. I share his problems with the report, but want to delve more deeply into the speciific, as I suspect this issues is going to be a big deal for the foreseeble future.
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Give it time?

More than a few writers have gotten a lot of mileage out of comparing the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries’ propaganda efforts to counter rapidly rising mountains of science that counter their “it’s all good” message. Al Gore featured it in his slide show. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote an entire book, Merchants of Doubt.

The fact that not only were the denial tactics similar, but so are some of the PR firms and even individuals involved makes for compelling storytelling. But maybe we haven’t taken the analogy far enough. Über-foodie Michael Pollan just wrote a piece in The Nation that suggests there’s still more to be learned:

By the 1930s, the scientific case against smoking had been made, yet it wasn’t until 1964 that the surgeon general was willing to declare smoking a threat to health, and another two decades after that before the industry’s seemingly unshakable hold on Congress finally crumbled.

Given that the fossil-fuel transnationals are orders of magnitudes greater in reach and influence than the tobacco industry ever was, and lying as they do at the foundation of our entire industrial economy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that climate activists are accomplishing little more than bloodying their foreheads on brick walls. Walls that don’t even exhibit a visible record of the repeated collisions as they are already painted the color of blood.

Of course, we can’t afford to wait as long as anti-smoking forces did before scoring major victories. So does Pollan offer any hope? This is as optimistic as it gets:

When change depends on overcoming the influence of an entrenched power, it helps to have another powerful interest in your corner–an interest that stands to gain from reform.

Pollan says the healthcare costs of the current food system will force us to make the necessary change, and the healthcare community will step in as the necessary ally. Who will be the climate’s counterpart savior?

Change is the one constant

Fill in the blanks:

It is customary in the popular media and in many journal articles to cite a projected _________ figure as if it were a given, a figure so certain that it could virtually be used for long-range planning purposes. But we must carefully examine the assumptions behind such projections. And forecasts that ________ is going to level off or decline this century have been based on the assumption that the developing world will necessarily follow the path of the industrialized world. That is far from a sure bet.

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The stick sets the beat

The title of this post won’t mean much until you read this contribution to The Conversation, a new and laudable attempt by climatologists to get out the message that time’s a wastin,’ folks. Here’s a taste:

We’re only a few decades away from a major tipping point, plus or minus only about a decade. The rate at which the ice sheets would melt is fairly uncertain, but not the result that says we are very close to a tipping point committing to such melt and breakdown.

Is it irresponsible or “alarmist” of climatologists to point this out? The science brief for policy is not to prescribe policies, but to point out the implications of pursuing or not pursuing particular courses of action.

Pointing out that we are close to one of the largest tipping points imaginable in the climate system is well within the remit of science. It’s not alarmist to describe the threat accurately; it’s alarming if the political and social culture can’t absorb this.

There’s nothing new or surprising in the way of science in this Conversation. But it’s high time we started having it. As David Roberts at Grist points out, today’s most optimistic outlook for emissions reductions leaves us far short of safe:

Source: BP Energy Outlook 2030.