Seeking Inexpert Review

I realize that the Red and Blue dialogs here and here are not my usual fare. I have often said that this blog isn’t intended for a general audience, though of late I’ve been trying to shift toward a broader appeal.

The dialogs are a proposed format for an extended series of outreach pieces for a very broad audience.

I’d like feedback, not so much from regular readers, as from their associates who might not be especially interested in science or who might be young novices.

So if you would be so kind as to pass these pieces on to such people of your acquaintance and ask them to contribute an opinion, I’d greatly appreciate it.

I seek feedback on whether this informal dialog format is seen as accessible, and effective in at least identifying and describing the issues. (I don’t expect it to be entirely convincing as yet; that will take some more work.) In particular, I would like to know whether some people outside the climate tribes find it interesting enough to want more.

The Red and Blue Show, Episode 2

Yo, Blue!

Hey Red, How are things?

Not too bad, but didn’t we leave off in the middle of something important a few days ago?

I guess so, ready to move it on forward a bit?


So, like, remind we where we left off, cause there was quite a lot of it!

Sure. Do you remember where we started?

You asserted the existence of the greenhouse effect and increasing CO2…

I asserted with confidence that the greenhouse effect is real and commonplace, and that CO2 is increasing demonstrably.

Would you say “the science is settled”?

I would say that the question of whether there is a greenhouse effect, and how it works in enormous and precise detail, is worked out about as well as anything in physics.

I would say that the observation of anthropogenic carbon dioxide not just increasing in the air but ACCUMULATING in the air is observed about as well as any observationally based conclusion in earth sciences.

Seriously, Blue, would you say the Science is … … Settled???

I try to avoid those exact words (“The S is S”) because of an old denialist trick that they will be happy to wheel out on any occasion. But if you’re serious, sure, those two questions are two settled questions. OK?

Whooaa… Chill… dude…
So then I asked if it was enough CO2 to make a difference, as if I didn’t know the answer to that one.

Yeah, but it was the right question to ask at that moment, so thanks. Then what?

I asked about global warming and the conversation suddenly got all complicated and you were all worked up about something.

Worked up! You have no idea!

OK, We’ll review, cause this is the part where we start diverging from the conventional wisdom a bit.

First of all, the sensitivity is likely between 2.5 C and 3 C per CO2 doubling or equivalent. Nature might add to the carbon we release, but (knock wood) probably not immediately that much. Our distant descendants, should we manage to have any, may have to deal with it on a big scale in thousands of years.

Um, didn’t you used to say that about ice sheets?

Err, yes, we used to, and we don’t anymore. Heh. Anyway, let’s leave the methane business aside for now, we are trying to get at the core of the argument.

So 2.5 C to 3.0 C?

Probably between 2.5 C and 3 C per CO2 doubling or equivalent (or really 0.6 to 0.7 C perW/m^2 at the TOA).

err, I’ll take the first one, thanks

and almost surely between, say 1.5 and 5C .

Hang on! Hang on! I saw you said 2.5 on Kloor’s. Isn’t that false precision?

It’s spelled “2.5”, its pronounced “roun’ two ‘n’hafferso”, and it means “between 2.5 C and 3 C” . Did you want me to say “2.75”? That would be even worse false precision and sound even more arrogant!

Why not just “about three”, so you don’t sound stuck up like that?

Because then them sumbutches’d get on muh case for exaggeratin’!!!

Say, how come you sound all Texan when you get excited?

Wah thuhail not?

So now you’re going to talk about the weird events in Asia?

We’ll talk about it after the commercial break


What was that all about?

Man’s got t’earn a livin’

OK, so you have this sensitivity number pinned down, and so you know more or less how much co2 or equivalent would cause so much heating? But how much is too much?

“Warming” is better than “heating” here… It’s an important distinction.

That said, that’s the part that is what you might call “unsettled”. There’s been an international consensus on the political side that we ought to avoid so much climate change that it is “dangerous”, which brings us to what people are starting to call “climate disruption”. But at this point it gets out of physical science and a whole lot of other stuff kicks in.

Like what, for instance?
There’s ecology and wildlife management. There’s agriculture. There’s water supplies. There’s public health. There’s flood control. There’s tourism. There’s shipping. Lots of really big systems developed in a stable climate and need to ask themselves what will happen to them. And all the other systems will change too. And all of this will feed back through the economy and back into energy demand.

Many major systems natural and artificial are adapted to a stable climate
All that from a couple of degrees?
Well, a lot of people ask that question. Some folks just argue, look how as soon as we got air conditioning, how so many people moved out of the northern areas and into the southern areas in the US. The guy who first said people might warm up the planet, Arrhenius, was a Swede, and apparently he thought this would be a beneficial side effect of progress. Lots of people think that’s right.

But consider that only 5C separates the present world from the ice age. As I explained last time, for the past several thousand years the temperature has apparently been extremely steady.

A lot of other changes come along with the smallish-sounding temperature change

Remember that I’m trying to say it isn’t the warming that causes the change. The warming is just part of the change. You might even say the climate disruption causes the warming.

Wait, what was that about several thousand years? The famous “hockey stick” only goes back a few hundred years, maybe a thousand, right?
Yeah, but there’s plenty of evidence it has been cooling gradually for about eight thousand years from the interglacial peak.
You mean it was hotter eight thousand years ago?

Yup, pretty much everybody agrees to that.

So why all the excitement to prove that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today, when climate science already admits there is a precdeent to being warmer than today in the geologically recent past?

That is a fine question, and one which I for one have no answer!

But if it’s recently been warmer than this, why worry at all? I mean, who is to say today’s temperature is better than some other temperature?
A reasonable question, one of the better ones in the skeptics’ quiver, yet one with many answers.

First of all, there’s the temperature, but there is also the rate at which it changes. It’s really the rate of change where we are getting into territory that nature doesn’t normally see. Second, as I said last time, the temperature isn’t really the problem; it’s just a measure of the problem.

When climate changes slowly, both artificial and natural systems adapt without really even making a big deal of it. Skating on the canals comes in and out of fashion in Holland over the centuries, vineyards start up or fail here and there, but these are tiny, slow, incremental changes. Whereas no, we are talking about rapid climate change, getting faster and faster with each decade.

So to some extent, it is the rate of change that matters. But then there is the total change, which matters a lot for sea level rise, and some other things like mountain runoff and so on. 8000 years ago, we didn’t have megacities near the shorelines. Nor did we have cities in places like Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Well, there weren’t any cities by modern standards, were there?
No, not really. Two hundred years ago there were no cities of a million people. Now we have dozens of swaths of city that have ten million or more. So in terms of how we organize ourselves, everything has changed very recently. Modern civilization has never seen a period of moderate natural climate change, never mind super-accelerated change.

The anticipated rates of change are far outside human experience and are almost unheard of in the entire geological record.
ALMOST unheard of?

There were a couple of weird events that seem connected to abrupt climate change, the most recent being about 55 million years ago. Here, look:

The event saw global temperatures rise by around 6°C (11°F) over 20,000 years, with a corresponding rise in sea level as the whole of the oceans warmed.[2] Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations rose, causing a shallowing of the lysocline. Regional deep water anoxia may have played a part in marine extinctions.

This was about the time of the first mammals. A very long time ago. Nothing like that since then, and here we are looking to do that in a century or two, not 20,000 years.

Changes in GMST of a few degrees in the geologic record are associated with major rearrangements of nature
OK, so this brings us back to the big question. How much warming is dangerous?
Or, really, how much warming will correspond to a dangerous level of climate disruption?

Yep, that’s the real question alright. We know how to connect CO2 to warming, give or take a factor of two. We know that 5 C or 6 C on a global scale is huge. But we don’t know where the danger point is.

Wait, wasn’t everybody saying 2 C is the “limit posed by science”, just last fall before the Copenhagen blowout?

A lot of people were saying that, and some of them were scientists. I’m not sure they should have, though, because we don’t really know where that danger point is.

So it could be 3 C or 4 C, giving us way more time?

Yes, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a man I admire greatly, was one of those talking about the 2 C limit, and he admitted as much in a recent article.

SCHELLNHUBER:From today’s scientific perspective, we could possibly live with a warming of two to three degrees. … The overwhelming majority of climatologists assume that a global temperature rise of four degrees would be an immensely dangerous route that we should avoid at all costs.

DER SPIEGEL: Why then have you, as one of the creators of the two-degree target, imposed such a magical limit to which all countries must slavishly adhere?

SCHELLNHUBER: Politicians like to have clear targets, and a simple number is easier to handle than a complex temperature range. Besides, it was important to introduce a quantitative orientation in the first place, which the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change managed to elegantly wangle its way out of. And let’s be honest: Even if we aim for the two-degree target, we’ll end up somewhat higher. Whenever there’s a speed limit, most drivers tend to go a little faster.

Hans von Storch objects vehemently: “I would say, this is pretty shocking, and clearly non-Mertonian: Scientific assertions taylored according to political utility.”

And here we see the rock and the hard place yet again, the dilemma between clarity and effectiveness that the late and lamented Stephen Schneider was the first to discuss publicly. In this case, trhough, von Storch has a strong case. I felt all through the run-up to Copenhagen that this claim needed some sort of caveat.

The truth is, 2 C is the lowest we could possibly have gotten, and 2 C is already possibly dangerous.

The reason, again, is not that 2 C of warming is an issue. It is that 2 C of warming will be accompanied by many other changes. 2 C is a measure of the problem, but is not actually the problem.

We don’t actually know the threshold of dangerous human interference in climate.

Aha, so you guys really are alarmist chicken littles, right? We have decades to get our act together!
Again, again, and yet again. We have to say it until it bores us to tears, and then maybe the message will get through. Uncertainty cuts both ways.

Uncertainty cuts both ways. It’s possible that the threshold of dangerous climate change is lower than 2 C. Suppose it were around 0.7 C for instance?
But… Isn’t that about where we are now?


That’s ridiculous. That’s a third of what they were saying at Copenhagen. And even that was sort of made up just to get people moving! what possible evidence could you have for 0.7 C being dangerous?

Well, there’s this for instance…

Er, yeh. Yikes…

That’s a satellite view of eastern Russia about a thousand miles square. You can see the location of Moscow noted in the lower left, but you can’t see any sign of the huge city because it’s obscured. The white puffy bits are ordinary clouds, but the smoky bits are, well…


The recent events in eastern Europe and South Asia may well change the balance of evidence to make matters even more urgent than they appeared last year.

So is it too late?
It’s never too late to make things better, but things may already be worse than we thought.

Here, have a nice cup of coffee…

Wild Image and Tame Text from NASA

Here’s the July temperature anomaly according to GISS:

NASA’s gloss on the Earth Obervatory site is measured:

The extreme weather events in Russia and Pakistan have fueled speculation about the role of climate. The GISS release stated, “The location of extreme events in any particular month depends on specific weather patterns, which are unpredictable except on short time scales. The weather patterns next summer will be different than this year. It could be a cooler than average summer in Moscow in 2011.” The GISS release went on to explain, however, that global warming does affect the probability and intensity of extreme events. Climate can drive precipitation because temperature affects the amount of water vapor that air can carry. Likewise, in areas experiencing drought, global warming can increase temperature extremes that exacerbate wildfires.

Nothing about the peculiarity of the peculiar pattern, though. And that’s the question.

Thank God Global Warming is a Hoax!

Mark Morford writes in the SF Chron today:

Wouldn’t it be horrible if all this stunning, insanely mounting, irrefutable evidence — death, floods, fires, heat waves, the worst this and the most violent that in 1,000 years — were some sort of surefire, cumulative sign that we have, if not directly caused, then wildly accelerated and amplified the imminent implosion of this planet?

But we didn’t! And we haven’t! And we aren’t! I mean, whew.

I am delighted to remember that hardcore science has lied, misguided, misnomered and whatever else weird science does to confuse the world about the real impact humanity has had on global ecosystems. All those thousands of highly trained scientists educated at the finest universities, learning the most difficult and fraught information of our age, all in universal agreement that humankind’s actions directly affect climate change, and they are all totally full of it because they are clearly in cahoots with Nazi Liberal Jesus, the solar panel manufacturers and the hippies who want me to compost my KFC Double Down wrapper.

Much more at

When it Rains it Pours

Harvey Taylor sends along a link to an article entitled “Magnitude of Pakistan Floods is Unprecedented”. If we consider the Russia and Pakistan catastrophes as part of the same event, we have easily thirty million people directly affected and loss of life in the tens of thousands.

We also have more ammunition for claiming a very high weirdness index for the event.

Two especially interesting quotes:

We had an extraordinary event in northern Pakistan, where ten times the normal annual rainfall for one of those areas fell in four days. This is unprecedented. And, of course, you see the similar sorts of things happening in Africa, in Asia, in Central America. The farmers no longer know when to plant, because the rains don’t come at the time they used to come. All these are the kind of effects of climate change that we’ve feared and are beginning to come to pass, I’m afraid. – John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

Just to give you a sense of how bad the rain was that caused this flooding initially, on the 28th of July, there was 318 millimeters of rain just on one day. To put that into context, the record, all-time record, for rain in Peshawar, which is where this number is from, for one month, the month of July, was 217 millimeters. So it rained more in one day than it had ever rained in an entire month for the monsoon season. The floods that have ensued—and there’s been two waves of these floods now—there’s no government in the world that could have prepared for this or that could have responded to this in the way that we would have liked it to. Mosharraf Zaidi columnist for The News of Pakistan and Al-Shorouk of Egypt

Rolling a thirteen

Australian Prof. Steven Sherwood of UNSW says the same sort of thing I have been trying to say very nicely in a statement recently quoted on Dot Earth:

The “loading the dice” analogy is becoming popular but it misses something very important: climate change also allows unprecedented (in human history) things to happen. It is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13. What happens then? Since we have never had to cope with 13’s, this could prove far worse than simply loading the dice toward more 11’s and 12’s. I’m not sure whether or not what is happening in Russia or Pakistan is a “13″ yet, but 13’s will eventually arrive (and so will 14’s, if carbon emissions continue to rise).

I think we have just rolled our first thirteen. I don’t know how to prove it. (update – or maybe our second, if you count Australia last year)

I can define a fourteen easily. We will have rolled a fourteen when there is no controversy at all about whether the given event was in the range of unforced natural variability.

My attempt to raise this issue at Kloor’s went like this:
As the climate, i.e., the distribution of weather events, changes rapidly, the space occupied by the tails of the distribution sweep out territory that were not meaningfully in the distribution before.

So we will occasionally see things we could not have seen before, and some of them may be things we have not imagined before. We will see not only known but previously unlikely conditions (e.g. extreme heat), but also previously unsuspected vulnerabilities (smoke).

It is impossible to predict what these weird events will be. The simulation models are too coarse and too conservative, and we wouldn’t know what to look for in their output anyway. You can’t really do statistical attribution on single events, and causality is pretty complicated in a tightly coupled system. So it’s hard to say much about this beyond that we should not only expect the unexpected, we should expect a great deal more of it.

Sherwood’s analogy is very succinct and expresses the same point.

Silver Lining

I think one of the minor benefits of the huge catastrophes has been an increase in contact between climatologists and operational meteorologists. I am looking forward to conversations with a couple of them as we try to figure out exactly how weird the recent events in Asia actually were in some sort of objective sense.


Alexander Ac writes:

Anybody noticed Niger?

“Niger is now facing the worst hunger crisis in its history, the UN’s World Food Programme says, with almost half the population – or 7.3 million people – in desperate need of food.”

From the link:

After a prolonged drought, heavy rains have now hit parts of the country, killing at least six people.

The WFP says 17% of children, or one in five, are acutely malnourished.

The UN said more than 67,000 people lost their homes after severe rains in the past week.

The River Niger – the third largest in Africa – reached its highest level for 80 years, said the regional river authority, the ABN.

But the rains came too late to rescue this year’s crops, which have already failed.

“This year was a double whammy,” Christy Collins of the aid agency Mercy Corps told the Associated Press news agency.

Update: Via Wikipedia

– July 2009 estimate 15,306,252
– 2001 census 10,790,352
– Density 12.1/km2 (31.2/sq mi)