Climate Disruption


Simon Donner takes on the great “climate change” vs. “global warming” debate. He argues, albeit somewhat tentatively, for capitulation; we should call a thing what everybody else calls the thing:

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for “global warming” and “climate change”. With “global warming”, the term the public is more likely to use, a “skeptical” site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].

Let me take the opportunity to remind everybody that I’m on record taking the opposite position in my RealClimate article “Imprecision of the Phrase ‘Global Warming’

The problem in capitulating to the common usage is that the common usage is woefully imprecise. As I said in that article:

If someone asks me in my capacity as a climate scientist whether I “believe in “global warming”, they are not asking the question in a literal sense. They are asking “what am I to make of this confusing topic called “global warming”?

In the end they are usually asking some combination of questions like 1) whether greenhouse gases are accumulating? 2) whether the greenhouse effect is established science? 3) whether global warming has been observed? 4) whether future climate change is expected to be big enough to worry about? 5) whether cooling at a single location falsifies the “theory”? 6) whether to expect super-hurricanes? 7) whether the Gulf Stream will shut down instantly glaciating Scandinavia and Britain? 8 ) how you can model climate when you can’t predict weather? etc. Often they will bounce incoherently from one to another of these sorts of exasperatingly-missing-the-point sorts of question.

Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime? etc., When I hear people asking the right questions it makes my day, but it’s pretty rare.

What people outside the field universally don’t mean by “global warming” though, is “a tendency for the global mean surface temperature to increase”!

The first trouble in talking about “global warming” is that when you do, you are already in an area where communication is problematic. And shifting goalposts is a key tactic of obfuscators everywhere. “Nothing could be better than early retirement on Maui, and a peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing, so a peanut butter sandwich is better than early retirement on Maui.” That sort of thing is their stock in trade. By starting the conversation with an ambiguity, you leave yourself open to all manner of trickery.

Since I wrote that piece, a whole new set of problems has arisen with “global warming”, in that the global mean surface temperature has become an unhealthy obsession of the crowd that calls themselves “lukewarmists”, i.e., the McIntyreans. Pretty much the only thing they care about is the observational and proxy record of global mean surface temperature. If “global warming” is the theory, and the observational record (mostly unforced) is ambiguous, well then, we can all go home and do business as usual, can’t we?

The bizarre fascination with Mann and Jones, the obsession with every little bounce up and down of the satellite record, all of this turns climate policy into a sport, where the amateur critics of science “root for” downturns in the curve and we find ourselves idiotically hoping for equally meaningless upticks. The actual implications of accumulating greenhouse gases are utterly lost in the shuffle.

The issue, of course, is completely miscast. The global mean surface temperature (or if you insist on hair-splitting, the fourth root of the mean of the fourth power of temperature, which is the arguable alternative and which behaves very similarly) is an interesting and useful diagnostic, especially in the study of paleoclimate. But it isn’t what we are worried about.

The global mean temperature does not cause impacts.

Local shifts in climate cause impacts. Changes in the radiative balance cause changes in circulation which cause changes in local climate. Human activity causes changes in radiative balance. Carbon dioxide is the biggest and most difficult but by no means the only component of human forcing of radiative balance. The local changes we are seeing are roughly as expected, and are already meaningful and are accelerating. Errors in our understanding are unlikely to be benign. Those are the salient facts.

Obsession with global mean temperature is a debating trick of the opposition. The fact that people are searching on “global warming” means we have to use it as a tag. But we shouldn’t use it to mean what the people searching on the term mean by it, because the very use of the term is generally a sign of confusion.

“Global warming” means an increase in the mean surface temperature of a globe. That’s all. It applies to any physical spherical object, typically a planet or a large moon. It applies on many time scales. It isn’t itself a problem, and doesn’t itself require a response. On the time scale of human forcing, it is an expected symptom of anthropogenic climate change.

Some go with “climate chaos” which has two problems: 1) it prejudges the scope of the problem and 2) it raises nomenclature confusion with a relevant mathematical concept. I think “climate disruption” is a good name for the problem.


Image: Dan Farber, a law professor, who I hope has mercy. It’s a great picture.

Journalism of Climate Change per Yulsman

Apparently, Tom Yulsman has been on the “climate beat” for quite some time.

Anyway, he has a collection of interesting observations about communicating climate science from various participants. Unfortunately, no compelling position emerges from it. Sometimes I suspect that it is exactly the purpose of conventional journalism, to avoid influencing the reader’s position at all.

In this (for all I know unintentional) goal, Yulsman succeeds.

The necessary bow in the direction of RPJr contributes to the obfuscation:

As the politics heat up, he urges journalists not to take sides in what is certain to be a vigorous debate with all kinds of information vying for people’s attention and belief. “Climate policy needs more options, not less,” he argues. “Like it or not, people wanting to go slow or not go at all are part of the political scene.”

Whatever the hell that means.

Yulsman quotes Revkin saying something more or less sensible at first blush:

In his opinion, that clear view of the science is getting “terribly lost in the distillation that comes with saying that there is no more denying it.” His warning: “There is complexity out there, folks, and the things that are clear are only the basics: more CO2 means a warmer world.”

which hardly accounts for his craven habit of giving far too much attention to the people not clear on the basics. As I’m always pointing out, Revkin seems incapable of taking note of the extent to which he perpetuates exactly the problem he is complaining about here.

Schneider, of course, talks sense, though one wonders if there weren’t juicier quotes that got left on the cutting room floor:

“Given the risks we’ve identified, how many chances do you want to take with planetary life-support systems, versus how many chances do you want to take with the economy?” Schneider asks. “That’s a value judgment, and that’s the government’s job, the corporation’s job, an individual’s job.”

Out of this muddle, Yulsman only manages to make one cogent summary point, a plaintive plea for more journalism:

Demanding that the case for climate change be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” is unreasonable and has contributed to the false balance problem. “‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the order of the day in a civil court.… [And] this may be the fairest analogy to apply to policy and science issues such as climate change,” Dykstra recommends.

This is great advice. It’s just too bad that his bosses at CNN are no longer receiving it. They dropped Dykstra and his entire unit at the end of 2008. He believes their ouster leaves broadcast and cable news with no reporters or producers working full time on environmental issues, not to mention science and technology.

This gaping chasm in environmental expertise in television news, along with downsizing at nearly every newspaper and the slackening of online ad revenues that might pay for serious-minded digital journalism, does not bode well for the future of news reporting about climate change.

Dykstra’s advice about the burden of proof, though nothing new, is solid. The question here is whether the reporting about climate change will be missed, whether the plea for more of what passes for science journalism should be heeded. As far as I am concerned, not this sort, thanks.

It’s certainly true that blogspace as currently configured does not create readily credible sources for the average person investigating a complex topic. Perhaps this can be repaired somehow. Credentials are crucial to preserving the function of reporting on the net. But that doesn’t mean that the sort of lukewarm indecision propagated in this article or elsewhere among trained journalists is helping the situation.

There are two questions that come to mind about science journalists:

  • 1) Do journalists know who is lying? If so, why do they give the liars so much prominence? If not, what service do they provide as filters?
  • 2) How do journalists decide correctly which stories are important enough to follow? Climate is not the only sustainability story out there. Where is the press on the rest of them?

It definitely feels, on our end, like earth scientists and biologists against a wall of ignorance, with the press as the guys on top of the wall dropping the burning oil.

It doesn’t feel at all like the press is an ally of science conveying legitimate balance on matters that are open and backing up the experts on matters that are settled. And without huge improvements along that front, we are so very hosed. The question of how the public learns about science is a primary survival concern for civilization going forward. More “not taking sides” like this might just kill us all, good and dead.

Update 4/12: Jay Rosen just blogged a very insightful article on the false balance problem. From that article:

he said, she said is not so much a truth-telling strategy as as refuge-seeking behavior that also fits well into production demands. “Taking a pass” on the tougher calls (like who’s blowing more smoke) is economical. It’s seen as risk-reduction, too, because the account declines to explicitly endorse or actively mistrust any claim that is made in the account. Isn’t it safer to report, “Rumsfeld said…,” letting Democrats in Congress howl at him (and report that) than it would be to report, “Rumsfeld said, erroneously…” and try to debunk the claim yourself? The first strategy doesn’t put your own authority at risk, the second does, but for a reason.

We need journalists who understand that reason. And I think many do. But a lot don’t.

Also, and this is crucial:

The newswriting formula that produced it dates from before the Web made all news and reference pages equidistant from the user. He said, she said might have been seen as good enough when it was difficult for others to check what had previously been reported … but that is simply not the case … in April, 2009.

Where’s Marshall McLuhan when you really need him?


Roman coin showing the two-faced God Janus from livius.org is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien.

I thought about including a picture of the old Batman nemesis “Two-Face”, but, well, ewww.


Climate Change as Security Threat

IGSD / INECE press release:

Climate Change is Such a Serious Threat to National Security that Military Organizations are Now Part of the Solution

Washington, D.C., March 18, 2009 – International climate change policy must take into consideration the effects of climate change on national security and military organizations are part of the solution, said participants at yesterday’s “
Climate Change & Security At Copenhagen” conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Institute for Environmental Security and the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE-EU), in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Dwindling natural resources is one factor that could fuel conflict and become a threat multiplier. “Climate change is threatening 1,500 miles of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau that feed the rivers that supply drinking and agriculture water to billions of people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh,” said Air Marshal A. K. Singh, (Ret) Former Commander in Chief of Indian Air Force. “Less water from the retreating glaciers could spur serious conflicts between the countries. This is reason enough for military organizations to join with their governments in stopping climate change.”

Conference speakers such as David Sandalow from the Brookings Institute discussed both U.S. and international climate policy with regard to national security, and what it will mean for this December’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Other presentations focused on the role of military organizations worldwide in helping reduce the threat of climate change. “Environmental protection is not a new concept to military organizations,” said Stephen O. Andersen, from the U.S. EPA. “When ozone depletion threatened health and prosperity, the U.S. Department of Defense and defense ministries worldwide played an important role in eliminating their own dependence on ozone depleting substances and they shared that alternative technology worldwide. Now, military organizations are taking responsibility for protecting global security by helping eliminate global dependence on fossil fuels and promoting new, sustainable technologies.”

Last week at the Copenhagen Climate Congress, scientists confirmed that climate change is advancing much more quickly than anticipated, as well as tipping points for abrupt climate change events, such as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet. The resulting sea level rise would produce millions of environmental refugees.

In order to avoid abrupt climate change as well as security threats, world leaders must take immediate action on “fast-action” measures that will buy time for long-term climate strategies. “Unfortunately, the world is already committed to 2.4˚C of warming and recent research has shown that even aggressive reductions in CO2 emissions won’t provide significant cooling for 1,000 years,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, who spoke on the topic of abrupt climate change at yesterday’s event. “In light of approaching tipping points and the security implications of passing them, we need to be pursuing a number of mitigation measures that can be implemented now and bring quick reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Zaelke presented two main strategic “levers” to produce fast mitigation. The first is to reduce emissions of black carbon soot and non-CO2 emissions, such as HFCs. With over 20 years of success in phasing out 97 percent of almost 100 ozone-depleting substances and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process, the Montreal Protocol ozone treaty could be an effective framework for phasing down HFCs. The second lever is to expand bio-sequestration through forests, agriculture, and biochar (which in addition to sequestering significant amounts of carbon, also improves soil fertility for increased agricultural productivity). Some scientists have noted that bio-sequestration appears to be the only current way to draw down CO2 concentrations to a safe level of 350ppm. These strategies could be included under the new climate agreement.

Tom Spencer, Vice Chairman of the Institute for Environmental Security, stated that “the defence ministers of the world are expanding their superior threat assessment tools to analyze the threats climate change poses to national security. The military have a major ecological footprint…perhaps we should call it a ‘bootprint.’” Mr. Spencer added that “the defence community needs to join the climate battle in full force during the climate negotiations at Copenhagen in December.”

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Alex Viets
Communications Officer, IGSD

Asking the Right Questions

From Herman Daly’s keynote to the AMS workshop on Federal Climate Policy:

However, it is useful to back up a bit and remember an observation by physicist John Wheeler, “We make the world by the questions we ask”. What are the questions asked by the climate models, and what kind of world are they making, and what other questions might we ask that would make other worlds? Could we ask other questions that would make a more tractable world for policy?

The climate models ask whether CO2 emissions will lead to atmospheric concentrations of 450-500 parts per million, and will that raise temperatures by 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, by a certain date, and what will be the likely physical consequences in climate and geography, and in what sequence, and according to what probability distributions, and what will be the damages inflicted by such changes, as well as the costs of abating them, and what are the ratios of the present values of the damage costs compared to abatement expenditures at various discount rates, and which discount rate should we use, and how likely is it that new information learned while we are constructing the model, will invalidate the results? What kind of world is created by such questions? Perhaps a world of such enormous uncertainty and complexity as to paralyze policy. Scientists will disagree on the answers to every one of these empirical questions.

Could we ask a different question that creates a different world? Why not ask, Can we systematically continue to emit increasing amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere without eventually provoking unacceptable climate changes? Scientists will overwhelmingly agree that the answer is no.

To make the point more simply, if you jump out of an airplane you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter.

Go. Read it. He’s just getting warmed up.

Update: Thingsbreak points out that you can read the same text with less strain on your eyes and your mouse hand at Grist.

 

Antarctica


This peculiar figure is still up at a NASA site. The cooling rates are monstrously high (per annum!) and the boundary between land and sea is too sharp and there is altogether a misleading amount of detail. I seem to recall William Connolley warning me that this map was broken. But there it sits.

Meanwhile Robert Rohde’s wonderful GlobalWarmingArt site finds the evidence equivocal:

Here the rates are per decade, and while still large, are not stunningly large. The time series are longer and hence perhaps less noisy, and the trends are far less uniform. (And as usual, Robert has made a visually beautiful image. Quite a few of those many hits to this site have been people coming by to admire my closeup of one of his sea level rise maps.)

Anyway, the NASA site with the peculiarly shaded map has a link to:

Comiso, J. C., Variability and trends in the Antarctic surface temperatures from in situ and satellite infrared measurements, J. Climate, 13(10), 1674-1696, 2000; Kwok, R, and J.C. Comiso, Spatial patterns of variability in Antarctic surface temperature: Connections to the Southern Hemisphere Annular Mode and the Southern Oscillation, Geophys. Res. Lett., 29(14), 10.1029/2002GL015415, 2002;

And therein we find this:

Although the NASA web page references the article, and while it has some obvious features in common, this figure doesn’t perfectly match their fancy shaded map (check the area by the Ross Sea). That said it does show relatively steep gradients at the shore, and very high rates of change. Notice that the warming signal in the surrounding seas is far more pronounced than the cooling in the interior. Notice especially the intense warming near the Amundsen embayment, (a bit west of South America) which is spectacularly not where you want it.

So what’s going on?

Wikipedia (and thereby, William, no doubt) refers us to

Thompson and Solomon 2002, Interpretation of Recent Southern Hemisphere Climate Change, Science, v 296 pp 895 ff.

They in turn make a strong case for a correlation of cold Antarctic interiors and a tightening of the “SAM”, which is the anomalously strong phase of the Antarctic polar vortex, a mode which appears to be increasing, and which can be dynamically attributed to a sharp decline in ozone over the period record. Ozone, of course, heats the stratosphere, so its decline will lead to anomalously cold temperatures. Then you need to invoke the thermal wind law and (hmm skipping a few steps) voila! a tightened Antarctic vortex, and tightened temperature gradients around the Antarctic rim.

Of course for every person worried about the retreat of Arctic sea ice there is somebody willing to celebrate the advance of Antarctic ice. The map shows that ice is advancing through the relatively limited areas of cooler water, but that doesn’t do much to separate cause and effect. Any ideas out there?

Anyway the short version of the story is at least plausibly argued to be like this. Antarctica seems to be special because of ANOTHER human impact on the global environment. As the ozone depletion subsides, this will be tested, as the anticipated forcings will both be towards warming in the Antarctic interior.

Update: I see Atmoz has taken this on in plenty of detail. The info I wanted from William is there too, along with many comments. And he says the shiny map is “probably the work of a PR droid” and points to this, via NASA, from Wikipedia:

Go figure.

I think there is actually something to complain about here in a McIntyrean way: how are these drastically different results from a single agency supposed to be reconciled? I note that the web publication of the later image refers to the earlier one without explaining the dramatic differences.

And while I haven;t heard a cogent explanation for the advancing Antarctic sea ice, I have heard a cogent explanation for interior cooling, along with, now, data that shows it isn’t happening…

None of which changes the fact that so far all evidence seems to agree that warm water is being delivered to the structural weak point of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

 

High but Surmountable Cost, Except for Pride

Very interesting rebuttal to the “high cost” arguments I endorsed recently in an article by Adam Stein on Grist.

I don’t buy the argument that responding to climate change is “an opportunity” for society at large. An atmosphere sensitive to CO2 is worse than an atmosphere not sensitive to CO2. The “cost” may be exaggerated, but that doesn’t make it cost-free or a small matter.

There are also reasons that it is very over-optimistic to set the rate of progress in information technology as achievable in energy technology. Joe Romm explains this repeatedly, e.g., here.

At least one huge cost at this point is pride though. The market libertarians will have a very hard time admitting that climate forcing is at the least an important exception to their principles. They have painted themselves into a corner, and the rest of us are sort of stuck there along with them.

They have recently been doing a really impressive job fooling themselves that the evidence is piling up on their side. They will, eventually, be genuinely surprised when the problem fails to go away. I wonder when the realization will set in. Alas, I am not holding my breath.

Skepticism regarding "thermodynamics"

It’s time the conspiracy of engineers promoting their “thermodynamics” stopped getting a free ride.

It happens I believe in Phlogiston Theory. But so did all the Nobel winners, not just in physics and chemistry but also economics and peace. Without exception. Also Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi not to mention Babe Ruth and Bobby Orr and Joe Namath…

I understand that the contrary “thermodynamic” theory is motivated by economic self-interest on the part of engineers who want to keep getting money for designing their so-called combustion chambers and engines and such, but their pretense that the science is settled is very far from true. Look. Nobel winners. And hockey players.

They agree with me because I say so. Who are they to argue?