Sense of urgency is needed to get political action on climate change

by

What is needed for serious action to be taken on climate change? Looking back at other environmental issues (that admittedly were not as “wicked” as climate change), a few conditions can be identified that have to be met:

- Strong evidence of negative consequences

- Realistic solutions (technically, economically and socially)

- Political pull: Key figure(s) taking the lead

- Sense of urgency

There is widespread agreement amongst experts on the first condition, at least on long timescales. However, climate change doesn’t rank very high on conditions 2 to 4: Yes, we have the technology to produce zero carbon electricity, but it’s deemed too expensive by the powers that be. Plus what about space heating or transport? There are low carbon alternatives for those too, but they aren’t anywhere near full scale deployment.

There clearly is no political pull to speak of; many had hoped that Obama would step up to the plate, but he hasn’t (admittedly his hands are tied behind his back by congress).

A sense of urgency is totally lacking. The problem is that it’s not our problem, but rather that of future generations. However, due to the long timescales in the climate system, the solution is in our hands; not theirs. Quoting mt:

Between recognizing the necessity for a policy, the replacement of the required infrastructure, and the net impact on the cumulative nature of the carbon dioxide forcing in particular means that the gap in time from the moment we decide to take the matter seriously to actually stopping its further deterioration is perhaps forty years. The problems we see now are, roughly speaking the ones we bought in 1970, not the ones we have acquired since. Nothing we do now will have much effect until 2050 or so. If catastrophes really start in 2050, we will be looking at things getting still worse until 2090 or so.

I.e. our actions -or inactions- only take effect decades into the future. That has at least two very different consequences:

  • Since we don’t bear the full consequences of our actions, our motivation to solve the problem becomes smaller: This decreases people’s sense of urgency.
  • The big delay between action and consequence means that we have to act on the problem sooner rather than later if it is to be mitigated: This increases the actual urgency.

Note the discrepancy between the actual urgency to deal with the slowly ensuing problem and the perceived urgency. That is why I agree with e.g. Homer-Dixon and Stavins that some sort of dramatic event is needed to increase people’s sense of urgency. This could be seen as a form of loss aversion: The strongest driver for behavioral change is a sudden or looming negative impact (as in the example of a long time smoker who stopped cold turkey after the doctor gave him an ultimatum along the lines of “your legs will have to be amputated unless you quit smoking right now!” – Ben Tiggelaar).

Of course, such a dramatic event by itself is not enough to spur action (there’s other conditions that are still to be met), as e.g. Gilligan points out over at Kloor’s ClimateCentral blog. But the required sense of urgency is hard to achieve without precipitating events.

Should we therefore hope for climate related misery to fall upon us? Of course not. We should hope for and if possible contribute towards people gaining enough understanding and awareness of the issues without such misery to occur.

About these ads

55 Responses to “Sense of urgency is needed to get political action on climate change”

  1. William M. Connolley Says:

    > Strong evidence of negative consequences… There is widespread agreement amongst experts on the first condition, at least on long timescales

    Playing Devil’s advocate: is there? (I think I’ve said this before, perhaps elsewhere, and being answered a bit, but not I felt very convincingly). Of course that might depend on what timescales you’re thinking of. So what are the experts agreed on, and on what timescales?

  2. Tom Says:

    Oh, Bart. I hope you enjoyed biking among the flowers, and welcome back.

    What a surprise–I find much to object to in some of your base assumptions. (Sorry… I don’t like disagreeing with you all the time…)

    In order for us to emit enough greenhouse gases to even approximate SRE A1F1, we will have to develop the world enough that the grandchildren of Vietnamese peasants will be as rich as average Americans are today. Simply put, if we do not develop that quickly and that extensively, we will not emit that level of greenhouse gases.

    The IPCC explicitly states this. Nicholas Stern takes it as an implicit assumption. Nobody that I know disagrees with it.

    The world will be rich enough to undertake whatever drastic mitigation steps are necessary.

    I think we should work energetically on making a head start on dealing with the problem. I think we should tax carbon ($12/ton, revenue neutral, re-evaluated decenially). I think we should finance technology transfer to the developing world to help them develop in a greener manner than we did, and to prepare for effects before they happen.

    But there is one word to describe politicians who focus on the end of the century, as opposed to the real world situation he or she must deal with in office. That word is defeated.

    Realistic solutions are being adopted worldwide. There are over 1,000 companies in California installing solar panels on rooftops. Half the energy in Northern Europe comes from combined heat and power. The rise in sales of higher gas mileage cars is set to be phenomenal this year. Natural gas is replacing coal as the fuel of choice for electricity generation. This is all happening now.

    It is not enough, but it is more than a start.

    When you talk about ‘pull’, you shouldn’t talk about politicians. Their job is to push. ‘Pull’ comes from consumers, and their habits are influenced, not by stodgy politicians, but by actors and musicians. And they are green and getting greener, and it is having an effect.

    A sense of urgency will come from economic effects, rather than worries about our great-grandchildren. And we see now it is driving the adoption of solar thermal, more efficient cars, etc.

    It’s working, Bart. As soon as the Indians and the Chinese develop to a certain level, it will work with them, too.

    Have a beer, and smile. And lose that chart–replace it with levelized costs of solar power since 1978, so you will have something else to smile about.

  3. dhogaza Says:

    In order for us to emit enough greenhouse gases to even approximate SRE A1F1, we will have to develop the world enough that the grandchildren of Vietnamese peasants will be as rich as average Americans are today.

    Of course, one of the arguments often given against taking action to reduce CO2 emissions is precisely because it would be immoral to stop economic growth in countries like Vietnam that could lead to their being as rich as average americans are today …

    It’s kinda an interesting ethical argument Fuller’s making … kick back, don’t worry, in part because the developing world will still be poor 89 years from now …

  4. Tom Says:

    dhogaza, there was a time when you at least strived for coherency. You usually failed, but at least you tried. You have slipped badly.

  5. Bart Says:

    William,

    Personally, I’m thinking mostly along the lines of long term effects that are effectively “locked in” long before (~multiple decades) they materialize. On long timescales (and with warming exceeding certain thresholds), effects on the global food supply. health, water, sea level, biodiversity, specific weather extremes are expected to become strongly negative. These effects can only be mitigated ahead of time, which is probably the most important factor stalling the sense of urgency (which is related to the first point of negative impacts).

    I’m often a bit of a devil’s advocate myself and I agree that the case for negative impacts on short timescales (i.e. on the political horizon) is not very strong. So yes, also on the first condition there are gaps.

  6. Bart Says:

    Tom,

    I don’t find much in your reply that I would object to (I tend to emphasize different things, but that’s not the same as objecting to what you wrote). And I’m not sure what it is you objected to (except that you deem a particular scenario unlikely; not a central point of my argument though).

    One thing I do object to is the following statement you made:

    The world will be rich enough to undertake whatever drastic mitigation steps are necessary

    So far, there is a pretty strong relation between wealth (GDP) and GHG emissions. To bank on the world getting rich enough to then tackle the problem is a) risking waisting precious time and b) requires a tremendous change in impacts per unit GDP. How are we gonna achieve that? Indeed, you give some pointers on how people are starting with that, but being rich is by far no guarantee that the problems will then easily be solved. The strong relation between between GDP and emissions would suggest the opposite rather.

  7. Bart Says:

    Dhogaza, Tom,

    May I suggest that you just ignore each other, rather than playing verbal ping-pong here again?

  8. tom fuller Says:

    Bart, I think the link is really between GDP and energy consumption, not GHGs. GDP rose last year–GHGs dropped significantly. There’s a famous graph out there thag charts the relationship.

    I am more optimistic than most of the regulars here, I know. But there’s a reason. I’ve been following technology’s effects on society for all of my working life. It is sort of my career.

    I honestly think you greatly underestimate the depth and speed of change it causes.

    But hey–we’ll see soon enough. Far shorter than thirty years.

  9. sharper00 Says:

    @tom fuller

    “But hey–we’ll see soon enough. Far shorter than thirty years.”

    If we don’t like what we see it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

    It’s the equivalent of deciding to smoke because it’s neither certain that you’ll ever develop cancer nor that there won’t be a cure by the time you do.

  10. William M. Connolley Says:

    > effects on the global food supply. health, water, sea level, biodiversity, specific weather extremes are expected to become strongly negative.

    Hmm. I don’t believe “effects on the global food supply” (http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2009/05/could_food_shortages_bring_dow.php; and I haven’t seen anything to convince me otherwise since); I doubt “health” (health improvements due to advances in science and spread of prosperity are likely to outweight anything negative from GW). I could be persuaded on the others, maybe.

  11. Heraclitus Says:

    William, last year we had the droughts in Russia and flooding in Australia, both of which had significant impacts on grain production. Had the drought in China coincided with the most important growing period for wheat they would have had an equally significant impact on the Chinese harvest. It’s not hard to imagine 3 or 4 such events hitting the major grain producing regions of the world simultaneously. Would this not have a significant impact? Are you sure the world could recover quickly from such events?

    I worry more about the global food supply than anything else and past trends don’t give a lot of comfort. We are facing unprecedented uncertainty.

  12. William M. Connolley Says:

    > global food supply than anything else and past trends don’t give a lot of comfort

    Are you sure you’ve actually looked at them? For example,

    Which trends are you thinking of? As far as I know, global calories/person is increasing (though I admit those trends are not uptodate). But if you want to worry, you ought to have some actual figures to worry about.

  13. Bart Says:

    William,

    I’m not all that familiar with the impacts literature to strongly argue for or against this, but your rationale about health effects doesn’t seem relevant: The effects you mention don’t impact the relative health situation with BAU as compared to an emissions reduction scenario (if we assume that science and prosperity will be approx the same in both).

  14. William M. Connolley Says:

    > if we assume that science and prosperity will be approx the same in both

    We’re probably both arguing blind. But, presumably, there is some cost (economic cost) to emissions reduction (if there wasn’t, ie they were a net gain, they would happen without anyone pushing). Some of that money would be spent on healthcare (or frittered away, but lets suppose). I think it is reasonable to ask how $1 spent on emissions reduction would compare to $1 (or some fraction thereof) spent on healthcare. Or sanitation.

  15. Heraclitus Says:

    Past trends don’t give me a lot of comfort because I don’t think they tell us much about what’s going to happen in the future, at least not if the future looks much like a scaled up version of the recent past.

  16. Heraclitus Says:

    And maybe past trends aren’t that comforting even if they *do* tell us much about the future. I don’t know a lot about this study and it’s not going to overthrow everything else, but reading about it just now I thought it might be relevant:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110505142608.htm

    “The researchers found that global wheat production was 5.5 percent lower than it would have been had the climate remained stable, and global corn production was lower by almost 4 percent. Global rice and soybean production were not significantly affected.

    The United States, which is the world’s largest producer of soybeans and corn, accounting for roughly 40 percent of global production, experienced a very slight cooling trend and no significant production impacts.”

  17. Marco Says:

    William, the “if there wasn’t, ie they were a net gain, they would happen without anyone pushing” is a bit naive. There are plenty of examples where one could save money, and still it doesn’t happen. Let someone choose between two equal cars, one of which gets 20 mpg, the other 30 mpg, and many will still choose the one that “looks better”. Use of dryers for clothes is energy-intensive, people KNOW it is expensive, and still many throw two t-shirts and a few socks in and run the machine. The return-on-investment for home insulation is pretty good, but it isn’t hard to find places where it isn’t done at all or only implemented recently. All that equipment on standby, or lights that are not switched off when you’re not there. Heck, all the food we eat and throw away in the West is a humongous waste of money and energy somewhere down the chain.

    I can easily find more examples where people could save money, in some cases without even spending one dime beforehand. And people ARE pushing many of these things, but still are only occassionally implemented.

    One obvious problem is that if you save money, you are likely going to spend it on something else. If that something else is even worse in terms of energy use and without other benefits…

  18. William M. Connolley Says:

    > The researchers found that global wheat production was 5.5 percent lower than it would have been had the climate remained stable

    Thats all very well, but you’re missing the other bit: that global wheat production actually *increased* over the period.

    > “if there wasn’t, ie they were a net gain, they would happen without anyone pushing” is a bit naive

    True. This is only a small comment section; I didn’t go into detail. But quibbling aside, do you actually doubt that reductions in emissions will cost? Stern (who I disagree with on a number of points) thinks it will cost.

  19. Heraclitus Says:

    I’m not missing that bit, I’m saying that climate change already seems to be having an impact (compare it to the areas that didn’t experience significant warming), countering the other improvements in yields, and is likely to get worse. Also, possibly more worryingly, there is greater potential for catastrophic disruption in several major grain producing areas simultaneously.

    There is also evidence that the improvements in yields may be tapering off and even without climate change might not keep pace with current population growth. I thought The Economist’s recent special report on feeding the world was good, giving a balanced view on the problems: http://www.economist.com/node/18200618

  20. Bart Says:

    William,

    Strongly reducing emissions is very costly indeed (in absolute amounts at least; as a fraction of GDP much less so). But when you say

    it is reasonable to ask how $1 spent on emissions reduction would compare to $1 (or some fraction thereof) spent on healthcare. Or sanitation.

    I think you also ought to include other comparisons, like the $1 spent on military equipment for some oppressive regime, or evaporated in the financial crisis, or spent on bailing out banks, or on new roads. The more appropriate comparison would be: Is the world going to be better off if we reduce emissions or if we don’t? In the long term, the answer seems clear (better to reduce emissions); in the immediate run, the answer is less clear (better to not reduce emissions, if instead we choose do something useful with the money instead; and the opposite). In terms of costs comparison, the costs of reducing emissions should be compared with the costs of dealing with the mess later on. But then the qustion is: Over which timeframe, with what discount rate? There’s not easy, objective way to do a cost benefit analysis on this issue. The one that you were (perhaps tongue in cheek, mimicking Lomborg?) suggesting surely isn’t either.

  21. Eli Rabett Says:

    The most immediate effects on the food chain are likely to come from disease. Think bark beetles for grains. Right now the nasty out there is wheat rust, and the spread of that sort of thing IS associated with warmer climates.

  22. Marco Says:

    William, I agree that reducing emissions to ‘safe’ levels will cost. But thinking people would do something as long as it is economically favorable…nah. Of course, throughout the system *somebody* will loose (like the energy producers).

  23. William M. Connolley Says:

    > Is the world going to be better off if we reduce emissions or if we don’t?

    I personally think it would be better, but…

    > In the long term, the answer seems clear (better to reduce emissions)

    From the point of view of the economics folks, I don’t think this has been demonstrated (depending on your view of “long term”. If you mean >100 years, they might answer “we don’t go that far”). Within a 100y timescale, I think a fair case can be made that we would be (economically, which includes any impacts on health, say) better off increasing emissions.

    Also, http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2011/04/food-consumption-around-world.html may be relevant.

  24. Tom Says:

    I think economic impacts of warming show a curve shape, with positive impacts outweighing negative for the first 30-50 years of this century (at a 3C assumed rate of warming). It then trends towards negative with the slope getting more acute.

    However, because of the increased accumulation of wealth due to development, the negative trend is more or less eclipsed as a percentage of GDP.

    I don’t think you can make an overwhelmingly strong case for mitigation on strictly economic grounds, which I guess is why so few try to do so.

    Depending on how broadly you define other markers, it may not be easy to make the case for things like healthcare and other subjects currently in the news.

    If longevity continues to increase and compression of morbidity into the final two years of life continues, it will be hard to say climate change is bad for health.

    If agricultural yields climb, same story. If malaria retreats, idem. If lives lost due to war continue to decrease, how can you state climate change contributes to war? If the percentage of people living outside their countries stays the same…. etc., etc.

    These are the arguments that will be used against you, Bart. And it is a bit of a conjuror’s trick–using the broadest markers available so that economic progress in China can mask real problems in Africa, etc., etc.

    To the extent that warming is ‘global’, the most effective treatment is easy to prescribe–globalization. The points you need to be making are that:

    a) Warming will be expressed regionally
    b) The losers will lose more than the winners will gain
    c) Saving the world is complicated. Helping a region is something we’ve done successfully many times.

  25. Dave H Says:

    > I think economic impacts of warming show a curve shape with positive impacts outweighing negative for the first 30-50 years of this century

    Based on what?

  26. Tom Says:

    I think it’s Stern–or maybe his arch nemesis, Tol. I’d have offered a cite if I had one to hand. It’s not really very controversial (well, to the extent that anything related to global warming can be non-controversial). I’ve seen it bruited about by both skeptic and consensus-holder alike.

  27. Paul Kelly Says:

    Stavins’ statement is a cry of despair from the bottoms of the information deficit model. A model that requires disaster and fear for successful communication is not at all a good model. This model has been dominant from the get go. It is time to discard it.

    “Is the world going to be better off if we reduce emissions or if we don’t?”

    “… if there wasn’t, ie they were a net gain, they would happen without anyone pushing”

    There is no net gain controlling emissions. However, there are many actions that can produce net gain that will reduce emissions. Cost of installation vs time to break even, which causes the lack of push, is a marketplace problem. No amount of government policy can change that.
    A good model would communicate within the marketplace.

  28. Bart Says:

    Tom echoes William when he writes

    I don’t think you can make an overwhelmingly strong case for mitigation on strictly economic grounds

    And I suspect that that’s true indeed (though I’m not at all immersed in the climate economics literature). Cost benefit analyses are strongly dependent on e.g. what monetary value is put on non-monetary issues and on the discount rate. Both have an inherent subjective judgement call to it, which pretty much determines the answer one gets. (see e.g the discussion about the Stern report)

  29. Tom Says:

    Bart,

    Yes, and preferences can legitimately differ. Paul Kelly is on to something here. I’ll phrase it less elegantly–actions that have real economic benefits that have as a secondary effect the reduction of GHGs.

    It’s just the low-hanging fruit argument again, but emphasis matters. You can get U.S. Republicans to support a smart grid. You can get them to support research into better battery storage. So let’s get that part of it done. Conservatives the world over will support development of shale gas–well, except for the conservatives running oil companies ;)

    So let’s do that. Let’s focus on doing what we can do. That way the consensus holders can tell us we’re all useless and spinning our wheels, and after it works they can take credit for it! Everybody wins.

  30. Paul Kelly Says:

    If you just keep picking the lowest fruit, you’ll eventually get to the top of the tree.

  31. Dave H Says:

    > Cost benefit analyses are strongly dependent on e.g. what monetary value is put on non-monetary issues and on the discount rate.

    I think this is a key point, and is why I dispute Tom’s picture of an overall beneficial curve turning negative mid-century.

    My understanding is that on the whole that may be true depending on how you define “beneficial” – and rich nations are likely to feel the biggest benefit while poorer countries feel a greater negative effect. When one looks at the human cost rather than a largely GDP-driven analysis, or regional rather than global effects, the picture is markedly different.

    And again, this is an area of pretty high uncertainty.

  32. Steve Bloom Says:

    Hmm, no one can think of sufficiently nasty short-term stuff? I can:

    1) Ocean fisheries collapse due to acidifcation and loss of wetland/estuary productivity due to SLR.

    2) “Ozificiation” of many of the grain-growing regions, featuring increasing droughts/heat waves and more intense precipitation events.

    3) Loss of the Amazon rain forest.

    4) Runaway loss of permafrost, possible runaway loss of ESS clathrates leading to a PETM-like event.

    I could go on, but Joe Romm actually does a pretty good job of laying out the bad news; here, e.g., discussing the work released recently by those foaming-at-the-mouth redicals at the Royal Society.

    A1FI not required, BTW.

  33. Bart Says:

    Tom, Paul,

    I don’t disagree, though indeed I tend to emphasize that the low hanginjg fruit isn’t enough for the long term, lest that be forgotten.

    Jan Paul van der Soest (in a comment over at CC) said quite succinctly what is needed:

    1) preparing necessary effective actions that are currently politically infeasible, but may become feasible later, who knows
    2) stimulating feasible steps although we now they are not sufficient,
    3) prepare adaptation measures for the climatic changes that are inevitably underway
    4) hope for some miracle.

  34. Tom Says:

    I would replace your number 4, Bart, with this: Use the expressed preferences for green solutions by consumers in the market place and citizens in the polling booth to signal that greener choices are a viable choice for industry and politicians.

    That this hasn’t happened yet is truly astonishing. And it has nothing to do with scientists at all. It is down to poor decision-making by environmental organisations and politicians exploiting the green agenda rather than advancing it.

  35. MikeN Says:

    If the higher emissions forecasts only happen with a great deal of economic growth, as Tom says, then this means that the disaster scenarios are not as severe, as the people most affected are now much wealthier.

    There is the possibility that the scenarios are understated. How long did it take China to double emissions? Maybe China does it a few more times, and just swallows up the pie chart, while the rest of the world remains poor.

  36. Steve Bloom Says:

    MikeN, be aware that Tom is a propagandist. On the point, present warming commitment may have already tipped us into a massive loss of ice and added emissions from natural sources, and if hasn’t already seems likely to do so very soon, so arguing about whether or not emissions will track A1FI through 2100 seems rather beside the point. Watch the permafroist and hydrates, and ‘ware the black swans.

  37. Tom Says:

    MikeN, China is pretty much on trend. They doubled energy consumption between 2000 and 2010 and are on pace (and consciously striving) to do so again by 2020. They really would like their energy to be greener, but their need to keep the lights burning means they can’t afford to be fussy at this point.

    Steve Bloom, thanks for providing us all with an example of propaganda. I’m sure readers will be able to judge. Or prejudge, depending on their level of commitment to the cause.

  38. Steve Bloom Says:

    Your problem, Tom, is that you can’t tell the difference between science and propaganda.

    But hey, let’s do the permafrost:

    The scientists used a model to predict how much carbon the thawing will release. They estimate an extra 190 plus or minus 64 gigatons of carbon will enter the atmosphere by 2200—about one-fifth the total amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere today. Carbon emissions from thawing permafrost will require greater reductions in fossil fuel emissions, to limit the atmospheric carbon dioxide to some maximum value associated with a target climate, Schaefer said. “It means the problem is getting more and more difficult all the time,” he said. “It is hard enough to reduce the emissions in any case, but now we saying that we have to reduce it even more.”

    To be clear, these emissions are a) locked-in and b) enough to be self-sustaining and C) low-balled since the study assumed all-CO2 emissions (much of it will be methane) and neglected feedbacks (leaving these factors to a follow-on study being conducted now).

    If you’re as familar with the science as you claim, you ought to be able to venture an educated guess as to the CO2-eq. emissions that the follow-on study will find between now and 2100, and then explain how rich people will be able to buy their way out of it.

    Re the methane, see this presentation, slide 34 in particular. Obviously 3.5 Gt/a is the extreme high end, and most of that will still be getting absorbed into the water column (fortunately for us, since otherwise it would be 100 ppm CO2-eq. *per year* based on forcing over 25 years), but as warming continues more and more of it will reach the atmosphere. It may already be too late to stop a runaway loss of these clathrate deposits.

    Now, please explain for everyone how we can buy our way out of the permafrost release leading to a large-scale clathrate methane release (assuming the latter isn’t already happening anyway), and how none of it could amount to a disaster. I’m all ears.

  39. Steve Bloom Says:

    Eli wrote:

    The most immediate effects on the food chain are likely to come from disease. Think bark beetles for grains. Right now the nasty out there is wheat rust, and the spread of that sort of thing IS associated with warmer climates.

    Yes, but I think drought is bigger, as we’re seeing this year. With so many of the grain-growing regions being located in areas vulnerable to drying due to the poleward compression of the atmospheric circulation, it can only get worse (see the recent Dai paper). Combine that with groundwater depletion, increases in blocking events of the sort we saw in Russia last summer and loss of snow pack/glaciers for irrigation, and we’re talking trouble with a capital T right here in, um, Dry Riverbed City. There are synergies with disease and pests, of course.

  40. Tom Says:

    There are a lot of different things being said about permafrost:

    “Based on the thawing index, the long-term average (1961–1990) ALT is about 1.87 m in the Ob, 1.67 in the Yenisey, and 1.69 m in the Lena basin. Over the past several decades, ALT over the three basins shows positive trends, but with different magnitudes. Based on the 17 stations, ALT increased about 0.32 m between 1956 and 1990 in the Lena. To the extent that results based on the soil temperatures represent ground “truth,” ALT obtained from both the thawing index and numerical modeling is underestimated. It is widely believed that ALT will increase with global warming. However, this hypothesis needs further refinement since ALT responds primarily to summer air temperature while observed warming has occurred mainly in winter and spring. It is also shown that ALT exhibits complex and inconsistent responses to variations in snow cover.” Zhang, T., et al. (2005), J. Geophys. Res., 110, D16101, doi:10.1029/2004JD005642.”

    As for methane clathrates:

    “This has lead Jim Kennett to propose the so-called “clathrate gun hypothesis”, that methane builds up in clathrates during cold periods, and as a warming starts it is explosively released, leading to enhanced further rapid climate warming. This idea is not yet widely accepted, mainly because the records of methane in the ice cores seems to lag the temperature changes, and the magnitudes involved do not appear large enough to significantly perturb the radiative balance of the planet. The more conventional explanation is that as the climate warms there is increased rain in the tropics and thus increased emissions from tropical wetlands which need to have been large enough to counteract a probable increase in the methane sink. There is, however, much that we don’t understand about the methane cycle during the ice ages, and maybe hydrates will eventually be considered part of the rapid climate change story.” (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/features/200409_methane/).

    Sky is falling. Film at eleven. Umm, who’s the propagandist?

  41. Steve Bloom Says:

    Here’s the thing you do, Fuller:

    Someone brings up a current research result. You quick check to find an older result that contradicts it in some way, not bothering to check intervening work to find out whether what you found is still considered valid. (Note that it will almost always be easy to find contradictory older research unless scientific understanding has failed to advance with regard to the matter under discussion.) You then post the result and declare victory. This technique (a modified Gish Gallop) was boring and stupid when you used it at Tobis’s, and it’s no better here.

    But let’s do the specifics anyway:

    The permafrost paper covers trends from 1961-1990. Oh, that was over with fast. Did you even read what you posted?

    The methane article is old relative to the field, but more to the point the passage you quote discusses a possible significant role for clathrates in the Plio-pleistocene deglaciations, which is to say it’s irrelevant. Regarding the near-future role of clathrates, it says “(t)he responses of (…) clathrate deposits to climate change are hard to foresee.” IOW, the article has nothing to say about the new findings. You’re wrong again, Fuller.

    But thanks for illustrating for all to see your particular form of denialism.

  42. Roddy Campbell Says:

    The quote from MT in your post:

    ‘Between recognizing the necessity for a policy, the replacement of the required infrastructure, and the net impact on the cumulative nature of the carbon dioxide forcing in particular means that the gap in time from the moment we decide to take the matter seriously to actually stopping its further deterioration is perhaps forty years. [YES] The problems we see now are, roughly speaking the ones we bought in 1970, not the ones we have acquired since. [Er, what problems]’

    Not trying to nit-pick, and staying off the future problems and impacts question, the NET problems we have now, ie netting off the ‘bad’ effects so far of AGW (with the possible ‘good’ effects of AGW) against the ‘good’ effects resulting from the use of fossil fuel seem to me not to exist or even be negative, a negative problem being a good thing.

    ie what we bought in 1970, in contracting to burn the fossil fuels we have and adding up all the impacts SO FAR of that, would seem to be a good purchase, SO FAR, in impacts SO FAR.

    Which means the sense of urgency you want may be even further away than you think? Certainly the Chinese and Indians seem to think it’s been a good deal so far, as they are doing more of the same. Everyone is decarbonising (C/GDP), bu they love their GDP.

  43. Steve Bloom Says:

    Oh, Fuller neglected to post the entire abstract for the Zhang et al. permafrost paper:

    Changes in active layer thickness (ALT) over northern high-latitude permafrost regions have important impacts on the surface energy balance, hydrologic cycle, carbon exchange between the atmosphere and the land surface, plant growth, and ecosystems as a whole. This study examines the 20th century variations of ALT for the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena River basins. ALT is estimated from historical soil temperature measurements from 17 stations (1956–1990, Lena basin only), an annual thawing index based on both surface air temperature data (1901–2002) and numerical modeling (1980–2002). The latter two provide spatial fields. Based on the thawing index, the long-term average (1961–1990) ALT is about 1.87 m in the Ob, 1.67 in the Yenisey, and 1.69 m in the Lena basin. Over the past several decades, ALT over the three basins shows positive trends, but with different magnitudes. Based on the 17 stations, ALT increased about 0.32 m between 1956 and 1990 in the Lena. To the extent that results based on the soil temperatures represent ground “truth,” ALT obtained from both the thawing index and numerical modeling is underestimated. It is widely believed that ALT will increase with global warming. However, this hypothesis needs further refinement since ALT responds primarily to summer air temperature while observed warming has occurred mainly in winter and spring. It is also shown that ALT exhibits complex and inconsistent responses to variations in snow cover.

    OK, some slightly more recent data, but still nothing contradicting the paper I cited. It’s apparently a fairly well thought of study, with 37 cites (it’s been 6 years, after all), none of which Fuller appears to have examined.

    Amusingly, both papers are from NSIDC, the first author of the older one Fuller cited is the second author of the newer one I cited, and the newer one doesn’t even cite the older one (meaning that its authors didn’t think the older one had any relevance). You really need to check far enough in depth to spot these little details, Fuller.

  44. Heraclitus Says:

    Roddy, I’d say you are probably right that the benefits of burning fossil fuels have outweighed the negatives up till now at least, but:

    1) As you say this obviously ignores all possible future problems. Benfits measured up to now are obvious (though not without negatives unconnected to climate), future benefits not so easy and future problems very uncertain, but potentially catastrophic.

    2) The benefits have not been evenly spread but the problems are, and they will be, shared by all with, if anything, a roughly opposite distribution to the benefits. So far only a small part of the world has fully industrialised, but the whole world has seen the impact of this industrialisation.

    And the problems are numerous, you can’t be unaware of them even if you think they are cancelled out by the positives – the impact of warming on global harvests discussed above is a good example of this.

    I am not convinced that the sense of urgency is reduced.

  45. Bart Says:

    Especially for Steve and Tom, but everyone is welcome: A new open thread!

    But also over there: No bickering please.

  46. Bart Says:

    Roddy,

    Indeed, one reason that a sense of urgency is lacking is that the problems that we have committed ourselves to have not materialized yet. Which is the central message of this post. I think you’re right that the current impacts (i.e. those that we had committed ourselves to in ~1970) are far from catastrophic.

    Whether they are net positive or net negative, taking all the good (and bad) stuff into account that we did with the fossil energy is a very convoluted question. I.e. what if we had done the good (and not the bad) stuff with renewable energy and higher energy efficiency?

  47. Tom Says:

    Well, this is the central argument–what you are Roddy are saying–so I’ll stick here for a little bit.

    On the one hand, it is easy to imagine negative impacts from climate change. We’ve seen some of that here. But they are not certainties. And it’s hard to imagine climate change without some negative consequences.

    But if you take the same measurements we use to imagine the consequences of future climate change and use them to look at the past, it’s hard to see too many negatives. Pollution in Asia, resource corruption in Africa and maybe Texas… regional impacts from regional circumstances. And yes, we could have done better with what we burnt.

    Right now, many in Rome are worried about a predicted earthquake–probably more than are worried about climate change, although Italians are great worriers. But their response is to schedule the day off, not to get out of town, but to prepare to face it with their families.

    Even if you succeed in defining the most likely negative consequences of climate change, you may not inspire the course of action you think most effective to deal with it. My modest contribution–giving up my car in 1990–is ridiculed as an ineffective gesture by people into ridicule. And it may be.

    But inspiring urgency, as we’ve seen here in this thread, takes more than a threat. It takes a timeline. I personally pay close attention to stories about Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland ice cap melt. I pay attention to stories about permafrost melting. I get worried when there’s a lot of it and I get irrationally cheered up when it slows or temporarily goes into reverse. I don’t worry about clathrates so much, I must confess, except to wonder how soon they will be harvested for the gas within.

    And I’m not a skeptic. So my advice for those who want to instill a sense of urgency regarding climate change is that a calmer tone and a timeline will do far more than throwing a handful of disaster scenarios at the general public with a) no timeline and b) no plan of action to avoid them individually.

    It’s called integrated messaging. Give us the package–problem, timeline and action plan. And hey–this is the 21st Century. Choose better messengers. There’s a reason why private companies change their spokespersons, especially when the public has grown visibly tired of them. That reason is that (as we see with personages such as Al Gore) the mistakes are often associated with the public face, and a new face can get the benefit of the doubt for a while. It sounds a bit silly, but it’s true.

    It is my honest belief that the political and social issues revolving around climate change have not been effectively communicated, due in large part to the very large number of story lines, advocates and sponsors who worked without an effective integrated strategy.

    You all can change that, however.

  48. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Heraclitus – I agree with Bart’s ‘A sense of urgency is totally lacking. The problem is that it’s not our problem, but rather that of future generations. However, due to the long timescales in the climate system, the solution is in our hands; not theirs.’, more or less; at any rate the implication within it that the problems that may arise from GHGs lie entirely in the future since they are simply not apparent yet, ESPECIALLY when offset against the gains from burning FFs I entirely agree with.

    I read some of the stuff on global harvests – without wanting to get into any detail on it I’d rather have some decent tractors and combine harvesters and a wealthy society that can afford research into ways of improving yield (all fossil benefits) during the period since 1970 in question, and take some pretty undetectable ups or downs from climate over that period on the chin – my instinct is that that is a huge net gain in food production during those 40 years. (I grew up on a farm and am still a (small) farmer, not that that gives me any especial knowledge, but I’ve seen ‘more fossil fuel in (inc fertiliser and better machinery), more food out, all my life).

    As to the benefits and costs and how they are spread over geography and time – I’m not going there!

    Bart – to follow your point would require entirely theoretical and unknowable counterfactuals, and would be fairly pointless? We are where we are, I was only mildly objecting to your quote from MT referring to ‘current problems’, which, I would maintain are infinitesimal compared to the net benefits from what we’ve been up to since 1970, and the point detracts from your main one, not because I block my ears when people say there are real and CURRENT problems, but because they don’t look at them on a net basis, and so I mistrust what they’re saying.

    A more simplistic, in a good way, definition of the issue as you see it is that we’ve had a jolly good time taking all these drugs, and still are, and yet if we don’t stop, like, really soon, someone somewhere else at some time in the future will pick up the tab. Who that is, where, and what the tab will be we have very little idea.

  49. MikeN Says:

    Steve Bloom, so you think the current problem is bad enough, and ignore A1F1. OK, that isn’t too far from Tom’s point. The IPCC disaster scenarios coming from A1F1 are out of line, and this should not be a basis for policy. If existing CO2 is so dangerous, then it stands to reason that additional CO2 from higher emissions scenarios would be even worse. Tom is right to point out that things are being overstated.

  50. Steve Bloom Says:

    MikeN, that wasn’t quite my point. I suppose the relevant implication of what I was saying is that we seem likely to get A1FI (note not A1F1; the FI is for “fossil intensive”) GHG levels (and so impacts) without doing the emissions. BTW, the common view among the scientists I know is that the IPCC understates the impacts, unsurprisingly given how the IPCC is structured.

    Re the pluses and minuses of climate change so far, this current OIIFTG post on climate change impacts in Gujarat is instructive. Gujarat was the heart of the Green Revolution. A key point that isn’t quite stated in the material Michael quoted is the extent to which Gujarat is dependent on fossil water that won’t last much longer. That’s not a subject the Indian government cares for very much, and IIRC the extent of the problem was only made apparent via GRACE data that came out ~6 months ago. I should hasten to say that the same thing happens in the First World; around the same time GRACE data showed major unsustainable draw-downs in California’s central valley. That wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the fact that the CA government had neglected to gather the relevant data on the ground meant that the issue had essentiially no profile. Obviously there’s a broader lesson there.

    Bart, re the permafrost and clathrates, I thought the exchange with Fuller was entirely on-topic since it demonstrated the way that his eyes just seem to slide away from the bad stuff. How do you develop a sense of urgency in someone like that? As you said, likely it will be a matter of waiting for the hammer to fall on those who are unwilling or unable to perceive the problem.

    Getting back to the clathrates, the threat from which Fuller dismissed out of hand without knowing the specifics, I should add some detail:

    Most of the science on the clathrates is recent. The key fact is that they’ve been determined to have been responsible for some truly large-scale heating excursions in the Earth’s past, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). This recent public-access paper (co-authored by Gavin Schmidt, who also wrote the old article Fuller quoted; see this Skeptical Science write-up, and also here for additional context) concluded that the blow-off must have happened in a hurry, taking only about 50 years. IOW, once a clathrate event begins, it will finish itself quickly. That would be especially true of the shallow clathrate deposits on the East Siberian Shelf (see below).

    The PETM itself (and the other, somewhat smaller Eocene events that followed) didn’t result in a major extinction (even though it raised global temps by a whopping ~6C) because there were no major ice sheets present. Effects of a similar event now would be much, much worse since feedbacks associated with the loss of the ice would greatly enhance the T excursion (although the additional amount would probably take somewhat longer due to the time needed to melt the ice and warm the deep oceans; ball-parking, I think we’re talking on the order of 12C over several centuries) and because so much life is adapted to colder temperatures in the oceans and on land. I expect I don’t need to explain to anyone why this would be an utter catastrophe.

    The particular concern about the clathrates on the East Siberian Shelf (a region in the Arctic Ocean that’s geologically unique in that it comprises a vast area that’s so shallow it exposes during glaciations, plus it receives something like half the world’s supply of pelagic sediments => oodles of carbon) was first raised by the authors of the slide presentation I linked above, Shakhova and Semilitov. Once they saw the potential scale of the problem, they started raising the alarm in both scientific and public circles to try to get funding for an accurate assessment (a very expensive proposition since it involves a lot of time out on and above a remote area of the Arctic Ocean). In response, a year ago the NSF funded two research teams (press release), each led by one of the top scientists in observing methane in water, Ira Leifer and Samantha Joye (familiar names from the Gulf spill). The slide presentation refers to the results from last summer’s observations by the Leifer team.

    The upshot is that the ESS clathrates are already destabilizing. If substantial quantities get into the atmosphere, which with continued warming of the overlying shallow waters seems almost a certainty, we can expect a repeat of the PETM event. Of course whether it occurs on the same scale is a matter of how much methane is available (and note that the ESS clathrates are Plio-pleistocene deposits, unlike the warm-climate deep ocean clathrates responsible for the PETM, so it’s hard to see how a substantial warming of the Arctic Ocean wouldn’t mobilize all of them), but as the presentation makes clear the potential is there for something big and nasty. The chances of dodging this bullet seem vanishingly small, although by continuing with BAU emissions we can probably manage to make it worse.

  51. Paul Kelly Says:

    So, climate change is a problem whose solution requires a sense of urgency; but, the problem is structured so that a sense of urgency will likely never attend before disaster is inevitable. Therefore, the problem is unsolvable.

    Unsolvable means that all climate communication, no matter how well crafted and accurate, is predetermined to fail.

  52. Heraclitus Says:

    Paul Kelly: “a sense of urgency will likely never attend before disaster is inevitable. Therefore, the problem is unsolvable.”

    What is your understanding of uncertainty here? That word ‘likely’ seems important to me, it’s not going to be easy to achieve, but it is *possible*. It is going to become less likely the more people work to downplay the urgency.

    We need to stop our debauchery and start paying attention to our picture in the attic.

  53. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Love the Dorian Gray metaphor.

  54. Paul Kelly Says:

    H.

    For my percentage of certainty of “will likely never attend before disaster”, subtract the number you attach to *possible* from 100%. I base some of my certainty on the words of Stavins, MT and Bart. Where do likely, very likely, and near certain fall for you?

  55. Bernard J. Says:

    Another thread that I missed the first time ’round…

    Steve Bloom made many points that I am saddened to see weren’t well appreciated by other posters here. It’s a shame that there weren’t more biologists, ecologists and ecologically-trained agronomists commenting when Bart first put this interesting thread up, because I think that there were many points that were completely overlooked.

    As it stands there were more cornucopian posters here than any real scientific understanding would warrant. One particular glaring problem was the repeated argumentum ad historiam… David Hume would weep at the use of weak induction, where a discussion such as this requires strong induction at the least.

    I’ll leave it to interested readers here to pick the aforementioned problem to which I refer for themselves – doing so might help to understand why the induction is indeed a weak one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers

%d bloggers like this: