Archive for the ‘Global Temperature’ Category

A critical look at “The uncertainty has settled” documentary by Marijn Poels

July 17, 2017

(Zie de Nederlandse versie door Jos Hagelaars op ons Klimaatverandering blog)

The documentary “The uncertainty has settled” from Dutch filmmaker Marijn Poels follows him on his journey in rural Austria and Germany to witness how energy policies impact traditional agriculture. That is the stepping stone to also look into different ideas about how and why the climate is changing. Unfortunately Poels has no clue how to distinguish fact from fiction, and by his own admission he has no interest in making that distinction. As a result the documentary offers a mix of basic scientific insights, plain falsehoods, and misleading statements regarding climate science. As an unwitting viewer you are left utterly confused –cued by Poels’ facial expression at those times- how to reconcile these seemingly opposing viewpoints. Creating confusion was apparently his objective (as he acknowledges on his website), but it makes for a surreal experience if you know you’re being fooled. I think spreading falsehoods is doing a disservice to the public, as I’ve said to Marijn Poels during a radio-debate (in Dutch).

Let’s look more closely at some of the things being said about climate change in the documentary.

Marijn Poels meets another Dutchman in rural Germany, who laments how climate policies have led to the disappearance of local nature. He says it’s insane to think that a CO2 concentration as low as 0.035% (currently 0.04%) could have any impact on climate. That’s clearly fallacious reasoning (argument from incredulity): there are plenty of examples of compounds that have serious impacts at the same or lower concentrations (e.g. a CO detector will sound the alarm at such a concentration and you had better leave the premises). Without any CO2 in the air the globe would quickly become a frozen ball of ice, since the main air constituents (nitrogen 78%, oxygen 21%, argon 1%) don’t impede the infrared heat loss to space.

Later in the documentary he meets with climate scientist Hans von Storch, astrophysicist Piers Corbyn and physicist Freeman Dyson. Those in the loop will immediately recognize that this is not at all a fair representation of the scientific debate, but rather provides a very skewed vision thereof by emphasizing outlier views that are demonstrably false.


Hans von Storch accurately describes our current knowledge about climate change: We know that the earth has warmed and we can’t explain this warming without considering the human-induced increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He also distinguishes how scientific knowledge may be very uncertain in specific details, while the core tenets are robustly known: “The fact that CO2 has a significant influence on climate is indisputable.”

It’s astonishing how many falsehoods and conspiracy theories Piers Corbyn mentions over the course of few minutes.  Some of the things he said:

FALSE: The increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is coming from the oceans

If Corbyn were right, the concentration in the ocean should have decreased in order to explain the increased atmospheric concentration (a simple consequence of conservation of mass). However, CO2 concentrations have been observed to increase both in the atmosphere and in the ocean. In reality, the excess CO2 in both atmosphere and ocean originates from fossil fuel burning, as is evident from the isotopic signature and the concomitant decrease in atmospheric O2 concentration.

FALSE: CO2 only follows temperature

During the ice age cycles CO2 acted as an amplifying feedback on the warming which was initiated by changes to the earth’s orbit. During those times of relatively slow warming the temperature indeed started to increase before the CO2 concentrations did, after which the CO2 caused even more warming. Hence it’s a bit of a chicken-egg issue with CO2 and temperature, but Corbyn’s statement is misleading. The current CO2 increase is unequivocally anthropogenic and ~100 times faster than it was in glacial to interglacial transitions. Moreover, we have known since the mid-nineteenth century that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation and thus acts as a greenhouse gas which impedes planetary heat loss and thus warms up the surface.

FALSE: Termites produce more CO2 than human activity does

Termites produce less CO2 than human activity does. Moreover, while anthropogenic emissions have led to the increased CO2 concentration, there’s no sign of tremendous changes in termite populations or emissions. In general, CO2 uptake and release by the biosphere (through assimilation and respiration/decomposition, respectively) approximately balance over multi-annual timescales. Termites also emit methane, another greenhouse gas, though around 40 times less than is released through human activity.  [Text about termite emissions has been updated 17-07]

FALSE: A new mini-ice age cometh

Corbyn has been predicting this for a while now (at least since 2010), but reality so far has been going in the opposite direction compared to his predictions. Scientists have investigated the potential consequences of a quieter sun in the near future, but generally find that increased greenhouse gas concentrations will dwarf any realistic decrease in solar activity, and hence the globe will continue to warm for the foreseeable future.

CONSPIRACY THEORY: The increased temperatures are a result of fraud with the observations

Globally averaged temperatures are computed independently by a number of different research group and they all agree within a close margin of each other. The raw data are available, so everyone who’s interested and who has the requisite skill can try to reproduce (or falsify) these calculations. A number of ‘skeptical’ people have indeed done so, and lo and behold, they found the same result: the globe really is warming.

Corbyn continues with his conspiracy theories and doesn’t even seem bothered that they’re mutually inconsistent with each other: on the one hand he claims that the ‘climate ideology’ has been made up by international big business interests, on the other hand he also claims that the ‘myth of climate change’ is a scheme to de-industrialize the West. How can you possibly take someone like this seriously?

Next up is renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, who is very skeptical of the ability of climate models to make accurate projections of future warming. In the documentary he paints a false dichotomy between observations on the one hand and models on the other hand, whereas in modern science they really go hand in hand and models form an integral part of science. Model simulations agree very well with observations, despite Dyson’s claims to the contrary. For good measure he also throws in a conspiracy theory by claiming that climate modelers only want to scare people, because they wouldn’t get money for their research otherwise. This goes to show that otherwise brilliant people can still make silly claims about a field of science that they don’t know much about.

So why did Marijn Poels chose to interview people who are demonstratively wrong (and who are not actually climate scientists)? His whole idea with the documentary was as a personal quest in which he listened to various viewpoints without judgment or evaluation. In a radio-debate I did with him on Dutch Radio NPO1 he proclaimed that he doesn’t feel any responsibility to figure out who’s talking sense and who’s talking nonsense. On twitter he has since confirmed that he doesn’t care what true and what’s not. I find that a very strange attitude for a documentary-maker, as I tried saying at the end of the radio-debate:

Scientists are seeking a better understanding of the world around us. What I hear Marijn Poels say is that it doesn’t matter to him what’s true and what’s not. That goes against everything I value as a scientist.

He also tweeted that “if there are multiple scientific perspectives, then it’s worthy of debate”. So the problem is not only that he doesn’t care about whether something is true or not; he doesn’t see that some of what he calls “scientific perspectives” are plain untruths. Claiming that the CO2 might just have come out of the ocean is no more a ‘scientific perspective’ than claiming that vaccines cause autism or that smoking is not linked to cancer. Science has conclusively shown these statements to be false.

In a public debate about smoking regulation there’s no point in discussing whether smoking is really bad for you: we know that by now, based on scientific evidence.

Likewise, in a public debate about climate policies  there’s no point in discussing whether CO2 really contributes substantially to climate change: we know that by now, based on scientific evidence.

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Climate inertia

August 9, 2016

Imagine you’re on a supertanker that needs to change its direction in order to avoid a collision. What would you do? Would you continue going full steam ahead until you can see the collision object right in front of you? Or would you try to change course early, knowing that changing a supertanker’s course takes a considerable amount of time?

The supertanker’s inertia means that you have to act in time if you wish to avoid a collision.

The climate system also has a tremendous amount of inertia built in. And like with the supertanker, this means that early action is required if we want to change the climate’s course. This inertia is a crucial aspect of the climate system, both scientifically but also societally – but in the latter realm it’s a very underappreciated aspect. Just do a mental check: when did you last hear or read about the climate’s inertia in mainstream media or from politicians?

Inertia

The inertia of the climate system could be compared to that of a supertanker: if we want to change its course, it’s important to start steering the wheel in the desired direction in time.

Why is it so important? Because intuitively many people might think that as soon as we have substantially decreased our CO2 emissions (which we haven’t), the problem will be solved. It won’t, not by a very long shot. Even if we reduce CO2 emissions to zero over a realistic timeframe, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere – and thus also the global average temperature- will remain elevated for millennia, as can be seen in the figure below. The total amount of carbon we put in the atmosphere over the course of a few hundred years will affect life on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. And if we want to reduce the amount of warming that we commit the future to, we need to reduce our carbon emissions sooner rather than later. The longer we postpone emission reductions, the stronger those emissions reductions would need to be in order to have the same mitigating effect on long-term warming.

That’s why climate inertia is so important.

Zickfeld 2013

Modeled response of the atmospheric CO2 concentration (panel b) and surface air temperature compared to the year 2000 (panel c) to prescribed CO2 emissions (panel a). The CO2 concentration remains elevated long after CO2 emissions have been reduced, because the long-term sinks for CO2 operate very slowly (see e.g. IPCC FAQ 6.2 for an explanation of these carbon sinks). Since CO2 impedes infrared heat loss, for millennia the globe will remain warmer than it was before CO2 concentrations rose. The temperature lags behind the CO2 concentration because of the time it takes for the oceans to warm up. Figure from Zickfeld et al (2013).

As I wrote before: Postponing meaningful mitigation action until the shit hits the fan comes with considerable risk, because many changes in climate are not reversible on human timescales. Once you notice the trouble, it’s only the beginning, because of the inertia in the various systems (energy system, carbon cycle and climate system). The conundrum is thus that those who caused the problem are in the best position to solve it, but since the full consequences will not materialize until much later, they have the least incentive to do so.

Over at Bits of Science two Dutch science journalists, Rolf Schuttenhelm and Stephan Okhuijsen, published an interesting piece that focuses on the same issue: we only see a portion of the warming that we have committed ourselves to, due to the thermal inertia provided by the oceans. Just as a pot of water doesn’t immediately boil when we turn on the stove, the oceans take time to warm up as well. And since there’s a lot of water in the oceans, it takes a lot of time.

They included the following nifty graph, with the observed surface temperature but also the eventually expected temperature at the corresponding CO2 concentration (which they dub the ’real global temperature’), based on different approaches to account for warming in the pipeline:

real-global-temperature-graph - Bits of Science

Observed and eventually expected (“real”) temperature at concurrent CO2 concentration, via Bits of Science

This is a nice way to visualize the warming that’s still in the pipeline due to ocean thermal inertia. From a scientific point of view the exact execution and framing could be criticized on certain aspects (e.g. ECS is linearly extrapolated instead of logarithmically; the interpretation that recent record warmth are not peaks but rather a ‘correction to the trend line’ depends strongly on the exact way the endpoints of the observed temperature are smoothed; the effect of non-CO2 greenhouse gases is excluded from the analysis and discussion), but the underlying point, that more warming is in store than we’re currently seeing, is both valid and very important.

Timescales, timescales, timescales. Why art thou missing from the public discussion about global warming?

Update: ClimateInteractive has a good simulation of how this inertia works out in practice. By moving the slider at the bottom the figure you can choose between different emission scenarios. In the graphs above you then see the effect this has on the CO2 concentration, the global average temperature, and the sea level, and how this response is damped. The further down the cause-effect chain, the more damped – or better: the more slowed down- the response is. The sea level will continue to rise the longest (even long after the temperature has stabilized or even starts decreasing), but will take a while to get going. This simulation only runs to the year 2100 though.

A Dutch version of this post can be found on my sister blog KlimaatVerandering.

A warm 2015 and model –data comparisons

August 7, 2015

Guest post by Jos Hagelaars. Dutch version is here.

Discussions on the Internet regarding climate change are sometimes about scientific details, sometimes about the climate sensitivity regarding the equilibrium situation hundreds of years from now, but the most prevalent discussion topic is probably: the global average temperature. Will it get warmer or colder, is there a temporary slowdown or acceleration in the rise in temperature, are the models correct or not, will the eventual warming of our earth in the future be large or small? New numbers are released on a monthly basis and every month megabytes of text are generated about them. My forecast is that 2015 again will lead to a discussion-spike.

The graph above shows the evolution of the global surface temperature anomaly for three datasets, where the average of the period 1981-2010 is defined as 0. For the year 2015 only data are presented up to and including June. So far 2015 exceeds all other years and the evolving El Niño makes it likely that 2015 will set a new world record.
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