The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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The Management Regrets to Inform You That…

…Autumn has apparently been cancelled for the Mi-Atlantic region this year.

Seriously, today was a gorgeous summer day in October. This isn’t normal. The trees aren’t turning. The soybean harvest is being delayed, according to a farmer I spoke with today, because while the plants are turning yellow more or less on schedule, without cool weather the beans themselves are not hardening. Apparently different aspects of the plant’s senescence are triggered by different factors, and this year those factors are out of step (and this in a year where the same farmer had to turn much of her fruit crop to jam before unseasonable rains rotted it). And while it would be a mistake to read to much into a warm day, or even a warm few weeks, the weirdness of this particular October is not my imagination. For almost two weeks, now, the temperature has hovered between five and fifteen degrees above the historical average for our area for this time of year.

And we’re getting another hurricane later this week. And yes, as predicted by recent research, it seems to be undergoing rapid intensification. I’m not sure if that link will still work after the hurricane has passed, so the short summary is that at noon, GMT, on October 8th, it was a tropical storm and by 9 PM GMT on the 9th it had become a cat 3. It will downgrade once it hits land, track across the southern US, dumping rain on places just flooded by Hurricane Charlotte, on its way to rejoin the Atlantic near my house, where it will re-intensify into a tropical storm and erode our beaches. Lovely.

This seems a good time to release the new IPCC Special Report, which says we have until 2030 to avert catastrophe, and it’s going to take a lot of effort and change and dedication, which, by the way, the President of the United States has no interest in helping with whatsoever. I have argued elsewhere in this blog that he was, in fact, hired to prevent meaningful climate action.

I worry that this blog might sometimes seem unpleasantly negative at times, all doom and gloom–although, truth be told, I often find comfort in the words of someone else acknowledging the problem. In any case, a friend of mine confessed recently to a sleepless night in response to the IPCC report. And I’ve felt more or less asleep since President Trump’s election, for similar reasons. The truth is difficult to deal with, these days.

So, let’s focus on solutions. How do we get to sleep and then wake up and do something?

Atticus Finch, the fictional, but admirable, father from To Kill a Mockingbird, defines courage as  “when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

So, I’ve been thinking–I’m feeling dis-couraged, so how do I re-courage? Where does courage come from?

I had made up my mind to ask a wise man I know, and actually had asked, when someone else posted a picture on Facebook that seemed utterly unrelated, and was probably intended to be utterly unrelated, except it wasn’t.

The picture depicts a man sitting on the porch of a rather idyllic-looking cabin, in company with a large dog and an adventurous-looking tortoise. The man, my friend, is playing a banjo–badly, as he later explained, and “it is no practical use to society,” but he loves playing.

On the contrary,” I wrote, “doing things one loves is how one stays sane enough to be of practical use.”

I had no intention of writing any such thing until I wrote it, and it answered my question. That’s where courage comes from–it comes from love. It comes from joy. Not necessary from loving that which is endangered–that can be highly motivating sometimes, but absolutely debilitating at other times. I’m talking about anything that brings joy. Joy edges despair out.

So, I have taken up playing the tin whistle again. And today I mailed off a donation to the League of Conservation Voters.





Ideas Are Bullet-Proof

I’m still thinking about Easter, some way to make a post seasonal without being trite–I’m sure there’s some way in which climate change is bad for Cadbury Creme Eggs, but really? Is that where we want to go with this holiday?

The thing is, Easter (if we ignore, for the moment, its pagan fertility rite dimensions) is the commemoration of the death of a political prisoner at the hands of the State. I’ve always found the thought of Jesus-as-activist much more intriguing than the possibility of His resurrection–which might be because I’m not Christian, but I know dedicated Christians who seem to feel the same way. It’s a fact that being a good person can be dangerous. It’s also true that we keep having good people anyway.

I’ve decided to honor the incontrovertible miracle of bravery in the face of persecution by Googling “climate change martyrs” and seeing where it leads.

“Climate change martyrs” is not, in itself, a great search term. Nothing much relevant comes up, probably because the religious dimension of “martyr” is somewhat at odds with climate science. But climate scientists are being harassed, even threatened. Some may be murdered, if the problem persists. Bravery is required.

The harassment goes back to the mid-1990’s, but has been increasing in recent years. Examples taken from the various articles I read for this piece (and have linked to) include: threats to “see to it” that a scientist would be fired; vague threats on a scientist’s children’s safety; the deposit of a dead rat on a scientist’s doorstep; the display of a noose by an audience member during a public talk by a climate scientist; and multiple, spurious accusations of fraud or other wrongdoing.

That last may seem less frightening than the physical threats, but it’s actually much more sinister. After all, it is illegal to physically attack someone, so the chance of anyone actually making good on a death threat are very low–but it is not illegal to file so many Freedom of Information Act requests or legal challenges over the use of government money that the target cannot conduct research.

Some researchers are becoming afraid to speak out on climate change, sometimes asking that their names not be associated with their work. Others labor on behind locks that have been changed and phone numbers that have been de-listed. This is happening.

Curiously, the problem is largely American. Australian climate scientists have also been harassed, but not been on the scale of what their American counterparts have had to deal with. And while Canada has had a serious problem with high-level climate denial in the past, it never bubbled over into organized harassment of scientists. Britain and continental Europe and Japan have seen little of the problem, although scientists there are very concerned for their American and Australian colleagues. Climate-denial in general is specific to the English-speaking world, at least in part because organized climate denial is propagated largely by American organizations–that speak English. That the United States is at the center of the problem should, perhaps, not be much of a surprise. After all, the United States is key to global climate action–without American leadership, meaningful emissions reduction is unlikely to happen. With American leadership, we have a chance. And since the only way to accomplish meaningful emissions reduction is to stop burning fossil fuel, if I owned a boatload of stock in the fossil fuel industries and had no conscience whatsoever, I’d try to take out American interest in climate. Wouldn’t you? And, clearly, attacking American climate scientists is part of that effort.

The recent rise in harassment dates to almost ten years ago, when two events occurred in quick succession: the release of the 2007 IPCC Report, which seemed on the verge of triggering meaningful climate action in the United States; and the election of a black man as President of the United States. The latter made possible the rise of the Tea Party, a movement that is demonstrably fueled by racist resentment rather than ideological concerns about government and yet is funded by the Koch brothers (plus Rupert Murdock), oilmen who have been accused of personal racism (do an internet search on “are the Kochs racist?”), but quite clearly have a much bigger investment in preventing climate action–they also fund the Heartland Institute, which is a major driver of American climate denial.

That the American version of hostility to climate action is deeply enmeshed with suspicion of government over-reach at the same time that the government is headed by a black man may not be a complete coincidence.

I do not raise the specter of racism simply to discredit climate deniers, but rather to suggest a mechanism whereby American conservative populism may have been hijacked and made to serve an anti-environmentalist agenda.

Some attacks on climate scientists–and by “attacks” I mean everything from threats to legal action to deliberate bureaucratic nonsense–have been perpetrated by individuals, others by organized climate-denier groups. Some of the most frightening, to me, anyway, come from government officials, including Lamar Smith, the Chair of the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, and (now former) Virginia Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

Scientists themselves are not passive before all of this, and are fighting back, both individually and collectively. The Union of Concerned Scientists particularly is taking action, but needs money, and possibly other support. They need money with which to fight spurious lawsuits and stave off equally spurious bureaucratic demands which, together, might otherwise stop American climate scientists from working. I’m posting a link to their request again, here. Please support them.

Silencing inconvenient people is not an American thing to do–and when it happens anyway, the American thing to do is to stand up and do something about it.

I chose as title, a quote from the movie, V for Vendetta. The bad-guy has the hero riddled with bullets, and yet the hero does not fall but ultimately triggers the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian government–because while the hero is not personally immortal, ideas cannot be murdered. I had occasion to remember the quote recently–a friend of mine, a political organizer and activist and a deeply religious man, wrote something on Facebook that, knowing him as I do, reminded me of the ultimate futility of trying to erase ideas by attacking inconvenient people.

I have just asked his permission to share his post with you:

A few minutes before Easter. I love this annual celebration of the underlying reality that empires can’t kill the Spirit, and that a spiritual wholeness is resurrected every time we take loving and wise action in the world around us. I see the life of Jesus as one of the most powerful patterns and examples of radical faithfulness. Miracles continue to happen. Blessed be.

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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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The Pause that Isn’t

There isn’t a pause.

I know a lot of climate deniers have written about climate change having paused or stopped about eighteen ago. I know a lot of reputable science writers and even scientists have tried to explain the pause away. Nevertheless, there is no pause.

The basic outline of the story is that since 1998 land surface temperatures have not warmed as quickly as the overall warming trend would suggest and that climate scientists have struggled to explain the discrepancy. Over the past year or so, several dozen explanations have been put forward as to where the missing heat has gone, but they still don’t know which of these explanations is most important. Climate deniers are delighted.

This outline is true in much the same way that, as of the year 1790, the United States had never had a worse President than George Washington.

To unpack how the “pause” narrative is so misleading,we have to look at several interrelated points*. The first, and maybe most important, is that 1998 was a really hot year–it had a strong El Niño. Choosing an unusually hot year as a starting point creates what looks like a 15 year period of slowed warming. Start the fifteen year period in 1996 instead, and you get a decade and a half of unusually fast warming. In the years where the two periods overlap, from 1998 to 2010, was the planet warming both slower and faster than normal at the same time?

Of course not.

The fact is that fifteen years is too short a period to study climate. It’s like trying to catch the changing of the seasons by looking only at fifteen days in March–it’s not enough time for the underlying warming trend to show itself through surface variation. Climate scientists seldom pay attention to blocks of time shorter than about thirty years.

(The fifteen year increment is the result of historical accident; the “pause narrative” gained popularity in 2013, after fifteen years and some months of supposedly slowed warming)

Another important point is that, even given 1998 as a starting point, global warming has not stopped. Writers who say that is has are either making a mistake or deliberately lying. What the globe has done is warm more slowly than some people expect. There is a big difference between slow change and none, as anybody going broke gradually can tell you.

Presumably, at least some of the “global warming stopped years ago!” articles are deliberate lies. There are certainly climate skeptics who are just not convinced yet for whatever reason–I’ve written already about how and why they deserve respect–but true climate deniers, people with an investment in sowing doubt, do sometimes lie. But while the popularity of the pause narrative might well belong at the deniers’ footsteps, even the most cynical cannot blame climate denial when scientists themselves write about the pause as though it were real–as they do when trying to explain where the “missing” heat went.

The explanation here is two-fold.

First, scientists like to push the envelope. So, fifteen years is too short a period to study with any reliability–but some people want to study it anyway. They know that short-term variation really has nothing to do with climate change one way or the other, but they still want to explain the variation. Second, climate scientists are not immune from the siren song of the media, even though many of them are really bad at responding to that song.  When the public started talking about the pause, some scientists and science writers figured they’d better talk about the pause, too.

In the Spring of 2013, The Economist published an article that referred to the pause or “hiatus.” The article did not directly question climate change as a whole, and its overall point was not that the so-called pause meant that we shouldn’t take the problem seriously. Instead, the author used the recent couple of relatively normal years as a starting point for a fairly intelligent discussion of some of the things scientists don’t know yet about the climate. For example, volcanic ash can lower global temperatures by blocking the sun, but large eruptions can also change global air circulation patterns in ways that might warm the planet. So, when a large eruption happens, does that make things better or worse as far as global warming goes? Nobody knows yet. Although the author failed to make clear that a slow couple of years is not really significant and generally underestimated the severity of the problem, the article did correctly point out that all this uncertainty is not good news. After all, if it’s possible climate change could be milder than initially predicted, it’s also possible it could be much worse.

But despite its measured, detailed intelligence, the Economist article drew attention to the idea of the pause and got the public talking about the possibility that global warming had stopped. The IPCC was, at the time, finalizing the language of the first installment of its Assessment Report 5 and some in the committee evidently felt that the groundswell of talk meant they should respond in some way. An early draft of the report pointed out that fifteen years is really too brief a period to matter, but that the slowdown wasn’t explained by any of the models. When the draft was leaked to the press, the media took this language as an admission of incompetence and ran. By the time the IPCC had corrected its language so it was less easy to misunderstand, the damage had been done.

A final irony was that the mystery of the “pause” had already been solved; once the models were updated with additional data, they reproduced the slowdown just fine. But the IPCC collects papers for its reports only during a specific window. Once that window closes, no new work will make it into the report. And the solution to the “slowdown” mystery came out after the window shut. The IPCC’s draft report acknowledged a mystery that not only did not matter but actually no longer existed–but when scientists tried to set the record straight, it looked to some like the so-called alarmists were backpedaling.

The pause narrative probably isn’t going to go away. Or, rather, it will eventually be superseded by some bauble more enticing to the public eye, but the climate deniers who use it are not going to stop and issue retractions just because I, or anyone else, writes an article on the subject. Climate denial is not, fundamentally, about a dearth of correct information.

But what an article like this can do is push back a little–and encourage others to push back–so that the disinformation campaign cannot run around on an entirely open playing field. If every time someone says “global warming has stopped!” someone else nearby says “no, it hasn’t,” maybe that particular nugget will lose its value.

That’s where you come in.


*For this article, I drew heavily on one article in Mother Jones, which is where the link attached to this asterisk goes. It might look like I’m making a lot of statements without citing any sources, but really I didn’t want to just link to this one article over and over and over again.


The IPCC, Again

On Sunday (November 2nd), the IPCC released the final installment of its Assessment Report 5 (AR5), the Synthesis Report. I’ve written about the IPCC and its publications before, but this seems a good time to offer a recap before addressing the new report itself.

The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that exists to brief the UN (and everybody else) on climate change. It conducts no new research and does not advocate specific policies. Instead, it compiles existing research into various types of reports so that the people responsible for drafting policy can get thorough, accurate information without having to read thousands of scientific papers themselves. The most extensive of the IPCC’s reports. and the real heart of its labor, are the Assessment Reports, which summarize the entire body of scientific knowledge on the subject–what we’re dealing with now and what we can expect for the future under various scenarios.

The IPCC is subdivided into three main Working Groups, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of climate change. The Assessment Report as a whole consists of each Working Group’s report, plus a final Synthesis Report at the end. Over the past year and a half, the IPCC has released one of these reports every few months. Each of these installments also has an associated Summary for Policymakers, and each has gone through several drafts, some of which were leaked to the press. Over the past two years or so, all of the many news stories we’ve heard on recently released IPCC reports have been installments, summaries, or leaked drafts of this one report–the AR5.

Each of these installments has attracted controversy, including accusations from both climate deniers and advocates that the IPCC must somehow be on the take, or at least bowing to political pressure to present a less accurate, more convenient result. There are three good reasons to believe that these accusations are baseless:

  • If the IPCC were lying for money or politics, wouldn’t it have done a better job of pleasing its patron? In point of fact, it has received criticism from both sides, suggesting that it is beholden to neither
  • If someone in the IPCC wanted to lie for money, he or she would not have joined the IPCC in order to do it; members serve without pay. There are much more lucrative options out there
  • There are simpler explanations for the concerns of both sides:
    • Climate advocates have complained that the AR5 presents a misleadingly rosy view, leaving out a lot of the more dire possibilities we face. The explanations involve the rules of the IPCC, especially the fact that only papers published before a certain cut-off date could be considered for the report. Between how long it takes for research to find its way into publication and the IPCC’s own lead-time, the AR5 comes off the presses almost five years out of date. Given that what we know about global warming keeps getting worse, old news is always comparatively bright.
    • Climate deniers have complained that AR5 is extreme or alarmist–in that they are right, inasmuch as the truth is extremely alarming.

The entire AR5 is or will soon be publicly available. For those who do not wish to read hundreds of pages of very dense and technical text, there are also the Summaries for Policymakers. The Summary for the recently released Synthesis Report is available here. It, too, is dry as toast, but it’s fairly accessible and only 40 pages long.

I’m not going to summaries the Synthesis Report in detail, since it is largely a summary of the three earlier reports, which I’ve already summarized. The main points are that climate change is real, mostly being caused by human activity, and very, very dangerous. If we do not drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and cut them to zero by the end of the century, cataclysm will be unavoidable.

But the report is a wealth of information for those with an interest in the subject–almost all of the figures and ideas we’ve been seeing in climate-related internet memes, in one place, from a reliable source. It is worth reading. There are some places that might be unintentionally misleading for the general reader, though. For example:

The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the Northern Hemisphere, where such assessment is possible (medium confidence). [Emphasis original]
To the non-scientific eye–that is,to most of us–all those likelys and mediums look like fudge-factors along the lines of kinda and sorta. People who use words like that often probably don’t know what they’re talking about. But scientists use these words differently, at least in a research context. The authors aren’t saying they’re not sure of their results, they’re saying that their results come in clearly defined ranges and they use these words as a kind of short-hand to say exactly what those ranges are.
In other words, they know exactly what they’re talking about.
The IPCC has now officially said that we as a species must get off fossil fuel, and soon, or face dire consequences. Or, more precisely, we–our current generations–must divest ourselves of fossil fuel or future generations will face dire consequences. A certain heroism and courage is called for here, a willingness to do something difficult for the benefit of someone else. It’s the sort of thing most of us want to believe we would do.
But none of this is new. The Synthesis Report only pulls together ideas and information already published in earlier installments. AR5 as a whole only gathers and reports on existing research. On the basis of that existing research some of us (including me) have been calling for an end of fossil fuel for years. Most recently, the call was articulated by CAN (Climate Action Network).
The big question is not what we should do but how to do it–the primary challenge is not scientific anymore but political and cultural. Today, Election Day, could determine whether we get to keep the momentum we earned with the People’s Climate March, back in September, when it seemed for a while that the media and our political leaders were starting to take climate issues seriously.
Regardless of the election results, we have to hold our leaders to task on this.

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The Responses to the IPCC

This is the fourth installment of a four-part series of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the report it is in the process of issuing. The first post in the series described the IPCC while the other two summarized the first, second, and third installments of the report (we still await the fourth installment, the Synthesis Report, due out later this year). This post addresses the media response to the report.

The world has not taken very kindly to the IPCC’s report, nor has its response, thus far, been particularly wise.

Generally, writers hand public figures have responded in one of three ways: by complaining that the report is alarmist and inaccurate; by complaining that the report is too conservative and does not raise sufficient alarm; and by accepting the report as true and complete and calling for a concerted effort to fight climate change.

First, let’s tackle the “deniers.”

Predictably, a number of commentators complained that the IPCC’s report is misleadingly alarmist. Let’s take this editorial in USA Today as an example.

The author’s basic argument is that not only is the IPCC wrong to raise the alarm, but that the experts actually know that the IPCC is wrong, and have said so, and that the IPCC continues to function only due to a kind of momentum. The article includes several short quotes to this effect (it is not clear that any of those quoted is a climate scientist) as well as a slightly longer excerpt from an editorial published in Nature.

However, the Nature article actually says something very close to the opposite of what the excerpt from it implies.

Joseph L. Bast, the author of the USA Today piece, quotes Nature as saying:

“Scientists cannot say with any certainty what rate of warming might be expected, or what effects humanity might want to prepare for, hedge against or avoid at all costs.”

He follows this quote up by a statement of his own that looks like a continuation of Nature’s critique but is not:

“Despite decades of research funded by taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars, we are no more certain about the impact of man-made greenhouse gases than we were in 1990, or even in 1979 when the National Academy of Sciences estimated the effect of a doubling of carbon dioxide to be ‘near 3 degrees C with a probable error of plus or minus 1.5 degrees C.'”

Now, Bast’s statement, that “we are no more certain about the effect of carbon dioxide,” is true only in that we have been more or less certain about the effect of carbon dioxide on climate since 1896. Other aspects of the problem, like other greenhouse gasses, the role of aerosols, and various feedback loops, were less clear in 1979. Some, though not all, of those puzzles have since been solved.

Nature is correct that the rate of future warming is uncertain, but that doesn’t mean that scientists are totally clueless; a major source of uncertainty is that nobody knows what future greenhouse gas emissions will be. In any case, its editors’ main point is actually that the IPCC has done an excellent job, but that more reports on climate science as a whole aren’t necessary. They suggest that the IPCC produce smaller, more focused, and more rapidly compiled reports in the future.

Bast complains that the IPCC does not explain why “no warming has occurred for the past 15 years,” but in fact warming has occurred over this time frame. Warming did slow, for reasons the IPCC report did explain, but the so-called “pause” was an illusion born of creative misrepresentation of data.

He goes on to call on policy makers to listen to “other voices,” such as the NIPCC,  a group of “50-some scientists,” at least some of whom are associated with the Heartland Institute, a free-market advocacy group that receives significant funding from the oil industry.

For the record, 50 is a very small number of scientists for an international group on a major issues. The current  IPCC report has over 800 authors.

In any case, Bast himself is the president of the Heartland Institute.  Does a financial link to the oil industry mean a person can’t speak to global warming? Of course not. But the conflict of interest is certainly relevant.

I am not in a position to say that all high-level climate contrarians are in the employ of the oil industry or something similar. But at least a lot of them are. And while these critics typically present themselves as outsiders independent of Big Climate and its lucrative research grants, the fact of the matter is that there is no money in climate change.

The members of the IPCC serve without pay, most environmental scientists spent half their careers more or less begging for money, and the industries that are benefiting from increased awareness of climate change, like solar and wind power, have a fraction of the revenue and reach that traditional energy companies do. There is no Big Climate.

Any scientist who wants to earn money could earn more of it working in some more lucrative field. Any scientist who wanted prestige could win far more of it denying climate change, if there were some scientifically valid way to do it, than by sticking with the status quo–science lionizes successful iconoclasts.

So much for the contrarian critics.

However, the IPCC report also faces complaints that it does not warn enough. Glenn Scherer, of The Daily Climate, charges that the IPCC has had a consistent “conservative bias,” underestimating the threat in ways likely to influence policy. Although he does not name any sources (“scientists say” is generally the extent of attribution), Scherer, does offer several explanations for this bias, including the claim that the IPCC does too much to please climate deniers.

Scherer was writing in 2012, before any of the current report had actually been published. He was referring to earlier reports, on the occasion of the UN climate talks in Doha.

Now, he was correct that IPCC reports consistently underestimate global warming. Political pressure from climate deniers is possible, but it really isn’t necessary. These reports take a long time to write. By the time the full report is finally published, the information in it is already several years old. And since new climate news is almost always bad, consistent underestimation is to be expected.

That the IPCC kowtows to contrarians is just as unbelievable a charge as the idea that it is beholden to the monied establishment; if the Panel wished to be corrupt, wouldn’t they be better at it? If they wanted to avoid contrarian criticism, they clearly failed.

In any case, if the report does underestimate the amount of sea-level rise by a millimeter or two per year, or predicts an ice-free Arctic several decades farther down the road than reality, that doesn’t change the fact that climate change as described by the IPCC is a frightening, very serious problem that we should all do something about right away.

And yet, nobody has really done anything about it.

The third category of response to the report is approval, support, and a call to action. And that reaction is just as curious, because it is unclear whether many of the people who have it are actually doing anything to radically reduce emissions.

Despite all the efforts and raised awareness to the contrary, greenhouse gas emissions have not yet slowed.

We will see, over the next few years, whether the support of the IPCC is more than just talk.



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The IPCC: Summarizing the Summaries

This is the third post in a four-part series on the current report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first post introduced the IPCC and the overall structure and purpose of its report. The second post described the first installment of the IPCC’s report. This post described the two other installments that have been released to date. The fourth post will discuss the critical reaction to the report.

The IPCC is currently releasing its fifth Assessment Report in four installments over the course of just over a year. The first three installments are the reports of the IPCC’s three Working Groups, while the fourth is a final Synthesis Report. So far, the first three installments are out. No immediate release date has been announced for the fourth installment, though it will be sometime before this coming November. All these documents are publicly accessible, although they are also very large and very dry. The Summary for Policymakers for each Working Group’s Report is also available online for free. These summaries are very dry, but they are short enough to get through in an hour or so of reading, and most technical terms are explained.

Finding these downloads, or finding anything else relating to the IPCC’s report, is harder than it should be, though.

There’s no conspiracy, it’s just that nothing on the Internet is ever deleted and most of it is never updated. A search for IPCC AR5 WGIII (the rather awkward name of the third installment) therefore turns up articles on “recently” leaked drafts and anticipated publication dates, plus plenty of third-party commentary, but nothing that obviously includes the published report itself. Even the IPCC website still contains language that anticipates the release of the report and features download buttons for approved drafts of the Summary for Policy Makers. That the report has already been released is nowhere made clear, except that I remember when its release made the news last week. Probably, the IPCC actually has announced its release somewhere, but for whatever reason the webpage with the announcement has a much lower search engine ranking at present.

The Summary for the Second Working Group’s Report is much easier to find, but a search still yields a clutter of months-old announcements anticipating its arrival.

Let’s make this simple; here is a link to the Summary for Policymakers of the Second Working Group’s Report  and here is a link to the Summary of the Third Working Group’s Report. Go read them, if you want. They are each about 35 pages long, and then you will know what all the fuss and fevered commentary is about. In case you do not want to read them right now, or in case knowing what they are about ahead of time makes them easier to read, here is a brief summary of both summaries.

As with the first installment’s Summary for Policy Makers, the authors of these documents use language very deliberately, in ways that are sometimes slightly different from common usage. They explain their terms at the beginning. They also carefully explain how they gathered information, how they came to their conclusions, and which of their conclusions are basically certainties and which are still provisional. Without all this definition and context, quotes from the text might be misleading in places. With all that definition and context, the reports do seem a lot more reliable than critics on all ends of the political spectra suggest.

So, the Second Working Group reported on the impacts of climate change and on how well humans and the rest of the world can cope with these impacts. It is divided into three main segments: how things are now; what our vulnerabilities will be going forward; and what we can do to deal with these future risks.

So far, according to the report, climate change is mostly influencing ecological processes and has caused a few known extinction already. Climate change has also had some impacts on human societies, although it is difficult to determine how big those impacts are, because there are a lot of factors operating at once. Most of those impacts fall on the poor or otherwise disenfranchised, and most are negative. There are a few positive impacts, but whether the balance is positive for anybody is not clear. Generally climate change and other human problems (war, bigotry, etc.) make each other worse. A lot of countries are starting to adapt to climate change, or at least talk about doing so, but generally we are not ready and are vulnerable.

Assessing our risks going forward requires making some decisions about our values–what is important enough that the possibility of loosing it constitutes a high risk? The authors of the report outline the decisions they have made. While others are free to disagree with their decisions, because they have published what their decisions are, readers can use the report as a resource even if their values are different.

What the authors have to say is, in a word, scary. They do raise the real possibility of high emissions scenarios triggering sudden, irreversible changes due to the operation of certain feedback loops. The language is dry and a reader unfamiliar with these issues could easily miss the important paragraph, but basically the IPCC agrees that for some emission scenarios, the world as we know it could suddenly collapse.

That being said, their prediction of our future risks is nuanced and measured. Instead of predicting catastrophe across the board, the Second Working Group predicts various health problems, environmental problems, and economic problems, some of them sure and others uncertain, some slow and mild for the next couple of decades, others possibly severe.

The third section discusses only how we might better cope with climate change, not with how we might stop making climate change worse. Stopping our assault on the climate, which the report calls mitigation, is the subject of the Third Working Group’s Report.

The Third Working Group’s Report addresses what mitigation means, what opportunities for mitigation exist in various sectors (such as transportation and industry), and what the potential costs and benefits of various mitigation scenarios are. The authors of the report say that it is still possible to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees C., but that doing so will become increasingly difficult the longer we wait before making serious changes. That we have not yet made serious changes in clear; while the authors note that a lot of mitigation policies and efforts exist, total greenhouse gas emissions are still going up.  Almost half of the total human production of greenhouse gasses since the Industrial Revolution began has been in the last 40 years alone.

The report addresses a lot of interesting points: that social justice and climate change policy are necessarily interrelated; that climate change mitigation could carry a lot of social and economic benefits; and that cost-benefit analysis have to take worst-case scenarios into account even if those scenarios are not likely to happen. If it has a weakness, it is the report’s definition of mitigation as an “intervention” by humans, phrasing that implies that global warming isn’t itself a human intervention already.

But perhaps the most important part is a single sentence:

“Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual agents advance their own interests independently”

Translation? We’re going to fail unless we learn to help each other.




The Fifth IPCC Report: Just the Facts, Ma’am

This is the second in a four-part series on the IPCC’s fifth Assessment Report, which has been coming out in installments since last year. The first article in our series provided an overview on what the IPCC is, how it is structured, and how and why it produces this reports.

This past weekend, the IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released an official summary of the third installment of its report. Before we get in to talking about this latest document, I want to take a step back and discuss the contents of the previous installments, beginning with the first one, the report from Working Group I, which was published last year.

I will not do a detailed summary, because the IPCC has already done that; you can download their Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) yourself. However, even the summary is dozens of pages long and dry as toast. If you aren’t familiar with sorting through this kind of report, or even if you are, learning about the document through bloggers and journalists seems more appealing. Reading other people’s perspectives is indeed a good way to draw on the experience of others, who may have been following the issue longer, and at more depth, than you have. But the problem is that commentators disagree with each other a lot and it is very hard to sort through their conflicting interpretations if you do not have a baseline understanding of what the report says and what that means.

So here (with apologies to Joe Friday), are just the facts, a summary of the Summary for Policy Makers, of the report by the Working Group 1 of the IPCC, which covers the basic science of climate change.

After a brief introduction, the report summarizes the observed changes in several different parts of the Earth: air, ocean, cryosphere (ice), sea level, and the carbon and other biogeochemical cycles. There are no real surprises here, although some of the details have either changed or become more certain since the last report. The broad, take-home message is that the air and water have gotten warmer, precipitation patterns have changed, the ocean has become more acidic and the patterns of its varying surface salinity have changed (because of changing precipitation across the ocean surface), levels of various greenhouse gasses have gone up, and the sea level has risen. The report describes each change in crisp, dense detail.

A short section on the drivers of climate change follows. Again, the broad, take-home message is familiar, but the report does make clear a number of factors that don’t normally make it in to the public discussion. In essence, there are multiple factors that influence, or force, our climate, both globally and regionally, and part of climate science is the study of these factors and how they interact. The various greenhouse gasses humans release are an example of positive forcing, because they act to warm the climate, but there are also non-human sources of forcing. Likewise, certain types of particulate pollution, or aerosols, plus natural aerosols from various sources, provide negative forcing,  or cooling. Cloud patterns, and changes in solar output can also influence our climate. These factors do not all cause the same amount of forcing, and scientists do not understand them all equally well. One of the reasons that climate models are still not completely accurate is that scientists don’t yet fully understand how the interaction of aerosols with clouds influences the climate.

One thing they are sure of now is that human activity is the dominant influence and has been since the middle of the 20th century.

The report does address each known cause of forcing, positive or negative, separately, discussing both how strong its influence is and how much we know or do not know about it.

Then there is a section on the strengths and weaknesses of existing climate models (which mostly do very well, now) and how these have changed since the last IPCC report, the AR4. Also, the report discusses how climate responses are quantified, that is, what exactly scientists measure when they measure the climate.

Then the report details exactly what humans have been doing to the climate; how much of the observed changes can actually be attributed to us and how sure scientists are that the attribution is correct (they’re pretty sure).

Finally, the report presents its predictions for the future, for the atmosphere, the ocean the cryosphere, and so on. Again, there are no great surprises in terms of the take-home message; global warming will continue, and will get more severe if we do not stop greenhouse gas emissions. Even when emissions stop, warming will continue for some time because of the emissions that have already occurred, but we do still have some control over how severe that warming will be.

This last section is difficult to read, because the authors provide no real context for their predictions. That is, they do not say whether and how these climate changes will hurt, or who will be hurt. That, of course, is a subject for a later installment of the report. A reader can, of course, mentally put the context back in and can tell, for example, that increased monsoon precipitation means a lot more flooding, especially in certain developing countries. The picture presented by the report is thus a colorless, extremely academic view of a future none of us actually want to arrive. And yet, there are no truly catastrophic predictions; the possibility of our crossing some kind of thresh-hold beyond which climate change will suddenly begin tearing apart life as we know it is never addressed.

That doesn’t mean such thresh-holds are not a possibility, only that they are not predicted by the current mainstream of climate science. Of course, it is the nature of such thresh-holds to be unpredictable.

Criticism of the IPCC report covers the spectrum; they are variously accused of either they are accused of under-representing the danger we face, or of over-representing it. Often there is the further accusation, overt or implied, that their mistakes are deliberate, motivated by some personal or political bias. I will address that at greater length in a later post, but deliberate bias in either direction is unlikely.

The best evidence that the IPCC is not biased in favor of alarmism is simply that they have not raised much of an alarm. As dire a picture as this report paints, it is much less severe than many credible scientists think it should be. They also lack credible motive to gin up fear of climate change beyond what is appropriate; IPCC members serve without pay and in any case there is very little money in global warming mitigation. Anyone inclined to lie for a buck could do much better in a different field.

It is slightly more plausible that they have caved to political pressure, but again, if these people have lied for political reasons they have done a very bad job of it. There is plenty in their report to offend climate deniers. Instead, their failure to acknowledge some of the scarier possibilities for our future is probably due to two features of the IPCCs structure. First, their mandate is to summarize the entire body of science on climate change, so ideas that are plausible but not yet full accepted by the mainstream tend to get lost in the crowd. Second, when preparing a report, the IPCC reviews only work published before a certain cut-off date. The time it takes to publish scientific papers adds further delay, so that IPCC reports are actually several years out of date even on the day they are published. Since climate change has been getting worse over time, and since newer discoveries tend to be ever more dire and frightening, we should expect out of date news to be comparatively rosy.

Out-of-date news is better than no news, of course, and the IPCCs job is to compile reports for the rest of us, who cannot spend our time reading and analyzing thousands upon thousand of scientific papers.

A few things stand out that make the Summary for Policy Makers much more reliable and more nuanced than brief quotes may suggest.

First, the use of language is very precise and in some ways different from the way we ordinarily write. For example, some phrases, such as virtually certain, are actually quantitative. That is, they refer to specific, mathematically calculated probabilities, which you could check if you wanted to. They don’t lack confidence, they are just talking about statistics.

Second, even in the Summary, the authors include notes on how they arrived at their statements, what methods they used. These notes not only ensure transparency, they also provide a lot of important context that might be left out by a journalist’s quotes.

Third, there is a lot of detail and nuance that a casual glance might miss. For example, the authors state that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since mid-20th century.” That doesn’t mean that they have just now decided that humans are causing global warming–that has been clear for a long time. The first estimates of human potential to influence climate were made in 1896, based on the discovery of greenhouse gasses in 1859.  No, the key word here is dominant. They mean they are now pretty sure that human influence is stronger than all of the other things that also influence climate–a much more disturbing announcement.

The bottom line is that the first installment, officially known as A5 WG 1, summarizes what most of us have been hearing for years but, because it gives a complete picture, a lot of the points that have been taken out of context to generate debate are now back in context and readily accessible.

And the bottom line below that is that we shouldn’t have needed a 5th Assessment Report to begin with. We should have fixed this problem already, and it has gotten worse because we didn’t. Can we make a commitment to not require a 6th?