Maybe the sky really IS falling

Long-time Troppo readers may recall that I was once a moderate global warming sceptic, a viewpoint more commonly found in people with far more rabidly right wing views than my own. It tended to confuse readers more than a jot. But my scepticism arose not from Don Arthur’s beloved Diderot Effect, but from my own non-expert assessment of the evidence. Consequently, I had no difficulty effecting a graceful somersault when I found that the evidence of actual global temperatures simply no longer supported even moderate warming scepticism.

A study released today starkly underlines the need for urgent and decisive action on global warming.

It was undertaken by a collaboration of experts at Oxford and Reading universities, The Open University, London School of Economics, Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory:

The study by British scientists, which is published today, found the planet’s global temperature could climb by between 2C and 11C because of skyrocketing levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
That more than doubles the current prediction of a 1.4C to 4.5C rise this century. …

“If this is the case, it’s very dramatic and very scary,” Mr Stainforth said.

Even rises that are more modest are expected to trigger disastrous changes, including melting glaciers, sea-level rises, shut-down of the Gulf Stream, and increases in droughts, cyclones and other extreme weather events. The new results follow two reports in last week’s edition of Science, showing that global warming probably caused the “Great Dying”.

Another study released earlier this week argues that the world may be approaching a “tipping point” on global warming, such that if decisive action isn’t taken within that time then major short-term warming will become unavoidable.

What makes me slightly cautious about both studies is that they’re based almost solely on computer modelling in an area where the magnitude of quite a few of the variables, and in some cases even the sign (positive or negative), isn’t known with any precision. What makes me even more cautious about the “tipping point” study is that the group producing it included Clive Hamilton’s Australia Institute, a thinktank whose apparent ideological skew doesn’t really inspire confidence in any but blind adherents.

Nevertheless, the accumulation of evidence in a wide range of areas must surely force any reasonably objective observer to the conclusion that urgent policy action is required on a global level. It again makes me wonder why people haven’t begun talking more seriously about wholesale conversion to nuclear power. It remains the only mature, currently-available option for large-scale power generation that doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases at all. Even with the evident risks of waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation, surely even a plausible possibility of a tipping point within a decade makes the nuclear option worthy of serious consideration indeed.

I still agree in principle with sceptics who argue that the Kyoto Protocol is rather pointless tokenism that will have a minimal tangible effect on the problem, but that just means we need to do much more; it certainly doesn’t justify doing nothing. I also agree with those sceptics who argue that kneejerk adoption of the precautionary principle in relation to scientific issues generally would be dangerously misconceived, but the accumulation of evidence on global warming has certainly reached a point where the onus of proof should be seen as having shifted decisively onto policymakers who continue to argue, expressly or by omission, that nothing much needs to be done. That applies particularly to policymakers in the US and Australia, both of which remain opposed to ratifying Kyoto. But it also applies to the Third World, which has until now been resistant to taking any action at all. Maybe the fact that the First World is currently delivering billions of dollars in post-tsunami aid to large slices of the Third World provides an ideal opportunity for prodding/pressuring these countries into concrete action on global warming.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Phil
2021 years ago

The tipping point of accumulated evidence? Yep it looks real. But as laymen we’re all treading water (intended pun) on this.

The nuclear option is an interesting one and, I suspect the easiest short term solution. But there are heavy duty waste and terrorism costs associated with it.

I also remember reading somewhere that it would take about ten years to commission and one billion dollars/power plant. The report says we only have ten years so we’d have to start now.

There was also a report (sorry can’t look for links right now) that said NY state could fuel all it’s electrical needs with about 35 power plants.

By that rough yardstick Australia would need about the same number, would we countenance that given the demonisation of nuclear power in Australia, The PM is clearly in the coal camp so our mid term path is obvious.

Sceptical
Sceptical
2021 years ago

When greenies advocate nuclear power, you’ll know the evidence is overwhelming and pressing.
I don’t see it yet myself, though I’d be happy for the nation to begin dabbling in nuclear power as a means to learning the ropes and hedging our bets.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

“When greenies advocate nuclear power, you’ll know the evidence is overwhelming and pressing.”

I suspect that greenies either haven’t thought the issues through with enough depth and breadth and an open mind, or alternatively tacitly believe that the best (and perhaps only) solution is for the human race to revert to an earlier stage of development and civilisation and abandon many of our more resource-intensive technologies. They might conceivably be correct, but optimists like me think it’s possible and eminently more desirable both to preserve and enhance the natural environment and preserve and progress human post-industrial civilisation. It’s only when one holds those beliefs that you’re prepared to countenance thinking seriously about the nuclear option with all its dangers.

yobbo
2021 years ago

Ken: I accept your somersault regarding the temperature data – but aren’t you forgetting something?

The majority of Kyoto opponents (or other similar projects) don’t disagree that global warming is occurring, only that it’s caused by human emissions.

What is the point of enacting legislation to restrict emissions if it actually has nothing to do with us in the first place? The Earth has been warmer than this before, and probably will be again.

Taxing everyone to try and stop it is pretty useless if it’s not our fault to begin with.

PS good to see you blogging again.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2021 years ago

“When greenies advocate nuclear power, you’ll know the evidence is overwhelming and pressing.”

Count me in.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

EP says: “We will see change when the mainstream takes global warming seriously enough to rid the issue of the fringe-lefty-hangers-on who have so far discredited it.”

What your comment says to me EvilPundit, is that many decision-makers have not yet mastered the skill of rejecting that bad source of info, and choosing this good source of info.

I think that possessing a discerning eye for quality sources of info is just about the most important skill one needs to get ahead in life in this day and age (perhaps a close second to people/communication skills).

If there is an authoritative source of info that says global warming is occurring, will cause problems, and is a result of human activity, then it should not matter what lefty-fringe greenies say – you reject the fringe opinion, but you keep the authoritative opinion – only tabloids and idealogues dismiss an authoritative source just because a fringe group happens to share the same view.

The IPCC says that global warming is occurring, and seems pretty sure both that is is due to human activity and that it will cause problems.

The collated efforts of thousands of scientists over many years must surely be a very authoritative source of info on global warming, regardless of whether or not greenpeace or feral greenies agree. To disagree with the IPCC whilst avoiding being labelled as a faith-based skeptic, you must quote an authority of similar calibre to the IPCC.

If you don’t think the IPCC is authoritative enough, I’d really appreciate it if you could provide a similarly (or more) authoritative source that counters the IPCC’s claims. I haven’t been able to find one.

Most world govts (including the USA and Australia) seem to accept the science side of things, including that current warming is human-induced, although there is much disagreement on what should be done about this, if anything.

I get the impression that the opponents that yobbo referred to who think that current warming is not man made are fringe (my info filter notes them but currently rejects them as inferior info, and will continue to reject them until they build up a signicant body of peer-reviewed published work – tech central station doesn’t count, just like the Greenpeace website doesn’t count).

Here’s a controversial thing to say in this forum: I think its good that bloggers discuss issues, and in so doing educate themselves. But i am sometimes concerned that bloggers spend too much time trying to educate themselves and have an opinion, when it is much quicker and more sensible to simply find the best authority(s) on a matter and either concur with them because they know more, or else observe them debating and learn a bit.

The climate debate has been going on for years, and, after a good couple years reading climate posts on blogs, I find it sometimes frustrating how many non-climate scientists seem quite content with debating and dismissing peer reviewed published research off their own bat without quoting any reference to back themselves up. Do they really regard themseves as being of equal authority to a big quantity of peer-reviewed climate science research? Isn’t that arrogant/ignorant?

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Steve,

Although Ken now believe we need “urgent and decisive action”, remember that the trigger for this remark was the publication of findings of COMPUTER MODELS. Although models can be very helpful, anybody who’s worked with them knows that they are extremely sensitive to changes in assumptions. As climate is incredibly complex, this makes the models that predict future climate exceedingly complex. We need to appreciate these facts before we start treating them as gospel truth.

The particular project Ken refers to tested a whole range of different models across many different computers, coming up with a RANGE of outcomes of +1.9C to +11.5C change in temperature over 45 years. What Ken didn’t mention is that most scenarios came up with an increase of +3C to +4C, i.e. in-line with IPCC projections. Furthermore, Ken didn’t mention that the research team only used 2,000 of 60,000 simulations that were run, and discarded some of the results that produced negative outcomes, i.e. a temperature REDUCTION.

[see http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn6934%5D.

I don’t think any eminent scientist disputes that global warming has occurred in recent times. As Yobbo points out, the Earth’s temperature changes all the time – it has been much hotter and much colder at different times in the past.

However, some eminent scientists (e.g. Richard Lindzen, Frederick Seitz, Keith Shine, William Kininmonth) dispute that this warming has occurred because of human intervention. Others, e.g. Bjorn Lomborg, have questioned the validity of the climate models used to estimate future changes in temperature. The world’s climate is exceedingly complex, and I’m not convinced we have all the answers yet.

Here is a link to a presentation made by Richard Lindzen, Professor of Meterorology at MIT, on the “consensus” so far:

http://meteo.lcd.lu/globalwarming/Lindzen/HoustonForum040909.pdf

Please note that Lindzen was on the IPCC, and came away disgusted with the political interference in what he considered to be scientific research.

Yobbo’s point about regulating a potentially non-existent problem is a good one. I don’t know any more about global warming than the next guy, but my suspicion is that we need to know a damn sight more about climate before we start hamstringing our economy.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2021 years ago

There does appear to be more evidence for global warming than there was for WMDs, and that certainly triggered “”urgent and decisive action”. And that didn’t take computer modelling just a powerpoint display.

And regardless of how warm it is getting and what might be causing it, I certainly think we should be ramping up alternative energy sources and R&D (including nuclear), just to hedge our bets if nothing else.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

Fyodor – i’m not advocating accepting anything as gospel truth – but i do say we should stick with the most authoritative source until something more authoritative replaces it.

The scientists you mentioned – has their published work run the gauntlet of peer review? Or is their work limited to opinion pieces published in mainstream media? If they have published peer-reviewed stuff, why aren’t more scientists coucurring with what these few say (concurring in the form of further peer reviewed articles to support their work and challenge the mainstream?) Why do you regard their public opinions as authoritative next to the IPCC TAR, which was extensively peer-reviewed and involved the work of hundreds?

I didn’t talk about consensus, but i note that when most people do, they seem to be talking about a consensus of people. I think we should be talking about a consensus in the peer reviewed literature. A consensus of published work that is sustained over more than a few years (ie a couple of papers that dispute the existing literature is not sufficient to break the consensus).

I couldn’t open the Richard Lindzen link you posted? Maybe it was too large.

Re Yobbos point: why does it have to be regulate or nothing? Surely a sensible approach, given what an authoritiative source (the IPCC) has indicated, is a measured and considered attempt to *begin* addressing this ‘potential’ problem. I dunno, something like the Kyoto protocol? Will cost some, but hardly constitutes ‘hamstringing’ the economy. You are being very black and white with your language.

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Nabs,

I doubt you’re arguing in favour of using dodgy evidence. The Iraq Invasion should be a good reminder of the dangers of premature extrapolation.

On alternative energy sources, bring it on. We may find that technological advances in solar power, wind power, fuel cells, hell even cold fusion, allow us to radically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy is another matter, however. Throughout its life cycle (capital expenditure on plant through to elimination of hazardous waste and plant decommissioning) nuclear energy can get very expensive, particularly for a country like Australia with an abundance of coal.

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

Looks like the spam filter has nuked my post again.

Steve, I was not referring to the scientific debate on global warming, but to the political debate.

As long as serious concern about global warming remains attached to fringe left-wing politics, it will not be addressed with any degree of will. The issue needs to be dertached from the political baggage that has been imported into the environment movement by the Left, or else it will continue to be dumped with the rest of the loopy stuff.

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

In other words, while ever the likes of Bob Brown are the public face of the environment movement, it will remain powerless because nobody in their right mind would elect a bloke like that to government.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

EP

Yes the spam filter did nuke your comment again. I noticed that it had picked you up along with the real spam just as the despamming was kicking in. I don’t even know how to delete you from the spam list. Whenever I look at the banned spam address list to try to find the string in your address that triggers it (something including “tt”), it doesn’t appear, and yet a spam search keeps finding it and listing it for deletion. Many apologies. I’ll try to be more vigilant as I despam, but I’m usually so pissed off with the spam itself that I’m not thinking of anything other than getting rid of it ASAP.

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Steve,

The Lindzen link (to a PDF presentation, which is unfortunately large) is not hotlinked – you’ll need to copy the address into your browser. Persevere with it, as Lindzen is one of the more credible sceptics [yes, there are a lot of loonies on his side].

Consensus is not the preferred mode of scientific progress. A scientific hypothesis survives because it survives critical challenges, not because a lot of people agree with it. The problem with global warming is that it is a highly complex issue involving many disciplines. It is not a single theory – it is many interconnected theories about how an exceptionally complex system works, and there are peer-reviewed academics (I named some of them) who dispute individual parts of what is held to be the “consensus” on the overall project. As I pointed out previously, some of these guys were in the IPCC.

I don’t take their views as gospel, either, but I’m sufficiently concerned about their views to be sceptical about both sides. I’m particularly sceptical when politicians get involved and start thinking about ways to “fix” the “problem”.

You advocate “a measured and considered attempt to *begin* addressing this ‘potential’ problem”, but you do not deny that this will have a cost attached to it. Why incur the cost if it will be ineffectual or, worse, unnecessary?

Evil Pundit
2021 years ago

Hi Ken.

The entry that kills off my posts is “it(dot)tt” (with a . replacing (dot). If you remove that line from the filter, it will stop detecting my posts. As far as I can tell, few if any real spammers are detected by that line.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

It’s a pity the MT-blacklist doesn’t appear to allow for listing friendly IPs to override the blacklist. There are a couple of words all of us could legitimately use to debate some issues which come up here from time to time but which are also heavily used by spammers, for instance.

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
2021 years ago

However, some eminent scientists (e.g. Richard Lindzen, Frederick Seitz, Keith Shine, William Kininmonth) dispute that this warming has occurred because of human intervention.

There is a litany of slippery shady characters (Keith Shine is the exception – but is he a skeptic? I think that you might have accidentally mixed him in). Only Lindzen can claim to be an expert in the field of climate change, and his ability to be tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is somewhat lacking. http://cgi.cse.unsw.edu.au/~lambert/cgi-bin/blog/2004/03#soundscience

Kininmonth knowledge of global warming models is an absolute joke. His criticisms of them, may applicable to the first real model (devised in 1893) but that’s about it.

Frederick Seitz meanwhile seems to be the man you turn to when to you want pass BS onto to the public. Be it, smoking and cancer, or do CFCs destroy the ozone layer – he’s there.

Ken Miles
Ken Miles
2021 years ago

Ken, these two studies don’t really worry that much.

The study looking at adjusting parameters seems to be the most interesting; however, while it suggests that massive climate sensitivity is possible, it doesn’t say that it is likely. Personally I suspect that the IPCC’s figures are more likely to be correct, as they are (a) are similar to the median results found in this study and (b) backed up by paleoclimate data. This study, does however, totally kill any argument about the models being “tuned” to give massive warming.

I’ve got to give the other study some more thought and will comment later.

However, nothing in it has convinced me to not support a “death by thousand cuts” solution to reduce CO2 emissions. By all means support nuclear*, but a much more important development would be an expansion of the carbon trading systems already in place (in my mind, this is the most important aspect of Kyoto).

* I should point out that the economics of nuclear are pretty bad, and other clean energy sources will probably be more competitive.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

EP: Yes, I see what you mean now, and agree with you re the political debate.

Hopefully the politics can change to be more constructive – a good example is the relaxing of the Business Council of Australia’s position on Kyoto from an anti-Kyoto stance to a neutral one. More persuasive than Bob Brown ay?

I think the future of the results end of the environment movement will increasingly be business, and professionals within corporations (eg. environment officers, sustainability managers, and green investors etc) who are business savvy, practical, work within the system, and when they open their mouths innovative, creative positive ideas for dealing with environmental problems come out, and less doom and gloom.

Many marketers working on environmental issues that I know already understand that doom and gloom messages don’t inspire most people to change their behaviour, even if they are informative.

Fyodor, on your last point to me, I’m not sure, and I don’t deny that Kyoto or most other measures entail a cost – however, I’ll add that there will be a cost associated with climate change (assuming it is real) too. Its a risk management problem, no?

Fyodor
2021 years ago

“I don’t deny that Kyoto or most other measures entail a cost – however, I’ll add that there will be a cost associated with climate change (assuming it is real) too. Its a risk management problem, no?”

Now you’re talking, Steve. Risk management is about risk identification, quantification and mitigation. So far we’re still struggling with the quantification part, but politicians are already jumping ahead to mitigation.

Additionally, the risk mitigation that has been proposed involves addressing the “problem” without considering the alternative of adaptation. That is, how would the world adapt to higher temperatures? What would it cost etc?

This sort of thinking is never discussed – all we are given is the absolutist ideology of the environmental movement: fossil fuels are bad, therefore we must stop using fossil fuels. It’s a simplistic and uneconomic approach that is arguably not the best way to handle a complex problem.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

First on adaptation: You are incorrect – adaptation is definitely discussed, perhaps not often in the mainstream media, but certainly by policy makers and scientists. “Impacts and adaptation” is a very big part of climate change discussion, since it is now such a strong school of thought that some level of climate change is inevitable.

The front page of the Australian Greenhouse Office website has an “impacts and adaptation” link on it. Here it is:
http://www.greenhouse.gov.au/impacts/index.html

Secondly on mitigation before complete quantification: I agree that mitigation is happening before quantification is 100% determined. But this is not necessarily wrong.

For example, I can mitigate the risk of skin cancer by staying out of the sun and buying sunscreen and a hat. I do this without precisely quantifying the risk for my particular complexion, age, level of health, latitude etc. I’ve heard enough from authorities on skin cancer to know it is a bad idea to get too much sun exposure, and I’ll even fork out $10 every couple months for sunscreen.

meika
2021 years ago

the ice in Antarctica alone if it all melted, would raise sea levels by 80 or so, and if everything melted, by 100 metres

so, where is you real estate??

remember

identifiy the risks, quantify the risks, and then manage the risks

there is no need for belief

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Steve,

Of course you’re right about adaptation and mitigation. Look hard enough and you’ll find the references, but it’s not in the headlines, is it? The Kyoto protocol is not about adaptation or mitigation, and yet it’s routinely represented as our only hope.

The skin cancer analogy is a good one, because scientists have conclusively proved that exposure to sunlight increases the chances of cancer. Have we turned into vampires as a result? No, because some sunlight is beneficial, and people are willing to take some risk.

Personally, I’m willing to stand a little longer in the sunshine trying to figure out what is happening to global weather before I rush into the cave of despair.

Meika,

How much hotter with the Earth get, when, and what effect will this have on Antarctic ice? Give me some precise answers to these questions and we’ll have a chat about our options.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

I still think you are not presenting things accurately Fyodor.

Despite what you imply, adaptation info is not hard to find – its on the front page of the website of the lead Australian government agency tackling climate change!! That means it is probably an important part of the Australian response to climate change. You could hardly think it is fringe.

As to why it is not frequently reported in the media – maybe that’s because the media (both left and right) is less about actual news, and more about selling papers and sensationalism. Its more attention grabbing and entertaining to have stories about:

1. how global warming will destroy the planet.
2. why global warming theory is a big scam and signing Kyoto will take us back to the dark ages.

instead of dull stories about the middle ground of reality.

Re the Kyoto protocol: I don’t think it is “routinely represented as our only hope”. However, it is represented frequently as “the only game in town”. Given that global warming will require a global response, and that it has taken a decade to get to this point in negotiations, I don’t think that is such a wrong thing to say.

I could be laboring the skin cancer analogy a bit, but i bet you don’t stand in the sunshine for too long without sunscreen on (in Australia anyway). That was my earlier point – you are portraying the debate in black and white – like the media. Kyoto isn’t ‘the cave of despair’. It is just a bit of sunscreen so you can stay out in the sun – it won’t break the bank or drastically change your lifestyle, and it is a start.

I am optimistic that we can rise to the challenge of tackling climate change without going back to the stone age.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

Adaptation in the headlines:

Work done by groups such as the CSIRO suggests that Australia will get drier with climate change*. Most of the time you hear Bob Carr in the press talking about water, water restrictions, etc, he mentions our changing climate, or when he is talking about global warming, he mentions the severity of the recent drought. So, if you were to accept what Bob Carr says on face value, then current water restrictions are an adaptation mechanism.

Steve
Steve
2021 years ago

Whoops, the asterisk!

* While predicted changes in rainfall seem to be a bit all over the place, Australia is predicted to get warmer across the whole continent, evaporation is predicted to increase across the continent, and the moisture balance is predicted to deteriorate across most of the continent. Research at http://www.dar.csiro.au

Fyodor
2021 years ago

“Kyoto isn’t ‘the cave of despair’. It is just a bit of sunscreen so you can stay out in the sun – it won’t break the bank or drastically change your lifestyle, and it is a start.”

You’re quite right. I am exaggerating for hyperbolic effect. But Kyoto’s not cheap, and even its proponents don’t believe it will stop global warming. This leaves us with the prospect of Kyoto II, III etc. How much will they cost? We’re embarking on economic tinkering on a massive scale with no set limit without a clear idea of the science behind the problem. I consider this to be economic lunacy.

“I am optimistic that we can rise to the challenge of tackling climate change without going back to the stone age.”

I share your sentiment, but I don’t believe Kyoto I, II etc. is the right approach.

I appreciate your research on adaptation responses, but your point about the media’s focus (more on #1 than #2 IMO) I think proves my point.