SciBlogs

Archive January 2010

The Climate Crisis Bryan Walker Jan 19

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The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate ChangeDavid Archer and Stefan Rahmstorf are notable climate scientists. They are also excellent communicators of the science to the general reader, as is apparent in their new book The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change. My review of Archer’s previous book The Long Thaw  remarked on his ability to illuminate topics for the non-scientist. In this book the authors seek to provide an accessible and readable account of the ’treasure trove’ of the IPCC reports. They distinguish their work sharply from the Summaries for Policy Makers officially provided by the IPCC, which are negotiated between government representatives and exclude much of what scientists think and write in the full report. But while they draw heavily on the latest IPCC report and feature many of its informative graphs and tables, they also refer to new findings since the 2006 cut-off date for the report, and draw attention to weaknesses they sometimes see in the report.

Most of the book deals with global climate science, the focus of IPCC Working Group I, with subsequent brief attention given to the impacts of climate change (Working Group II) and to mitigation (Working Group III). 

After looking back over the development of the science from its slow beginnings in the 19th century with the discoveries of Fourier, Tyndall and Arrhenius to the explosion of research in more recent years, the authors carefully explain the way in which the global temperature responds to the forcings of the various agents, warming in the case of the greenhouse gases, offset by some cooling through the effect of aerosols. There are no natural forcings, such as solar irradiance, that can explain the warming of the past five decades.

The global average warming of 0.8 degrees since the late nineteenth century and 0.6 degrees since the 1970s is unequivocally shown by measurements.  Other observed changes include significant changes in rainfall, both increases and decreases, and some changes in atmospheric circulation patterns.

A chapter on ice and snow acknowledges the uncertain scientific understanding of the behaviour of melting ice on the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic and the unpredictability of ice sheet flow. The faster than expected sea ice melting in the Arctic carries profound climatic implications.  Overall observations of snow and ice provide powerful support for the warming trend.

The oceans receive attention as a major player in the climate pattern. We know that they are heating up, to some degree lessening the warmth in the atmosphere — the authors calculate a temporary effect of 0.4 degrees.  Salinity is being affected — increasing in sub-tropical regions and declining in higher latitudes.  Sea level is rising steadily, albeit with regional natural oscillations. The speed with which the ocean is taking up large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere is making the water more acidic, a worrying trend likely to cause a severe threat to marine life if it continues.

Paleoclimatology studies support a key role for CO2 in regulating climate. They also tell us that Earth’s climate has the potential to flip abruptly from one mode of operation to another. They serve as a reality check for the climate models used to forecast Earth’s response to our CO2 release. The past strengthens the forecast.

The forecast is for warming somewhere between 2 degrees and 7 degrees depending on the IPCC scenario.  The authors regard it as unfortunate that all the IPCC scenarios are non-mitigation scenarios, intended to tell us what might happen if we do not take action to reduce emissions. They consider it a serious shortcoming that mitigation scenarios have not also been systematically assessed, though they are likely to be part of the next IPCC report. Other forecasts include changes in precipitation, which they note will probably have a bigger impact on human society and ecosystems than temperature changes. Sea level rise is likely to be higher than the limited forecast of the IPCC report, and the authors don’t rule out a rise by over one metre by the end of the century, noting that Hansen fears two metres by that date. Changes in ocean currents are uncertain and the authors at this point comment on the limitations of the use of climate models, also apparent in relation to ice sheet behaviour.  The low probability-high impact risks are difficult to assess. There may be a less than 10% risk of a shut-down of the Atlantic overturning circulation, but it would result in a massive change in the operation of the planet’s climate system. Ocean acidification will continue and worsen. 

Against the accusation that the outlooks are alarmist they point to earlier IPCC projections which have turned out to be correct in the subsequent 18 years. In fact the faster than expected sea level rise and arctic sea-ice shrinking suggests that the IPCC in the past may have underestimated rather than exaggerated climate change, though they advance that possibility with caution. 

In the last third of the book the authors move to discuss the impacts of climate change and how we might avoid it.  The expected impact on the world’s ecosystems is dire. Human society will suffer from water stress, from food insecurity, from coastal zone hazards due to rising sea level and from threats to health.  Adaptation will be necessary and can be very effective, but has no hope of coping with all the projected effects, especially over the long term. Mitigation is essential.  The book runs through some of the mitigation options offered by Working Group III.  However, noting that the consensus view the IPCC represents is regarded by some energy experts and engineers as too limited and conservative, the authors depart from the IPCC material for a time to provide a somewhat more visionary perspective, based on renewables, cogeneration, smart grids, heat pumps and electromobility. They refer to the surprise success story of wind power and look to a time later in the century when solar power could easily provide most of our energy needs. 

In a final brief section the authors leave the IPCC to discuss policy matters.  In the course of the discussion they comment on the persistence of arguments against anthropogenic global warming which float around the internet and are repeated by gullible newspaper editors and systematically promoted by lobbyist organisations.

’We would personally be very relieved if anthropogenic global warming were to be disproven by some new scientific findings — we certainly do not ’like’ global warming. But at this point, the body of scientific evidence is so strong that the hope that this problem will go away by itself looks exceedingly remote…The good news is: we have the technological and economic capacity to meet this challenge.’

My background is teaching English and I appreciated seeing the book end with a lengthy quote from novelist Ian McEwan, known for his concern over climate change. He concludes:

’Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented sera of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?’

One hopes for a wide readership for this measured book which clearly and thoughtfully sets out the results of the work of a great many scientists. I’m not sure that rationality stands much of a chance in a world which gives high popularity ranking to the denialism of authors like Booker and Plimer and Singer, but for those readers who retain a desire to understand real science Archer and Rahmstorf are reliable and helpful guides.

Source for the goose: footnotes to history Gareth Renowden Jan 17

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Exploring the footnotes in Ian Wishart’s Air Con is proving to be an entertaining exercise. Last week I followed a reference that revealed a “National Science Foundation report” he cites to support his thesis that glaciers are showing a “delayed reaction” to warming hundreds of years ago, was in fact a 10 year old US educational web site aimed at middle school students — and that he had misunderstood it.

This week, I’m going to take you on a strange trip deep into the workings of Wishart’s theories about George Soros, and reveal the telling details he doesn’t want you to know. Earlier this week, Peter Griffin’s Sciblogs post on the US Centre for Public Integrity’s in-depth reporting on climate lobbying attracted Wishart’s attention:

…in their battle to spin about the evils of climate PR propaganda, Peter and Gareth approvingly hang their story on the work of the “US Center for Public Integrity”, exposed in Air Con as funded handsomely by drugs legalization kingpin and carbon investor George Soros.

I mean, puhleeeaze!

Soros is bankrolling virtually every global warming belief initiative that moves because he knows his children will become trillionaires off the carbon trading derivatives market and UN contracts the Soros group will win.

Yet another reason for the media to laugh at the Science Media Centre.

My curiosity piqued, I thought it might be worth re-reading the chapter in Air Con he devotes to Soros, and trying to follow the footnote trail he so obligingly provides.

When I reviewed Air Con last year, I noted that Wishart devoted a chapter to Soros, but didn’t discuss the content in any depth. Returning to Chapter 16, The Audacity of Dope, I was curious to find out why this billionaire financial dealer with fingers in many pies, philanthropic and political, was being given such detailed coverage in a book about global warming. This is what Wishart offers in justification (p234):

Here is a man who has essentially purchased the intelligentsia and the powerful of Europe, and the story of how he did it, and how he’s now captured the US as well, is central to unravelling the real agenda behind the global warming scam.

And so I started on the footnote trail. To prove Soros’s connection with the Centre for Public Integrity, Wishart relies on this article, The Hidden Soros Agenda: Drugs, Money, the Media, and Political Power, by Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, published in October 2004 (footnote 369, p236). On p237, he provides an edited list of Soros’ funding of media bodies taken from Kincaid’s article, including:

• The Center for Public Integrity, headed by former CBS news producer Charles Lewis, $246,000

Remarkably, Wishart missed the chance to use an even bigger number. In his paragraph about the CPI Kincaid concludes:

In total, it is estimated that the group has received $1.7m from Soros.

Wishart also missed the fact that Charles Lewis stepped down as head of the CPI in January 2005 and was replaced by Bill Buzenberg — four years before Air Con was published. So much for being up to date…

I was also intrigued as to why a body calling itself Accuracy in Media would be so keen to impugn the reputation of Soros and the Center for Public Integrity. So I did some checking. AIM describes itself as:

“a non-profit, grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage.”

Sourcewatch provides a little more context:

Accuracy in Media (AIM) has grown from a one-person crusade to a million-dollar-a-year operation by attacking the mainstream media for abandoning the principles of “fairness, balance and accuracy” in its reporting. New Right philanthropists, think tanks and media support its work, and many members of its advisory board are former diplomats, intelligence agents and corporate directors.

Strangely, for a group so concerned with accuracy, AIM still list notorious global warming denier Dr Fred Seitz (of Oregon Petition fame) as a member of their National Advisory Board. Dr Seitz died in 2008. The Sourcewatch entry also provides a useful list of bodies providing funding for AIM: there are oil companies galore — and the Carthage Foundation (of which more later).

AIM and Wishart are keen to play up Soros’ alleged connections with drug trafficking. Here’s Wishart:

Soros’ paid lobby groups and officials have even gone so far as to try and ensure that the Taliban are permitted to keep harvesting opium poppies so as to ensure that heroin remains available for supply.

The source for that is given in footnote 370, immediately beneath the AIM link: “Afghan Opium Pleases Taliban and Soros”, by Ramtanu Maitra, Executive Intelligence Review, 22 August 2008. Executive Intelligence Review? That sounds impressive. So I followed the link. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, things begin to get curiouser and curiouser…

Executive Intelligence Review is a magazine published by the LaRouche organisation. Lyndon H LaRouche is a US politician and seemingly perennial presidential candidate [Sourcewatch, Wikipedia] with an international organisation, and what one might charitably describe as an idiosyncratic world view. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from an article by LaRouche published in EIR this month:

Thus, the mass-murderous partnership between the British monarchy and President Obama, which is intended to reduce the world’s population, rapidly, from nearly 7 billions persons, to less than 2, is an evil scheme, long associated with British Royal Consort Prince Philip, who is allied with the President Obama who is now operating in a manner suggestive of treason, behind the back of the people of the U.S.A., a policy of Prince Philip which represents the greatest evil loosed upon this planet today.

LaRouche doesn’t like George Soros, either. During his 2008 presidential campaign, his organisation published an astonishing pamphlet (pdf), which opens with a section titled George Soros: Hit-man for The British Oligarchy. A later section on drugs concludes like this:

George Soros is one of the main British instruments, carefully chosen to be a front man of the Empire, covering up for its disgusting looting policy, now known, euphemistically, as globalization. Through organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Open Society, Soros pushes drugs and destroys nations. [...] Just like the British East India Company’s devastation of India and China through two opium wars and decades of free trade, the same Empire calls on Soros as the assassin in the destruction of the United States. It is only through the obliteration of British hack George Soros and the British Empire which he represents, that we can hope to sober up the United States today.

The LaRouche demonisation of Soros is something Wishart appears to have swallowed whole, but reproduced only in part in his book. He clearly wants us to regard Executive Intelligence Review as a credible source of data on Soros’ activities, but doesn’t lay out the full depth of the billionaire’s duplicity as revealed in EIR. If George Soros really is a new kind of bad Bond, licensed to chill, why are Air Con’s readers sheltered from that “fact”? It shows just how careful you’ve got to be when choosing your evidence for a global conspiracy.

The LaRouche organisation is also staunchly anti-environmentalist (a recent cover of its 21st Century Science & Technology magazine is headlined Science Against Green Nazis) and believes global warming to be a big hoax. Sound familiar?

But let’s return to Wishart’s blog post, and his suggestion that anything that has ever received funds from Soros or his foundations is somehow tainted. I mentioned earlier that Accuracy in Media received funding from many oil companies and large corporates, and the Carthage Foundation. The latter is one of the Scaife Foundations, financial vehicles for US billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Sourcewatch describes him thus:

Scaife is a billionaire contributor to the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks, one of the most influential men behind the right wing today. Scaife has helped establish their biggest institutions and supported some of their most radical ideas. [...]
Among the right-wing organizations substantially funded by Scaife are the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Judicial Watch, Cato Institute…

Heritage, AEI and Cato have all been deeply involved in campaigns to delay action on climate. Accuracy in Media — one of Wishart’s trusted sources — appears content to play along with the Scaide-funded orchestra. Here’s AIM Report editor Cliff Kincaid, writing this month about the Pope’s comments on the need for action on climate change:

Is all of this flowery rhetoric designed to usher in a new socialist international order? Is this what he means by changing the “model of development?”

One problem is that the Pope gives fewer news conferences than Obama. In fact, he gives none. So who in the media has the courage to hold the Vatican accountable for its campaign to help Obama usher us into a New World Order on the basis of nonsense about the environment and nuclear weapons?

Sound credible to you?

In Wishart world, organisations that have received some money from Soros can’t be trusted. Should we not apply the same reasoning to organisations that have been substantially funded by Scaife? They’re both billionaires with strong views, running some kind of personal political agenda. Let’s add in the Koch brothers (Hertitage, Competitive Enterprise Institute, founded Cato) for good measure. Seems fair and balanced to me.

Small problem for Wishart though. If you throw out all the stuff that emanates from right wing US think tanks, a climate sceptic doesn’t have much left. No Climate Depot (“a project of CFACT” — between 1991 and 2006 CFACT gained $1,280,000 from 18 grants from only two foundations — the Carthage Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation), no Patrick Michaels (Cato Institute), no Heartland Institute and their crank conferences. The whole apparatus of climate denial drops away, revealed as a construct of the political beliefs of a few right wing US billionaires.

But that’s too far-fetched to credit. I mean, it’s far more likely that Prince Philip is at this very moment conspiring with Obama and the worldwide truffle-growing cabal to send Soros on a mission to expose Wishart as a naive conspiracist with a far-right agenda. You mean you didn’t know that Phil was a truffle grower? ;-)

Dealing with sea level rise: retreat, defend, or attack? Gareth Renowden Jan 16

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As a handy follow-up to Bryan’s post yesterday about calls to plan for sea level rise of about two metres over the coming century, a new report, Facing up to rising sea levels [PDF], examines how two British coastal cities, Portsmouth and Hull, might cope. According to the Guardian coverage, Hull could become a “Venice-like waterworld” (which is a considerable challenge to my imagination) and Portsmouth a new Amalfi (ditto). Set aside the hyperbole, however, and the report — a joint effort by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Civil Engineers — is an examination of how the cities could respond to sea level rise by building defences, managing a planned retreat, or by building out and over the sea as it rises. The results are a fascinating look at how ingenuity in the face of a severe challenge can create interesting environments — if not, perhaps, a new Venice in northeast England.

Seven feet high and rising Bryan Walker Jan 15

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Plan for two metres sea level rise this century.  That’s the message from Rob Young and Orrin Pilkey in a Yale Environment article published today. 

 ’This number is not a prediction. But we believe that seven feet is the most prudent, conservative long-term planning guideline for coastal cities and communities, especially for the siting of major infrastructure; a number of academic studies examining recent ice sheet dynamics have suggested that an increase of seven feet or more is not only possible, but likely. Certainly, no one should be expecting less than a three-foot rise in sea level this century.’

The two professors are authors of a recently published book The Rising Sea which I expect to review on Hot Topic in the near future. But in the meantime a brief report of their article:

’Rising seas will be on the front lines of the battle against changing climate during the next century. Our great concern is that as the infrastructure of major cities in the industrialized world becomes threatened, there will be few resources left to address the dramatic impacts that will be facing the citizens of the developing world.’

The ramifications of major sea level rise are massive.  The disruption of agriculture, the salination of water supplies, storm and flood waters reaching ever further inland, and the creation of millions of climate refugees.  15 million people live at or below three feet elevation in Bangladesh, for example.

Most vulnerable are the deltas of major rivers, including the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Niger, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Nile, and Mississippi:

’Here, land subsidence will combine with global sea level rise to create very high rates of what is known as ‘local, relative sea level rise.’ The rising seas will displace the vast majority of people in these delta regions. Adding insult to injury, in many parts of Asia the rice crop will be decimated by rising sea level – a three-foot sea level rise will eliminate half of the rice production in Vietnam – causing a food crisis coincident with the mass migration of people.’

When it comes to cities Miami is the most threatened in the world.  Other US cities under threat include New York/Newark, New Orleans, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa-St Petersburg, and San Francisco. Outside of North America Osaka/Kobe, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Nagoya are among the most threatened major cities.

The writers are concerned that the US is not preparing realistically for what lies ahead. ’The continued development of many low-lying coastal areas – including much of the U.S. east coast – is foolhardy and irresponsible.’

They recommend the immediate prohibition of the construction of high-rise buildings and major infrastructure in areas vulnerable to future sea level rise. Buildings placed in future hazardous zones should be small and movable – or disposable. Rebuilding and replacing infrastructure after storm damage should be queried and not supported by government funding if it remains vulnerable. Local governments should not be left with responsibility as they are too influenced by local interests.

How would this sort of realism go down in New Zealand?  Currently local bodies are advised to plan for a 59 cm rise and to consider what an 80 cm rise might mean.  Environment Minister Nick Smith has said the government is working to establish a national environmental standard on planning for sea levels, and hopes it will be in place this year, after public consultation.  However he added that it was likely that councils would still be required to plan for a rise of 59cm, and said: “The Government is not going to consider adjusting its policy every week.”  One’s dignity can prove a precarious perch on which to stand.

If you can bear looking at the human cost of sea level rise, already being experienced in the Sundarbans around the mouth of the Ganges, this photograph exhibition from Peter Caton has just been published in the Guardian.  An earlier Guardian article carries videos of families forced from their villages by flooding and sea inundation. Sea level rise is no distant prospect.

Friedman: China beating US on low carbon energy Bryan Walker Jan 13

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Thomas Friedman is now doubtful that China will follow an American lead towards a greener economy, as he suggested in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded reviewed here. He considers rather that it is more likely to pull ahead of the US. He writes from China in his recent column in the New York Times that he’s been astonished to learn of how many projects have got under way in China in just the last year —- wind, solar, nuclear, mass transit and more efficient coal burning. 

He quotes Bill Gross, head of a solar-thermal Californian company, eSolar, announcing the biggest solar deal ever, a 2 gigawatt, $5 billion deal to build solar thermal plants in China using California-based technology. Gross comments that China is being more aggressive than the US. His company applied for a US Department of Energy loan for a 92 megawatt project in New Mexico. In less time than it took them to do stage 1 of the application review ’China signs, approves, and is ready to begin construction this year on a 20 times bigger project!’

Friedman goes on to instance other developments. Solar panels are one. He says so many new solar panel makers emerged in China in the last year alone that the price of solar power has fallen from roughly 59 cents a kilowatt hour to 16 cents. 50 new nuclear reactors are expected to be built by 2020, while the rest of the world may manage 15. High speed trains are breaking world records. A high speed rail link from Shanghai to Beijing means trains will cover the 700 miles in just five hours, compared with 12 hours today (and 18 hours for a similar distance from New York to Chicago in the US).

China is on the way to making green power technologies cheaper for itself and for everyone else.

’But even Chinese experts will tell you that it will all happen faster and more effectively if China and America work together — with the U.S. specializing in energy research and innovation, at which China is still weak, as well as in venture investing and servicing of new clean technologies, and with China specializing in mass production.’

Friedman concludes with a call to America to put in place a long-term carbon price that stimulates and rewards clean power innovation. ’We can’t afford to be asleep with an invigorated China wide awake.’

Meanwhile India has plans to be a world leader in solar power, as announced by the Prime Minister a couple of days ago. He launched the National Solar Mission with a target of 20,000 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2022. It will be helped along by a regulatory and incentive framework. Manmohan Singh hoped the new laws and incentives will ’lead to a rapid scale up of capacity. This will encourage technological innovation and generate economies of scale, thereby leading to a steady lowering of costs. Once parity with conventional power tariff is achieved, there will be no technological or economic constraint to the rapid and large-scale expansion of solar power thereafter’.

He said he was “convinced that solar energy can also be the next scientific and technological frontier in India after atomic energy, space and information technology”. The scheme has pride of place in India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.

Follow the climate money? Well, they did… Gareth Renowden Jan 13

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This is a cross-post from Peter Griffin’s blog Griffin’s Gadgets over at Sciblogs. Peter (head of the NZ Science Media Centre), had the chance to explore some of the background to the intense lobbying being carried out on climate action (or inaction) when he met Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity recently…

In the wake of Climategate and especially during the Copenhagen climate talks, much was made by climate sceptics of the “billions” climate scientists have received over the last two decades to undertake research into the claimed impacts of global warming.

This claim from the grand-sounding but climate crank-infested Science and Public Policy Institute typifies the criticisms:

The US Government has spent more than US$79 billion of taxpayers’ money since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science and technology research, administration, propaganda campaigns, foreign aid, and tax breaks. Most of this spending was unnecessary.

cfpiWell, a group with a well-earned reputation for independent investigative journalism has followed the money trail of the climate change lobby set up to insulate the multibillion dollar industries that have the most to lose from the world’s governments getting serious about tackling climate change.

I had the pleasure of last week catching up with Bill Buzenberg, the executive director of the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity. Holidaying in New Zealand while visiting his daughter-in-law Dacia Herbulock, my colleague at the Science Media Centre, the Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist filled me in on the centre’s latest investigation:

Our team pieced together the story of a far-reaching, multinational backlash by fossil fuel industries and other heavy carbon emitters aimed at slowing progress on control of greenhouse gas emissions. Employing thousands of lobbyists, millions in political contributions, and widespread fear tactics, entrenched interests worldwide are thwarting the steps that scientists say are needed to stave off a looming environmental calamity, the investigation found.

This, from a piece on the oil and coal industries’ lobbying efforts in Copenhagen:

The world’s two largest publicly traded companies, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, together earned nearly US$8 billion in the last quarter alone. They are leaders in an industry that employed more than 350 lobbyists in Washington during the first six months of 2009. Shell secured the lobbying expertise of a former U.S. senator. Exxon hired a former staffer for the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The extensive coverage following the global lobbying efforts on climate change makes for fascinating reading. If climate scientists have been riding a gravy train of Government funding, at least there’s transparency in where the money went. The climate change lobbyists, most of them working for energy providers and major polluters, are incentivised to win concessions for their deep-pocketed pay masters. The extent of this industry is hard to judge, as the centre discovered when it delved into the global lobbying industry.

For a taste of the issues that preoccupy these highly-paid lobbyists, read this piece on the jostling for position that was underway on the fringes of the Copenhagen conference:

For carbon-intensive power companies, the ideal outcome for a UN framework would feature major carbon reduction targets by the year 2050 or thereabout – allowing them to outfit their plants with technology to sequester carbon and store it underground. If faced with nearer term targets… many companies would have to turn to natural gas – a technology investment that wouldn’t payoff in the long run.

Sadly for the coal industry and despite the furious lobbying, carbon capture and storage remained off the agenda at Copenhagen and will not be added to the list of technologies that industrial countries can invest in to offset their emissions.

The point here is that for every dollar that goes to a scientist researching climate change, at least the same amount and likely much more is going into the pockets of people paid to maintain the status quo, discredit the scientists, slow progress on climate change. What is worse is that their activities are not transparent.

Follow the money say the sceptics. Well it is interesting, as the Centre for Public Integrity reveals in its investigation, that the aims of the climate change lobby groups and the large industries they represent dovetail quite nicely with the arguments put forward by the sceptics. As this report on Politico from the centre’s reporters notes:

Put the 60 or so venture and investment firm lobbyists together with the 170 alternative energy lobbyists and 160 environmental lobbyists, and they are still outnumbered 5-to-1 by the approximately 2,000 representatives of major sectors that are looking for a slowdown or handout – traditional manufacturers, power companies, oil and gas, transportation and agriculture. The total number of climate lobbyists working for all those interest groups, new and old, stands at about 2,780 – five for every member of Congress. That’s 400 percent more than when lawmakers first considered a nationwide greenhouse gas reduction program six years ago. If they all want a place at the Senate’s table, there had better be plenty of chairs.

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Ethics and climate action: we’re in this together Bryan Walker Jan 12

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World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice (Edinburgh Studies in World Ethics)The reason international negotiations to tackle climate change are not working is because they have been premised on long-established norms of state sovereignty and states’ rights. Consequently they are characterised by ’diplomatic delay, minimal action -— especially relative to the scale of the problem — and mutual blame between rich and poor countries, resulting in a ‘you-go-first’ mentality that has prevailed even as global greenhouse gas emissions have exploded.’ 

This is Paul Harris’s perception in his book World Ethics and Climate Change: From International to Global Justice. He argues that the communitarian principle which underlies the concept of the sovereign state is too limiting to be able to deal adequately with environmental issues which extend beyond state borders. It’s not that states have completely ignored the problem of dangerous climate change. They have recognised that collective action is required, and have agreed that climate change is a common but differentiated responsibility, with developed states obligated to act first before developing countries are expected to limit emissions. Some governments have already started to act on their obligations. But national responsibility remains the focus and although international justice is enunciated it is not implemented. It’s almost as if it can’t be because it is easily at odds with perceived national interests — as we’ve seen all too clearly in New Zealand’s highly cautious approach to participating in the global effort.

Harris makes the case for the cosmopolitan ethic to be brought into play as a supplement or corollary to the communitarianism which governs inter-state relations.  As its name suggests cosmopolitanism emphasises the sense of global community.  It draws attention to human obligations beyond state boundaries. It sees the world as one domain in which there are some universal duties and global responsibilities.  Unless such a perspective can find a place in climate change negotiations Harris thinks we are likely to remain locked in the limitations of national interest which so easily block effective action. 

Harris values the cosmopolitan principle not least because it focuses on people. He lives in Hong Kong and observes that the emerging affluent groups in the large developing states are engaging in similar behaviours to the affluent in the developed states and becoming responsible for increased greenhouse gas emissions. The focus on states means that this now very substantial group may escape accountability for their contribution to climate change, simply because they belong to a developing country. He lays climate change responsibility at the feet of affluent people wherever they live. They are the people who actually cause the most pollution and are the most capable of reducing it. The consequences of climate change, on the other hand, are suffered most by the poor, wherever they are to be found. They are disproportionately in poor countries, but even in developed countries the poor suffer first, as was apparent in the effects of hurricane Katrina. Climate change shows the world’s affluent benefiting at the expense of the world’s poor in a relationship that can be plausibly described as exploitation.

Questions of justice are involved. But what is fair and just from the perspective of international justice is not necessarily fair and just from other perspectives. He agrees it would not be fair if China and other less-developed countries were required to take on the same obligations to combat climate as the US and other affluent countries. ’But it is also not fair, nor is it environmentally sound, for the many affluent people in developing countries, and especially the rich elites there, to be absolved of duties regarding climate change.’ Cosmopolitanism demands more than international justice; it requires global justice. The discourse about justice needs to shift to some degree from a focus on rich and poor countries to one on rich and poor people. 

Sounds good, but how does cosmopolitanism get a look in in a world where states’ rights and interests predominate? Harris doesn’t seek more than a supplementary role, but he describes the cosmopolitan corollary as principled, practical (because it reflects climate change realities) and politically viable. Indeed it is likely to become politically essential if the climate change regime is to move towards more robust outcomes. Implementation will be through changes in international agreements which will recognise and enable global citizenship, at least in the context of climate change, alongside national citizenship. 

New funding mechanisms are suggested as one example of how the cosmopolitan corollary might be implemented among states. Specific measures might include a carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions collected directly from the users or polluters, and other earmarked taxes on non-essential activities related to climate change, such as international airline flights and luxury goods. The international funds collected could pay for things like disaster relief, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, mitigation and adaptation measures, and technology transfers.

In a section on the implementation of the corollary within states he urges the establishment of a climate change curriculum in all countries with effective and sufficiently funded educational systems. This would attune people, especially the young, to the need for action and to precisely what they can do.

The book is intended for academic use, and Edinburgh University Press provides a freely downloadable learning guide to assist lecturers and students who will be reading it as part of courses and seminars. But although the author has done plenty of scholarly research he emphasises that he does not intend the book as a work of abstract philosophy. He sees it as about practical world ethics —- what we ought to do as well as why we ought to do it. I think he succeeds in this aim. I was prepared to plough stolidly through an academic treatise if need be, because I wanted to know what an academic might be saying about the subject. But the book has an edge which made reading it much more engaging than I expected. Harris cares deeply about what climate change is doing to the world and advances his cosmopolitan ethic as necessary to effective action. It is in keeping with his commitment that he has arranged for all the royalties on his book to be paid directly to Oxfam, in support of their work among the world’s poor, including those people most harmed by climate change —- an act not of  altruism, charity, or generosity, he insists, but of straightforward cosmopolitan obligation.

Cynics may scoff at the notion that ethics can play much of a part in international negotiations, but cynics don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.  I liked Harris’s quote from Brian Barry: ’unless the moral case is made, we can be sure nothing good will happen. The more the case is made, the better the chance.’  Some of the generation of students that engages with books like Harris’s may well carry the cosmopolitan perspective into spheres where it can be employed to good effect.

Oops, he did it again Gareth Renowden Jan 08

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

It pays to beware of leaving hostages to fortune: saying or doing something that might cause you some embarrassment in the future. There’s a very fine example in this recent blog post by Ian Wishart, titled “Top 10 global warming myths exposed“. It takes the form of a piece Wishart has submitted to the Coromandel Chronicle, taking exception to a column by Thomas Everth [PDF]. He begins:

In a blatant effort to mislead and scare your readers, Green blogger Thomas Everth makes more errors in the first 200 words of his recent global warming diatribe than I have made in my last three books totalling around 400,000 words.

As hostages go, that’s pretty impressive. Wishart proceeds to find fault with ten of Everth’s opening points, but does he make a few mistakes of his own in the process? I’m going to take a long, hard look: is that hostage feeling lucky?

Myth number one:

[quoting Everth]“One would think that in the face of: visibly vanishing Arctic ice Caps…”

[Wishart's response] In fact, after hitting a record low extent in 2007 caused mainly by wind patterns blowing ice into warmer waters, Arctic sea ice has grown significantly in coverage since 2007, even exceeding the 30 year average it is measured against. “Visibly vanishing”? I don’t think so.

That piqued my curiosity. Has sea ice “coverage” exceeded “the 30 year average” recently? I had a look at the (new, improved) graph at Cryosphere Today. Nope, the area anomaly has been below the long term average over the last two years. What about ice extent? The National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US has just issued its 2009 year end summary, and helpfully provides this graph (Click the image for a bigger version):

NSIDC2009.png

As you can see, in early May 2009 the ice extent just bumped under the ‘79-2000 average (grey line), but certainly didn’t exceed it. Since then it’s been well below average, as it was prior to May. The NSIDC also provides an average line (the pale blue one) based on the full 79-09 data. It runs below the 79-2000 average because it includes the low ice levels of recent years, and May’s extent did bump slightly over that line. So: for a few days in May, Arctic ice extent was above the 30 year average. Wishart’s little factoid is technically correct, but it’s a prime example of cherry picking — choosing a fact that tells the story you want, rather than providing the full picture. And the big picture in this case is easy to see in the graph. After flirting with average in spring (thanks to a cold April), ice extent then dropped rapidly, and despite a cool summer reached the third lowest minimum in the record. It’s been bumping along the lowest recorded since — and might even have set new record negative anomalies in recent months. Here’s how the NSIDC sums up 2009:

Despite the cool summer, the ice remained thin and vulnerable at the sea ice minimum, with little of the older, thicker ice that used to characterize much of the Arctic. Recently published research by Barber and colleagues shows that the ice cover was even more fragile at the end of the melt season than satellite data indicated, with regions of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas covered by small, rotten ice floes.

You can see David Barber talking about that rotten ice here. So: no new record lows, but no real recovery, and the trend in every month of the year remains strongly downwards.

Number two:

[Everth] “…the break up of huge Antarctic ice shelves,”

[Wishart] Actually, the “huge” ice shelves amount to less than a fraction of one percent of Antarctica’s area, and they’re in an area hit by warmer ocean currents than the rest of the ice continent. Furthermore, a string of recent scientific studies show the area has been even warmer in the past one thousand years than it currently is, naturally. Hardly the stuff of nightmares.

Actually, there are about 1.5 million km2 of ice shelves fringing Antarctica, and in the last 50 years the Antarctic Peninsula alone has lost over 40,000 km2 – a little more than 2.5% of the total for the continent. Antarctica’s a big place (14 million km2), so if you compare apples (ice shelves) with oranges (continental ice sheets) you can come up with a very small — and very meaningless — number. For a fuller perspective, the NSIDC has an excellent page on ice shelves here.

Wishart also claims that “a string of recent studies show the area has been even warmer in the past one thousand years than it currently is”. It appears likely that Ian’s “string” is one paper he’s quoted before, about possible elephant seal colonies in the Ross Sea (Hall et al, PNAS, 2006 [PDF]), and he was given the relevant context (that it doesn’t necessarily imply increased temperatures at the time) by Prof Tim Naish on his own blog last year. He seems to have forgotten that… The big picture? Take a read of Chapter 3, Antarctic climate and environment history in the pre-instrumental period from the SCAR report [PDF]. A lot more nuanced, a lot more interesting than Wishart’s cartoon portrayal, and not much sign of warmth in the last 1,000 years — until recently.

Number three:

[Everth] “…methane bubbling melting permafrost,”

[Wishart] This is one of the favourite scare stories of Everth and some others, particularly those who frequent the local Chicken Little website Hot Topic, run by a South Island truffle grower. I was therefore amused when NIWA recently rubbished the idea of a major threat from methane hydrates. They had to rubbish it, because scientific data suggests the methane stores are actually highly stable. The permafrost was 30% warmer in the 1930s than it is now (naturally, again), but we did not all vanish in a methane explosion.

Didn’t take him long to get to truffles… ;-) I am mystified by his comment about NIWA “rubbishing” the threat from methane hydrates. NIWA’s release of the latest methane data didn’t mention hydrates at all, just arctic warming as one potential source of the recent increase. To be fair to Wishart, many of the largest deposits of methane hydrates are thought unlikely to bubble up any time soon — they are on deeper continental shelves where the combination of high pressure and low temperature keeps them stable. It’s the Arctic sea floor methane hydrates that are causing concern. The shallow seas north of Siberia have enough methane beneath them to cause a lot of warming if rapidly released, and there’s plenty of evidence of large plumes of bubbles, as I noted in my last post. A scare story, or a genuinely scary prospect? The evidence is what the evidence is, not what Wishart might want it to be — you can make up your own mind.

Wishart’s claim that “the permafrost was 30% warmer in the 1930s” is also mystifying. What permafrost, where? Extensive monitoring of permafrost temperatures has really only been going on since the 1950s, though some Alaskan records stretch back to the 1920s. The section on permafrost in the IPCC’s 4th report (WG1, section 4.7, PDF) provides no support for his contention.

Number four:

[Everth] “…vanishing glaciers,”

[Wishart] As the US National Science Foundation and others have well documented, glaciers and ice sheets have much longer response times (thermal lag) to warming or cooling than you’d think. Big glaciers, for example, can take up to a thousand years to show serious effects from a warmer climate, and big ice sheets can take up to tens of thousands of years, according to the US NSF (details in the book Air Con). All of which means that the melting we are seeing now is a delayed reaction to warming that took place between a hundred and a thousand years ago. I would remind readers that the warming that took place back then was entirely natural, as the knights of old were not driving SUVs.

This is classic Wishart. Here he assumes that glacier response time is equivalent to “thermal lag” — a concept that pops up regularly in Air Con. His statement that “the melting we are seeing now is a delayed reaction to warming that took place between a hundred and a thousand years ago” is nonsense. Here’s a simple explanation of why…

The vital statistic for any glacier is its mass balance: the amount of ice it contains, and how that changes. The quantity of ice in a glacier is determined by the amount of ice that melts during the year (or for glaciers that terminate at sea or in lakes, lost as calving icebergs), balanced against the amount of new ice that forms at the source of the glacier — the névé or snow field at its highest point. If the amount of ice loss is smaller than the ice gain, then the mass balance is positive and the glacier grows. If melt exceeds replenishment, the glacier shrinks. A glacier’s mass can grow one year and shrink the next, based purely on the local weather it experiences (see NIWA’s graph for ice mass in the Southern Alps, to see how NZ’s total ice mass changes from year to year). No “thermal lag” involved…

A glacier has two kinds of “response time”. The first is the length of time it takes a glacier to respond to a change in climate — to achieve a new equilibrium with its local climate. If the local climate cools (or snowfall increases) then a glacier’s mass balance will be positive and the glacier will grow until the (lower) melting (or calving) zone is large enough to balance out the increased ice input from snowfall. When that happens, the glacier will stop growing and will stabilise. It will have responded to the change in climate. If the climate change — lets say warming, for the sake of argument — continues long enough, the glacier may never get back into equilibrium, and will disappear. This is true for the bulk of the Tasman Glacier: it’s already certain to retreat at least as far as the Ball Hut, leaving a new deep lake behind. Whether it can stabilise at a new much smaller size remains to be seen. The second kind of response time is the time it takes for changes at the snowfield at the top to work their way down to the terminus of the the glacier. For a small glacier, this response time can be short — 5-7 years for NZ’s Franz Josef and Fox glaciers for instance — but for large ice sheets, the time can be thousands of years or more.

Wishart’s error here is a big one — a very basic misunderstanding of the meaning of “response time”. He appears to think it means that the ice somehow has to wait for a period before it can start melting — he calls it “thermal lag”. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete rubbish. If the climate warms, ice starts melting straight away and the glacier starts losing mass. No lag. No heat mysteriously stored away for hundred or thousands of years before making itself felt. Current melting is not a “delayed reaction” to events a long time ago, it’s a direct response to current weather and climate change as it happens.

[For more detail on glaciers, check out this article at the NIWA web site. It has a great opening line... Then have a look at Mauri Pelto's From A Glaciers Perspective blog for examples, and check out this recent NZ report on the Tasman Glacier (discussed at Mauri's blog, too).]

Number five:

[Everth] “…heat waves,”

[Wishart] Everth conveniently forgets to include the balancing factor for heatwaves: cold spells. As many of your readers are now aware, the Northern Hemisphere has been hit by another brutal icy winter, even bigger than last year’s record breaker. In December alone nearly 900 snowfall records in US towns and cities were broken or tied, and temperatures were 15 degrees below average in some areas. As a matter of factual record, more people die from the cold than in heat waves.

Here’s a balancing picture of this northern hemisphere winter:

NCEPJan10temps.png

This is an NCEP/ESRL plot of temperature anomalies over the northern hemisphere for the first six days of January. Big blue blobs for cold weather in the eastern USA, northwestern Europe and central Russia (where Europe’s cold air is coming from). The yellow and red blobs are warm anomalies, and at a rough eyeball guess, I’d say they at least balance out the cold. We’ll know when the winter analysis is done… To give you some idea of the size of those warm anomalies, Goose Bay in Labrador is normally -25ºC at this time of year. A couple of days ago temperatures were hovering round 0ºC — a full 25 degrees warmer than normal!

As for temperature records in the US, here’s what a recent study at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US shows:

USAtemprecordsUCAR.png

This graphic shows the ratio of of record daily highs and lows for about 1,800 US weather stations for each decade of the last 60 years. During the slight cooling of the 60s and 70s there were more new cold records than new hot ones, but in the last ten years there have been just over twice as many new hot records as cold ones — a clear signal of a warming climate.

[For a discussion of the atmospheric drivers of the current cold winter patterns up North, check out this post by Jeff Masters, and there's a beautiful image of a completely snow-covered British Isles at NASA's Earth Observatory.]

Number six:

[Everth] “…record bush fires”

[Wishart] Your correspondent refers to the Australian bush fires, but readers of Air Con who’ve seen the chapter on those fires will recall that Australian temperatures are not fuelled by CO2 but by hot seasonal winds blown in from the central desert. (same problem in California and vulnerable parts of the US) It is a matter of factual record, again, that last summer’s ‘record’ temperatures were no different to those measured in the great fire of 1851 — a blaze ten times larger than the 2009 killer fires in Victoria. The death toll in Victoria, incidentally, was far higher than 1851 because of a daft resource management bylaw introduced by Green councillors that prevented homeowners from cutting down vegetation close to their homes. Hence, when the blazes hit, houses burnt to the ground.

Australian temperatures have increased by 0.9ºC over the last 50 years. Heat extremes have increased while cold extremes have reduced, and there is little doubt that increasing heat has contributed to fire danger. Here’s what the latest CSIRO/BOM climate change update [PDF] has to say about bush fires:

The pattern of recent extreme fire danger is part of a broader shift towards more severe fire seasons in central Victoria. It is very likely that climate change has increased the likelihood of extreme fire danger in south-east Australia. The climatic conditions experienced in Victoria on February 7 2009 were unprecedented. The area north-east of Melbourne had experienced a 12-year drought before the fires, as well as record high temperatures, a record
heat wave two weeks earlier, record low rainfall and record low
humidity. The area was also experiencing an unprecedented sequence of days without rain.

The frequency of extreme heat waves has also markedly increased. You can read about that in the Aussie climate change update, or for more detail of the truly unprecedented sequence of extreme heat events in South Australia, read what Adelaide climate scientist Barry Brooke had to say last November:

Consider that in prior to 2008, the record length for an Adelaide heat wave in any month was 8 days (all occurring in summer). Now, in the space of less than 2 years, we’ve had a 15 day event in Mar 2008 (a 1 in 3000 year event), a 9 day sequence in Jan/Feb 2009 (which included 8 days above 40°C and 13 consecutive days above 33°C), and now, another 8 day event in Nov 2009. How unusual is this? There have been 6 previous heat waves that lasted 8 days, many more of 7 days, more still of 6, and so on – the return time is logarithmically related to it’s length. Given these data, and the fact that the latest spring event has equaled previous all-time summer records(!), and the alarm bells should rightly be ringing. Statistically speaking, it’s astronomically unlikely that such a sequence of rare heat waves would occur by chance, if the climate wasn’t warming. But of course, it is.

It’s also worth reading the Aussie BOM 2009 summary for more context.

Wishart wants us to believe that the bush fires were caused by weather (true), and that the weather wasn’t unprecedented (not true). Everth points to bush fires as symptoms of climate change, and the Aussie data supports that point.

Number seven:

[Everth] “…the last decade being the hottest on record ever,”

[Wishart] Sounds impressive, except that technically ‘ever’ means only in the past 30 years, which is how long we’ve had satellite coverage of the planet. So really what Thomas is saying is that the last decade was the hottest of the last three decades. But as he didn’t tell you, there’s been no statistically significant warming at all over the past ten years, which is why one of the world’s top climate scientists, Kevin Trenberth got so hot under the collar in the Climategate emails where he wrote:

“The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”.

Green blogger and lobbyist Thomas Everth says one thing, climate scientist says, admittedly through gritted teeth, something quite different in implication.

Oh dear. The misconceptions and misdirections in this little section alone are enough to merit a whole post to themselves, but I’ll have a go at a precis.

Wishart makes the astonishing assertion that we can only rely on the temperature record since the advent of satellite measurements. This will be news to the meteorological community, who have been making direct measurements of temperature with very accurate thermometers for 150 years or more. Temperature measurements from satellites are anything but direct. Roy Spencer has recently blogged on the process, explaining how the satellite instruments work, and how the data has to be processed to extract a temperature signal. Fascinating, undoubtedly, but he also points out:

Because of various radiometer-related and antenna-related factors, the absolute accuracy of the calibrated Earth-viewing temperatures are probably not much better than 1 deg. C.

Direct thermometer measurements can do far better than that. Of course, absolute accuracy is not that important when you’re looking at trends over time, provided that the instruments are consistent (that is, always err by the same amount). When we compare the satellites with the ground-based thermometer record we find that they show the same picture — nobody would trust the satellites if the disparities were huge (that happened in the 90s, and a lot of effort went into correcting the satellite data) — so we can be confident that the pre-satellite record is at least as reliable as the satellite data. On that basis, Everth is correct, because the World Meteorological Organisation has already indicated that the last decade will be the warmest in the long term (150 year) record. Wishart’s attempt to limit the record to 30 years? Epic fail.

Next: no statistically significant warming for ten years? We already know that the average of the ten years 2000-09 was warmer than the 1990-99 average. Warming continues. The accuracy of Wishart’s claim rests on the definition of “statistical significance”. I make no claims to being a statistician (and neither does Wishart, as far as I know), so I defer to Tamino’s analysis at Open Mind, where a professional statistician and expert in time series analysis shows that you need 15 years of GISS temperature data to be confident that trend is greater than zero. Here’s Tamino’s conclusion:

That does not mean that there’s been no warming trend in those 15 years – or in the last 10, or 9, or 8, or 7, or 6 years, or three and a half days. It only means that the trend cannot be established with statistical signficance. Of course, it’s another common denialist theme that ’there’s been no warming.’ This too is a fool’s argument; any such claims are only statements about the noise, not about the trend. It’s the trend that matters, and is cause for great concern, and there’s no evidence at all that the trend has reversed, or even slowed.

The Trenberth quote? Taken out of context (explained here). Trenberth was not admitting anything through gritted teeth, he was bemoaning the lack of adequate data to fully account for all the elements in the planetary heat budget.

So: Everth’s statement is correct, and Wishart’s attempt to suggest otherwise is unconvincing.

Number eight:

[Everth]“…new records for ocean temperatures broken in 2009,”

[Wishart] Well, there have been big lows in the past 24 months compared with the past couple of decades as well, so on balance, not such a big deal. As Thomas would be the first to acknowledge, short term fluctuations are not hugely meaningful. The only reason ocean temperatures were higher this year was because of the naturally occurring El Nino. Much more detail on this topic can be found in Air Con.

Ah, so short term fluctuations are not meaningful here, but a cold snap in North America this winter is? Wishart suggests that this year’s record sea surface temperatures (see here for details) were caused by El Nino. In one sense, that’s true: El Nino always brings warm SSTs to the Pacific. However, El Nino alone can’t explain the record high temperatures. As with the Aussie heatwaves and US temperature records, it’s the underlying warming that tips the odds towards new record highs. For that reason, many people expect 2010 to set a new global temperature record — a warm event overlaid on the underlying warming trend makes the odds at least reasonable.

Number nine:

[Everth]“…ocean acidity increasing fast”

[Wishart] Not technically true either. The oceans are alkaline. What is happening is a tiny decline in alkalinity as the result of higher CO2 levels, but there is not actually enough surplus CO2 around at present to physically turn the oceans acid. What is probably much more significant, however, is a new peer reviewed study in the journal Science which shows overfishing could be a far bigger reason for declining alkalinity in the oceans.

Technically, what Everth says is exactly true. Ocean waters remain on the alkaline side of neutral, but their acidity is increasing rapidly. Wishart’s “tiny decline” – a 0.1 unit decrease in pH doesn’t sound like much, after all — is actually a 30% increase in hydrogen ion concentration, because pH is a logarithmic scale. That’s a huge change, happening fast in geological terms, and there’s more than enough CO2 in the atmosphere now, and expected to be emitted over the next few decades to cause huge problems for oceanic ecosystems. Here’s what a recent introductory guide for policy makers prepared by EPOCA (the European Project on Ocean Acidification) has to say [PDF here]:

Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rate of acidification will accelerate in the coming decades. This rate of change, to the best of our knowledge, is many times faster than anything previously experienced over the last 55 million years.

The significance of overfishing… is much more complex than Wishart suggests. Check out the original press release and abstract to see why what he says is a remarkable overstatement.

Number ten:

[Everth] “With CO2 concentrations shooting up to pass 400ppm soon, we have entered a territory of Earth’s atmospheric composition not seen for millions of years — CO2 having stayed at or below 280 ppm during those millions of years.”

[Wishart] Er, not strictly true either. Recent studies have found global warming scientists ‘cherry picked’ only the CO2 readings from the past that suited their low 280ppm starting point. In fact, readings over the last 200 years suggest CO2 levels have averaged around 335ppm, and as high as 500ppm in some areas. Why is this significant? Because if you choose a low starting point, say 280, and you can show we’ve risen to 380 today, then that’s a big rise in CO2 levels. But if the starting point was really 335, then the increase is nowhere near as big, and that would be “inconvenient” for the human impact on global warming argument that Thomas is running.

Both Everth and Wishart are “strictly” wrong, but Everth’s mistake is the smaller. CO2 levels have exceeded 280ppm during recent interglacials – up to around 300ppm in the most recent, for instance. The rest of what he says is quite correct. On the other hand, Wishart wants us to believe, apparently on the basis of an infamous “paper” by EG Beck (so ludicrous that it’s been disowned by “serious” sceptics), that recent CO2 levels may be much more volatile than we think. Beck’s big mistake? To assume that all CO2 measurements were equally valid, wherever and whenever they were taken. Wishart’s? To swallow Beck whole, and regurgitate it in public.

For a man who claims to have made no mistakes in three books and 400,000 words, Wishart’s error rate in this latest piece is astounding. Perhaps his most telling mistake concerns the “thermal lag” he says operates in glacier response to warming. If he had troubled himself with a little study, perhaps spoken to a few glaciologists, he would have seen that his “lag” was a physical impossibility. Perhaps now that his mistake has been pointed out he’ll correct the pages in Air Con where he misconstrues glacier response times (pps 96/7/8) for the next edition. But I won’t hold my breath.

Thomas Everth’s presentation of the facts of climate change and its impacts is far less misleading than Wishart’s. In every one of the ten “myths” Wishart tries to expose, he gets something wrong — cherry picking facts to suit his argument, ignoring the balance of evidence, relying on “studies” that have long been shown to be rubbish. In one respect, however, Wishart has done me a service. In researching this examination of his arguments I’ve had to dig around in the literature, and exchange emails with a few experts to check my understanding. I’ve done some learning, and it’s been fun. It could also be a teaching moment, but I doubt the student it might help the most will be inclined to benefit.

And the hostage Wishart left dangling? On the evidence, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be rescued any time soon.

[Richard Thompson]

Siberian Shelf methane increased in 2009 Gareth Renowden Jan 08

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arcticmethane.jpgMethane release from the permafrost and hydrates under the East Siberian Shelf in autumn 2009 was the highest ever recorded, the leader of the International Siberian Shelf Study (ISSS), Igor Semiletov, has told the BBC. The results of last autumn’s research cruises are being prepared for publication in the near future. The BBC also quotes Semiletov’s colleague Prof Orjan Gustafsson from Stockholm University:

He said that methane measured in the atmosphere around the region is 100 times higher than normal background levels, and in some cases 1,000 times higher.

Gustaffson went on to say that “so far” there was no cause for alarm, and stressed the need for further study. Sounds like a scientist… For background, check out last year’s WWF Arctic report (I discussed the chapter on Arctic methane here), and my posts on the 2008 ISSS expeditions (one, two). Looks like the methane release is confirmed as chronic, but not yet (if we’re lucky) acute.

Lester Brown: US falling out of love with cars Bryan Walker Jan 07

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Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0, places more hope for climate stabilisation on shifts that he sees taking place in society and the economy than in internationally negotiated agreements. Not that he rejects such agreements, but he regards them as somewhat obsolete, for two reasons: first, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed; second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify the agreements, we may simply run out of time.

He’s just issued a Plan B update which illustrates the kind of positive changes he sees taking place without the stimulus of global agreements. He announces that America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces. He sees no reason why the trend of scrappage exceeding new car sales should not continue through to 2020.

The forces at work?

Market saturation for one. The US has five vehicles for every four drivers.  ’When is enough enough?’  Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent.

Ongoing urbanisation is having an effect. ’The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered. But with four out of five Americans now living in cities, the growth in urban car numbers at some point provides just the opposite: immobility.’ Public transport schemes are being expanded and improved in almost every US city, and attention being given to more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets. Car use in cities is being discouraged.

Economic uncertainty and reluctance to undertake long-term debt is affecting household choices. ’Families are living with two cars instead of three, or one car instead of two. Some are dispensing with the car altogether. In Washington, D.C., with a well-developed transit system, only 63 percent of households own a car.’

A more specific uncertainty is the future price of gasoline. Motorists have seen gas prices climb to $4 a gallon, and they worry that it could go even higher in the future.

Finally, Brown points to a declining interest in cars among young people as perhaps the most fundamental cultural trend affecting the future of the automobile. Half a century ago getting a driver’s license and a car or a pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime.

’In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars. Many do not even bother to get a driver’s license. This helps explain why, despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million. If this trend continues, the number of potential young car-buyers will continue to decline.’

If his expectation of shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet is sustained it also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways. Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.

 ’The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.’

Brown is ever the optimist, but he seeks to be well grounded.  Has he been too quick to discern a trend, or has close attention to emerging possibilities alerted him to something of real promise?

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