Archive for March, 2009

Gavin A. Schmidt is a climatologist and climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). He works on the variability of the ocean circulation and climate and how changes related to varying forcings relate to variations due to intrinsic (unforced) climate variability, using general circulation models. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us on the subject of climate change.

MT Do you think we’re going to have to change our lifestyles to adapt to or mitigate against climate change?

schmidt_bergen_bwGS That may well be part of the mix – however, all the cycling and recycling in the world isn’t going to deal with the industrial, transportation or power generation sources of emissions. It seems to me that once the cost of emitting carbon gets included in economic decisions then people, companies and governments will try and reduce that cost as much as they can. At that point it will become clearer how emissions can be reduced most efficiently. That may involve cleaner sources of power, carbon sequestration and, yes, some lifestyle changes (taking the light rail rather than a car), but this is not a problem that can be solved solely by individual actions. Just as the ozone depletion problem was not solved by consumers choosing non-CFC aerosol cans….

MT Do you see any major changes in the way we humans move from point A to point b over the next 30 years?

GS It will be different in different places. Europe and European cities already function well using efficient public transport. In the US, there is a lot more potential for improvement. In India and China, there is the possibility of avoiding some of the worst urban planning mistakes associated with car transport, but it is inevitable that car use will increase there. I would hope that more cars will become electric/gas hybirds, but I doubt that there will be a noticeable switch to either
ethanol or hydrogen. Congestion Charges (as in London) and improvements to public transport (especially new light rail systems) may make it easier to leave the car at home.

MT There’s been reports of permafrost thawing in Siberia (link). Have the potential effects of methane being released from this region been taken into account in forecasts of global warming or are those going to have to be rethought?

GS Most of the forecasts you read about do not take this into account explicitly. But the forecasts do generally assume that methane concentrations will continue to rise. Since over recent years the methane has actually been pretty steady (albeit for unknown reasons), there is no obvious sign that permafrost clathrates are yet having a significant effect. So while it is a big unknown, it is still too uncertain or us to to be able to quantify it for the future projections. We are keeping a close eye on that though.


Gavin’s profile (link)
Realclimate.org (link)

Originaly posted June 20th, 2006


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Todays Brain Parade features worst case scenarios and climate change. I tied myself in knots of dread when I first heard of methane venting in the artic. For a while I was dreading that the doomsday scenario James Lovelock had been advancing a few years back involving gigadeaths starting within 10 years (they haven’t started yet but I think it’s only been 8 years since he said that). I’ve been talked down recently which isn’t much of a relief. The enormity of the problem is so enormous that it’s almost easier to think apocalypticaly. So I wanted to explore the utility of worst case and doomsday scenarios and how they should be treated. Here’s the question I presented to our commentators:

Most forecasts project Global Warming as a slow motion catastrophe. However can we safely rule out worst case scenarios (ie rapid, runaway positive feedback) and if not should such scenarios inform our approach to tackling Climate Change?

I, like all our contributors. agree with this statement. However I think these worst case scenarios should be assessed dispassionately. I think it’s a much more compelling and effective argument when framed in those terms.  More compelling that economists talking about the discount rate.

Now on to our commentators:

Mark Lynas

mark-lynasWell, the question is really one of planetary-scale risk-management. What are the costs of acting, versus the risks of not acting? What are the probabilities of catastrophic outcomes, and costs – and likelihood of success – of acting against them. Obviously there are huge uncertainties at every stage – we simply don’t know at what point tipping points may be crossed which will lead to locked-in positive feedbacks. But it’s a pretty safe assumption that the hotter it gets, the more likelihood it is that we’ll find out the hard way. So yes, catastrophic scenarios should of course inform our approach – and personally I think we should be extremely risk-averse when it is our only planetary home and the future of the entire biosphere that will be imperilled if we throw the dice and lose.

Mark Lynas is the author of several books on climate change including Six Degrees.

Caroline Lucas

caroline-lucasThere is a wide range of predictions – though all agree the earth’s climate is heating up, rapidly. We can’t accurately predict the exact effects of climate change, and that’s part of the problem: not only does it allow room for scepticism and division amongst both scientists and politicians, it means our strategies for dealing with it have to focus on the most likely scenarios. But we can’t rule out worst-case scenarios by any means. Indeed recent scientific papers, and news from the Greenland and the North Pole, suggest warming might be happening more rapidly than predicted in any scenario. We need to be on a war footing, and urgently speed up action to cut emissions drastically – say nine per cent cuts year-on-year in industrialised countries, with those countries most responsible for the problem making the deepest cuts . We also need to prepare for the worst impacts, and give serious financial and technical support to developing countries in particular, adapting infrastructure, and creating a fairer and more resilient global society.

Carolyn Lucas is the Green MEP for the UK’s South East Region.

Charles Robinson

I’m not qualified to talk about the likelihood of abrupt climate change in the sense that it is meant here – namely the runaway positive feedback loop kinda thing that that’ll scupper any chance whatsoever the human race has of sorting its problems with the environment out. So I won’t, ‘cos much brainier people are doing that, and what’s more they’re getting paid (for example, SAP 3.4, just released by the US Geological Survey Climate Change Science Program, and available here). Suffice to say, there is a distinctly real probability of some pretty terrifyingly abrupt climate change happening. Things like, oh, the breakup of the Greenland icecap (7 or so metres added to global sea levels). Or the current ongoing droughts in Australia and the South East US being the vanguards of more widespread shifts in rainfall patterns, rendering huge swathes of the worlds agricultural land infertile.
Those are the ones which are considered likely. As in, more likely to happen than not…as in, there’s an outside chance that they might not, but…

Pretty much answers the question at the top of the page, you ask me…

Scarier possibilities for change abound – runaway emission of methane from Arctic clathrate and other deposits, shutdown of the Gulf Stream due to disturbance to the thermohaline circulation, (again, see SAP 3.4 as referenced above), super-hurricanes powerful enough to reach far inland, etc., etc.

We won’t have thought of everything, either…

So, yep, we probably should let such scenarios inform our thinking on climate change and our responses to it…after all, there’s only two ways we can meaningfully respond to climate change, and they’re 1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as fast as possible and 2) start drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere as fast as we can, which basically means burying as much biochar as we can, without using any fossil fuels in doing so. I mean, there’s
other things we can do, and there’s lots of ways we can do the 1) of the above, and maybe a few other ways of doing 2), though I’m pretty sceptical of non-biological methods for of extracting and concentrating a gas that (despite our best efforts) is only present in the hundreds of parts per million range…

To reiterate, yes we should worry and yes we should do something about it, because it only means doing what have to do, but with a lot more enthusiasm.

Oh, and the broad details of what we should do about it are pretty clear as well, so that question’s been answered as well. Okay, oversimplification, but it really is just a question of which of the many available options we use.

So, if it’s obvious that we should act, and it’s obvious what we ought to be doing, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that all these problems are probably worse than we think they are, the question really becomes one of why we as a species are so far pretty much doing nothing whatsoever about these problems. Well, not exactly nothing, but when the people in the know are talking about the need to mobilise global resources on a Second World War kinda scale and the people in charge are talking about the need to maybe start doing something, as long as it’s not too expensive and won’t cost them votes, you know there’s a pretty worrying disconnect between the people in charge and the people who understand things (sadly hardly ever seem to be the same people these days…).

Argh… wanted to go off on a rant about how idiot climate change deniers, aided by a media that feels obliged to make every damn thing a debate, even when the debate is long over, are responsible, but I really can’t be bothered. Suffice to say a combination of idiots and selfish bastards are (still) doing as good a job as they can preventing anything being done. Their motives, well, money, power and so on I suppose, but are they really stupid enough to want those things more than a habitable planet?.

I mean, we’re talking about the end of the fucking world here. Most people dead, and the pitiful survivors eking out a meagre existence wherever they can. And it’s started already, and all we have to do to ensure that it happens, that those alive now grow old in a collapsing world and our children never have the chance to see that life can be good, that it needn’t be a struggle every day, is do nothing, just carry on as we are…


Mainly seems to be because people just don’t really believe the problem’s as serious as it is. I mean, viscerally, in the guts, where it’ll hit us when the shit really does hit the fan, and we start looking back on these years as the peak of our civilisation…

I’d like to believe that we’re on the cusp of some kind of general step change in thinking, with the profound disconnect between the utter, deadly, imperative to act now, with more alacrity than the species has ever collectively shown on anything. Who knows?
It could actually happen. But just about the only thing people seem to do en
and quickly is panic, which ain’t too helpful.

When I started writing this it seemed the obvious thing to do would be to make a brilliant film, bringing home on a visceral level the awful, horrific future we are bequeathing our children and their children, children’s children, and so on…I mean, we’re either the generation which destroys the planet, or the generation which saves it.

So, that next step, brilliant film…well, thankfully it appears the effort may have already been made. ‘The Age of Stupid‘, opening weekend in the UK of the 20th of March. See how it was made on the Guardian website here.
A retrospective look back on these years, from the perspective of an archivist (Pete Postlethwaite), living alone in a devastated 2055.

The only problem? It’s only opening in a few cinemas around the country. So, our course of action becomes clear – all of us, everyone we know, has to go, on that first weekend, and make it a hit. Buy ten tickets and give them out at the door, or better, give them to your friends and family who don’t yet appreciate what we face. Let money be made from it, let it cause a stir, and the millions of people who need to have the scales fall from their eyes might just…

At least it’s a start, it’s something you can do, and it’s now…

Charles Robinson is a co-contributor to Meme Therapy.

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