Is China coming around on global warming?

China may be coming around a bit on it’s role in CO2 emissions and global warming.  The giant nation of 1.3 billion people has long cried that it needed to maintain economic development and couldn’t commit to any serious future reductions in CO2 emissions.   In a speech yesterday at the UN, President Hu of China seemed to signal a new willingness to begin to tackle China’s growing role in global warming; “Developing countries need to strike a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection” .  Without significant participation by China (and India) most plans to curb global CO2 emissions are doomed.  China is now the world’s largest emitter of CO2 – yes, yes, north Americans emit far more per capita and the US is still the 2nd largest national emitter.  But the growth trends and predictions are sobering.


There is a lot of talk on this site about internal Australian plans to reduce emissions.  But from a global perspective, the world’s weather isn’t going to be affected by what Aussies do.   I think the more important question is how would the people and government of Australia feel about a substantial economic slow down in China for the sake of reducing global warming?  The Australian economy is very closely tied to the Chinese economic demand for natural resources.   Would Australia support an agreement at Copenhagen that was against their economic self interest?  What has the Australian govenment done in the past in response to China’s many sins?  e.g., Tiananmen, Tibet, etc.  I am guessing they kept quiet.

From a story last year, when China surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2:

China set a new world record this year, surpassing the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 from power generation, according to new data from the Center for Global Development (CGD). But on a per capita basis, U.S. power-sector emissions are still nearly four times those of China.

The data, from the first annual update of CGD’s Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database, show that China accounts for more than half of the increase in global CO2 emissions due to power generation over the past year, mostly due to a surge in construction of new coal-fired plants.

According to the new CARMA data released today, Chinese power plants will produce about 3.1 billion tons of CO2 this year, up from about 2.7 billion tons in 2007. Power plants in the U.S will produce about 2.8 billion tons of CO2 this year, about the same as last year. If all power plants currently planned in China and the U.S. are eventually built, China’s power-related emissions will exceed those of the U.S. by 40 percent, although on a per capita basis the U.S. would still be the far-and-away the larger polluter from power production.

From the NYT

China is no longer pretending that it is a backward country whose need for economic growth relieves it of any obligation to control emissions. The United States — the world’s largest emitter in historical terms — is acknowledging its responsibility to help the poorest and most vulnerable nations reduce emissions without sacrificing growth

In his speech, [yesterday at the UN] President Hu of China said his nation would take four steps toward greener development. He said China would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide it emits to produce each dollar of gross domestic product by a “notable margin” by 2020 compared with 2005 levels; increase forests by 40 million hectares (about 98.8 million acres); increase nuclear or nonfossil fuels to 15 percent of power by 2020 and work to develop a green economy.

Analysts gave China credit for taking carbon emissions more seriously. Its leaders now accept the need to reduce pollution, partly because their country is vulnerable environmentally and partly because they hope to become leaders in green technology. But Mr. Hu neither defined “notable” nor accepted any binding cuts on emissions. He also tied the emissions reduction effort to the growth in China’s gross domestic product, so the amount of emissions per dollar of output — or “carbon intensity” — might shrink, but the overall number could still rise as the economy expanded.

“Developing countries need to strike a balance between economic growth, social development and environmental protection,” President Hu said.

Todd Stern, the United States envoy for climate change, reflected the general reaction to the Chinese proposal by saying, “That can be good, but it all depends on what the number is.”

And see the full story here and a related the editorial here

CO2 countdown – where are we at, 385 or 395ppm?

There’s been a bit of debate as to the accuracy and validity of the CO2 Countdown clock here at Climate Shifts, so I thought i’d answer a few questions and set the record straight. The code for the original countdown was from the CO2 Clock website, which puts the current atmospheric CO2 concentration at about 397ppm.  A few people had emailed to suggest that the number of decimal places made the counter ‘unrealistic’. The author of the CO2 clock used the number of significant digits for “time lapse effect rather than empirical accuracy”, and hey, the continuing countdown made quite a few people sit up and take notice!

The CO2 clock methodology is based upon the following assumptions:

Continuously updated CO2 concentrations are derived from the montly data points provided by the in situ measurements, and currently are taken as a linear extrapolation of the previous two data points. Clock is recalibrated after the release of each new monthly data point. Future updates will take into account the seasonal trend variations in the forward interpolation.

Put simply, the source data, based upon in situ air measurements at Mauna Loa Hawaii (source here) has an inherent lag time, as the last monthly average is from May this year. The clock is recalibrated after each new month appears, but based upon the current algorithm, the data runs slightly higher than actual in the interim. We had discussed with Markin Eakin and the guys from NOAA in developing a projection based upon global synthesized air CO2 datasets (see the online Carbon Tracker for more), but in the meantime, one reader suggested that we use the CO2 Now monthly carbon tracker, an we agree.

Here are the monthly CO2 levels for August 1958-2009 based upon the Mauna Loa dataset, which should give a much more accurate reading of current atmospheric CO2 levels:

What the world needs to watch

Global warming is mainly the result of CO2 levels rising in the Earth’s atmosphere. Both atmospheric CO2 and climate change are accelerating. Climate scientists say we have years, not decades, to stabilize CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

To help the world succeed, makes it easy to see the most current CO2 level and what it means. So, use this site and keep an eye on CO2.  Invite others to do the same. Then we can do more to send CO2 in the right direction.

We felt that approaching the 400ppm level was a significant milestone (both for science and policy), and we wanted to get our readings correct and not jump the gun! Thanks again to Peter Morris and other readers who have bought this to our attention.

Obama speaks to UN about climate

I have been worried that the failure of the US Senate to pass a new climate bill would negatively affect discussions in Copenhagen, but maybe Obama can reassure the EU and other nations that the US is committed to fighting climate change:

By Christi Parsons

Reporting from New York City – President Obama this morning issued an appeal to world leaders to help avert “an irreversible catastrophe” in the Earth’s climate, accepting a portion of blame for global warming on behalf of the United States but also urging the world’s biggest polluters to change their ways.

Speaking before a United Nations summit on climate change, the president’s first address to the world body, Obama touted steps the U.S. has taken to slow global warming and attempted to reassure the world that Americans are committed to the cause.

“We understand the gravity of the climate threat,” Obama said. “We are determined to act. And we will meet our responsibility to future generations.”

The president also urged world leaders to work toward an international agreement on global warming as they draw closer to a U.N. summit in Copenhagen the end of this year.

The remarks come at a time of rising concern about progress in those talks. Aides to Obama say things aren’t proceeding as quickly as they would like, and are leaving open the possibility that talks will extend into next year.

While there are dire predictions coming from other quarters — European officials say the talks are close to deadlock — administration officials think there still is cause for hope.

This morning, Obama tried to make the case for it. He ticked off a list of steps the U.S. has taken, including investing economic stimulus money in clean energy projects and raising its vehicle emission standards.

Notably, he did not call for the Senate to pass a bill before the Copenhagen meeting in December, or even to get one out of committee by then.

But the president laid down a personal marker on the issue, speaking in starker terms than he has used in months to describe the risk of not acting.

“The security and stability of each nation and all peoples — our prosperity, our health, our safety — are in jeopardy,” Obama said. “And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”

Obama also offered a case for every nation to rise to the challenge, asserting that individual countries can still pursue economic prosperity while doing their part to protect the planet.

“Each of us must do what we can when we can to grow our economies without endangering our planet, and we must all do it together,” Obama said. “We must seize the opportunity to make Copenhagen a significant step forward in the global fight against climate change.”

The poorest nations have more to gain by correcting course, Obama suggested, arguing that they suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change.

“For these are the nations that are already living with the unfolding effects of a warming planet – famine and drought, disappearing coastal villages and the conflict that arises from scarce resources,” Obama said.

“Their future is no longer a choice between a growing economy and a cleaner planet, because their survival depends on both.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao is also addressing the climate change summit today, in addition to meeting with Obama privately this afternoon.


NEW YORK – President Barack Obama urged world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday to act swiftly to address climate change, but did not offer a plan, or timetable, to get stalled cap-and-trade climate legislation through the U.S. Senate.

“After too many years of inaction and denial, there is finally widespread recognition of the urgency of the challenge before us. We know what needs to be done,” Obama told fellow heads of state gathered for a climate change summit called by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

“The journey is long. The journey is hard,” Obama added. “We don’t have much time left to make that journey.”

In advance of a key climate-change conference this December in Copenhagen, Denmark, many diplomats and environmentalists were hoping that Obama would detail his strategy to move House-approved carbon-emissions trading legislation through the Senate and onto his desk to be signed into law. But Obama only made a vague pledge to keep pushing for the measure.

“The House of Representatives passed an energy and climate bill in June that would finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy for American businesses and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama explained. “One committee has already acted on this bill in the Senate, and I look forward to engaging with others as we move forward.”

Obama said little about the resistance in the Senate, but indicated the recent economic slump has left some lawmakers reluctant to impose emissions charges that could affect a weakened economy.

“We seek sweeping but necessary change in the midst of a global recession, where every nation’s most immediate priority is reviving their economy and putting their people back to work. And so all of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge,” Obama said. “But I’m here today to say that difficulty is no excuse for complacency. Unease is no excuse for inaction.”

The president insisted his administration has taken a series of important, groundbreaking actions to fight global warming, such as increasing fuel economy standards and directing stimulus funds and tax credits to energy efficiency.

“Taken together, these steps represent an historic recognition on behalf of the American people and their government,” he said. “We understand the gravity of the climate threat. We are determined to act. We will meet our responsibility to future generations.”

Obama also reminded his international audience that his administration’s support for action on the issue was a break with that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, whose appointees were often openly skeptical about the urgency of the climate-change problem.

“It is true that for too many years, mankind has been slow to respond to or even recognize the magnitude of the climate threat. It is true of my own country as well. We recognize that,” Obama said. “But this is a new day. It is a new era.”

The president signaled that any global treaty to address climate change must include commitments from emerging economies, such as China and India that were omitted from the first international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.

“We cannot meet this challenge unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution act together,” Obama said. “There is no other way.”

Speaking in advance of Obama’s address, Greenpeace spokesman Kert Davies said administration officials were tallying up a variety of less important actions on climate change to divert attention from the inaction on cap-and-trade.

“They’ve gathered this bag of Christmas ornaments they took to Copenhagen, saying, ‘Look, we can do all these things,’ ” Davies said. “We would say Obama needs to exert more leadership and push.”

Who is turning 50 today?


Marlin: Hey, guess what?
Nemo: What?
Marlin: Sea turtles? I met one! And he was a hundred and fifty years old.
Nemo: Hundred and fifty?
Marlin: Yep.
Nemo: ‘Cause Sandy Plankton said they only live to be a hundred.

Happy Birthday to Ove, who (whilst not not quite being as old as a sea turtle) reached the grand age of 50 years old today (edit: on the 26th, not the 21st – sorry!). Congratulations!!!!

Still no answers from Plimer


I’ve blogged about the ongoing discussions between British journalist George Monbiot and Australian geologist Ian Plimer before (see “Monbiot succeeds in moving heaven and earth“), but the dialogue keeps getting better and better:

Creationists and climate change deniers have this in common: they don’t answer their critics. They make what they say are definitive refutations of the science. When these refutations are shown to be nonsense, they do not seek to defend them. They simply switch to another line of attack. They never retract, never apologise, never explain, just raise the volume, keep moving and hope that people won’t notice the trail of broken claims in their wake.

This means that trying to debate with them is a frustrating and often futile exercise. It takes 30 seconds to make a misleading scientific statement and 30 minutes to refute it. By machine-gunning their opponents with falsehoods, the deniers put scientists in an impossible position: either you seek to answer their claims, which can’t be done in the time available, or you let them pass, in which case the points appear to stand. Many an eminent scientist has come unstuck in these situations. This is why science is conducted in writing, where claims can be tested and sources checked.

You either love or hate Monbiot’s relentless approach Plimer giving him the run around , but I admire his tenacity:

I told Plimer that I would accept his challenge if he accepted mine: to write precise and specific responses to the questions I would send him, for publication on the Guardian’s website. If he answered them, the debate would go ahead; if he didn’t, it wouldn’t happen. The two exchanges would complement each other: having checked his specifics, people at the public event could better assess his generalisations.

Plimer refused. After I wrote a blog post accusing him of cowardice, he accepted. I sent him 11 questions. They were simple and straightforward: I asked him only to provide sources and explanations for some of the claims in his book. Any reputable scientist would have offered them without hesitation.

An opportunity for Plimer to dig himself out of a hole? Apparently an missed opportunity:

… instead of answers, Plimer sent me a series of dog-ate-my-homework excuses and a list of questions of his own (you can read both sets on my Guardian blog).

Gavin Schmidt, a senior climate scientist at NASA, examined them and found that most are 24-carat bafflegab, while the rest have already been answered by other means.

Monbiot gets this part spot on:

There is nothing unusual about Ian Plimer. Most of the prominent climate change deniers who are not employed solely by the fossil fuel industry have a similar profile: men whose professional careers are about to end or have ended already. Attacking climate science looks like a guaranteed formula for achieving the public recognition they have either lost or never possessed. Such people will keep emerging for as long as the media is credulous enough to take them seriously.

The Road to Copenhagen Part 2: climate targets must be bolder


With the upcoming UN General Assembly in New York and the G20 Heads of State meeting in Pittsburgh, climate change is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in the lead up to the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen. As part of a group of forty of the world’s leading climate scientists (including the Australians Professor Lesley Hughes, Professor Anthony J McMichael, Dr Barrie Pittock), we have signed an open letter calling for industrialised countries to make a commitment to cut carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020:

Copenhagen climate targets must be more ambitious

At the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December, world leaders have the opportunity to agree a historic global climate deal. To avoid dangerous climate change, the deal must be based on the most up-to-date scientific understanding of the emissions reductions required, with obligations divided equitably between developed and developing countries. This means that developed countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Copenhagen represents our best chance to avert the worst impacts of climate change on people, species and ecosystems. More than 120 countries, including the members of the G8, the EU, and key emerging economies such as China, South Africa and Mexico, agree that the rise in global temperature must stay well below 2°C. Beyond this point climate impacts will be more severe, with the risk of crossing ‘tipping points’ with dangerous and irreversible effects.

To stand a good chance of achieving this goal, the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (2007) recommended that developed countries should reduce emissions by 25-40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. Yet more recent evidence shows that only reductions at the top end of this range will be sufficient to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Developed countries have so far committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 10-16 per cent by 2020, a level dangerously inconsistent with their commitment to the 2°C target. The latest scientific evidence clearly shows that these countries must increase their ambition and reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 to maintain a credible ambition of avoiding dangerous climate change.

Signed in our personal capacity:

Dr Paulo Artaxo, Brazil
Lead author of IPCC 4th Assessment Report, Institute of Physics, University of Sao Paulo

Samar Attaher, Egypt
IPCC contributor and Climate Change Researcher, Ministry of Agriculture, Cairo

Prof Peter Barrett, New Zealand
Professor of Geology, Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University

Dr Nancy Bertler, New Zealand
Leader of the New Zealand Ice Core Programme, Victoria University

Sophie des Clers, United Kingdom
IPCC corresponding author and Fisheries Geographer, University College London

Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte, France
IPCC contributor, Paleoclimatologist and Head of Research at the “Laboratoire des sciences du climat et de l’environnement”

Prof John Harte, USA
Professor of Environmental Science, University of California

Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Australia
Director, Centre for Marine Studies, University of Queensland

Dr Lars R. Hole, Norway
Senior Scientist, Norwegian Meteorological Institute

Sir John Houghton, United Kingdom
Former Chair of Scientific Assessment, IPCC and Former Chief Executive, Met Office

Prof Lesley Hughes, Australia
IPCC Lead Author, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University

Dr Saleemul Huq, United Kingdom
Lead Author, IPCC 3rd Assessment Report and Senior Fellow, Climate Change Group, International Institute for Environment and Development

Henry P. Huntington, USA
Lead Author, Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment

Prof Philippe Huybrechts, Belgium
IPCC contributor and Professor of Climatology and Glaciology, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

Jiang Kejun, China
Lead Author, IPCC Working Group III and Director of Energy System Analysis and Market Analysis Division at the Energy Research Institute of National Development and Reform Commission

Bernardus H.J. de Jong, Mexico
IPCC contributor, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur

Prof Rik Leemans, The Netherlands
Environmental Systems Analysis group, Wageningen University

Dr José Marengo, Brazil
IPCC Lead Author and Researcher at National Institute for Space Research

Prof Anthony J McMichael, Australia
Professor of Population Health, The Australian National University, and Honorary Professor of Climate Change and Human Health, University of Copenhagen

Dr Charles K. Minns, Canada
Adjunct Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, and Scientist Emeritus, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Prof Abhijit Mitra, India
Department of Marine Science, University of Calcutta

Dr Carlos Afonso Nobre, Brazil
IPCC Lead Author, Head of the Scientific Committee of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, Co-ordinator of the Centre for Earth System Science at the National Institute for Space Research and Executive Secretary of the Brazilian Network for Climate Change Research

Pan Jiahua, China
IPCC advisor to Working Group III and Executive Director of Research Centre for Sustainable Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Dr Barrie Pittock, Australia
IPCC Lead Author and Honorary Fellow, CSIRO Australia

Dr Dave Reay, Scotland
IPCC contributor and Senior Lecturer in Carbon Management, Edinburgh University

Andy Reisinger, New Zealand
Coordinator of IPCC Synthesis Report and Senior Research Fellow, Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University, Wellington

Dr Suzana Kahn Ribeiro, Brazil
Vice-Chair of IPCC Working Group III and Coordinating Lead Author of IPCC 4th Assessment Report

Dr Luis Pinguelli Rosa, Brazil
Head of Brazilian Forum on Climate Change and Director at Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Post-Graduation and Research in Engineering, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Antonio Ruiz de Elvira, Spain
Professor, Applied Physics, Universidad de Alcala, European Climate Forum

Dr Jim Salinger, New Zealand
Lead Author for IPCC 3rd and 4th Assessment Reports, Honorary Associate Professor, School of Environment, University of Auckland and President of the World Meteorological Society’s Commission for Agricultural Meteorology

Dr Roberto Schaeffer, Brazil
IPCC Lead Author and Researcher at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Dr Michael Schirmer, Germany
Climate Change Impact Research, University of Bremen

Bernard Seguin, France
IPCC contributor, Institut National de Recherche agronomique

Dr Vijai Pratap Singh, India
Program Manager (Climate Change), Leadership for Environment and Development India (LEAD India), New Delhi

Prof Peter Smith, Scotland
IPCC Lead Author and Convening Lead Author, and Royal Society-Wolfson Professor of Soils & Global Change, University of Aberdeen

Dr Armi Susandi, Indonesia
Vice Chair, IPCC Working Group on Adaptation, National Council on Climate Change, Indonesia, and Head of Department of Meteorology, Bandung Institute of Technology

Wang Yi, China
Deputy Director of the Institute of Policy and Management, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dr Wong Poh Poh, Singapore
Lead Author, IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, Coordinating Lead Author, IPCC 4th Assessment Report, National University of Singapore

Dr Richard W. N. Yeboah, Ghana
Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, University for Development Studies

Zhou Dadi, China
Senior Advisor and Researcher, Energy Research Institute of National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)

The Road to Copenhagen Part 1: Implementing the global framework

greenhouse gases
I have just returned from meetings in Washington DC and Geneva, Switzerland. The IPCC process itself is quite fascinating – with the process of drawing together the collective wisdom into a single consensus seemingly daunting yet achievable through the process. More shortly, but in the meanwhile, Stephen Leahy (an environmental journalist who was also in Geneva) has provided a great writeup on the proposed “Global Framework for Climate Services”:

Imagine being able to know months in advance when and where floods or droughts may occur. That is what over 150 countries participating in the third World Climate Conference, which concluded last Friday in Geneva, pledged to achieve through the creation of a Global Framework for Climate Services.

“Today is a landmark day for making climate services available to all people,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), convener of the conference, told over 2,000 climate scientists, sectoral experts and decision-makers.

“Climate services” is the long-distance cousin to weather services or weather forecasting. New technology and better climate science has opened the window to very long range forecasting of climate events like droughts weeks and months in advance.

This year, scientists were able to anticipate unprecedented flooding of the Red River Valley in the United States Midwest months in advance, enabling local communities to prepare and avoid the worst consequences, said Jane Lubchenko, a noted ecologist, administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and head of the U.S. delegation.  (Read More)

Climate control – Ava interviews Ove Hoegh-Guldberg


Originally posted at The Reef Tank blog, I thought this deserved a repost here at Climate Shifts – a great interview conducted by Ava as part of a series of interviews (including conservationist Peter Faulkner, ecologist James Douglas and paleoclimatologist Bruce Bauer):

Though a humble and modest man, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg stands tall in the world of climate change and marine science.  Though currently the Foundation Professor and Director of the Centre for Marine Studies at The University of Queensland, he’s held other academic positions at UCLA, Stanford University,The University of Sydney, and The University of Queensland.  He’s a member of the Australian Climate, Royal Society (London) Marine Advisory Network, and the Board of Editing Reviewers at Science Magazine.  He heads up a large research lab with over 27 researchers and students that focus on how global warming and ocean acidification are affecting coral reefs.

He’s written dozens of publications, had his work read by the Al Gore team, visited Antarctica, lived underwater for 10 days, and is creator of Climate Shifts, a blog that brings climate change issues and science discussions to a larger audience, without being restricted to scientists only.

Yes, he’s done quite a bit and lives to tell about it. Now, TRT gets to hear about it.  We’re excited to hear from this climate change king.

How did you get your start in marine biology?

My interest in the ocean began as a small child, first with a fascination with sharks and then everything else that lives below the waves.  Growing up in Sydney, my family used to take annual holidays on the south coast of New South Wales.  Here, amid the crashing waves, were magical rock pools filled with colorful fish and strange creatures. These experiences then developed into an active interest in snorkelling around the Sydney area, and eventually in keeping some of the creatures that I found during those trips.

One of the great things that happens every summer in Sydney is that larval organisms such as butterfly fish and barber shrimp are swept down the coast from the Great Barrier Reef by the East Australian current and settle in Sydney (much like in Nemo) .  These small fish and invertebrates grow up over the summer but are killed by the winter waters.  Together with friends, I spent almost every weekend in the summer focused on collecting these tiny creatures and growing them up in aquaria.  Because they were destined to die anyway, I could maintain my conservation ethics while experiencing the fun of collecting.

Given my passion in all things marine, I went to the University of Sydney to study marine science, obtaining first-class Honors in 1982.  I then was lucky enough to get a scholarship to attend the University of California at Los Angeles where I began my Ph.D. and began studying the symbiosis between invertebrates such as corals and sea anemones, and tiny plant-like organisms known as zooxanthellae. These organisms lie at the heart of coral reefs.

Why choose to focus on climate change and how it relates to the marine world?

My studies on the symbiosis between corals and zooxanthellae considered the phenomenon of mass coral bleaching, which had begun to occur in the Caribbean in the early 1980s. At that point, we did not know why corals were bleaching.  During my Ph.D., however, I did experiments that showed that mass coral bleaching was a consequence of warmer than normal sea temperatures.  This had been the suspicion of several researchers at this point.

The studies then led to a broader consideration of how sea temperatures were being driven by climate change, resulting in my interest in the physiology of heat stress in marine organisms.  These types of studies led me to collaborate with climate scientists who was studying how and why the earth’s temperature was changing so quickly. My paper in 1999 revealed that sea temperatures were increasing so quickly that coral bleaching would become an annual phenomenon within 30 to 50 years. This information was quite alarming because it suggested that coral reefs may actually disappear if we do not work extremely quickly and decisively to bring down fossil fuel emissions. These ideas have been confirmed by many other studies, and have highlighted the extreme threat that climate change poses to corals and the reefs that they build.

What are some of the major marine climate change issues of the world?

The rapid rise in sea temperature represents a severe threat to marine organisms such as reef-building corals. There are many other changes that are now occurring as a result of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  One of these is ocean acidification, which is a result of the increasing amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. As a result of these increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, CO2 is entering the ocean in greater amounts.  When CO2 enters the ocean, it reacts with water and forms and acid, which subsequently reacts with carbonate, decreasing the concentration of these important ions (which is critical for the formation of the calcium carbonate skeletons of corals and other organisms).  Scientists have recently found that the ability of corals to form their skeletons has decrease sharply over the last 20 years.

The implications of these changes in the chemistry of the ocean are serious.  If calcification continues to decrease rapidly, the ability of corals and other organisms to build and maintain the superstructure of coral reefs may fall behind the processes of physical and biological erosion. If this happens, the three-dimensional structure of coral reefs may crumble and disappear over the next 30 to 50 years. This will essentially eliminate coral reefs and the habitat that they provide for over 1 million species in the ocean.

Scientists are also reporting changes in the ocean, such as ocean mixing, and the direction and strength of currents.  These changes are leading to the phenomenon of deepwater anoxia – which occurs due to the fact that the warming of the ocean is leading to less mixing of oxygen-rich surface water with deeper layers of the ocean.  Scientists are already reporting huge fish kills along the west coast of the United States which are associated with the deeper layers the ocean running out of oxygen. While scientists don’t have a complete understanding of how these phenomenon are connected to global climate change as yet, the best explanation at this point is that the increased heating of the ocean (about one degree since the Industrial Revolution) is leading to a change in its dynamics, which has big implications for life in the ocean.

How do you hope to educate the world to make them more aware of these current problems?

Contrary to the anti-science movement (incorrectly called the “skeptics” movement) the scientific proof behind the existence of climate change as result of fossil fuel emissions is extremely extensive and watertight.  Science has concluded that it is human driven and represents a huge threat to the world’s ecosystems and human well-being.  With over 10,000 peer-reviewed articles and the highly objective and self-critical process associated with scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is no longer any room for credible doubt.  So-called scientists such as Dr  Jay Lehr (chief scientist of the Heartland Institute in the United States) does not have any credible peer-reviewed articles that support the alternative viewpoint. This is the case with most other anti-science view promoters such as Bob Carter.  Putting aside the ridiculous conspiracy theory that science has something to hide, it appears that this challenge to our planet is extremely serious and that we must begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions rapidly.

Indicating the urgency of this problem represents the next challenge.  While there are over 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications, there is still a wide gulf between scientists and the rest of society in terms of understanding the details and urgency of the problem. This is no doubt a consequence of the complex nature of the evidence and the problem.  In this respect, there is an imperative that we work on how scientists communicate and educate people about the severity of this issue. This may involve different media from the traditional scientific literature.

I have worked a lot with documentary makers and have found that they often have unique and effective ways of getting messages across.  They also have huge audiences. I remember working with the BBC on one documentary, which was viewed by 1.8 million people on its first evening.  In contrast, even the most popular scientific article might only be read by a few thousand people at most.  This suggests that scientists need to collaborate with communication professionals to help get their important messages out into the public space. Scientists may have to consider using devices such as Facebook and twitter to facilitate a greater understanding in society of the problems and the extreme urgency of dealing with the greenhouse gas emission issue.

You’ve been to Antarctica.  Is climate change affecting marine life there?

I was fortunate enough to spend three months in Antarctica in 1991. As part of my duties, I spent many long hours underwater, passing through 2 m of ice into an icy but magical twilight world below. Like all parts of our planet, life has learnt to live at the extremely cold temperature of -1.8°C over thousands if not millions of years. My mission was to study how life deals with these cold temperatures.

Unfortunately, things are changing more rapidly in our polar regions as result of climate change. While temperatures have been going up all over our planet, they have been going up twice as fast in our polar regions. This has caused a massive change in the extent of sea ice (with sea ice and the North Pole possibly disappearing with the next 10 years despite the fact that it has been in place over 1 million).  Water is also pouring off the great landlocked Western Antarctic ice sheet (as well is that of Greenland), leading to the prediction that sea levels will rise by 1 m or more by the end of this century. These types of changes are already affecting life in the polar regions- with impacts being registered on polar bears, penguins, seals and other marine life. If these changes continue, some organisms like polar bears and seals may experience extreme contractions in their populations and may even face extinction.

What was it like to live underwater for 10 days?

I was fortunate enough to live underwater in the Aquarius habitat to 10 days in 2002.  This was really one of the most wonderful times of my life (my journal entries can be found at NOAA’s Aquarius website).  Experience involved undergoing saturation diving to 20 m for 10 days, and then living and studying a reef that was 7 miles off Key Largo in Florida.  What was wonderful about this experience was that one felt part of the ecosystem – every day diving to 6 to 8 hours across the still spectacular reef systems of Florida.  As part of this experience I made many friends … most of these were toothy and piscine.  I had one particular Hogfish who seemed to greet me like a small dog every time I exited the Aquarius habitat. There was also some resident barracuda who eyed us with great suspicion (after the experience of several of my friends, I knew to keep my hands to myself in the case of these fellows!).

Overall the mission was highly successful – we studied the effect of climate change on coral reproduction and managed to publish a couple of articles from the work.  The Aquarius habitat mission which is run by NOAA is an important facility to enable us to understand the ocean and away the way that it is changing as a result of climate change.

Ten years ago, you predicted the death of the Great Barrier Reef if the water continued to warm from climate change.  Why is happening to the Great Barrier Reef now and how right were you?

In 1999, I published a paper in which I brought our understanding of how sensitive corals were to temperature change together with the projections coming from the atmospheric science community. One of the conclusions from my study was that sea temperatures would soon exceed one yearly basis the temperatures known to cause coral bleaching and death, if we allowed atmospheric carbon dioxide to double. This caused considerable controversy, with many people being unable to contemplate the fact that coral reefs might not be with us in 30-50 years if we continue on the current emission trajectory.  Ten years after this paper, however, many other studies have examined my work and conclusions.  Unfortunately, these studies have come up with similar conclusions.

So Al Gore reads your work? 😉

In the late 1990s, Greenpeace International informed me that some of the studies I had been doing on coral bleaching were being read by the Al Gore team.  This was a great compliment and I felt that my science was at least be listened to by some influential individuals. At this point, Al Gore had been working hard to try and get the science and urgency of the issue of climate change communicated to the American public.  I still stand in awe of his work – it was a great moment to hear that he got the Nobel Prize in 2007 along with the IPCC.

Tell me about your site Climate Shifts and what you are hoping to accomplish with it?

I started the Climate Shifts blog for a couple of reasons.   The first was that I felt that there was a need to shorten the cycle of discussion associated with scientific developments and publications. Normally, science is published in peer reviewed journals – which is a process that may take months or even years to transpire.  This timeframe tends to make scientific discussions of important issues less dynamic and topical.  And as I have commented elsewhere, publishing science only in the scientific literature leads to are highly restricted audience, which is a shame given that much of the science is about solutions will perspectives that we need to consider in a wider framework.

I have really enjoyed running the blog and do believe that it has a value to the wider community. It has also allowed me to discuss and comment on a broader range of issues that are often important in the context of tropical coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs.  It is fun to be involved in the sometimes heated debates associated with the issues of coral reefs, climate change and ocean biology in general.

What can the average person do to help alleviate some of the problems going on with climate change and the marine world?

While the issue of climate change may seem overwhelming to the average person, the solutions actually do come down to us. And important news is that there are many things we can do now which will avoid the worst of climate change.  Therefore, it is important that all of us work towards solutions within our homes, communities and nations. Simple things such as considering the amount of energy and installation we use within our houses and workplaces can have huge impacts on the amount of greenhouse emissions that we are met as a nation and the global society.

The really good news is that the solutions to climate change are still within reach, and that the costs of changing the way we generate and use energy are minimal.  The fourth assessment report of the IPCC outlined those costs as representing a few percent of GDP growth over the coming decades – much lower than the rather devastating costs if we do not take action. They are also much lower than those represented by the scare campaigns run by special interest.

One of the most important ways that we can have a big influence on whether or not our societies deal with the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is by looking to the people elected to represent us on Capitol Hill and other legislative bodies across the planet. Calling your minister, congressman or senator to express your concern and to ask for their leadership towards the solutions is an important and powerful start in this respect.  We must also ensure that the interests of a few do not jeopardize our precious natural systems and the future of our planet.  Personally, I believe that we will solve the problem of climate change and that we will preserve these beautiful ecosystems such as coral reefs.   After all, all we have to do is act and act today.

What’s killing the turtles in Moreton Bay?

turtle rescue

In the canoe is Dr Scarla Weeks, a senior researcher here at the Coral Reef Ecosystems lab, escorting a pretty ill looking ‘teenage’ turtle that she stumbled across in the middle of Moreton Bay. Scarla mentioned that she found the turtle floating on the surface, and noticing that it was covered in algal slime and unable to dive to depths, (precariously) balanced the turtle on her kayak and called the veterinary team at Australia Zoo upon return to land. An isolated event? Apparently the turtle Scarla reported was the 5th to be collected from the bay that Sunday morning alone…

The cause of ‘floating’ turtle syndrome is often due to the ingestion of plastic bags and other marine waste – fishing line, balloons, bottles.  Unusual? Not really – a recent study on leatherback turtles went as far as to suggest that a third of adult turtles had remnants of plastic in their digestive tracts. Stuck at the surface and unable to feed, ‘floating’ turtles undergo a prolonged death of starvation and exposure to the sun.

turtle rescue1

In recent months , the numbers of turtles and dolphins washing up dead on the shores of Moreton Bay has come under scrutiny in the media. Last week, several adult female dugongs were found washed up along the shore lines, and at least three dolphin carcasses were found floating in the middle of the bay since August.  The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland reported that over 10 dead turtles were reported in the bay in the last 2 weeks, along with at least 5 sick turtles reported by Scarla above.

So what’s killing the turtles and marine life of Moreton Bay? Whilst John Thorogood, an aquatic biologist at FRC Environmental suggests that something is happening to the water quality in the Bay, renowned turtle expert and chief scientist Col Limpus suggests that the number of deaths in recent weeks isn’t unusual, and likely reflects animals in poor condition not surviving through the winter months. The jury appears hung on the exact cause, but Scarla suggests that a recent dramatic winter cooling of ocean temperatures in the Southern Great Barrier Reef and offshore of Moreton Bay of upto 2 degrees from normal conditions might be responsible for the upsurge in marine deaths, but plastic & marine debris appear to be major contributing factors.