Special interest groups: the enemy within?

One of the big issues discussed in relation to climate change is the relative costs of ‘acting’ versus ‘not acting’.  Basically the argument comes down to: If the cost of ‘acting’ exceeds costs associated with the impacts of ‘not acting’, then ‘not acting’ is the preferred course.

As outlined endlessly by highly credible experts such as former World Bank chief economist, Lord Nicholas Stern, the massive costs of inaction on our economic and social systems dwarf the much smaller costs of acting.  According to Stern in his report to the British government, the cumulative cost of climate inaction in 2050 will be a startling 5 percent to 20 percent of global GDP, or 5 to 20 times as much as it would cost to take action.


Estimated global macro-economic costs in 2030 for least-cost trajectories towards different long-term stabilization levels (IPCC 4th Assessment)

The conservative fourth assessment report of the IPCC came to a similar conclusion (bringing carbon dioxide equivalents to safe levels would cost <0.1% of GDP per annum growth over 50 years, IPCC 2007 – the figure below table and figure from Bert Metz, Co-chair of IPCC WG III).  The conclusion: the impact of responding to climate change, if taken across the board, will affect very few of us significantly.

And here is the Dorothy Dixer:  why is it that certain industry sectors and their media associates continue to promulgate inaccurate and misleading viewpoints on the important issue of whether or not we should act decisively on climate change?  The answer is, ‘special interest‘.

Eric Pooley, a Kalb fellow, has written a highly credible and clear account of the issues at stake in a discussion paper published through the Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.  In particular, he focuses on the role of some elements of the media in confusing and often deliberately misleading the debate.  I recommend reading his paper because it highlights the often devious nature of special interest (and its media associates) and outlines the challenges that we face in getting policymakers to adopt a rational and sensible policies with respect to the looming climate change catastrophe.


Estimated mitigation strategies illustrating the cost of numbers (IPCC 4th Assessment)

As Pooley outlines, the forces of special interest have created a hysterical atmosphere that has led with the argument that any action to reduce the current rates of climate issue would cause economic mayhem and is therefore irresponsible.  I was stunned by the numbers involved.  According to Pooley, in just one example, US$427 million was spent by the oil and coal industries on lobbying, advertising and eventually defeating the important and sensible Lieberman-Warner bill that attempted to pass through the US House of Representatives.

At the end of the day, Pooley points to where the showdown really lies.  The argument is not about whether or not climate change exists or not (it exists – that debate is over), it is challenging the deliberate and unethical inaccuracies promulgated by the fossil fuel lobby.  This lobby is bent on thwarting attempts to respond to climate change so as to protect its bottom line via any means possible. As a citizen of this wonderful planet, I personally wonder how these individuals can sleep peacefully at night knowing that they are imperilling the earth and its citizens through their irresponsible and selfish actions.

Lomborg vs Rahmstorf – are the IPCC estimates fundementally flawed?

Bjørn Lomborg: Climate change decisions should be based on science, not political activism

lomborgI pointed out that one conference participant, Stefan Rahmstorf, argues that sea level rises will be much higher than those anticipated by most researchers. Rahmstorf is a well-established, serious researcher on climate change who holds a minority view on the rise in the sea-level — the IPCC’s estimate is an 18cm to 59cm rise by the end of the century. I mentioned him to make the point that meeting with like-minded colleagues does not somehow create a new global scientific consensus.

In arguing that sea levels are rising much more than the consensus view of thousands of scientists, he makes a lot of the fact that the 1993-2003 sea level estimates were 50% higher than the IPCC’s models expected, indicating that future sea level rises would also be higher. He fails to mention that the particular decade centred on 1998 has one of the highest sea level rises, which in the past has varied dramatically over decades. The decade before, the sea level was almost not rising or possibly even dropping (as one can see on p413 of IPCC’s first report). One cannot pick the timeframes to fit the argument. (Read more)

Stefan Rahmstorf: Climate sceptics confuse the public by focusing on short-term fluctuations

rahmstorfLomborg argues that 18 years could be too short for a robust trend comparison because of decadal variations in trend – but the 42-year period analysed by IPCC yields the same result. And it is telling that he then goes on to draw an “inescapable” conclusion about a slow-down of sea level rise from just four years of data. This is another well-worn debating trick: confuse the public about the underlying trend by focusing on short-term fluctuations. It’s like claiming spring won’t come if there is a brief cold snap in April.

Why does Lomborg cite the trend since 2005? Last October, he cited that of the previous two years. Why now four years? Because the trend of the past two years (2007-2008) is now + 3.7 mm/year? It is even worse. The trend since the beginning of any year of the data series varies between 1.6 mm/year and 9.0 mm/year, depending on the start year chosen. Using 2005, Lomborg cherry-picked the by far lowest. He’s done this before, see for example his recent claim that the globe is cooling. (Read More)

Emissions pathway to return global warming beneath 1 degree Celsius

Leading climate scientist Bill Hare has published the first emissions pathway to date that brings expected global warming beneath 1°C, albeit after peaking beneath 2°C and on the scale of centuries.

This is an immensely significant research topic for coral reefs as a rise in mean global temperature of 1°C appears to be the highest target that should be set if coral reefs are to be protected from serious degradation (see previous Climate Shifts post here).

Figure 2-1 depicts the global emissions pathway that Hare (2009: 25) suggests “is plausible technically” and “goes beyond the technically and economically feasible pathways published elsewhere”. It requires getting fossil CO2 emissions down to close to zero in 2050 and being carbon negative thereafter – a commitment to action that spans centuries.


Hare (2009: 27) suggests that under this emissions pathway “global temperatures should peak below 2 degrees Celsius around mid-century and begin a slow decline, dropping to present levels by the last half of the twenty-third century.”

The means of achieving such an emissions pathway, including being carbon negative after 2050, are discussed by Hare and other authors in subsequent chapters of the Worldwatch Institute publication, ‘State of the World 2009‘. This report is peer reviewed, but Hare will hopefully publish his new modelling in a peer reviewed climate journal shortly to improve its acceptance in the scientific community.

Hare (2009: 25) acknowledges that achieving negative CO2 emissions on a global scale will be extremely difficult and “evaluation of the implications of the technologies required to achieve this are only just beginning.”

Hare’s emissions pathway builds on the recent publication by Jim Hansen and his colleagues which argued “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.”

The ambition of the emissions pathway suggested by Hare (2009) is far beyond any contemplated in the mainstream policy debate at present but it is likely that such radical proposals will become much more prevalent in the future.


Nasa climate expert makes personal appeal to Obama

obama_hansen4The Guardian, 2nd January 2008
One of the world’s top climate scientists has written a personal new year appeal to Barack and Michelle Obama, warning of the “profound disconnect” between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem.

With less than three weeks to go until Obama’s inauguration, Professor James Hansen, who heads Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asked the recently appointed White House science adviser Professor John Holdren to pass the missive directly to the president-elect.

In it, he praises Obama’s campaign rhetoric about “a planet in peril”, but says that how the new president acts in office will be crucial. Hansen lambasts the current international approach of setting targets through “cap and trade” schemes as not up to the task. “This approach is ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat. It could waste another decade, locking in disastrous consequences for our planet and humanity,” the letter from Hansen and his wife, Anniek, reads.

The letter will make uncomfortable reading for officials in 10 US states whose cap and trade mechanism – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – got under way yesterday. The scheme is the first mandatory, market-based greenhouse gas reduction programme in the US.

Hansen advocates a three-pronged attack on the climate problem.

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Did global warming stop after 1998?

Anyone who has an interest in exploring patterns in global temperature should take a look  around WoodForTrees.org. Paul Clark, a British software developer and “practically-oriented environmentalist and conservationist” has developed an online interface that allows anyone to go examine basic longterm trends in climate time series data (including the HADCRUT3 / GISTEMP Global Temperature & HADSST2 Sea Surface Temperature, along with sunspot activity and CO2 datasets).

The interface is incredibly intuitive, and allows a variety of transformations, averaging and trend estimations within graphs. After having spent literally hours playing around on this site, I completely agree with the warnings of ‘cherry picking‘ a dataset (i.e. choosing a certain year to start the trend to exacerbate a trend). To illustrate this ‘technique’, Paul has produced this classic graph:


Which goes to show that the temperature is either: 1) falling,  2) static, 3) rising, or 4) rising ‘really fast!’ -all depending on where you place the trendline.

As John eloquently explained in this comment a few days ago, “global warming stopped after 1998” is turning into one of the most common memes of the ‘skeptics’ and ‘deniers’. Alot of their argument relies on very heavily cherry-picked data – skeptical Science also have a great in detail discussion and counterpoint to this argument here. Contrast the above graph with the longer term view (consistent across multiple datasets), showing warming between 0.13-0.17°C/decade:


Appreciating the immense timescales of climate change and ocean acidification

While the present policy debate on climate change focuses on 2020, 2050 and 2100 targets, our present use of fossil fuels will continue to affect the atmosphere and the oceans for many, many thousands of years.

David Archer and Victor Brovkin (2008: 292) point out, “the notion that global warming will last only a few centuries is widespread in the popular and even in the scientific literature on climate change. This misconception may have its roots in an oversimplification of the carbon cycle.”

The IPCC (2007: 515) illustrated the carbon cycle in the 1990s in the following diagram of carbon reservoirs and main annual fluxes (pre-industrial ‘natural’ fluxes in black and anthropogenic fluxes in red):

[Note: Reservoir and main annual fluxes are in Gigatonnes of carbon. These may be converted to CO2 figures by multiplying by 44/12].

In a significant revision of its earlier reports, the IPCC (2007) concluded that natural processes in the carbon cycle will be slow to remove the current levels of CO2 from the atmosphere. Following perturbation of the natural Carbon Cycle about 50% of an increase in atmospheric CO2 will be removed within 30 years, a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries and the remaining 20% may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years (IPCC 2007: 514).

Archer and Brovkin (2008) reviewed long-term carbon cycle models from the recently published literature. They noted, “carbon cycle models respond to a release of new CO2 into the atmosphere in a series of several well-defined stages lasting for many millennia.” In the first stage, fossil fuel CO2 released into the atmosphere equilibrates with the ocean, which takes centuries or a millennium due to the slow overturning circulation of the ocean.

Archer and Brovkin (2008: 284) noted that the lifetime of individual CO2 molecules released into the atmosphere may only be a few years because of the copious exchange of carbon with the ocean and the land surface. However, the CO2 concentration in the air remains higher than it would have been, because of the larger inventory of CO2 in the atmosphere/ocean/land carbon cycle.

That is, the equilibrium processes removing fossil fuel CO2 emissions from the atmosphere operate at a system-wide level and individual CO2 molecules do not last for millennia in the atmosphere. Thus today’s fossil fuel CO2 emissions will not be “in” the atmosphere (literally) for a long period but they will continue to “affect” the atmosphere, the climate, and the oceans for many thousands of years.

The equilibrium processes have a major negative side for the oceans. A consequence of the oceans acting as a “sink” for CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels is ocean acidification, discussed in several recent posts here.

Archer and Brovkin (2008: 288) point out, “after the invasion of fossil fuel CO2 into the ocean, the acidity from the CO2 provokes the dissolution of CaCO3 from the sea floor. … In the models it takes thousands of years for this imbalance to restore the pH of the ocean to a natural value.”

After fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere equilibrates with the oceans, atmospheric CO2 will still remain about 20-25% higher than pre-industrial levels. Archer and Brovkin (2008: 287) note that, “eventually, the excess CO2 will be consumed by chemical reactions with CaCO3 and igneous rocks, but this takes thousands of years.”

In an earlier publication, Archer (2005) found that the immense longevity of the tail on the lifetime of CO2 released into the atmosphere means 7% released by burning fossil fuels today will still be affecting the atmosphere in 100,000 years, and the mean lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is 30,000-35,000 years. He suggested an appropriate approximation of the lifetime of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels for public discussion is “300 years, plus 25% that lasts forever”.

We commonly think of our children and grandchildren to appreciate the consequences of our present actions but as our present emissions of fossil fuel will continue to affect the atmosphere for over 100,000 years, we should appreciate the decisions on climate policies today will affect the next 5,000 generations of humanity and beyond.


Archer D (2005), “Fate of Fossil Fuel in Geologic Time” 110 Journal of Geophysical Research C09S05, doi: 10.1029/2004/2004JC002625

Archer D and Brovkin V (2008), “The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2” Climatic Change 90:283-297 DOI 10.1007/s10584-008-9413-1, available at http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~archer/reprints/archer.2008.tail_implications.pdf

IPCC (2007), Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge). References in text are to Ch 7, pp 514-515 and available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter7.pdf

450 ppm must become the catch-cry for serious political action on climate change

Ben McNeil and Richard Matear from the University of New South Wales have just published a very important article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of United States (Link to full text).  This paper further emphasises the critical importance of keeping carbon dioxide levels lower than 450 ppm, as Chris McGrath highlighted earlier this week.  While politicians fumble over the issue of gaining effective control of carbon dioxide, there is growing evidence that we must keep CO2 levels below 450 ppm or be prepared to suffer serious consequences to life on Earth.

This is a significant paper which highlights the importance of understanding the dynamics of carbonate equilibrium in seawater in our greenhouse world.   Rapid acidification of our oceans, as we now know, is an important impact of rising anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.   More importantly, this study confirms the worrying conclusion that calcification in the worlds oceans is in big trouble if atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide exceed 450 ppm.   We came to a similar conclusion for coral reefs in a recent article in Science magazine (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007) – finding as well that net calcification on coral reef ecosystems dwindles to zero at about 450-500 ppm.   The implications of failing ecosystems as important as those in the Southern Ocean are considerable. Rigorous observations such as these should spur our political leaders to make much more decisive steps to curb the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – anything less will be disastrous.

McNeil & Matear (2008) Southern Ocean acidification: A tipping point at 450-ppm atmospheric CO2. PNAS

Southern Ocean acidification via anthropogenic CO2 uptake is expected to be detrimental to multiple calcifying plankton species by lowering the concentration of carbonate ion (CO32-) to levels where calcium carbonate (both aragonite and calcite) shells begin to dissolve. Natural seasonal variations in carbonate ion concentrations could either hasten or dampen the future onset of this undersaturation of calcium carbonate. We present a large-scale Southern Ocean observational analysis that examines the seasonal magnitude and variability of CO32- and pH. Our analysis shows an intense wintertime minimum in CO32- south of the Antarctic Polar Front and when combined with anthropogenic CO2 uptake is likely to induce aragonite undersaturation when atmospheric CO2 levels reach ~450 ppm. Under the IPCC IS92a scenario, Southern Ocean wintertime aragonite undersaturation is projected to occur by the year 2030 and no later than 2038. Some prominent calcifying plankton, in particular the Pteropod species Limacina helicina, have important veliger larval development during winter and will have to experience detrimental carbonate conditions much earlier than previously thought, with possible deleterious flow-on impacts for the wider Southern Ocean marine ecosystem. Our results highlight the critical importance of understanding seasonal carbon dynamics within all calcifying marine ecosystems such as continental shelves and coral reefs, because natural variability may potentially hasten the onset of future ocean acidification.

Plot of the year in which the onset of wintertime undersaturation occurs under equilibrium conditions (McNeil & Matear 2008)

Avoiding confusion for stabilization targets for climate change and ocean acidification

Long Cao and Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution at Stanford have a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters on atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) stabilization and ocean acidification, a critical topic for current marine science and public policy. Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the essential chemistry at the heart of this problem as follows:

Essentially, as CO2 dissolves into the oceans it forms an acid leading to decreased coral calcification and growth through the inhibition of aragonite formation (the principal crystalline form of calcium carbonate deposited in coral skeletons). The increased acidity caused by increasing atmospheric CO2 is known as ocean acidification and it is a separate, though inter-related, phenomenon to increased temperatures caused by CO2 acting as a greenhouse gas.

Cao and Caldeira (2008) found “that even at a CO2 stabilization level as low as 450 ppm, parts of the Southern Ocean become undersaturated with respect to aragonite [and] therefore, preservation of existing marine ecosystems could require a CO2 stabilization level that is lower than what might be chosen based on climate considerations alone.”

These results are similar to Hoegh-Gulberg et al (2007), who concluded “… contemplating policies that result in [CO2]atm above 500 ppm appears extremely risky for coral reefs and the tens of millions of people who depend on them directly, even under the most optimistic circumstances.”

Hoegh-Guldberg et al (2007) illustrated the expected the conditions of coral reefs under different levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature increases as follows:

These findings are very significant for governments around the world and other policy-makers because much of the current policy debate on climate change focuses on stabilizing greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, between 450-550 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents, thereby allowing a rise in mean global temperatures of around 2-3°C (e.g. Stern 2007; Garnaut 2008; Australian Treasury 2008).

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Will we leave the Great Barrier Reef for our children?

Amidst the current policy debate in Australia on climate change is a surreal argument that policies that will destroy the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) are acceptable and economically rational. Ross Garnaut was alive to the damage to the GBR when saying Australia should initially aim for a global consensus to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million. Garnaut (2008a: 38) was brutally frank in his supplementary draft report:

“The 550 strategy would be expected to lead to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs.”

His final report does not shy away from this conclusion (Garnaut 2008b).

The Australian and Queensland governments have always silently avoided this point when explaining the costs and benefits of their climate policies. Neither has ever stated a stabilisation target for the rise in global temperatures or greenhouse gases. To do so would expose them to the criticism that their policies will not save the GBR or a host of other ecosystems.

Garnaut’s frank admission reflects the findings of research of the impacts of climate change to the GBR since mass coral bleaching occurred globally in 1998 and 2002. Rising sea temperatures and increasing acidity of the oceans due to our use of fossil fuels are now well-recognized as major threats to coral reefs and the marine ecosystem generally in coming decades.

 Coral bleaching and partial recovery on Pelorus Island, GBR: (a) 1998; (b) 2002; and (c) 2004. Source: Schuttenberg H and Marshall P, A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching (GBRMPA, Townsville, 2006), p12.

Coral bleaching and partial recovery on Pelorus Island, GBR: (a) 1998; (b) 2002; and (c) 2004. Source: Schuttenberg H and Marshall P, A Reef Manager’s Guide to Coral Bleaching (GBRMPA, Townsville, 2006), p12.

In relation to coral bleaching the IPCC (2007b: 12) found that:

“Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals.”

The findings of the IPCC suggest that a rise of 1°C in mean global temperatures and, correspondingly, sea surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels is the maximum that should be aimed for if the global community wishes to protect coral reefs. The range of 1-3°C is the danger zone and 2°C is not safe. Supporting this conclusion Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues concluded in a review of the likely impacts of climate change to the GBR edited by Johnson and Marshall (2007: 295):

“Successive studies of the potential impacts of thermal stress on coral reefs have supported the notion that coral dominated reefs are likely to largely disappear with a 2°C rise in sea temperature over the next 100 years. This, coupled with the additional vulnerability of coral reefs to high levels of acidification once the atmosphere reaches 500 parts per million [CO2], suggests that coral dominated reefs will be rare or non-existent in the near future.”

The IPCC’s (2007a: 826) best estimate of climate sensitivity found that stabilising greenhouse gases and aerosols at 350 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalents (ppm CO2-eq) would be expected to lead to a rise in mean global temperatures of 1°C, stabilising at 450 ppm CO2-eq will lead to a rise of 2°C, and stabilising at 550 ppm CO2-eq will lead to a rise of 3°C.

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Scientists urge Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to crack down on climate change issues

The Age is reporting on an open letter to the Australian Prime Minister Keven Rudd, urging the PM to make strong cuts in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The letter, written by myself and 15 other Austalian scientists who contributed to the IPCC report, was released on the eve of the final report by the Garnaut review on climate change. In essence, we disagree with the recent advice by Professor Garnaut to make a slower start in cutting emissions (Targets and Trajectories – a 10% reduction by 2020), and strongly advocate the PM to reduce emissions by at least 25% bellow 1990 levels by 2020:

“As a group of Australia’s leading climate change scientists, we urge you to adopt this target as a minimum requirement for Australia’s contribution to an effective global climate agreement,” the letter states.

“Failure of the world to act now will leave Australians with a legacy of economic, environmental, social and health costs that will dwarf the scale of national investment required to address this fundamental problem”.

The scientists who signed the letter are Australia’s world-recognised experts on climate change, including Dr John Church, a leading authority on sea-level rise who recently stepped down as chairman of the joint scientific committee of the World Climate Research Program. Dr Church is also a senior CSIRO researcher, but he and other CSIRO scientists signed the letter as individuals.

Also among the signatories are Dr Roger Jones, from CSIRO, who is currently advising the federal Treasury and Professor Garnaut’s climate change review; Professors Nathan Bindoff and David Karoly, who worked on the most recent IPCC reports; Professor Tony McMichael from the Australian National University, who advised the IPCC on the human health impacts of climate change; Professor Matthew England, joint director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales; and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, an expert on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef.

On the back of the report is a recent poll by the Lowy institute, which is quite an intriguing read. Whilst the overall message is a positive one in that Australians want action on climate change, the feeling is that it cannot come at a cost to jobs or at a financial cost. Out of the 1001 people, 19% surveyed said they would be willing to pay >$21 per month ontop of their electricity bill to help solve climate change, and 20% would pay between $11-20. In contrast, 32% would be willing to pay between $1-10 per month, whilst 32% of people surveyed were not prepared to pay anything at all.

Interestingly, 64% of responants believed that the Kyoto Protocol hasn’t solved the issue of climate change but was “a step in the right direction”, yet 26% believed it was “purely symbolic”. On the bright side, if this poll is a genuine reflection of Australian attitudes, 73% would prefer Barack Obama to become the next president of the United States, whilst John McCain recieved only a 16% response.