Greedy, lying …

Just briefly, here’s an addition to my list of activist greenie documentaries: Greedy Lying Bastards.

It’s so new I haven’t seen it yet, but it has collected all sorts of awards. It tackles climate change denialists, especially the fossil fuel industry and, given its title, it is probably safe to call it forthright and uncompromising.

Its targets include the Koch brothers, oil tycoons whose names pop up repeatedly amongst those funding climate change disinformation. They also popped up on Forbes magazine’s latest ‘rich list’, as reported on the ABC on March 5: “Tied at sixth were brothers Charles and David Koch, with $US34 billion each, fortunes built on their US oil refining, pulp and paper and chemicals empire Koch Industries.” If you add their separate fortunes together, which for this purpose I think is reasonable, they are third on the list, not equal sixth.

Just by way of a bonus item: Forbes found Gina Rinehart was the richest Australian. I will say no more.

Too late for two degrees?

International accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers has just released its latest Low Carbon Economy Index, an annual report on how the world’s transition to renewable energy is going. It makes very sobering reading, the more so because PwC can not by any stretch of the imagination be counted among the loony-left alarmist greenies.

The whole report is not very long and is available as a pdf here but I will present its key messages here, beginning with its ‘Foreword’ which is actually a one-page summary of its findings.

It’s time to plan for a warmer world. The annual Low Carbon Economy Index centres on one core statistic: the rate of change of global carbon intensity. This year we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2°C warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, from now to 2050. We have passed a critical threshold – not once since World War 2 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.

The 2011 rate of improvement in carbon intensity was 0.7%, giving an average rate of decarbonisation of 0.8% a year since 2000. … Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

To give ourselves a more than 50% chance of avoiding 2 degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.

In the emerging markets, where the E7 are now emitting more than the G7, improvements in carbon intensity have largely stalled, with strong GDP growth closely coupled with rapid emissions growth. Meanwhile the policy context for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear, critical technologies for low carbon energy generation, remains uncertain. Government support for renewable energy technologies is also being scaled back. As negotiators convene every year to attempt to agree a global deal, carbon emissions continue to rise in most parts of the world.

Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.

Leo Johnson
Partner, Sustainability and Climate Change, PwC

On p.3 they mention other warnings that we may be unable to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2°C:

Governments’ ambitions to limit warning to 2°C now appear highly unrealistic. This new reality means that we must contemplate a much more challenging future. Whilst the negotiators continue to focus on 2°C, a growing number of scientists and other expert organisations are now projecting much more pessimistic scenarios for global temperatures. The International Energy Agency, for example, now considers 4°C and 6°C scenarios as well as 2°C in their latest analysis.

Guy Rowland drew my attention to the report in a comment thread over at RealClimate, saying, “That sounds pretty bad to me,” and asked for comments.

Wili said, “It is bad. Beyond bad, really, if you’ve read what six degrees means in Lynas’s book of the same name,” and added Hansen (NASA) and Brown (WWI) to the list of experts predicting large temperature increases.

MARodger was slightly more positive: “PWC do not actually say it is all too late. Note the PWC conclusions – as well as talking of a need to start considering plans for a global temperature rise of 4°C as the 2°C limit will not be achieved with current rates of decarbonisation, they do not say 2°C is a totally impossible target, only that such a target ‘…suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.’ 

“This year the PWC analysis yields a required continual annual reduction in global carbon intensity of 5.1%, up from 4.8% last year. This is not good news but … the reductions achieved between 2004 & 2007 at least paralleled their suggested decarbonisation course. So when more folk come on board to address emission cuts, when denialists are at last treated as pariahs, then [their] graph can surely be steepened and brought back on course.”

Back to PwC: On p.8 they consider shale gas and conclude that it is not a solution, despite its short-term advantages, and may contribute to the problem:

The boom of shale gas in the United States that has helped push down emissions there has sparked a debate on the use of gas as a transition fuel to a low carbon economy. The development and widespread deployment of fracking technology in the US has lowered the price of natural gas and resulted in a fall in greenhouse gas emissions as it displaces coal in power generation (although some analysts have raised questions around the lifecycle emissions of shale gas). Despite concerns about the possible environmental impacts of fracking, a world-wide hunt for unconventional gas reserves had already begun – China, India, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia are all known to have significant reserves.

Gas may buy some time much needed by the global climate system and help limit emissions growth – displacing coal with gas in power generation roughly halves carbon emissions. But low gas prices may also reduce the incentive for investment in lower-carbon nuclear power and renewable energy. … A shift to gas away from oil and coal can provide temporary respite, a necessary but not sufficient move to the low carbon challenge. At the same time, an over-reliance on gas, particularly in emerging economies expecting high energy demand growth, could lock in the dependence on fossil fuel.

Their text ends thus:

Increasing degrees of risk

Regardless of the outcomes at the UN climate change summit in Doha this year, one thing is clear. Governments and businesses can no longer assume that a 2°C warming world is the default scenario. Any investment in long-term assets or infrastructure, particularly in coastal or low-lying regions, needs to address more pessimistic scenarios. Sectors dependent on food, water, energy or ecosystem services need to scrutinise the resilience and viability of their supply chains. More carbon intensive sectors need to anticipate more invasive regulation and the possibility of stranded assets. And governments’ support for vulnerable communities needs to consider more drastic actions.

The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS, removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation. This suggests a need for much more ambition and urgency on climate policy, at both the national and international level.

Either way, business-as-usual is not an option.

Defining a rapidly changing climate

If the climate is changing, what is it that’s changing? Climate, they say, is what you expect, while weather is what you get. But if climate is changing, how do we know what to expect?

That may sound flippant but it has become quite a serious question in climate science circles of late, for two reasons: communicating climate science to the public, and dealing with the statistical problem of defining a moving target.

On the first question, for instance, we have a typical member of the public asking on the RealClimate open thread“One thing that has confused me is how long it takes for weather to become climate.”

One of the regulars replied: “WMO (World Meteorological Organization) states that climate is 30 or more years of weather data.” Another backed him up, saying, “The traditional answer is 30 years or thereabouts.” ‘SecularAnimist’, another regular, answered at greater length:

I think this question is increasingly irrelevant, and the “traditional” answer is becoming obsolete.

The question was relevant when we were asking whether the various atmospheric conditions, processes, events and patterns of events that comprise “climate” are in fact changing, and wanted to know over what length of time we’d need to observe those phenomena as ever-changing, short term “weather” to be able to conclude that the changes are sufficiently long-term to be considered “climate” change. But we already know that the climate is changing, and will continue to change, as a result of our CO2 emissions. We don’t need 30 more years of observations to tell us that, now.

And the “traditional” answer is obsolete because it presumes that the Earth’s climate is sufficiently stable, and changing so slowly, that it really does take 30 or more years of observations to detect any long-term, large-scale change. That’s no longer the case, because the climate system is being driven to change more rapidly and extremely than it has ever done in human history. It’s unlikely to take another 30 years for the American midwest to become desert. It’s unlikely to take another 30 years for the Arctic sea ice to disappear completely during summer — with all of the prodigious effects that implies.

There is every reason to expect that permanent, large-scale, dramatic changes, which cannot reasonably be called anything but “climate change”, may now occur on time scales of a few years, rather than a few decades, as would have been expected in the pre-AGW world.

The more technical problem with the definition of climate is that weather needs to be averaged over enough annual cycles to iron out the bumps caused by specific weather events (that’s where the ’30 years’ comes from) but if, for instance, the averages of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s are successively quite different from each other then a ‘climate’ defined by the 1980-2010 average becomes meaningless.

Should we just average over a shorter period, then? No, because known multi-year cycles such as El Nino will distort the result too much. As far as I know, the experts are still working out what to do about that. Meanwhile they tend to define our baseline climate by the period from 1951-1980. James Hansen, whom I have mentioned before, presents the reasons very sensibly in a very recent discussion of his recent ‘climate dice’ paper:

Studies of climate change generally use some base period to define an average climate and calculate “anomalies” relative to that average, i.e., climate anomalies are the deviations from that average climate. In our papers we used 1951-1980 as the base period.

Global temperature change over the past century (Fig. 1) helps us discuss possible effects of the choice of base period. Our choice of 1951-1980 as a base period has several merits:

1) The period 1951-1980 is prior to the large warming of the past few decades. If we wish to examine the effect of that global warming on climate, we must compare with the climate that existed prior to that warming.

2) The 1951-1980 period has the best global data coverage and can best characterize climate variability. Spatial coverage of data was poorer at earlier times.

3) 1951-1980 was the base period used by the National Weather Service and other researchers when we made our first analyses of observations and climate simulations. For comparison with these early analyses and climate simulations we should use the same base period.

4) Many of today’s adults, baby-boomers, grew up during 1951-1980, so it is recent enough for many people to remember what the climate was like.

The whole discussion is well worth reading, since it presents the key findings of the longer and more technical paper in a very approachable way. Download it (pdf) from here.

Extreme weather around the world

For a while now the climate scientists have been warning that global warming isn’t simply a matter of the weather getting a little warmer everywhere. Rather, the warming will vary from place to place and be accompanied by changes of weather patterns, especially rainfall. That is already happening. I have mentioned extreme weather events here before over the last year or so, and in fact the last few months have seen a cluster of extreme events which are causing great suffering across the Northern hemisphere.

We know that none of these can be ascribed to climate change with any certainty but there is a growing body of knowledge (e.g. IPCC, Climate Communication, Union of Concerned Scientists) which shows that we can confidently give the odds that a particular event would have happened without global warming, and the experts are quoting high odds against any of these happening under our old weather patterns. The combined odds against all of them happening by chance are infinitesimal.

The silver lining to this litany of disaster is that ordinary people are beginning to see for themselves that weird things are happening to their weather and are more willing to acknowledge that climate change is indeed here already, that it is looking scarier every year, and that we really should try harder to avert it.

Smile: In what seems like poetic environmental justice, a brown coal mine in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley has also been flooded after unusually heavy rain.

Don’t smile too broadly: James Hansen, one of the world’s pre-eminent climatologists, has warned that the future he predicted is here here already and it is worse than he expected, sooner than he expected – almost entirely because of extreme weather events:

In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, which will be published Monday, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.

This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

The rest of his Washington Post article is here and if you want the whole scientific  paper you can get it – free – here.

Science, entertainment or misinformation?

A friend suggested a few days ago that I ‘may be interested in this forthcoming ABC TV show Climate Change – Can I Change your Mind?

It is indeed the sort of programme I watch so I thanked him and looked further. I didn’t have to look much further, actually, since a pre-review was also on the ABC’s excellent website: I can change your mind about science on the ABC. In it, Stephan Lewandowsky is scathing about the lack of scientific comment and, in fact, scientific balance in the programme. The Sydney Morning Herald coverage (dare I say even the SMH coverage?) shares some of those concerns. I see no reason to disbelieve Lewandowsky, an acknowledged expert in how people arrive at their opinions, especially since his criticisms match the concerns which the programme information raised in my own mind.

While it is refreshing that the ABC willingly publishes such a negative opinion piece about one of its own programmes, that programme seems to have been disappointingly, frustratingly, ill-conceived in the first place. An ill-balanced pair of debaters, male authority-figure vs young female, in which the authority figure is mis-educated and plain wrong, is a poor start; and ‘equal time’ to pro and anti is an outright injustice in the face of the well-understood science of the subject.* Are they going to give ‘equal time’ to a flat-earther next week? On this basis, they might as well.

So … I will turn the TV on tomorrow evening but I will make sure, for the sake of the screen, that there are no heavy objects within reach.

——-

* The way conservative media misrepresented ‘equal time’ as ‘fairness’ is something Oreskes covered at length in Merchants of Doubt. A fair balance is one which leaves the viewer/reader/listener with an accurate idea of the relative strengths of the two sides. Graham Readfearn has a detailed critique of the defects of the process on his blog.

Remembering the floods

I wrote about extreme weather events and their connection to global warming two and a half months ago and a small coincidence leads me to revisit the topic. Today has been chosen as the day of remembrance for the disastrous SE Queensland floods a year ago, and a link on RealClimate took me yesterday to a paper by eminent climate scientist James Hansen which touches on something I’ve been thinking about for some  time: the fact that climate change should already be apparent to ordinary people.

First, the floods. Wikipedia has a good overview here with plenty of links to further information and the ABC has put together a terrific gallery of flood photos here. There’s not much point in trying to add to that coverage here. The floods certainly qualify as an ‘extreme weather event’ and were recognised as such in the major global report State of the Climate in 2010 from NOAA and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 

Hansen’s paper, Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice (November 2011) (pdf here) begins thus:

The “climate dice” describing the chance of an unusually warm or cool season, relative to the climatology of 1951-1980, have progressively become more “loaded” during the past 30 years, coincident with increased global warming. The most dramatic and important change of the climate dice is the appearance of a new category of extreme climate outliers. …

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?

This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming. Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

He goes on to show two kinds of systematic change in climate: the averages have shifted and, at the same time, the odds of extreme events occurring have increased dramatically. This, of course, is the significance of his title: the climate dice have been loaded (biased) by global warming. He presents details of the changes which have already occurred and notes that, “The climate dice are now loaded to a degree that the perceptive person (old enough to remember the climate of 1951-1980) should be able to recognize the existence of climate change.” In particular, people should be noticing that extreme weather is far more common than it ever used to be.

He doesn’t quite ask, “Why don’t they notice?” but the question hovers there, waiting for an answer.

I have been trying to answer it myself since a random conversation a year ago. I was chatting to a youngish, intelligent person with a degree in natural sciences and a job in  GBRMPA, which looks after the Great Barrier Reef. I was quite surprised to find that she had not actually observed the effects of climate change. Then I found that she had spent her first ten years on a Pacific island, her next eight in Sydney, and another eight or so here in Townsville, so she hadn’t actually been anywhere long enough to notice a change in that location.

As I thought about that, I realised that she has lots of company. There are far fewer people who might reasonably be expected to notice climate change than we might at first think. A quick estimate goes like this:

  • Age group really has to be 40+, since anyone under ten in the early 1980s won’t remember the old norms. Change has occurred in the last thirty years, but it is the comparison with the pre-1980 baseline which makes it stand out strongly. That rules out more than 50% of the world’s population and perhaps even more than 50% of the world’s voters.
  • But also, those people have to have been living in the same general area for 40+ years, or have returned to it after some time away, because no-one in California will say, “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid,” if they grew up in Normandy, Queensland or even Virginia. How many Westerners are that stable? 50%?
  • Furthermore, the closer we live to nature, the more likely we are to notice its changes – but more and more of us are urbanised. Europe, Australia and the US are all more than 80% urbanised according to UN stats, while China, India and most of the developing nations are less than 40% urbanised. How many of the 50% of 50% are therefore likely to qualify as “perceptive”? Less than 50% in the West, certainly; perhaps more than 50% in less urbanised countries.
  • That leaves less than 10% of the world’s population in a position to recognise climate change from personal observation. And (unfortunately for the debate) most of those 10% are the rural poor of developing nations, the most frequent victims of climate change not the opinion-makers of industrialised nations.

Of course, Hansen’s statistics show that extreme weather events are going to increase very rapidly in number and severity as global warming continues. More and more of us will notice the effects in our daily lives. But that is not really good news.

Climate change and extreme weather events

For the last few years I, among others, have been looking at the news and wondering to what extent this, that or the other extreme weather event – the 2010 Russian heatwave, the Queensland floods, record flooding in Thailand, etc – was due to climate change. When I asked those who ought to know, the response was always, “There is probably some influence there but it is too hard to disentangle from natural variation, so you can’t just say that it was caused by global warming,” or words to that effect. A typical scientific response, in relation to the Queensland floods, is here.

This week RealClimate reported on a scientific paper by Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coucou which puts statistically verifiable numbers on the feeling that, yes, global warming is making our weather more extreme. RealClimate’s report is a (relatively) non-technical introduction to the findings and it is linked to the paper itself if you want more.

My really short, really non-technical summary is that the number of record-breaking events increases in proportion to the rate at which the normal (average) conditions are changing. That matches my gut feeling very well, which naturally pleases me. But it simultaneously alarms me because it means that record-breaking events are going to get more and more frequent unless we can quickly and radically reduce our CO2 emissions.

Back to the science: the authors applied their technique to the Russian heatwave and found, “an approximate 80% probability that the 2010 July heat record would not have occurred without climate warming.” That quote is from  the abstract of the paper, meaning that it is in careful scientific language, i.e. there is an approximate 99.9% probability that they can back up every word of it.

The Comments on RealClimate posts are usually well worth reading. Two caught my eye this time:

(1) Ricky Rood looks at other ways in which the 2010 Russian heat wave was extreme: http://www.wunderground.com/blog/RickyRood/comment.html?entrynum=208.

The winter of 2010 and the spring of 2011 were characterized by very high food prices. An essay by Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo entitled, Global Warming and Arab Spring, draws a convincing line that the pressure on food prices was a contributor to the start of the revolutions of the Arab Spring – the tumultuous uprising against many Arab governments. (also here) To diffuse the arguments that are sure to follow – this was a contributor, along with many other factors that came together to fuel a movement. This is the idea of climate extremes as a threat multiplier.

(2) Pete Dunkelberg says:

For a first approximation, an outlier [i.e. extreme event] in the direction of a trend tells you what’s coming. … Just from the shape of a bell curve (and this is far from original) one can see that you don’t have to move the mean very far in one direction for outliers on that side to become much more frequent. A one hundred year heat wave or flood readily becomes a ten or five year event. The new hundred year flood is going to drown people.

Now, how did that Chinese curse go? “May you live in interesting times” – was that it?