A Reef in Time

cover of the book A Reef in Time is a book I have known about since it was published in 2008 but I only got around to reading it a few months ago. It is such a great book (great in the sense of masterful, imposing or significant, not fun) that I wanted to tell others about it via some sort of review, but I was daunted by the fact that Charlie Veron’s work is far beyond my capacity to critique in any meaningful way. He is, after all, a legend of reef science (see wikipedia or climateshifts or even his facebook page), while I barely dip my toes into the subject.

This page is my compromise: a collection of comments which agree with my own perception of the book but carry the weight of opinion of people far more expert than myself. I will start with the author:

When I started writing ‘A Reef in Time’, I knew that climate change was likely to have serious consequences for coral reefs, but even I was shocked to the core by what all the best science that existed was saying. In a long phase of personal anguish I turned to specialists in many different fields of science to find anything that might suggest a fault in my own conclusions. No luck. The bottom line remains: the GBR can indeed be utterly trashed in the lifetime of today’s children. That certainty is what motivates me to broadcast this message as clearly, as accurately and, yes, as loudly, as I can.

That quote appeared on a blog post by Caspar Henderson, who has this (and more) to say about the book:

… this book does more than simply convey the central message that climate change – and in particular ocean acidification – threaten to destroy the GBR, and that action to avert this should be a top priority. It also does at least two other useful things. One, it provides a brilliantly clear and authoritative introduction to much of the history of life on earth via a focus on some of the most productive ecosystems in the seven tenths that is ocean. Two, it conveys the stupendous enormity of a mass extinction event which – unless somehow averted – is likely to be the biggest in sixty five million years …

The book is also fascinating in its detailed account of the GBR itself, including a plausible account of a ‘stone age Utopia’ in which aboriginal peoples may have lived in caves under what, today (following a rapid rise in sea level at the end of the last glaciation about 11,500 years ago), are coral reefs.

Another opinion comes (via the publisher’s site) from Louise Goggin, writing in Australian Marine Science Association Bulletin: 

This is not a book for the fainthearted… Indeed, Veron believes we are on the brink of the sixth mass extinction of the planet. He makes his case in this book and paints a vivid picture of what we will be losing if we do not stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere… The book is easy to read with well-placed illustrations to explain complex concepts. It presents its argument in a logical and increasingly disturbing sequence that reaches a bleak end. It is a plea for urgent action written by a man who is passionate about the Great Barrier Reef. It should be read widely by anyone who cares about our planet.

Climate science is advancing so rapidly that 2008 is a long time ago. Sadly, none of the recent news makes Veron’s predictions seem any less likely. See, for instance, “New Maps Depict Potential Worldwide Coral Bleaching by 2056” on Science Daily in February this year.

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 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.

Edit, 20.12.19: the full report is no longer available on the PWC website.

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.

Anna Rose: Madlands

Anna Rose: Madlands
Melbourne University Press, 2012

Madlands is the story of the making of ‘Can I Change Your Mind’, the reality TV show I discussed here a little while ago, as told by the younger and more positive of the protagonists.

Anna Rose begins by saying that she embarked on the project in the hope of getting the climate change problem through to a large general audience, despite her fears that she would be manipulated by the producers into untenable, indefensible positions or undermined in the editing of the footage they shot. In the event, her fears were partially realised and this book is, to a certain extent, her means of explaining some strangenesses in the show and presenting segments which were left on the cutting room floor. (There were some good ones, too, such as the great interview with Naomi Oreskes which has since turned up on YouTube.)

Anna visited Townsville recently on the book-promotion tour and we went along to support her (and, incidentally, Mary Who? Bookshop which hosted the event) and see what she is like in real life. I’m happy to say she was as great in person as she seemed on TV – warm, positive and articulate. Now that I have read the book I have some difficulty in separating it from the TV show and the author for this review but I will do my best.

Cover of 'Madlands'Madlands was written and published in haste (two and a half months is very quick for 90,000 words) but the writing is fluent and, perhaps because of the haste, refreshingly uninhibited by second thoughts: this is what Anna saw, this is what happened, and this is what she thought about it.

The book follows the sequence of the show, from first meeting Nick Minchin near Moree and introducing him to her uncle, to their final chat on the beach of Heron Island.

It soon became clear to Anna that the producer was trying primarily to ‘make good TV’, i.e. that he would put drama and entertainment ahead of accuracy or fairness, and that Nick was not going to change his mind about climate but was going to use his political skills against her attempts to get her message across. She, of course, was primarily motivated by the desire to inform the audience about climate change.

To the extent that each of them pursued those aims they worked at cross purposes, something which vaguely unsettled the show but is much more clearly articulated in the book. Madlands, however, allows Anna to say what she wanted to say on TV, and each chapter tends to comprise a journey, an interview and her reflections on what wasn’t said but, she thinks, should have been. The latter often includes significant chunks of climate science, presented simply enough for the average reader to grasp easily.

The book is unavoidably episodic, since a dozen journeys and as many interviews (with some rather interesting and eccentric people, admittedly) don’t make for a cohesive story line and there is no real character development to tie it all together. Anna just does her best to stay on top of events, while Nick is determinedly impervious to any argument she might present. She does understand him better by the end of the journey than at the beginning but neither of them have changed their minds.

In spite of minor faults, Madlands is an easy, pleasant read. But who should, or will, read it?

It contains a lot of the basic science of climate change but it is not a great climate-science primer (Picturing the Science is far better) because its focus is elsewhere. It also has a lot of interesting and useful insights into activism and the politics of climate change, but the same applies: it isn’t focused on the topic, so there are better books on the subject. In the end, it is inextricably bound to the show which spawned it, in that most of its readers will be drawn to it by the show and the readers who get most out of it will be those who have seen the show.

In her talk at Mary Who? Bookshop, Anna quickly sketched her strategy for shifting public opinion. It grades the population according to a sequence from ‘actively opposed’ to doing anything about climate change, through ‘passively opposed’, ‘neutral’ and ‘passively supporting’ to ‘actively supporting’ action on the issue. And her approach is to forget the active denialists (because they are a tiny group and won’t change anyway) and try to move everyone else one step to the right in her chart  – ‘passively opposed’ to ‘neutral’, ‘neutral’ to ‘passively supporting’, or ‘passively supporting’ to ‘actively supporting’. Hopefully many of her readers will learn more about the science and politics through Madlands and make just such a shift.

There are some really nice tee-shirts on the AYCC site and you can buy the book there too if you’re not close enough to Mary Who? Bookshop.