Climate Change – Picturing the Science

Cover of Climate Change – Picturing the ScienceClimate Change – Picturing the Science
Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe, Norton, 2009

This is the perfect book to give someone who doesn’t know much about climate change but  is interested in knowing more. It is authoritative but non-technical, uncompromising but never shrill or aggressive, and lucid but not simplistic.

Schmidt is a climate scientist at NASA and co-founder of RealClimate, and in the latter role he has patiently explained climate science to all comers from school children to fellow experts, for years. He is very, very good at it and here he has recruited similarly well-qualified people to write on specific topics. Any single chapter can stand alone, making the book simultaneously very browsable and a useful fill-the-gaps reference.

Schmidt’s over-arching metaphor for the book is the health of our planet: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Cure. It’s a good metaphor (the Buddha used it 2500 years ago, so it has a good long track record!) and it lets him organise a complicated mass of material into a coherent story about how we know what’s going on around us, why it’s happening and what’s likely to happen, and how we might avert the worst of the likely consequences.

So far, so much better than most books on the subject, but it gets better still. His co-author is a photographer and the book is copiously illustrated with excellent photos – scientists at work, hurricanes, threatened species, Arctic houses subsiding into thawing permafrost, air pollution in Beijing … all sorts of images, and all relevant and memorable.

Longer reviewsNature and Daily Kos.

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.

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) Comment 36: Ricky Rood looks at other ways in which the 2010 Russian heat wave was extreme:

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?

Exxon believes in global warming

A snippet from an item by Dirk Notz on RealClimate:

On 30th August, Exxon announced a deal with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company. As part of this deal, Exxon will invest more than US$2 billion to support Rosneft in the exploitation of oil reserves in the Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. One requirement for the success of this deal: a further retreat of Arctic sea ice. Given that climate model simulations indeed all project such further retreat of Arctic sea ice, it seems that at least to some degree, managers of big oil companies have started to make business decisions based on climate-model simulations. That may be good news. Or not.

Good news on renewable energy

RealClimate, my favourite way of keeping up with climate science, runs a monthly ‘open thread’ to which anyone is welcome to contribute a question or interesting bit of news. Two submissions which attracted my attention this month were about the development of renewable energy.

The first referred readers to BP’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy – still respected in spite of the company’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. Its section on renewables notes that:

  • Renewable power consumption grew by 15.5% in 2010, the fastest rate of expansion since 1990. While the share of renewable power in global energy consumption is still only 1.3% (up from 0.6% in 2000), renewable power now contributes a significant share of primary energy consumption in some individual countries. Eight nations have a renewables share of more than 5%, led by Denmark with 13.1%.
  • Solar power generating capacity grew by 73% in 2010, picking up the pace again after a brief slowdown in 2009. Total capacity grew by 16.7 GW to reach 40 GW, more than double the 2008 level. That is still only around 0.1% of total electricity generation but the rate of growth, which has averaged 39% pa over the past 10 years, suggests rapid changes in that figure.
  • Wind power generating capacity grew by 24.6% in 2010, with capacity increasing by a record 39.4 GW. The trend rate of capacity growth over the past 10 years is 27% pa, which implies a doubling of capacity every three years, and the fastest growth is occurring in China and India.

The second drew attention to a post on the highly-regarded ClimateProgress blog, ‘Ferocious Cost Reductions’ Make Solar PV Competitive. Exerpts:

There’s a joke in the solar industry about when “grid parity” – the time when solar becomes as cheap as fossil sources – will happen.

…The truth is, it will happen in phases – one market and one technology at a time. But according to two top solar executives – Tom Dinwoodie, CTO of SunPower and Dan Shugar, formerly of SunPower and current CEO of Solaria – “ferocious cost reductions,” are accelerating that crossover in a variety of markets today.

…Manufacturing costs have come down steadily, from $60 a watt in the mid-1970’s to $1.50 today. People often point to a “Moore’s Law” in solar – meaning that for every cumulative doubling of manufacturing capacity, costs fall 20%. In solar PV manufacturing, costs have fallen about 18% for every doubling of production. “It holds up very closely,” says Solaria’s Shugar.

…As SunPower’s Dinwoodie puts it: The 17 GW installed in 2010 is the equivalent of 17 nuclear power plants – manufactured, shipped and installed in one year. It can take decades just to install a nuclear plant. Think about that. I heard Bill Gates recently call solar “cute.” Well, that’s 17 GW of “cute” adding up at an astonishing pace.

…Here’s another important statistic: When SunPower built the 14-MW Nellis Air Force Base system in 2007, it cost $7 per watt. Today, commercial and utility systems are getting installed at around $3 per watt. In 2010 alone, the average installed cost of installing solar PV dropped 20%.

…So what does all this mean? It means that the notion that “solar is too expensive” doesn’t hold up anymore. When financing providers can offer a home or business owner solar electricity for less than the cost of their current services; when utilities start investing in solar themselves to reduce operating costs; and when the technology starts moving into the range of new nuclear and new coal, it’s impossible to ignore.

According to SunPower’s Tom Dinwoodie: “The cross-over has occurred.”

That is all talking about the USA, of course, but much of it applies here as well. And it is all good news.