Monday, January 1, 2018

Climate change revisited- a New Year special

It’s one of the most talked about issues, but views remain polarised. On one hand the vast bulk of scientists in the field are said to think that greenhouse gas emissions from past, current and proposed human activities in energy production and use (as well as from farming and land use), threaten to constrain future human and ecosystem health and even survival. So we have to stop adding carbon dioxide (and methane) to the atmosphere- which for example, centrally, means no more fossil fuel burning.   On the other hand, there are those who say that it’s all phoney and alarmist, or at least marginal, based on dubious computer models and/or misinterpreted or spurious data. Even worse are the ‘green’ remedies that are proposed- they wont work and will undermine global economies. 
Let’s take the science first. Here is a useful summary of the IPCC’s agreed position- actually produced by the usually climate-contrarian Energy Matters group:
Although the IPCC is careful to stress the uncertainties, it does offers some pretty solid  conclusions, and in general they seem to he hardening as more data  is collected and more analysis is carried out and debated:
Indeed, while some say the climate models are not reliable, it seems even early ones were in fact quite good:
Certainly the warming pattern seems clear and strong: see this neat animated chart:
However, there remain disagreements about how confident we can be about the conclusions and the overall approach used- though these days we hear less overall climate change denial, or rival explanations for it- nicely seen off by this Bloomberg assessment:    
Nevertheless, some contrarians (and in this case the US Energy Secretary) still sometimes say that, while warming may exist, we’re not looking in the right place for an explanation:   
Other says that, while there may be climate effects, they vary and have recently slowed- the so called ‘warming pause’. While explanations for that vary, a majority view seems to be that warming has continued but mainly in the oceans: and Certainly the data looks quite convincing:
The point being that an air temperature rise pause or slow down does not necessarily undermine the central overall warming case: Indeed some say the pause was never real: Certainly, the effects of warming  continue e.g. the ice cap data seems ever more dire:   and
Given the evident solidity of the science, some scientists have tired of the endless debates and have gone for bold, essentially political and emotional, statements: ‘We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible, Trump’s actions could push the earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulfuric acid. Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now. By denying the evidence of climate change & pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump will cause avoidable environmental damage to our beautiful planet, endangering the natural world for us and our children’.Prof. Stephen Hawking:
That didn’t go down well in some circles: ‘Venus has about 220,000 times as much CO2 in its atmosphere as does Earth’ and we’ve only seen a 50% rise here so far.
However, as the debate has polarized, some scientists in the USA especially, evidently feel desperate: and perhaps it is not surprising that the claims about possible out- comes have become more extreme: e.g.: with  the media running increasingly apocalyptic reports: Some see this sort of thing as counterproductive:
And it may be unnecessary: the data suggests that climate change is accepted as reality by many people- even in the USA: Though the views of the current US leadership may be a different matter!
While clearly there are bitter political feuds going on in the USA and elsewhere over the wider climate science issues, at the practical level the main disagreements are often more about what to do in response to climate change, when proposals for change begin to hit vested interest groups and communities. The US under Trump is digging in on coal! Most of the rest of the world want renewables, and that is happening.  There are some technical and strategic arguments which can muddy the water. In the short term some say cleaned-up coal and gas (with CCS) is the only realistic option. That’s seen by some opponents as mainly a delaying tactic, although some do have hopes for CCS. Similarly for nuclear, either fission (increasingly dubious) or longer term fusion (still very uncertain). Others think that things are so bad that we will have to accept what look like potentially dangerous geo-engineering ideas: and
There is a debate about what can be achieved given the current political situation: But most progressives think that we need to move as fast as possible with renewables and energy efficiency - and that this can work to save the planet to everyone’s benefit long term. We just need the political will to do that.
Given this view, the climate debate may seem tiresome, and to get in the way of ameliorative technological and policy progress. However, it can’t be ignored. Indeed, that could be a bad idea. After all, if nothing else, it is wise to always check out deviant views- that’s how good science works, through challenges. Some may see the climate science as now ‘done’ and irrefutable, but it’s just conceivable that some new interpretation of the data, or new data, will emerge from the debate, or there may be unexpected changes in climate and Greenhouse Gas interactions, which will mean that a rethink is needed. Indeed, some adjustments have already been proposed:
But that’s just about timing – we may have a bit more time than we thought.
There will be more challenges, although the technical quality and credibility of some of them can vary, as can the politics behind them: and
However, although we can probably ignore some crazy views, like Trumps assertion that climate change was invented by China, we should not be not about shutting down debates- even if they seem overly political or unscientific. The reality is that science (or interpretations of it) and political views do interact, and not always productively.  And it is probably impossible to stop that and indeed trying to do so may be undesirable- it is how dogmas get established, but it is also how they get challenged- we always need dissent.
Of course there have to be limits. We need the best science we can get, open to challenge and constantly tested, but we can’t keep arguing over the basics for ever. Given the overall apparently mostly consistent upward trend in temperatures and the weight of evidence on impacts, arguably we can’t afford to ignore the potential implications. Or delay attempts to respond. The latter is clearly what some contrarians want- they seem implacably opposed to change. Willful obstructionism may persist even in the case of response options which could beneficial even if climate change turns out to be less of a threat that most think. For example, most of the responses to climate change will also deal with the air pollution crisis hitting some newly industrializing countries. Responses to that are getting urgent.
The Global Warming Policy Forum recently portrayed the climate debate as a reflecting ‘Manichean paranoia,’ a term used by the late US statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski to describe a worldview in which your opponent is considered to be malign and willfully ignorant, whereas your own side is noble and uniquely enlightened. Well maybe, but the deeper reality may be that the climate debate is really just a front or a proxy for more fundamental disagreements about which way to go- centralised corporate fossil-based energy technology, and perhaps nuclear, versus decentralized/green energy. That’s certainly a recognisable battle and one that looks like it’s being won by the latter in many situations, as pollution worries grow and renewables get cheaper and boom globally. No wonder the GWPF and its ilk now spend so much of their time trying to undermine renewables. 
Although the Trump regime seems to be taking it well beyond that:  and some arguably remain beyond the pale in their denial:

Perhaps the best that can be done in the circumstances is to continue to publish the science results: And to challenge nonsense when it appears: - 723d43856189 While getting on with renewables. And hoping for changed views from the likes of Trump: