David Roberts on Grist.org: “If you aren’t alarmed about climate, you aren’t paying attention.” [For general commentary by CCNF Scientist Community]

April 21, 2014 6:24 pm4 comments

David Roberts at Grist.org


Summary of initial comments (paraphrases and quotes) [updated 4/28/14]:

Dr Andreas SchmittnerDr. Andreas Schmittner: “Climate scientists don’t predict catastrophic impacts. They project impacts.” There’s an important difference. “Given the forcings climate scientists can project climate change for the future” but whether it is “catastrophic change [or] benign change [is a] valuation up to the reader.” That being said, there is scientifically valid information here: “We know for example that temperature changes over land will be larger than over the oceans. […] There is reason for concern, but not panic. I think we can still resolve the issue and avoid the worst impacts.”  

Dr. Mauri PeltoDr. Mauri Pelto: “The list of problems from global warming is of quite profound change, and many of them have begun, hence they seem a likely outcome. The end result is not a denuded, burned or chaotic world. The end result is a very different world. […] However, since our economy is based on the current distribution, this is both expensive and hugely dislocating and chaotic for our political and economic system.”

Dr. Jim BouldinDr. Jim Bouldin: “[S]cientists do not, nor should they, discuss things in terms of “catastrophe” or similar vague terms, because as Andreas well notes, the meaning of such terms is in the mind of the beholder. And physical/biological scientists are not particularly concerned with the mind of the beholder, frankly.”


Introduction: David Roberts, a popular blogger for Grist.org, penned this piece early last year. It was one of his last pieces before taking an extended hiatus from the blogosphere. Since “alarmism” has become a familiar topic in the Forum as of late, I thought this piece would be germane to the discussion. Here is an excerpt of the parts regarding the science of climate change:


If you aren’t alarmed about climate, you aren’t paying attention

By David Roberts

[Read full article here on grist.org]

… [I]t is worth noting that I find the notion of “alarmism” in regard to climate change almost surreal. I barely know what to make of it. So in the name of getting our bearings, let’s review a few things we know.

We know we’ve raised global average temperatures around 0.8 degrees C so far. We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts. And we know that we are currently on a trajectory that will push temperatures up 4 degrees or more by the end of the century.

What would 4 degrees look like? A recent World Bank review of the science reminds us. First, it’ll get hot:

Projections for a 4°C world show a dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of high-temperature extremes. Recent extreme heat waves such as in Russia in 2010 are likely to become the new normal summer in a 4°C world. Tropical South America, central Africa, and all tropical islands in the Pacific are likely to regularly experience heat waves of unprecedented magnitude and duration. In this new high-temperature climate regime, the coolest months are likely to be substantially warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. In regions such as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Tibetan plateau, almost all summer months are likely to be warmer than the most extreme heat waves presently experienced. For example, the warmest July in the Mediterranean region could be 9°C warmer than today’s warmest July.

Extreme heat waves in recent years have had severe impacts, causing heat-related deaths, forest fires, and harvest losses. The impacts of the extreme heat waves projected for a 4°C world have not been evaluated, but they could be expected to vastly exceed the consequences experienced to date and potentially exceed the adaptive capacities of many societies and natural systems. [my emphasis].

Warming to 4 degrees would also lead to “an increase of about 150 percent in acidity of the ocean,” leading to levels of acidity “unparalleled in Earth’s history.” That’s bad news for, say, coral reefs:

The combination of thermally induced bleaching events, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise threatens large fractions of coral reefs even at 1.5°C global warming. The regional extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems, which could occur well before 4°C is reached, would have profound consequences for their dependent species and for the people who depend on them for food, income, tourism, and shoreline protection.

It will also “likely lead to a sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, and possibly more, by 2100, with several meters more to be realized in the coming centuries.” That rise won’t be spread evenly, even within regions and countries — regions close to the equator will see even higher seas.

There are also indications that it would “significantly exacerbate existing water scarcity in many regions, particularly northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, while additional countries in Africa would be newly confronted with water scarcity on a national scale due to population growth.”

Also, more extreme weather events:

Ecosystems will be affected by more frequent extreme weather events, such as forest loss due to droughts and wildfire exacerbated by land use and agricultural expansion. In Amazonia, forest fires could as much as double by 2050 with warming of approximately 1.5°C to 2°C above preindustrial levels. Changes would be expected to be even more severe in a 4°C world.

Also loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services:

In a 4°C world, climate change seems likely to become the dominant driver of ecosystem shifts, surpassing habitat destruction as the greatest threat to biodiversity. Recent research suggests that large-scale loss of biodiversity is likely to occur in a 4°C world, with climate change and high CO2 concentration driving a transition of the Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience. Ecosystem damage would be expected to dramatically reduce the provision of ecosystem services on which society depends (for example, fisheries and protection of coastline afforded by coral reefs and mangroves.)

New research also indicates a “rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms.” So food will be tough.

All this will add up to “large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems.” Given the uncertainties and long-tail risks involved, “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.” There’s a small but non-trivial chance of advanced civilization breaking down entirely.

Now ponder the fact that some scenarios show us going up to 6degrees by the end of the century, a level of devastation we have not studied and barely know how to conceive. Ponder the fact that somewhere along the line, though we don’t know exactly where, enough self-reinforcing feedback loops will be running to make climate change unstoppable and irreversible for centuries to come. That would mean handing our grandchildren and their grandchildren not only a burned, chaotic, denuded world, but a world that is inexorably more inhospitable with every passing decade. […]

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. The full transcript of this article can be found at www.grit.org (click on link). Excerpts of this piece were reposted by CCNF under fair use for educational commentary by scientists.

THE FORUM'S COMMENT THREAD

  • Here is the first problem: “We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts.”

    This is an assertion and it is wrong. Climate scientists don’t predict catastrophic impacts. They project impacts.

    The difference between prediction and projection is that the former is what will happen, while the latter is what may happen under particular circumstances. Whether predictions tell us what may happen in the next few days with our weather.

    Climate, which is the long term average of weather, can only be calculated given things that change the Earth’s energy budget (forcings). Such forcings are the sun’s energy flux, greenhouse gas concentrations and aerosols (small particles from volcanic eruptions or industrial activities).

    Given the forcings climate scientists can project climate change for the future. But they DO NOT project catastrophic change nor benign change. The valuation is up to the reader. Is melting of the Greenland ice sheet catastrophic? Is a longer growing season desirable? Those are difficult questions that climate science has little to contribute to.

  • On the other hand there is scientifically valid information in this article. We know for example that temperature changes over land will be larger than over the oceans. This will lead to more evaporation and lower soil moisture content. Many plants will have a harder time despite higher CO2, which will ameliorate their moisture stress because they don’t have to open their stomata as much.

    4 deg C global average temperature change is the same as the difference between the Last Glacial Maximum and the pre-industrial Holocene (year 1800). During the LGM sea level was 120 m lower than today, vegetation was much different in many regions and huge ice sheets covered Canada and northern Europe. In other words: Earth was quite different.

    The lesson that I’ve learned from paleoclimate is that small global average temperature changes can have large impacts in certain regions. Particularly over land changes will be larger.

    There is reason for concern, but not for panic. I think we can still resolve the issue and avoid the worst impacts.

  • We have certain expectations about our climate and weather, we like them normal. Other species like them to remain the same too less stress. The list of problems from global warming is of quite profound change, and many of them have begun, hence they seem a likely outcome. The end result is not a denuded, burned or chaotic world. The end result is a very different world, where ecosystems have changed, the species that occupy a region are different, shorelines have changed etc.. The world will not be barren, different species will move in replacing the displaced. However, since our economy is based on the current distribution, this is both expensive and hugely dislocating and chaotic for our political and economic system.

  • I really wish some people would get it through their heads that scientists do not, nor should they, discuss things in terms of “catastrophe” or similar vague terms, because as Andreas well notes, the meaning of such terms is in the mind of the beholder. And physical/biological scientists are not particularly concerned with the mind of the beholder, frankly.

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PUBLIC COMMENT THREAD

  • http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/profile/schmittner/ Andreas Schmittner

    Here is the first problem: “We know that 2 degrees C is where most scientists predict catastrophic and irreversible impacts.”

    This is an assertion and it is wrong. Climate scientists don’t predict catastrophic impacts. They project impacts.

    The difference between prediction and projection is that the former is what will happen, while the latter is what may happen under particular circumstances. Whether predictions tell us what may happen in the next few days with our weather.

    Climate, which is the long term average of weather, can only be calculated given things that change the Earth’s energy budget (forcings). Such forcings are the sun’s energy flux, greenhouse gas concentrations and aerosols (small particles from volcanic eruptions or industrial activities).

    Given the forcings climate scientists can project climate change for the future. But they DO NOT project catastrophic change nor benign change. The valuation is up to the reader. Is melting of the Greenland ice sheet catastrophic? Is a longer growing season desirable? Those are difficult questions that climate science has little to contribute to.

  • http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/profile/schmittner/ Andreas Schmittner

    On the other hand there is scientifically valid information in this article. We know for example that temperature changes over land will be larger than over the oceans. This will lead to more evaporation and lower soil moisture content. Many plants will have a harder time despite higher CO2, which will ameliorate their moisture stress because they don’t have to open their stomata as much.

    4 deg C global average temperature change is the same as the difference between the Last Glacial Maximum and the pre-industrial Holocene (year 1800). During the LGM sea level was 120 m lower than today, vegetation was much different in many regions and huge ice sheets covered Canada and northern Europe. In other words: Earth was quite different.

    The lesson that I’ve learned from paleoclimate is that small global average temperature changes can have large impacts in certain regions. Particularly over land changes will be larger.

    There is reason for concern, but not for panic. I think we can still resolve the issue and avoid the worst impacts.

  • http://glacierchange.wordpress.com/ Mauri Pelto

    We have certain expectations about our climate and weather, we like them normal. Other species like them to remain the same too less stress. The list of problems from global warming is of quite profound change, and many of them have begun, hence they seem a likely outcome. The end result is not a denuded, burned or chaotic world. The end result is a very different world, where ecosystems have changed, the species that occupy a region are different, shorelines have changed etc.. The world will not be barren, different species will move in replacing the displaced. However, since our economy is based on the current distribution, this is both expensive and hugely dislocating and chaotic for our political and economic system.

  • http://ecologicallyoriented.wordpress.com/ Jim Bouldin

    I really wish some people would get it through their heads that scientists do not, nor should they, discuss things in terms of “catastrophe” or similar vague terms, because as Andreas well notes, the meaning of such terms is in the mind of the beholder. And physical/biological scientists are not particularly concerned with the mind of the beholder, frankly.

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