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Diary of a Tree Stump

Something lighter:                                    

  “I would vote for a tree stump if it could beat Donald Trump”

   [Timothy Egan, in his Nov. 8, 201...

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Truly Bad Advice on Climate Change


Sunday April 13, 2014


 On Wednesday, April 9, the New York Times published one of the most exasperating op-eds I’ve yet read on climate change. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote that articles that link global warming to the rash of extreme weather events, hurt rather than help efforts to rouse the public to the scale of the threat by alienating conservatives. Instead they recommend focusing on how mitigation might make a better society, and on promoting nuclear power and geoengineering.
           

Where to begin! Let’s start with the fact that one reason conservatives have hardened their opposition even as the evidence that climate is changing has become overwhelming is that there has been an extremely well-funded campaign to spread confusion and disinformation on the issue going back to the 1990s. This is never mentioned in the op-ed.
The unmentioned campaign has been remarkably effective. National newspapers like the Wall Street Journal give discredited scientists and peddlers of specious arguments – e.g. that there has been no unusual rise in global temperatures -- a pulpit and a patina of legitimacy. If you accept the arguments of the deniers that those scientists who spread alarm about global warming are twisting the facts and have a self-interested agenda, then of course you are going to see items linking extreme weather to climate change as further proof of their perfidy.

But the absurdity of this op-ed really comes into focus if you accept its premise. Let’s say the scientific community and the media made a concerted effort to avoid linking disasters to climate change (actually they are already doing that – most of the articles and news items I’ve seen have stressed the uncertainties), what then? We Americans have proven time and again that we only act when there is an emergency, as for instance after 9/11 or the financial crash of 2008 (not that the reactions to either of these crises should be a model for how to respond to climate change). Without a sense of urgency Americans are going to continue to do what they’ve been doing since the threat first gained attention twenty-five years ago: nothing.

In the U.S., we are becoming more carbon efficient as companies and individuals become more cost-conscious and alternatives gain appeal. The problem is that climate is changing faster than this conservative-friendly transition. In effect, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are saying: Don’t acknowledge what is staring you in the face because it’s going to cause conservatives to stick their heads deeper into the sand. Thanks guys! 

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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