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Diary of a Tree Stump

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

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Everyone Saw This Coming


Friday May 22, 2015

Twenty-seven years ago, when the world briefly awoke to the threats of global warming and tropical deforestation, scientists could only speculate on what changes might come in the future. Now, one need only look and observe.

Nineteen years ago, I went to Antarctica to report for Time magazine on the ways in which global warming was affecting the frozen continent. One concern was the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (or WAIS).

In 1996, scientists had detected an increase in the velocity of the so-called “ice streams,” which transport ice from the interior of the immense glacier to the shore. The fear was that as WAIS diminished, salt water might intrude under the ice and eventually cause it to float, raising sea level around the world, and inundating large swaths of Florida, not to mention Bangladesh, Indonesia and other low lying areas that are home to hundreds of millions of people.

This year, Eric Rignot, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, published a study confirming these fears with the stark conclusion that the ice sheet is in a state of “irreversible decline,” and in early May, Princeton University researchers released a new study confirming the accelerating melting.

The great ice sheet won’t collapse any time soon, but it’s a chilling thought in a warming world that an ice sheet that has been stable through the entire time modern humans have existed has now begun to come apart.

More than 20 years ago, INPE, Brazil’s Space Agency published studies arguing that continued cutting of the Amazon was diminishing the vast forest’s ability to recycle moisture. Water – it used to be seven trillion tons each year – evaporated from the Amazon forest rises above the forest, bounces south along the Andes, and then is carried by prevailing winds, first across the dryer areas of southern Brazil and then, after traversing the Atlantic, to South Africa, where it nourishes the corn crop. Since then, the forest has shrunk by an area equivalent to the size of Texas, and now residents of Sao Paulo, the hemisphere’s largest city, desperately scrabble for water after multiple years of drought have desiccated the reservoirs.

And of course, at the same time, California is trying to cope with the worst drought in its modern history. This drought was predicted 18 years ago by Richard Seager of Columbia University, who in 1998 published a paper in Science arguing that a warming world shifted the global precipitation patterns pole ward leaving California and other mid-latitude regions in a rain shadow. Exacerbating California’s problems has been a diminished snowpack – this year at 6 percent of normal. Ordinarily, the snowpack stores water and then melting acts as a meter, delivering water during the dry summer months. Tim Barnett of Scripps Oceanographic Institute first predicted 15 years ago that the combination of drought and warming would have this result.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Time and again, the world’s best scientists have done their job and made predictions based on the best available evidence, only to watch in dismay as their predictions come true because an oblivious world fails to act.

Many other predictions made about the likely consequences of global warming have come to pass: more extreme weather events (a drumbeat of such studies the mid-1990s, with the most recent published in Nature Climate Change on April 27); the disappearance of arctic sea; the collapse of fish populations in the Pacific; and even the series of frigid winters in the Northeast, fueled by a slowdown of the ocean circulation pattern that distributes heat from the tropics to the North Atlantic (predicted by Wallace Broecker of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an article in Science in 1997, and now back in the news).

Can it be said unequivocally that the drought in California is related to climate change, or that Sao Paulo’s water crisis is tied to cutting of the Amazon, or that there is, in fact undeniable evidence of an increase in extreme weather events? Nope, weather might be the most complicated phenomenon on the planet, influenced at any given time by myriad cycles as well as by such disparate factors as air pollution, land, even the expansion of cities, as well as the difficulty of obtaining consistent measurements on a global scale.

As new predictions of past decades come to pass, however, it makes it harder to explain these changes as coincidence. And there are quite unequivocal signals of a warming planet. Sea level rise, resulting from increased melting of ice and the thermal expansion of the oceans, offers a mute, global signal of a warming planet. Moreover, sea level is rising much faster than predicted, possibly because ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting more rapidly than predicted.

Could any of these unfortunate events have been prevented? Of course! Fifty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which warned that unchecked use of DDT would lead to the collapse of bird populations. The United States and other developed nations banned the pesticide, and bird populations have recovered to the point where bald eagles visit New York City (China ignored the warnings about DDT, and has suffered the silent spring that Carson predicted). Dealing with greenhouse gas emissions is vastly more complicated, but it is highly likely that the world would be in a better position to fight the threat now had it begun to take action in 1988.

Now we’ve gone backwards. Thanks to a campaign to discredit the threat of climate change financed by the fossil fuel industry and vigorously promoted by Fox News and other right-leaning media, fewer Americans think global warming is human caused than they did eight years ago, according to a recent study conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz* of Yale University.

Think about that: even as predictions of past decades have become reality, the American attitude about global warming has shifted towards “prove it.” One thing is certain: we’ve forfeited the right to say, “Nobody saw this coming.”

contact Eugene Linden

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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