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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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Winds of Change
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Global Warming Slips on Its Ski Mask


Wednesday August 09, 2006

Climate change is going to creep up on us. The assault might have started already. By Eugene Linden (7/30/06) I've written a good deal about global warming over the years, but like most people, I still have a hard time envisioning how we will know when the apocalypse arrives. Nobody will ring a bell to announce that a climate-change event has begun, and it's easy to ignore the signals that climate is changing. After all, we've always had extreme weather, and it's possible that what signifies the point of no return will not be in the realm of weather anyway but rather a derivative effect such as a financial crisis or crop failure. That's not to say that some future dramatic event such as the Greenland ice sheet sliding into the ocean won't happen, but it's more likely that global warming will creep up on us as the weather gradually unmoors from its normal patterns. Single events will be explained away. But at some point, the frequency, severity and ubiquity of the unusual weather will produce a sense of foreboding, a sense that something is happening beyond our control. What with killer heat waves, killer hurricanes and killer droughts, it's arguable that we've already passed that point. Indeed, I had that feeling of foreboding in the last week of June, as Washington gradually surrendered ground and the routines of daily life to incessant rain: Cars floated down ordinarily meek Rock Creek, government buildings flooded, the Metro was disrupted and roads were closed. You may have had the same feeling last week as the power dimmed and temperatures surged in Southern California and beyond. That said, the real, more insidious scenario might be that climate change will intrude on our lives like an omnipresent and ever more confiscatory taxman. Where they can, insurers and banks will pass weather risks to individuals and the government, making the costs of daily life more expensive. In some areas, housing might become uninsurable and unsalable, which in turn could cause a financial crisis. Municipal budgets and government safety nets will gradually succumb to the ever-increasing burden imposed by windstorms, floods, droughts and other weather extremes. Infectious diseases will thrive. The middle class will slowly find its savings and creature comforts stripped away, and the ordinary details of living, such as eating fresh vegetables and traveling to see family and friends, will become more expensive and uncertain. At some point it will dawn on us that the weather is making us poorer and sicker. Whether we are in Act 2 or Act 4 of a five-act climate drama, we are not the first to live out this play. At some point, for instance, the Moche elders, who lived in Peru 1,400 years ago, must have begun to wonder whether torrential El Niño-related rains were going to spell the doom of their civilization. Sometime during a 10-year stretch of intensely cold winters and short, cool summers, the Norse living in Greenland in AD 1350 must have begun to feel a sense of dread. In fact, that period was one harbinger of the Little Ice Age, which persisted for several hundred years. NOW IT'S our turn. Like fugitives who must worry about every knock on the door, we can no longer dismiss events such as the late June rains and the July heat wave as just another instance of wacky weather. There's a distinct difference, though, between us and the Moche and the Norse, not to mention the Mayans, the Anasazi, the Akkadians and other players in previous episodes of climate chaos. All of them were victims of natural cycles; the evidence suggests that we wrote the script for this latest episode of climate roulette. It's easy to be condescending about past civilizations. They didn't have the science and technology that have enabled us to understand how climate works or to determine the role of climate in the collapse of their cultures in South America, the American Southwest and the Middle East. If only they knew what we now know about climate, maybe they would have adapted and survived. Then again, maybe not. We do know what we know, and still we do nothing. That's going to have future historians scratching their heads.

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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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