‘No Good News’ On Climate Change Front

An article recently appeared in the journal Science that bore the title "Projections of Climate Change Go From Bad to Worse, Scientists Report." The details in the article confirm that this title is, if anything, an understatement.

The article is largely a summary of a meeting of 2000 scientists in Copenhagen, convened to provide an updated picture of climate change and its consequences. A group of delegates will be meeting in that same city later in the year to formulate a follow-up to the 1997 Kyoto Accords, which will be up in 2012. As one attendee said, the update was crucial lest nations be making plans "on data that’s out of date," such as some of the information published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) only two years ago.

Sessions of the conference addressed three themes: climate science, mitigation, and impacts and adaptation. As University of Copenhagen biological oceanographer Katherine Richardson warned "there’s no good news."

The many sessions of the meeting given over to possible mitigation methods exemplify Richardson’s statement. Although many show some promise, none were without aspects of their use that make them unlikely to do much to mitigate global climate change. For example, some developed countries have made huge strides in getting their energy from sources that don’t contribute to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the US and China remain world-leading polluters and many developing countries are increasing their carbon-loading of the atmosphere.

The most important information to come out of this meeting for a general audience is the current assessment of the impact of climate change on people. This is best summarized by considering the firmest current assessment of where climate change is heading. Limited space allows consideration of only a few examples, namely melting ice and the carbon budget, but these are representative.

Many scientists have criticized the 2007 IPCC report because it omitted important calculations of the loss of mass of some of the planet’s ice sheets, although admittedly at that time the processes were poorly understood. Today the picture is clearer. One researcher at the conference reported that the loss of Greenland ice was rapidly increasing largely due to the speedup of the glacier’s motion. The motion of glaciers is now understood to have a major impact on the loss of its ice.

The question left unanswered by the 2007 IPCC report was addressed by recent data from satellites and field studies. Glaciologist Eric Rignot reported that major ice sheets were "very clearly" shrinking. As stated in Science "The accelerating movement of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica would, on the current trajectory, lead to a sea level rise of 1 m or more by 2100" -flooding coastal areas and their residents around the world.

New modeling work by Jonathan Bamber of the UK seemed to contain some good news because it showed that complete disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet would require a higher temperature than previously believed. But the model also showed that a mere 15% loss of the ice sheet would result in a 1-m rise in sea level And of course it would add further to the loss of coastal land.

Bangladesh is always offered as a particularly distressing example. With a rise in sea level of 1 meter, tens of millions would be forced to migrate and the sea would inundate half of the county’s rice land. But rice-growing river floodplains in other Asian countries would also be affected, including India, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, and China. More than a third of Shanghai, a city of 18 million, would be under water. And according to Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a 1 meter rise in sea level would cost the US 14,000 square miles of land, most of it in the middle Atlantic and Mississippi Gulf states.

In the critically important case of carbon in the soil, permafrost, and plants, again the IPCC underestimated the extent of the problem, although again in some cases not as much was known two years ago as is known today. As one simple example, it’s now known that there’s 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in permafrost, more than twice the 2007 estimate, and obviously an enormous stock of carbon.

It’s well known that warming will unlock some of this carbon. In the case of a substantial release, the amount of carbon dioxide transmitted into the atmosphere would be devastating. Understanding of carbon frozen in the soil remains poor. But field studies of a kind of soil known as Yedoma sediments has some especially unfortunate properties: it decomposes easily and a substantial portion of its emissions is methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

A number of sessions of the meeting examined the matter of warming creating tipping points; that is, reaching a condition at which feedback creates severe new conditions. (There are instances of this in the planet’s geologic history.) As an illustration, modelers at the UK’s Met Office presented data showing that even if greenhouse gas emissions ceased by 2050, drought could lead to up to a 40% loss of the Amazon rainforest. This loss in turn would release more carbon.  

The 2007 IPCC report gave an inadequate account of the two areas of climate science focused on here, as well as others. As noted, some of this was due to lack of information at the time. But another factor made the IPCC extremely, if understandably, timid in its reporting. Until remarkably recently, many of the politically powerful have denied the existence of global warming while others have done nothing to reduce its causes, even though that was within their power. One group has attacked the IPCC and its work, the other — notably the Bush Administration — has simply ignored it.

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma offered a particularly striking example. When the Republicans took over the Senate in 1994 he became chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. At one point he delivered a long speech on the Senate floor entitled "The Science of Climate Change," which summarized his conclusions after "studying" the subject. The talk included Inhofe’s famous remark that global warming caused by human activity might be "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Inhofe is only one of the many members of Congress who have joined with oil and coal interests, as exposed by investigative journalist Ross Gelbspan in his book The Heat is On. And in the past several years the power to support the oil and coal industries went to the highest level of political power. Internationally acclaimed Australian scientist Tim Flannery notes in his book The Weather Makers "With the election of George W. Bush the fossil fuel lobby became even more powerful, and it has been able to corrupt processes within the federal bureaucracy and the soliciting of scientific advice".   

While the attitude has changed to a certain extent with the arrival of the Obama Administration, valuable time has been wasted. During that lost time, measures that could have been implemented to confront climate change weren’t taken, and the dire consequences to the planet and its people could have been substantially reduced.


Photo of glacier from Flickr.