The Best Thing Written Last Week

Planet3.0 can hardly provide a more valuable service this week than to link to David Robert’s excellent piece, possibly the most valuable few hundred words written last week. David, referring to work by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, quotes their conclusion:

“The logic of such studies suggests (extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fuelled development within non-Annex 1 nations.”

Then David concludes:

I know what you’re thinking. It’ll never happen. It’s political suicide to bring it up. Conservatives will use it against us. Very Serious People will take to fainting couches across the land. …

But for now, it’s enough to say: It is what it is. As Anderson says, we’re currently mitigating for 4 degrees C and planning for 2 degrees C. That is ass backwards. It is, almost clinically, insane. We need to be doing the opposite — mitigating for 2, planning for 4 — as soon as possible.

I don’t know what to add. This seems exactly right. (Right in the sense that it is a correct description of the state of affairs, not that the situation is the result of sensible decisions!)

The only grounds for optimism is the tendency for the truth to get out eventually. And that being true, the only way to proceed is to get people to understand both the cumulative nature of the problem and the long time scales. We have to start being a bit of a nuisance.

The charming rendition of the old three monkeys motif is floating around the web unattributed. Proper attribution will be appreciated.


  1. You forgot the link to Grist, MT.

    I suspect that the Anderson and Bows threshold that so excited David Roberts in that article is based on a fallacy. Their argument:

    1. The Copenhagen Accord and similar national and intergovernmental targets, agreements etc. of a similar vintage were based on an understanding that 2 deg C is the threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change.

    2. Researchers have found that the impacts of climate change will probably be worse than was thought when those 'high-level statements' were made.

    3. Therefore 2 deg C should be updated from an acceptable/dangerous threshold to dangerous/extremely dangerous.

    Let's skip quickly past the meaninglessness of thresholds in an undefined classification system (a meaninglessness David Roberts seemed to recognize when he wrote that '... new science reveals 2 degrees C to be well within extremely dangerous territory') and look at #2.

    Anderson and Bows gave two references for #2: Smith et al 2009 and Mann 2009. The Mann paper was essentially a pat on the back for Smith (et Schneider) et al and had nothing new to say about impacts, so really there was just one reference, cited twice. (Alas, not all that unusual ... but onwards!)

    Smith et al updated TAR's 2001 'burning embers diagram' with impacts-research published between the TAR cutoff (1999?) and 2008. Most of its updates had already been included in AR4; the rest were probably included in that RealClimate unofficial AR4 update released just before Copenhagen - and even if they weren't, the jump from AR4-used research to 2007 (plus one paper in 2008) surely can't have provided enough extra doom to justify upgrading 'acceptable' to 'dangerous' and 'dangerous' to 'extremely dangerous', no matter how the categories were (un)defined.

    Can you see where I'm going?

    I bloody hope so because I can't think of a concise way of summing up without libeling anyone.

  2. David included enough weasel words that I think he covered this objection.

    The Anderson & Bows argument is not decisive, but it is plausible. And David's position is not based on it being incontestable, but on its being plausible.

    I have been meaning to make it myself: we don't primarily care about global mean temperature. Rather we care about what happens at a given temperature. A lot of things are happening faster than expected. I think this is unsurprising given the pressures that researchers are under to "sound reasonable". The likelihood is that we are seeing dramatic changes already. This picture has changed over the past two years. I base this on statements of and discussions with meteorologists who follow the day-to-day transitions of the system.

    The diagnosis is clear. What was presented originally as "we might get away with it" of 2 C was intended as a hard constraint. It is being treated by politicians and economists as wishful thinking. And this slack is being double booked. Not only are we expecting to blow past 2 C, we are expecting low-end consequences.

    Maybe this will work out. But the risk we are taking is not rational. Most people seem to fail to understand it, or choose not to, which accounts for the irrationality. But it won;t erase the consequences of that irrationality.

    Finally, the attachment to growth in GDP is just absurd laziness. Not only is economic growth in the west increasingly difficult to keep up, it is increasingly undesirable, as a larger proportion of production subtracts value in the net because of externalities. Yet raising this question is simply disallowed in polite company.

    The trajectory of the next millennium, and perhaps of all time, may thus depend on questioning the economic dogma of growth and full employment in our own time. I wish it were otherwise. I can even sympathize with arguments that it is otherwise. I don't actually like holding opinions that others take to be radical.

    But I don't find the arguments for complacency about either our underlying trajectory in general or its climate component in particular to be at all compelling.

    It is a risk-based calculation, and it is very difficult to make a reasoned argument that rationally constrains or neglects those risks. At least, I have yet to see one.

  3. The point about climate disruption looking more serious may not have been heavily referenced but it is not really new or controversal, see for instance the "twenty times" paper that you must have seen several places: Global warming estimates, media expectations, and the asymmetry of scientific challenge.

    Mass media in the U.S. continue to suggest that scientific consensus estimates of global climate disruption, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are ‘‘exaggerated’’ and overly pessimistic. By contrast, work on the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge (ASC) suggests that such consensus assessments are likely to understate climate disruptions. This paper offers an initial test of the competing expectations, making use of the tendency for science to be self-correcting, over time.
    Rather than relying in any way on the IPCC process, the paper draws evidence about emerging science from four newspapers that have been found in past work to be biased against reporting IPCC findings, consistently reporting instead that scientific findings are ‘‘in dispute.’’ The analysis considers two time periods — one during the time when the papers were found to be overstating challenges to then prevailing scientific consensus, and the other focusing on 2008, after the IPCC and former Vice-President Gore shared the Nobel Prize for their work on climate disruption, and before opinion polls showed the U.S. public to be growing more skeptical toward climate science once again. During both periods, new scientific findings were more than twenty times as likely to support the ASC perspective than the usual framing of the issue in the U.S. mass media. The findings indicate that supposed challenges to the scientific consensus on global warming need to be subjected to greater scrutiny, as well as showing that, if reporters wish to discuss ‘‘both sides’’ of the climate issue, the scientifically legitimate ‘‘other side’’ is that, if anything, global climate disruption may prove to be significantly worse than has been suggested in scientific consensus estimates to date.

    Melting at both poles is well ahead of IPCC projections of a few years ago and there are too many precipitation extremes of various kinds. I have at times wondered why drought seems easier to predict (eg Dai 2010, 2011) than flooding, but floods are often brief and less widespread than drought, hence harder for climate models to catch. As it says here

    Existing climate-change models have historically been evaluated against the average weather per month, an approach that hides variability, explained lead author David Medvigy, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton. To conduct their analysis, he and co-author Claudie Beaulieu, a postdoctoral research fellow in Princeton's Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, used a recently developed computer program that has allowed climatologists to examine weather data on a daily level for the first time, Medvigy said.

    "Monthly averages reflect a misty world that is a little rainy and cloudy every day. That is very different from the weather of our actual world, where some days are very sunny and dry," Medvigy said.

    "Our work adds to what we know about climate change in the real world and places the whole problem of climate change in a new light," he said.

    But I want more justification on the paper'ssudden jump to austerity. How can we make the needed changes without a massive jobs program?

  4. PD, that Freudenburg paper had little to do with the actual state of the science. It was about how the press reports science. In a perfect world with an unbiased, unsensationalist and competent press, there might be some sort of relationship between the state of the science and what newspapers choose to report - if things were worse or better than science thought a year ago, you'd expect a tally of news reports to more or less reflect that - but in a world where even 'sceptic' newspapers can't resist 'climate porn' such tallies have little to say about anything except newspapers.

    Note that I'm not saying that things aren't worse than was thought, only that the Anderson paper's extremely dangerous' shtick is unconvincing. Bad logic, or good logic and bad facts. If the Copenhagen Agreement etc. were informed by TAR's 'Reasons for Concern' rather than AR4's, I'll eat my words, but I don't think they were.

    I only skimmed the rest of the paper. Bits of it looked quite interesting but life's too short to read about modelling the progress of unimplementable reductions strategies for avoiding an unavoidable target.

    Re the wealthy world deliberately and immediately embracing austerity, I don't think Anderson is advocating it. He's just following the logic behind current targets. Even the eurozone's imminent implosion won't get the UK anywhere near where Anderson says the logic says it should be. 1 tonne of CO2 per person per year? I think the average Brit's annual food footprint is currently about 2 tonnes, not including cooking or washing the dishes or watching the telly while you eat, so 1 tonne isn't going to happen unless there's such a calamity that even the most alarming predictions of climate impacts will seem like small beer.

  5. SB, that Eelco Rohling looks like a good egg (in more ways than one):

    'If shit happens, we're all gonna die!'

    'You guys have mobile phones...we had whips!' (?)

    #17 is unfortunate. I'm tempted to stir some shit with it: drop it in a sceptic blog along with a comment claiming that it referred to the work he just presented at AGU (which it might well have done: that sea-level reconstruction was based on a paper he published in 2009). I'm sure they'd have fun with it.

  6. "To be sure, there is plenty of uncertainty about the impacts of particular levels of temperature rise. (See: recent controversy over climate sensitivity.) Predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if the "widespread view" Anderson identifies is correct -- or even half correct! -- it completely scrambles conventional approaches to the problem. It implies that 4 degrees C must be avoided at literally any cost."

    I think that covers it well enough.

    I would be more formal, myself. I'd say that if we have any substantial belief that this "widespread view" is plausible, then it should dominate our planning.

    Which again ties into my assertion that the less we accept climate science, the worse off we are.

    For instance, I personally think the simulation models are overtuned to the present day climate and therefore undersensitive to change. But much of our extrapolation is based on those models.

    Paleoclimate studies do not well-constrain extreme transients. We really ought to be endeavoring dynamic studies of the deglaciation, but I'm not sure we have the processes down well enough yet.

  7. MT, I really don't want to infect Planet 3.0 with tedious semantic quibbling, but feel I must mention that your example of 'weasel words' from David Roberts (a) wasn't weaseling and (b) was about 4 deg C, not 2 deg C. I'll shut up about it now.

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