Top Ten Things Aunt Sally Doesn’t Know About Climate and Greenhouse Gases

Keith Kloor asked me: “How is the press missing the story?” with respect to climate change.

It took me little effort to come up with ten important climate-disruption related facts that most people do not understand. Is this a good top ten list? Did I miss any?

The criteria for the list are:

  • the public does not seem to know or even suspect the fact
  • pretty much all climate professionals in the main hump agree to it
  • it constitute a deficit preventing a sensible consensus policy from emerging

That is, this is a list of facts and consensus opinions relevant to public and poorly perceived by then, that constitute deficits that a competent press would be working to remedy.

1) Carbon is forever. The climate system does not care very much about how fast we emit, but only what total amount we emit. Whether it happens over one century or three matters little. Consequently, if there is some level of alteration we do not wish to exceed over all time, the total amount of carbon we can emit over all time is limited.

2) The next ice age has already been cancelled. The effects of our current generation, the preceding one, and the next few, will persist over millennia.

3) Bugs, weeds, jellyfish, rats. Rapid climate changes mean that the remnant ecosystems will constitute communities of species that are maladapted. Networks of coevolved behavior will disintegrate if climate changes too rapidly. Whole biological communities decline under rapid climate change. Other stresses and habitat fragmentation already are causing stresses decline. Edge species, weeds and vermin, coarsely adaptive things which basically things humans don’t like because they compete with us, will proliferate at the expense of highly specialized and extraordinary species and systems.

4) CO2 disrupts directly. Competitive advantages and disadvantages of various plant species change with CO2 concentration so many land-based ecosystems will be fundamentally altered even in the absence of climate change. These exacerbate the decline of nature.

5) Rapid increases of atmospheric CO2 poison the ocean. Only one known event in the history of vertebrate life has had CO2 rises even remotely comparable to the present one. Most aquatic species became extinct. The present CO2 pulse is probably more rapid and may become larger.

6) Some people become unpleasant and paranoid as they age. Some of these people are wealthy. Unscrupulous actors seeking to separate crabby and lonely old men from their money will, historically, say whatever is necessary. It is to their advantage to pose as charities.

In America we do see especially irresponsible, frankly political opinions coming from organizations that pose as educational, are largely supported by ultra-wealthy individuals, and have achieved dubious 501c3 tax status. Whether any of them has separating rich people from their money as a primary purpose and consider destroying the world as a merely inconsequential side effect is undetermined but worthy of investigation.

(OK, maybe that one fails to be consensus, but I had to say it.)

7) The CRU hacking revealed no incident in which data were hidden or wrongfully manipulated in any way that consequentially affects the balance of scientific information on climate change. Most of the events revealed were directly related to prior incidents that could easily be construed as harassment or defamation against the parties whose mail was stolen and published.

8) Many people believe nevertheless that systematic misrepresentation of science by the scientific community occurred. This belief has been diligently promoted by the network of 501c3s. Hopelessly unrealistic distortions and even outright lies are now widely believed or at least ascribed to in major political parties in the US and elsewhere. These distortions cast not merely doubt but hostility on climate scientists, who whatever else they may be are not an especially sinister lot.

9) Until the moment we get this problem under control and for a few decades to follow climate will get not just hotter but more peculiar and fraught with extraordinary events, some of them disruptive. Climate variation is largely driven by anomalous surface conditions in the oceans. Declining sea ice will constitute a major disruption of habitual surface forcing in at least some of the seasons, as will changes in distribution of surface heat in the ocean. “Normal” years, meaning years where every location has its ordinary preindustrial climate, are impossible. The departure from normal will continue to increase.

Typical preindustrial conditions may prevail at some places at some times, but they will be embedded in changed large-scale patterns. These changes will continue to increase until some decades after emissions are drastically reduced.

10) Uncertainty cuts both ways. I’ve said this enough times so go look it up. Uncertainty is not our friend, and doubly not the no-policy-advocate’s friend.

Paging Jerry Brown!


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  2. I'll just repeat what I said over at CaS. Keith seems hostile to any idea that the press may have failed on this issue.

    I believe the press failing is both on the time scales of the physics problem and implications of half-measure policy ideas. A good example is the applause given to change over to natural gas, which, while looking great now, if fully implemented as the ‘solution’ will surely crowd out both nuclear in the short term and renewables decades from now. It shows that their is a misunderstanding of the cumulative nature of carbon, and a misunderstanding of the uncertainties of methane release in the short term.

    Another example is the push to replace CO2 policy with Black Carbon policy. The logic of this escapes me. There is no reason why these two problems, which work on completely different time scales and have drastically different solutions, can’t be worked on separately and simultaneously.

    Considering both groups have these misunderstandings, I can’t blame tribal groupings for these problems. One group has had to cede to these half measures and talk themselves thinking that it’s enough.

    Unfortunately, there’s been very little investigation from the press about what happens if we try and solve big problems with politically polite solutions that fit nicely into politician’s plans, but spell disaster for who the press is charged to serve.

    I remember some high profile reporter saying it is unfair to expect policy makers to solve problems on the large time scales that CO2 works on. Perhaps. But who told him that? And why is it up to the press to make that call?

  3. "Keith seems hostile to any idea that the press may have failed on this issue."

    And to any suggestion that the "tribalism" critique applies to anyone other than his bêtes noires on the "extremes."

    Much as I'm left with the impression that trying to point out the failings of journalists TO journalists is like teaching pigs to sing, I'm reminded of how successful "working the refs" was as a strategy to make "balance" the order of the day.

    Seek Truth and Report It is the paramount creed of the Journalist tribe. Nothing wrong with holding them to it, in my opinion.

    [false positive caught in spam filter -mt]

  4. Great post.

    A couple of quick thoughts.

    a. Point #8 is really just a continuation of #7 and doesn't particularly add anything that Aunt Sally doesn't know. Instead, it is a report of what Aunt Sally already thinks. Thus, I think it should be folded into #7.

    b. I think a critical point not widely understood is the idea of thermal lag and that we have not yet seen anything like the full consequences of even present CO2 concentrations.

    c. Perhaps another common misunderstanding with massively important policy implications is that many people still get emissions and concentrations confused. Maybe this is really a subset of #1, since the result is that many people apparently think that once we've cut emissions by, say, 50% then we've cut the consequences by 50%. As a result (like with #1) they massively underestimate the true size of the task.

    d. Many people are not aware of the masking of warming associated with aerosols and that if we succeeded in cleaning up the dirty fuels we burn (cleaning the particles that kill people and which most people think of when they hear phrases like "coal pollution"), we'd actually face a temporary acceleration of warming.

  5. An interesting and I think thought provoking list. I wonder if for some of these the implications are too subtle to have an impact in the wider debate. Byron's points were more in line with what I was expecting to see, though I guess some of the facts being unexpected is sort of the point.

    What I still see missing is something on the impacts that even the level of climate disruption we are already observing is likely to have on global food supplies, and the knock on effects of this. I don't think many people understand how rising food prices and assosciated instability might impact even the richest of us.

  6. Most people don't realise that it's happening now and that we're paying the price in higher food prices, higher insurance and higher local/national taxes and/or reduced services as mitigation programs are implemented.

  7. Carbon cycle feedbacks. Permafrost, hydrates, droughts in rainforests, less CO2 dissolving in a warming ocean. And that these feedbacks are barely factored in to most climate models.

    It was this that helped cure me of lukewarmism.

  8. #5 needs a pithy summary; Some filthy rich people don't want the economic system to change. They pay people to lie and say that it doesn't need to change.

    Maybe also a conclusion: We need to stop using fossil fuels for energy and to move to using renewable energy.

  9. I think the point about "half-measures" is really important. Maybe it's a corollary to the "carbon is forever" point. See also: "unplugging your phone charger doesn't help."

    I remember the kerfuffle and press adulation when the Freakonomics authors came out with their sophomoric chapter on climate change. Nathan Myhrvold and Ken Caldeira got an earful for being caught in the middle of it.

    The media ignored Myhrvold and Caldeira's subsequent paper that showed, in nice clear graphs (Fig. 2), that switching to natural gas does practically nothing to solve the problem.

    [N P Myhrvold and K Caldeira 2012 Environ. Res. Lett. 7 014019 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/1/014019]

  10. Most of them shouts for sexy sound bites.

    I like #1 Carbon is forever. Reminds me of James Bond.

    I don't understand the point of #2. What's that? Why should I care? Why is it #2?

    I like enumerations, so #3 appeals to me. But I don't get the point from reading that list. Why not simply: "More vermin"?

    I don't understand #4: Does CO2 disrupt indirectly? What is that "directly"? The presence of an adverb shows something wrong. And what does CO2 directly disrupt? If what you mean is that CO2 will disrupt ecosystems, please say so. Directly.

    I like #5, but the addition of "rapid increases of atmospheric CO2" shows something has not been said earlier. I thought all these points pertained to that kind of process. Why not make this a list of the top ten things rapidly increasing CO2 will do? Among them: dumping CO2 like we do poison the ocean.

    I like the expression "dumping C02", by the way.

    #6 needs some tinkering. Sounds juvenile to me. Please be serious!

    I don't understand why mention #7: it's not something that the CO2 does. So who cares? What matters is that the science stands alone.

    And again this in #8, which is just a conjunct between #6 and #7.

    Next item leads into something: rapid CO2 increase will lead to disruptions. Disruption might be the new normal. Something like this.

    #10 is good: uncertainty cuts both ways. But it's not something CO2 increases does. And it portrays an symmetry where there might be none.


    Perhaps a reordering, from outcomes to actions.

  11. #3 appeals to me for obvious reasons. It is afterall the reason that I choose my screen name. Let us say that I am not sanguine about out chances for making it through the coming evolutionary bottleneck.

  12. I basically agree with these points.

    #6 is indeed getting at something very serious, but it takes a while to work out what it is. Not sure I'd call it juvenile as much as a bit too convoluted.

    #7 is important. It might not be directly about the effects of CO2, but it is an important part of what the public does not understand about climate science and it has political implications. Confusion over the email hack deflated political momentum (or provided an all-too-convenient excuse) at a significant moment.

    I'd also add another few point that I can't believe I neglected to mention earlier:

    • "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today [15 million years ago]— and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8-5.6ºC) higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet (22.9-36.6m) higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland". This was the conclusion of a 2009 Science study and if correct, is where we would likely be headed long term even if we stabilised concentrations at today's level.

    • Biodiversity decline. This is the flip side of #3. Very few people that I've talked to realise that (while making such estimates is very difficult), by 2100 between one and two thirds of all the eight million or so species on the planet are likely to be committed to extinction due to climate and habitat changes, even if we implement our current most aspirational reduction goals. Speaking of which...

    • Our most aspirational (non-legislated) goals for carbon emission reduction are on track to lead to a rise of 4ºC by 2100 over pre-industrial temps. Kevin Anderson, until recently the director of the U.K.’s leading climate research institution, the Tyndall Energy Program, had this to say about four degrees “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

    • In the absence of such emissions reductions, our present trajectory is towards 5-7ºC, according to the IEA.

    • To have an 80% chance of staying under 2ºC rise by 2100 over pre-industrial temps, we need to leave roughly 80% of known fossil hydrocarbon reserves underground. These reserves are already factored into the share price of many of the world's largest companies and the revenues factored into the tax plans of major nations. (Bill McKibben has obviously been pushing this recently, so perhaps a few people know it, but still only a tiny minority.)

    • 2ºC is still very dangerous. The level of impacts to be associated with 2ºC ten years ago (when the idea of a 2ºC "safe" limit was gaining traction) are now thought to be associated with 1-1.5ºC.

    • To stabilise CO2 concentrations (not lower them, since carbon is forever), per capita emissions need to be something like 1 tonne per capita per annum. When all imports and exports are included, US (and Australian and Canadian) per capita emissions are currently over 20 tonnes.

  13. Oh one more (I'm finding this quite a useful exercise!):

    • There is no silver bullet. There is no single piece of technology or policy that is remotely sufficient on its own to address the issue. Neither wind power nor nuclear alone are going to save us. Nor is a carbon price or changing lightbulbs. The causes of rising greenhouse gas levels are complex and woven into our society in huge variety of ways. The consequences are already underway and will continue to worsen even with our best efforts (see thermal lag). Therefore, any serious and responsible climate strategy will thus include both mitigation and adaptation and is going to require a whole raft of measures at pretty much every level: policy, infrastructure, economic, behavioural and (perhaps especially) cultural.

  14. I'm just going to keep going. Stop me when you're getting bored.

    • There is not any scientific body of national or international standing that publicly opposes the basic understanding of climate science summarised by the IPCC reports. The national academies of nearly all OECD countries (and many others), including all the most prestigious institutions, have staked their reputation - their most precious asset - on this position by publishing statements in strong support of the basic ideas that: (a) the globe is currently warming, changing the climate in measurable and notable ways in the last few decades; (b) these changes are primarily driven by human activities, especially the addition of certain gases to the atmosphere; (c) these changes threaten significant damage to human and natural systems if left unchecked.

    • The IPCC does not conduct any research. It was set up in 1988 by the unanimous agreement of the world's governments to be a review group: "to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy, although they may need to deal objectively with scientific, technical and socio-economic factors relevant to the application of particular policies." (source) It relies almost entirely on the good will of the world's leading climate scientists (and of their institutional employers) who donate their time to the task of summarising the current state of knowledge. Its reports draw on tens of thousands of studies conducted by thousands of researchers. There is a lengthy and complex review process involving both scientists and governments, which is far from perfect and which means published conclusions are (a) out of date (since the reports appear a few years after the cut-off for inclusion of new studies) and (b) generally somewhat conservative (as evidenced by the frequency with which later research finds things are "worse than expected", a result twenty times more common than "not as bad as expected"). The most recent report explicitly left out some elements (such as dynamical ice flows and certain carbon cycle feedbacks) that were not understood well enough to model at the time but which very likely worsen the diagnosis.

  15. Oops - "generally somewhat conservative" is misleading. A conservative estimate in risk assessment is one that errs on the side of caution and so would prefer to overstate than understate risks. So perhaps it is less confusing simply to say that it "generally understates risks".

  16. I think a huge misconception of Aunt Sally is taking seriously the (true) statement that "climate has always changed and yet we're still here," the implication being that, regardless of any coming climate change, we'll be fine. What Aunt Sally doesn't know, or at least consider, is that 7 billion people (soon to be 9 billion) are dependent on things staying pretty much the way they are so that the hyper complex system of food, goods, and energy delivery isn't disrupted. During past times of "climate has always changed" there were millions or hundreds of millions of people mostly dependent on their own devices or those of their tribe to provide the basics to sustain life. There were not billions dependent on complex world wide systems. Aunt Sally may not perceive the crucial nature of this distinction.

    A subsidiary point is the completely unkonwn (and likely unknowable) system dynamics that enable the delivery system and their sensitivity and reaction to climate related disruption. Aunt Sally doesn't know and, in fact, no one knows, how the system will respond to disruption.

  17. This is great! Just the sort of crowd sourced wisdom that I always hoped Planet3.0 could nucleate.

    Byron, everybody, please keep going.

    This started as a response to Keith Kloor - he asked what the press was getting wrong. I responded it was mostly a matter of omission. He asked what was being omitted. I decided to challenge myself to come up with ten things just off the top of my head. I got to ten without a significant pause - it was clear from the ease of writing that there were more.

    So far not a single contribution I would disagree with; I guess we are closing in on twenty.

    Compare with what the press thinks is at issue: "some/most/almost all scientists believe CO2 is responsible for global warming which might lead to serious problems at some unknown future date". This level is what things like Nisbet's public polls measure. ANd of course it is important what the broad general public believes, but it is equally or more important what more engaged citizens know or have available to them. That is shockingly little when you start thinking about these things.

    I second the suggestion from "WIllard" that we have a very pithy version of each point. "The Arctic is not so far away." is a very good example. Maybe shoot for eight words or less. Things that don't fit in eight words may be better expressed as more than one point.

  18. Related, that much of the damage is related to the speed of the changes, which are going to be unprecedented except maybe in the top half dozen major extinction events.

    "Climate will change faster than we've ever seen."

  19. Eight words or less. Good idea. I think that "carbon is forever" is one of the pithiest and most useful phrases I've come across, not least because it trades on the parallel with "Diamonds are forever", a nice in-joke to those who realise what diamonds are made of. So here are my attempts on my contributions above:

    • There's as much again in the pipeline.
    • Emissions are the water flow; concentrations, the bathtub.
    • Temporary coal soot is masking the true warming.
    • Today's concentrations are enough to transform the planet.
    • Millions are species are in the balance.
    • Our best current efforts will see 4ºC.
    • We're on track for 6ºC without changes.
    • Oil in the soil, coal in the hole. [I'm not sure about this slogan. Perhaps better: "Most fossil fuels are unburnable" or just "Bury coal".]
    • 2ºC by 2100 is already dangerous
    • One tonne each to stabilise.
    • There is no silver bullet.
    • Science has put its arse on the line. [I'd prefer to say "the scientific establishment" or "the most respected scientific institutions", but eight words is brutal.)
    • The IPCC merely summarises old research.

  20. Some ideas for homogeneity:

    More warming, more vermin, more disruption, more costs, more risks, etc.



    Climate will change.
    Oceans will change.
    Ecosystems will change.
    Extreme events will change.
    Costs will change.
    Prosperity will change.


    Human nature does not change any of this.
    Corporate greed does not change any of this.
    Scientific pettiness does not change any of this.
    Righteous hindsight won't change any of this.

    Et cetera.


    I'm not a PR specialist. This should be tested on humans.

  21. Perhaps we should clarify "human nature". Perhaps selfishness?

    We could also add:

    The rapidity of all the changes will change.


    You want change? Just send me a buck. I'll give you change.

    That joke is unrelated. It's just that I think of it every time I hear "change".

    That's the kind of effect we're looking for.

  22. I'm not sure about the 'pithy statement' route. Your original challenge was about how the press is missing the story and pithy statements are perhaps just another way of missing a story. We end up competing on an equal basis with the likes of 'CO2 is plant food'. What we need is the full story not only about why this is misleading but also about how this dishonesty has been propogated.

  23. Yes, it's a problem. But it's also a possible mnemonic device, like "350" or "trillionth ton" which carries a lot of information in a terse bundle.

    The Mongol armies of Genghis Khan had to pass complex messages orally via dozens of illiterate intermediaries to troops thousands of miles away. They did it using rhyming couplets.

    Our intermediaries may be literate, but they are attention-challenged and information-swamped.

    Headlines do damage because people remember them, and they are written by people insensitive to the actual content of the text. In real life the text is no gem and is based on some spin-infested press release anyway.

  24. MT,

    Yes, the point is first and foremost mnemonic.

    Once you get your mnemonic right, the story unpacks itself quite easily.

    It's also a test: if you can't make it swing, you don't master it yet.



    The point is not to say that humans are selfish.
    The point is to underline that part of us.

    Look at the symmetry:

    Human selfishness;
    Corporate greed;
    Scientific petiness;
    Righteous hindsight.

    These traits won't change the first list.

    In any case, I will stick to my green hat and ask others to pick something else in that list:


    We must also bear in mind that these ringtones will have to adapt as the things aunt Sally should know evolve.

  25. Some interesting comment from a marketing specialist:

    If we let go of the browbeating, lots of food for thought there.

    Two overarching questions need to be underlined in the process:

    - How will the audience interpret the message;
    - How will the opponents attempt to distort it.

  26. Are economists and demographers political hacks? They are not scientists.

    While many too many deniers of what is real shout out attractive falsehoods and are heard, those who tell the truth about the human population are ridiculed and marginalized. In large part the colossal global predicament facing the human community in our time is a result of widely shared preternatural demographic theories and consensually validated specious economic theories. Unscientific models have been dishonestly and deceitfully presented and defended as science on our watch. Demographic and economic theorists consciously and deliberately failed to acknowledge and incorporate into their theories well-established scientific knowledge regarding biological evolution, human population dynamics and well known physical 'rules of the house' of the planetary home we inhabit. They uniformly fail to recognize a difference between the way the natural world works and the way they think. For example, economists assume the resources of a finite and frangible Earth can supply infinite products. At the behest of corporate benefactors and political powerbrokers, demographers and economists bear primary responsibility for directing the human community down a 'primrose path' that is marked by skyrocketing overpopulation, rampant overproduction, outrageous overconsumption, unconscionable hoarding as well as extraordinary resource depletion and widespread environmental degradation. Most experts of demography and economics self-righteously hold onto outdated theories that serve to confuse the public and deny what could be real. A paradigm shift and drastic action to redo demographic and economic thought will be required so that experts in these fields of research embrace relevant science rather than conveniently overlook it.

    [false positive caught in spam filter]

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