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“It’s Worse Than We Thought” — New Study Finds That Earth is Warming Far Faster Than Expected

Ocean Heat Map

(Upper ocean heat anomaly map for 2002 through 2011 shows extreme global heating of the upper ocean during the past decade. Image source: Quantifying Underestimates of Long-Term Upper Ocean Warming.)

2 Degrees Celsius. That’s the ‘safe limit’ for human warming now recommended by the IPCC. But under current human greenhouse gas heating of the atmosphere and oceans, 2 C is neither safe, nor the likely final upper limit of the warming we will probably eventually see.

In the push and pull between all the various political and scientific interests over setting these goals and limits, the glaring numbers really jump out at the wary analyst. One is the total heat forcing now being applied to the atmosphere by all the greenhouse gasses we’ve dumped into the air over the years and decades. That total, this year, rose to a stunning 481 parts per million CO2 equivalent. And if we look at paleoclimate temperature proxies, the last time the world’s atmosphere contained 481 parts per million CO2 was when temperatures were in the range of 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than we see today.

It takes time for all that extra heat to settle in, though. Decades and centuries for ice to melt, oceans to warm and the Earth System to provide feedbacks. So what scientists are really concerned with when it comes to recommending policy is how much warming is likely to occur this century. And, for this measure, they’ve developed a broad science for determining what is called Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS).

ECS is sensitivity to a given heat forcing that does not include the so-called slow feedbacks of ice sheet and ocean responses. For this measure, 481 ppm CO2e gets us to around 1.8 degrees Celsius warming this Century — if the Earth System and related so-called slow feedbacks are as slow to respond as we hope they will be…

Earth System Warming Far Faster Than Expected

Earlier this week, a new study emerged showing that the world was indeed warming far faster than expected. The study, which aimed sensors at the top 700 meters of the World Ocean, found that waters had warmed to a far greater extent than our limited models, satellites, and sensors had captured. In particular, the Southern Ocean showed much greater warming than was previously anticipated.

Winds and a very active downwelling, likely driven by a combined freshening of water near Antarctica and an increased salinity due to warming near the equator, drove an extraordinary volume of heat into these waters. An extra heat in the oceans that was 24 to 58 percent higher than previous estimates. An extraordinary rate of uptake earlier measures had missed.

Upper Ocean Heat Content trends

(Upper ocean heat content trends from 1970 to 2004. Note the extraordinary amount of heat being forced into the Southern Ocean near the 50 degrees South Latitude line. This heat forcing is likely due to increased storminess and ocean circulation-driven down-welling related to effects driven by human caused climate change such as increased glacial melt in Antarctica and increased sea surface salinity near the equator. Image source: Quantifying Underestimates of Long-Term Upper Ocean Warming.)

This observation led New Scientist to make the following rather blunt statement:

It’s worse than we thought. Scientists may have hugely underestimated the extent of global warming because temperature readings from southern hemisphere seas were inaccurate.

The implications of finding this extra heat are rather significant. For one, it upends current Equilibrium Climate Science. Gavin Schimdt — Chief NASA GISS scientist — over at RealClimate, noted that the study’s findings would increase ECS ranges from 1.1 to 4.1 C to 1.1 to 4.7 C (a 15% percent increase by Gavin’s calculation). This increase shows that the Earth System may well be both far more sensitive to current human heat forcing and may well be likely to warm far faster this century than scientists had previously hoped. For broader context, it’s worth noting that the scientific community generally considers ECS to be in the range of 1.5 to 4.5 C (3 C average). And any analysis of the new findings is likely to push sensitivity to the higher range of these scales.

Dr Wenju Cai from CSIRO in Australia added by noting that the results mean the world is warming far faster than we thought:

“The implication is that the energy imbalance – the net heating of the earth – would have to be bigger,” he says.

Higher rates of Earth Systems responses to human heat forcing this century and a larger net energy imbalance in the global system together spell very bad news. What this means is that there is both more heat forcing now than we at first expected and that that heat forcing is likely to bring about more extreme climate consequences far sooner than we had initially hoped.

These findings are new and will take some time to ring through the scientific community. And though this study provides a more complete picture of how rapidly the Earth is warming and where that heat is going, we are still missing another big part of the puzzle — what is happening to the deep ocean. Recent studies by Trenberth hint that that region of the climate system is also taking up extra heat very rapidly. So, hopefully, more exact measures of the total ocean system can give us an even better idea of how the Earth System is responding to our insults.

Yet again, we have another study showing clearly that conditions are today worse than we previously expected. How we can continue to do things like build coal plants and plan to burn oil and natural gas throughout the 21st Century is beyond imagining. But here we are…

Links:

Quantifying Underestimates of Long-Term Upper Ocean Warming

The World is Warming Faster Than We Thought

Different Depths Reveal Ocean Warming Trends

Climate Responses From Lewis and Curry

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Bassman

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A Faustian Bargain on the Short Road to Hell: Living in a World at 480 CO2e

On the highway to a smokestack hell, Faust met a devil who said to him:

“Give me all your tomorrows, all your children and all your children’s children, and I will make this one day, for you, a paradise.”

*    *    *    *    *

Understanding how much warming may be in store from all the CO2, methane, N2O and other greenhouse gasses humans have pumped into the atmosphere can be a bit problematic. First, definitions have tended to be confused due to the fact that equilibrium climate sensitivity measures (Charney) used to project warming for this century by the IPCC only take into account about half of long-term (slow feedback) warming should CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels remain high.

For example, equilibrium climate sensitivity measures show an effective rate of warming by about 3 degrees Celsius (C) for every doubling of CO2 from 1880 onward. By this measure, we get about 3 C worth of warming over this century once we hit 550 ppm CO2 and about 6 C worth of warming at levels around 1100 ppm. It is important to stress that these short term warming projections do not take into account long-term ‘slow’ feedbacks to a given rise of CO2 that are strong enough to double the ultimate temperature increase. This larger Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) measure is both observable in paleoclimate and in the various model runs that project a given level of atmospheric CO2 out through the centuries.

Fast Feedback vs Slow Feedback Climate Sensitivity

(Fast feedback equilibrium climate sensitivity over one century vs long term sensitivity over multiple centuries to a given greenhouse gas forcing. Note that approximately double the amount of warming occurs after ‘slow feedbacks’ like ice sheet response and environmental ghg emissions are taken into account. Image source: Leeds.)

So both paleoclimate and most model runs end up with a long term warming of about 6 C at 550 ppm CO2 and of about 12 C at 1100 ppm CO2.

It is here that we run into an additional difficulty. We don’t ultimately know how long, long-term will really be. We hope, and our climate models seem to support this hope, that such ‘long term’ warming from the so-called slow feedbacks like ice sheet albedo response and natural carbon emissions won’t appear in force this century. But given the stunning pace of human greenhouse gas build-up combined with a number of observed ‘slow feedback’ responses going on now, we don’t really know for certain. And there is some reason to believe that the ‘slow feedbacks’ might not be so slow after all.

In this context, the current level of CO2, at around 400 ppm, results in a warming this century of around 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius (if the slow feedbacks are as slow as expected) and a long-term warming of about 2-3 degrees Celsius. And it is at this point where an already complex dynamic begins to break down, taking on a number of, yet more complex, factors.

A Host of Extra Gasses No-One Really Talks About

At issue is the fact that humans have emitted a massive volume of additional greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. These gasses have grown in proportion and heating effect alongside the, admittedly larger and more significant, CO2 emission. And each has made their own additional contribution to human warming.

Some of these gasses, like methane, have been a typical part of natural atmospheres for millions of years. At times, methane concentrations are observed to have spiked to levels even higher than those seen today. But the periods during which such levels were apparent were also times of global crisis — the hothouse mass extinction events.

Methane Since 1984 MLO

(Atmospheric methane concentrations since 1984 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

But the other gasses: nitrous oxide, CFCs, HFCs, nitrogen triflouride, and a host of nearly 50 other industrial chemicals that contribute to warming were either never in the atmosphere before or were present at much lower levels than what is seen today. The result of this added pollution is yet more potential warming, in addition to a number of other difficult to deal with impacts. A pollution impact that is outside the context of past global crises and that puts current day greenhouse gas forcing at a critical and unstable level.

Methane levels alone have more than doubled since the start of the Industrial Revolution, rising from about 750 parts per billion to about 1835 parts per billion today. This value, depending on how it’s calculated over time, is equivalent to an additional CO2 forcing of between 22 and 110 parts per million. And though methane is the strongest non-CO2 warming agent, adding them all together can result in a value that is quite a bit higher than the base CO2 level would indicate.

Nitrous Oxide MLO

(Atmospheric nitrous oxide levels since 1997 as observed at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

In addition, on the negative side of the ledger, human fossil fuel burning (primarily coal) burning emits sulfur dioxide, other sulfates and various aerosols which, overall, create strong negative feedbacks in the climate system by reflecting incoming sunlight. The net result is a temporary suppression of a portion of human-caused warming. The reason this suppression is temporary is due to the fact that the sulfur dioxide and related sulfates rapidly wash out of the atmosphere. So if coal burning ceases, the reflective particles rapidly fall away and we readily come to witness the full strength of the human greenhouse gas emission.

Which brings us to the question — what is the full strength of the current human emission and how long will it last? There’s a term for this number: CO2e. In other words — the equivalent CO2 forcing of all greenhouse gasses added together.

Fortunately for our exploration, there’s been a bit of work done on just this subject. Last year, MIT’s Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment issued a report describing model data that determined the current CO2 equivalent forcing from all of the more than 50 greenhouse contributing trace gasses in the atmosphere. And the results were somewhat disconcerting. As of June of 2013, that amount was equal to 478 parts per million CO2. Or a CO2e of 478 parts per million when all the other greenhouse gasses were added to the already high and rapidly rising levels of CO2. Adding in the current rate of CO2 rise, we end up with about 480 parts per million of CO2e from all greenhouse gasses by this year. So if we’re talking about the total burden of all greenhouse gasses and the one that will be with us through the long term, 480 is, unfortunately, the number we should be dealing with and not 400.

Aerosols and the Faustian Bargain

Unfortunately, to determine the current forcing one has to also take into account those pesky aerosols we mentioned above. And, luckily, we also have a reliable measure that provides the negative forcing or relative cooling effect of sulfur dioxide in the current atmosphere. As of 2013, the IPCC had found that sulfates and other effects due to aerosols provided a net negative forcing of about .8 Watts per meter squared or about 1/2 the positive forcing of CO2 which was, then, at around 390 ppmv (2011), about 1.68 Watts per meter squared. This approximate 1/2 value, when divided by the then observed rise in CO2 since 1880 gives us a rough equivalent negative forcing value of minus 55 parts per million CO2e.

ipcc_rad_forc_ar5

(IPCC AR5 Radiative Forcing Assessment. Image source: IPCC)

So subtracting out the net effect of sulfates and other aerosols brings us to a total net forcing from all factors related to human changes to the atmosphere of about 425 ppm CO2e. A rather disturbing final number both due to its departure over the current 400 ppm CO2 value and due to the fact that though most greenhouse gasses have atmospheric residence times of decades to centuries, the cooling sulfates would likely last for 1-2 years before falling out entirely. This means that once fossil emissions stop, we may as well just add +55 ppm CO2e to the current total.

This warmth masking factor of human coal emissions was described by James Hansen as a kind of Faustian bargain in which current burning of the dirty fuel provides temporary respite to warming at the cost of even more rapid future temperature increases. And it is just this devil’s deal in which we are now entangled.

425 CO2e: A Dangerous Interim

So it is likely that current atmospheric forcing, including all greenhouse gasses and all human sulfates, is probably at around 425 ppm CO2e. And since the residence times of these gasses are decades to millennium, while Earth Systems feedbacks appear to be enough to maintain high methane levels indefinitely, we should probably view this as an interim figure when considering how much short and long-term warming is likely locked in.

In the short term, using equilibrium climate sensitivity measures, we are likely to end up with between 1.2 and 1.8 C warming over the course of this century even if all greenhouse gas levels, along with sulfate levels, were to remain stable and if the slow feedbacks move along at the expected pace. Meanwhile, long-term warming of between 2.4 and 3.6 C would be expected if all atmospheric gas levels were to stabilize.

But unless an ongoing regime of sulfate aerosol spraying of the stratosphere were put into place, the sulfates would, predictably, fall out once human emissions stopped. And that rapidly brings us back to the 480 ppm CO2e number.

480 CO2e: What is Probably Locked in Long-Term

Looking at the more permanent 480 CO2e value, the fact begins to sink in that we are already well on the way to extreme climate difficulties. For 480 CO2e, without the reflective aerosols, means that the world probably ends up warming by between 1.8 and 2.3 C before the slow feedbacks kick in and between 3.5 and 4.5 C long-term. At these levels, major ice sheet destabilization and melt is eventually likely to result in between 50 and 140 feet of sea level rise with the only remaining glaciers in the end confined to central and eastern Antarctica.

The only saving grace to a cold turkey cessation of emissions now is that most of the worst amplifying feedbacks are likely to be kept in check and thus prevent rapidly accelerated warming and climate destabilization. The extra 1.7 to 2.2 C worth of long-term warming likely comes from a combination of albedo loss, permafrost thaw and related ghg release keeping currently high levels high long-term, and, perhaps, a methane belch in the 1-50 gigaton range that spikes atmospheric levels.

I say likely to be kept in check… but we have to also consider that there is a low, but not out of the question, risk of setting off a kind of mini-runaway that generates warming far beyond the expected range and pushes climates to a hothouse state not seen since the PETM or Permian extinction events. There is little evidence for such an event in response to current climate forcings in the models at this time, but we have a number of scientists, including Peter Wadhams, Natalia Shakhova, and Igor Simeletov, who have raised the possibility, based on their observations of Arctic sea ice and carbon stores, that just such an event could be in the offing. Unfortunately, without more in-depth research into the potential pace of release of current carbon stores (permafrost, forest, clathrate, ocean) we don’t have a scientific oracle that provides a comfortable certainty on this key issue.

It’s worth noting that this best possible future, where the risk of a mini-runaway in warming to PETM or Permian levels remains low, probably won’t happen as business as usual fossil fuel emissions continue unabated with no sign of being rationally held in check. Under the current regime, a CO2e of about 550 ppm, enough to warm the Earth between 5-6 C long term, is locked in within 25-30 years. A climate state that pushes the risk of a mini-runaway to moderate. Meanwhile, levels that would almost certainly set off a Permian or PETM type, anoxic ocean, extinction event, at around 800 ppm CO2e, become possible under BAU by 2060-2080.

The situation is, therefore, once again worse than expected…

Links:

400 PPM CO2? Add in Other Gasses and It’s 478 CO2e

Earth Systems Sensitivity

Leeds Climate Sensitivity

Jules Charney (bio)

NOAA ESRL

Radiative Forcing Links:

Real Climate: Radiative Forcing

The Advanced Global Atmospheric Gasses Experiment

NOAA: Radiative Forcing of Non-Greenhouse Gasses

IPCC: Initial Radiative Forcing Assessment

Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gasses: Scientific Understanding, Control and Implementation

CDIAC: Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations and Analysis

IPCC AR4 Appendix/Glossary

Nitrous Oxide and Climate Change

The Economist Continues its Wallow Through Climate Sensitivity Denial

Good News...

Delaying action on climate change is suicidal. Yet the Economist wants you to believe it’s not such a big deal.

(Image source: League of Conservation Voters)

In desperately scanning through the IPCC’s preliminary 4th assessment report for any shred of good news, perhaps in hopes of delaying a transition away from fossil fuels that needs to begin now and complete by 2030-40 if we’re to have much hope of ensuring a climate in which human civilization won’t face catastrophe, The Economist found a bright little cherry. It reproduced a preliminary graph from a non-physical sciences group showing lower than scientific consensus estimates for temperature increase through 2100 and conflated it with an entirely Economist-manufactured news item erroneously stating scientists are finding climate sensitivity is lower than previously expected (Hint: it’s not).

I’m not going to re-publish the graph, as it’s entirely misleading, but I will re-publish what The Economist says about it:

Still, over the past year, several other papers have suggested that views on climate sensitivity are changing. Both the 2007 IPCC report and a previous draft of the new assessment reflected earlier views on the matter by saying that the standard measure of climate sensitivity (the likely rise in equilibrium temperature in response to a doubling of CO2 concentration) was between 2°C and 4.5°C, with 3°C the most probable figure. In the new draft, the lower end of the range has been reduced to 1.5°C and the “most likely” figure has been scrapped. That seems to reflect a growing sense that climate sensitivity may have been overestimated in the past and that the science is too uncertain to justify a single estimate of future rises.

Note the Economist’s highly speculative use of the words ‘suggest’ and ‘seemed.’ And ‘scientists,’ in this case, apparently include only those on the low end of climate sensitivity estimates, rather than the more likely to be accurate consensus range. Research on the middle or high end, likewise, is completely ignored.

Quibbling Over Equilibrium Sensitivity

The Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) The Economist refers to is how much Earth temperatures are expected to rise when one includes fast feedbacks such as atmospheric water vapor increase and the initial greenhouse gas forcing provided by CO2. Consensus science, despite The Economist misinforming us to the contrary, finds Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity to be about 3 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. So we get around 3 degrees Celsius of rapid warming at 550 parts per million, according to mainstream science. The Economist’s misleading quibble is trying to suggest that this level is closer to 2 degrees Celsius or the ludicrously unsupportable 1.5 degrees Celsius. Measures that, even if it were true (it’s not), would buy us, at most, another decade or two of business as usual emissions.

As unfortunate as the Economist’s cherry picking has become, it doesn’t even melt the tip of the iceberg or permafrost, for that matter. Because if you include the ‘slow feedbacks’ that ECS leaves out you end up with double the amount of warming long-term. So 550 parts per million gets us to a scorching 6 degrees Celsius Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) once melting ice sheets, methane release, and permafrost thaw are included (consensus estimates, not what The Economist cherry picked). The Economist also seems to ignore the blatant fact that such feedbacks are emerging now. Amplifying methane release in the Arctic has been visible since the mid 2000s and Greenland and West Antarctic melt rates have been increasing at an exponential rate since about 1995.

Confirming these observations is a new paper showing Greenland ice sheet response is happening faster than scientists expected. With the Greenland ice sheet melting like butter now and not 100 years from now as IPCC originally expected, the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity measure and its inherent assumption that ice sheet and tundra response will be slow, seems to be shaping up as too conservative. Yet, The Economist remains enchanted with the notion of warping these already conservative estimates to pad its own, more comfortable, view of reality.

How’s the sand you’ve got your head buried in, Economist? Soft and white? Watch out, heads buried in the sand tend to bake these days.

What should be the news all responsible mags are reporting is that the ‘slow feedbacks’ aren’t really so slow after all. Under the very rapid pace of human forcing of at least 10 times anything we can find in the geological record Greenland melt, Antarctic melt, tundra melt and methane release are coming into play now. All taken together, they will more than double the human forcing. Terrifying news that should have all responsible persons and governments pushing for a rapid response, not grasping for the lowest hanging cherries in the science reports.

So the real measure we should be concerned about now is the one that includes all or most of the feedbacks — the Earth Systems Sensitivity (ESS) we noted above. The real total estimate of warming that is at least twice the academic ECS estimate The Economist so desperately tried to water down.

Yet the magazine behaves well contrary to prudent logic as it merrily runs with its false claim that climate scientists are saying ‘we’re sorry we scared you, climate sensitivity is less than we previously expected.’ Sad to say, The Economist is entirely involved in the now too common journalistic sin of climate science misinformation via massaged data.

Joe Romm notes:

The good news is that The Economist article might be less dreadful than it could have been. For instance, I didn’t find any typos…

The Economist seems blissfully unaware that while the Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation (!) and add up to 1.5°F to warming in 2100 by itself, “Participating modeling teams have completed their climate projections in support of the [IPCC’s] Fifth Assessment Report, but these projections do not include the permafrost carbon feedback.

The Economist also seems blissfully unaware of the fact that we are currently close to the 1000 ppm emissions pathway. And The Economist also seems blissfully unaware that stabilizing anywhere near 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of CO2 would require immediate and sustained action to replace the world’s fossil fuel system with one based on carbon-free energy — precisely the kind of aggressive action this piece seems designed to undercut.

For my part, I’d prefer more typos and less misleading information on the science.

Perhaps The Economist should take a look at the best of the best among climate scientists — notably James Hansen who warns that Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity is at least 3 degrees Celsius and that this estimate is probably conservative. Hansen finds that under business as usual greenhouse gas emissions we reach a scorching 7 degrees Celsius warming and very catastrophic 1,000 parts per million CO2 by the end of this century (if we somehow manage to hold industrial civilization together after we blow through 2, 4 and 6 degrees Celsius worth of warming, which is highly unlikely). The final warming in such a case, Hansen shows, would be between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius — enough to trap the climate in a PETM-type warming in less than one century, and blast humans with large areas of lethal 35 degree Celsius or greater wet bulb temperatures. A mass extinction event for us humans and all other life too.

Michael Mann, another top climate scientist The Economist ignores by sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting ‘nanananana’ notes:

Among other things, the author [of the Economist’s report] hopelessly confuses transient warming (the warming observed at any particularly time) with committed warming (the total warming that you’ve committed to, which includes warming in the pipeline due to historical carbon emissions). even in the best case scenario, business as usual fossil fuel burning will almost certainly commit us to more than 2C (3.6 F) warming, an amount of warming that scientists who study climate change impacts tell us will lead to truly dangerous and potentially irreversible climate change. the article does a disservice to Economist readers by obscuring this critical fact. Sadly, it is hardly the first time in recent history that the Economist has published flawed and misleading stories about climate change.

Mann shows that The Economist clearly misses some very basic principles of climate science by confusing projected warming at a particular point in time with final warming. And that’s a big problem. Because temperatures will continue to move higher for decades, even if we were to halt emissions immediately, which is clearly not in the Economist’s plans. The Economist’s plans, instead, seem to include locking in more dangerous exploitation of fossil fuels.

Since the Economist clearly can’t handle ECS, it should stick with Paleoclimate, which is much less murky. And by looking back into Earth’s geological history we find temperature increases at these ranges for these levels of carbon dioxide:

350-400 parts per million: 3 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term (Greenland and West Antarctica melt).

400-450 parts per million: 4 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term.

450-500 parts per million: 5 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term.

500-600 parts per million: 6 degrees (C) worth of temperature increase long-term (No major glacial ice left).

600-700 parts per million: 7 degrees (C)…

700-800 parts per million: 8 degrees (C)…

800-1200 parts per million: 9-12 degrees (C)…

Add to these observed past warming levels the fact that the rate of forcing was much slower than the human rate of forcing. So if more forcing means more feedback, even the harsh Paleoclimate evidence is too conservative a measure. Hansen and others warn of ‘unexpected consequences’ from the rapid pace of human forcing. And it would ‘seem’ that one of these nasty surprises is an already observed faster than usual rate of ice sheet and methane response.

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth is another scientist The Economist seems to be happy to ignore. But, perhaps, they should listen and learn something. In a letter to Joe Romm, Kevin stated:

The Working Group III IPCC report [on mitigation which the Economist used in its most recent attempt to misinform on climate sensitivity] is no where near final, the final draft has not even been produced yet. Moreover WG III is not responsible for making any statements about climate sensitivity and have no business doing so. The IPCC parallel process hinders exchanges among WGs and the WG I results [on the physical science basis]may not be available to WG III, but will be in due course as there is some staggering of the reports. In the meantime, the Economist report is irresponsible.

So The Economist is, in essence, bending over backwards to manufacture its own data. And after past media mistreatment of the last IPCC report, should we be surprised?

To this point, I would add that the responsible action would be to err on the side of caution, not on the side of laissez faire. In markets, laissez faire often leads to monetary collapses the consequences of which are often recessions. In the case of climate change, laissez faire leads to your civilization, species and large swaths of the natural world in complete wreckage.

We know what the long-term consequences of a certain level of CO2 are. And we know that slow feedbacks might not be so slow under the fast forcing regime we’ve subjected the Earth’s climate to. We also know that we have very little wiggle room for human comfort and prospertity — at best 2 degrees Celsius of warming. So why would we want to, as The Economist does, downplay the problem and risk a dangerous delay of action?

With dangerous and difficult consequences emerging now, we would be insane to follow The Economist’s implicit and falsely comforting advice. Trenberth is right. The report is dreadfully irresponsible as it weakens the case for a necessary and urgently needed response to the harm that is surely coming.

World CO2 Emissions Set New Record in 2012 at 31.6 Gigatons; On Current Path, World Locks in Dangerous, 2 Degree + Warming Before 2029

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), world CO2 emissions hit an all-time high last year at 31.6 gigatons. This means that only a 532 gigaton cushion now remains between pushing the world above the dangerous 2 degree Celsius Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity threshold. At the current rate of emissions, we will run headlong into this threshold within a little more than 16 years. So before 2029, without major changes in the world’s energy structure, a civilization-endangering global warming of at least 2 degrees Celsius will be locked in.

In order to attempt to buy time to respond to this growing crisis, the International Energy Agency has published a policy paper containing recommendations for a path forward that is less damaging than the current one. The agency paper noted that the current emission path brings us to 3.6 to 5.3 degrees warming by the end of this century under Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (Which measures about half of long-term warming). This pace of emissions is well above that needed to reach the safer goal of 2 degrees Celsius equilibrium warming or less by the end of this century. A level that climate scientists say human civilizations are better able to adapt to.

Pace of Emissions Increase Slowed

Pace of emissions increase did, however, back off from 2011’s rapid growth, slowing to 1.4 percent. IEA noted that US switching from coal to natural gas and a Chinese energy policy that included greater focus on renewables were major contributors to this slower pace of emissions growth. US emissions fell by a total of 200 megatons, reaching a level last seen in the 1990s. Europe also saw significant reductions — cutting emissions by 50 megatons. Unfortunately, despite a stronger renewables policy, the Chinese still emitted 300 megatons more carbon than in the previous year, while Japanese carbon emissions also advanced by a total of 70 megatons. The loss of ground in Japan was primarily due to its switching away from nuclear power as a primary energy source and returning to more traditional fossil fuels — natural gas and coal.

The hiatus in US carbon emissions may also be somewhat temporary. Natural gas prices are rising and, traditionally, this has resulted in a whip-lash effect driving utilities back to coal generation. It is worth noting, however, that wind energy is now competitive with coal power, while long-term coal prices are increasing. Solar energy prices are also falling rapidly. So let us hope that the natural gas whip-lash effect is somewhat muted by more adoption of renewable energy sources.

IEA Policy Recommendations Both Modest and Ambitious

Despite a greater overall adoption of renewables and lower carbon energy sources, CO2 dumping into the atmosphere is still tracking along the worst case scenario for climate change projected by the IPCC. In order to meet this challenge of rising emissions, IEA urges a number of policy changes to be put in place immediately.

These policies include:

  • A partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies
  • Limiting construction of the least efficient coal-fired power plants
  • Increasing renewable energy’s percentage of total energy generation from 20% to 27%
  • Targeting energy efficiency measures for new buildings
  • Reduce methane releases from oil and gas industry activities by half

The IEA claims that these policies would reduce projected 2020 emissions by as much as 8%, preventing about 3.1 gigatons of additional carbon from entering the atmosphere. IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, the report’s lead author notes:

“We identify a set of proven measures that could stop the growth in global energy-related emissions by the end of this decade at no net economic cost. Rapid and widespread adoption could act as a bridge to further action, buying precious time while international climate negotiations continue.”

This IEA report can be viewed as a plea to slow the damage even as it provides a compromise plan that could be put in place. The plan is both modest and ambitious. Modest, because the initial changes are easy to incorporate into the current energy structure. Ambitious because long-term goals involve a phase-out of the use of fossil fuel assets.

This call for comprehensive policy-based fossil fuel stranding and phase-out is the first of its kind from a major world policy body. In total, about 5-6 percent of undeveloped oil and gas reserves are projected not to be used. Also implicit in the the report is a stranding of a large portion of the world’s coal reserves as a larger transition to renewable energy is constructed through 2035. The IEA recommends that oil, gas and coal companies can shift to carbon capture and storage if they wish to protect their assets.

In the end, though, the numbers provided by the IEA will require more clarity in order to add up. More than 2,800 gigatons of fossil fuel are on the books of the world’s fossil fuel companies and none of those assets are yet slated to be captured in order to prevent atmospheric release. Even worse, millions of tons of carbon are released into the atmosphere every year via the process of oil and natural gas extraction. These emissions are not listed as assets, but they still end up in the atmosphere. Cutting them in half, as the IEA recommends, will still leave half of this addition active.

Costs of Damage to Leap Higher If Action is Delayed Until 2020

The IEA’s recommended plan would, at best, keep world carbon emissions about stable through 2020. The result would be that 256 gigatons of carbon will be emitted by 2020 through fossil fuel burning, putting us about half-way on the path to 2 degrees Celsius (equilibrium warming) by that time. Such a plan would leave the world with only about 276 gigatons of carbon wiggle room, requiring a very rapid draw-down of carbon emissions post 2020.

That said, starting implementation now would reduce the costs of a long-term transition away from fossil fuels by $3.5 trillion dollars, according to IEA estimates. So beginning changes now would lay the ground-work for a smoother, more rapid transition post 2020. Also, failure to implement these policies through 2020 puts the world on a path for 2 degree Celsius warming to be locked in sometime around 2025. So it is doubtful the goal of preventing a 2 degree Celsius warming (equilibrium) could be achieved without taking on the modest policy changes recommended by the IEA now.

For these reasons, the IEA plan should be both applauded and looked at with caution. Applauded, because it begins to put in place the necessary framework for long-term emissions reductions world-wide. Applauded, because it barely keeps alive the goal of meeting a less than 2 degree (equilibrium) temperature increase by the end of this century. And looked at with caution because it sails very close to a dangerous climate change wind.

For more comfort, we should ask for a more ambitious set of policies. But given a major dearth of such, the IEA measures are among the most prudent yet advanced. Not really much cause for comfort during this late hour.

Links:

Four Energy Policies to Keep the 2 Degrees Celsius Goal Alive

Delaying Action Until 2020 Costs the World 3.5 Trillion

“Slow Feedbacks,” Paleoclimate Data Show Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity Misses Half of Future Warming

Over the past month or so, there’s been quite a bit of controversy over a scientific measurement called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). Among the media, confusion abounds. In a recent instance, The Economist, taking a number of scientific studies out of context, made the dubious claim that a slower pace of temperature increase during the first decade of the 20th century indicated a lower level of climate sensitivity. Other news outlets continue to remark on new climate sensitivity studies without appearing to understand what equilibrium climate sensitivity really means or, more importantly, understanding the inherent limitations of model-based ECS estimates.

Because there’s been such a high level of interest in and confusion over ECS recently, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at this measurement’s scope and limitations. In an effort to clear up some of the confusion surrounding ECS, this article will attempt to answer these questions:

  • How is ECS defined?
  • How accurate is ECS?
  • And, lastly, does a slower pace of warming over the first decade of the 21rst century mean climate sensitivity is less than previously expected?

Definition of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity

In its broadest sense, ECS defines the long-term increase in surface air temperatures that results from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The measure is important because it gives a broad indication of how much climate change and related harm to humans and environments results from a given amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into Earth’s atmosphere.

Under these basic principles, ECS provides a good guideline. However, ECS operates under a major handicap. The measurement does not include the effects of slow climate feedbacks like loss of ice sheets or albedo change to Earth’s surface.

How Accurate is Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity?

Because ECS leaves out slow feedbacks, it isn’t a very accurate measure of potential long-term warming. That said, in the early days of global warming modeling, ECS was seen as the most useful measure because models had difficulty handling complex physical forces that resulted from slow feedbacks. The result was that climate science came to rely on a less accurate measure because it was more expedient to use in modeling.

For these reasons, ECS was developed as a simpler way to model atmospheric temperature increase caused by carbon emissions over the long term. And because it was difficult to model slow feedbacks, they were not included in the measurement. So, though ECS is a useful measurement for the purposes of more easily modeling atmospheric temperature increases, ECS dramatically undershoots long-term global temperature increases.

The reason for this is that slow feedbacks such as albedo change and ice sheet melt have powerful impacts. We know this because ECS models tend to present about half the total sensitivity observed in the paleoclimate data for a doubling of CO2. This second and more accurate, but far more difficult to model, measure of climate sensitivity based on all global feedbacks acting in concert is called Earth System Sensitivity (ESS).

In total, the combined Earth System Sensitivity is far greater than the more model friendly Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity. By how much? Based on paleoclimate data, total long term ESS is probably about double that of current ECS estimates.

Muddling Models

Unfortunately, these different definitions can be very confusing to the layman observer. As an example, the IPCC estimates ECS to be between 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. From an average of these measures, the IPCC gets its estimate ECS of about 3 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, observations of past Earth climates show temperatures averaging at least 6 degrees Celsius warmer when CO2 levels were around 560 parts per million, or about double what the IPCC estimates for ECS.

Yet ECS is, most often, the official, published estimate for how much the Earth will warm. Yet, as shown above, given our current understanding of past climates, the ECS model estimates are short by half.

When looking at the stunning impact of CO2 on global temperatures in the paleoclimate data, one wonders why ECS is used, so often, without this broader qualification? Why, instead, don’t estimates of ECS provide a broader indication that end temperature increases are likely be double those seen in the climate models?

Lower Climate Sensitivity?

For the most part, scientists are trying to determine if slower atmospheric warming since 2000 indicates that climate sensitivity, in this case an already, short by half, equilibrium climate sensitivity, is less than previously expected.

For context, average atmospheric temperatures increased by about .2 degrees Celsius during the 1990s while atmospheric temperatures during the 2000s increased by about .1 degree Celsius. This apparent slowdown in atmospheric warming has caused some to question whether equilibrium climate sensitivity is less than previously expected.

One paper, published by Alexander Otto in Nature indicated a long-term equilibrium climate sensitivity of about 2 degrees Celsius based on new data from recent decades. This new model estimate is still in the range of 1.5-4.5 degrees Celsius provided by most model runs. Furthermore, the study found almost no significant changes to equilibrium climate sensitivity in the long-term trend.

Another Nature study, conducted by Roger Bodman of Victoria University, also found that model estimates for equilibrium climate sensitivity were not lower than previous estimates.

Conclusions

The conclusions to draw from this information are manifold.

The first is that model estimates for equilibrium climate sensitivity are not the best measure of total, long-term climate change. For that we should take a look at past Earth climates. From these measurements, we can find an Earth System Sensitivity of about 6 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. This measure is consistent with Earth climates 50-65 million years ago when CO2 measured about 580 parts per million and temperatures were more than 6 degrees Celsius warmer.

The second conclusion is that long-term change will likely take many centuries to completely unfold. So long-term climate sensitivity measures like ECS or ESS are not good indicators for how fast Earth temperatures will increase within a given decade. Some decades may see relatively slow increases, some little or no increase, and some remarkably rapid increases. However, the overall trend will be for warming, and probably a more rapid pace of warming than that seen in the geological record due to the fact that the human CO2 forcing is currently so powerful.

Furthermore, the .2 degrees Celsius warming during the 1990s and the .1 degrees Celsius atmospheric warming during the 2000s are not entirely indicative of what the long-term trend will look like. In all likelihood, natural variability favored warming more during the 1990s and less so during the 2000s. This is hinted at in the El Nino/La Nina cycle with many powerful El Ninos (which tend to warm the atmosphere) evident during the 1990s while La Ninas (which tend to cool the atmosphere) were more prevalent during the late 2000s.

The third conclusion is that major Earth system feedbacks are beginning to kick in that are likely to make observations of the climates of past decades less relevant. Loss of albedo, ice sheet melt, ocean heat uptake, and environmental carbon release all have a roll to play in future atmospheric warming. Together with a continued and growing human CO2 forcing, these and other factors will determine the pace of warming over the next century. Under business as usual, worldwide CO2 levels hit somewhere between 800 and 1000 parts per million by the end of this century. Such a strong forcing is likely to have very powerful and damaging effects on Earth’s climate system. Even the models that do not take into account slow feedbacks are showing warming of 5-7 degrees Celsius by the end of this century if business as usual emissions continue. And for such a high degree of warming to take place even without the additional contribution from a number of slow feedbacks would be a terrible result.

Fourth, it should be noted that ‘slow feedbacks’ are already beginning to emerge at a more rapid pace than previously estimated. One example, loss of sea ice, is already reducing the northern polar region’s albedo. Another instance, methane hydrate and tundra methane release, are also already adding a positive amplifying feedback to human-caused warming.

Finally, it is worth noting that a more rapid than expected melt of polar ice would temporarily keep temperatures lower at the cost of a more rapid pace of sea level rise combined with much more extreme weather. Such higher than expected paces of melt are entirely possible and, in certain regions, appear to be happening now. In one example northern polar sea ice has experienced an 80% loss of volume since 1980. The result is that northern hemisphere sea ice melt is occurring 80 years ahead of model projections.

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