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The Biggest Misunderstanding About Climate Change (part 2 of 2)

By December 4, 2012September 19th, 2015in-depth and Popular Press, Temperature
After twenty years of the D & D game climate change is much worse than it would have been if we had of started reducing emissions as the Kyoto Protocol, and nearly every single climate scientist on the planet suggested was prudent.

First published on the Rag Blog, August 8, 2012.

Before I tell you that the latest average global warming projections are twice what we previously thought, and they will happen twice as fast, I need to say a few things about computer models. Most people do not trust climate models as far as the can throw a supercomputer.

Why? Because it is the computer models that tell us how extraordinarily bad things will become, even if we can find the courage to address climate pollution. Climate models are one of the major reasons why we have this great perceived debate about climate science. The reason why is that the models have a very bad—and very undeserved reputation.

The vast understanding that the public has about climate models is that they can somehow be compared with weather forecasting models. The resulting mental leap allows us to think that, like weather models, climate models cannot forecast their way out of a wet paper bag. This is another one of those things that comes from our innocence and ignorance that the D & D gang has worked so hard to make sure we mis-know.

The results generated by climate models cannot be compared to the results generated by weather models. Both are basically the same animal—the same programming in some cases. Climate modeling however, function on an entirely different level from weather modeling.

Meteorologists rely on a handful of different models to forecast the weather. Some work better than others at different times of the year or considering different things going on across the planet like the presence or absence of El Nino for instance. To create a forecast, a meteorologist (or weathercaster) first loads up all of the current weather data from across the planet or a continental region (a lot easier than it sounds because academic institutions supply this information in ready to consume packages) and then they run them into the future for a week or two. The results are, as you and I know, quite variable after 3 or 4 days (to say the least!) Weather models are much, much better than they once were and really, the forecasts are quite good out to 5 to 7 days, considering past performance.

Climate modelers do something entirely different. The do not load the models up with the current weather conditions across the planet, or across a continental region. They start with any old typical batch of weather data and run the model. Then they blindly change the weather data in the model to represent any other typical weather from that same time frame. Like on May 30th in Chicago it might be 88 degrees and sunny; another May 30th might be 67 degrees and rainy, another might be 79 degrees and partly cloudy. They make up dozens and scores of these simulations and run them all off into the future on different platforms, similar to the different models that meteorologist use. They start their climate models hundreds and even thousands of years in the past and run them hundreds and thousands of years into the future. Backing up the clock to some ancient time in the past helps confirm them as they recreate our past climate inside the computer. The time span of climate models is 25,000 times longer than the 14 day outlook.

The climate modelers than have scores of results that, like the television weatherpersons’ seven-day outlooks, are all different. Of course all of the weathercaster’s models are not different, only the last few days of each are goofy, but you get the picture.

The climate models don’t even start with the same weather so even the first five days of all the climate model results will be different. So what do the climate modelers do with all of these goofy forecasts based on imagined weather? They average them all together of course. This is what climate is. It’s the average weather. Climate does not give a great-horned hoot about the weather on any individual day. That is called weather. It’s not climate.

The climate models have been remarkably accurate and remarkably consistent for thirty years. The public conception that they are not is just another one of those D& D myths. Like all myths, it is indeed grounded in truth, but this truth is “buried” again, like so many other things, for so many other reasons.

The truth about climate models is they are very accurate for forecasting climate except when it comes to abrupt climate changes. Abrupt climate changes are not what the climate change discussion is about. We sometimes hear about irreversible tipping points and climate thresholds that can and often are associated with abrupt climate change, but in general, these things are fuzzy “climate scientist” concepts that are very poorly understood by the public.

As an example, Greenland ice cores are some of the most accurate climate archives on the planet. Over 100,000 years of gases and dust have been stored in the deep freeze in Greenland (and Antarctica too). From two mile deep ice cores drilled in the center of the Greenland Ice Sheet, we can read this 100,000 years of climate history like a road map. For the last 3 million years, it has never ever melted, enough to completely melt the last years’ worth of snow at the top of the 11,000 foot tall ice sheet that is ten times the size of Great Britain and three times the size of Texas.

These two mile long glimpses of preserved annual snows; compressed to ice; holding time capsules of air and deposited dust, and easily visible in annual layers, are one of the most amazing repositories of natural history ever found. They show us that our climate has abruptly changed 23 times in the last 100,000 years. The changes have been up to ten degrees (F) average across the globe (20 to 40 degrees in Greenland) and usually happen in a few decades to a few generations. But when our climate is being pushed the hardest, like during solar cycle changes, or feedbacks from melting ice sheets, the changes have been recorded in as little as a couple of years. All of these changes happened when Earth was within a few degrees of as warm as today, or colder. All of them happened when our CO2 concentration was about the same as or less than it was during the Industrial Revolution.

Today we are changing the CO2 concentration of our atmosphere 14,000 times faster than anytime normal in the last 610,000 years. Abrupt changes loom in our future. But climate models do not predict abrupt changes with any accuracy at all. The science is still young, but not that young. It is not young enough so that the average climate long-term changes cannot be reliably modeled. But it is immature enough to not be able to work out the abrupt changes yet. Importantly, we know these things happen, they happen geologically often, and they happen when our climate is being forced hard.

Then models then, used to project the slower changes in our climate like with the IPCC scenarios, are totally valid. Because we have such a poor understanding of what causes abrupt climate changes, these things are not included in the IPCC report. But the D & D crowd uses this inaccuracy to brand the entire modeling world as untrustworthy. Because of the public perception that weather and climate or bound at the hip, it’s an easy myth to succumb to.

Now things get complicated so pay attention. There is a lot of math and there will be a quiz. The IPCC stopped taking papers for their 2007 report in 2005. The data collection and evaluation, peer review and publishing phase for scientific papers generally takes two to four years or longer. This means that the latest climate science that the IPCC 2007 Report represents is based on climate science circa 2001 to 2003. So when these mega reports come out, they are already five years old. Today the 2007 IPCC Report is ten years old. A lot has happened in climate science land since.

The paper that I am reporting on in this article came out in September 2009. I’ve written about it several times and referenced it more. But it was just recently that I realized the enormity of these “new” projections compared to the everyday message delivered by the media. This work, out of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Notre Dame, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (Ganguly 2009) tells us that because emissions are now along the path of the worst-case scenario (A1FI), we should be focusing our understanding of future (and current) changes based on this scenario, not the middle of the road A1B scenario. What the authors say in the first few sentences of the report is telling:

“Recent observations of global-average emissions show higher trajectories than the worst-case A1FI scenario reported in IPCC AR4 (2007 Report). Average A1FI temperatures trend higher than the best-case B1 as well as the relatively worse-case A2 scenario.”

AR4 is the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC 2007 Report. The B1 Scenario is similar to the B scenario in the image above.

For nearly 20 years now we have been expecting impacts from climate change to reflect the middle of the road path or the A1B Emissions Scenario. What we have been told was that impacts would basically be small if we kept our collective noses clean and did our emissions reductions homework. Small is anything but what they will be.

This team has looked in detail at subcontinental region warming from the A1FI scenario (the worst-case scenario from 1998). In addition, they have provided graphic displays of the upper limits of the worst-case scenario. Each scenario represents different tweaks to the model, or different versions of our future. As an example, the difference between the A2 (worse case) and the A1FI scenario (worst case) is mainly in midcentury temperature. By the end of the century, both scenarios are about the same. This is because A1FI is fossil fuel intensive is (the “I” in A1FI), whereas the A2 family has a greater alternative energy mix but a higher end-of-century population.

It’s important to note that the A1FI is NOT the “end-all” worst-case scenario. The A1FI did not include the extra population of the A2 scenario. Since the scenarios were devised, we have discovered how to economically utilize vast deposits of tar sands and oil and gas shales. These “new” sources of fossil fuels push the limits of the worst-case scenario farther than is represented in the 2007 IPCC Report or the 1998 scenarios.

Seeing that our emissions are worse than the worst-case scenario, and that we are not reducing emissions but growing them rapidly, we should look at the high end of the worst-case scenario to see where our temperature is going. We need to pay particularly close attention to the high end because of our climate lag. The climate lag is the amount of time it takes our climate to adjust to greenhouse gas concentrations. It is about 30 years to see significant changes in climate and I will talk about that more shortly.

The “high end” of warming can be seen in the image “Warming Over Land.” Look at the top image labeled “Upper Bound 2050-2000.” This is how much warming we can expect to see with the worst-case scenario on top of how much warming we have already seen up to 2000 (about 0.8 degrees C or 1.4 degrees F).

Over a very large part of the U.S. we can expect to see 5 to 8 degrees C (9 to 14.4 degrees F) of warming and again, because our emissions are as bad as or worse than the worst-case scenario, we should be looking on the high side of the suggested range.

This means that 8 degrees C of warming, or 14.4 degrees F, will be the average amount of warming by 2050. And don’t forget, this is the land component of the global average. The global average warming is still 5 to 6 degrees C by 2100 for the A1FI scenario. Look how much cooler the oceans are and how vastly much more area the oceans cover. A lot of heat on a small amount of land can be averaged out with a large ocean and a small amount of warming.

This map is deceiving too. Because the earth is round and maps are flat there have been several different ways to draw a global map. This one exaggerates the areas near the poles to make everything fit into a rectangle. Antarctica for example is a little larger than half the size of North America, but on this map it looks much larger than North America. This skew greatly increases the “apparent” area of greater warming at the poles and needs to be considered to see just how substantially the oceans affect the average temperature.

The most important thing though, is that unless we truly get a handle on our emissions, and even begin to remove some of the excess CO2 loading that is already in our atmosphere (yes, removing more CO2 than we are putting in every year) we are likely locked into warming for the 2050 time frame. Why is this?

The climate lag, or climate delay, is 30 years. Because of the great heat absorbing ability of our oceans (70 percent of the earth) it takes our climate 30 years to reflect the warming of the actual greenhouse gas concentration in the sky. This is like coming home to a cold house in winter and turning on the heater. It takes time to warm up the house, just like it takes time to warm up the earth. There is a lot of cold stored in the walls and floor that has to slowly leak out into the house as it warms.

The 30 year lag is deceiving too. It takes decades to generations for our climate to react to changes in greenhouse gases in a way that is measurable. But the lag goes on and on. It takes on average 1,000 years for waters in the oceans to circulate once around the great ocean currents. This means that it will be 1,000 years before all of the cold abyssal waters have a chance to pass along the surface and start absorbing heat. It takes many cycles of the ocean to fully lose all of that cold storage, or to come into equilibrium with the atmosphere.

So the 30 year climate lag tells us that that today, we are operating on CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere from the early 1980s. Our climate is responding to greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere from the way it was in 1982. In 1982 we had only emitted half of the greenhouse gases—since the Industrial Revolution—as we have emitted today. In 30 years our climate will reflect the fact that we have doubled our atmospheric load of greenhouse gases, not the emission rate, but doubled the entire load in the sky. (Annual emissions have increased 50 percent since 1990.)

That is of course unless we seriously begin to reduce emissions and start to reduce the load in the sky, during the next eight years. This is why you hear that we are “locked in” to so much warming, or that additional warming is “already in the pipeline.” The fact that we continue to rapidly increase our global emissions does not bode well. The likelihood that we can make a dent in the next eight years does not seem good at the moment. (Don’t lose hope: remember the solutions and toilet pollution, and the happy ending at the end of this article.)

The simple reality is that many of us are dangerously close to seeing more than 14 degrees F of average warming in 38 years. Heat waves are bonus degrees. In the 2011 heat wave in Texas last August it was 6 degrees above average in Austin. It is has been even hotter in the Plains and parts of the Northeast this year. Like the increasingly unprecedented weather extremes today, climate scientists tell us in the future, these extremes will be even more extreme.

From 1938 to 1998 the 30-year average August temperature in Austin was 84.5 degrees and varied no more than 0.3 degrees (F). Since, it has risen to 85.8 degrees F. In a dozen years, our average August temperature in Austin has risen four times more than the largest change seen for the last 60 years. In 2011 in Austin during August the average temperature was almost 91.6 degrees, 5.9 degrees above average.

What about the heat island effect? A small amount of this warming is certainly because of the heat island effect, but only a very small amount.

The High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) shows us last Augusts’ temperatures in vivid hues. Looking closely at the Austin and San Antonio areas it appears the urban heat island is running strong, but look at the larger metro areas of Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. The counties where the dots are representing these metro areas are almost completely full of concrete and asphalt, yet the red blobs are not centered on those counties. Then there are all those red blobs not associated with urban areas. The urban heat island may play a role, but it is a small one.

Across all of Texas last August the average temperature was 86.8 and the average 30-year summer temperature across Texas 81.4. So for all of Texas, and in Austin, we saw 6 degrees of extra heat during last August’s’ heat wave.

In 2050, with 14 degrees of warming above 2000 (which is basically our 30-year average), the average August temperature will be 100 degrees. Compare this to the hottest average summer temperature in the Western Hemisphere of 98 degrees at Death Valley.

During heat waves, it will not just be 6 degrees warmer than average but much more, at least this is what the models say and they have been pretty much on the mark so far. So figure an average August temp of 106 to 110. The average high will be ten or fifteen degrees warmer than this or 123 to 128 degrees. (You notice I am adding everything to the high end of the range. This is because our emissions are worse than the worst-case scenario and there is so little time to make an impact with the mindset of our society today.)

One last fantastic number: heat waves have spikes in temperature. The hottest day is about 5 degrees warmer than the average heat wave high temperature. This puts us, in just 38 years when most of us are still alive, around 133 degrees (plus a little for the heat island effect) for an all-time record high. The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Libya at 136 degrees. In Death Valley it was, 134 degrees.

All of Texas will be this hot and much of the Great Plains as well.

Think of what the countryside looks like in Libya or Death Valley. Let me repeat in very plain but unimaginably alarming language: The average summertime temperature in Death Valley is 98 degrees. In Austin, in August, in just 38 years, it will be 100 degrees unless; our leaders start listening to our climate scientists. Please make it a priority to tell your elected officials that it’s the scientist way or the highway. It is within your power to unelect these “politicians.” It is our responsibility to do so unless they act fast.

This action needs to be far more than what was anticipated with Kyoto. The relatively small emissions reductions required prior to the turn of the century would have done the trick. We were supposed to have reduced our emissions to 1987 levels by this year—2012. Instead, emissions are up more than 50 percent.

This said, we must have hope. Let me repeat my latest message showing that all is by no means lost. We have the capacity within our society to do things like keeping Austin from becoming hotter than Death Valley in our lifetimes. It’s only pollution. We have conquered challenges of this magnitude before. To fix our climate across the world, spending will be no more than our annual U.S. military budget. It will be no more than the cost of clean drinking water. Let’s get the message across. It’s only pollution.


American’s view on climate change are 20 years behind: For an in-depth evaluation see “The Climate Awareness Drought is Over .”
Gallup, March 30, 2012 In U.S., Global Warming Views Steady Despite Warm Winter:
Pew Center, Modest Rise in Number Saying There Is “Solid Evidence” of Global Warming, November 9-14, 2011 (Published December 1, 2011) :
Yale 2012: Weather extremes caused by climate change have changed public awareness: Leiserowitz et al., Extreme-Weather-Climate-Preparedness, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, April 2012.
Gallup, March 30, 2012 – Americans’ Worries About Global Warming Up Slightly:
Public belief that climate change is happening has only recently risen above 1991 beliefs of climate scientists: Climate Scientists Agree on Warming, Disagree on Dangers, and Don’t Trust the Media’s Coverage of Climate Change, George Mason University, STATS, 2008.
Climate Change Cues: Brulle et al., Shifting public opinion on climate change. An empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US 2002 to 2010, Climatic Change, Feb 2012.

97 to 98 percent of scientists:
Oreskes, “The scientific consensus on climate change,” Science, December 2004.
Doran and Zimmerman, Examining the Scientific Consensus, American Geophysical Union EOS, January 2009.
Bray and Storch, A Survey of the Perspectives of Climate Scientists Concerning Climate Science and Climate Change in 2008, Institute for Coastal Research, Geesthacht, Germany, 2010.–Perspectives_of_Climate_Scientists_Concerning_Climate_Science_&_Climate_Change_.pdf
Farnsworth and Lichter, The Structure of Scientific Opinion on Climate Change, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, October 2011.
Anderegg et al., Expert credibility in climate change, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, April 2010.
Climate Scientists Agree on Warming, Disagree on Dangers, and Don’t Trust the Media’s Coverage of Climate Change, George Mason University, STATS, 2008.
Goot, Anthropogenic climate change: expert credibility and the scientific consensus, Garnaut Review Secretariat, 2011.

Climate Lag 30 years: It takes a third of a century for two thirds of the heat from global warming to be absorbed by the oceans, Hansen et al., Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications, Science, June 2005.

The A1FI scenario, The Worst-case Scenario and warming over land twice or more what we have been expecting:
Ganguly et al., Higher trends but larger uncertainty and geographic variability in 21st century temperature and heat waves, PNAS, September 2009.