The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Does Pauchari Go Too Far?

Don't get me wrong. I'm at least as nervous about all this climate change business as most people. The idea of "tipping points" doesn't irk me the way it, for some reason, irks William. And I think we are in bigger trouble already than the general public seems to appreciate.

Still, I doubt this is justifiable, either in substance or in ethics:
The panel, co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avert major problems. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
Supose it's 2013 and we've still done nothing. Is it time to give up and have an end-of-the-world party or what?

No.

There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that. There's no now or never until the last breeding pair of humans is gone (and we're a very long way from that).

Yet Pauchari seems to be suggesting that in a few years we will have failed so utterly that there will be nothing we can do.

As far as I know there is nothing special about 2012 in the reports. Admittedly we have to draw the line somewhere, and in fact most countries drew that line years ago at Kyoto and proceeded to ignore it. Now that we are far across that line we need to draw another one, and more effectively. It's fair for IPCC to make that assertion in the most vigorous way. Putting a number onto the estimates of the dangerous time scale is at least arguably fine for an individual, like Hansen.

On the other hand, doing so as Pauchari does on behalf of the IPCC is a very troubling matter even without the false precision. It is a matter of no little concern if the IPCC starts to turn into what it has been accused of being, that is, primarily an advocacy group, never mind an irresponsible one.

Science must be represented. It isn't Pauchari's job to pull numbers out of a hat.


I was sitting on the above article wondering if it would be better or worse to publish it, and it sort of scrolled out of consciousness. But then David Appell said something very similar on Quark Soup and I found myself agreeing. So let me say "me too".

The situation is bad enough without making it worse than it is. The last thing we need to is to give more ammunition to the people who think it's all over so what the heck...

Let me repeat my position. There's always a best we can do, and we should always try to do that.

This principle will not expire in three years or ten. It will not expire at all until we all expire with it.

Thus I violate my resolution not to write anything until New Year's. In my defense, somebody else said it first. So it doesn't count.

6 comments:

AK said...

When a growing cumulus (cumulo-nimbus) punches through the inversion into a deep layer of potentially unstable air, it begins an "abrupt and irreversible" process. But, as it grows, it changes conditions to favor new, parasitic "abrupt and irreversible" process that usually end up stealing most of its energy. When they don't, it's a supercell. (I know I've twisted some definitions a little for the sake of analogy, but bear with me here.)

Many, probably most, chaotic processes work like this, and while it's debatable that climate (as opposed to weather) is this type of chaotic system, if it is most "tipping points" just signal a new direction in climate evolution that will sooner or later be halted by another natural positive feedback process.

Note, of course, that a human social positive feedback process (such as panic reaction to climate change) is just as natural as melting ice-caps. Only a creationist could logically argue otherwise.

But even many scientists don't really understand chaos (as described by Kauffman), much less bureaucrats and politicians.

IMO "Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist" is almost certainly correct that "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late" to prevent some positive feedback process from "touching off", that is passing a tipping point. The only question is how big a deal that particular "tipping point" is.

Dano said...

This urban ecosystem guy says: What Michael Said.

But I also second ak's...er...point about tipping points. Now, whether Pachauri knows that 2012 is when many ecosystems will flip is debatable in my mind, but still.

Best,

D

Steve Bloom said...

Michael, 2012 is the deadline for the Kyoto follow-on. If it's not strong enough, that won't be just an instant problem -- we'll be locked into an inadequate solution for years, with unfortunate consequences. I think the statement is reasonable if that's what he was referring to.

Adam said...

To be fair to Dr Pachauri I don't think he states that if we don't do anything by 2012 then we give up - though I do agree that one could infer that from the quoted words, and he may have been better advised to word his statement differently. However, I'd rather hold back judgement until I see/hear the whole speech than selected quotes (whether selected by news organisation or press release).

Unfortunately his speech doesn't seem to be on the IPCC website, though his presentation (from which I assume the quotes are taken) and a previous speech is, and they seem to expand on what he's implying.

http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/presentations/valencia-2007-11/pachauri-17-november-2007.pdf

Take the presentation, slides 11 & 13, suggest that he's referring to the aim of keeping CO2 equivalent below 490ppm there needs to be a peak by 2015. Thus while we shouldn't give up, we're then looking at the next line of the table (I could be misinterpreting this and that's another reason why I'd like the full text).

His earlier speech also says this:

"As far as mitigation is concerned the costs are going to be much lower than what was anticipated
earlier. If we stabilize the concentration of these gases at 445 to 490 parts per million of CO2
equivalent which will give us an equilibrium increase, limit the equilibrium increase to 2 to 2.4
degrees centigrade, that will cost the world less than 3 per cent of the GDP in the year 2030. This
means that the prosperity that we would normally achieve by 2030 may be postponed by a few months
at the most.
And as the honorable Secretary General has told us, we have up to 2015 if we want to stabilize at that
level, after which we will have to ensure that emissions go down substantially."

http://www.ipcc.ch/graphics/speeches/rajendra-pachauri-september-2007.pdf

Finally, he could be referring to making a start, as I do think that there is also the infrastructure lag that we need to consider, in that if there's 4-5 years of coal fired power station building (without CCS), then who's going to dismantle those stations before they reach the end of their life, and how much does that commit us to? And various other aspects of this theme.

For example, Ban Kyi Moon in New York spoke about a policy framework needing to be in place by 2012.

As I say above though, if this is what he meant he maybe needed to word it better.

Oh, and if anyone has found teh full text of the speech/presentation, I'd be interested to see it.

Zowish said...

I'd like to see your list of the best thing to do today, the second best, third best, etc. Failing to implement #1 within a certain period of months or years or decades rolls us over to #2, then #3, and so on. Each missed opportunity results in a narrower window the next time, unless I misunderstand entropy. Most "special offers" remain good for a limited time only.

What shall we do? How shall we do it? Why, when, and towards what end?

-HR

Nils Simon said...

I would agree with Steve Bloom and take it as a political rather than a climatological statement in the strict sense. In a few days, the Bali Conference starts, the last but one chance to agree upon a Kyoto successor (the last one being Copenhagen in 2009). If we fail to agree upon timid GHG reduction targets starting to be implemented effectively in 2012 or 2013, the inertia of the political process will lead us into a quite HOT future. I don't know if this reading of Pachauri is fully accurate, but it makes a lot more sense to me than interpreting it as a climatological statement.