It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Doorway is Not Very Wide and Gets Narrower Every Day

It's important for the public and the policy sector to understand how very quickly our goals and aspirations slip away under the accumulating tide of CO2.

It's gratifying to see David Roberts, whom I've already frankly admitted is the best writer on our beat (I strive for second place) getting a platform on the increasingly visible and important and generally excellent Vox commentary site. But, though I basically agree with it, it's hard to be actually happy about David's recent piece on that site, and similar arguments elsewhere including a couple that David links to, by Brad Plumer and Oliver Geden.

To summarize, the actual realization of a 2 C peak warming is increasingly looking infeasible, and yet there is a reluctance to face this fact.

A couple of salient quotes from David's piece:
We recently passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; the status quo will take us up to 1,000 ppm, raising global average temperature (from a pre-industrial baseline) between 3.2 and 5.4 degrees Celsius. That will mean, according to a 2012 World Bank report, "extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise," the effects of which will be "tilted against many of the world's poorest regions," stalling or reversing decades of development work. "A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided," said the World Bank president.
But that's where we're headed. It will take enormous effort just to avoid that fate. Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There's no sign of that happening, or reason to think it's plausible anytime soon. And so, awful shit it is.
There is not a politician on earth wants to tell his or her constituents, "We've probably already blown our chance to avoid substantial suffering, but if we work really hard and devote our lives to the cause, we can somewhat reduce the even worse suffering that awaits our grandchildren." [crowd roars]
Climate scientists, Geden says, feel pressure to provide the good news. They're worried that if they don't, if they come off as "alarmist" or hectoring, they will simply be ignored, boxed out of the debate. And so they construct models showing that it is possible to hit the 2°C target. The message is always, "We're running out of time; we've only got five or 10 years to turn things around, but we can do it if we put our minds to it."
That was the message in 1990, in 2000, in 2010. How can we still have five or 10 years left? The answer, Geden says, is that scientists are baking increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models.
imagine the scientists want to blame the policy advisors and the politicians — after all, they didn't hide the unrealistic assumptions, they are right there in Appendix 17 for anyone interested.
And yes, theoretically, the policy advisers surrounding politicians should make clear to them exactly the assumptions required to produce the 2°C outcome. And politicians should be straight with their constituents about those assumptions.
However, as the kids say these days, politicians gonna politic. They all have enormous incentive to try to thread the needle, to accept the 2°C target on one hand while maintaining that current policy commitments are adequate, or might some day be adequate, on the other. To do that, they need evidence that success is still within reach.
It's the last two bits, I think, that struck a nerve with Mike Mann. After all, who can blame him for being a bit touchy about climate scientists being falsely accused of stuff. I think part of this problem, though, originates in the definition of "climate scientists". To those of us who have pitched in more or less in the practice of physical climatology, climate scientists "R" us. The people who show up at AGU. The people who contribute to WG I.

But to the world, "climate scientists" refers to the contributing disciplines to the other two working groups as well. It's the economic working group that is at issue here, and that's a group that includes a lot more people, including, if perhaps not Mr. Lomborg, at least Dr. Tol. Whatever the motivations and justifications for climatological defensiveness, the guns have come out a little early here. This isn't even talking about us, it's about the folk who run the emissions scenarios.

What's harder to understand is Joe Romm's high dudgeon. I think that what he's saying isn't even a disagreement, which makes it especially peculiar.

What are Joe's main points?
No, the really awful truth about climate change is that while climate scientists, the International Energy Agency, and many others have been increasingly blunt about how dire our situation is — and what needs to be done ASAP to avoid catastrophe — much of the so-called intelligentsia keep ignoring them.

The most recent example comes in a report out earlier this month from 70 leading climate experts (click here). The parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka the world’s leading nations) set up a “structured expert dialogue” from 2013 to 2015 to review the adequacy of the 2°C target. Early this month, the experts reported back. Thoughtfully, they simplified their key conclusions into 10 core messages. Among them:
  • Message 1: “Parties to the Convention agreed on an upper limit for global warming of 2°C, and science has provided a wealth of information to support the use of that goal.” Incorporating concerns about ocean acidification and sea level rise, “only reinforces the basic finding emerging from the analysis of the temperature limit, namely that we need to take urgent and strong action to reduce GHG emissions” (emphasis in original).
  • Message 2 (again, original emphasis): “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.” 
    Yeah, scientists just love to spread false optimism.
  • Message 4: “Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming” (which is about 0.85°C) and so additional “warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.
  • Message 5: “The 2°C limit should be seen as a defence line … that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”
  • Message 6 (from the 2014 IPCC mitigation report): “Limiting global warming to below 2 °C is still feasible and will bring about many co-benefits, but poses substantial technological, economic and institutional challenges.”
But, but...

See, I don't see where David (or Dr. Gedden) has disagreed with any of that!

I think it's important for the public and the policy sector to understand how very quickly our goals and aspirations slip away under the accumulating tide of CO2.

Too much happy talk about possibility hides how quickly the feasibility of any particular goal recedes. It's all about the last ton - the amount of net CO2 that will have been emitted at the moment that emissions actually attain to net zero.

At some point the curve becomes too steep to be realistic. Have we reached that point? If we don't rely on a net carbon negative future, probably.  Without a huge anthropogenic sink (which is a huge unfair burden on the future at best, assuming it's possible) it's all about the last ton. Everything else is quibbling. And to this day most people of influence do not understand the importance and urgency of the path to net zero.

I just yesterday had a long lunch with a college friend who has been very successful in the finance sector with a focus on environmentally friendly low-carbon energy projects, especially in the electric power sector. And of course progress in that direction is very much a good thing.

But there are reasons that it is far from enough for the marketplace to produce enough momentum to displace all that fossil fuel fast enough. And I had some trouble conveying the top-down view of gloom in the face of all the bottom-up optimism that a successful wind and solar finance guy could and should and does muster.

After being thoroughly depressed by the big picture as Roberts sketched it out (which basically expresses conclusions I had already reached on my own) it was difficult to convey this big picture to him. Nobody wants the bad news, but the fact is that, intractable as the political picture is, nothing will happen without a very rigorous international agreement that the main players are really committed to, and that such an agreement will not arrive this year in Paris, if only because the US is not capable of making a real commitment.

Indeed, winning over Republican voters in the US seems to be a sine qua non of a tolerable outcome, and the association of this issue with left/right and even civil war animosity has moved this outcome further from plausible.

So although there's still a tiny bit of light between us and 2 C, that path is caving in fast, and probably too fast for us to get there in our currently hobbled state. In the end, in the unlikely event that I live long enough to see the political situation improve, I will be happy if we manage a 3 C target.

I doubt we'll avoid 4 C without a treaty. Like it or not, burning coal is cheap. So cheap that without a global mechanism somebody will find a way to burn a whole lot more of it.

Our reach should exceed our grasp, of course. But we need some correction from reality too.

Let me repeat my recommendation of this picture book (the usual expression "comic book" seems especially inappropriate), Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni.

Squarzoni's conclusions:
But if I’m being honest with myself, I believe three things.
  • One: There’s a doorway we need to pass through. Technically it’s still possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and to take the necessary measures to manage the upheavals that are already inevitable.
  • Two: The doorway is not very wide. It closes a little more each day. And we have only a little time to pass through it.
  • Three: I don’t think we will pick that door.


wottsupwiththatblog said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

A commenter on a Facebook list says:

"I see I'm not the only one who had trouble parsing Romm's "attack" piece - "attack" being in quotes because by the end of the piece, I saw only the merest sliver of daylight between the two positions. As I commented there, Joe seemed to be saying, how dare you claim we need a miracle, and then went on to describe possibilities and solutions that seemed, well, damn near miraculous.

shub said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Tobis said...

Shub, please resubmit without the "wottsie" and "increasingly confused" business. See moderation rules. Will delete your comment shortly.

andthentheresphysics said...

Good post. I agree. I've been rather confused about the whole conflict between those saying what Geden (and then Roberts) are saying, and those objecting (Mann and Romm). As you say, much of what is being said is technically correct/defensible. It's is probably the framing that is the problem (climate scientists should stop...). To be fair, I managed - I think - to get Geden to accept that on Twitter.

shub said...

Not 'submitting' or re-submitting anything, Michael. You can delete my comment and protect the shrinking violet wotts.

You know that's his own self-chosen name right?

And yes, the recaptcha is another thing you can keep too.

Michael Tobis said...


When P3 returns with a custom codebase we'll use Disqus. Meanwhile take it or leave it.

Guest, interrupted said...

Crap. Chrome on Android ate my comment.
In short: Also we need a co-focus on cutting back those irritants of daily life that make living a low C life inconvenient to impossible, and that preclude other constructive action.

Michael Tobis said...

Chrome/Android/Blogger = 100% Google stack. Inexcusable.

But I'm sticking with Blogger for now.

My style (as you can see) requires some control of fonts or colors. That's complete hell on Wrodpress, and that's not the only problem with WP.

Andy S said...

I am bewildered by the fuss Roberts' article has caused. It's almost as if some people are hearing some kind of dogwhistle that escapes my ears altogether. It seems self evident to me that as the years of inaction mount up, the goal of 2 degrees becomes ever less feasible. "Feasibility" isn't some kind of hard probability number and I'm sure that everybody's subjective ranges overlap, even as those assessments slip towards zero as time passes.

I don't envy the WG2and 3 contributors. They are much closer to the policy makers than the physical scientists and probably get much more pressure to frame their results in a policy-friendly manner. And they will be damned if they speak up publicly and damned if they don't.

Ric said...

My summary: Joe Romm's piece is more about Joe Romm's feelings than about DR's post.

PS: I guess DR has more eyeballs, and makes more money blogging (in the sense that about 10 cents is more than about 5 cents, or than about 0), but I wouldn't want to do without either one of you.

Tom said...

I don't want to take anything away from the importance of combating climate change, but we do need to remember that the 2C target is a political, not a scientific one. As Bart Verheggen points out, we still have problems if it comes in at 1.9C of additional forcing and the world doesn't end at 2.1C.

What should be acknowledged is that observation based calculations of sensitivity may mean the doorway is wider than previously thought and that we have more time to get through it.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, totally agree with the first half of your point. A target helps people think about it, but there's nothing actually special about 2.000 degrees C.

Regarding the observational evidence, I think we should wait a couple of years while the current warming pulse works its way through the system, before committing to an assumption that we have more time than we thought.

My belief is that we are so late that even half the consensus sensitivity means it's time to act vigorously.

Tom said...

Did we finally agree on something?

Michael Tobis said...

Tom we agree on many things which makes our inability to get along unfortunate.

You see me getting more "lukewarm" and I think you are getting more serious. Whatever.

I don't intend to change the things about me that you don't understand, and I'm sorry that you don't like some of them.

But I've always said that outside your misunderstanding of what makes scientists tick, and your affection for our enemies, I mostly agree with your intentions and mostly approve of your motivations.

Hank Roberts said...

> Joe Romm's high dudgeon....
> isn't even a disagreement

Thanks, I'd been puzzling over the same observation. Seems to me JR understands the principle about how to capture eyeballs that makes headline writers and press officers always seem to go way overboard -- to those who regularly read down to the footnotes. I've never been all that comfortable with the height of dudgeon -- but after years noticing what gets noticed, I understand what he's doing. Same as headline writers and press officers -- taking his best shot at capturing the eyeballs and a few brain cells of the people who never read much past the first lines on anything, but who vote.

It's awkward. Seems to be how the world works though.

coby said...

If I may be so self-centered as to quote myself from more than eight years ago

"As for the best policy, it is unfortunate that "as much as possible as soon as possible" is not precise enough for policy makers."

I suppose at some point "as much as possible" becomes "more than possible" depending on your goal. I agree with Dave Roberts that 2oC now requires more than plausibly foreseeable, while agreeing with Joe Romm it is still technically possible.

But if the goal is to reduce the suffering to some degree, that will always remain possible.