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Kristof on the Apocalypse

Filed under: — raypierre @ 19 April 2006

We have noted with pleasure Nicholas Kristof’s column, The Big Burp Theory of the Apocalypse (TimesSelect subscription required), which appeared in the New York Times of 18 April. This column is built around the possibility of a catastrophic methane release from marine clathrate decomposition, but at heart it is really a lament that the more conventional and better understood harms of global warming have not proved sufficient to get the attention of the White House or Congress. This column is a refreshing change from the recent spate of backlash columns by Will, Novak and Lindzen attempting to tar climate scientists with the “a****mist” epithet.

Kristof gives a generous tip of the hat to “the excellent discussion of methane hydrates by scholars at” (Thanks, Nick.) He has clearly made good use of Dave Archer’s RealClimate article on clathrates, and it shows in the Kristof’s sound discussion of the basic science. He is very clear on why a clathrate catastrophe would be a bad thing, but equally clear about the uncertainties. The column even contains an intelligent discussion of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum as a possible example of a clathrate catastrophe. taking care to point out that this event might not, in fact, have been caused by methane release. Quite a lot to get in a short column, while still managing to achieve a lively style that surely keeps the readers awake.

Perhaps closest to our hearts is Kristof’s cogently stated theme that uncertainty is in the nature of the science, and is no excuse for inaction — indeed should be a spur to greater action. “The White House has used scientific uncertainty as an excuse for its paralysis. But our leaders are supposed to devise policies to protect us even from threats that are difficult to assess precisely — and climate change should be considered even more menacing than a nuclear-armed Iran.” He concludes, “The best reason for action on global warming remains the basic imperative to safeguard our planet in the face of uncertainty, and our leaders are failing wretchedly in that responsibility.”

Kristof is a 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Congratulations, Nick! We hope you keep on reading RealClimate.

96 Responses to “Kristof on the Apocalypse”

  1. 1
    Tim Lambert says:

    Now, if only Kristof could get the story on DDT correct, I would be happy.

    [Response: Yes, Kristof's record has not been perfect. In his column on The Death of Environmentalism -- which was essentially a claim that the environmental movement had damaged its credibiity by hype -- he repeated the claim that everybody was on a global cooling bandwagon in the 1970's. I like to think that happened because he wasn't reading RealClimate then, but is reading RealClimate now. --raypierre]

  2. 2

    Kristof is a generally an exemplar of evidence-based journalism on other topics too, such as murder in Sudan, women’s rights in South Asia and sex trafficking in SE Asia.

  3. 3
    Tapasananda says:

    A very few of us, especially monks like me, are members of the low greenhouse-gas emiting, low-resource-consuming and hence,
    possibly deserving–POOR.Why reference a must pay to read article?
    Voluntary poverty is actually one of the more effective ways to deal with environmental dilemmas.There really, actually is, significant ecological relevance to such ideas as are to be found in fusty old texts like The Sermon on the Mount, Dhammapada, and Katha Upanisad.
    Support fools like us!
    Maybe we are not so foolish as would appear.

    Maybe also, one of you more affluent science types can copy , paste and send this article of Kristof’s to me at

    Swami Tapasananda

    [Response: It's a copyright issue. The NYT has a legitimate need to get revenue from its writers, so that they can afford to pay for Kristof's trips to Darfur, investigative reporting, and so forth. The fact that they felt the column was valuable enough property that they wanted to protect it behind a firewall leads me to respect their intellectual property. I'm not sure what the copyright implications would be if a reader posts the full column as a comment. Would that be fair use or not? We let this happen for Lindzen's WSJ op-ed, but I'm not sure that was cricket. If WSJ complains, we'll certainly take down that post. --raypierre]

  4. 4
    pete best says:

    I believe that a large scale methane release from the sea bed last happenned some 55 million years ago during a bout of large scale global warming. Before that some 250 million years ago during the largest mass extinction event ever (90% die off of all life on earth)due to some vast volcanic activity in Siberia that raised world temperatures some 5C which then caused a large scale methane release from the ocean beds which raised temps by another 5C which caused the aforesaid mass extinction.

    If humankind could raise world temps enough (what that coul be is difficult to judge) then yes it would be a very serious issue.

    I have just now read a interesting article over at put forward by James Hansen at NASA regarding the time lines of climate change which appear to be unprecedented in history but by which analogies can be drawn with recent climate records in Antartica. is a good article.


    Time to wake up maybe.

  5. 5
    ocean says:

    Re#3: I am sure there are legal copyright issues with copying and posting this article. I was also disappointed that I had to pay to read it…

  6. 6
    Joe says:

    If you don’t have a TimesSelect account have access to Lexis-nexis, you can read Kristof’s column through that.

  7. 7
    Grant says:

    Sorry this is off topic, but:

    I just watched the trailer for Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. A must see! You can watch it here.

  8. 8
    Deech56 says:

    To get around the NYT firewall legally, check on-line resources at your local public library. Some have subscriptions to newspaper archives that are available remotely using your library card number. That’s how I read the Kristof column. One can sometimes Google a quote from the column – other papers may run the column via syndication, or some sites may post the entire article, but they may be infringing on the NYT’s copyright. Let the browser beware.

  9. 9
  10. 10
    Brian Green says:

    Has the new york times or any other mains-stream for-profit press talked about the the carbonic acid build up in the oceans?

    Does anybody have good data on how many grants and how much
    money is spent researching global climate? NSF? NOAA? DOD? DOE?
    How many Phds in climate research today? Compared to defense or

    thanks for good info and this site rules.

  11. 11
    Stephen Berg says:

    And then we have this garbage:

    “Aussies’ Suzuki heavier on rhetoric than on science

    Tim Ball, For The Calgary Herald
    Published: Wednesday, April 19, 2006
    Unknown to most Canadians until this week, Australians have their very own David Suzuki, a self-promoting zoologist who has garnered a large and loyal following for his sensationalist views on climate change.

    Like Suzuki, Aussie zoologist Tim Flannery has no professional credentials in the field and so blunders regularly while pushing governments to save the world from global warming.”

    I can’t believe this crap still exists, this libel or slander. Tim Flannery is most definitely qualified to speak on this matter. I heard him speak yesterday and he was definitely much more “on the ball” than Tim Ball is, despite his last name.

    These contrarians are no “Friends of Science” as they proclaim they are, but toxic to science as they are badmouthing and denegrating all true climate scientists and their reputations.

    Also, with the April 6 letter to the Canadian Prime Minister by some of these contrarians, there has been a more rational response yesterday:

    What appalls me is that certain politicians and “think-tankers” will listen to economists, mathematicians, and former mining executives (McKitrick, Essex, and McIntyre) on the topic of climate change over those who are actually climatologists (Mann, Bradley, Hughes, etc.). That’s like trusting a plumber to perform open-heart surgery on a patient. Completely irrational.

  12. 12
    Jonathan says:

    I cheered when I saw Gavin in Kristof’s column!

  13. 13
    Steve Latham says:

    Regarding #11, I heard Ball on the local radio station last week. Awful. I didn’t hear everything but there were a couple of callers who asked some good questions. One challenged him on an assertion about not being able to predict the weather never mind the climate and she explained that we might not be able to predict a coin flip, but should be able to do much better predicting the average results of a hundred coin flips. His answer was that weather is chaotic. [moderated]

  14. 14
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I’m not paying for the column. Best to (re)read David Archer’s RC article, linked above, and HIGH TIDE (Mark Lynas, esp. last chap), and WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED (Michael Benton).

    Glad the debate is shifting to whether hysteresis (runaway, Venus effect) might happen, rather than staying bogged down in whether GW is happening; whether the effects will be bad, not-so-bad, or even good; or whether we should adapt or mitigate (why not both, using the savings from mitigation for adaptation).

    It seems to me (though I’m no climate scientist) that another factor that might make this GW episode different from past ones is the speed at which GHGs are being released. Esp. if methane were to be released really fast, it seems to me even possible this GW episode might become worse than previous ones.

    At the very least we should have the attitude, let’s stop this experiment on planet earth & not find out all the anwers the hard way.

    Then after halting this experiment (by drastically reducing GHG emissions), the contrarians can go on arguing ad nauseum that there never was any such thing as GW.

  15. 15
    pete best says:

    Al Gore saves the world

    Sounds like this will be good news all round and maybe some solace for the climate doomsayers who prophesize the end of the world as we know it.

    Trouble is with no real alternatives to replace fossil fuels we must seek to mitigate CO2 levels by economically viable amounts. We are told by climate scientists that we must mitigate fossil fuels by around 65% in order to reduce serious human made climate change. I doubt that we can do that in time personally so we will have signed up to some climate change but how much nobody really knows.

  16. 16
    Brian Jackson says:

    Re #11 (Stephen Berg):

    Thanks for the link to the Canadian scientists’ letter. Bizarely enough, Gordon Swaters is listed as signer on both this letter and the earlier contrarian version. Either there’s been a mistake somewhere, or that’s one conflicted guy!

    [Response: Actually, his name on the first letter surprised me because he seemed like a sensible guy when I knew him in Canadian climate circles a decade ago. But apparently he was somewhat misled about the nature of the first letter: - gavin]

  17. 17
    Mark Shapiro says:

    Also, Mark Hertsgaard has an excellent piece in Vanity Fair exposing Fred Seitz, a major denialist, and others, at

    And to address the concern that reducing GHG emissions would hurt the economy, he points us to Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Imagine: efficiency is profitable!

  18. 18
    Matt says:

    “..safeguard our planet in the face of uncertainty.”

    Try to put an objective function on this, almost impossible, I tried. What is the result of some action, X, for event of probability Y, when the corrective can cause increased damage for different event.

    Obviously we think that reduction in fossil fuel usage makes more sense than the market dictates, we want government action. But, there is a probability of a soon, sudden and drastic decline in CO2 from natural causes, has happened at the glacial minimum 225,000 years ago. If that small probability begins in the next 20 years, then our co2 emissions wouldn’t look so bad.

    [Response: Try to put an objective function on almost any decision government has to make. Live with it. At the very least we can try to put valid information into the debate (Suki Manabe, Jim Hansen) and not junk (Crichton, Milloy, and the people they champion). As for a natural decline in CO2, we may not know exactly what caused this in the glacial-interglacial cycle, but it is virtually certain that it hand to do with ocean uptake, and that just doesn't happen fast enough to be a concern over the time scale of anthropogenic input of GHG's. That's not even a red herring. --raypierre]

    [Response: To clarify that last remark, of course, significant ocean uptake of excess anthropogenic CO2 is happening right now, but I mean that the kind of naturally enhanced uptake that gives you a drop from 280ppm to 180ppm in a couple thousand years would give you plenty of warning, and anyway is probably slaved to Milankovic forcing. It's an irrelevant concern with regard to possible consequences of anthropogenic GHG's over the next couple centuries. --raypierre ]

  19. 19
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    First, the SF Chronicle has had some articles on the acidification of the oceans, along with excellent coverage of the potential shutdown of the north atlantic thermohaline current due to increasing fresh water supplies from the melting greenland ice sheet.Second, a large catastrophic release of methane is already in the pipeline due to the melting of the Siberian permafrost. This will accelerate global warming to catastrophic proportions. Third, a new geologic era, manmade, is almost a certainty, see Lovelock. Fourth, reductions of 80% below 1990 levels immediately might not even stop the process. The runaway Venus greenhouse effect is a distinct possibility. Fifth, all bets are off when the buildup of co2 already in the ocean via the ocean’s limited uptake capacity, combined with the permafrost melt, and the shutdown of the thermohaline, will seal the fate of the Earth. Too bad, humans.

  20. 20
    ocean says:

    # 18. I love your post. It’s consequences in a nutshell.

  21. 21
    Mark A. York says:

    “I heard Ball on the local radio station last week. Awful”

    My research into thinktank deniers has led to only one conclusion on this phenomenon: they’re in the tank, and sent into the media fray to spread denial. That this guy was a climatology professor is even more distressing as with Lindzen and Michaels. They’re paid to think like this. There can be no other reason for this wingnuttery. That’s what overcame Crichton. I wish Crichton hadn’t already used the eaten by cannibals meme. I can think of a few that could join Ted Bradley on the pole.

  22. 22
    pat neuman says:

    re 14. … speed at which GHGs are being released. …

    Related article:

    Ancient Climate Studies Suggest Earth On Fast Track To Global Warming
    by Staff Writers

    Santa Cruz CA (SPX) Feb 16, 2006
    Human activities are releasing greenhouse gases more than 30 times faster than the rate of emissions that triggered a period of extreme global warming in the Earth’s past, according to an expert on ancient climates.

    “The emissions that caused this past episode of global warming probably lasted 10,000 years. By burning fossil fuels, we are likely to emit the same amount over the next three centuries,” said James Zachos, professor of Earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

    Higher ocean temperatures could also slowly release massive quantities of methane that now lie frozen in marine deposits. A greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, methane in the atmosphere would accelerate global warming even further.

  23. 23
    joel Hammer says:

    Newspaper say we all die soon. Good newspaper.

    Newspaper say we may not all die soon. Bad newspaper.

    Have you guys ever listened to yourselves? Hard?

    When you start referencing movies and editorials by laypeople about climate change, you really are sounding awfully silly.

    An objective reader might even think you are more into politics than science.

    You are really overestimating how many people read the newspaper or ever care about these issues.

    When I starting telling people where I work (All B.A.’s at least, or MD.’s) about how Alaska’s temperature rose sharply years ago but has been stable for many years, the only response I got was, “I didn’t know Alaska had warmed at all.”

    I know you will say that is a reason to raise the profile of environmental news, but, how will just one more hairbrained potential catastrophe help.

    Predicting an Apocalypse is a great attention grabber, for religious fanatics, maybe. Despite numerous predictions over the centuries, the world hasn’t ended. After a while, people catch on.

    BTW, the govt cannot plan for every eventuality. Impossible, as you know. Stop being silly.

    BTW, have you noticed that most victims of global warming seem to be brown, bare foot people? Makes you think that economic development might protect people from environmental disasters.

    [Response: Newspaper makes effort to learn about science and use valid arguments -- good newspaper. Newspaper relies on distortion, fabrication, character assassination -- bad newspaper. --raypierre]

  24. 24
    Coby says:

    Re “sudden” CO2 uptake.

    Don’t the drops from ~280 to ~180ppm in the glacial record take more like 100K yrs?

    Seems even more ridiculous to wait for that!

  25. 25
    Juola (Joe) A. Haga says:

    Does the Gabriele Hegerl study in Nature which set sensitivity at 5 degrees mollify the rather alarmist citations of Pat Neuman in Comment #22? Professor James Hansen of Goddard and Professor Gavin Schmidt are quoted in either the Washington Post or the National Geographic as approving. But Professor James Schlesinger of Illinois is described as “wary” in the National Geographic. I have not read or heard of any studies measuring the rate of methane release from thawing permafrost or nitrous oxide release from over-happy phytoplankton which could have been folded into the re-assuring Hegerl study’s models. One does hesitate to provide governments and corporations more lee-way to dither and dawdle without good reason.

  26. 26

    “Perhaps closest to our hearts is Kristof’s cogently stated theme that uncertainty is in the nature of the science, and is no excuse for inaction — indeed should be a spur to greater action.”

    Yes, well action is not an end in itself. Neither is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions which, as this post indicates, might not do anything to prevent climate change. We must first define what combination of prevention or mitigation we want to achieve, then give incentives for people to achieve whatever climate stability goals we target, however they do so. We need diverse approaches that will adapt to our rapidly expanding scientific knowledge. My suggestion is here. Kyoto is exactly the opposite: a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach, based on fossilised science, which is very likely to be both expensive and ineffectual.

    [Response: There is no doubt whatsoever about the fact that reduction in CO2 emissions will reduce the amount of climate change. The doubt is about how damaging the climate change coming from any given level of emission will be. There is a lot wrong with Kyoto, and there's nothing wrong with a nation saying it can more effectively reduce GHG emissions some other way. Businesses are not charities, though, and so there almost certainly need to be policies put in place that provide financial incentives to reduce CO2. --raypierre]

  27. 27
    pete best says:

    This morning on Radio 4 ( a UK intellectual radio station)there was a interesting peice on the ideas of how the media , in this case the environment agency (the government really) translated scientific information from the worse case scenarios predicted by UK climate scientists that was seen as “Alarmist” by the scientists but as normal procedure for the media.

    All in all, the media felt that unless terrible worst case scenarios are painted by them then the mass media and hence the general public at large will not pay attention. Predictions of 15 deg C temp rises and 11 metres of sea level rises (sinking London basically) would make people want to do something about it.

    The media thrive on hype whilst scientists do not but it would seem that scientists need to understand that if they are becomming alarmed at their findings on climate science then it needs to be reported as “alarmist” and a worst case scenario in order to gain merit with the general public.

    Headlines like “New York to disappear by 2100″ and the like I would suggest need to be the headlines in order to climate scientists to achieve their aims of reduing GG emissions by the spouted 65% required in order to mitigate climate change.

    [Response: A "worst case" scenario should be reported as such, but it is not fair to describe such things as alarmist. --raypierre]

  28. 28
    Brad Arnold says:

    I was disappointed in Kristof’s article (“The Big Burp Theory of the Apocolypse”) because it labeled senarios about a massive marine methane release “alarmist” (i.e. “Since President Bush is complacent about conventional risks from climate change, such as the prospect that those of us in Manhattan will end up knee-deep in the Atlantic, let’s try fear-mongering.”).

    [Response: "Fearmongering" doesn't have all the same connotations as "alarmist," but I know what you mean. Kristof's use of the word didn't bother me much because the context in the rest of the column made it clear that the "fear" he is "mongering" is based on something that really could happen. It's not the ideal choice of word, but I don't know what I myself would use in its place to convey the same impression. Help from readers? It's important to learn how to frame these issues properly,and communicating in a scientifically respectable way the need for concern about extreme events of low or unquantifiable probability will be one of the main journalistic challenges of the coming decades. --raypierre ]

    This same paragon is followed by Kristof’s previous article “Warm, Warmer, Warmest” (NY Times, March 5, 2006). In that article, Kristof pulls his punch by describing the melting of permafrost methane hydrate (i.e. “Here’s another positive loop. The Arctic permafrost may hold 14 percent of the world’s carbon, but as it melts, some of its carbon dioxide and methane are released, adding to the amount of greenhouse gases. So more permafrost melts.”).

    Dr Angela Venters of the British Energy and Environmental Issues Team in the Office of Science and Innovation has written me to say that “The feedback loop where climate change leads to melting of the permafrost, such as in the Siberian peat bog, which itself increases the intensity of climate change by releasing methane is an important area of current research. This feedback loop is likely to have a significant impact on climate change; scientists at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (Met Office) have calculated that, if the observed melting continues over the next 100 years, the rate of global warming could increase by 10% to 25%.”

    By the way, a large peat bog in western Siberia is proving this positive feedback loop. The peat bog is the size of France and Germany together, and is estimated to contain 70 billion tons of carbon. It has warmed 3C, and the methane level is 25 times higher.

    Aside from my opinion that the increase in global warming from the melting permafrost (est. 400 billion gTons, 50% melting by 2050/90% by 2100) is underestimated in the Hadley climate model, I would like to have seen Kristof include the word “massive” when describing the release of permafrost methane. A sudden release of 45 gTon of methane would be the equivilent of doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    In conclusion, it is understandable that Kristof wants to disarm the reader to more readily avoid cognitive dissonance. Yet, his retorical device of deaccentuating the threat of runaway global warming from a chain reaction of melting methane hydrate detracts from the legitimacy of this threat.

    Prof Sir David King said in an interview with the BBC last week that the Hadley climate model predicts a minimum of a 3C increase in temperature and a 500ppm CO2 level by the end of the century given current political realities. Kristof just won a Pulitzer prize for his articles on the genecide in Darfur, Sudan. A 3C rise in temperature would make Darfur (a conflict partially over water) look like a picnic.

  29. 29
    pete best says:

    Re #24, apparantly the Amazon rainforest is going to dry out and release another huge amount of CO2 that is tied into the soilfrom around 2040 to 2100 and this along with the permafrost melt could bbe the casue of a very large +ve feedback that does sound a little bit “ALARMIST” would you not say ?

    Or could it possibly be true. And this brings us to another point about Earth Science in general, who are the people who are putting all of the peices together and giving us the scenarios of climate change, ie the big picture because no one really seems to understand the really big picture on climate science. Science is more reductionist than systemic and I am unsure as to whom is really responsible for the big picture of Gaia.

  30. 30
    pat neuman says:

    re: 24

    I think it’s a mistake to downplay methane and CO2 global warming feed-backs.

    A few more excerpts (from linked article in 22.) … below.

    The gas first dissolves in the thin surface layer of the ocean, but this surface layer quickly becomes saturated and its ability to absorb more carbon dioxide declines.

    Only mixing with the deeper layers can help restore the ability of the surface water to absorb additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the natural processes that mix and circulate water between the ocean surface and deeper ocean layers work very slowly. A complete “mixing cycle” takes about 500 to 1,000 years, Zachos said.

    “The rate at which the ocean is absorbing carbon will soon decrease,” Zachos said.

    “Records of past climate change show that change starts slowly and then accelerates,” he said. “The system crosses some kind of threshold.”

    “We set out to test the hypotheses put forward by a small group of geochemists who model the global carbon cycle, and our findings support their predictions,” Zachos said. “It will take tens of thousands of years before atmospheric carbon dioxide comes down to preindustrial levels. Even after humans stop burning fossil fuels, the effects will be long lasting.”

  31. 31
    Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Pat -

    the difficulty with any such prediction is not only that there will, undoubtedly, be further surprises (such as the horribly early Siberian methane outgassing) but also that the extent of human co-operation will drastically alter the prognoses for good or ill.

    For instance, planting a gigahectare of sustainable forestry worldwide, for carbon banking and energy supplies, could both transform the rate of uptake of CO2 for a century or more, and halt the present outgassing from deforestation.

    Similarly, when the US realizes that without global co-operation in the form of a Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons its own future is mangled, the policy framework of Contraction & Convergence could, relatively rapidly, facilitate the termination of fossil fuel dependence.

    This unpredictability of political action, including that by the global individual at home, belies any serious prediction of what degree of GW will be achieved, not least because we have no means of predicting what B-A-U would consist of on the downslope of Peak Oil supply.

    Today’s WP article by Weiss epitomizes the difficulty of the refusal to integrate the politics of GW with the climate science – its claim of a credible calculation that there is “only” a 5% chance of warming reaching 14oC wholly ignores these issues.

    As such, it seems to me downright unscientific.



  32. 32
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #15, Pete, it can be done (we’ve reduced more than 3/4 & are saving money to boot, without lowering living standards, even raising them). I would suggest reading NATURAL CAPITALISM by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins — — for some glimpse of how the whole world can reduce, our nation by even up to 90% (no joke).

    And if worse comes to worse, & no one wants to strain their brains about what we can do to reduce our GHGs, we could always go back to bicycles, horse & buggy, and windmills. Then we could convert all that manure into cooking gas, etc. Maybe even get composting toilets. The sky’s the limit on how much we could reduce. Whatever happened to that old American ingenuity and “can-do” spirit?

    I’m personally waiting & hoping some plug-in hybrid will come out soon, so I can do 95% of my driving off of my wind-powered electricity.

  33. 33
    pete best says:

    Re #27, Well it was called alarmist due to the fact that we were talking about the very worst case scenarios, 15 C of temp rise and 11 metres of sea level. some of the scientists concluded that this will never happen unless we burn fossil fuels willy nilly for 3 centuries. Os it seems to be scientists disagreeing with scientists here and that is why the scientists consulted to produce the media report knew it would be read by other scientists and they would call it alarmist.

    you cannot win because scientists are a reserved lot as there peer review process demonstrates. Bold claims are nearly always flamed.

  34. 34
    Leonard Evens says:

    For those of you who need a free version of Kristof’s OpEd piece, note that you can always read it the old fashioned way, in the newspaper. Any decent public library should subscribe to the NY Times.

    Since I have a subscription to the NYT, I got to read it hot off the presses with my morning newspaper. Of course, I could also have read it with TimesSelect since they give us determined daily delivery types free access to that.

  35. 35
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #23, “When I starting telling people where I work (All B.A.’s at least, or MD.’s) about how Alaska’s temperature rose sharply years ago but has been stable for many years, the only response I got was, ‘I didn’t know Alaska had warmed at all.’”

    Has it really “been stable for many years”? Can you send me a link to the data?

  36. 36
    Gary says:

    Re: #35, Has it really “been stable for many years”?

    The data is a little bit outdated as the study was from ’79 to ’97.

    Observed Arctic Temperature Trends
    During fall, the trends show a significant warming of 2C/decade over the coasts of Greenland, near Iceland, and in Siberia but a cooling of 1C/decade over the Beaufort Sea and Alaska during fall.

    During winter, the trends show a significant warming of up to 2C/decade in eastern Greenland and Europe and 2C/decade over Eurasia, extending north over the Laptev Sea; however, a cooling trend of 2C/decade is shown over the Beaufort Sea and eastern Siberia extending into Alaska. The cooling trend over eastern Siberia is significant.

    During spring, a significant warming trend of 2C/decade can be seen over most of the Arctic.

    Summer shows no significant trend.

  37. 37

    I was amused by Ray’s response to #23 [Response: Newspaper makes effort to learn about science and use valid arguments -- good newspaper. Newspaper relies on distortion, fabrication, character assassination -- bad newspaper. --raypierre]

    I can’t help thinking that: Scientist is willing to listen to another side of the argument objectively == good scientist. Scientists who have already made up their minds, and will only argue for their own agenda — all scientists!

  38. 38
    pete best says:

    Re #32, It may be possible to supplement fossil fuels to some degree but there is no way with present or technology on the horizon that present living standards can be maintained whilst avoiding fossil fuel rates of consumption. The issues are mainly centered around China and India and co where the west is investing billions of dollars per annum in manufacturing which is causing demand for fossil fuels to go up. This time last year the world consumed 28 million barrels of Oil per day, now it is 29 million, 1 million higher. Fossil fuels are energy dense relative to other forms of energy and that means it will take a long time to get off of them.

    Ok, maybe by 2050 we will have mitigated our dependence by around 25 to 50 percent but at the present time it is just wishful thinking I am afraid.

    One way to get off of fossil fuels though is to invest in alternatives and invest in efficiency gains. The USA as the current largest consumer with some thought could consume a lot less energy quite easily and pass that know how onto China and India, couple that with renewables and yer there is a chance of mitigation.

    It needs coherent international thought though.

  39. 39
    ocean says:

    I worry about opinions casting scientists as “conservative”, “middle of the road”, “doesn’t believe in alarmism” or the opposite “alarmist.” Science is a search for truth through observations [data] and calculations based on those observations for future predictions [models]. And science has proven to be very good at predicting things. Just take a look at how far medicine has come in the last decade if anyone doubts that. Can science be wrong? Sure. But the “wrong” often comes from lack of data or insufficient technology. And the great thing about scientists is that they actively seek new technologies and new and more accurate data to understand nature better. Scientific facts [like global warming actually happening] are based on those data and analyses. They are not policy, speculation, opinion or belief. And the overwhelming majority of scientists are people who are very open to criticism as the rigorous peer review process for proposals and publications demands. Because the peers are scientists themselves. So they are not only people who also are trying to find the truth behind the way nature behaves, but they are also people who are competing with other scientists for funding and publication. This makes scientific results far more sound than, say, someone’s op-ed column.

  40. 40

    Re: #35&36

    More data on temperatures in Alaska can be found here.

    And/or in the recent Journal of Climate paper by Hartmann and Wendler (The Significance of the 1976 Pacific Climate Shift in the Climatology of Alaska, J. Clim., 18, 4824-4839). Here is the abstract:

    The 1976 Pacific climate shift is examined, and its manifestations and significance in Alaskan climatology during the last half-century are demonstrated. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation index shifted in 1976 from dominantly negative values for the 25-yr time period 1951â??75 to dominantly positive values for the period 1977â??2001.

    Mean annual and seasonal temperatures for the positive phase were up to 3.1°C higher than for the negative phase. Likewise, mean cloudiness, wind speeds, and precipitation amounts increased, while mean sea level pressure and geopotential heights decreased. The pressure decrease resulted in a deepening of the Aleutian low in winter and spring. The intensification of the Aleutian low increased the advection of relatively warm and moist air to Alaska and storminess over the state during winter and spring.

    The regime shift is also examined for its effect on the long-term temperature trends throughout the state. The trends that have shown climatic warming are strongly biased by the sudden shift in 1976 from the cooler regime to a warmer regime. When analyzing the total time period from 1951 to 2001, warming is observed; however, the 25-yr period trend analyses before 1976 (1951â??75) and thereafter (1977â??2001) both display cooling, with a few exceptions. In this paper, emphasis is placed on the importance of taking into account the sudden changes that result from abrupt climatic shifts, persistent regimes, and the possibility of cyclic oscillations, such as the PDO, in the analysis of long-term climate change in Alaska.

  41. 41
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re: 38 (38 was basically a “There Is No Alternative” post).

    Actually we not only have the technology to get off fossil fuels now, but we have the technology today to do so at prices comparable to what we pay for fossil fuels. No one magic bullet, but a lot of little things. I noticed in 2003 that no one had done a complete bottom up review of existing technology. Since I have some qualifications in this area; I took the trouble to begin one, and completed it recently.

    1)It is true that if the poor nations are to stop being poor absolute energy use will have to increase even with efficiency improvement. The rich nations could reduce absolute energy use; but increases by the poor ones will more than make up for this.
    2)But if the world could use energy five times as efficiently as the U.S. does then that increase could be held down from using around 14 Terawatts world wide today, to using 22 Terawatts in 2050.
    3) And over the course of thirty years we could do a gradual transiton from fossil fuels to renewables – so this increase in energy use could translate into as large a reduction in emissions as needed.

    OK Let’s start by looking at two examples to see if we could really use energy five times as efficiently as the U.S. does today.

    A) Electric cars that get the equivalent of 200 mpg (provide they are powered by a non-combustion based grid) and have a range of 240 miles. Demonstrated in 1997, powered by Nickle Cadium batteries of the sort we use in hybrids today.^1 (Note that even after 100,000 miles the batteries would have 50% of their original capacity; the car would still have had a 120 mile range.

    B)Normally paint booths have to be ventilated with frequent air changes, with 100% of the input from outside air in order to avoid poisoning the workers applying the paint. This requires a great deal of filtering and treatment to prevent contamination of outside air, and a great deal of heating or cooling to maintain comfort inside the painting booth. And the workers still have to wear uncomfortable protective equipment to avoid poisoning. All the ventilation is simply to reduce contamination to the point where protective equipment is effective.

    Instead this program developed a Mobile Zone Spray Booth Technology, a small mobile cab workers can paint from inside; it is this cab that is ventilated with outside air. So now the worker is exposed to no VOCs or pollutants, and her health is less threatened without uncomfortable masks and equipment than it was before with it. Only the air inside the small cab needs to be heated or cooled. And the air outside the cab, instead of having to be ventilated constantly, can be recirculated, reducing both costs, and emissions to outside air – aside from other benefits this reduces energy consumption by 85%^2.

    These two modest examples, multipled by many hundreds of other techniques could reduce energy use by 80% or more per capita. The point here is that if we squeeze more GDP out of a unit of energy we can then afford more expensive sources, while still spending the same percent of GDP on energy as we do now.

    So what are these renewable sources? Well just to keep this post within reason, let us stick to a few electricity examples.

    Hydroelectric production won’t increase much over the current amount; what little undeveloped capacity remains will mostly be needed to make up for the loss of current capacity due to lowered snowmelt. Most economically feasible geothermal is still undeveloped; but economically feasible geothermal potential is very limited in absolute terms. Wind is competitive with coal and less expensive than every other conventional source. But as a variable source, it can only account for a certain percent of power within a grid before it compromises reliablity, or requires large additional costs to ensure reliability. What that percentage is, is widely debated; but the most common number is 20%. The latest study to come to this conclusion is:,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,550/

    So where do you get the rest of your dispatchable power? Well there is something available now, though it does not fit the “small is beautiful” paradigm. Solar thermal electric costs about 11 cents per kWh^3. What is important about that is that heat for electricity production may be stored much more cheaply than electricity – for about $40 per kWh of capacity^4.

    That would bring the cost of solar thermal to about 15 cents per kWh, more expensive than fossil fuels (if warming costs are not counted) but about the same as light water reactors after the value of government provided liability limitations are included. And if efficiency improvements have multipled the value of goods and services we obtain from each unit of energy, total energy cost for a given result will be the same or lower than it is not. Because deserts are not evenly distributed, solar thermal plants will require high voltage D.C. lines – both to move the power as far as it will be neccesary to do, and to bridge grids that are out of phase with one another. (D.C. transmission is the one way to safely allow power to cross out of phase grids.)

    OK, this obviously a tiny percent of what would need to be done. But I think it makes the point that we have a zero regrets option for phasing out all the fossil fuels we want to get rid of . We can completely eliminate their use, at a cost comparable to that we currently pay.


    1) Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. 1997 Letter to Stockholders -Commercializing Technologies That Enable the Information and Energy Industries. Dec 1997, Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., 26/Sep/2005 .

    2) Office of Industrial Technologies – Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy â�¢ U.S. Department of Energy, Mobile Zone Spray Booth Technology For Ultra-Efficient Surface Coating Operations: New Technology Saves Energy And Reduces Pollution During Surface Coating Operations. Inventions & Innovation, I-OT-489. Dec 2001, Office of Industrial Technologies – Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy â�¢ U.S. Department of Energy, 5/Sep/2004 .

    3) Otis Port, “Power From The Sunbaked Desert | Solar Generators May Be a Hot Source of Plentiful Electricity,”. Business Week 12/Sep 2005: SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc, 14/Oct/2005 .

    4) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), NREL: Concentrating Solar Power Research – Parabolic-Trough Thermal Energy Storage Technology. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), 26/Mar/2005 .

  42. 42
    Mark A. York says:

    In book searches on the subject two out of three are from deniers.

  43. 43
    alisa brooks says:

    Had you folks read this article? If so, what is your take?

  44. 44
    pete best says:

    Re #41, 2.5 billion people will walk the planet by 2050 and by 2100 we might be back down to 6.5 billion as the world population is scheduled to fall after 2050, contraception is working.

    Maybe there is the capability to mitigate the 65 % of CO2 emissions required by climate scienists to stay off serious climate change but is there the economic and poltical will to change energy provision.

    Oil is consumed at 1000 barrels per second or 30 billion barrels per annum with a 2% annual growth forcasted. The cost of that infrastructure to provide this amount of Oil is not going to be disbanded any time before we run out of it around the year 2100. All the light crude oils (highest energy return) is half gone, around 1 trillion barrels remain, heavy oils will provide another 2 to 3 trillion barrels, and as a trillion barrels lasts 30 years then we have around 90 years worth (less energy return in non conventional oils) and hence we must find away by then. Biodiesels and the like can mitigate this further but we are getting closer to Peak Oil whereby Oil starts to become more and more expensive due to demand outstripping supply. By 2020 demand for Oil will reach around 120 million barrels a day and that will require some 3 trillon in investment so yer maybe the alternatives time has come but it can only mitigate and not replace. In order to replace Oil you are going to require ways of making hydrogen without fossil fuels but I doubt unless you get fusion that you can meet all demand so fossil fuels are here to stay for at least 100 years.

    Gas is slated to run out by around 2070 and coal for another 200 odd years. We do need clean replacement technologies but maybe we will have to wait a long time before they make a serious indend in fossil fuel use.

  45. 45
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #40, “More data on temperatures in Alaska can be found here”

    Uh-oh. Look what we have here! From about 1997 to the last year of record, there is quite an increase in the mean annual temperatures! Looks like a significant warming is on the way!

    Just trying a “Bob Carter-ism”, but with the opposite viewpoint.

    Seriously, though, it looks like Alaska is about to become a lot warmer in the next decade or two, as it doesn’t appear as if the post-1997 trend will slow.

  46. 46
    jack keith says:

    Regarding Kristof’s column on “The Death of Environmentalism” (March 12, 2005) and its effusive praise of the Nordhaus-Shellenberger essay. It also made harsh references to â��screechingâ�� environmental alarms and â��overzealousâ�� environmentalists. Maybe, indeed, RealClimate has caused him to moderate his thinking of a year ago and re-examine environmentalists’ concerns with more dispassion.

    Although I don�t catch every climate/environmental article run in the Times, the BBC science/nature webpages ( has coverage that seems to be far more comprehensive and �zealous� in its efforts than that of the Times and other mainstream media here. And lest I forget: thanks for this great source of information and debate.

  47. 47
    Ex Politico says:

    Since global warming is an emerging science, I’d be interested in your take on recent notables expressing their opinions, namely Al Gore and Michael Crichton. From a lay point of view, with competing “facts” from Michael Crichton, Al Gore and a minimal amount from the news media, all one can do is ask for more information and more “facts.” The preview of Gore’s new movie is awesome! And the discussion about controlling the masses with fear in “State of Fear” is equally fearsome.

    It used to be that there would be a dialogue – in the news, in the senate, at clubs, bars and diners – and then an elective process that institutionalized the facts into law or policy. The resulting governmental action made the facts real.

    But who do you trust these days? A government where the facts aren’t? Competing notables? Hence, this expression of my own fears and interpretations (reflected in my blog) and my question to you.


    [Response: Controlling the masses with fear is indeed a time-honored government tradition, but it's not climate scientists who are doing this. I bet you can think of a few more compelling examples if you think a bit. Gore's science isn't flawless, but in a nutshell it's far, far closer to the truth than anything you'll find in Crichton. See our various posts on Crichton. We may do one on Gore after we've seen the latest. --raypierre]

  48. 48
    Dan says:

    re:45. Goodness, all you need to do is simple search a the top of this page for “Crichton” and there is plenty to read and understand about his gross deception, distortions, junk science and falsehoods. “Facts” are not a part of his repertoire. ;-)

  49. 49
    John Bolduc says:

    The Washington Post reports today on a new paper in Nature by Dr. Hegerl et al at Duke. The WP article is entitled “Climate Change Will be Significant but Not Extreme, Study Predicts”. The article seems to take the approach that we should be concerned but not worry about catastrophe. I don’t have a subscription to Nature, so I can’t see what the authors actually say. But it seems like they are leaving out possible events such as the “methane burp”. Wondering what the scientists think about this.

    [Response: The Hegerl study is about climate sensitivity, to which methane burps aren't relevant (in the Change = forcing * sensitivity sense: the burps are (or rather, would be) part of the forcing half of the equation) - William]

  50. 50
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re 44: The will to change is indeed the question. I don’t know where you get your low population figures. Population is expected to peak somewhere between 9 and 11 billion people. At any rate if you use the expected population growth through 2050, give everyone per capita GDP equal to U.S. GDP in 2000, and assume energy is used five times as efficiently as the U.S. does, you come up with 22 Terawatts of consumption. My point is not only that we can phase out 60% to 70%, but that we can phase all fossil fuel consumption out in 30 years. Even if we have hit peak oil, (and since we’ve had a lot of years in a row with no production increase that can’t be ruled out) it means that we will have a bit less available each year. The same phasing out of fossil fuel we need for global warming purposes can phase out the use of oil faster than production declines. If we as a society (not as individuals) decide to phase out fossil fuels we can do it. While for all sorts of reasons, a PV+storage path would be far preferable if we can bring the costs down, means similar to the ones I outlined would let us start today, and reduce fossil fuel use all the way to zero with todays technology at todays prices, and spend no more overall than what we currently pay for fossil fuels. In short there is a zero economic cost path to phasing out fossil fuels with efficiency and renewables.

    I know that in practice we may not need to phase out fossil fuels completely; on the other hand, given that there are still huge unknowns in this area, I am just as glad we have the option.

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