RealClimate logo

Perspectives from China

Filed under: — gavin @ 26 September 2007

I spent the last three weeks in China partly for a conference, partly for a vacation, and partly for a rest. In catching up over the last couple of days, I notice that the break has given me a slightly different perspective on a couple of issues that are relevant here.

First off, the conference I attended was on paleoceanography and there were was a lot of great new science presented, particularly concerning the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (around 55 million years ago), and on past changes to tropical rainfall patterns (see this week’s Nature) – two issues where there is a lot of relevance for climate change and its impacts today. I’ll discuss the new data in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now I’ll just mention a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations over the week – that was how to improve the flow of information from the paleo community to the wider climate community, as represented by the IPCC for instance.

There was a palpable sense that insights from paleo-climate (in this case referring mainly to the ocean sediment record rather than ice cores or records from the last millennium) were not being given their due, and in fact were frequently being misused. In a panel discussion (hosted by Stefan), people lamented the lack of ‘synthesis’ that would be useful for the outside community, while others stressed (correctly) that synthesis is hard and frankly not well regarded within the community or their funders. I think this is a general problem; many of the incentives for success within an academic field – the push for novel techniques, the ownership of specific slices of data, the desire to emulate the paths to success of the previous generation – actually discourage work across the field that pulls together disparate sources of information.

In the paleo-oceanography case, this exhibits itself in the overwhelming focus on downcore records (the patterns of change at a single point through time) and the relative lack of integrated products that either show spatial patterns of change at a single time, or that try to extract common elements from multiple events in the past. There are of course numerous exceptions – the MARGO project that compiled records from the peak of the last ice age, or the work of PMIP for the mid-Holocene – but their visibility makes their uniqueness all the more obvious. There were no ideas presented that would fix this overnight, but the discussions showed that the community realises that there is a problem – even if the solutions are elusive.

My second thought on China came from travelling through some of the most polluted cites in the world. Aerosol haze that appeared continuous from Beijing to Hong Kong is such an obvious sign of human industrial activity that it simply takes your breath away (literally). In places, even on a clear day, you cannot see the sun – even if there is no cloud in the sky. Only in the mountains or in deeply rural parts of the country was blue sky in evidence. This is clearly an unsustainable situation (even if you are only thinking about the human health impacts) and it points the way, I think, to how China can be engaged on the climate change front. If reducing aerosol emissions can be done at the same time that greenhouse gases can be cut, the Chinese will likely jump at the chance. As an aside, I noticed that Compact Florescent Light bulbs were being used almost everywhere you looked, and that the majority of Shanghai’s motorbikes and scooters were electric rather than gasoline powered. These efforts clearly help, but they are just as clearly not sufficient on their own.

Finally, the limited access to the Internet that one gets in China (through a combination of having better things to do with one’s time and the sometimes capricious nature of what gets through the Great Firewall) allowed me to take a bit of break from the constant back and forth on the climate blogs. In getting back into it, one appreciates just how much time is wasted dealing with the most ridiculous of issues (Hansen’s imagined endorsement of a paper he didn’t write thirty six years ago, the debunking of papers that even E&E won’t publish, and the non-impact of the current fad for amateur photography) at the expense of anything substantive. In effect, if possibly not in intention, this wastes a huge amount of people’s time and diverts attention from more significant issues (at least in the various sections of the blogosphere). Serious climate bloggers might all benefit from not getting too caught up in it, and keeping an closer eye on the bigger picture. We will continue to try and do so here.

183 Responses to “Perspectives from China”

  1. 151
    David B. Benson says:


    China creates lots of BC (black carbon, i.e., soot). I am under the impression that quite a bit of this makes its way to the Arctic. If so, this certainly promotes melting.

    If correct, Antarctica ought to melt rather more slowly…

  2. 152
    Ian Perrin says:

    Does RC have a refutation of Gerlich & Tscheuscner’s Falsification Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects
    Within The Frame Of Physics in which they refute the whole basis in physics of the GHG phenomenon. The paper is .

  3. 153
    Denis Jonnes says:

    I came to this blog via the NY Times article on arctic melting. This came a day after an article
    plus video of falling water levels in the Great Lakes. We also know that large areas of the south,
    midwest, west and east of the U.S. are suffering drought, as is the Amazon river basin, large areas
    of Australia, as well as parts of Japan (Fukuoka city, in prefecture where I live,
    has just built its first de-salinization plant). China is building enormous canal/pipeline
    to transport water from south to water-starved Beijing and Shanghai areas.
    My question for the experts: re we in the middle of what appears to be a growing
    world wide drought? If so, where is the water going? Is it possible that planet will
    become so hot that water that evaporates will not cool sufficiently to fall as rain or snow?

    Denis Jonnes
    Washington D. C./Kitakyushu, Japan

  4. 154
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Does RC have a refutation of Gerlich & Tscheuscner’s Falsification Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects
    Within The Frame Of Physics in which they refute the whole basis in physics of the GHG phenomenon.

    They don’t refute the physics. They dispute the physics. With assertions.

    That should tell you something.

  5. 155
    Bryan S says:

    Open Letter to Real Climate

    Here is my caution to those who might be taken in by the current popular and scientific enthusiasm surrounding the PETM. Focusing so much attention on the short spike in d13C at the 55 million year mark is akin to cherry picking a single extreme weather event over the background of longer term climate. By doing so, one risks missing the big picture (longer trend) of what is happening on Earth during much of the early Paleogene, and also risks misdiagnosing the dynamics driving the system.

    The d18O proxy demonstrates that the Paleocene and Eocene were extremely warm climates for many millions of years on either side of the PETM. Robert and Kennett (1994) suggest relatively warm surface and bottom waters throughout much of the Paleocene. There is also no strong evidence of significant ice on any continent from the K-T boundary all the way until the beginning of the Middle Eocene (Abreu and Anderson, 1998). This is a 15 million year warm spell on Earth! Maybe 55 million years was a distinct short duration event, and the peak of the warmth (Stott et al., 1990) but the spike occurred over a background of a much, much warmer world than present day. The sequence stratigraphic record demonstrates sea levels were running 100-200 meters higher than present throughout much of the early Paleogene (Mitchum, 1994). This important background information seems to get lost in much of the current climate change discussion.

    Beyond the popular myths, I struggle with finding much in common between our modern climate setting and the ancient climate during the early Paleogene, other than physics. Remember that this was a time in Earth history when there were a bunch of divergent plate margins around. The bathymetry and circulation of the Southern Ocean was changing rapidly. Australia and Antarctica continued to rift apart, and South America and Antarctic Peninsula may have still been connected (Schettino and Scotese, 2004). These tectonic conditions likely had a profound effect on the thermal structure of the world ocean. Explosive volcanic activity changed in response to the worldwide tectonic setting, and marine and terrestrial biota were quickly adapting or dying out in response to the environmental changes. Milankovitch Cycles are also superimposed on these other changes. It is not hard to imagine periodic strongly non-linear biogeochemical responses to these other conditions teleconnecting through the system. A really difficult question is sorting out what is initially forcing the changes, and what is feedback in response to the initial changes.

    In my view, climatology and geology are really different types of metrics for the same strongly non-linear dynamical system we call planet Earth, with feedback between its many components. If we desire to construct a model to better understand the PETM in proper context, we might also endeavor to write code describing plate tectonics, geomorphology, biogeochemistry, sedimentation and crustal loading, compaction and decompaction, structural deformation of the crust, and paleo-ocean circulation. Otherwise there is some chance we will not properly diagnose the dynamics driving the Paleocene-Eocene climate, and will risk drawing incorrect conclusions about its relevance to us today. I completely reject the hypothesis that greenhouse gases are the only significant driver of climate throughout the geological past. They are more often a feedback to other system and external forcing changes. Are they a first order forcing? Yes. Are they the only significant forcing? No.

    In summary, everyone needs to be cautious not to misuse paleo-climate data. I fear the current fixation on modeling the PETM is a fad in earth science. Remember the hoola hoop and rubix cube? Like the very popular 1970’s leisure suit, we might look back on this in 30 years, and it will look awfully silly.

    [Response: Possibly you have a different perspective on what is going on in paleo-climate and geology, but I’m a little puzzled at your strong reaction. Given the very few people involved in either publishing on PETM data or doing any relevant modelling, the notion that this is somehow sweeping the community to the detriment of other worthy paleo-climate changes is a strange one. The PETM is interesting because it seems to give insight into what happens when you put a lot of carbon into the system very quickly (relatively speaking) – there is therefore an obvious analogy to today’s situation, even given the vastly different base climate of the early Eocene. Are you not even curious as to what could have been happening? I think everyone is aware that on geologic timescales greenhouse gases are not the only thing that is important. For instance, lots of work continues to be done on gateway openings/closings due to tectonics, orography changes, orbital forcing etc. The ‘problem’ (such as it is) with issues of sediment compaction, geomorphology etc. is not that they are uninteresting scientific issues (far from it), but that their relevance to today’s situation is less. Like it or not, getting increased funding and interest into deep time paleo relies on making it relevant to the much larger pot of money available for climate change studies – I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is the situation to be faced. Not all of paleo will grab that attention, and so it will inevitably be that some events, or periods are highlighted. – gavin]

  6. 156
    James says:

    Re #153: [My question for the experts: re we in the middle of what appears to be a growing world wide drought? If so, where is the water going?]

    I’m not an expert, but in chatting with gardeners from around the world, it seems as though for every place having a drought, there’s someplace else that is having way more rain than usual – northern Europe, for instance.

    Also consider that in some places – China, parts of the western US, etc – it’s not so much a drought as it is a matter of humans using more than the available water supply, depleting aquifers & groundwater which in turn reduces the natural plant cover that traps what rain does fall.

  7. 157
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re # 153

    “My question for the experts: re we in the middle of what appears to be a growing
    world wide drought? If so, where is the water going?”


    I would venture it isn’t “going” anywhere, if your question relates to the idea of water “disappearing”. What does seem to be occurring is a change in patterns.

    From “Confronting Climate Change” pp: 30-31:

    “Water Resources: Changes in the timing, amounts, and location of precipitation, along with warmer temperatures, will reduce mountain snowpack, alter river flows, and reduce warm-season soil moisture. In mountainous regions, snow will be present for shorter periods and at higher elevations, and spring runoff is likely to occur earlier. With rainfall tending to occur in more intense events, stream flows are likely to fluctuate more than at present, and water temperatures between storms are likely to rise, altering the conditions on which freshwater fish species depend. Earlier melting of river ice, which is essential so that some migrating species and their young can cross rivers to reach traditional feeding grounds, will create a life-threatening stress. Warmer temperatures will lead to greater evaporation and more rapid onset of the low soil-moisture conditions that intensify drought. In addition, warming will tend to thaw permafrost areas, altering stream flow and local hydrology, and possibly increasing the release of CH4 and CO2 from northern soils.

    “In addition to significantly affecting the natural environment and the provision of ecological goods and services on which society depends, climate change will have direct consequences for society and its built systems. The altered timing, flow rates, and temperatures of rivers will require adjustments in the management and location of water-supply systems to meet future demand, especially because higher temperatures are very likely to increase the demand for water during lengthened warm seasons. An additional impact of the higher CO2 concentration will be to enhance growth of vegetation in regions that dry out in the summer, leading to more rapid accumulation of the types and amounts of biomass that are susceptible to wildfire (e.g., chaparral).”

    You can find the full report linked here:

    It isn’t the IPCC, obviously, but for the non-scientific layman it serves as a decent and accessible primer not only to the problem, but to potential solutions, at least, IMHO.

  8. 158
    David B. Benson says:

    Floods in South Asia, China and Africa in the past few months have affected over 4.8 million people.

    As I understand the Hadley Centre prediction, global warming brings more extreme weather events, both drought and flooding. There is, of course, the effect that James mentions in comment #155.

  9. 159
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #155: Bryan, you inadvertently pointed out a key difference between the PETM and the present: Melting ice couldn’t raise sea level then because there was no ice. In sharp contrast, the present ice gives us about 70 meters of potential sea level rise. While it’s true that studying the PETM won’t be of much direct help in terms of figuring out how much and how fast sea level is likely to rise given the present warming trend, studying the Pleistocene glaciations is very useful (and see Climate of the Past for many current public-access papers on the subject). We know, for example, that deglaciations paced by relatively slow orbital cycles are capable of raising sea level on the order of five meters per century. On the one hand we can reduce that number since the associated melting occurred when the Laurentide and Fennoscandian ice sheets existed, but OTOH the unexpectedly rapid polar response we’re already seeing isn’t waiting for orbital changes. So what’s the maximum rate of sea level rise with, e.g, a peak of 700 ppm CO2-equivalent by 2100 with a slow tapering off after that (about the best we’re likely to do IMHO)? Are we so confident it will be negligible that we’re willing to put even more GHGs into the atmosphere?

  10. 160

    #145 Gavin, Your response makes sense, but is not convincing in terms of action to be taken, is especially fodder for contrarians dealing with absolutes.
    Are scientists waiting for am overwhelming preponderence of evidence before they themselves become certain?
    If so what decisions can be taken while Climate change attributions are not yet fully weighted? Are we waiting for another big event before action against AGW becomes absolutely necessary?

    [Response: Why do you assume that absolute certainty is required before undertaking action? That isn’t the case in any other policy sphere, and for me personally, the evidence has been strong enough to imply substantial action for years. – gavin]

  11. 161
    pete best says:

    Re – RE #160

    And considering the USA uses 25% of fossil fuels resources and is the main sponsor of the second largest China I should reckon that it should be leading the way but hey, its looking doubtful.

  12. 162
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #159: Jim Hansen’s latest paper (with Makiko Sato) is on this very subject. The upshot is that exceeding present temps by more than 1C (an increase that we could see with as little as 450 ppm CO2) appears likely to be dangerous, dangerous being defined as risking ice sheet melting. The main basis for this argument is that CO2 levels were at no more than 600 ppm (and possibly somewhat less) 34 million years ago when there were no ice sheets (and sea levels were 70 meters higher than present).

  13. 163
    EthanS says:

    NYT articles yesterday on Arctic Ice also highlighted the major non-warming shift in the ice: the change in the Arctic Oscillation in 1989. Under the pre-1989 phase of the AO, winds and currents tended to keep ice trapped in a slow-moving circuit in the polar regions. That ice was able to last multiple summers, maintaining a thick cap on the ocean. As a result, albedo effects were minimized because even as some ice melted in summer, it was not enough to expose darker waters below.

    Post 1989, this periodic shift in climate patterns in the region had the effect of changing wind currents to drive ice out into the North Atlantic where it melted much more rapidly. The old ice began to disappear. The new ice that re-formed was not as thick, and so was more likely to melt again the following summer.

    In 1987, 80% of Arctic ice cover was older than 10 years. By 2007, less than 2%.

    It’s probable that the rapidly melting Arctic is due to both events: Arctic warming linked to global warming, and the Arctic Oscillation. A warmer Arctic under the pre-1989 phase would not have lost so much ice so quickly. The pre-1989 regime probably did not allow as much warmer southern air into the Arctic, so Arctic temperatures were more insulated from global changes, instead of having their effects amplified.

    It remains to be seen whether there is a causal link or dependence between the two: whether CO2 accumulation and gradual polar warming pre-1989 “caused” (contributed substantially to, etc.) the change in the AO, or whether the AO shift drove a rapid rise in Arctic temperatures beyond the globally-based increases that would otherwise have occurred.

    We were unlucky, or ignorant? We don’t know.

  14. 164
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 163

    “We were unlucky, or ignorant? We don’t know.”


    I’ve always believed in the end we make our luck.

    As for ignorance, at this point any ignorance on the subject amongst people capable of comprehending it strikes me more and more as being of the willful variety.

  15. 165
    EthanS says:

    re 164;

    As for ignorance, at this point any ignorance on the subject amongst people capable of comprehending it strikes me more and more as being of the willful variety.

    I was referring to our luck or ignorance in 1989: we don’t yet know whether the near-simultaneous occurrence of the Arctic Oscillation phase shift in 1989 and the acceleration of sustained rises in global temperatures starting in 1990 was coincidental or related.

    But I agree that at this time there is no true ignorance, only deliberate ambiguity and disingenuousness.

  16. 166
    maurice says:

    Question: Is the information provided here

    regarding the relationship between RC, EMS and Fenton accurate??

    Don’t you think that this information should be disclosed?

    [Response: It’s not accurate. The actuality was discussed here and has been freely available for years. -gavin]

  17. 167
    Zeke Hausfather says:

    Re: 166

    Thats akin to saying that any blog on on the blogspot server is a “baby” of Google, since Google provides the web hosting. Lets judge people by the validity of their arguments, instead of this spurious attempt to tar by association.

  18. 168
    tamino says:

    Totally off topic:

    I’ve noticed lately that when I click on recent comments, for some reason the url includes “/langswitch_lang/fr” which indicates a switch to the French language. I admire French as a beautiful language, but I have no idea why this is. Anybody else notice the same?

    [Response: It’s something funky with the interaction with the language picker and the cache. Not sure how to deal with that…. – gavin]

  19. 169
    ray ladbury says:

    Re 166. It would appear that they still believe that if they tell a lie 100 times, it becomes the truth–just like their intellectual forefather…

  20. 170
    Hank Roberts says:

    >166, 169
    The original mistake dates from 2005.
    It’s posted as news in 2007.

  21. 171
    SteveSadlov says:

    RE: #160 – PG&E are subsidizing CFLs at Costco stores in California. I am getting them for $3 for a whole pack of them, less than what I would pay for incadescents. What do you call that? I call it taking action.

  22. 172
    Timothy Chase says:

    EthanS (#163) wrote:

    NYT articles yesterday on Arctic Ice also highlighted the major non-warming shift in the ice: the change in the Arctic Oscillation in 1989. Under the pre-1989 phase of the AO, winds and currents tended to keep ice trapped in a slow-moving circuit in the polar regions…

    This was the only mention of the Arctic Oscillation I found in the NYT article:

    But another factor was probably involved, one with roots going back to about 1989. At that time, a periodic flip in winds and pressure patterns over the Arctic Ocean, called the Arctic Oscillation, settled into a phase that tended to stop ice from drifting in a gyre for years, so it could thicken, and instead carried it out to the North Atlantic.

    Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts

    Certainly doesn’t sound like they are throwing it out there as an alternative to greenhouse gas induced global warming – but more like a minor bit player.

    Instead they say:

    For one thing, experts are having trouble finding any records from Russia, Alaska or elsewhere pointing to such a widespread Arctic ice retreat in recent times, adding credence to the idea that humans may have tipped the balance. Many scientists say the last substantial warming in the region, peaking in the 1930s, mainly affected areas near Greenland and Scandinavia.

    Some scientists who have long doubted that a human influence could be clearly discerned in the Arctic’s changing climate now agree that the trend is hard to ascribe to anything else.

    Smart on their part.

    The Arctic Oscillation roughly decadal. Which means that if the melt began in 1990 and it were strictly due to the Arctic Oscillation, then everything else being the same, it should return to where it was by 2000 – which would be roughly where it was in 1980, 1970, 1960, etc.. But it would appear that not everything is the same – since things have gotten progressively worse.

  23. 173
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 172

    Timothy, you provided a link to:

    Arctic Melt Unnerves the Experts

    And well it should.

    However, the super-saturation of news articles, blogs, etc focused only on the discussion of melted ice ignore the paramount issues of what does this mean to NH climate; and particularly western NA temp and precip patterns.

    Can you or someone out there focus a bit on possible impacts of ice melt (including high and low pressure systems forming where they seldom do)?

    At least one meteorologist, Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist with the Weather Channel is trying to understand impacts of ice melt aside from reducing polar bear habitat.

    His blog at:

    offered the following observation:

    [And the Arctic is interconnected with the rest of the world.

    Some who are skeptical of the seriousness of global warming like to point out that there’s uncertainty in the forecasts made by global climate models. I’m certainly not one to argue with model uncertainty; in fact, a couple of my blogs on about recent tropical storms and hurricanes focused on errors in the weather models which entail much shorter-range forecasts than climate models. But what seems to be happening is that if the latter are erring in one direction, it’s that they have failed to predict the rapidity with which some of the climate-related changes are taking place. ]

    I say, lets get past the hand wringing about extent of ice melt and get on with understanding its global implications for world grain supplies and hydro power in the West.

    It is time the NSF got into the act and invest as much time and money as it did to write up the Abrupt Climate Change report. We are looking at an abrupt climate change in the Arctic ice melt back but all we can see is the open ocean. There is more to this story but nobody seems ready to write Page Two.

  24. 174
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 173

    Gavin, the NH impact of Arctic sea ice melt might not be well understood at present but some discussion of the need to understand its climatological impact is a worthy RC topic. As Senior Meteorologist, Stu Ostro has said:

    [the Arctic is interconnected with the rest of the world]

  25. 175
    John L. McCormick says:

    Here is some good news for a change:

    No more worrying about Arctic ice meltback. It is off the front page til next August.

    What a relief!

    Now, we can move on to the next headline.

  26. 176
    John L. McCormick says:


    Bates, pose an interesting aspect of Arctic sea ice meltback. It is possibly the only positive negative feedback mechanism from the open ocean appearing sooner and lasting longer.

    An increasing CO2 sink in the Arctic Ocean due to sea-ice loss

    Nicholas R. Bates, et. al.

    GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 33, L23609, doi:10.1029/2006GL027028, 2006

    The Arctic Ocean and adjacent continental shelf seas such as the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are particularly sensitive to long-term change and low-frequency modes of atmosphere-ocean-sea-ice forcing. The cold, low salinity surface waters of the Canada Basin of the Arctic Ocean are undersaturated with respect to CO2 in the atmosphere and the region has the potential to take up atmospheric CO2, although presently suppressed by sea-ice cover. Undersaturated seawater CO2 conditions of the Arctic Ocean are maintained by export of water with low dissolved inorganic carbon content and modified by intense seasonal shelf primary production. Sea-ice extent and volume in the Arctic Ocean has decreased over the last few decades, and we estimate that the Arctic Ocean sink for CO2 has tripled over the last 3 decades (24 Tg yr−1 to 66 Tg yr−1) due to sea-ice retreat with future sea-ice melting enhancing air-to-sea CO2 flux by ∼28% per decade.

  27. 177
    ScaredAmoeba says:

    Don’t know where to post this

    Broken link on sidebar

    Their webpage structure has changed!

  28. 178

    > which is out of context in the passage it’s in, but could be said to only be a little ahead of it’s time.

    Two uses of it’s, one of them right, the other wrong. Sorry, but little children are visiting here…

  29. 179
    Patrick Henry says:

    It is absurd to believe that a one degree rise in global temperatures will melt either the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets. Both ice sheets average dozens of degrees below freezing during the warmest weeks of summer, and Antarctica just set the record for maximum sea ice extent – indicative of unusually cold temperatures. Obviously there is more to the start and end of ice ages than the single variable this web site compulsively focuses on day after day. The last ice age ended when CO2 was at a minimum, and started when CO2 was at a maximum.

    Sometimes it pays to use a little common sense.

    [Response: Which website are you referring to? (aerosols, ozone, solar, methane, volcanoes, orbital forcing etc…). Sometimes it pays to do a little reading. – gavin]

  30. 180
    David B. Benson says:

    Patrick Henry (179) — You might care to read

  31. 181
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Patrick Henry, Your post is a wonderful example of why common sense cannot be considered to be common. First, look up polar amplification. Second, what matters is peak temperature–as that is when the melting occurs. You could really look this stuff up rather than assuming you have a complete understanding of it based on your “common sense”.

  32. 182
    Lu says:


    I am a scholar from China. I like your article.

    I think it should be remembered for every one that the energy comsumption per capita in China is only 1/4 of the Americans.

    here is a blog entry by a Havard professor:

  33. 183
    David B. Benson says:

    Lu (182) — Thank you. I am impressed it is now that large. That means it is about 1/2 that of Europeans.