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The certainty of uncertainty

Filed under: — group @ 26 October 2007

A paper on climate sensitivity today in Science will no doubt see a great deal of press in the next few weeks. In “Why is climate sensitivity so unpredictable?”, Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker explore the origin of the range of climate sensitivities typically cited in the literature. In particular they seek to explain the characteristic shape of the distribution of estimated climate sensitivities. This distribution includes a long tail towards values much higher than the standard 2-4.5 degrees C change in temperature (for a doubling of CO2) commonly referred to.

In essence, what Roe and Baker show is that this characteristic shape arises from the non-linear relationship between the strength of climate feedbacks (f) and the resulting temperature response (deltaT), which is proportional to 1/(1-f). They show that this places a strong constraint on our ability to determine a specific “true” value of climate sensitivity, S. These results could well be taken to suggest that climate sensitivity is so uncertain as to be effectively unknowable. This would be quite wrong.

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Gee-Whiz Geoengineering

Filed under: — raypierre @ 25 October 2007

Just about two years ago, Chemistry Nobelist, and atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen opened a huge can of worms by suggesting that, since the world doesn’t seem to be getting its act together to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, it would be prudent to think about emergency measures in which we engineer ourselves out of the crisis by monkeying directly with the Earth’s solar radiation input instead of dealing with the CO2 content of the atmosphere. The specific proposal was to inject chemicals into the stratosphere that would form sulfate aerosols and hence block sunlight. Crude estimates suggest that the aerosol fix (if it is indeed a fix and doesn’t create more problem than it solves) is more technologically feasible than sci-fi dreams of sunshades at the Lagrange point. Not to say technologically feasible, necessarily, but not so far out as the other schemes. Crutzen’s idea, and related geoengineering proposals, have been discussed here on RealClimate. The subject is once more in the news, thanks to this chipper little op-ed by Ken Caldeira, which appeared in the New York Times this week.

Update: I just noticed that our original RealClimate piece was done before Crutzen’s article was published. You’ll find his article here (subscription not required).
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Younger Dry-as dust?

Filed under: — gavin @ 24 October 2007

The Younger Dryas is so called because it corresponds, in the pollen record from Europe, to the latest (i.e. youngest) appearance of the Dryas octopetala pollen, an alpine flower in regions that are now far from alpine. It marks a clear period towards the end of the last ice age when the warming trend of the deglaciation in Europe particularly was interrupted for a period of about 1300 years before it got going again. There were clear glacier advances during this time and the moraines can be seen very clearly all around Europe and Scandinavia.

The clues to what caused this remarkable, if temporary, turnaround have always lain in assessing its spatial extent, the exact timing and correspondence with other events. Two recent papers have shed some welcome and potentially controversial light on the subject.

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Sweatin’ the Mediterranean Heat

Filed under: — group @ 22 October 2007

Guest Commentary from Figen Mekik

This quote from Drew Shindell (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York) hit me very close to home: “Much of the Mediterranean area, North Africa and the Middle East rapidly are becoming drier. If the trend continues as expected, the consequences may be severe in only a couple of decades. These changes could pose significant water resource challenges to large segments of the population” (February, 2007-NASA, Science Daily).

I live in Michigan, but Turkey is my home where I go for vacation on the Med. This year’s drought was especially noteworthy, so I would like to share some of my observations with you, and then explore the links between the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Mediterranean drought and anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The 10-hour flight from Chicago to Istanbul often inspires passengers to romanticize about Istanbul, both tourists and natives alike. Istanbul is the city of legends, forests, and the Bosphorus. It is an open museum of millennia of history with archeological and cultural remnants surrounded by green lush gardens. It is the place where east meets west; where blue meets green; where the great Mevlâna’s inviting words whisper in the wind “Come, come again, whoever you are, come!”

So you can imagine our collective horror as the plane started circling Istanbul and we saw a dry, desolate, dusty city without even a hint of green anywhere.
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Global Warming Delusions at the Wall Street Journal

Filed under: — david @ 18 October 2007

Daniel Botkin, emeritus professor of ecology at UC Santa Barbara, argues in the Wall Street Journal (Oct 17, page A19) that global warming will not have much impact on life on Earth. We’ll summarize some of his points and then take our turn: More »

Convenient Untruths

Filed under: — group @ 15 October 2007 - (Svenska) (Español)

Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann

Update 10/18/07: We are very disappointed that the Washington Post has declined to run an op-ed placing the alleged 9 ‘errors’ in a proper scientific context, despite having run an extremely misleading news article last week entitled “UK Judge Rules Gore’s Climate Film Has 9 Errors”.

Last week, a UK High Court judge rejected a call to restrict the showing of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) in British schools. The judge, Justice Burton found that “Al Gore’s presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate” (which accords with our original assessment). There has been a lot of comment and controversy over this decision because of the judges commentary on 9 alleged “errors” (note the quotation marks!) in the movie’s description of the science. The judge referred to these as ‘errors’ in quotations precisely to emphasize that, while these were points that could be contested, it was not clear that they were actually errors (see Deltoid for more on that).

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The “Have you stopped beating your wife yet (yes/no)” questionnaire

Filed under: — david @ 15 October 2007

I got an email Climate Expert Survey today from, a creation of Steve Milloy. Milloy has practiced to deceive before in the climate arena, and his, claiming to debunk the junk science of others, is actually a terrific source of specious deception in its own right. This survey looks like another such initiative. (Note added later: If you get a copy of this, post a comment or send us an email. We’d like to keep track.)

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CO2 equivalents

Filed under: — gavin @ 11 October 2007

There was a minor kerfuffle in recent days over claims by Tim Flannery (author of “The Weather Makers”) that new information from the upcoming IPCC synthesis report will show that we have reached 455 ppmv CO2_equivalent 10 years ahead of schedule, with predictable implications. This is confused and incorrect, but the definitions of CO2_e, why one would use it and what the relevant level is, are all highly uncertain in many peoples’ minds. So here is a quick rundown.

Definition: The CO2_equivalent level is the amount of CO2 that would be required to give the same global mean radiative forcing as the sum of a basket of other forcings. This is a way to include the effects of CH4 and N2O etc. in a simple way, particularly for people doing future impacts or cost-benefit analysis. The equivalent amount is calculated using the IPCC formula for CO2 forcing:

Total Forcing = 5.35 log(CO2_e/CO2_orig)

where CO2_orig is the 1750 concentration (278 ppmv).

Usage: There are two main ways it is used. Firstly, it is often used to group together all the forcings from the Kyoto greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N2O and CFCs), and secondly to group together all forcings (including ozone, sulphate aerosols, black carbon etc.). The first is simply a convenience, but the second is what matters to the planet. Many stabilisation scenarios, such as are being discussed in UNFCCC negotiations are based on stabilising total CO2_e at 450, 550 or 750 ppmv.

Magnitude The values of CO2_e (Kyoto) and CO2_e (Total) can be calculated from Figure 2.21 and Table 2.12 in the IPCC WG1 Chapter 2. The forcing for CO2, CH4 (including indirect effects), N2O and CFCs is 1.66+0.48+0.07+0.16+0.34=2.71 W/m2 (with around 0.3 W/m2 uncertainty). Using the formula above, that gives CO2_e (Kyoto) = 460 ppmv. However, including all the forcings (some of which are negative), you get a net forcing of around 1.6 W/m2, and a CO2_e (Total) of 375 ppmv with quite a wide error bar. This is, coincidently, close to the actual CO2 level.

Implications The important number is CO2_e (Total) which is around 375 ppmv. Stabilisation scenarios of 450 ppmv or 550 ppmv are therefore still within reach. Claims that we have passed the first target are simply incorrect, however, that is not to say they are easily achievable. It is even more of a stretch to state that we have all of a sudden gone past the ‘dangerous’ level. It is still not clear what that level is, but if you take a conventional 450 ppmv CO2_e value (which will lead to a net equilibrium warming of ~ 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels), we are still a number of years from that, and we have (probably) not yet committed ourselves to reaching it.

Finally, the IPCC synthesis report is simply a concise summary of the three separate reports that have already come out. It therefore can’t be significantly different from what is already available. But this is another example where people are quoting from draft reports that they have neither properly read nor understood and for which better informed opinion is not immediately available. I wish journalists and editors would resist the temptation to jump on leaks like this (though I know it’s hard). The situation is confusing enough without adding to it unintentionally.

Oregon Institute of Science and Malarkey

Filed under: — group @ 10 October 2007

A large number of US scientists (to our direct knowledge: engineers, biologists, computer scientists and geologists) received a package in the mail this week. The package consists of a colour preprint of a ‘new’ article by Robinson, Robinson and Soon and an exhortation to sign a petition demanding that the US not sign the Kyoto Protocol. If you get a feeling of deja vu, it is because this comes from our old friends, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and is an attempt to re-invigorate the highly criticised 1999 “Oregon Petition“.

The article itself is just an update of the original article, minus an author (Baliunas), with a switch of Robinson children (Zachary’s out, Noah is in), but with a large number of similar errors and language. As in previous case, this paper too, is not peer reviewed.

Since this is a rehash of the previous paper plus a few more cherry-picked statistics of dubious relevance, instead of tediously going through the whole thing ourselves, we are going to try something new – an open source debunking.
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Sustainability: A Nobel Cause

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 October 2007

I would like to share with you some impressions from a remarkable event taking place today and tomorrow in Potsdam: 15 Nobel laureates are meeting with top climate and energy experts and politicians to discuss global sustainability. You can follow the event with its presentations here, with a couple of hours of delay. More »