The physical impacts of the global warming forecast can be bracketed with some degree of statistical confidence. Biological effects are more difficult to gauge, except in special cases such as the likely demise of polar bears that would result from the demise of Arctic sea ice. The societal effects, however, are nearly uncharted territory, at least to me. Perhaps the topic of global warming suffers from the same sort of cultural divide as university faculties, between the techies and the touchies; that is the sciences and the humanities. A new report (pdf) called The Age of Consequences, just released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, tries to bring the social sciences, in particular history, geography, and political science, into the forecast of climate change in the coming century. It makes for fascinating if frightening reading. More »
People don’t seem to embrace global measures of temperature rise (~0.2ºC/decade) or sea level rise (> 3mm/yr) very strongly. They much prefer more iconic signs – The National Park formerly-known-as-Glacier, No-snows of Kilimanjaro, Frost Fairs on the Thames etc. As has been discussed here on many occasions, any single example often has any number of complicating factors, but seen as part of a pattern (Kilimanjaro as an example of the other receding tropical glaciers), they can be useful for making a general point. However, the use of an icon as an example of change runs into difficulty if it is then interpreted to be proof of that change.
With respect to sea level, the Thames Barrier is a concrete example that has been frequently raised.
We have a minor tradition of doing a climate-related book review in the lead up to the holidays and this year shouldn’t be an exception. So here is a round-up of a number of new books that have crossed our desks, some of which might be interesting to readers here.
This article continues the critique of writings on climate change by Allègre and Courtillot, started in Part I . If you would like to read either post in French, please click on the flag icon beside the post title above.
Prelude: It’s the physics, stupid
…which of course is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s famous quote regarding the economy. We put the last word in small letters since we’ve learned that it is not a good debating technique to imply (even inadvertently) that those who are having trouble seeing the force of our arguments might be stupid. What we wish to emphasize by this paraphrase is the simple fact that the expectation of a causal link between increasing long-lived greenhouse gases (like CO2) and increasing temperature does not rest on some vague, unexplained correlation between 20th century temperature and 20th century greenhouse gas concentration.
The anticipated increase in temperature was predicted long before it was detectable in the atmosphere, indeed long before it was known that atmospheric CO2 really was increasing; it was first predicted by Arrhenius in 1896 using extremely simple radiation balance ideas, and was reproduced using modern radiation physics by Manabe and co-workers in the 1960′s. Neither of these predictions rests on general circulation models, which came in during subsequent decades and made more detailed forecasts possible.
Still, the basic prediction of warming is founded on very fundamental physical principles relating to infrared absorption by greenhouse gases, theory of blackbody radiation, and atmospheric moist thermodynamics. All these individual elements have been verified to high accuracy in laboratory experiments and field observations. For a time, there was some remaining uncertainty about whether water vapor feedback would amplify warming in the way hypothesized in the early energy balance models, but a decade or two of additional observational and theoretical work has shown that there is no real reason to doubt the way in which general circulation models calculate the feedback. When modified by inclusion of the cooling effect of anthropogenic aerosols, the theory gives a satisfactory account of the pattern of 20th and 21st century temperature change.
No other theory based on quantified physical principles has been able to do the same. If somebody comes along and has the bright idea that, say, global warming is caused by phlogiston raining down from the Moon, that does not make everything we know about thermodynamics, infrared absorption, energy balance, and temperature suddenly go away. Rather, it is the job of the phlogiston advocate to quantify the effects of phlogiston on energy balance, and incorporate them in a consistent way beside the existing climate forcings. Virtually all of the attempts to poke holes in the anthropogenic greenhouse theory lose sight of this simple and unassailable principle.
In a paper entitled "Are there connections between the Earth’s magnetic field and climate?" published recently in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Courtillot and co-authors attempt to cast doubt on carbon dioxide as a primary driver of recent (and presumably future) climate change; he argues instead that fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field (partly driven by solar variability) have an important and neglected role. Like most work of this genre, it is carried out in an intellectual void — as if everything we know currently about physics of climate had to be set aside in order to make way for one new (or in fact not-so-new) idea. But the problems don’t end there. With the help of a Comment published by Bard and Delaygue (available here at EPSL or here as pdf) , we’ll expose a pattern of suspicious errors and omissions that pervades Courtillot’s paper. Sloppiness and ignorance is by far the most charitable interpretation that can be placed on this pattern.
There’s always a feeling of tristesse when they start pulling down the circus tents and loading the last of the elephants into their trailers. The last day of AGU feels a bit like that. AGU puts one much in mind of those medieval faires, or the Jokkmokk Vintermarknad, where people gathered (and still gather, in the latter case) from time to time to exchange goods and the latest news. Our own faire is a marketplace of ideas, though you can buy some nifty stuff here,too. Like a medieval faire, this is a social event as well — a time of feasting and revels, of renewing old friendships, and of making new ones. Happily, any brawls we have here are rather genteel ones.
But, it’s not over ’til it’s over especially in view of the fact that I was chairing (and giving the last talk at) the very last session of the whole shooting match — on evolution of extrasolar Large Earths. A dedicated group of extrasolar types stayed around for the fun. Closer to home, though, I dropped in on the session on Pliocene climate and the session on geoengineering.