Live (almost) from AGU–Dispatch #1

Leigh Stearns and collaborators point out that the Greenland Ice Sheet’s contribution to sea level has doubled in the past five years, due largely to factors connected with ice dynamics (and not incorporated in the IPCC estimates). They showed satellite data which indicates that just two glaciers — Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq — might account for 10% of this increase. Ominously, more glaciers are primed to pop as climate continues to warm. About the increased flow speeds in this region, they suggest the system has entered a new state: “We speculate that these faster flow speeds represent a new long-term state of behavior which, while not as dramatic as the short-lived periods of peak speeds, have important implications for the rate of sea level rise.”

Mark Fahnestock and collaborators presented additional evidence of the responsiveness of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change around the margins. Changes in outlet glacier systems correlate very well with changes in the temperature of the neighboring sea waters. Some of this may be due to increased melt in the ablation zone, but the effect of warm waters on the calving zone where glaciers discharge into the sea may be a factor,as may be direct mechanical effects of sea ice. The coasts of Greenland have experienced dramatic warming, with satellite data showing the sea having warmed by 4C over the past 15 years. Winter freezing along the coast has shown a dramatic decrease (noticed even by the local Inuit, who in places can no longer traverse certain fjords on dogsled in winter). The dramatic decline in winter freezing shows up in satellite-based sea ice extent maps. If the sea ice goes, can Greenland be far behind? Altogether, things are beginning to look very grim in Greenland — a sentiment expressed by many of the presenters.

Now, that was some of the interesting science, fascinating if scary. Another presentation given today was scary in quite a different way, and altogether aggravating. John Marburger, President Bush’s Science Advisor, gave the Union Agency Lecture. His lecture was called “Reflections on the Science and Policy of Energy and Climate Change.” The good news, I suppose, is that he at least stated that he accepted the established physical connection between CO2 increase and warming — the inhibition of infrared emission by CO2, amplified by water vapor feedback. That’s about the only good thing I can say about the lecture. It was basically an hour long apology for the White House global warming policy. And don’t get me wrong — by “apology” I do not mean that he was expressing regret for the dismal performance of the White House in this sphere.

While acknowledging the correctness of the basic physics, Marburger implied that it was impossible to make useful predictions of climate damages, because of difficulties models have with forecasting regional climate change and things like response of El Nino to warming. Over and over, he castigated the community for being reluctant to do research on adaptation, and over and over stated that adaptation was cheaper than mitigation (reducing CO2 emissions). He stated that it was going to be basically impossible to reduce emissions significantly anyway, since the technologies didn’t exist to do that (I guess he never read Pacala and Socolow’s paper on the wedge concept). His basic answer to everything was that nobody would (or should) do anything until carbon free energy became cheaper than current means of producing energy by burning fossil fuels. There was no recognition that things like carbon taxes might be necessary to put the cost of harms due to climate change into the market. These damages were basically ignored in his world view — except insofar as he said they should be handled by adaptation. “Anthropogenic Climate Change is not the only source of risk to vulnerable populations” He mentioned the need for clean water — the favorite example for everybody who wants to ignore climate change.

He had lots of praise for fossil fuels “Fossil fuels have made modern economies possible.” and echoed the Bush administration line by saying the goal should be to reduce carbon intensity (carbon per $ of GDP) not carbon emissions. Sorry, Dr. Marburger, but infrared radiative transfer doesn’t give a fig about GDP. It’s the emissions that count, and they somehow have to be brought down.

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