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Live (almost) from AGU–Dispatch #1

Filed under: — raypierre @ 11 December 2007

Welcome, dear readers. For all of you who have eagerly been awaiting Part II of Les Chevaliers, thank you for your patience; with all the other interesting stuff coming up for discussion at RealClimate, the plans to post Part II ran up against the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, when 15,000 of our prime audience are holed up in San Francisco trying to decide which of a half dozen simultaneous sessions at any time best command their attention. Be of good cheer — Part II will be coming along in about another week. Meanwhile, Yours Truly offers a few off the cuff dispatches giving a personal and unedited view of a few things going on at AGU that may be of interest to the RealClimate readership.Myself, I have been spending a lot of time looking at some of the exciting new data coming in from planetary missions, but I’ll spare you that, and talk about things related to global change. I do not pretend that these are necessarily the most important things going on at the meeting, but they are a few things that I happen to have attended, and which caught my attention.

Today, the climate change related session I got to was Climate Change in Greenland: Past and Present (session C13A), with M. Kelley, I. Hakansson and M. Nettles presiding. Actually, I only got to the second half, because of a conflict with a Mars climate poster session, but the half I got to was a real eye-opener. This was a well-attended (really packed, standing room only) session, that generated a lot of excitement. Perhaps I’ll be able to snag some of the images later in the meeting to show you, but meanwhile I’ll do my best to give you some of the picture in words at least.

To put things in perspective, I should first mention the talk by Tom Lowell, on work in collaboration with about a dozen other authors, concerning organic remains from the Istorvet Ice Cap in East Greenland. These are organic remains recently uncovered by the retreating glacier. Dating them tells you when the glacier had last retreated that far. Carbon-14 dates put the date of this earlier glacial retreat to between AD 800 and 1014, bracketing the time of the Norse colonization. Insofar as glaciers are primarily sensitive to temperature, that does indicate that in the Middle Ages this particular place, at least, was probably as warm as at present. It is an indication of some kind of regional warming in the area in the Middle Ages. Thus, if Greenland were taken in isolation, one couldn’t confidently say that what is going on there just now is completely unprecedented in the Holocene — at least not yet. However, as Tom would happily tell you, the Middle Ages were not as generally warm as the present, and Greenland shouldn’t be taken in isolation. It is the rapid melt in Greenland today, taken as one of a vast constellation of signatures of unusual warming, that gives one cause for concern.

And there was ample evidence presented of startling change going on in Greenland — changes in the ice that could raise sea level far beyond the projections given in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. J.E. Box and collaborators presented new work on Greenland outlet glacier sensitivity to surface melting. Outlet glaciers are the very dynamic “drains” through which Greenland loses much of its ice. Earlier work by Zwally et al documented the rapid sensitivity of surges in such glaciers to melt water forming on the surface and penetrating to the base. Box and company documented how ubiquitous the melt ponds are, and how every one, basically, is pouring water through a moulin down to the base. Valliant graduate students have waded chest-deep in the melt ponds to measure the rate of drainage. The work documented much more broadly than ever before how outlet glacier speed responds to warming of the environment.

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.

It will be no surprise that Marburger hewed to the line that only voluntary carbon reductions should be sought. He referred to “aspirational goals” as the basis for global carbon policy. More remarkably, he put the blame on Congress when somebody asked why no mandatory carbon caps had been put into place — conveniently ignoring that Congress is within a few votes of passing such a cap, but is laboring under a Presidential veto threat. Even more remarkably, in response to a question about White House censorship and re-writing of documents touching on climate change science, he defended these as “Legitimate attempts to improve the communication of science,” and to “correct some fine points that got glossed over.” He baldly stated, “I have not found any evidence of any attempt to censor science.”

Perhaps somebody should ask Jim Hansen for a second opinion on that. I’m sure our readers can provide Dr. Marburger with additional examples, if he needs a reminder.

Now, I know I am dangerously straying away from the central orbit of RealClimate, and risking touching on politics when I comment on Marburger’s speech. As a major speech presented at a national scientific meeting, I think what was said is probably of interest to our readers, or at least those of us who inhabit the reality-based community. What is going on in the White House very much affects the climate in which science is conducted,and the way scientific results are (or are not) translated into policy. As such, I think this is worth a bit of our attention,and I beg your indulgence. the rest of these dispatches will not stray from the straight and narrow, and will focus on purely scientific commentary.

‘Til tomorrow,

Yours Truly,

Ray Pierrehumbert

Note: Information on the meeting (including abstracts and some webcasts) is available here.

133 Responses to “Live (almost) from AGU–Dispatch #1”

  1. 101
    David Appell says:

    I have a transcript of Marburger’s script up on my blog:

  2. 102
    James says:

    Re #58: [Bush, Marburger & Co. have their hands tied. The United States still believes in individual freedoms, and a ‘carbon tax’ is as laughable as an ‘earth-destroying-meteor tax’…]

    Apologies for a short digression into politics, but “the US believes in individual freedoms” as an argument from Bush & company – the same people who give us the “War on Drugs”, the Patriot Act, and so much more – is so far beyond laughable as to recall the classic definition of chutzpah: murder your parents, then ask for mercy because you’re an orphan.

    As for a carbon tax, why is it any more laughable, or impractical, than a sales tax, a property tax, or an income tax?

  3. 103
    James says:

    Re #74: […sustained movement toward a position in which every individual gets a right to an equal share of what GHG emissions can be permitted at a given time.]

    Two problems with that. The first, that emissions are a “right” that has to be distributed equally, is of course political, so I won’t go beyond saying that I disagree.

    The second is the assumption that there’s some permissable level of emissions that can be set by government fiat. To me that assumption is a major mistake. The goal should be to reduce emissions as fast and as far as possible. Setting some permissible level creates more incentives to game the system to get a bigger share than it does to actually reduce one’s emissions.

  4. 104
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Jack Roesler @75: “A local company, First Solar, is working overtime, supplying their thin film panels to Germany, and other European countries, who pay individuals 50 cents/kwhr for excess electricity pumped into the grid. Government subsidies pay most of that, however.”

    Here in Ontario I believe the current rate is 42¢/kw for wind or solar generation into the grid, but much of that is clawed back by monthly administrative fees on the individual homeowner level. It is the 42¢/kw that is the subsidy, btw.

  5. 105
    Keith says:

    Ray. Indeed, fusion seems nothing more than a pipedream. A very expensive one at that. But, hey you never know. Sometimes breakthroughs can be very small and make a huge difference. But I understand the tremendous problems. And yes, i too doubt that it will be a reality in my lifetime and like you I am less than halfway through my life (I hope).

    Conservation of resources and energy. Agreed. Seems like a good plan.

  6. 106

    Michael writes:

    [[The United States still believes in individual freedoms, and a ‘carbon tax’ is as laughable as an ‘earth-destroying-meteor tax’, or evangelicals imposing a ‘morality tax’. I have no right to tell you what to do and you have no right to tell me what to do (even if you reeeeeeeeally believe in your cause). Participation in emissions reduction has to be voluntary.]]

    By that logic, if I want to dump potassium cyanide into your artesian well, you have no right to stop me. I have no right to tell you what to do, and you have no right to tell me what to do. My stopping has to be voluntary.

  7. 107

    [[Comment by G.R.L. Cowan, hydrogen-to-boron convert — ]]

    How do you convert hydrogen to boron? Aren’t they both elements? You’d need a nuclear reactor of some sort.

  8. 108
    John Mashey says:

    re: #75, #76
    Many of us believe that the best watts are negawatts, and ther are a lot tobe had. The Sovacool/Brown book, “Energy and American Society- Thirteen Myths” has several good chapters on energy efficiency.

    However, the *key* to Jack’s specific problem is the rules that the local PUC sets. If those rules incent a utility to sell more pwoer, that’s what they’ll do. If they incent the utility for overall efficiency, they will act different.
    Nothing much will happen until the PUCs in all states get with it … or so sayeth the CEO of our local (California) utility PG&E:

    Jack: go start chasing your PUC to start looking at CA rules.

  9. 109

    David Miller writes:

    [[With current consumption trends oil will be virtually gone in a small number of decades. In this time, barring the truly unexpected in Greenland, the sea level will rise a few inches to (worst case) maybe a foot.

    I think the current infrastructure will handle that just fine.]]

    A foot of sea level rise is enough to poison aquifers and back up sewers in parts of some coastal cities. It would cause billions of dollars worth of damage.

  10. 110
    Michael says:

    #72 Chuck Booth,

    Are you saying you don’t believe in individual freedoms? Do you realize if one group has access to the US governments regulatory powers and restrictions, that you have to allow all groups that same privilege. Dominant religous groups would like to see condoms taken off shelves, heavy taxes and restrictions on ‘sin’, womens rights revoked. And many AIDS advocates could find better uses for GW funds, for instance. The list of causes in need of your money and freedoms is endless. I support a government that defends individual freedoms, and I think you do to, you just don’t know it.

  11. 111
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Michael #58, It would appear that in the face of a serious perceived threat (be it terrorism or climate change), the American people develop a degree of elasticity about their personal liberties. Indeed, it is because we wish to avoid the sort of ill advised, draconian measures the people may demand in times of fear that we need to begin acting now while the light of reason still prevails.

  12. 112
    richard ordway says:

    About possible sea level rises this next century…

    I believe Jim Hansen has published initially that sea levels could rise by two meters or six feet in the next 100 years if events really go badly…but that is of course only preliminary results in Environmental Research letters, May 24, 07 and a few other publications he did..but it is really questionable, in my opinion, to put out numbers at this stage.

  13. 113
    Phil Scadden says:

    Well “left” and “right” mean different things to you obviously. I’m not American. What has to happen is a cap on carbon. This is not a left/right issue. How you implement a cap on is. A carbon tax is a central government solution. Buying credits to offset emissions is another. Or is the “right” in America simply in denial and incapable of a solution at all? Carbon emissions cost plain and simple; adapt or geoengineer the trick is get the costs paid for by emitters and not the say the poor in Bangladesh. In absense of any geoengineering scheme shown to work, you need cap until you have found one.

  14. 114
    Richard LaRosa says:

    Reducing GHG emissions to the atmosphere is necessary but not sufficient because atmospheric GHG concentrations will still increase, albeit at a slower rate. Solar input to Earth already exceeds IR radiation to space, so the oceans will continue to store heat. Ice melting will continue to accelerate.

    We need additional help, like pumping up deep cold water and distributing it at the surface at the rate of one million cubic meters per second. In addition to surface cooling, the up-welled water will supply nutrients to increase food production and slow down ocean acidification.

  15. 115
    Ron Taylor says:

    Hoh boy! Michael, you seem to believe that anyone can do whatever the hell they want, no matter the consequences for others.

    Nigel (#52) I think you have really hit the nail on the head. There is no reason to believe that the world is going to respond to our situation in a adequate manner. So it would seem there will be a very great deal of disorder and disruption ahead before the seriousness of the issue sinks in.

  16. 116
    Bruce Tabor says:

    Thanks Ray,

    I do keep trying to raise the point that you cannot seperate climate science from climate politics or climate policy, much as RealClimate tries to stick to the science alone. The people best equipped to inform climate politics and policy are climate scientists themselves. (Another example might be HIV. How can a moral individual who knows the science of AIDS not call for policy change in the face of government denial of the science.)

    From what you say I would describe the talk by John Marburger, President Bush’s Science Advisor, as a justification of the administration’s policies, rather than an apology. His approach sounds very much like that advocated by Bjorn Lomberg in the Sceptical Environmentalist:
    Basically it’s too expensive to reduce carbon emissions, so we should look at adaptation. (This is a slight caricature of his position as he does emphasise the need for doing a cost-benefit analysis.)

    The “aspirational goals” you refer to sound suspiciously familiar too. In Australia our former Prime Minister John Howard was famous for talking about aspirational goals,targets etc. I remember a Newspaper cartoon by Alan Moir. On the left was the heading “Target” with an archery target standing in a field.
    On the right was the heading “Aspirational Target” with the same target painted on the side of a flying pig!

  17. 117
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #80 (Barton Paul Levenson) “How do you convert hydrogen to boron?”

    First the hydrogen must show a genuine desire to change. Then I believe there’s an intensive instruction course, followed by some sort of ceremony, the details of which the convert is sworn never to divulge.

  18. 118
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 83 Michael:

    “Are you saying you don’t believe in individual freedoms?”

    I don’t think I said that, did I?

    “Do you realize if one group has access to the US governments regulatory powers and restrictions,…”

    It’s called lobbying, and I’m quite sure it is going on every day in the halls and offices of the U.S. Congress – surely this is no surprise to you?

    “… that you have to allow all groups that same privilege.”
    Unfortunately, no – it is the special interests with the big buckes that can afford lobbyists (some of whom are former government officials) to argue their cause to members of congress – it is often quite difficult for ordinary citizens to argue their cause – surely this is not surprise to you, either?

    “Dominant religous groups would like to see condoms taken off shelves, heavy taxes and restrictions on ’sin’, womens rights revoked. And many AIDS advocates could find better uses for GW funds, for instance. The list of causes in need of your money and freedoms is endless.”

    Yes, and they are often successful at the local and state level, less often at the federal level, though they keep trying. That’s why their is a ban on using federal money for most embryonic stem cell research. Please don’t tell me you didn’t already know this?

    “I support a government that defends individual freedoms, and I think you do to, you just don’t know it.”

    Of course I do, but sometimes we have to put up with the tyranny of the majority.

    I don’t see how any of this is relevant to my point that the U.S. EPA has a mandate to regulate the introduction of pollutants into the environment. Protecting us from environmental pollutants is, I think, a proper role for the federal government, as is protecting our borders against those who might harm us.

  19. 119
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 89 My response to Michael:

    I guess the RC moderators are too busy to do spell checking for us?

  20. 120
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The key to preserving individual liberties is having a population that regulates its own behavior so that no one infringes on anyone else’s liberty or rights. Know of anyplace answering to that description? Neither do I.

  21. 121
    Mary C says:

    Re 86. Or is the “right” in America simply in denial and incapable of a solution at all?


    I am totally baffled by the fact that the subject of AGW is for so many on the right seen as a partisan political issue rather than a scientific question with real-world consequences.

  22. 122
    barry says:

    “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.”

    A skeptic I’ve been discussing the IPCC with points out that there is no section on IR absorption by CO2 (and, importantly to him, water vapour). My reply was that this level of detail is too technical for a tertiary document, and that he would find what he wanted in the studies referenced.

    There followed a few days days with he and I combing through the studies listed in the 2007 and 2001 IPCC reports. I pointed him to GEISA and HITRAN databases, but he was not satisfied. I cited Weart’s online history on the subject – not good enough. I’ve been wondering if the 1990 and 1995 reports went into more detail on the optical properties of CO2 and how that validates radiation budgets, but what I’d gratefully appreciate is some study references directly from the IPCC reports on this subject (and where in the IPCC reports those studies are cited).

    Not sure if this is off-topic – is there an open thread for miscellanea?

    [Response: Try Clough and Iacono (JGR, 1995). – gavin]

  23. 123
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Barry, Have you looked at the threads here:

    These and some of the comments therein pursued the details of the greenhouse effect and flogged that horse within an inch of its life, certainly.

  24. 124
    Aubrey Meyer says:

    The challenge is, can we solve the climate change problem faster than we are creating it?

    This is ‘the battle of the rates’.

    C&C has been mentioned in the exchanges above and it helps to resolve this challenge with reference to the actual numbers [rates of contraction and convergence – C&C] that are relevant, rather than the to-and-fro of left-right analysis.

    The animation linked here incorporates the latest coupled modelling of the Hadley Centre as published in the IPCC AR4: –

    It gives the numerate but perhaps painful truth of our climate change dilemma vis-a-vis future fossil fule consumption and what it probably takes to win the battle of the rates.

    Rates of C&C that are still relevant don’t really provide the amount of time that is needed to conduct all the fruitless allopathic argument that academics, bureacrats and [even still] some campaigners imply is still available and still needed for the detailed arguments they still make.

    Aubrey Meyer

  25. 125
    Michael Smith says:

    Can anyone explain how increased atmospheric CO2 accounts for the fact that temperatures have increased more at the surface than in the troposphere? This is the opposite of what AGW theory predicts.

    [Response: See – gavin]

  26. 126
    Dodo says:

    Raypierre: “as Tom would happily tell you, the Middle Ages were not as generally warm as the present.”

    Why would he be “happy” about such a fact, and is he really? Where does this kind of emotional involvement in paleoclimate reconstructions come from?

    I mean, one could also be happy about the Middle Ages having been warmer than the present, couldn’t one? Maybe even happier than Tom?

  27. 127
    Arch Stanton says:

    Dodo (126): I suspect that in this case being “happy to tell [someone]” is a reflection of Tom’s disposition and his willingness to share his research and is not necessarily a reflection on Tom’s feelings about the past climate or a measure of how happy he is about it.

  28. 128
    Michael Smith says:

    RE: 125

    Thank you for the response. If I understand it correctly, the article you linked to shows that the variability in model outputs ranges all the way down to predicting virtually no tropospheric warming and even cooling above the 200mb pressure level. Is that correct? Am I interpreting that graph with the revised +/- 2sigma limits correctly?

  29. 129
    Dodo says:

    Re 127. AFAIK, Tom has not said what Ray alleged. The second-hand quote “The Middle Ages were not as generally warm as the present” is not from Tom. Prove me wrong.

    And someone please define “generally warm”.

  30. 130
    Hank Roberts says:

    Dodo, you’re misreading the actual words written, it’s not a quote.
    Ray said that’s his opinion about what Dr. Lovell would say.

    Opinions have to be judged based on whose they are, and opinions attributed to others have to be further judged on what you know of the work of the person discussed.

    Santa Claus would tell you the same thing. That’s not a quote attributable to Santa, that’s my opinion about what he’d say to you.

  31. 131
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #121 [Re 86. Or is the “right” in America simply in denial and incapable of a solution at all?


    I am totally baffled by the fact that the subject of AGW is for so many on the right seen as a partisan political issue rather than a scientific question with real-world consequences.]

    No need for bafflement I think, at least so far as two sections of the right are concerned:
    1) The “fossil-fuelled right”: hirelings of those large corporations that stand to lose a lot if serious action to avert AGW is taken. I use the quoted term because the most obvious members of this are corporations with large interests in fossil fuels, or items such as autos and air travel that use a lot of fossil fuels, but the category could be broadened, since really serious action will involve encouraging a reduction in overall consumption, and few corporations will do well out of that. The big reinsurance companies (e.g. SwissRe, MunichRe) are probably the best friends we have among large corporations.
    2) The “free market right”: ideologues convinced that the “free market” can solve anything. Since AGW is a clear counterexample on a vast scale, they have to deny it is happening, or abandon their worldview.
    Other segments of the right may be more amenable to reason on this issue – for example, as I understand it, parts of the US “Christian right” are now calling for action, and in Europe the leaders of some right-leaning political parties are at least saying some relatively sensible things about the issue. As a dyed-in-the-wool socialist and atheist, on this issue, I’m prepared to work with (almost) anyone!

  32. 132
    Kevin Stanley says:

    re 129
    In context, I would assume that “the Middle Ages were not as generally warm as the present” is a way to briefly state although particular regions may have seen temperatures similar to what we’re seeing now at times during the Middle Ages, the average global temperatures now are higher than they appear to have been at any one time during the Middle Ages. I don’t believe that Ray used “generally warm” as some operationalize-able construct that would be meaningful out of context, and it surprises me that you seem to have read it that way.

    Also, regarding you quote-attribution challenge, Ray did not say ‘Tom said X.’ Ray said ‘Tom would tell you X,’ implying that Ray believes that Tom believes it. So of course it’s not a quote from Tom, and no one has said so. It’s Ray’s understanding of Tom’s position. Is your understanding of Tom Lowell’s position different? If so, what is your understanding, and why?

    Dodo, in your last two posts you have parsed other people’s statements differently than I would have, and from the responses to your comment about Tom Lowell’s happiness and historical climate, it seems that some others here parsed those statements differently than you did as well. Perhaps this should just be a reminder to us all to be as unambiguous as possible when we communicate. But ambiguity cannot be reduced to zero, at least not in vernacular communication like this. So the reader should take some responsibility for interpreting what is said in the proper context, IMO.

  33. 133
    Muyin Wang says:

    We got be careful with those CEOs on Wall street. One of my friend on his flight to China overheard a conversation between two business men. Their idea was to purchase some chinese factory which could not meet the CO2 emission standard and then use this to get “carbon money” from UN (or some European country), and then they will destroy the company and keep the money!
    What an idea!

    [Response: Any scheme can be abused. Good accounting and enforcement is critical to any emissions trading scheme, no more nor less so than any other public endeavor. –raypierre]