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Field notes from a Nature Conservancy meeting

Filed under: — eric @ 21 October 2008

I had the opportunity to attend a three-day meeting of the Nature Conservancy last week in Vancouver. I was there with my RealClimate hat on, to offer ideas and insight on blogging in particular, and public communication of science in general.

While at the conference, I had a rare chance to see some of the inner workings of one of the world’s largest and most successful environmental organizations (this was an invite-only conference, and only a handful of us were other than Nature Conservancy staff and trustees). The Nature Conservancy has a reputation of being very non-partisan, and this was abundantly evident at the conference: There were representatives present from the Shell Oil Company, from the Christian Coalition, from Environmental Defense. This broad level of buy-in of Nature Conservancy goals is perhaps not surprising, given that the main thing this organization is known for is its method of protecting land: buying it. Neither free-market boosters (if there are there any remaining) nor lefty environmentalists have any trouble with this.

What was news to me, though, was the extent to which the Nature Conservancy is also working towards influencing policy on climate change. Getting serious about climate policy is no longer a partisan issue in the U.S.: both John McCain and Barak Obama are on record for supporting cap and trade carbon markets. But one might well ask what climate policy has to do with the buy-the-land-to-protect it method of the Nature Conservancy. As I learned at the conference, there are two rationales.

First, the Nature Conservancy has a strongly science-based policy for making land-purchasing decisions. They take into account things like the minimum viable ecosystem size in determining which acquisitions will actually have lasting impact. Trouble is, for many areas, the conditions those decisions are based on may change. Areas near sea level are an obvious example. But so are the more than 10,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie that they have protected in Kansas. How much will that ecosystem change with the projected changes in precipitation in this region? Obviously, the Nature Conservancy is taking into account such projections, as best they can. But they have also decided that the risks of climate change to the world’s ecosystems are too large to simply adapt to: hence their interest in helping to push governments to enact policies that will help mitigate it.

Second, it turns out that the Nature Conservancy’s mission is — and has always been — much broader than is widely recognized. As they note on their mission statement page they can’t possibly buy all the places they want to protect. To achieve their mission — “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive” — they will clearly have to do something much bigger. The buzzword here is sustainability, and the nature Conservancy is now launching what they call their Campaign for a Sustainable Planet. This means a serious focus not just on direct ecosystem protection but also on sustainable development. International sustainable development goals, of course, are impossible to separate from international energy policy. And one cannot today talk about energy policy without talking about climate policy. It is therefore quite logical for the Nature Conservancy to be drawn into weighing-in on climate policy.

Now, what does this have to do with RealClimate? Well, the Nature Conservancy is interested in expanding their web-based communication toolbox. They already have a great deal of information on their web page: see for example their article on climate change adaptation, here; but they’d like to do more. And in particular, they are interested in getting more information out there from their scientists. As I already pointed out, The Nature Conservancy — which has over 700 full time scientists working for it — prides itself on being strongly science-based. So do we here at RealClimate (read our welcome page). Unlike us, whose day jobs are to produce and broadly disseminate scientific results (through teaching and publication), Nature Conservancy scientists don’t necessarily publish their work. There is no doubt a lot of really interesting and important work being done that doesn’t get out to many other scientists, let alone the general public. A blog, or something like it, could provide those scientists with a place to talk about their work. Hence my attendance at the meeting, to offer a bit of advice and perspective.*

Here at RealClimate, we look forward to seeing where Nature Conservancy goes with this, and wish them best success in their efforts. [Watch this space for an announcement, if and when they launch something.] For my part, I’ll be especially enthusiastic if the Nature Conservancy doesn’t limit itself to talking about its various projects around the world (interesting as those may be). What I’d really like to see is a site that provides their perspective on some of the more difficult — but really important — questions in the area of climate change impacts. How much danger are polar bears in, really? How will agriculture in Asian monsoon regions be affected? What are the broader effects of ocean acidification (beyond the immediate impact on coral reefs)? The Nature Conservancy won’t be the last word on this — any more than RealClimate is. But their perspective, from field scientists “on the ground”, could prove extremely valuable.

One additional thought. In several of the sessions I attended at the Nature Conservancy meeting, reference was made to the need to stabilize global temperature rise at no more than 2°C, and correspondingly to stabilize CO2 levels at no greater than 450 ppm (strictly speaking, this should be 450 ppm CO2-radiative-equivalent; there is a big difference, and it is often neglected). In each case, reference was made to the IPCC reports as the source of these numbers. Yet these numbers really don’t derive from the IPCC, which (rightly) shied away from being policy prescriptive. Rather, they have their origin in a small number of documents, notably the 1995 report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, papers related to the Exeter conference on “avoiding dangerous climate change” and in European Union Council decisions (see the 1996 and 2006 Presidency Conclusions here). Clearly, the 2°C/450 ppm numbers have completely permeated the policy-advocacy realm. Yet while they are arguably derivable from the IPCC reports, it is actually not clear to what extent the larger scientific community really believes these are the right numbers. There simply has not been a process to evaluate this that compares in depth and breadth with the IPCC. A new and much more comprehensive analysis, by a much greater group of scientists, would be valuable at this juncture. Scientists are fond of saying that they cannot summarize their projections with a small handful of simple numbers, but simple numbers are what are being discussed in policy circles. If the “right” numbers are really so low as Jim Hansen believes (see our post on this, here), then the Nature Conservancy has an even more difficult task ahead.

*[For those interested in slogging through it, there’s a video of our session, here. It’s not just about me. There is also some really interesting stuff from Nature Conservancy staffer Jonathon Colman and from the folks who started the conservation clearinghouse and collaboration websites and, as well as a demonstration (not altogether successful) of the emerging virtual reality conferencing technology which (when it works) might help all of us travel to conferences less often. A word of advice: skip all this and instead take a look at the Keynote lectures, by far better orators than me: Mark Tercek, Nature Conservancy CEO, Jerome Ringo, Apollo Alliance President, and CARE C.O.O. Steve Hollingworth

107 Responses to “Field notes from a Nature Conservancy meeting”

  1. 51

    RE #27, and the methane issue. RC has covered it & presented a possible (though not probable) disaster scenario. See:

    And BTW, a portion of CO2 could be in the atmosphere for up to 100,000 years, a lot more than the 100 years most people talk about. See:

    I see your point about the rich buying up the good land, but what we need is better urban planning, and rural planning. And a society that makes sure that all people have good, affordable housing, without harming the environment.

    When I went to Germany 20 years ago and saw all their houses built so well, with thick walls and tile roofs, I turned to our German friend and asked where the poor people lived (since I didn’t see any bad, ramshackle houses), and she said they live in these same good houses, perhaps more people per house, but in these good ones. Why is our nation (U.S.) so behind in important things?

  2. 52
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Rates matter, usually more than magnitudes

    Easy to find in the journals. Just one example of many:

    Science 27 April 2001:
    Vol. 292. no. 5517, pp. 673 – 679
    DOI: 10.1126/science.292.5517.673

    Range Shifts and Adaptive Responses to Quaternary Climate Change
    Margaret B. Davis,* Ruth G. Shaw

    Tree taxa shifted latitude or elevation range in response to changes in Quaternary climate. Because many modern trees display adaptive differentiation in relation to latitude or elevation, it is likely that ancient trees were also so differentiated, with environmental sensitivities of populations throughout the range evolving in conjunction with migrations. Rapid climate changes challenge this process by imposing stronger selection and by distancing populations from environments to which they are adapted. The unprecedented rates of climate changes anticipated to occur in the future, coupled with land use changes that impede gene flow, can be expected to disrupt the interplay of adaptation and migration, likely affecting productivity and threatening the persistence of many species.

  3. 53
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 27 Asteroid Miner

    “Look at San Jose, CA or Vancouver or Anchorage. The city is next to the sea level and the mountain tops are uninhabited. The cities should be on the mountain tops where sea level rise will not affect them. History has put cities in the farmland. The cities should be at higher altitude where the soil is untillable, but where we live is dictated by history and the Nature Conservancy.”

    I’m guessing it is far cheaper to build and operate cities at sea level than in the mountains. Can you give a single example of a city who location was dictated by the Nature Conservancy?

  4. 54
    Sekerob says:

    odd, post gone.

  5. 55
    Sekerob says:

    okay, I only see my posts when I post again which is even odder. Did ctrl-f5 to specifically refresh page.

    @ mod. plz feel free to delete these latter 2. Tech glitch maybe.

    Yes, I’m human. No RFID chip implant yet, nor bar-code on back of neck.

  6. 56
    PHE says:

    Re eric in no. 43: “In neither of these past times did it get warm as fast as is happening now.” How can you know that? We see a rise of around 0.7 degC in the past century – from instrumental data. Any type of proxy is smoothed compared to instrumental data, and has an error margin of typically around 0.2 degC (see Mann et al 2008)- though the error is variable. So, I don’t believe you can demonstrate that the recent rate of temperature rise is exceptional or unprecendented.

  7. 57

    Polar bears … find me any era when climate changed as fast as projected for this century, and you’ve probably found a mass-extinction event (I’m not sure if there has been a comparable event; time scales for example during the Permian-Triassic extinction are hard to pin down precisely this long after the event).

    In another form of response, there are people in the UK arguing for a “Green New Deal“, emphasising economic sustainability, not just the climate (an idea I picked up independently).

    We need to couple arguments about climate change with sound economics to debunk those who claim that we will destroy the economy if we deal with the science the way we should (luckily, the same people who are making these claims are now revealed as economic incompetents as well, so we have some chance).

    While some may consider the economic debate irrelevant if we are facing the possibility of destroying the conditions that make large-scale human society viable, it seems to be just as well to fight on all fronts, as climate inactivism is a many-headed monster.

  8. 58
    Aubrey Meyer says:

    The references for Contraction and Convergence [C&C] provided by its author GCI are: –

    The description of C&C given on the RealClimate website attributed to GCI was not provided by GCI and the Hohne Report which compares C&C with CBDR is inaccurate and generically inappropriate.

  9. 59
    Barton Paul Levenson says:

    PHE writes:

    Re eric in no. 43: “In neither of these past times did it get warm as fast as is happening now.” How can you know that? We see a rise of around 0.7 degC in the past century – from instrumental data. Any type of proxy is smoothed compared to instrumental data, and has an error margin of typically around 0.2 degC (see Mann et al 2008)- though the error is variable. So, I don’t believe you can demonstrate that the recent rate of temperature rise is exceptional or unprecendented.

    So your position is that the present rise is unexceptional because it might have happened in the past, although we have no evidence for it? Some kind of logic-alone reasoning about climate in the ancient Greek style, evidence be damned?

  10. 60
    John C says:

    Thanks Barton. I’m just a little confused because I am pretty sure I heard that a doubling of CO2 would only cause the temeperature to rise by 1 degree F … without additional amplification feedbacks.

  11. 61

    Here’s another thing to get you worried: check out what the British Antarctic Survey is saying about the Amundsen Sea Embayment. There’s a possible 1.5 metre sea level rise of uncertain likelihood. More here: recent ice thinning is happening at more than 10 times the rate over the last 14,500 years.

  12. 62
    Chris Colose says:

    # 60 (John C)

    The 0.75 K/W/m2 number Barton used includes feedbacks. That number is how you go from a change in forcing to a change in temperature. To get it you simply divide the change in temperature (~3 C) for a doubling of CO2, by the radiative forcing for a doubling of CO2 (4 W/m2). So the no-feedback number would be about 0.3 K/W/m2 if the no-feedback temperature change is 1.2 K (not degree F by the way).

  13. 63
    Marcus says:

    John C: A doubling of CO2 should lead, absent feedbacks to about 1 degree C of warming (not F).

  14. 64
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John C., I wonder if you might not be falling into a common trap–that of thinking that CO2 by itself would be benign if we could just show that all the feedbacks are exaggerated. The thing is that the feedbacks apply to any forcing, not just CO2, so if you impose lower feedbacks in the model, you wind up with less responsiveness to changes in solar irradiance, volcanic forcing, etc. Again, the models fail very badly to match the real world when you decrease feedbacks. It doesn’t really pay to consider forcers independent of feedbacks–that’s not the world we live in.

  15. 65
    Hank Roberts says:

    John C, I think your question was answered here:

    You’re thinking of the purely hypothetical experiment in which the number of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere is doubled, instantaneously, with no other change.

    This is a physics thought experiment you’re recalling.

    I hope the physicist who likes to talk about this number finds a way to _cut_ the number of CO2 molecules by half, instantaneously, with no other change — thus solving the problem. Just find a way to pull the right strings ….

  16. 66
    PHE says:

    RE: BPL (59). Sounds like you’re trying to belittle me. That’s not very scientific. I think you are misunderstanding my logic. To claim that the RATE of temperature rise is greater now than in the past, you need evidence. Comparing short wavelength instrumental data to long wavelength (ie. smoothed) proxy data is not satisfactory evidence.

    [Response: This is a fair point (sort of; I don’t want to get into another debate about the “hockey stick” here). It is probably strictly true that one cannot (yet) demonstrate that the rate of temperature increase is unprecendented. The rate of CO2 rise is, however, unprecendented at least in the last 100s of thousands of years. That’s the relevant point for thinking about the future. –eric]

  17. 67
    colin Aldridge says:

    Re 450ppm CO2 equivalent the AGGI which gives the component gas contributions may be found at NOAA’a website
    This shows we are way above the 450ppm equivalent already but I suspect you are working on increase in other gases, notably CH4, NO2 and CFC’s against a non zero baseline. Is this correct? and if so what do you think the current CO2 equivalent number is. Politically I guess we all know that, barring some unforseen catastophe we are going to get to 450ppm at least whatever we do so we better hope the extreme forecasts are wrong

  18. 68
    David B. Benson says:

    Chris Colose (44) — Good for you! Wikipedia is a fine starting point, usually, but going to the sources is always wise. Here is another take on polar bears:

    The Hudson Bay polar bear population do fine on land during the (ice-free) summer. I opine that the Arctic Ocean populations can likely do the same. After all those creatures can (and do) still interbreed with brown bears, so (I opine) easily adopt something of the same diet. Brown bears have been around for, at least, more than one million years; that species survived interglacial 4, thought to be warmer than interglacial 2 (the Eemian).

    Eric — Thanks for the response. Rates certainly do matter. Not strictly comperable, because starting from a temperature quite a bit colder than now, at the 8.2 kybp event (seen in Greenland ice cores but also, it seems, in Pacific Warm Pool marine proxies) it certainly appears that the recovery was about as fast as the warming of the last century. (I would like to be able use proxies other than just Greenalnd ice cores, but I don’t know of any other suitable choices which will adequately resolve at centennial scales.)

  19. 69
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 47 Ed:

    when the earth warms they will evolve very rapidly into another new subspecies of brown bear

    And your basis for making this prediction is what?

  20. 70
    Ricki (Australia) says:

    To get back to the targets needed…

    Policy makers require a fixed target such as 450 ppm CO2e. This provides for predictable economic and social impacts as the effort to achiev this target can be set.

    The problem is that as time passes the targets become revised. I like the approach of Marcus (19) who allows for modification of the targets over time.

    I am happy to let the policy makers target the 450 ppm because it is such a hugh task to put the mechanism for change in place. In Oz we have had a report by Garneau, an economist that suggests 5 – 10% reductions by 2020 be the initial target. (He does say that 20% would be preferable.) This is for a cap and trade system we are to introduce here by 2010.

    I believe this is too weak and cannot be considered a serious attempt at emissions reductions. However, I can understand why Garneau is proposing this as he sees the problems that accompany the changes. He is focused on getting the system up and running first. Then probably expecting that Australia will follow the 2009 Conference and modify our tergets to align with the international agreements (he explicitly sets out international alignment mechanisms in his report).

    Anyway, the question of 450 or 350 is moot at this point in time. There is simply not the data to be that specific. Certainly Table 2 in IPCC report 4 indicates we would be negligent to accept 550 ppm.

  21. 71
    Ricki (Australia) says:


    sorry that should be Garnaut (see for more info).

  22. 72
    Nelson says:

    Since we’re on the tangent of climate sensitivity, am I right in thinking that there’s no real evidence that sensitivity differs significantly between forcings, that the climate response to each should be broadly similar?

    I’m sure we can concede some modest differences (a uniform 1 W/m2 change would presumably give a different response to spatially heterogenous forcing changes with the same mean value), but I don’t envisage a magic mechanism that conveniently reduces climate sensitivity to CO2.

    I’ve recently run into this argument, and I suspect it’s easy to shoot down (there’s a lack of evidence supporting it in the literature for a start). Any takers?

  23. 73
    Karen Street says:

    Re 70, I heard a talk Wednesday from someone who had worked as a AAAS fellow with the US Congress. She talked about two types of risk, the risk from not addressing climate change adequately (to stay below 450 ppm CO2e reqires the Annex 1 countries to make a 25-40% decrease from 1990 levels by 2020, even while population increases in many) vs the political risk that nothing will be done if the plan is too ambitious.

    She feels that politically, we are coming to terms here with the idea or returning to 1990 levels by 2020, the California plan.

    All rich countries need to look at our use of coal. Funding for carbon capture and storage was highly inadequate before the world economic meltdown, and it’s hard to see the public accepting this as a make-work project. I mention this because Australia will have a bit of a wrangle on this. If the US and Australia want to export coal, aren’t we obligated to fund research and adequate testing?

  24. 74
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nelson, How would the climate system know where a Watt of power came from? Yes, adding a Watt at different positions around Earth might produce slightly different results, especially intitially, but I suspect over time, these perturbations would smooth out in a dynamic rotating system without partitions. Of course one exception might be the deep oceans, which interact with the rest of the system only on much longer timescales. However, energy fluxes here are small compared to those at the surface. Just my SWAG as a physicist. I’m sure Gavin or someone else will correct me if I’m wrong.

  25. 75
    pete best says:

    Re #70, ricky, its not a matter of 450 ppmv but a matter of how much CO2 the atmosphere can handle in realtion to warming. James Hansen has recently switched to this thinking I believe. I did read an article recently on this matter. I will try and find it.

  26. 76
    Marcus says:

    Re: Nelson (@72): Look up “climate efficacy”. There are some outliers (for example, black carbon snow-albedo effect is claimed to have an efficacy of 3x CO2 for a given forcing), but for the most part I think you are correct that any given forcing will have a similar global temperature impact to another forcing of the same magnitude.

    Note that the fingerprint might be different: 1 W/m2 of solar irradiation would be expected to warm the stratosphere and the day-time in different ways that 1 W/m2 of GHG forcing (which would cool the stratosphere and warm both day + nighttime), for example, but the surface temperature change should be within +- 30% or so (I’d guess).

  27. 77
    Hank Roberts says:

    Nelson, I think climate sensitivity has several prior topics still open and continuing. I think you’re right.

    On rate of change, PHE above pastes in the old claim that because we don’t feel the full effect already, there’s no reason to believe it will happen. Same argument that’s made against ocean pH change.

    Bogus. And this is what the Nature Conservancy has found it has to deal with. What we know now is going on, and is clearly going to happen, really does change the goals and methods of conservation biology.

    I hope the topic can be kept focused on the Nature Conservancy’s work rather than accumulating another round of copypaste denial and copypaste refutation of frequently debunked bogosity. We need focus.

    “The warming rate of about 1°C per millennium during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition was an order of magnitude less than the projected changes for the 21st century.”

    ” Our data suggest that climate changes in these systems have been gradual, perhaps averaging less than 1°C per millennium even during the height of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Conservatively, if temperatures change only 1°C this century (the minimum International Panel on Climate Change estimate), that rate would be an order of magnitude higher than the fastest rate observed in this record; the projected climate change in the next 100 years will be fundamentally different from any in the last 50,000 years. Given the relatively short geographic distances between elevations and the concomitantly short migration distances required to move among them, Andean plants with broad elevational distributions should be able to remain in equilibrium with climate. For taxa with narrow elevation ranges, however, the predicted rate of climate change may move them completely outside of their climatic niche space within only one or two plant generations. Coupled with habitat destruction preventing colonization from adjacent metacommunities, Andean plant communities may experience greatly increased extinction rates.”
    Cited by 48 articles since publication in 2004. Look it up.

    See also
    CLIMATE CHANGE: Did You Say “Fast”?
    Science 1 August 2008: 650-651
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1159821;321/5889/680
    “The pivotal question in the debate on the ecological effects of climate change is whether species will be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with their changing environment. If we establish the maximal rate of adaptation, this will set an upper limit to the rate at which temperatures can increase without loss of biodiversity.”

  28. 78
    Bill Harris says:

    You mention using technology to avoid the need to travel to conferences. To a large degree, I think that simply requires a mindset change. I counted up the other day: I think I’ve traveled by plane for business five times in the past nine years. Almost all of the people I work with are scattered around the globe; I’ve never seen the overwhelming majority of them, nor do I ever expect to. The technology has been in place for years to work effectively in distributed settings; the technology is /not/ in place to replicate a collocated work setting through technology. The key is figuring out how to achieve the purpose of the meeting or work under the constraints of the technology (and there are constraints to face-to-face work, too — I’ve found that communications channels are often quite constrained in f2f settings as compared to online work).

  29. 79
    John UnDoe says:

    A little off topic, but have you noticed this handy collection of climate change and other environment related news:

    I keep it open on my browser most of the time

  30. 80
    dagobert says:

    Nelson #72

    I doubt that not finding anything about it in the literature necessarily invalidates the argument and not finding a mechanism doesn’t mean it has to be ‘magic’. It may just be yet unknown or underestimated or considered in a totally wrong context. Considering how little we know about so many aspects of climate and how ‘unprecedented’ the entire composition of the various factors is, you’ll probably find noybody who is prepared to definitely rule out that a magic mechanism might be in there somewhere. I, for one, would be very happy if it turned out that – say – Lindzen was right after all with his iris theory or Spencer’s causality argument really turned everything upside-down and we discover, that the sensitivity really was just 1C. I just don’t believe it.

  31. 81
    David B. Benson says:

    Nelson (72) — There is a ‘magic mechanism’. See Radiative forcing recommendations, NRC report:

  32. 82
    Ike Solem says:

    It seems unlikely that cap-and-trade approaches are going to halt the growth in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere – that will require ending the use of fossil fuels as an an energy source, as well as keeping what remains of the world’s 50-plus year old trees (tropical forests, mainly) intact.

    This is because the way in which offsets are calculated ignores the basics of the carbon cycle. For example, how should forests be valued? Do forests uptake carbon?

    Well, a growing tropical forest stores some ten tons of CO2 per acre per year while growing. A fully mature tropical forest, however, is in steady-state, oxidizing as much carbon as it stores. That’s the normal state of the biosphere, which is why even though the biosphere takes up and emits far more CO2 than humans do each year, the atmospheric CO2 levels did not change until fossil emissions began to rise.

    This is why programs aimed at re-foresting are the ones that will actually increase biosphere carbon storage. It is equally important to preserve mature tropical forests for other reasons – biodiversity, transpiration effects, etc.

    However, if you really are concerned about climate change, then you have to acknowledge that a central goal has to be the elimination of fossil fuels as an energy source – and that is something that the Nature Conservancy is careful never to advocate.

    The fact that Royal Dutch Shell is a contributor might have something to do with it…

    The Shell Conservation Internship Program is made possible by support from Shell Canada Limited. A partner in conservation with NCC for more than 25 years, Shell Canada has donated more than $5 million in financial resources, land and mineral rights to NCC.

    That’s the competition, folks… so perhaps RealClimate could set up a countering donation fund? How many readers are there? We need 500,000 people to donate $10 each, and then you could have a RealClimate Conservation Internship Program at the Nature Conservancy…

    In comparison, the cost of replacing the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure with solar, wind, biofuel, nuclear, geothermal or tidal energy is estimated to be at least $15-20 trillion. For a country with one tenth of the world’s population and energy demand, say, this becomes a somewhat more plausible $1.5-2 trillion.

    On a regional basis, this indicates that at least $200 billion in energy investments would be needed to replace Midwestern coal-fired power plants alone. On a national basis, coal produces about half the electricity used in the U.S., and more in China.

    A whole new approach to the economics of energy is needed, and that’s probably not what the Nature Conservancy is all about – they’re a public land-purchase group, sort of a private version of the National Parks system.

    However, the involvement of Shell in a “nature group” is a bit strange, since Shell is also involved in many of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel projects, from billions in tar sands investments to offshore Alaskan oil fields to the environmental devastation in the Niger Delta.

    If the Nature Conservancy wants to keep taking money from the fossil fuel industry for land purchases, they should stay out of the climate policy debate entirely, or, failing that, directly address the conflict of interests that are involved, particularly when your directors are also from financial institutions (Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, Capital Research, etc.) that are heavily invested in Exxon, Shell, BP, Conoco and Chevron, as well as in all the major coal-fired utility companies in the U.S.?

    Maybe the NC should instead consider getting some funding from Google, who is also backing renewable energy (servers take a lot of electricity)? Instead of just buying land, perhaps the NC should also think about promoting clean energy?

    [Response: I can’t of course argue that Nature Conservancy has no conflict of interest, and indeed, it probably isn’t appropriate for me to offer an opinion on this at least not on these pages. Still, I will say that I think it is a weak argument to say they should say out of energy advocacy. We are all “tainted” by our love of fossil fuels. And Nature Conservany’s membership will, I suspect, push them much harder than the oil companies might push back. In any case, it is clear that at least some of the oil companies have recognized that regulation changes are on the table, and that they had better prepare for it, if only because companies like to be able to plan for future demand scenarios, so that they can remain profitable. For that reason, some of them are actually pushing for cap and trade. You may think this is simply good P.R. (and you might be right) but nevertheless, there it is. In this context, I found it fascinating during the meeting to see a talk from a Shell exec, who told us about the future energy business “scenarios” they have looked at. In their sort of “best case scramble” scenario (business and governments trying to cut CO2 emissions, but with little coordination), we are still emitting >20 GT a year in 2050. In their “blueprint” scenario, in which cap and trade is serious and global, and in which investments are made in alternative energies, we’re still at around 16 GT. He said “this is probably not enough” of a reduction in CO2 emissions, which is pretty obvious considering global emissions are only now about 20 GT/year, and most observers think we need to be at less than 20% of today’s emission. The point of the talk, though, was that even with cap and trade, fossil fuels are going to be a big part of future energy demand. Unless we change the economics somehow, so that the demand goes away, the supply is unlikely to go away either. Ted Stevens was not wrong in saying “don’t blame Alaska” because we down in the lower 48 are the ones doing all the driving. All of which is to say, yes, you are probably right that a new “economics of energy” is needed. The question, of course, is how to get there? {Take these emissions numbers with a grain of salt by the way; I’m reporting only what I read off the graph that the Shell guy presented. I may be off a bit (though not substantially, I think)}–eric]

  33. 83
    Hank Roberts says:

    > A fully mature tropical forest, however, is in steady-state,
    > oxidizing as much carbon as it stores. That’s the normal state of
    > the biosphere

    Ike, aren’t you describing the tropical forest biosphere?

    As I recall the tropical forest is a thin layer of living material over mineral soil, though, almost all the carbon is in the living trees and plants. Clearcut a tropical forest and you get a mineral area with almost no topsoil.

    Temperate forests and prairies can be fully mature and still be creating topsoil — and can go on creating more topsoil for centuries.

    It would be a shame to start clearcutting mature temperate forests on the false argument that they aren’t continuing to capture carbon, eh?

  34. 84
    Hank Roberts says:

    Just a couple of sources on topsoil recovery, almost at random:

    (not clickable — copy and paste into the browser and take out the space after the // — the parens break the clickable link in this software)

  35. 85
    Thomas says:

    74,76: I suspect that adding an increment of heating/cooling can have an enhanced effect if it occurs on or near a marginal snow/ice surface, i.e. a disproportionate amount melts snow/ice and via the albedo feedback produces a bigger effect. This is probably what Marcus was getting at with the black-carbon snow effect. There of course could be incremental effects on ocean/atmospheric circulation if a change in radiative balance were locally or regionally concentrated. I can imagine trying to obtain some cooling by deliberately increasing the albedo of human controlled surfaces (pavement, roofs, farmland etc.), such a (negative) forcing would of course be unevenly distributed.

  36. 86
    Nigel Williams says:

    Oil at $67a barrel. That is usefully below the $80+ production cost of many fields, and particularly of already-silly sources like tar sands. So production from those sources is now problematic. This will usefully ease emissions, and expedite the cascade into post-peak oil deficit. Tidy, eh.

  37. 87
    Mark says:

    Ike, citation on the $15trillion.

    PS what’s that in real money..!

    (I bet the Canadians are happy as larry now that the US can’t use that jibe against the CAD$)

    PS at some point, you WILL have to spend that money anyway.

  38. 88

    re #82: “the atmospheric CO2 levels did not change until fossil emissions began to rise”.
    Did you read the recent paper by van Hoof et al: A role for atmospheric CO2 in preindustrial climate forcing.
    “Inferred changes in CO2 radiative forcing are of a magnitude similar to variations ascribed to other mechanisms, particularly solar irradiance”
    and volcanic activity, and may therefore call into question the
    concept of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which
    assumes an insignificant role of CO2 as a preindustrial climateforcing

  39. 89
    Rick Brown says:

    # 83 Hank (and #82 Ike) One needs to consider not only rates of sequestration by forests but also the size of the carbon pools they maintain in biomass and soils. Sequestration slows after forests mature, but respectable rates can continue for hundreds of years (Luyssaert, S., E. D. Schulze, et al. (2008). “Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks.” Nature 455(7210): 213-215.)

    Given the extensive depletion of old-growth forests in temperate regions, the potential for increased storage is considerable. Even when carbon uptake slows to very low levels in very old forests, they typically maintain very large pools of carbon. Logging will release most of the carbon in biomass to the atmosphere, even accounting for the portion that may end up in long-lived wood products.

    With apologies for the seeming self-promotion, I recently completed a paper on these and other topics relating to climate change and forests. It’s intended for an interested but non-technical audience and has extensive references to the primary scientific literature. It can be downloaded (PDF) at

  40. 90
    JCH says:

    We actually had an economy that used very little fossil fuel, and not that long ago.

    Up until around 1950 (approximately the year they bought their first tractor, were connected to the grid, and installed a propane furnace and stove), members of my family collected firewood from the Trice-Dedman woods. That meant they did not have to burn fossil fuel to heat the farmhouse or to cook their food. They farmed the bottom land with mules. It produced fantastic crops and plenty of fat livestock. Plenty for them, and plenty extra to help feed the people of Kansas City. They were happy as clams:

    Now nobody collects firewood in the Trice-Dedman woods, so I guess the woods have stopped sequestering carbon. Doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to manage an old-growth forest.

  41. 91
    Jim Eager says:

    You need to keep up. Mark, the Canadian dollar has fallen back down to below US$0.80.

  42. 92
    David B. Benson says:

    Don’t have the link, but the 2007 CE emissions are close to 10 GtC, counting both fossil carbon and deforestration. That’s (44/12)*10 = 36.7 Gt CO2.

  43. 93
    Jennie says:

    82, 83: The argument that we should save forests to slow climate change is a tricky one, and could come back to haunt us in several ways.

    1. Forests affect climate not just by absorbing CO2, but though evapotranspiration (the loss of Costa Rican cloud forests is as much a result of deforestation in the Atlantic lowlands as it is a result of any warming trends) and the degree to which they reflect or absorb heat. There have been a few studies suggesting that although temperate forests do act as carbon sinks, any cooling effect this may have is more than offset by the warming effect produced by their absorption of heat (e.g. Otterman et al 1984 J. Clim. Appl. Meteorology; Betts 2000 Nature). Thus in terms of overall effect on climate, one might reasonably argue that clearcutting temperate forests is the way to go. Not something I’d like to see.

    2. There’s a time-scale disconnect in the concept of compensating for releasing carbon stored in fossil fuels by storing carbon in forests. Trees are a relatively short-term carbon storage site, particularly in light of the predicted increase in wildfires. No matter how well protected a forest is, one good wildfire releases most of the carbon stored in that forest (and the upper layer of topsoil, too).

    To paraphrash Ken Caldeira, it’s a much better argument to stop climate change to save the forests than to save the forests to stop climate change.

  44. 94
    David B. Benson says:

    Hank Roberts (77) — Thanks for the links! Looking at this graph (on the right)

    from the Steffensen et al. paper, notice that a temperature minimum was established about 74,000 years ago. This is the approximate date for the Mt. Toba super-eruption, which led to 3–6 years of intensely cold weather, estimated to be a sufate induced global cooling of 4–8 K by the volcanologist. (Before becoming too excited about this, there is no hint of it in the Vostok ice core temperature proxy study by Petit et al., data on centennial scales.)

    But it was quite serious for at least Bengal tigers with a almost exterpating population bottleneck; no surprise, the ash in South Asia was meters deep in places. It was also rather serious for humans:

    See bottleneck 2, but ignore the choices of habitation as it now appears that modern humans had probably already left Africa for Yeman and the Persian Gulf by this time, and possibly as far as Southeast Asia.

    In this event we can understand something of the impact of very rapid climate change; not good.

  45. 95
    Jennie says:

    82: For those interested in the corporatization of big environmental groups and their relationship with companies not known for their green behavior, I’d recommend a book called Green, Inc written by a former Conservation International employee. As a scientist who recently worked for one of the three biggest environmental groups, I’d say that at the management level the big environmental groups do not live up to the expectations of their membership or even many of the scientists who work for them. For instance, my organization explicitly prioritized fundraising over science and education on its website. We were not allowed to post anything linking to an external site, because that reduced the likelihood that someone would give to our organization. The recent story ( about a WWF-sponsored 25-day trip with a carbon footprint of 14 tons of CO2 per person (3.6 times as much carbon as the average person emits in an entire year) is not all that surprising to people who’ve worked with the big environmental NGOs. At the upper level, the focus is on raising money and advertising much more than it is on science (and the CEOs are paid like CEOs–the CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, for instance, makes over $800,000/year). This is not to denigrate the science that gets done–there are heaps of committed and talented scientists working for WWF, TNC, etc. It’s just to comment that at the upper level, the focus isn’t always on science-based conservation anymore, and greenwashing is a symptom of that. As far as the Nature Conservancy goes, I think that their state-based offices illustrate the importance and effectiveness of being truly local for doing conservation. The state offices are generally better at keeping the focus on real-world conservation than their global programs.

  46. 96
    Steve Chamberlain says:

    Hank Roberts @ 77 quoted:

    Thanks for including this: when the scenarios that talk of the ability of vegetation communities and plant species to adapt to rapidly rising mean global temperatures are discussed, my observation is that the last sentence in the quote you give is often ignored. Most reports and discussions of the potential impacts of climate change on vegetation communities that I’ve seen (and I’ve not seen either all the models or all the discussion by a long way) talk about the need for species to migrate polewards by Xkm a year. This is tricky enough for wind pollinated and/ or wind-dispersed species (grasses, pines), but much worse for species that rely on some other vector for either pollination or dispersal or both. But if these proposed migration rates are bad enough, the picture gets worse once other factors critical to migration and contineud survival are considered. In natural landscapes, where do these plants migrate to that isn’t already occupied by a range of plant species already in competition for resources (space, light, nutrients, water)? Even if migrants can find a place, in many cases one or more factors will not be suitable (soil type, nutrient status, water availability and, importantly, local climate). And even if these migrants are successful in finding alternative sites, do they not themselves then have the potential to become “weeds”, displacing other local natives that are also struggling in the now modified climatic regime?

    And all the above assumes that between their current location and the new site are unbroken tracts of land able to support these migrating plant species: as anyone with access to Google Earth can verify, the nature of large areas of temperate and tropical land has been radically altered by human activity – agriculture, industry, resource extraction and so on all make it nigh impossible for any but the most mobile and adaptable organisms to live in: what chance that plants can migrate through such landscapes? And in the unlikely event that they can, what chance is there that the various pollinators and dispersers will go with them? What of mycorrhizal fungi that a great number of plant species rely on to obtain soil nutrients – how can these “migrate”? And what of plant species listed as threatened, or rare, or which have restricted climatic or edaphic parameters? In Australia, up to a quarter of thee members of one of most widespread genera (Eucalyptus) are at risk of failing to be able to adapt (see Lesley Hughes’ rather depressing summary here:

    My knowledge of the workings of the planet’s climate is rudimentary at best, and I am a long way from understanding the more technical side of the discussions here, but as a biologist-in-training, even I can see that a 2 or 3 degree shift in global mean temperatures spells trouble for amny plant species, even without the continuing rapid loss of native vegetation across the world. In short, even if we ignore the spectre of climate change, we *need* islands of native vegetation, no matter how apparently small or insignificant: anything the Nature Conservancy Council or its equivalents in other countries can do to ease the pressure on natural landscapes is to be thoroughly applauded, and thank you to RealClimate for bringing this matter into focus.

  47. 97
    Steve Chamberlain says:

    I don’t know why, but the quote from Hank Roberts’ post disappeared (operator error probably). The excerpt I wanted to highlight was:
    ” Our data suggest that climate changes in these systems have been gradual, perhaps averaging less than 1°C per millennium even during the height of the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Conservatively, if temperatures change only 1°C this century (the minimum International Panel on Climate Change estimate), that rate would be an order of magnitude higher than the fastest rate observed in this record; the projected climate change in the next 100 years will be fundamentally different from any in the last 50,000 years. Given the relatively short geographic distances between elevations and the concomitantly short migration distances required to move among them, Andean plants with broad elevational distributions should be able to remain in equilibrium with climate. For taxa with narrow elevation ranges, however, the predicted rate of climate change may move them completely outside of their climatic niche space within only one or two plant generations. Coupled with habitat destruction preventing colonization from adjacent metacommunities, Andean plant communities may experience greatly increased extinction rates.”

    The link to Hughes’ paper (also disappeared in my post):

  48. 98
    Martin Vermeer says:

    PHE #66, and eric:

    To claim that the RATE of temperature rise is greater now than in the past, you need evidence. Comparing short wavelength instrumental data to long wavelength (ie. smoothed) proxy data is not satisfactory evidence.

    The point to make here is that what is unique for the past several decades, is the combination of a high rate of temperature rise and its sustainment over these several decades, producing an upturn of about 0.7K.

    Yes there have been faster rates of temperature rise in the past. Heck, there have been in the recent past. Heck squared, there was one early this morning after sunrise ;-)

    The data from proxies indeed does not exclude the possibility of, e.g., a single year, or a short run of years, in the Middle Ages being warmer than 1998. It is the physics that excludes this: global mean temperature just doesn’t behave like this. We know this from the instrumental record — valid evidence for these high-frequency variations (and confirmed by model simulations): the variability power spectrum of global mean temperature anomaly (with forcings removed) is of 1/f type; which solidly rules this out.

    Lower-frequency variations as fast as today would produce an upturn at least as large as today, which would clearly show in the proxies, smoothed as they are.

  49. 99
    stuart harmon says:

    [Response: Guys, I’m not claiming expertise on polar bears, which I don’t have. But the comparison with the last interglacial, and the Eemian, is not necessarily at all relevant. In neither of these past times did it get warm as fast as is happening now. Rates matter, usually more than magnitudes. In any event, we may well be heading for warmer-than-Eemian in the long term–eric]

    The above is a false statement see out put from Vostock Ice Cores Robert Carter U tube.


    [Response: No it is not, and Eric is correct. See Otto-Bliesner et al (2006, Science) and compare with projections for 2100. – gavin]

  50. 100
    schmert says:

    One of the problems is the shear economic expense, which if you consider the running of a country to be similar to that of a business makes conservationism and of paramount importance – enviromental issues a luxury, what with the global economic meltdown and all, although the general public is in a position where they are placated by a t-shirt for life and a few extra tubs for recycling, most people (who look out of the window, read the papers or ex-cathode ray nipple) would like to do more, there’s seems to be serious lack of highly effective economically viable solutions.

    I read a few months ago (apologies i should be quoting this appropriately, but i can’t find it) in New Scientist that many conservationist are now looking at species extinction as a collateral damage foregone conclusion.

    Another really interesting post many thanks.