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Breaking the silence about Spring

Filed under: — eric @ 11 April 2009

Did you know that in 1965 the U.S. Department of Agriculture planted a particular variety of lilac in more than seventy locations around the U.S. Northeast, to detect the onset of spring — in turn to be used to determine the appropriate timing of corn planting and the like? The records the USDA have kept show that those same lilacs are blooming as much as two weeks earlier than they did in 1965. April has, in a very real sense, become May. This is one of the interesting facts that you’ll read about in Amy Seidl’s book, Early Spring, a hot-off-the-press essay about the impacts of climate change on the world immediately around us – the forest, the birds, the butterflies in our backyards.

The brilliant title of Seidl’s book was one of the reasons that it caught my attention. The other was that I have realized I need to better educate myself about the impact of climate change on everyday life. I’ve been dismissive of the idea that the average person can really detect the impacts of recent warming on, for example, the timing of the apple-blossom season, but I’ve been taken to task by several of RealClimate’s readers for this. If you are paying attention, they have argued, the changes are actually rather obvious.

Of course, Amy Seidl is not the average person. Rather, she’s a trained ecologist with a Ph.D. (as well as an avid gardener) and she’s clearly paying extremely close attention. Her book is the first one I have read that effectively brings home the tangible impacts that global warming will have – is having – on our everyday lives. “We are increasingly familiar,” she writes, of images of melting glaciers, “but how do we give them relevance in our lives? From my window I see no glaciers.” She answers her own question with a series of vignettes, some from her own experiences, many more from her extensive research (well referenced throughout the book).

Cardinals, robins and cowbirds are all arriving earlier in Vermont than they did a century ago. Kingfishes, fox sparrows and towhees are not. Why the difference? The answer, as Seidl explains, is that the former group has the ability to respond ecologically to the changes, because these birds cue their arrival to temperature. The latter, it appears, respond more directly to temporal cues, that won’t change even as climate does. It’s obvious from this example that the make up of bird life in Vermont – the species distribution – will change over time. This may not necessarily be a bad thing of course. On the other hand, it turns out that the robins are the most important host for West Nile virus; the early bird gets the worm, so to speak, and passes it along to humans.

Maple seedlings need about 100 days of below-freezing weather. As this becomes rarer, fewer maples will populate the forests. This, Seidl explains, is why species-range models predict the decline and eventual loss of sugar maple (at least in New England) in the future. But, she notes, the models don’t take into account the full complexity of the system, such as the impact of competition among different species. So we don’t really know what will happen, or how fast. What we do know is that maple-sugar farmers have noticed – and documented – an earlier maple sugaring season over the last few decades.

There are many other examples in Early Spring both of clear climate-related changes (such as the early arrival of robins), and of less clear-cut changes (the maple sugaring season). Seidl doesn’t make the common mistake of assuming that the more ambiguous examples are necessarily due to climate change. For example, she quotes a maple-sugarer who points out that technological changes have allowed them to tap maples earlier, and hence that the timing of sugaring is a weak measure of climate change. The point though, is that even rather minor changes are, after all, being noticed. And if much larger changes do occur, as predicted, they will most certainly have impacts we can’t ignore, even if we don’t live in the Arctic or in Bangladesh. In other words, Seidl tells us, listen to the farmers and gardeners, and the observations of regular people: they are meaningful.

The soberness of Seidl’s approach to the subject of climate change impacts contrasts starkly with that of many books before it. It couldn’t be further, for example, from Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees, which is a truly alarming read. In my comments on Six Degrees, I said that it wasn’t an alarmist book. I stand by that characterization, because – and this is what I liked about it – it doesn’t go beyond what is in the scientific literature. However, while Lynas’s book is a straightforward reading of the scientific literature, it is a somewhat uncritical one, and hence tends to emphasize what might happen in the future over what will happen; this is a point that many readers of my review seem to have missed. Seidl’s book, on the other hand, is focused on the more certain – and often less dramatic — things, and on the impacts we are likely to see in our own lifetimes.

The calm demeanor of Seidl’s book, and the very personal nature of it, could lead one to think that it is primarily just a philosophical reflection on the climate change story. Indeed, Bill McKibben, in his introduction to Early Spring, says that in the face of changes we may not be able to prevent, “one of our tasks is simply to bear witness”. Certainly, the book is partly that. But Seidl’s voice, like Rachel Carson’s before her, has the authentic and authoritative voice of a scientist, made all the more compelling for being very much rooted in the author’s own story and experiences. And she doesn’t pull punches when she has something definitive to say: “One thing is clear:” she writes, “we will not be able to manage the climate”.

Early Spring has the potential to be immensely influential, a real turning point in the popular appreciation of climate change impacts among laypersons and scientists alike. Read it.

Note that we review books on a fairly ad hoc basis. For earlier reviews of other books, see here.

347 Responses to “Breaking the silence about Spring”

  1. 201
    Ray Ladbury says:

    If you are arguing for research into geo-engineering solutions in tandem with emissions reduction, I don’t think you will find many here who will argue. The thing is that right now, apart from carbon sequestration via terra preta, there aren’t any viable geo-engineering options. That leaves emissions reduction in the here and now while we look for additional mitigation options.
    I really do think that many renewable energy options are on the verge of economic viability and that many more show promise. It may be that we have to consider nuclear, although I fully acknowledge that carries its own risks (waste + proliferation).

    As to the reactions of India and China, in part we will have to expect nations to “play chicken”. However, India probably has more to lose (including the Ganges) than anyone, and China is not far behind. It is certainly a nonstarter to expect them and other developing nations to put development on hold while we solve these issues. After, this is likely a multi-generational problem. The West and Japan will have to find alternatives that allow development to continue while still keeping emissions in check. Clearly, this will be controversial, as it will involve technology transfer (probably subsidized in many cases). I am not even sure whether the social institutions needed to meet the crisis exist yet (remember the “corporation” is only about a century old, and democratic government only about 2 centuries). One thing you and I can agree on: We and our descendents are destined to live in interesting times.

  2. 202
    Hank Roberts says:

    Walt, he’s right. You have one point. But you are trying to make it louder than all the other conversations. It amounts to delay and disruption, repeatedly saying you disagree and don’t believe.

    Fewer words, with a cite to numbers and studies on your blog, may help.

    The ‘bathtub’ model credit:

    You should try using the model, Walt, read up on the assumptions. Come up with numbers.

    It’s simple.
    Click the link. Drag the red arrow down to where you think it could or should be. Click to evaluate your action and see the result in the atmosphere. Start a topic at your blog about it.

  3. 203
    Mark says:

    “As I said to Gavin, and it’s really indisputable, emissions reduction as the primary strategy for reducing atmospheric CO2 is a path of failure, pure and simple.”

    If it is so plain and simple, please prove it.

  4. 204

    Walt Bennett wrote in 193:

    Now, I was trying to drop this subject at Gavin’s request, but I think it’s fair, if others still post on this topic, that I be allowed to respond.

    Actually what Gavin said was:

    Walt, this style of debating is tiresome. You have gone for dozens of posts without actually making one concrete point. Stop trying to be all macho about who is the greater realist and discuss specifics or I’m going to cut the whole thing off.

    Gavin Schmidt
    Inline to 159

    The way in which you were arguing arguing against people was almost entirely of the form, “I’m willing to face reality and your not!” — without having much of anything of substance to support your claims. In fact it was almost pure ad hominem.

    But you are doing considerably better at this point. Moreover, I agree with you on a fair number of points but disagree on others. For the moment at least we are in the realm of rational discourse.

    One point though: jumping from thread to thread making the same argument makes internet old-timers rather twitchy. Particularly with extended debate. Best to avoid it.

  5. 205
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “I really do think that many renewable energy options are on the verge of economic viability …”

    Better than “on the verge”. According to the American Wind Energy Association, in 2008 the USA installed 8,358 megawatts of new wind generating capacity, which accounted for 42 percent of all new generating capacity added in the US last year. The 4,112 MW of new wind generation added just in the 4th quarter of 2008 exceeded the annual additions for every previous year except 2007. Total employment in the wind power industry is about 85,000 jobs, up from 50,000 a year ago. Wind turbine manufacturing capacity in the USA is growing as well, with several major manufacturers — including the Danish company Vestas, the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines — preparing to open new factories in the US.

    Wind power has already achieved “economic viability” and is “on the verge” of accounting for the majority of all newly installed generating capacity in the USA within a year or two.

    Oddly enough, there are two things that I think most people are insufficiently aware of:

    1. Just how bad the global warming situation is (readers of this blog are certainly more aware of that than most), and …

    2. Just how far advanced, and how ready to take over from fossil fuels, clean renewable energy technologies already are.

  6. 206
    SecularAnimist says:

    Walt Bennett wrote:

    Did you read the latest report from NCAR? … It says that if we cut CO2 emissions by 70 percent (the story doesn’t give a time period for this to happen) will hold atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm by 2100 instead of a BAU outcome of 750 ppm.

    Actually the NCAR report does give a time period — it says that “the threat of global warming can still be greatly diminished if nations cut emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases by 70 percent this century”, i.e. by 2100.

    According to the study, in this scenario emissions cuts of 70 percent by 2100 would hold CO2 levels to 450 ppm, and “while global temperatures would rise, the most dangerous potential aspects of climate change, including massive losses of Arctic sea ice and permafrost and significant sea level rise, could be partially avoided.”

    That doesn’t sound to me like they are saying that (in your words) “emissions reduction as the primary strategy for reducing atmospheric CO2 is a path of failure, pure and simple.” If anything, it sounds like they are saying the opposite.

    Walt Bennett wrote:

    Even playing this down th middle, saying we accomplish half of that goal (which would itself be incredible), we are looking at 600 ppm by 2100, not 350 ppm.

    You simply assert that reducing emissions by “half that goal”, i.e. a 35 percent reduction would be “incredible”. You don’t support that assertion with any evidence.

    Meanwhile there are multiple proposals on the table from various sources, outlining paths to reducing emissions by more than 70 percent by mid-century, rather than by the end of the century. And you haven’t presented any evidence or reason to believe that such goals are not achievable — you just repeatedly assert that they are unachievable.

    In short, you have repeatedly asserted that emissions reductions are a “path of failure” but you have not substantively supported that assertion, and the NCAR study that you cited in support of it actually appears to support the opposite conclusion.

  7. 207
    Michael says:

    SecularAnimist, take a look at our wind and solar energy production:

    I don’t think you realise the size of the mountain you are trying to move when you suggest we could transition over to wind and solar as major energy sources.

    I admire your optimism for these techs, but I wonder why you imagine the best possible outcome of wind and solar solutions and on the other hand imagine the most horrible AGW catastrophies. I don’t see much balance there.

  8. 208
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Michael, please point to the place in this thread where SecularAnimist has “imagined the most horrible AGW catastrophies” as you state.

    What is incredibly tiresome in this “debate” with the stalling, evading and denying side, are these continuous, generalized, accusations that “alarmists” are invoking the worst case scenarios to scare people, without even knowing who, or what, you’re talking about. Does it occur to you that such accusations as you have made here, only show that you don’t have your facts straight, and that people will not call you on it?

    Furthermore, the link you point to is pretty much irrelevant, because the point is not what the current breakdown is, but the status and possibilities for changing that.

  9. 209
    Michael says:

    Jim Bouldin,

    “It is hard for me to envision any plausible scenario in which there will not be a very substantial die-off of the human species by the end of this century.”

    …is a good example of what I’m refering to.

  10. 210
    Tad Boyd says:


    Very interesting article and the book looks like a good read. My question is of regional nature… It appears from the posts on this thread that most have been experiencing earlier springs and later autumns. For the past 2 years, my corn patch has failed. I’ve blamed it on late springs, cold summers and early autumns (though it well could be shoddy gardening skills). Riding the train to work it appeared that the professionals in Puyallup and Sumner had poor looking corn up until July too (This past summer). I started taking the bus instead of the train and no longer passed by the farms after that so I don’t know how they eventually fared. The previous 4 years I had great corn and even successfully grew tomatoes outside.

    I believe you are from Washington State also and probably know the answer to this… Have the last two years growing seasons actually been shorter and colder here in Washington or has it just been my perception (with my personal garden)? Is there a place on the Web to see seasonal start and stop dates by state? I’m in Gig Harbor and our weather can be very regional. It snowed again day before yesterday. What do we expect this year?

    Thanks Eric,


  11. 211
    David B. Benson says:

    Ray Ladbury (197) — Always David and never Dave, thank you.

    Biochar will certainly work on the desired scale; the only question is the capital and annual costs. Of course one thing that could certainly be done with algae is to dry it, press into bricks and ship to the power generating factility to burn instead of coal. That avoids making biochar and might be preferable for short range shipping; for long range biochar bricks are likely to be preferred.

    Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to locate appropriate cost information for aspects of these suggestions.

  12. 212
    Mark says:

    “You simply assert that reducing emissions by “half that goal”, i.e. a 35 percent reduction would be “incredible”. You don’t support that assertion with any evidence.”

    Look you’re not supposed to ASK HIM QUESTIONS.

    Just take it as right.

    Be “skeptical” like he is, and just accept what he says as the truth. That’s the new-wave skeptical.

  13. 213
    Tad Boyd says:

    This seems a little off topic (from the discussion of early spring and late autumn) but several posts discussed Arctic Ice so I’ll ask…

    I’d read that in 2007, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest level in history. Searching further, I’d read what seemed to be the same article but instead of “lowest level in history” it said “lowest level in human memory” and another “lowest level in recorded history”. I believe that all of these meant “lowest level since 1979” but would like to be corrected if that is not correct.

    Trying to get that sorted out lead me to the question which I’m not sure can be answered but would help put the discussion in context for me…

    Is anyone aware of ice core samples from the Arctic, or any other methods that have shown how old the oldest ice is in the relevant area of Arctic sea ice to the discussion of climate change? In other words, when was the Arctic sea ice as diminished as it was in 2007 (or was it ever)? I’m aware that Greenland ice core sample layers have been dated. Has that been done for Arctic sea ice? (Can it be done?)

    In my trying to get a feel for how extreme an event loss of Arctic sea ice actually is, and knowing when the 2007 level of Arctic sea ice last occurred (the age of the oldest ice in the relevant area) would be very useful information. Thanks to anyone who can answer these questions or point me to the answers. I’ve tried, but haven’t been able to find succinct answers to these questions myself.



  14. 214
    Ike Solem says:

    It’s not about emissions reduction, Walt, it is about halting the combustion of fossil fuels. After all, every time you take a breath you emit CO2 – but that CO2 was in the atmosphere a few years ago, was fixed by a plant and so made its way to you, and you converted it back to CO2 and returned it to the atmosphere. Such “emissions” are not problematic – it is the additions of fossil CO2 to the overall carbon cycle that are problematic.

    Halting the use of fossil fuel is itself a geoengineering approach, is it not? A deliberate attempt to change the composition of the atmosphere to reduce climate change – isn’t that the very definition of “geoengineering”?

    For examples of how to replace coal plants with solar and wind, see:

    Australian solar technology powering California

    Ausra and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have launched the company’s Kimberlina Solar Thermal Energy Plant in Bakersfield, showcasing the company’s ‘next generation’ concentrating solar thermal technology, which was originally innovated in Australia.

    Schwarzenegger joined Ausra president, CEO and chairman Bob Fishman, US Reps Jim Costa (CA-20) and Kevin McCarthy (CA-22), California Assemblymember Jean Fuller and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) CEO Peter Darbee in launching a new era of solar thermal power with the turning of Ausra’s large solar thermal mirrors.

    “This plant proves that our technology is real, it works, and it’s ready to power businesses or provide process steam for industries now,” said Fishman.

    At full output, Kimberlina will be able to generate 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3500 homes in central California.

    See also

    Such prototypes can be scaled up to gigawatt scale – just as powerful as any coal or nuclear plant, but with the added benefit of modular construction – you can make any size you like. Unlike FutureGen, they have working prototypes that deliver power with zero CO2 emissions – and all with no support from the DOE or any other branch of the federal government – also unlike FutureGen, which has pulled in several billion dollars in federal funding – all with nothing to show for it.

    Is that what you call “the free enterprise system”, or is it a corporate welfare program based on fraud and deception? As far as “lack of political will”, 75% of the public supports the rapid development of renewables. Unless you believe that public opinion doesn’t matter, there’s plenty of political will.

  15. 215
    Hank Roberts says:

    Tad, the Arctic sea ice is 1,2,3,4,5 years old, no more.
    This isn’t a polar ice cap, that adds up forever.
    The drilling just hits salt water under the ice.
    I’s sea ice.
    Here’s a good summary with pictures on the age change:

  16. 216
    Pekka Kostamo says:

    Tad: Why there is no old sea ice can be easily seen on the ice drift maps produced by IFREMER at

    Winds drive the ice movements. The circulation may reverse from one day to another, but there is a pattern of outflow through the Fram Strait to the Atlantic.

  17. 217
    Tad Boyd says:

    #214 Thank you Hank. That makes sense.


  18. 218
    Brian Dodge says:

    RE Tad Boyd 15 avril 2009 at 6:23 PM (&BTW william “just as we saw a return to more normal sea ice extent this year.” NOT)

    for a quick picture of what’s happened to Arctic sea ice, try
    (When will I admit global warming has stopped? When the summertime arctic ice extent is above 9e6km^2 for ten years running)

    for a more in-depth discussion, start with

    Because it’s floating, Arctic ice moves, and eventually floats out into the Atlantic. Fifty years ago, when the ice was thicker than now, this process took longer, but even then there wasn’t any really old ice. for a movie of the movement and age of ice, see

    My nonscientist opinion is that the arctic sea ice is transitioning from a structure that responds to climate to one that will respond to weather. Whether we set a new record low extent this year depends more on the winds, clouds, precipitation, SST & surface currents than the progression of global warming.

  19. 219
    Tad Boyd says:

    #216, #218 Pekka and Brian,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. Pekka, all I was able to see was an icon when I tried to open some of the .png files but that’s ok. I now have a clue about the nature of the Arctic sea ice and know why I couldn’t find what I was looking for (I was looking for the wrong things). Brian, great and helpful links.


  20. 220
    Margie K. says:

    “April has, in a very real sense, become May” ?

    Not in Minnesota. :)

  21. 221

    Walt Bennett writes:

    You and I agree that both emissions reduction and drawdown are needed, and needed soon, and thus the best approach is to recognize those dual truths.

    That’s all I’ve been saying.

    That is NOT what you’ve been saying. You’ve been saying WE SHOULDN’T EVEN TRY to reduce emissions because the public won’t accept it. You’ve been saying we should completely roll over and let the fossil fuel companies have their way. Go back and read your own posts!

  22. 222
    Mark says:

    “That is NOT what you’ve been saying. You’ve been saying WE SHOULDN’T EVEN TRY to reduce emissions because the public won’t accept it.”

    You can’t see his reasoning: he’s not getting anywhere with “we shouldn’t try reducing emissions, we should geoengineer first” so he’s now having to pretend that he never said it.

    Hopefully someone coming along new to the thread won’t read it all and will think that people are attacking him personally.

  23. 223
    Chris S says:

    Fascinating though the mitigation/emissions debate isn’t, I’d like to drag this comments thread back on-topic, here’s a couple of the latest published papers on this topic:

    The impact of changing climate on phenology, productivity, and benthic–pelagic coupling in Narragansett Bay; Nixon et al.; Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 82 (2009)

    …The traditional winter–spring bloom has decreased or, in many years, disappeared. Relatively short, often intense, diatom blooms have become common in spring, summer, and fall replacing the summer flagellate blooms of the past. The annual and summer mean abundance (cell counts) and biomass (chl a) of phytoplankton appear to have decreased based on almost 50 years of biweekly monitoring by others at a mid bay station. These changes have been related to warming of the water, especially during winter, and to increased cloudiness. A significant decline in the winter wind speed may also have played a role. The changes in the phenology of the phytoplankton and the oligotrophication of the bay appear to have decreased greatly the quantity and (perhaps) quality of the organic matter being deposited on the bottom of the bay. This decline has resulted in a very much reduced benthic metabolism as reflected in oxygen uptake, nutrient regeneration, and the magnitude and direction of the net flux of N2 gas. Based on many decades of standard weekly trawls carried out by the Graduate School of Oceanography, the winter biomass of bottom feeding epibenthic animals has also declined sharply at the mid bay station…

    Adjustment of the annual cycle to climatic change in a long-lived migratory bird species; Moller et al.; Acta Zoologica Sinica 55 (2009)

    …Mean breeding date advanced by almost three weeks during the last 70 years. Annual arrival date at the breeding grounds during a period of 47 years was predicted by environmental conditions in the winter quarters in the Southern Ocean near the Antarctic and by mean breeding date the previous year. Annual mean breeding date was only marginally determined by timing of arrival the current year, but to a larger extent by arrival date and breeding date the previous year. Learning affected arrival date as shown by a positive correlation between arrival date in year (i+1) relative to breeding date in year (i) and the selective advantage of early breeding in year (i). This provides a mechanism for changes in arrival date being adjusted to changing environmental conditions. This study suggests that adaptation to changing climatic conditions can be achieved through learning from year to year.

    I’ve also managed to remove the ugly red circle from the 1300 years of cherry blossom link in my last post (#196)

  24. 224
    SecularAnimist says:

    Michael wrote: “SecularAnimist, take a look at our wind and solar energy production … I don’t think you realise the size of the mountain you are trying to move when you suggest we could transition over to wind and solar as major energy sources.”

    I realize that at one time there were ZERO personal computers in the world.

    I realize that at one time there were ZERO cell phones in the world.

    I realize that at one time there were ZERO Internet connections in the world.

    I realize that at one time there were ZERO communications satellites in orbit around the Earth.

    I realize that at one time there were ZERO broadband communication networks in the world.

    For that matter, I realize that at one time there were ZERO nuclear power plants in the world.

    Indeed, all of those things were true in my lifetime.

    We absolutely can generate abundant electricity to power a comfortable, technologically advanced society, indefinitely, from the Earth’s abundance of wind and solar energy resources, using today’s technology.

    Whether we in fact do so or not, is a choice.

  25. 225
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Jim Bouldin, “It is hard for me to envision any plausible scenario in which there will not be a very substantial die-off of the human species by the end of this century.”…is a good example of what I’m refering to.

    Right, good example…except for the small issue that such a thing was never said by either SecularAnimist, or anyone else in the thread.

  26. 226
    SecularAnimist says:

    Actually, Jim Bouldin, the commenter is quoting me correctly. I did post that comment on the “Wilkins ice shelf collapse” thread about a week ago. Here’s the rest of what I wrote:

    the Himalayan glaciers that provide much of the fresh water supply for southern and eastern Asia are melting away. When they are gone, a billion or more people will be without fresh water. Without fresh water, they will die.

    At current levels of warming — even without any further warming — the melting away of those glaciers appears unstoppable and irreversible. With the additional warming that is almost certainly locked in given current accelerating rates of CO2 emissions, they are only going to melt away sooner.

    And that’s just one of many problems. There will be similar huge losses of glacier-fed fresh water elsewhere, such as in South America or California. And the widespread, intense droughts that we are already seeing will only spread and intensify, with consequent large scale failures of agriculture all over the world. And oceanic fisheries on which billions of people depend for protein will disappear.

    I stand by all of that — except for one point, which is to acknowledge another commenter who correctly pointed out that the California freshwater supplies at risk are from snowpack, not from glaciers.

    I can certainly envision a scenario in which humanity acts quickly enough to reduce emissions so that we avoid truly horrific, biosphere-killing consequences of AGW. One recent study suggests that reducing emissions 70 percent by 2100 may be enough to do that. But that won’t prevent — and as far as I can tell it now seems virtually impossible to prevent — very serious impacts from global warming on fresh water supplies, agriculture and ocean acidity, which will be enough to cause “a very substantial die-off of the human species by the end of this century.”

    By a substantial die-off, I mean that I expect the world’s human population by 2100 to be no more than half of what it is today, perhaps much less if we fail to begin a rapid trajectory of emissions reductions within the next 5 to 10 years. And every year of delay increasingly “locks in” more and more severe effects.

  27. 227
    Walt Bennett says:

    Re: #221


    Your fake quote is grotesquely far off the mark, and gets my argument completely backward.

    I don’t think you did that on purpose, but you did do it, so you will have to figure out how it happened.

    Maybe go back and read what I actually wrote.

    In any case, the argument is that we cannot reduce emissions quickly enough to make a difference in the important benchmarks that we know of.

    You quote the report regarding 70% reductions by 2100 as though it is a reasonable expectation, but let me ask you this: what will be the year when China produces lower emissions as a national plan and not just because of a brief economic slowdown? What about China?

    In other words, the U.S. could reduce emissions by a large amount, as could Europe, and the total amount could still GROW for at least the next decade. Now factor in this: it will take decades for the U.S. to hit that number, and I mean maybe 50 years. Hell, it’s already been more than 20 years since Hansen’s testimony, and we still INCREASE our emissions. I’d be stunned if our first year of lower emissions (other than due to economic conditions) occurs during the eight years Obama may be in office.

    It really is that difficult to turn that ship around, for many intermingled and stubborn reasons.

    But your assertion that the above argument is tantamount to “we shouldn’t even bother” is absurd.

    On the other hand, the shock therapy you imagine is dead on arrival, as it should be.

    So, when will you get on board with a reality-based approach?

    [Response: Edmund Burke: “”Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” – gavin]

  28. 228
    Walt Bennett says:

    Re: #214


    I absolutely agree that reducing fossil fuel emissions is a geo-engineering project (or a collection of several) as is the development of alternative, clean, renewable sources of energy, and OF COURSE there is public support for both.

    Let’s not get too fooled by that.

    What there is not, today is any sort of consensus (FAR from it) on how much to reduce, how to do so, in what time frame, and what to do about those nations that refuse to do so.

    Nowhere close to that.

    15+ years after Kyoto…

    So, as you’ve seen me explain, the idea is to start with the reality that we are some years away from actually reducing those emissions, and when we get there we will be at a higher point than we are today, so the initial reductions will simply return us here.

    By when, would you say? 2020? That would be a job well done, to reverse the coming increases back to today’s level, with a downward trajectory, by 2020.

    Now: Do we have that long?

  29. 229
    Michael says:

    SecularAnimist, like I said I admire your optimism. I guess we both agree on the size of the mountain that needs moved.

  30. 230
    Jim Bouldin says:

    To your credit for being honest about it Animist. However, to be precise, I asked Michael (208) for where in this thread that quote had been made, because I sure hadn’t seen it. He pulled from another thread but didn’t state it.

    About how many will die, you could be right I don’t know, but the consequences are likely to be severe whatever the actual number. But I very much agree with your views on renewable energies and the rapidity with which they can be instituted. Wind in particular is already booming and the speed with which large capacity farms have been set up recently is astounding. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it first-hand(e.g. Peetz wind farm in CO and another one near it). Also, the degree to which people ignore the incredible effectiveness and importance of conservation NOW, while discussing geo-engineering schemes, just throws me into a veritable conniption and shows how deeply addicted to their “lifestyles” people are, to the detriment of anything and everything external to themselves. Idiots. Dangerous idiots.

  31. 231
    Walt Bennett says:

    Re: #230


    With regard to renewable sources, one major roadblock is the grid, which is not well suited for long distance transport of electricity.

    Wind and solar farms will tend to be built far from where the juice is needed.

    I have advocated a national program akin to the Interstate Highway System (and using much of its right of way) to completely rebuild the grid with the future in mind.

    I want it done in the next decade. Are you with me?

    P.S. I’m with you completely on conservation. We in the U.S. need to learn to live on perhaps one third of the energy we’re used to.

    Again: timelines. Long. Decades.

    That’s just the plain reality of it.

  32. 232
    David B. Benson says:

    Walt Bennett (224) — To follow the definitions, emissions reduction is called mitigation, not geo-engineering. Sequestering excess CO2 is an example of the latter.

    (I’ve been guilty of this confusion myself.)

  33. 233
    Mark says:

    “Nowhere close to that.

    15+ years after Kyoto…”

    And why?

    Because the denialosphere was saying that there was no such thing as warming, that more time was needed to see if there was anything substantive.

    And now, after a maximum, they’re saying that it’s cooling.

    How will this effect change if the money is to go to geo-engineering rather than curbing fossil fuels? The cry will be the same.

  34. 234
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Walt, I know enough about the grid only to be very dangerous, but if you have a reasonably workable plan by which we can distribute solar or wind energy from where it’s farmed to where it’s used, I’m absolutely with you, no question.

    Nevertheless, conservation is, and always will be, numero uno in my book.

  35. 235
    cougar_w says:

    [die-off] We can have a massive human die-off and not actually reduce the global population; just maintaining population at current levels (zero increase) would require either families working strictly at replacement levels over generational time spans (unlikely) or else significantly increased mortality across the board. Stasis in population numbers for any period of time could imply a fairly horrific level of mortality, war and disease.

    Current global population increase is around 1.2%. That’s 80M humans a year at present (and is the second derivative of growth also positive? I assume so).

    What we are seeing in modern times — massive increases in population — are associated with modern medicine, abundant energy, general global peace, and sustained humanitarian efforts (and still we wring our hands over human suffering even at these levels of attention). Pull a few of those out of the mix and you might hit zero population growth finally, but the mortality and suffering on the ground (80+ million dead a year over current mortality levels) would be a humanitarian nightmare once it started.

    And then you have to think about what it would look like to get population decline, or classical die-off as discussed here. I think that would imply total systemic ecological, economic and political collapse, followed by widespread acceptance of cannibalism.

    My point is that you’d be in a bad way just getting to zero growth. Anything less than zero (die-off) is simply too ghastly to contemplate and almost certain entails a level of collapse that, if you could imagine it, would make your head explode.

    ref: CIA World Factbook


  36. 236
    Michael says:

    Conservation may hurt more than it helps. If we need to increase production of our agricultural, medical services, clean drinking water delivery, etc. to meet the needs of AGW crises around the world, it may mean an increase in energy consumption in the developed (and developing) world. If we push for cheaper, more readily available energy to meet the world’s needs it may be in direct opposition to the crowd pushing for more energy restrictions.

    If conservation only gives us marginal results in the war on GW, why not just throw out the concept altogether? It just doesn’t seem like a cause worth supporting.

    [Response: Huh? I suppose your computer is still run on vacuum tubes and uses the energy of a small town to power it? – gavin]

  37. 237
    cougar_w says:

    To bring my prior post onto the topic, one dilemma regarding AGW is that it might tend to improve the human condition initially, and perhaps reduce mortality overall (making the second derivative of change more positive). Longer growing seasons and milder winters are occasionally offered by the Dark Side as a reason we should embrace GW. The same might apply to decreasing ice at the poles (freeing up circumpolar arable land) and supposed CO2 fertilizer effects on plants (bogus, but there you have it.)

    Some of the phenological changes are undeniably favorable to farmers and land developers. Problems with pests and disease vectors could be addressed via the extensive application of technical solutions like pesticides and hospital treatment. No doubt this sounds just fine to a bunch of people out there in the corporatocracy.

    Meaning, perhaps humanity gets a brief but significant boost from climate changes just before we fall into the climate meat grinder, as it were. It is tempting to suppose that how far we have to fall (from what initial level) might dictate how well we cope humanitarily, and how badly we fair on sudden impact at our natural population bottom. A “boost” of any kind sounds like a Bad Thing to me, but that’s because I think we’re going down — down hard — regardless.

    The idea that we might bear witness to the changes, since we cannot halt them, is chilling. It is worth reminding the readers that Anne Frank bore witness before us of another sickening “die-off” and we’re still not free of the horror.

  38. 238
    Michael says:

    “Huh? I suppose your computer is still run on vacuum tubes and uses the energy of a small town to power it?”

    I see where you are going there – your making the point that our industry is self-efficient by nature since we have an evolution from vacuum tubes to IC’s, and operates most efficiently with no influence from outside sources. Got it.

    [Response: Umm… no. The point is that greater productivity and the reason why we are much richer than our grandparent is based on doing more with less – including energy, materials and labour. While there is a normal tendency for this to happen in any case, there are plenty of unrealised efficiencies in the energy system that require investment. I fail to see that encouraging that investment so that energy use decreases is something that is not worth doing. Especially if you actually do the sums. – gavin]

  39. 239
    SecularAnimist says:

    Michael wrote: “If we push for cheaper, more readily available energy to meet the world’s needs it may be in direct opposition to the crowd pushing for more energy restrictions.”

    No one is pushing for “energy restrictions”. People are pushing for restrictions on CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. And lots of people are pushing for cheaper, more readily available electricity from wind and solar energy.

    And improvements in efficiency are not “energy restrictions” either. How is it a “restriction” if improved technology allows me to get the same utility from less energy?

    The only people I know of who equate “cheaper, more readily available energy” with “continued, increasing use of fossil fuels” are the fossil fuel corporations and their political allies.

  40. 240
    Tim McDermott says:


    Consider that the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yange Tse, and the Yellow rivers all rise in the Tibetan plateau. When the glaciers are gone, these rivers will be dry for significant periods every year.

    Consider that half the world’s population lives in the countries these rivers water.

    Consider that three of these countries have nuclear weapons. They have fought several wars with each other in the last 50 years.

    I suspect that when the rivers stop running more than heads will explode.

  41. 241
    Marcus says:

    “Conservation may hurt more than it helps.”

    It also depends very much on what kind of conservation you are talking about: conservation from things like:

    Better insulation in houses
    More efficient cars, computers, fridges, etc. (and smaller + lighter where appropriate)
    Better public transit systems, less sprawl, and therefore fewer VMT in cars (efficient or not)
    Smaller houses, fewer yachts, and less plane travel for the rich
    Less wasteful agricultural systems

    are not really going to reduce the adaptive ability of the world, and in some cases may actually improve it. What we _do_ need to be careful of is that increased energy prices resulting from carbon taxes or cap & trade have appropriate rebates or set-asides such that the poor can still afford adaptive measures, some of which may well lead to increased energy consumption (like air conditioning in the summer). Some environmental activists suggest that a fraction of revenues from a tax/cap system should go into an “adaptation fund” for developing nations.

    While some adaptation will be necessary in almost any foreseeable future, if we _don’t_ mitigate, the magnitude of that required adaptation may become overwhelming, and if we do mitigate, it may be manageable.

  42. 242
    Swann says:

    SecularAnimist: ‘No one is pushing for “energy restrictions”.’

    I believe they are:

  43. 243
    Michael says:

    Gavin, ‘Kick the Habit’ is an interesting read, but what it boils down to is this: bang for your buck. Lets say for argument that mitigation costs are quantifiable for most industries. How much will all this effort change the warming trend? It could be argued that a mitigated future and a non mitigated future don’t look that different from each other.

  44. 244
    Jim Bouldin says:

    If conservation only gives us marginal results in the war on GW, why not just throw out the concept altogether? It just doesn’t seem like a cause worth supporting.

    There have been some outrageous comments made on this site, but for unmitigated and unsupportable stupidity, that one takes home the hardware.

  45. 245
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Michael @238 says “If conservation only gives us marginal results in the war on GW, why not just throw out the concept altogether? It just doesn’t seem like a cause worth supporting.”

    Spoken like a man who hasn’t done his homework–be it about potential tipping points or consequences of climate change or what will be needed to mitigate these consequences. First, read “Six Degrees”. There is a huge difference between 3 degrees warming and 6 degrees–we’re talking mass extinction huge. Second, consider that famous “temperature leads CO2” talking point denialists always trot out. What it really means is that at some point we start to get large CO2 increase from natural sources–and then the game is over. Third, consider that it takes time to develop mitigations, and since we’ve just wasted 20 years arguing over settled science, the only way we buy time is by serious conservation.

    This isn’t some green gambit, Michael. It’s real–real enough that deep ecology folks like Lovelock are advocating nuclear power. It might be to your advantage to learn the science. It would certainly be to the advantage of any progeny you leave behind.

  46. 246
    David B. Benson says:

    Having done some more looking into the matter, it may be that growing algae without CO2 assist can produce 85–100 t/ha/yr of biochr, at a cost comparable to that of coal. If this is right, one way to rpidly mitigate is to begin competing seriously with the fossil coal industry.

  47. 247
    Brian Dodge says:

    @ David B. Benson 16 April 2009 at 8:55 PM

    Petrosun, a small oil company that owns 900,000+ acres of oil leases in AZ & NM, “…a diversified energy company with technology and operations in oil, natural gas and helium exploration, development and production…” bought an 1100 acre shrimp farm in Rio Hondo TX to convert to producing algae oil for biofuels. The company president is a self described 3rd generation oilman and petroleum geologist, but it’s pretty obvious where he thinks the future is, or at least where it’s prudent to hedge some bets. They’re predicting 2000 gallons of biodiesel per acre (~20,000l/ha) per year.

  48. 248
    squeeze says:

    Just an aside ;) about the origin of this thread, where Eric says
    I’ve been dismissive of the idea that the average person can really detect the impacts of recent warming on, for example, the timing of the apple-blossom season, but I’ve been taken to task by several of RealClimate’s readers for this. If you are paying attention, they have argued, the changes are actually rather obvious.

    If one has a taste for apples, the timing and quality of the bloom period is actually very relevent to considerations of the effects of climate, as the length of the dormancy period is critical for apple production, as well as some other tree crops, and when the winter months don’t supply the necessary “degree days” the bloom can be quite unproductive, especially those pesky blossoms that don’t open until harvest time, triggered by the first few cool nights in Sept …. there’s also the fairly major problem that’s been happening here [west coast Canada] where a primary pollinator [Orchard Mason bees] are appearing well ahead of the fruit bloom because of a few earlier high temperature days so that their cycle is winding down by peak bloom period …. you’ll see the effect in store availability and price one year soon I’d bet

  49. 249
    James says:

    Michael Says (16 April 2009 at 3:39 PM):

    “If conservation only gives us marginal results in the war on GW, why not just throw out the concept altogether?”

    Err… Money? As for example, by insulating my house, I went from using several hundred gallons of heating oil a year to something less than 50. At last fall’s prices, that’s about thousand bucks I have to do something else with.

    I drive a car that gets 70 mpg. At say 10K miles per year, I’m spending $700-$1500 (depending on whether it’s $2 or $4/gallon) less than someone who gets 20 mpg. More money in my pocket – plus I have the fun of driving a zippy little 2-seater rather than something that handles like a waterbed.

    I dry my clothes on a line – more money in my pocket, plus they smell better. Use CFLs rather than incandescents – again, more money in my pocket, and better quality light to boot.

    All these things, and more, are worth doing regardless of any CO2 reduction, simply because they put money in your pocket. Indeed, I was doing most of them long before I learned enough about AGW to see it as a serious problem.

  50. 250
    Mark says:

    “SecularAnimist: ‘No one is pushing for “energy restrictions”.’ ”

    And, like the Port Talbot steelworks when they changed the processes and cut 90% of their energy needs, this does NOT mean you can’t do what you want. It DOES mean “find more efficient ways of doing what you want”.