What Happened At Durban?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Following the COP17 talks in Durban, South Africa – the latest attempt to create a global deal to cut carbon emissions and solve global warming – world leaders claimed they had “made history”, calling the conference “a great success” that had “all the elements we were looking for”.

So what agreement did they all come to, that has them so proud? They agreed to figure out a deal by 2015. As James Hrynyshyn writes, it is “a roadmap to a unknown strategy that may or may not produce a plan that might combat climate change”.

Did I miss a meeting? Weren’t we supposed to figure out a deal by 2010, so it could come into force when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012? This unidentified future deal, if it even comes to pass, will not come into force until 2020 – that’s 8 years of unchecked global carbon emissions.

At COP15 in Copenhagen, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The German Advisory Council on Global Change crunched the numbers and discovered that the sooner we start reducing emissions, the easier it will be to attain this goal. This graph shows that if emissions peak in 2011 we have a “bunny slope” to ride, whereas if emissions peak in 2020 we have a “triple black diamond” that’s almost impossible, economically. (Thanks to Richard Sommerville for this analogy).

If we stay on the path that leaders agreed on in Durban, emissions will peak long after 2020 – in the best case scenario, they will only start slowing in 2020. If the triple black diamond looks steep, imagine a graph where emissions peak in 2030 or 2040 – it’s basically impossible to achieve our goal, no matter how high we tax carbon or how many wind turbines we build.

World leaders have committed our generation to a future where global warming spins out of our control. What is there to celebrate about that?

However, we shouldn’t throw our hands in the air and give up. 2 degrees is bad, but 4 degrees is worse, and 6 degrees is awful. There is never a point at which action is pointless, because the problem can always get worse if we ignore it.

A Conversation with Gavin Schmidt

Cross-posted from NextGenJournal

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, as well as the editor at RealClimate. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Schmidt, one of the top scientists in his field, on what we can expect from the climate in the coming decades. Here is the entirety of the interview we completed for my article Climate Change and Young People.

Kate: In a business-as-usual scenario, what range of warming can we expect within the lifetimes of today’s young people – so to about 2070 or 2080?

Gavin: Well, we don’t have a perfect crystal ball for exactly what “business-as-usual” means, but the kind of projections that people have been looking at – which involve quite high increases in population and minimal changes in technology – you are talking about global temperature changes, by about 2070, of somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.

That metric is a bit abstract to most people, so how will that amount of warming actually impact people’s lives?

That’s a very good question, because most people don’t live in the global mean temperature, or the global mean anything. Those kinds of numbers translate to larger changes, between four and six degrees of warming, over the land. As you go towards the poles it becomes larger as well, because of the amplifying feedbacks of ice albedo changes and reductions in snow cover.

Right now the range between a cold summer and a warm summer, in most mid-latitude places, is on the order of a couple of degrees. You’ll be looking at summers then – the normal summer then – will be warmer than the warmest summers that you have now, and significantly warmer than the coldest summers. The same will be true in winter time and other seasons.

How will that impact metrics such as agriculture, food prices, the economy…?

It’s easy enough to say that there are going to be some impacts – obviously agriculture depends on the climate that exists. People will adapt to that, they’ll plant earlier, but crops are very sensitive to peak summer temperatures. So you’ll see losses in the fatally sensitive crops. But then you’ll see movement north of crops that were grown further south. You have to deal with the other changes – in nutrient balances, water availability, soil quality. We’re not talking about just moving the subtropics further toward the poles.

Lots of other things are going to change as well. Pests travel much faster with climate than do other kinds of species: invasive species tend to increase faster, because they’re moving into an empty niche, than species that are already well established. There’s going to be changes to rainfall regimes, whether it snows or rains, how heavily it rains – a lot of those things will tax infrastructure.

You’ve got changes for people living on the coast related to sea level rise. That will lead to changes in the damaging effects of storm surges when any particular storm comes through. We’re also looking at more subtle changes to the storms themselves, which could even amplify that effect.

How much of this warming, and these impacts, are now inevitable? Do we have the ability to prevent most of it, and what would that take?

Some further changes are inevitable. The system has so much inertia, and it hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate. But we do have a choice as to whether we try and minimize these changes in the future, or we allow the maximum change to occur. And the maximum changes really are very large. It’s been said that if we allow that to happen, we’ll end up living on a different planet, and I think there’s some certain truth to that.

I hear you talking a lot about uncertainty, and that’s something a lot of people are paralyzed by: they don’t want us to take these actions because they think everything might be fine on its own. What’s your response to that attitude?

Any decision that you’re making now that has to do with the future is uncertain. We make decisions all the time: where to invest money, whether to buy a house – these things aren’t certain, and we still have to make decisions. The issue with climate is that no action is a decision in and of itself. That one is actually laden with far more uncertainty than if we actually try and produce energy more efficiently, try and use more renewables, adjust the way we live so that we have a more sustainable future. The uncertainty comes with what would happen if we don’t make a decision, and I find that to be the dominant uncertainty. But climate change is not unique in having to deal with decision making under uncertainty. All decisions are like that. It’s nothing special about climate change in that there’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the future. Any time we decide to do anything, there’s uncertainty about the future, yet we still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

Probably in response to this attitude, climate science has got a lot of bad press in the past couple years. What have your experiences been – what sort of reactions have there been to your research?

There are a lot of people, particularly in the US, who perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests. To my mind, knowing what’s going on in the planet and trying to understand why should just be information, it shouldn’t be a threat. But other people see it as a threat, and instead of dealing with either their perceptions or what the science actually means, they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists. Basically, you just have people adopting a “shoot the messenger” strategy, which plays well in the media. It doesn’t get us very far in terms of better understanding what’s going on. But it does add a sort of smokescreen to divert people’s attention from what the real issues are. That’s regrettable, but I don’t think it’s at all surprising.

And finally, are you at all optimistic about the future?

It depends on the day.

Climate Change and Young People

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

What is the most important policy issue facing today’s young people? Climate change might not seem like an obvious contender, as it feels so distant. Indeed, the majority of impacts from global warming have yet to come. But the magnitude and extent of those impacts are being determined right now. Only today’s young people will still be around to witness the effects of today’s actions.

Many people see climate change as just another environmental issue that will only impact the polar bears and coral reefs. In fact, it’s far more wide-reaching than that. An increase of only a few degrees in average global temperature will affect human systems of all kinds: agriculture, public health, economics, and infrastructure, just to name a few.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top scientists studying global warming, says that significant changes in global temperature can be expected within the lifetimes of young people alive today – “somewhere between two, three, five degrees Celsius, depending a little bit on the scenario, and a little bit on how sensitive the climate actually is.” It might sound like a small change, until you look back at the history of the Earth’s climate and realize that the last ice age was only around 5 degrees Celsius cooler than today. Additionally, the rate of warming (which is the more important metric for the ability of species, including people, to adapt) is higher today than it has been at any time for at the least the past 55 million years. Human technology has far surpassed the natural forces in the climate system, to the point where significant future warming is inevitable. In fact, says Schmidt, the climate system “hasn’t even caught up with what we’ve put into the atmosphere so far. As it continues to catch up, even if we don’t do anything else to the atmosphere from now on, we’ll still see further warming and further changes to the climate.”

However, the future is still quite malleable. Two degrees of warming is bad, but five degrees is far worse, and the difference between the two ends of the spectrum will depend on what we decide to do about the problem. Since our emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are causing global warming, the solution is self-evident: cut our emissions, as quickly as we can reasonably do so. Implementing this solution is not so simple, as fossil fuels are currently highly integrated into the global economy. Luckily, free-market mechanisms exist which alter the price signals of fossil fuels to better reflect the damage they cause. A revenue-neutral carbon tax, which is offset by reductions in income taxes or paid back evenly to the public as a dividend, is one solution; a cap-and-trade program, which treats carbon emissions like a currency, is another. While virtually nothing has been done in North America to cut emissions, the rest of the developed world has made a pretty good start.

Here in North America, the outlook for action is somewhat bleak. In the United States, says Schmidt, many people “perceive the science itself – just describing what’s going on and why – as a threat to their interests…they choose to attack the science and they choose to attack the scientists.” The Republican Party has adopted this strategy of denial, to the point where top presidential candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry truly believe that climate change is a hoax scientists cooked up to get grant money. The Democrats largely accept the science, but after nearly a full term in office, President Barack Obama hasn’t made any progress on the cap-and-trade program he promised upon his election. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he will follow whatever actions the United States takes, or does not take, on climate change policy.

It seems that action necessary to mitigate global warming won’t be taken unless citizens demand it. Otherwise, emissions will likely continue unabated until the problem is too severe to ignore any longer – and even then, the situation will get worse for decades while the climate system catches up. “No action,” says Schmidt, “is a decision in and of itself.”

What decision, then, will we make? Will we get our act together in time to keep the warming at a tolerable level? Or will we choose to let it spiral out of control? Will future societies look back on us with resentment, or with admiration? Remember, you and I are part of those future societies. But we are also part of today’s.

Thousands of years from now, it won’t matter what the US deficit was in 2011, or which nations went to war with each other, or how much we invested in higher education. These issues matter a great deal to people today, but they are very transient, like many aspects of human systems. Climate change, though, will alter the earth on a geological timescale. It will take the planet around one hundred thousand years to undo what we are doing. We are leaving behind a very unfortunate legacy to the entirety of future human civilization, and all life on Earth – a legacy that is being shaped as you read this; a legacy that we could largely avoid if we chose to.

What Does the Public Know?

Part 4 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal

Like it or not, a scientific consensus exists that humans are causing the Earth to warm. However, the small number of scientists that disagree with this conclusion get a disproportionate amount of media time, particularly in the United States: most newspaper articles give the two “sides” equal weight. Does this false sense of balance in the media take a toll on public understanding of climate science? Are people getting the false impression that global warming is a tenuous and controversial theory? Recent survey data from George Mason University can help answer these questions.

65% of Americans say the world is warming, but only 46% attribute this change to human activities. Compare these numbers to 96% and 97% of climate scientists, respectively. Somewhere, the lines of communication are getting muddled.

It’s not as if people hear about scientific results but don’t believe them. Given that 76% of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” trust scientists as sources of information on climate change, you would expect public knowledge to fall in line with scientific consensus. However, it appears that most people don’t know about this consensus. 41% of Americans say there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists” regarding global warming. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 56%; for the Tea Party, 69%.

If you could ask an expert one question about climate change, what would it be? Among survey respondents, the most popular answer (19%) was, “How do you know that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, not natural changes in the environment?” As a science communicator, this statistic intrigues me – it tells me what to focus on. For those who are interested, scientists can attribute changes in the climate to particular causes based on the way the global temperature changes: patterns of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the rate of warming at night compared to in the day, in summer compared to in winter, and so on. You can read more about this topic here and here.

In this survey, the differences between Republicans and Democrats weren’t as extreme as I expected. Instead, it was the Tea Party that really stuck out. Self-identified Tea Party members are, based on their responses, the least informed about climate science, but also the most likely to consider themselves well-informed and the least likely to change their minds. A majority of members in every other political group would choose environmental sustainability over economic growth, if it came down to a choice; a majority of every other party thinks that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. But the Tea Party seems opposed to everything, including solutions as benign as urban planning.

Luckily, this anti-science movement only made up 12% of the survey respondents. Most Americans are far more willing to learn about climate change and question their knowledge, and there is no source that they trust more than scientists.