Climate sensitivity is now irrelevant

Thanks to Professor Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez (Transition Times blog), I have been alerted to an article by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, in which he takes A Closer Look at Moderating Views of Climate Sensitivity (where climate sensitivity is the amount of temperature change expected per doubling of atmospheric CO2). This even includes an update wherein Revkin reports an exchange of emails with Gavin Schmidt (NASA), in which the latter suggests that Revkin has implied that “the wishful thinking of people like Ridley and Lindzen for a climate sensitivity of around 1 deg C is tenable”. For the record, I think this criticism was unjustified because, at the beginning of his article, Revkin clearly states that:

There’s still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a “benign” situation, as some have cast it.

However, with the greatest of respect to both Revkin and Schmidt, all this arguing about climate sensitivity (to CO2) may be moot, if, as many scientists are now saying, the warming that has already occurred is now very close to triggering widespread methane release: — from permafrost (which is already happening); and — sediments on the deep ocean floor (also already happening). If these things are already happening, it is almost certainly too late to stop them. It is tantamount to trying to stop an avalanche that has already started. This is because, as a greenhouse gas (GHG), methane is over twenty times more powerful than CO2. Therefore, the warming effect of all this methane could be many times more than all the CO2 humans will ever emit as a result of burning fossil fuels. We could of course try and trap this methane and burn it. This would still not be good (but it would be better than uncontrolled release). However, trapping and burning all this methane would make the technological achievement of landing a man on the Moon look like child’s play by comparison. In essence then, the widespread release of geospheric methane back into the biosphere, which has already started, renders discussion of climate sensitivity to CO2 irrelevant; and means that significant climatic change is now inevitable and irreversible. Sadly, just as Bill McKibben noted over a year ago (thanks to Learning from Dogs for the reminder), we continue to be deafened by: — climate change denial from the fossil fuel lobby; — denial of the problem from our politicians. Whichever way you slice the cake, it is not good news. With my thanks to another British blogger, Pendantry, for alerting me to it, here is the bad news in full from Guy McPherson (ecological biology Professor Emeritus at University of Arizona)… http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ina16XSJQvM I guess I should have called this post, “Confessions of an environmental alarmist” but, I do not see that I have much choice because… Denial is not a river in Egypt. ——— UPDATE (1500 GMT): Thanks to the fact-checking of Jules (see comment below), it has been pointed out to me that the release of methane from the seabed may not be the massive problem McPherson makes it out to be above, because:

Methane emitted at the seafloor only rarely survives the trip through the water column to reach the atmosphere. At seafloor depths greater than ~100 m, O2 and N2 dissolved in ocean water almost completely replace CH4 in rising bubbles (McGinnis et al. 2006). Within the water column, oxidation by aerobic microbes is an important sink for dissolved CH4 over some depth ranges and at some locations (e.g., Mau et al. 2007). Ruppel, C. D. (2011) Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):29.

However, this does not change the fact that methane is already being released direct to the atmosphere across vast areas of formerly-frozen permafrost in the north of Canada and Siberia. ——— UPDATE (1845 GMT): In responding to my comment on the NYT website, Andy Revkin claims most scientists doubt that methane release is the game over scenario some claim it to be; and he refers to a David Archer piece on the Real Climate blog a year ago. My response to that would be: So what, this is not – nor was it ever – a reversible laboratory experiment!

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Anthropocene, Arctic, Climate Science, Environment, Mass Extinctions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Climate sensitivity is now irrelevant

  1. Evidently I don’t have enough to do today as I sat through the entire video. And I think there is a danger of being overwhelmed to the extent of not just inaction but denial. My choice [as a parent] is to choose the less dire predictions, ironically it is the IPCC predictions that are approved for government digestion which I prefer. Methane hydrate as a tipping point is disturbing but who to turn to? The Nature article is reassuring- http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/methane-hydrates-and-contemporary-climate-change-24314790 But with so many opinions within the science community it is difficult to make a properly considered risk assessment and therefore a response. On a personal level the prospect of the end of cheap oil and economic depressions I take the alternative stance to the ‘get used to living frugally’ and think it is the best time to buy, best time to build, and the best time to cash in on those cheap solar panels. We are currently in a goldilocks period where the industrial machine has halved the cost of things like electric bikes and solar panels because there is plenty of oil [just] and the period of oil decline which will push manufacturing costs back up. If the planet is in a worse state than we think [from the pov of conservative IPCC] then we need the last of the abundant fuel to build the next industrial revolution. I see it as taking out a loan to save in the long run. The irony for me is that I studied and wrote about apocalyptic prophesy, and after poo-pooing previous prophesies I may actually witness one.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Jules, I too was overwhelmed by the amount of data McPherson presents. Therefore, thank you for the link to the article in Nature, from which I have extracted this:

      Methane emitted at the seafloor only rarely survives the trip through the water column to reach the atmosphere. At seafloor depths greater than ~100 m, O2 and N2 dissolved in ocean water almost completely replace CH4 in rising bubbles (McGinnis et al. 2006). Within the water column, oxidation by aerobic microbes is an important sink for dissolved CH4 over some depth ranges and at some locations (e.g., Mau et al. 2007).

      Paul Handover (Learning from Dogs) often criticises me for offering up problems but never solutions but, to me, this situation is what it is: We have the solution; the problem is that our industrial and political leaders don’t want to hear it.

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  2. Good article! I’m also planning to write about this Guy McPherson talk soon, and have already started working in this data to the climate talks I do with friends and family. The relevant dates I pulled out of this to use are 2030 (the IEA 3.5 C estimate) and 2050 (UNEP >5 C estimate). 2030 I basically paint as the “point of no return”, where we’re well past the point where climate change becomes self-reinforcing (though Hansen and others think that point is probably much closer to 2 C). 2050 I blunt paint as global extinction. For all intents and purposes, it’s a meteor that wipes out all of human civilization.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for visiting and commenting, Eric. Hansen’s “approaching meteor” analogy is a very good one; the longer we wait to send up a rocket to blow it off course, the greater the potential for collateral damage. I hope you will take note of the other comment (and reference) already made here by Jules (and my response and quotation).

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  3. I think that I need to reblog sections of this article! With your permission…

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Absolutely OK to do that but – to ensure you present a balanced argument – please make sure you include the update! McPherson is very much of an extreme alarmist; and my point is merely to point to the insanity of arguing about climate sensitivity given what is already happening…

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  4. I’m surprised it took you this long to see it. My take on this article was to wearily rise after reading it, feeling bad about being right many years ago…the clathrate time-bomb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis Kilometer-wide bubbling in the Arctic ocean as observed by the Russians a couple of years back suggests the shallow water column there is not capable of absorbing the out-gassing. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/vast-methane-plumes-seen-in-arctic-ocean-as-sea-ice-retreats-6276278.html What few of us foresaw was the hastening of the overall atmospheric methane build-up with fracking….but then – we should know by now – there are no limits to insanity. Have a cheery breakfast!

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Michael. I think there are clearly arguments against McPherson’s rather extreme alarmism. However, as any outbreak of disorder is apt to demonstrate, civil society is maintained by common consent and we may only ever be one missed meal away from anarchy. I therefore remain very concerned about the next financial collapse, which I am sure will make 2008 look like a bump in the road.

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  5. Pingback: Betting the Farm on low climate sensitivity « Anthropocene Reality

  6. pendantry says:

    I think that the point missed on all sides of the debate is — as you allude to with ‘never was a reversible laboratory experiment’ — we are in the test-tube, as Greg Craven tried hard to get people to notice. The ongoing argument on all sides about what’s actually happening simply underscores the fact that we don’t know what we’re doing, and that, by continuing on the same path in the face of not knowing, all we achieve is to confirm our madness. Einstein is alleged to have defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I’d say it’s more a case of “continuing to jump through fiery hoops with our fingers crossed, hoping not to get burnt.”

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Pendantry. I presume you have long since noted the caption that appears on JPGreenword’s blog – also attributed to Einstein.

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      • pendantry says:

        After a couple of false starts, I found the blog to which you refer*, and yet cannot find on it any Einstein quotations… the caption on The Green Word is currently “News, information and opinions about environmental issues from Canada and around the world” — so perhaps JP has changed it since you made your comment? * Incidentally: is it just my imagination or do I detect a certain reluctance on your part to link to other sites? Please don’t take this as an accusation or a criticism: I’m just interested in attitudes by bloggers towards outbound links. Some seem to be averse to linking elsewhere, which could be interpreted as a desire to ‘retain eyeballs’. Me, I always take time out to try to add relevant links wherever I can: I view it as assisting the blogosphere (though it can of course be argued that it’s just adding to the confusion!).

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      • Rick Altman says:

        My provision of external links is only now limited by my reading of other blogs. In general, I do not deliberately avoid linking to external sites. This was all 15 months ago now. However, I appear to have assumed, at the time, that you were already familiar with JP’s blog (as he was then, as you were, a regular commenter here)… For the record, the Einstein quote is (or was) as follows: “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

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      • pendantry says:

        Ah! I’m with you. Assumptions are dangerous beasts. Me, I tend to link to things for numerous reasons, an important one among them being the understanding that blogosphere conversations may be read at any time by, potentially, anyone. That’s an excellent quote. 🙂

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      • Rick Altman says:

        And thanks must go (and did go) to JP for bringing it to my attention. 🙂

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      • pendantry says:

        … and maybe will go again… 😉

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  7. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, February 10, 2013 [A Few Things Ill Considered] ← Test Blog

  8. I’ve updated a post from more than a month ago titled, “Climate-change summary and update.” It includes new feedbacks, and it’s here.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      Many thanks for visiting my blog and commenting, Professor McPherson. Thanks also for providing a link to the new article on your brilliantly-named Nature Bats Last blog. However, as it is currently amongst the most popular articles on your blog, I had already found it. I had thereby also found the Think Progress article by Joe Romm, highlighting the fact that, even today, the IPCC is still not incorporating the effects of positive feedback mechanisms into its projections. This would be truly incredible, were it not for the fact that I understand the pressure the IPCC is put under to avoid being “alarmist”. What amazes me, therefore, is that there are not more scientists like you who are speaking out about the way in which humanity is sleepwalking to catastrophe. However, I know, you say this is because they want to keep their jobs. What about the lives of their children? By 2030, I will have reached retirement age, but my children will only be in their early 30s; they may even still be childless… My response to all this is still in my head; but it will come…

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  9. Pingback: What on Earth are we doing? « Anthropocene Reality

  10. markx says:

    Georg Delisle is said to be an expert on permafrost. …… Delisle said at a presentation: ‘…it is utter imbecility to suppose that the entire permafrost could thaw out by the end of the century. It would take thousands of years.‘ His study ‘Near-surface permafrost degradation: How severe during the 21st century?’ was the basis for his presentation. http://donnerunddoria.welt.de/files/2012/11/2007GL029323.pdf He studied time periods from the last 10,000 years when the global temperature was warmer than today for several thousand years by as much as 6 C. Ice cores that had been extracted from Antarctica and Greenland provide exact information about the composition of the atmosphere during the these warm periods. His conclusion: ‘The ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctica provide no indication of any elevated release of greenhouse gases at any time even though back then a deep thawing of the permafrost when compared to today would have been the case.’ It appears frozen earth (permafrost) has a helluva cooling influence, several hundred times greater than the feared surface warming. Quote from the paper: “…The first key difference between the approach of this paper and Lawrence and Slater [2005] lies in the inclusion vs. omission of an energy flux component from the core body of permafrost toward the base of the active layer. This component cannot be disregarded. The negative energy flux from below (cooling) is on the order of several hundred mW m_2….. …in comparison to the positive energy flux from the Earth’s surface (typically 1–5 W m 2, averaged over the course of one year)…”

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