The Island of Doubt

The incredible words that spilled from my radio this morning were spoken by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Asked on NPR’s Morning Edition to respond to an attack on his agency’s competence the previous day by Gregg Easterbrook, who wrote Wired magazine’s “How NASA Screwed up,” Griffin said some pretty strange things. Among the most bizarre was his response to host Steve Inskeep’s question: “Do you think climate change is a problem?” Believe it or not this is what he said:

I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.

Not sure we should wrestle with it? Amazing. Truly amazing. Sounds like more like Dick Cheney than the boss at NASA. But that’s not all.

To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change. First of all, I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this
a level change.

Wow. I hardly know where to begin. Fortunately, Janet over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, does. As she notes, “I’m not sure this is an argument you can sell in an island nation that’s on a trajectory to being underwater.” But more importantly, almost everything Griffin seems to be believe about the threat of climate change is directly and explicitly contradicted by his own chief climatologist, Jim Hansen.

In a paper published May 7, “Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study” (Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2287-2312, 2007), Hansen and veritable army of colleages from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, report on the fusion of two computer climate models and conclude that we are closer to dangerous climate change than previously thought. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which earlier this year reported that we can allow only 2 or 3 degrees C of further warming before the really bad stuff kicks in, Hansen et al. say it’s more like 1 C.

What follows are a series of excerpts from the paper, which isn’t freely available, but I have a copy I feel obliged to share the more salient points. It’s also interesting to note that the paper, which has been out for three weeks, attracted almost no press. But suddenly, today of all days, NASA decided to put out a press release on the paper. Hmmm. Anyway, here’s the meat of the matter:

The [IPCC] diagram is sometimes taken as suggesting that global warming of 2-3 C relative to recent temperatures, is likely to be dangerous … Hansen (2004, 2005a, b) asserts that the dangerous level of global warming is closer to 1 C or less, his principal rationale being evidence from the Earth’s history that greater warmings are likely to cause large sea level change, which, he argues, will occur on a time scale of centuries.

it is unlikely that the response time for significant ice sheet change could exceed centuries, because such response times (with sea level change of meters per century) have occurred during the Pleistocene with much smaller forcings

GHG climate forcings in the IPCC BAU (business as usual) scenarios, such as A1FI, A2 and A1B, are far outside the range that has existed on Earth in millions of years. The rate of change of this sustained forcing exceeds that of known forcings in at least millions of years.

We suggest that the conclusion that a “tipping point” has been passed, such that it is not possible to avoid a warm-season ice-free Arctic, with all that might entail for regional climate and the Greenland ice sheet, is not warranted yet. Better information is needed on the present magnitude of all anthropogenic forcings and on the potential for their reduction. If CO2 growth is kept close to that of the alternative scenario [requiring implementation of an agressive and immediate program of GHG emissions reductions], and if strong efforts are made to reduce positive non-CO2 forcings, it may be possible to minimize further Arctic climate change.

What happens to the Arctic, and the north polar ice cap, is key, thanks to their role in maintaining the equilibria and overall climate we now enjoy. And it’s important to keep in mind that, since this paper was written, concerns about the accelerating melt of the north polar ice cap have only grown. Some estimates would see it disappear entirely in the summer by 2020. All that extra warm air over the North Polar is certain to affect the Greenland ice sheet, which in turn will cause serious increases in sea level. And when we talk about “dangerous,” a rising sea level is the most obvious danger.

The strong positive feedback between sea ice area and surface albedo makes the Arctic one of the most sensitive regions on Earth to global warming. In the middle Pliocene,
with global temperature 2-3 degrees C warmer than today, the Arctic was ice-free in the warm season. Such drastic climate change would have deleterious effects on wildlife and indigenous people (ACIA, 2004), constituting what many people would agree is dangerous anthropogenic interference with nature. … we can conclude that the world is already close to the dangerous level.

If equilibrium sea level rise is many meters, a response time of centuries provides little consolation to coastal dwellers. They would be faced with intermittent floods associated with storms and continually rebuilding above a transient sea level. Thus we suggest that sea level change may define a low level for global warming that constitutes dangerous change, due to the large concentration of people and infrastructure along global coastlines.

Could the Greenland ice sheet survive if the Arctic were ice-free in summer and fall? It has been argued that not only is ice sheet survival unlikely, but its disintegration would be a wet process that can proceed rapidly (Hansen, 2004, 2005a, b). Thus an ice-free Arctic Ocean, because it may hasten melting of Greenland, may have implications for global sea level, as well as the regional environment, making Arctic climate change centrally relevant to definition of dangerous human interference.

Hansen et al. do have some good news. For example, the threat posed by methane hydrates, frozen submarine chunks of a potent greenhouse gas, may not be as serious as once thought:

With our present lack of understanding, we can perhaps only say with reasonable confidence that the chance of significant methane hydrate feedback is greater with BAU scenarios than with the alternative scenario, and that empirical evidence from prior interglacial periods suggests that large methane hydrate release is unlikely if global warming is kept within the range of recent interglacial periods.

Recall that the current tropospheric CO2 level is now 381 ppm, up 35 percent from pre-industrial levels, and almost no one thinks we have much a chance of reining in our emissions such that we won’t hit 450 ppm. Hansen’s team, writes that

…a CO2 level exceeding 450 ppm is almost surely dangerous, and the ceiling may be even lower.

Have we already passed a “tipping point” such that it is now impossible to avoid “dangerous” climate change (Lovelock, 2006)? [Reference here is to last year's book "The Revenge of Gaia, in which James Lovelock argues it's already too late.] In our estimation, we must be close to such a point, but we may not have passed it yet. It is still feasible to achieve a scenario that keeps additional global warming under 1 C, yielding a degree of climate change that is quantitatively and qualitatively different than under BAU scenarios.

Continued rapid growth of CO2 emissions and infrastructure for another decade may make attainment of the alternative scenario impractical if not impossible. Because widescale use of power plants with CO2 sequestration is at least a decade away, near-term emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy is needed to minimize construction of previous-generation pulverized-coal power plants.

A scenario that avoids “dangerous” climate change appears to be still technically feasible.

The principal implication is that avoidance of dangerous climate change requires the bulk of coal and unconventional fossil fuel resources to be exploited only under condition that CO2 emissions are captured and sequestered. A second inference is that remaining gas and oil resources must be husbanded, so that their role in critical functions such as mobile fuels can be stretched until acceptable alternatives are available, thus avoiding a need to squeeze such fuels from unconventional and environmentally damaging sources.

Take that, boss.

[PLUS: I've posted reaction from the scientific community here.]

Comments

  1. #1 Dave GIll
    May 31, 2007

    Hansen’s paper is at:
    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2007/2007_Hansen_etal_1.pdf

    (linked from J. Fleck)

  2. #2 Lubos Motl
    May 31, 2007

    It’s kind of cool how the global warming bigots are shocked. While they’re still stunned, Griffin should continue to act and, for example, fire all the crackpots from NASA starting with Hansen.

  3. #3 Riskable
    May 31, 2007

    I think it would be pertinent to point out *why* Griffin is so ignorant to global climate change: He doesn’t understand that the problem is with the *rate* of change and not so much the change in of itself.

    There’s a catastrophic difference between a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius that takes place over thousands of years and a 1 degree rise that takes place over the span of a century. The former provides ample time for species to adapt and evolve. The latter can wipe out much of the world’s ecosystems.

    Sea levels rising doesn’t worry so much as a collapse of the entire oceanic food chain.

    -Riskable
    http://riskable.com
    “If you elect leaders that act irresponsibly towards nature, you’ll find that irresponsibility is the nature of your leaders.”

  4. #4 Orson Olson
    May 31, 2007

    For 18 years I’ve been in Boulder, Colorado – a front row seat for UCAR, NCAR, Colorado State, and the University of Colorado – observing the charade of ACW hucksterism as an envornomental scientist. I can only say of Michael Griffin, bravo! Bravo!

    Religious True Belief is our enemy today – not science, not skepticism!

  5. #5 Mike
    May 31, 2007

    it’s Griffin that should be fired. Of course, he’s just a Bush stooly. You can tell by the stupid Alfred E. Neuman grin on his face. Look:

    Griffin was nominated by President George W. Bush on March 14, 2005, and confirmed by the United States Senate on April 13, 2005. At his confirmation hearing on April 12, he made clear that the “strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

    Low earth orbit, yeah right. You mean missle defense for the war mongers. Toss this guy out with the rest of the bums.

  6. #6 Hilary
    May 31, 2007

    Griffin and other presidential appointees in high scientific places have agendas that completely ignore the scientific process. They seek to maintain public ignorance so that big business can continue to run the country unquestioned. Ultimately, their goal is to keep the path clear for CEO cronies to line their pockets with money swiped from the trusting public they care so little about (I’m talking about the middle class). And it’s not just NASA. Hello, who’s running the Food & Drug Administration these days? Certainly not the scientists.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists has known all about such covert actions for years — gag rules on scientists, appointed government watchdogs that sit in on public appearances, major redactions of key scientific conclusions in white papers. Sounds like good spy novel fodder, yes? Well, it’s reality. Just ask Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

    Read this and weep. ALLEGATIONS OF POLITICAL INTERFERENCE WITH THE WORK OF GOVERNMENT CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENTISTS
    Try not to get too hung up on the typos. Guess someone should have overseen the publishers of the House hearings on COMMITTEE ON OVERSISGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM (sic).

  7. #7 Dan Mosher
    June 1, 2007

    Those of you putting Griffen down should do your homework and see how far off Hanson has been with his publicized (and extreemly wrong) predictions going back for more than years (don’t count on reporters pointing those out). How many times are we going to be on our last ten years to act anyway?

  8. #8 Ed
    June 1, 2007

    The climate has already passed the first tipping point – the permafrost in arctic regions is melting.

  9. #9 MW
    June 1, 2007

    Perhaps Dan should learn how to spell the name of the researcher that he is criticizing. Dr. James HANSEN’s presentation of the “most likely” scenario “B”, included in in testimony to Congress in 1988 has turned out to be quite accurate; well within the measurement error. Several people, including Dan, have incorrectly referred to the “worst case” scenario “A” present by Dr. Hanson at the same time as his “prediction”. Fortunately for the world, Hansen’s worst case scenario has not yet occured.

  10. #10 llewelly
    June 1, 2007

    Dan Mosher :

    Hanson has been with his publicized (and extreemly wrong) predictions going back for more than years (don’t count on reporters pointing those out).

    Eli Rabett has posted on this topic several times. Why worry about the reporters when the bloggers will handle it?

  11. #11 Donald Wolberg
    June 1, 2007

    It is sad that not many folks take courses in Historical Geology or paleontology or stratigraphy or paleoecology any more. We lieve on a planet about 4.5 billion years old with a record of life perhaps 3.7 billion years in length. If one accepts that that the Phanerozoic, say from latest Precambrian/earliest Cambrian represents a fairly adequate 560-600 million year record of rocks, fossils and environments, then once can also accept the rather enormous record of information related to the climatic history of this planet in the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. For most of Earth history, the planet has been warm and ice free or almost ice free, punctuated by episodes of significant glaciation as early as the Precambrian but repeated numerous times over the last 600 million years. The why of this is interesting and complex changing climatic picture has several interesting senarios. A fair amount of atmospheric data is similarly available and shows some marvelous shifts in atmospheric composition. Of some importance, Mesozoic CO2 seems to have been 8-10 times industrial age levels. Now that is interesting. Of course cretaceous rocks do contain significant coal deposits, and little or no indication of ice, although some recent data seems to indicate a late cooling. Now it takes about 8-10 feet of peat to end up with 1 ft of coal and 60-70 foot coals seems to indicate an awful lot of plants. Of course, there is some interesting works that shows some rather high O2 numbers as well.

    The fluctuation in O2 is of a bit more importance I suspect to life on Earth than minute changes in CO2 ppb numbers. The Devonian picture seems to yield an earthly atmosphere 38% O2. This plummets to 14% at about the mother of all extinction events at the Permian-Triassic. The Earth;s cretaceous atmosphere seems to have been 28% to possibly 30% and if that data is about right, the Tertiary on seems to show decreasing O2 and some up and down of CO2, and everincresing climatic fluctuations culminating in the development of Late Tertiary and Quaternary massive ice sheets and intervening interglacials. Of course, as we all know, the last full glacial episode had amazing consequences for the planet. Much of North America and Europe were simply buried under masses of ice and not habitable. Sea level plummeted 100 meters (320-plus feet). Periglacial environments were populated by rather specialize animals and plants.

    The end of the last glacial was “climate change” at once disastorus to the cold adapted fauna–they mostly died and floral zones shifted worldwide. Now that is real climate change.

    One would wish that the neocastrophists would do a few rather simple things. 1. Calm down–there is no right climate or wrong climate for Earth or any other planet..there is only climate. One is amused that we now know that Mars seems to be warming a bit; Titan seems to be warming; Pluto seems to be warming and I guess Jupiter is also. 2. Read some Historical Geology and some old fashioned paleontology. Perspective is everything and there really is a good story to be told about changes that have happened on this world in the last 4.5 billion years.

  12. #12 Luna_the_cat
    June 1, 2007

    You know, all this “Earth’s climate has no one optimum/it changes frequently” business misses the one BIG dam’ issue — deliberately or not, I am not sure.

    420 million years ago, there was no huge human population living on coastlines around the world.

    We have over 6,500,000,000 people on this planet, almost 1/3 of whom live in a coastal city within a few meters of sea level, and the vast majority of which have some form of economic impact on each other in the form of need, production, and competition for resources. So hey, yeah, great idea to threaten coastlines and established agrigultural areas and supplies of freshwater! Storms, droughts, and mass immigration aren’t likely to impact our lives at all, right? Right?

    All of recorded history — all of the rise and fall of known human civilisations — has occurred within the last 10,000 years. In that time we have become a truly globalized species, in which our economies have come to depend on a relatively fragile and carefully balanced global web of resources. In the long view, it doesn’t matter, we’ll all be dead anyway and the planet will continue on in some other form. In this particular situation, I don’t give a toss about the long view. I want to know what my life is going to be like when I’m 60. I want to know what kind of issues and hardships my nieces and nephews are going to have to face, and their children. Gee whiz, isn’t that so awfully short-sighted of me?

    Donald, Mars is warming. Saturn is not. Jupiter is warming. Pluto is warming. Triton is warming. Neptune is not. If it were the sun, why are there planets which are not warming? Saying that they all are, or might be, is wrong — they aren’t. (http://www.livescience.com/environment/070312_solarsys_warming.html)

    The answer is, of course, that it isn’t the sun increasing its output. Believe it or not (it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe it, the reality is what it is), we have been measuring the sun’s radiation for a few decades now, and we have reasonable proxies for centuries before that. Fact is, most of the planets which are warming are doing so because of their Milankovitch factors, and we know that too. Earth is not warming because of that, though; according to our Milankovitch cycles, the planet should be in a long, mild cooling trend for almost the next 10,000 years. I.E., not what we are seeing.

    One wishes the “oh it will all be fine, quit worrying” denialists were just a bit better acquainted with the actual science.

  13. #13 Caledonian
    June 1, 2007

    What difference would that make, Luna? For that matter, what makes you think they aren’t already familiar with it? Their position clearly has nothing to do with the evidence, go greater awareness of it is irrelevant.

  14. #14 Dr Coles
    June 1, 2007

    My point in all of this is that CO2 does NOT cause climate change; I am not arguing that a change in the climate might be occurring. The climate on earth changes all the time and that global change is caused by the Sun (a new NASA finding). All life on the planet is carbon based, CO2 is part of our food chain, and it is not a pollutant. The biggest “green house gas” is water vapor. If climate change is caused by human activity then we would need to start eliminating life on the planet, yes this is absurd, so is the assertion that humans are causing climate change. It just is NOT the truth.

    Science fact 2+2=4 a scientific fact is a truth that never changes can be reproduced by anyone every time.

    We do have economic criminals using this issue for profit and we have some governments (mostly EU countries) using this issue as propaganda to eliminate reliance on oil (Thus The U.N. Report).

    Going green for the average consumer is a pure economic decision no matter what the lip service is. Therefore, some governments and their bodies are spinning what Green is.

    Going Green for many countries of the world has nothing to do with the environment; it has everything to do with energy independence from the oil producing countries.

    To date the cheapest forms of energy are oil and coal.

    Additional information http://www.InteliOrg.com/co2_climate_change.html

  15. #15 Luna_the_cat
    June 1, 2007

    “Dr” Coles, take one of those science classes. To argue that CO2 does not affect the heat retention capacity of the atmosphere takes an ignorance of physics and chemistry on par with creationists’ ignorance of biology.

    Caledonian…*sigh* I know. But it’s still worth it to me to speak up.

  16. #16 Chuck
    June 1, 2007

    “Continued rapid growth of CO2 emissions and infrastructure for another decade may make attainment of the alternative scenario impractical if not impossible”

    Unfortunately we will continue to see a rapid growth in CO2 emissions as the Chinese build a new generation of old-fashioned coal-burning power plants over the next decade, and as billions of gasoline-powered cars are added to the road in developed and developing countries during that time. We are close to the tipping point, and have possibly passed it already. In the next ten to fifteen years, it is unavoidable that we will pass it. So what we need to do is not only halt CO2 emissions, but begin preparing for the inevitable catastrophic consequences of global warming.

  17. #17 bob aitken
    June 1, 2007

    How does the CH4 in arctic permafrost figure in these studies and models? That seems to me to have the potential to increase GHGs exponentially and make the threat iminent.

  18. #18 pough
    June 1, 2007

    Science fact 2+2=4 a scientific fact is a truth that never changes can be reproduced by anyone every time.

    Bill? Mr. O’Reilly, is that you?

    What an amazing post. Who keeps turning the stupid up, and why?

  19. #19 Ian Gould
    June 1, 2007

    “Unfortunately we will continue to see a rapid growth in CO2 emissions as the Chinese build a new generation of old-fashioned coal-burning power plants over the next decade,”

    Actually China is building about the most efficient conventional coal stations on the plant – and aggressively closing small inefficient power plants.

    “as billions of gasoline-powered cars are added to the road in developed and developing countries during that time.”

    Umm, seeing as its taken us over 100 years to add the first billion and the world car industry has total production capacity of around 30 million cars a year, most of which are replacing obsolete vehicles, I don;t think we’ll see “billions” of additional cars in the next decade.

    Sorry to sound pedantic – your essential point is correct. The time lags involved in warming mean that further warming over the next few decades is inevitable because of the co2 we’ve already emitted.

  20. #20 Aaron Lewis
    June 1, 2007

    There may not be a “right” or “wrong” climate, but our infrastructure is engineered for the climate that we had.

    California expects a certain amount of snow in very specific places for water for 22 million people and one of the most productive agrucultures in the world. Not enough rain and we would need a lot of bottled water. (What would all those houses be worth if there was no water for the lawns?) Too much rain, and our carefully engineered infrastructure could be washed away, again no water for anything. Our agruculture also depends on a particular climate.

    A sheep herder on Mt Arat can easily adapt to a rapily changing climate. However, a complex industrial society has more invested in the current climate. Our current population requires that extensive infrastructure to survive. If a rapidly changing climate damages our infrastructure, it will reduce the number of people that can be supported.

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