The Island of Doubt

ResearchBlogging.orgCan’t let this week slip any further past without drawing your attention to a new paper on “Irreversible climate change because of carbon dioxide emissions,” which has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (It can be found here), and I have a copy and will share some excerpts. You can also read a press release here.

First, the authors, Susan Solomon of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder and her European colleagues, deal with the defining the most important term in the paper:

(where irreversible is defined here as a time scale exceeding the end of the millennium in year 3000; note that we do not consider geo-engineering measures that might be able to remove gases already in the atmosphere or to introduce active cooling to counteract warming)

While the paper has already attracted a fair bit of attention, I’m not sure this is the best way to go about it, as it’s clear people just don’t worry much about what’s going to happen a thousand years hence. Case in point: One of the strongest criticisms of Al Gore’s climate change presentation is that his most dramatic animation, which lays out what happens to coastal cities, including New York, if you melt half the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, comes with no specified time frame. And then it turns out that even in the worst-case scenarios, our best guess at that time frame involves centuries if not several millennia.

What’s going to get politicians interested is what will happen in the next few decades —;;;; and even then you have to bias your presentation toward the nearest of terms.

Still, the Solomon paper does make some extremely interesting points. For starters:

It is not generally appreciated that the atmospheric temperature increases caused by rising carbon dioxide concentrations are not expected to decrease significantly even if carbon emissions were to completely cease…

Global average temperatures increase while CO2 is increasing and then remain approximately constant (within 0.5 °C) until the end of the millennium despite zero further emissions in all of the test cases.

and in the case of precipitation:

Increased drying of respective dry seasons is projected by 90% of the models averaged over the indicated regions of southern Europe, northern Africa, southern Africa, and southwestern North America and by 80% of the models for eastern South America and western Australia

Is there a danger in pointing that we’ve already done “irreversible” damage to the ecological support system of the planet? Will that meme carry so much weight that people will just give up? Not that we shouldn’t be exploring such avenues of research, but it’s an important question to ask.

Solomon was on NPR Monday afternoon, insisting that her results do not mean we should give up, even though it looks like whatever we do we’re looking at very serious consequences of what we’ve already done.

“I guess if it’s irreversible, to me it seems all the more reason you might want to do something about it,” she says. “Because committing to something that you can’t back out of seems to me like a step that you’d want to take even more carefully than something you thought you could reverse.”

Hmmm. What this means to me is those who are pushing for strong climate change mitigation action are going to have to emphasize that what’s already in the pipeline will pale compared with what will come if we don’t get our act together.

So what we need are some very easy to understand explanations of the difference between letting business as usual continue and moving aggressively and immediately to a decarbonized energy economy.

Solomon et al. ends with a concise summary of the policy implications, especially for those like Bjorn Lomborg who argue that economics is more powerful that ecology and for those advocating a cap-and-trade approach to reducing emissions:

It is sometimes imagined that slow processes such as climate changes pose small risks, on the basis of the assumption that a choice can always be made to quickly reduce emissions and thereby reverse any harm within a few years or decades. We have shown that this assumption is incorrect for carbon dioxide emissions, because of the longevity of the atmospheric CO2 perturbation and ocean warming. Irreversible climate changes due to carbon dioxide emissions have already taken place, and future carbon dioxide emissions would imply further irreversible effects on the planet, with attendant long legacies for choices made by contemporary society. Discount rates used in some estimates of economic trade-offs assume that more efficient climate mitigation can occur in a future richer world, but neglect the irreversibility shown here. Similarly, understanding of irreversibility reveals limitations in trading of greenhouse gases on the basis of 100-year estimated climate changes (global warming potentials, GWPs), because this metric neglects carbon dioxide’s unique long-term effects.

UPDATE: Andy Revkin in his NY Times Dot Earth blog, bounced the Solomon paper off John Sterman of MIT, who replied with a lengthy letter that ends on an optimistic note:

One more critical point: it’s important that people not react to Solomon’s work with despair. Yes, a certain amount of climate change, due to past emissions, is inevitable, and will not be reversible. But it would be tragic if people concluded that therefore there is nothing we can do, that it is futile to reduce emissions, and that therefore all efforts should shift to adaptation. To the contrary: if nothing is done to cut emissions, and soon, the climate our children and grandchildren will face will almost certainly be far less hospitable, and there will be no turning back. By the time we know for certain how bad it will be it will be too late to take any corrective action. The Solomon paper should finally bury the idea that we can wait and see. It further strengthens the case for immediate, strong mitigation. The good news is that it’s getting cheaper every day to cut carbon emissions. Through learning, scale economies, R&D, and other forms of innovation, new technologies for carbon-neutral renewable energy are becoming more available and less expensive. Each megawatt of solar or wind capacity we build lowers the cost of the next and the next — a positive feedback we

need to strengthen if we are too avoid irreversible harm to the ability of the planet to sustain us.

Susan Solomon (2009). Irreversible climate change because of carbon
dioxide emissions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


  1. #1 Your Mom
    January 27, 2009

    Here we go again, except now we have IRREVERSIBLE climate change. sheesh. If it isn’t a government funded study, it’s a government organization, NOAA. The government funded moonbat is clearly in need of further funding to keep her job when she says… “People have imagined that if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide the climate would go back to normal in 100 years, 200 years; that’s not true,” climate researcher Susan Solomon said in a recent teleconference. One question for li’l ole Suzy Q in Boulder lala liberal land being paid by govt research funding –
    What is back to normal? Where on the graph in the past 3000 years is “normal”? Just a little bit of a hole in her logic there. Typical unfounded unproven self-serving crap from the whack job AGW minority. Surprise surprise.

  2. #2 Clark Kent
    January 27, 2009

    World War II Veteran freezes to death in own home.
    Due of course to Irreversible Global Warming and the fact he didn’t pay up on his carbon credits. Survived the German Nazis’ but succumbed to the Carbon Credit Global Warming Nazis’. Ironic.

  3. #3 Dave X
    January 27, 2009

    Your Mom: “Normal” is what AGW would be without the “A” part.

  4. #4 Carl Schumer
    January 27, 2009

    When will they learn? There is no science, there is only government. Government created you, and gave you a number, and government decided if you live or die, how much money you can make, and how much of it you can keep. Government decides if you are married or not, and if you can buy or sell, and what you can buy, and what you can sell. Science. There is no science, not outside of government. There is no science until government decides there is science. Government is the vine, and science is but one of the branches. Don’t get your shots all in a knot. We will have science when government decides we need science, and not until.

  5. #5 paulm
    January 27, 2009

    Basically, were hosed!

  6. #6 Joe
    January 27, 2009

    James, are all these stupid comments coming from the same IP address? It is okay to block someone if they are just trolling.

  7. #7 Hume's Ghost
    January 27, 2009

    I’d be in favor of turning comments off alltogether until the new moderation system is up. The deranged stalker commenter(s) don’t deserve a forum to spread the same disruptional idiocy repeatedly.

  8. #8 P. Revere
    January 27, 2009

    I don’t think we have any hope of fixing Climate Change until you can first fix the school and welfare systems. Wow, 47% of the adult population of Detroit is functionally illerate! By the end of the Obama administration, it may well be that illiteracy rates can be pushed up into the 66% range. Someone on an earlier post had commented, James, that you should become a rap artist to better communicate. Given these figures, that doesn’t sound quite as far fetched as it might have originally seemed. Even if you are totally factually and scientifically correct about climate change and global warming – who cares?, – if half the adult population can’t even read your posts?!! Apparently our government school system is cranking out adults who are able to reproduce, and vote, and collect welfare, and unemployment, but read? No way.

  9. #9 Cannonball Jones
    January 28, 2009

    Hmm, interesting P. Revere but somehow I don’t think that kids in school and people on welfare really have that much input into government’s decisions on how to tackle climate change. I can see it now, “Mr President, are we decided that we should definitely ban drilling for oil in Alaskan nature reserves?”. “I’m not sure, maybe we should wait till little Susie in the fourth grade weighs in on the matter”.

    Education and welfare are mighty important, no denying it. Fixing them ain’t going to change the climate change problem though.

  10. #10 muhabbet
    March 16, 2009


  11. #11 sohbet sitesi
    August 19, 2009

    Thnkyou my admin

  12. #12 gabile
    September 11, 2009