Reith Lecture woes

I’ve just listened to that Jeffrey Sachs, the international economist, giving the 2007 Reith Lecture called “Bursting At The Seams”. I was only half listening but woke up when he said:

Now like the ozone crisis, public awareness has been the second step. For a long time climate change was discussed as something for the far future. Now it’s understood as something that imperils us today as well. The heatwave in Europe in 2003, claiming more than twenty thousand lives; Hurricane Katrina, a storm of devastating proportions, shocking the American people and the world about what climate can do; the mega-drought in Australia that took place this year, and destroyed a substantial part of Australia’s export crop; the massive typhoons being experienced by this country, as well as the warming taking place in large parts of this country, and severe droughts in the interior of China – have all made climate change an immediate issue, an understandable issue, and one that of course will get worse, no matter what we do right now, for a while, because we are on a trajectory of worsening climate change stresses that is locked in place for the near term.

What? I thought. 2003 is at best increased as a risk by GW. Katrina was not a huge storm; it was only its track that was dangerous. Australia hasn’t got a mega-drought, only a 10-15% reduction in rainfall. Is there really evidence of increased typhoons over China?

So I’m not convinced by his science (and I think he gets his ozone history wrong too).

[Update: I got lots of complaints about this post, mostly about the Australian drought. While I don’t doubt its having severe effects on agriculture and people, I’m still not convinced its a “mega-drought”. For one thing I don’t know what a mega-drought is supposed to be, and I suspect a 15% reduction in ppn isn’t enough. For Katrina, I’m using the RC take on it -W]

[From the comments: The drought here has been absolutely instrumental in changing public opinion on climate change, even though there is a good case (in this particular instance) for saying it is natural variability more than climate change. I fear this is all too likely to be true. I don’t think it is good; and it is very vulnerable – what happens when it starts raining again? -W]

[Another comment, almost the same as above but differently framed perhaps: The experience of 2003 brought home to many people how seriously weather upheavals can disrupt their lives, even if they don’t live in an area directly affected. And if that makes them look more closely at the impact of global climate change on humanity as a whole, I’m all in favor of it. This one I definitely agree with: ie, rather than focus on the-drought-is-climate-change, focus on weather-can-impact-our-lives -W]


  1. #1 Jonathan Vause

    Eh? Katrina was a big storm, wasn’t it? “The massive storm surge produced by Katrina, even though it had weakened from Category 5 intensity … can be generally explained by the huge size of the storm.” (NOAA) Plus it was the strongest hurricane recorded in the Gulf of Mexico at the time – I’m sure you know this, aren’t you being a bit picky?

  2. #2 Benjamin Franz

    Australia is experiencing “its worst drought on record“. They are on the verge of turning off the tap for agriculture in large sections of the country to conserve the water for human consumption.

    What’s your definition of a “mega-drought”?

  3. #3 Lab Lemming

    From an economic point of view, the current season’s drought caused a 40-50% reduction in wheat export dollars. Economists measure drought in (billions of)dollars, not in mm of precip.

  4. #4 Hank Roberts

    I’m curious what you think he got wrong about the ozone story; is the error in the phrase you quote? “like the ozone crisis, public awareness has been the second step.”
    (Other than using “like” for “as with”.) I was just cleaning out the sedimentary filing system and came across a copy of the Baliunas 12/13/94 roundtable transcript disparaging both ozone and climate issues), so I’m curious what history’s got to show.

  5. #5 llewelly

    Although there’s no consensus on any relationship between hurricane size and AGW, Katrina was indeed unusually large, as Johnathan notes. See here (page 3) :

    The wind field continued to expand on 28 August, and by late that day tropical storm-
    force winds extended out to about 200 n mi from the center, and hurricane-force winds extended
    out to about 90 n mi from the center, making Katrina not only extremely intense but also
    exceptionally large.

    Also note the exceptional extent of the storm surge:

    These data indicate that the storm surge
    was about 24 to 28 ft along the Mississippi coast across a swath about 20 miles wide, centered
    roughly on St. Louis Bay. This area encompasses the eastern half of Hancock County and the
    western half of Harrison County and includes the communities of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass
    Christian, and Long Beach. The maximum high water mark observation of storm surge was 27.8
    ft at Pass Christian, on the immediate Gulf coast just east of St. Louis Bay. The data also
    indicate that the storm surge was 17 to 22 ft along the eastern half of the Mississippi coast,
    roughly from Gulfport to Pascagoula. The surge appears to have penetrated at least six miles
    inland in many portions of coastal Mississippi and up to 12 miles inland along bays and rivers.
    The surge crossed Interstate 10 in many locations. Observations also indicate Katrina produced
    a lesser but still very significant storm surge of 10 to 15 ft along coastal areas of western
    Alabama (Mobile County) including Dauphin Island. Katrina also caused flooding several miles
    inland from the Gulf coast along Mobile Bay where data indicate a storm surge of 8 to 12 ft
    occurred, in particular along the northern and western shores of the bay. Observations indicate
    that the storm surge along the Gulf coast of eastern Alabama (Baldwin County) was as high as
    about 10 ft.

    Finally wikipedia has this bit:

    Federal disaster declarations covered 90,000 square miles (233,000 km^2) of the United States, an area almost as large as the United Kingdom.

  6. #6 coby

    Hey William,

    I came here to yell at you about your dismissal of Australia’s very serious drought, you sounded like Jennifer Marohasey there for a minute! But other’s already have so…as you were ;)

  7. #7 Eli Rabett

    There was an interesting EOS article that showed Katrina fed off of unusually warm sea temperatures to depth in the Gulf.

    [OK, I agree, and to that extent K can probably be linked to GW to some extent. But the K wasn’t especially strong, especially once it got to NO – the main problem was its track. Which is part of why hurricane damage is such a noisy statistic -W]

  8. #8 Luke

    Droughts are always a difficult definitional issue. – Severity, geographic scale, number of years duration, economic and social impact etc. Each drought sequence somewhat unique too. And Australia is a big place so the north of the continent if now very wet with the southern half very dry.

    However – the major Murray-Darling system which supplies a great proportion of the nationa’s agricultural production is at record low flows – without the storages the river system would now be dry with scattered waterholes. The Murray Darling Basin Commission (Federal agency) have done the numbers and the flows are worst on record – matched by record low rainfall in headwaters, and it has been not just one year or one El Nino – this has been building for 5-7 years.

    Federal authorities are now in panic mode !

    See various stories in

    Similarly the water supply catchments that supply Brisbane and much of south-east Queensland are at record low inflows. So we have no garden watering, 4 minute showers, water tanks installation going well, water saving devices, no car washing, sewerage water recycling, desalination plants, water pipelines, and new dams all being built at a furious pace. There has been an element of neglect with all Australian state and Federal governments goverments on infrastructure, but also a wasteful attitude towards water use, and a major population – sunbelt type movement of people to south-east Queensland. So government caught in changing circumstances in a record drought.

    And strangely Brisbane itself has had mediocre rainfall – the real problem is 50km inland in the water catchments so urban rainwater tanks from roofs would fill.

    Background stories

    There are similar stories of water supply problems in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

    But for important tracts of Australia particularly southern Australia we seem to have drifted into a record drought worse than the previous 1902 record Federation drought.

    Is it climate change, decadal influences or a random bit of bad luck.

    The Murray Darling is also getting a double whammy from vigourous eucalypt regrowth after previous major forest fires. This further depletes groundwater reserves.

    Certainly things have changed since 1976 with more El Nino events than before. But the rainfall bands have also changed position into the southern ocean. So lots of discussion about the southern annular mode, polar vortex, greenhouse and ozone influences in that.

    You could make a case for climate change NOW. You could also make a case for natural variation based on coral cores in past centuries. Or a mixture of both combined with changing Australian demographic circumstances.

    Perhaps an excellent case study ! (and reckon the southern hemisphere is a bit neglected research wise).

  9. #9 Eli Rabett

    William is pretty much right. Sachs smushes together the homogenous and heterogenous ozone destruction mechanisms (the former is the one that Molina, Rowland and Crutzen discovered), the latter leads to the ozone hole in the Antarctic spring. He throws Lovelock down the memory hole.

    The only reason that Rowland and Molina were doing the kinetics experiments was that Lovelock had found CFCs in the remote Pacific atmospheres, and Hal Johnsons work on NOx catalytic destruction of ozone. Sach also messes up the time frame for development of the CFC replacements, which started, as I recall well before the discovery of the ozone hole.

    Sachs is pretty much right on how the chemical companies got behind the Montreal Protocols, which I think was his main point.

  10. #10 Andrew Taylor

    Australia’s SE & SW which contain most of our agriculture & population have been experiencing an extreme drought, as you can see here and here. Other parts of Australia have had very wet years so rainfall for the continent as a whole is close to the long term mean.


  11. #11 SCM

    The SE Asian Typhoon season was very bad this year. Of course you can’t assign any event to GW but a lot of US-centric people only focus on the hurricane season.

  12. #12 SCM

    ps I’m getting quite annoyed by your comments about the Australian drought. OK it is a *regional* drought – unfortunately it is in the regions where we grow all our food :-( . Rainfall in the desert may give the brine shrimps a good time but its bugger all use to the rest of us.

    Bear in mind the distance from Sydney to Perth is roughly the same as London to Moscow and a lot of the space in between is pretty arid and empty. The average over this area isn’t a very informative number for many practical purposes.

    The details are important which is why finer-scale climate models would be A Good Thing.

  13. #13 Fergus Brown

    William: in a sense, Sachs is correct: when local weather extremes occur, it draws the public’s attention to weather and climate. Where there are no strong or visible impacts, interest is relatively low. Even though the conflation of weather events with climate changes is a logical inconsistency, it is a fact of human nature that we tend to care about what is happening to us or near us, more than what is happening to distant people in distant times and places.

    Inasmuch as the reporting on weather extremes has probably increased, and this is frequently linked by association to a larger debate, the public has become more aware of a range of ‘extreme’ events globally and, with the assistance of the media, is associating this with climate change. Making the issue of CC immediate and local increases its relevance and the desire for action to be taken.

    But this places the scientist in a quandary: doing this is productive, but arguably fallacious; trying to establish the ‘true’, long-term implications of CC is more ‘hoest’, but less effective: what should the moral scientist do?

  14. #14 Steve Reynolds

    >But this places the scientist in a quandary: doing this is productive, but arguably fallacious; trying to establish the ‘true’, long-term implications of CC is more ‘hoest’, but less effective: what should the moral scientist do?

    If he wants to call himself a scientist, the answer should be obvious…

  15. #15 Fergus Brown

    Steve, I agree with you, but there have been some scientists who have been reported as saying that, in order to combat the ‘other side’ and create copy and opinion which offers the opportunity for action, it is acceptable to ‘sex up’ the dramatic implications a bit.

    If the answer is obvious, because truth is at the essence of scientific endeavour, then this must be the foundation of whatever linguistic/rhetorical/communication ‘weapons’ are brought to bear in the ‘fight’ for the hearts and minds of the electorate and the policy makers. Does this place the scientist at a disadvantage?

  16. #16 SCM

    Following on from Fergus and Steve – The drought here has been absolutely instrumental in changing public opinion on climate change, even though there is a good case (in this particular instance) for saying it is natural variability more than climate change.

    I think generally science is generally at a disadvantage when communicating a long term, gradually growing threat. Human psychology simply isn’t wired to deal with that kind of thing, and it is hard for people to really take it seriously unless they see it reflected in some concrete event or crisis.

  17. #17 SCM

    William posted: [From the comments: “The drought here has been absolutely instrumental in changing public opinion on climate change, even though there is a good case (in this particular instance) for saying it is natural variability more than climate change.” I fear this is all too likely to be true. I don’t think it is good; and it is very vulnerable – what happens when it starts raining again? -W]

    The drought (even if localised) is exceptional but it has hit so hard because it follows a number of dry years. The last time SE Australlia was in a dry period (first half of 20th century) it stayed that way for decades so there is no guarantee it will start raining the way it used to in the late 20th century. It would be nice if it did though.

    As for the public’s response to it – it isn’t quite as simple minded as perhaps I portrayed it before. Most people know el nino is a big factor in the current drought and that it will end. But a lot of people seem to see it as a sense of what is to come with global warming (whether correct or not). I agree that interest in global warming will wane for a while if we get some decent rain. Our PM is certainly praying for rain as it will have a significant effect on his re-election chances later this year.

    Politically it is a good thing that the global warming has had its profile raised (because of the election year timing) even if it isn’t a good thing scientifically. A lot of what goes on in politics is similarly irrational and tied to election/news cycles and I don’t think what scientists think about this will change things much.

    My attitude to the political process has become a lot more cynical since attending a scientists-meet-the-politicians event last year where I met some diehard skeptic politicians and a terribly nice art-law graduate who cranks out anti-AGW propaganda for a living! Maybe it is better in the UK and the politicians there listen to reason.

  18. #18 Scott Simmons

    It’s good as a focus for the potential severity of the effects of climate disruption. Aside from the doubts that it’s actually happening, part of the collective yawn in the past from the public about global warming has been based on doubts on the importance of the effect. “So it’ll be a degree or two warmer–so what? It’ll make for some nice, comfy springtime weather. I’m looking forward to it!”

    The experience of 2003 brought home to many people how seriously weather upheavals can disrupt their lives, even if they don’t live in an area directly affected. And if that makes them look more closely at the impact of global climate change on humanity as a whole, I’m all in favor of it.

  19. #19 guthrie

    SCM- I would be very interested to know more about someone who cranks out anti-AGW propaganda for a living. Who is paying them? Whats his name, so we can splat his tripe when it appears?

  20. #20 Luke

    Back on the Australian drought severity. There is talk of food prices tripling if the drought continues.

    So conventional climate change discussion around weather events would be that a single event doesn’t mean that much. You need a trend. But is a 5 -7 year creeping drought weather, climate or something in between?

    Australian farmers can manage single year El Nino events but multi-year drought sequences are very difficult to get through – essentially you run out of money. As well as everything dying !

    So attributing droughts to climate change is problematic. Maybe we need 50 years evidence to get enough numbers for a trend analysis? Also there is only about 120 years of real climate data. So how much do we really know about natural climate variability?

    Long term GCM runs have shown multi-year sequences naturally in 1,000 year runs – if you believe the models.,20867,20980586-2702,00.html In the tropical north-east of Australia – Great Barrier Reef coral cores show 20 year drought periods in multi-century cores e.g. mid 1760s-1780s. Ref: The Holocene 13,2 (2003) pp. 187-199 Chronological control of coral records using luminescent lines and evidence for
    non-stationary ENSO teleconnections in northeast Australia
    (OK the Murray Darling Basin is in the temperate south-east but the long term sequences are still around)

    Nicholls 2004 has said that the warmer temperatures from climate change made the 2002 El Nino worse as an Australin drought.

    So can climate change exacerbate a “natural” drought” ?

    We’ve had more El Ninos and more negative SOI periods since 1976 which some have indulged as climate change. But the IPCC are equivocal on climate change and El Nino.

    But we do have some fair evidence – observations and modelling support that changes in the southern annular mode and polar vortex arising from increases in tropospheric greenhouse gases and depletions in Antarctic stratospheric ozone are changing southern hemisphere circulation.

    William would be the expert here so don’t want to get too shot up :-) !!

    So can you make a case from current models and observation for an anthropogenic cause for the drought. i.e. rain bands falling the Southern Ocean and missing Australia in neutral years. And combined with more Los Ninos. No drought breaking Las Ninas.

    But how do reconcile that knowledge of possible anthropogenic influence with the historical record.

    Similarly there is an attribution study that says global warming did indeed fuel Katrina. How well it stacks up I’m not sure.

    Anyway – sorry for long winded post. But all this makes definitive statements about climate change quite complex in my mind. How does the public make sense of all this?

    Certainly the Australian Prime Minister is hoping like hell it rains – as the public does think that the drought and climate change are linked. Pressure to act on greenhouse gases will dissipate if it rains (IMO of course).

    [Well I disclaim any expertise in Australian drought. However to pick your first ref, other interpreations are possible: “If the drought does not break, there will be a time when good quality livestock will be harder to find, and retail meat prices may rise.” is a very weak prediction of trouble. And imports are of course possible. The drought *could* be anthro, I’m not at all ruling it out -W]

  21. #21 Luke

    William – we can test the “food price prediction” soon – a few weeks time.

    Farmers are facing zero water allocations coming off already parlous seasons. Tree crops are at risk and not simple to replant. Years before crops yield.

    And of course nobody will starve in a first world nation like Australia. And some horticultural capacity and available water in the north for example. Some imports are indeed possible though many are problematic given very tough quarantine regulations. We don’t have a lot of the world’s agricultural and veterinary pests and diseases and want to keep it that way.

    Some more “press predictions” with a bit more information.,10166,21584102-462,00.html

  22. #22 RebeccaMoore25

    One admits that humen’s life is very expensive, however people require money for various stuff and not every man gets big sums cash. Thus to get good loan or just financial loan should be a proper solution.

  23. #23 LatoyaGarcia

    Houses are quite expensive and not everybody is able to buy it. Nevertheless, business loans are created to support different people in such cases.

  24. #24 VeraWeaver21

    Do you recognize that it is the best time to get the personal loans, which would realize your dreams.

  25. #25 Dorothea33Mcdonald

    Don’t you acknowledge that this is correct time to receive the loan, which would make your dreams come true.


    It’s really important to create the professional business essays paper and essay to reach the best mark at the high school.

  27. #27 MaryHenderson27

    Have complications with essay creating? Do not know where to go? Worry no more! Academic assignments writing corporations suggest to ask: ” write my essay ” of supreme standards.

  28. #28 HenryMaria

    Your fact is good! Thence people not have to finish the writing service by their own efforts, they could take your support.

  29. #29 RichKARIN35

    Don’t have a single idea where to begin your academic assignment writing? Do not trouble, because you have a chance to buy college term paper and focus on your deals.

  30. #30 Janna21Lawrence

    Different students in the whole world should understand that custom completing companies can make life easier offering to buy essays online.

  31. #31 EMMACOX

    I think that you know a way a syndicated columnist works. Syndicated columnist writes an article for a newspaper and that column gets then in different magazines. The principle of submission is the same. Your seo article can be posted to variety of website directories with aid of rss submission service. This way seems to be very efficient!

  32. #32 SotoLYNETTE32

    You guess that you can’t buy custom essay papers of high quality? It is not truth just because it’s not hard.

  33. #33 GreerDebora34

    It cannot be accused as some lawlessness when you buy essays. Furthermore, many persons do that.

  34. #34 LizzieColeman23

    I attempted to buy college papers online several times. Thence, I started to do it constantly simply because that helped me to get higher grades.

  35. #35 RAYMONDGena35

    Every one acknowledges that our life seems to be very expensive, however some people need cash for various things and not every man earns enough money. Thence to receive good business loans and just sba loan should be a correct way out.

  36. #36 YORKJana26

    We get only seo articles approved by customers just before we begin articles submission! Moreover, we got many years of quality experience. We get what exactly customers need when they choose our article distribution services and we can provide quality SEO support!

  37. #37 Nancy25Franklin

    Our life can be great, but, it includes lots of difficulties such as essays composing. Frequently it gives us presents such as writing services that get an opportunity to buy custom essay paper accomplished by professionals.

  38. #38 HEWITTDiann32

    Different people in all countries receive the home loans from different banks, just because that’s simple.

  39. #39 GilliamBelinda28

    I guess that to get the business loans from creditors you should present a firm reason. But, once I’ve got a credit loan, just because I was willing to buy a bike.

  40. #40 Hanson31Linda

    A lot of specialists state that mortgage loans help people to live the way they want, just because they are able to feel free to buy necessary goods. Moreover, various banks give small business loan for different persons.

  41. #41 Hank Roberts

    Why, look, Scienceblogs hasn’t got a spambot filter!

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.