Worse than terrifying?

My favorite Sunday morning NPR radio host , Liane Hansen, introduced a story about the release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change synthesis report by describing its contents as "terrifying." Later in the day I came across an AFP report on a study from Australia's Climate Institute, from which we learn that "greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than worst-case predictions" from the IPCC. So reality is worse than terrifying? Hold on a sec.

It is true that the Australian report does make for more worrisome reading than the IPCC synthesis. For one thing, the latter is really just a rehash of what's already been released, although some new language is used to describe anthropogenic climate change, welcome words likes "unequivocal." But I can't bring myself to employ "terrifying" to describe either of them.

I suspect that the last six years of US government propaganda on the alleged war on terror has a lot to do with NPR's choice of words. But it's inappropriate. Even those residents of island states about to undergo of form of forced relocation due to rising sea levels and storm surges aren't terrified of the prospect of climate change. Anyone who spends any time reading the literature -- or watching An Inconvenient Truth, for that matter -- should be worried, troubled, even despondent. But we're not living in abject fear.

Regardless of the emotional state it will engender, the report from the Climate Institute is worth a read. Unlike the IPCC protocols, which restricted analysis to research published before April 2006, the folks from the Climate Adaptation Science and Policy Initiative at the University of Melbourne who produced the Australian study were able to draw on the most recent research. The majority of papers cited were only published in the 10 months, and most of the rest come with a 2006 date.

As a result, the discussions of expected temperature and sea level rise are indeed worse than the IPCC worst-case scenarios. New observations of melting ice in West Antarctica and Greenland, for example, rate only a vague and passing mention in the IPCC report:

The projections do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, therefore the upper values of the ranges are not to be considered upper bounds for sea level rise. They include a contribution from increased Greenland and Antarctic ice flow at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but this could increase or decrease in the future.

The Climate Institute responds with:

In its 2007 assessment, the IPCC assumed a negligible contribution to 2100 sea level change from the loss of Greenland and West Antarctic ice. More recent work suggests that this conclusion is likely to be incorrect. Projected warming of 2-3°C would result in increased melt-water during lengthened melt seasons. Multiple positive feedbacks would have a significant impact on accelerated loss of ice sheets. The consequences "could yield sea level rise of several metres per century with eventual rise of tens of meters, enough to transform global coastlines."

That last reference is to a 2007 paper by Jim Hansen and his group at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2287-2312, 2007). Hansen's work gets a few more mentions, but work from many others are also sourced, and it's clear that there's growing support for the notion that catastrophic sea-level rise within the next century is no longer just a remote possibility

Fortunately, and as you would expect of decent science, the Climate Institute report isn't bad news from cover to cover. Not all of that too-new-for-the-IPCC material is negative, and the Australians are careful to include a wide range of it. The latest on permafrost-trapped methane (about which I blogged here) is noteworthy:

Another potential source of methane is from melting permafrost. Such melting is occurring in boreal forests of the Northern circumpolar region, with evidence that temperatures of discontinuous permafrost have warmed in recent years sufficiently to approach or pass the melting point in some areas.The likelihood and extent of methane releases is largely unknown, with a recent study suggesting that scenarios that point towards massive releases from degrading permafrost are questionable.

Overall, the news is not good and getting worse. And it would appear that the pace of research on climate change has accelerated to the point where the IPCC is far behind the game. By the time all the vetting has been done, science has moved on. Not that we should dispense with the IPCC or ignore its findings. Not at all. Just find a way to make its public pronouncements more timely and therefore representative of what's going in the climatology labs. From the CI report intro:

These suggest that the IPCC assessment is underestimating the risks of adverse impacts due to increased warming during this century and that impacts previously considered to be at the upper end of likelihood are now more probable.

Which means the IPCC isn't giving us the best available science, a situation that's just not acceptable. Not when we're dealing with something as serious as global climate change.

As for NPR, the phrase "war on terror" was silly to begin with -- whoever the enemies are, they aren't emotions -- and use of the T-word should be discouraged whenever possible.


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The thing I don't understand is why the uncertainty in the probability of catastrophic floods. This should be one of the most straightforward calculations. We know how much ice there is, we can easily determine how much water that corresponds to, is this just a result of more political deception during the last few years?

Clarification: The thing I don't understand is why the uncertainty in the probability of catastrophic floods [i]should change over time[/i].