Forecasting Climate Doom

The report issued this week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) made a splash in the climate blogosphere and in some big-time media outlets like the Guardian, which ran a story with this headline:

World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns

That got me thinking of James Hansen’s warning in 2006 and how it pretty much lined up with the IEA’s. Add a pinch of Richard Betts and here’s what I ended up writing over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

Speaking of Hansen, he’s just put up a new paper on his website, titled “Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice.” He writes:

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate.  How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?

This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming.  Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

Hansen goes on to argue, “with a high degree of confidence,” that the severe weather in Texas this summer and the 2010 heat waves in Moscow “were a consequence of global warming.” He continues:

People who deny the global warming cause of these extreme events usually offer instead a meteorological “explanation”.  For example, it is said that the Moscow heat wave was caused by an atmospheric “blocking” situation, or the Texas heat wave was caused by La Nina ocean temperature patterns.  Of course the locations of the extreme anomalies in any given season are determined by the specific weather patterns.  However, blocking patterns and La Ninas have always been common, yet the large areas of extreme warming have come into existence only with large global warming. Today’s extreme anomalies occur because of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns and global warming. For example, places experiencing an extended period of high atmospheric pressure will tend to develop drought conditions that are amplified by the ubiquitous warming effect of elevated greenhouse gas amounts.

If the oil & gas industry maintains its stranglehold, which the IEA in its report says is all but assured, then climate doom is also assured, Hansen (unsurprisingly) concludes:

Science does show that business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions will cause atmospheric CO2 to continue to increase rapidly.  The increasing greenhouse gases will cause the rapid global warming of the past three decades to continue, and this warming will cause the climate dice to become more and more loaded with greater and greater extreme events. The probability that this conclusion is wrong is about as close to zero as one can get.

There are two different scenarios forecast by both Hansen and the IEA, which threaten to collide very shortly. The first is that we are a few years away from irreversible global warming being locked in. The second is that we are a few years away from the fossil fuel economy being irreversibly locked in for the foreseeable future.

And some people wonder why geoengineering is taken seriously.

29 Responses to “Forecasting Climate Doom”

  1. Jarmo says:

    If the oil & gas industry maintains its stranglehold, which the IEA in its report says is all but assured, then climate doom is also assured

    I thought that gas can be an interim solution and that coal is the biggest problem.

    Stranglehold…. the word implies that people are forced to use fossil fuels when the reality is that fossil fuels are cheaper than renewable ones. Fossil fuel subsidies are government devices to keep the price of fuels down. I am pretty sure that the fossil fuel companies would love to charge full market prices from their customers.

    I agree that there is no way to stop the expansion of fossil fuel use in the developing countries where most of the people live. The coal power plants being designed and built right now will operate fo 40 years. CCS remains a dream.

  2. Fred says:

    Here we have yet another in a very long string of apocalyptic warnings from scientists about global warming.  How many times have we seen declarations of “irreversible tipping points in five years”?  I think the first time I heard something like that was around 1990.
    The “science” behind AGW theory is questionable, to say the least.  Also, global oceanic and land temps have been flat to declining for a decade or more. 
    Anyone can make up nonsense to scare people.  Startling/scaring people is one way to control them.  I suspect that is what is going on here.  

  3. RickA says:

    Whether Hanson is right or not is not relevant.

    Unless non-carbon energy can be invented which is cheaper than coal and gas, nothing will change.

    The goal of people like Hanson is physically impossible without new innovations which create cheaper energy. 

  4. OPatrick says:

    RickA, no you are wrong. Coal and gas already are more expensive, it’s just that their costs are not measured in the way that we are used to. Some people recognise these costs and have already changed their behaviour accordingly. If more people recognise the costs more people will change. This probably won’t happen fast enough to avoid the likely serious consequences, so there needs to be a policy decision to apply an ‘artificial’ economic cost to speed up the transition.

  5. Jarmo says:

    #4 OPatrick

    there needs to be a policy decision to apply an “˜artificial’ economic cost to speed up the transition 

    Please dispense with the Newspeak.  Just call them taxes. 

  6. OPatrick says:

    Yes, a carbon tax seems the most sensible option.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    I think we are 3 years away from knowing whether or not nuclear will be financially viable.
    Okiluto went quite poorly…much more poorly then a ‘First of a kind’ experience is normally. Sanman #1 and #2 are so far on time and on budget. Vogtle #3 and #4 are 6 months behind schedule do to regulatory delay but so far ‘on budget’. VC Summer #2 and #3 are on schedule and currently about $1 billion under budget(less then expected inflation).
    I personally ‘believe’ that nuclear will start rolling out in a large way in the next 5 -7 years. As do the people who invest in heavy forging factories. In 2008 the world capacity for heavy nuclear forgings was 4 per year. It’s about 24 per year now.
    In the US ‘gas lockin’ will occur if EPA acts on forcing older coal plants to be retired now rather then waiting for VC Summer #2 and #3  to progress further so that utilities can make a ‘more informed’ judgment.

  8. Eric Adler says:

    I think we need to recognize that climate change is a part of a greater problem for the planet.  Economic growth and population growth of the human race is unsustainable, outstripping the capability of the planet to support if the trend continues. 
    Naomi Klein has a thought provoking article in the Nation that discusses the reactions of various political groups to this problem.,0&rel=emailNation
    She points out that the opposition of the right, to the idea that GHG’s are causing damaging climate change, is based on the perceived threat of this idea to capitalism as they know and love it, rather than science. The point of her article is, they are correct, but the people who support taking action against climate change don’t recognize that this is the case.

  9. jeffn says:

    “Yes, a carbon tax seems the most sensible option.”
    You will only get a carbon tax when you get permission to build the least expensive and most reliable alternatives. The problem there is that France, the US and Japan proved that you don’t need a carbon tax in order to build nuclear power. So- with “tipping points” and never ending train of weather catastrophes, tell me again why you are waiting for policy you don’t need?

  10. grypo says:

    There is a very large disconnect between the “2C” number in mathematical terms and what that number means for the most vulnerable, and least responsible, people in the world.  Doom is local, not global.  It’s not 2C for everyone.  2C is an ethical number and a moral choice, and those most at risk would rather see it at 1.5C.  

    But who cares about how those people view their own risk, right?

  11. jeffn says:

    Eric, interesting link. Do you think she is correct? More importantly, do you think Naomi is interested in climate change because of what it means for capitalism? In other words, if you could both stop emissions and have capitalism and economic growth- where do you think she would rank climate change in order of importance?
    I think progressives are already heading in the direction of “luke warm” simply because Mark Lynas and George Monbiot are obviously right- you won’t reduce emissions without nukes. Of course, if you get nukes, you also won’t reduce energy or make it more expensive (see power rates in France). So, absent the use of the issue as a tool to use against capitalism, Naomi will not care a bit about it.

  12. Eric Adler says:

    Jeff @ 11
    I do see her perception as accurate. Capitalism is not paying the costs of the external damage created by exploitation of the worlds resources, and the trashing of the planet in more ways than just climate change.
    I have no ability or interest to predict what Naomi Klein would think about a hypothetical situation that you describe. 
    The whole question of safety of Nuclear power, versus its capabilities as a base load generator is a complex tradeoff for a lot of people. Nuclear power is heavily dependent on the government because of the high safety and economic risks, and long lead times for installation of Nuclear Power. It is not really a capitalistic solution, depending heavily on government guarantees and subsidies.  In Japan the government didn’t do its job well on the safety questions, and was in the pocket of the Nuclear Industry. Not only progressives, but all people should be concerned about this.
    I don’t see the specter of requiring nuclear power, affecting opinions of progressives on the need for reduction of emissions. If people are going to engage in motivated reasoning they can persuade themselves that solar power, wind power, conservation, and restructuring of settlement patterns will do the trick in the long term. Nuclear power is not a short term solution, given the lead time for the construction of new plants.  Development of safer nuclear power seems to be possible and should be made a priority. China has a strong effort to do this, as well as strong solar and wind power industry.

  13. jeffn says:

    Naomi noted that while you could argue that capitalism doesn’t pay externalities, communism did an even worse job of it. If this is all about greed and being “in the pockets of an industry” then why did communitarian, centrally planned economies, without corporate influence do a far worse job of protecting the environment?
    If time is of the essence – ie you think it would take too long to build a nuclear plant, but not “radically transform” (Naomi’s phrasing) American politics and economy – surely at least this new radical political organization exists and has a leadership. Who are they so we can better get to know them? Will they be on the ballot next fall?
    Come now, don’t be shy. Can’t transform the nation without taking that first step.

  14. RickA says:

    #4 O’Patrick:

    In the dreamworld external costs matter.

    In the real world, only what a person has to actually pay out of pocket matter.

    Until the actual out-of-pocket expense for paying for non-carbon energy is cheaper than for the actual out-of-pocket expense of paying for oil and gas energy, the switchover will not take place.

    You can propose a carbon tax to increase the out-of-pocket expense, but the alternative to produce the necessary energy does not yet exist – so that will be hard to pass. 

  15. huxley says:

    This is the One Hundred Months ticking clock, now that the 100 months has dwindled to 61.

    Several years ago Episcopal and Anglican bishops were alarming their dioceses about this. I looked through the IPCC AR4 report and couldn’t find anything about irreversible climate change or tipping points. I concluded that this forecast was not really a forecast but yet another attempt to frighten people and stampede them into a radical environmental agenda.

    So far this fear campaign has not worked, even during the glory days of 2009 when Obama and the Democrats were poised to rule, as Democratic optimists believed, for forty years. Now that the world economy is even weaker and environmental issues have sunk to the bottom of people’s concerns, it’s even less likely to happen. Plus at some point — 30 months? 20 months? — it will seem too late to try.

    If we are only a few years away from irreversible this or irreversible as Hansen or the IEA claim, then it is too late. Given the current economic and political climate, the best that can be done is a symbolic victory like postponing the Keystone pipeline.

    Furthermore, whenever the next deadline passes and we still haven’t done much, what will Hansen or the IEA do? Move the goalposts? Prepare for global triage? Call for executions of environmental criminals?

  16. harrywr2 says:

    @12 Eric,
    “Development of a safe nuclear power”.
    Please…the Probabilistic Risk Assessments for a Gen II nuclear reactor were on the order of 10^ -4. One accident every 10,000 reactor years. Pretty close to what has happened.
    The probabilistic risk assessments for a Gen III reactor are on the order of 10^-6. One accident every million reactor years. So lets ‘throw in the towel’ on a 60 year old technology because ‘we can make it absolutely, positively safe.
    Let’s fall back on windmills – Windmills were invented somewhere between 500 and 900 AD. They’ve had 1,000 years to prove they could ‘power the world’.

  17. Tom Scharf says:

    Science says end of the world in 5 years!


    The green movement really needs to perform some introspection on how things got to this point.  Most of the media didn’t even cover this at all.  I guarantee that almost nobody on these forums even flinched a little bit when reading this.

    Climate science crying wolf has truly become a joke, and the joke is most definitely on them.  

  18. Jarmo says:

    The IEA report again makes the point made numerous times elsewhere:

    The dynamics of energy markets are increasingly determined by countries outside the OECD. Non-OECD countries account for 90% of population growth, 70% of the increase in economic output and 90% of energy demand growth over the period from 2010 to 2035.  China consolidates its position as the world’s largest energy consumer: in 2035 it consumes nearly 70% more energy than the United States, the second-largest consumer, even though,  by then, per-capita energy consumption in China is still less than half the level in the United States. The rates of growth in energy consumption in India, Indonesia, Brazil and the Middle East are even faster than in China.
    Cuts in OECD coutries or Keystone XL will matter very little in the big picture.

  19. Tom Scharf says:

    #8 Eric

    Naomi Klein – at least she is honest about her liberal worldview and using climate change to obtain it.

    She is of course almost psychotic in her thinking that the answer is to escalate the left/right culture wars and this will somehow result in just one side winning and getting everything they want.   She espouses a typical liberal wish list and ties in the how AGW can be used to propel the world closer to this utopia.

    I give her credit for being transparent about it.  She does make an important point that it is not climate change that revolts people nearly as much as the proposed solutions to climate change.  It does throw up huge red flags that these “solutions” just happen to be the long sought green nirvana.  

    At least she’s honest about it.


  20. Eric Adler says:

    Tom Scharf,
    You are assuming a false equivalence between the motivated reasoning of the right regarding AGW, and the basis for the opinion of the left and middle on climate change. The science overwhelmingly supports AGW, and the likelihood of environmental damage to the planet, and harm to many humans.
    As Naomi Klein points out, the scientific case for AGW has become stronger over the past few years, at the same time the Republican ideologically motivated opposition has hardened, causing more Republicans to deny the existence of AGW They charge climate scientists with perpetrating a hoax, without any real evidence to support that charge.
    By using the phrase, “At least she is honest”, do you mean to imply that other liberals are dishonest?
    There is a lack of logic  regarding your description of the motivation of liberals regarding climate change. The liberal ethos is primarily economic justice and preservation of the environment for humanity. This is a hard sell for many people in the middle who are skeptical. Why would liberals add battling climate change, to the list,only for political gain, if there wasn’t a genuine belief that it was necessary? It would only make their program less palatable. That is why you don’t currently hear much from most liberal politicians,  about climate change, except to attack the Republicans for being anti-science.
    The people who are among the most vociferous, such as Joe Romm and James Hansen,  come by their opinions based on strong backgrounds in physics and climate science.

  21. Eric Adler says:

    JeffN @13,
    Communism did a bad job of environmental protection because the central planners had total control, and they didn’t care about it.  Like the big corporations in the capitalist system, they had no interest in environmental protection. There was no freedom of speech there, and people who wanted more environmental protection, if there were any, were not able to advocate for it, much less change the government because it was screwing up the environment. 
    The elite in Beijing are having to use deluxe model air filters in their homes and offices to protect their health against the horrible pollution of the air in Beijing, while producing reports which understate the level of pollution.
    I don’t see anyone in the environmental movement recommending a Communist dicatorship as the way to fix the environment. This is an image that the right wing wants to push as a way to discredit those who seek protection for the environment.

  22. Eric Adler says:

    Harrywr2 @16,
    I agree that in the US, the fatalities and damage due to nuclear energy have been far less than those from fossil fuels. Despite this,  people are more afraid of radiation than they are of mercury, soot, sulfate pollution and other effects of fossil fuel burning.
     According to the Wikipedia article on this topic,
    “Since Price-Anderson was enacted, nuclear insurance pools have paid out about $151 million ($70 million of which was related to the 1979 Three Mile Island accident) in claims, while the Department of Energy has paid out $65 million.”
    In the US, the industry is required to provide up to $12.2B in compensation for a single nuclear accident.
    The Fukushima accident has caused a reassessment of the safety and costs of nuclear power. One accident per 10,000 years for the old generation is too low.
    “A nuclear accident may raise the cost of atomic power generation by as much as 1.6 yen per kilowatt hour, a Japanese government panel said, casting doubt on whether it’s a cheap source of electricity.
    The estimate assumes that a severe nuclear disaster costs about 5 trillion yen ($64 billion), based on the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March, a sub-committee of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission said in a draft report today. The panel presumes a nuclear accident on the scale of Fukushima occurs once in as many as 500 years.”
    This presumption is based on the history of nuclear power in Japan rather than the projection of the IAEA of 1 per 100,000 years.

  23. Menth says:

    @Eric Adler

    Honest question:

    Given the history of centrally planned nations and the general deep revulsion for socialism among wide swaths of the American public, do you honestly feel Ms. Klein’s vision is a realistic one? Seriously?

    “I don’t see anyone in the environmental movement recommending a Communist dicatorship as the way to fix the environment.”

    You never answered jeffn’s question, how is the bold vision for a “return to planning” going to be implemented? Also within the next few years presumably? Naomi’s article is more than a few bong hits too far.

  24. harrywr2 says:

    <i>The panel presumes a nuclear accident on the scale of Fukushima occurs once in as many as 500 years. This presumption is based on the history of nuclear power in Japan rather than the projection of the IAEA of 1 per 100,000 years.</i>
     Japan is a subset of the worlds installed nuclear capacity. We could come up with an even higher accident rate if we just limited our analysis to Harrisburhg Pennsylvania or Chernobyl,Ukraine 
    In any case the point of the Japanese Assessment was that nuclear power  is still cheaper in Japan then the alternatives even if you limit the assessment to the Japanese experience rather then the global experience.
    The Fukushima timeline report prepared by the Insititute of Nuclear Operators provides some interesting reading.
    A few  chump change issues jumped right off the page –
    Additional challenges occurred because of high dose rates and a lack of contingency procedures for operating the vent system without power, as well as the lack of prestaged equipment, such as an engine-driven air compressor.
    The fire protection tank, however, only had one hose connection. As a result, injection into the reactor had to be stopped each time the tank needed to be refilled
    This fire engine was blocked from accessing Unit 1 by a fuel oil tank that had been displaced into one road by the tsunami and by the inability of workers to open a deenergized security gate on the other road.
    How expensive is it to buy a portable engine powered air compressor, or put a second fitting on a fire protection tank or have a manual override on a security gate?
    Humanity unfortunately tends to learn more from what it gets wrong then what it gets right.

  25. Sashka says:

    World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns
    I’m not sure whether these people had any credibility before but certainly not anymore, as far as I am concerned.
    warming will cause the climate dice to become more and more loaded with greater and greater extreme events. The probability that this conclusion is wrong is about as close to zero as one can get.
    I find it amazing that Hansen thinks of himself as a scientist and continues making unsupportable statements.

  26. jeffn says:

    Eric why so shy? You link to an article calling for abandonment of capitalism and it’s replacement with something “radical” thatThe Nation magazine would like. But, perish the thought, we aren’t talking about communism? So simple question – what do you call this radical movement and who does it have on the ballot next year? Clock’s ticking!
    One more question- capitalist nations have built nukes, who is preventing them from doing so now?
    The USSR was a environmental mess because even useless economies have to give their people something. Functional economic systems can do that cleanly. Naomi’s ideal can’t.

  27. Ed Forbes says:

    Ah”¦yes”¦.”fellow travelers” and other “watermelons”.  Let’s have a few more quotes of Naomi’s for the record shall we
    Eric#8″¦links to,5&rel=emailNation
    Naomi Klein:

    “The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm,”
    “arriving at these new systems is going to require shredding the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for more than three decades.”
    “wealth will have to be transferred not just within wealthy countries but also from the rich countries whose emissions created the crisis to poorer ones that are on the front lines of its effects.”

    “climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against capitalism since William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” (and, of course, those mills were the beginning of climate change). When demonstrators are cursing out the corruption of their governments and corporate elites in Athens, Madrid, Cairo, Madison and New York, climate change is often little more than a footnote, when it should be the coup de grâce.”

    “We are not looking for small shifts: we want a radical overhaul of our economy and society”

  28. Steven Sullivan says:

    “We are not looking for small shifts: we want a radical overhaul of our economy and society”
    These days, who doesn’t?

  29. Menth says:

    “We are not looking for small shifts: we want a radical overhaul of our economy and society”
    These days, who doesn’t?

    People with a basic understanding of economics and history.

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