Getting it wrong

9_27_13_andrew_cumulativeemissions-600x474We’re all wrong about climate change. Everyone, including me. Every model, every report.

What am I saying? Wrong how? What I mean is that with such complex interacting planetary systems, and unknown forcing effects, there is no way that any model or prediction can be perfectly right. However, there are degrees of wrong and right, and I believe that the 97% of scientists who assert there is 95% likelihood that climate change is caused by human emissions, are more right than those who claim otherwise. I also believed the IPCC report in 1990, when the science was settled on a consensus basis.

The main argument used by climate deniers to try to derail the IPCC report is that global warming has paused. Here’s where they’re very wrong: Only 1% of heat trapped by GHGs warm the air and 93% goes into the oceans. Yet the uncritical critics keep focusing on only one of several indicators – surface air temperature – and this argument keeps going unchallenged in the media.

However, I suspect that there is one major error with the IPCC report. This doesn’t render the basic message invalid but it does make it less true. The one major error is that it doesn’t pay enough attention to feedback effects such as methane emissions and forest fires. These forcing effects make predictive models very hard to predict but there are already indications that the climate is much more sensitive to them than previously thought. Arctic melting is faster, sea level rise is faster, forest fires are bigger, ocean acidification is worse and storms are more severe, than had been predicted for the temperature rise we are at now. So when the IPCC states that the world will face the unacceptable 2C in two or three decades, this is very likely to be a cautious underestimate. It should be read in conjunction with James Hansen’s work on climate sensitivity, which estimates that if all fossil fuels are burned the planet will warm by a whopping 20C and 30C at the poles. Now, an Australian study has worked out that ‘thermogeddon’ (a planet too hot for vertebrates) will arrive at 6C of warming, so this is the strongest warning we can imagine to leave the fossil fuels in the ground.

I wonder if the IPCC people are aware of this but can’t give too much attention to it because the tipping points are ‘Black Swans’ they just can’t quantify. They may also be concerned that such a report would have them dismissed as lunatic catastrophists.

There is another dimension whereby the IPCC report doesn’t give the complete picture. It is not like an MOT for the Earth, but only refers to a very important part of the motor. It would be more effective and true if it could include an overview of all the breached planetary boundaries and continued ecocidal damage, showing how climate change interacts with all of them.

So overall, what seems closer to the truth is completely opposite from the view of our current Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, who believes the IPCC report is reassuring and that there are many advantages to climate change. He is wrong (as we all are, but he is very wrong).

Yes there may be some good years for British apples and some winters when we feel quite comfortable, in the near future. However, this cosy view disregards that British security depends on global supply and relative peace, that the extreme effects of climate disruption will be a nightmare for our own food production even though the UK will warm less than the rest of Europe, and it also disregards the viability of all other species who are less able to adapt to climate change.

I won’t go on here about ‘what we can do about it’ but I would beg that everyone investigates climate change as deeply and widely, with as questioning and generous a mind, as they possibly can. I’d like more calling out of assumptions about future times: For example, we often hear versions of the phrase “so that we can avert dangerous climate change”. To be truthful, we are already within dangerous climate change. What we need to avert is thermogeddon.

So, I’m even more committed than before to encouraging ecology and climate change as the bedrock of our thinking about the future, and embedding ecological ways of knowing. As Alex Steffen says here: “There is no valuable thinking now that is not planetary thinking, and no futures work that fails to respond to these challenges can be very interesting.”


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