AAAS: Climate change is coming much harder, much faster than predicted

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science is holding its annual meeting, so you can expect a flurry of climate announcements — though not as much as at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (see here and here). The Washington Post and AFP are reporting:

It seems the dire warnings about the oncoming devastation wrought by global warming were not dire enough, a top climate scientist warned Saturday.

Okay, this is what I’ve been saying for a few years now, but it’s good to hear more and more leading climate scientists besides James Hansen and John Holdren being blunt with the public on this (see links below for others who are now telling it like it is). In this case, it’s Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, who said

“We are basically looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations.”

The source of Field’s concern — what else could it be but our old nemesis, amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks:

Unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere as the result of “feedback loops” that are speeding up natural processes. Prominent among these, evidence indicates, is a cycle in which higher temperatures are beginning to melt the arctic permafrost, which could release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, said several scientists on a panel at the meeting.

The permafrost holds 1 trillion tons of carbon, and as much as 10 percent of that could be released this century, Field said. Melting permafrost also releases methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“It’s a vicious cycle of feedback where warming causes the release of carbon from permafrost, which causes more warming, which causes more release from permafrost,” Field said.

[See “Tundra Part 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss” and links therein.]

Evidence is also accumulating that terrestrial and marine ecosystems cannot remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as earlier estimates suggested, Field said.

In the oceans, warmer weather is driving stronger winds that are exposing deeper layers of water, which are already saturated with carbon and not as able to absorb as much from the atmosphere. The carbon is making the oceans more acidic, which also reduces their ability to absorb carbon.

[See “The ocean is absorbing less carbon dioxide]

On land, rising carbon dioxide levels had been expected to boost plant growth and result in greater sequestration of carbon dioxide. As plants undergo photosynthesis to draw energy from the sun, carbon is drawn out of the atmosphere and trapped in the plant matter. But especially in northern latitudes, this effect may be offset significantly by the fact that vegetation-covered land absorbs much more of the sun’s heat than snow-covered terrain, said scientists on the panel.

Earlier snowmelt, the shrinking arctic ice cover and the northward spread of vegetation are causing the Northern Hemisphere to absorb, rather than reflect, more of the sun’s energy and reinforce the warming trend.

While it takes a relatively long time for plants to take carbon out of the atmosphere, that carbon can be released rapidly by wildfires, which contribute about a third as much carbon to the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels, according to a paper Field co-authored.

Fires such as the recent deadly blazes in southern Australia have increased in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue, Field said. Warmer weather, earlier snowmelt, drought and beetle infestations facilitated by warmer climates are all contributing to the rising number of fires linked to climate change. Across large swaths of the United States and Canada, bark beetles have killed many mature trees, making forests more flammable. And tropical rain forests that were not susceptible to forest fires in the past are likely to become drier as temperatures rise, growing more vulnerable.

[See “Science: Global warming is killing U.S. trees, a dangerous carbon-cycle feedback“.]

Preventing deforestation in the tropics is more important than in northern latitudes, the panel agreed, since lush tropical forests sequester more carbon than sparser northern forests. And deforestation in northern areas has benefits, since larger areas end up covered in exposed, heat-reflecting snow.

Many scientists and policymakers are advocating increased incentives for preserving tropical forests, especially in the face of demand for clearing forest to grow biofuel crops such as soy. Promoting biofuels without also creating forest-preservation incentives would be “like weatherizing your house and deliberately keeping your windows open,” said Peter Frumhoff, chief of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate program. “It’s just not a smart policy.”

Field said the U.N. panel’s next assessment of Earth’s climate trends, scheduled for release in 2014, will for the first time incorporate policy proposals. It will also include complicated models of interconnected ecosystem feedbacks.

The panel’s last report noted that preliminary knowledge of such feedbacks suggested that an additional 100 billion to 500 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions would have to be prevented in the next century to avoid dangerous global warming. Currently, about 10 billion tons of carbon are emitted each year.

Finally, in the Fifth Assessment, the IPCC may tell the public what they need to hear. The final paragraph above is among the most important conclusions from the Fourth Assessment, but the IPCC buried the lede, as I have repeatedly pointed out (see “Nature publishes my climate analysis and solution“). And from the Yahoo story:

Field is co-chair of the group charged with assessing the impacts of climate change on social, economic and natural systems for the IPCC’s fifth assessment due in 2014.

The 2007 fourth assessment presented at a “very conservative range of climate outcomes” but the next report will “include futures with a lot more warming,” Field said.

“We now know that, without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought.”

The time to act is now.

[Side semantic note: In the Yahoo article, Field is quoted saying, “Tropical forests are essentially inflammable. You couldn’t get a fire to burn there if you tried. But if they dry out just a little bit, the result can be very large and destructive wildfires.” Nope. Inflammable means the same thing as flammable.]

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26 Responses to AAAS: Climate change is coming much harder, much faster than predicted

  1. Linda S says:

    So why aren’t we hearing any of this on the evening news? I know the economy is an important issue, but we ignore climate change at our peril.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    Linda: The economy has an easy “peg” (meaning reason for running it): It’s immediate, it affects almost everyone, and it’s topical (it’s “news”, in the classical sense). Climate chaos is a decades-long process (some would say centuries long) that is unfolding on a time scale that’s very long by human perception standards, even if it is happening at breakneck speed by geological standards.

    We’re not seeing massive job losses, businesses folding, the US auto, banking, and housing sectors on the brink because of climate chaos. To the old-guard news people, this makes all the difference. Given what’s at stake thanks to climate chaos, I think it’s getting far too little attention; we need to be banging the drum constantly on this topic to educate people about what’s really going on, which is a pre-req. to getting them to take action in their own lives and in how they vote.

    Imagine how much harder that daunting task would be if there were a bunch of huge corporations that sold, oh, I don’t know, perhaps coal, oil, and natural gas, that were funding deniers who told people there was nothing to worry about.

    Oh, wait…

  3. Gail says:

    True, Lou, however (bringing up Holocaust at risk of sounding shrill) the fact that not too long ago millions of people walked passively into gas chambers and millions more ignored the smoke from the crematoria proves that vast populations are quite capable of ignoring even the most egregious monstrosities if to contemplate the truth would be unimaginably painful.

    Regarding this:

    “Preventing deforestation in the tropics is more important than in northern latitudes, the panel agreed, since lush tropical forests sequester more carbon than sparser northern forests. And deforestation in northern areas has benefits, since larger areas end up covered in exposed, heat-reflecting snow.”

    This is extremely annoying to me because even though I’m glad to see climate scientists being more accurate and willing to make predictions that the public needs to face up to, that statement is silly. The area and it’s surrounds where I live, in NJ, was covered in 20 feet or more of snow, trees or no trees, every winter, 200 years ago. Now, some winters we don’t even get an INCH!

    This is a feedback loop already happening which, like so many others, is being ignored. Researchers appear to work off of models they feel can be verified scientifically, not always the actual facts on the ground.

  4. What we are doing is not enough. We need to shift to large-scale strategies that work together with markets instead of against them. Mark C. Henderson did proposed one in a recent book. Details are available at:

    Tags: climate change solutions

  5. john says:


    Gore actually explored this question in his last book, the “Assault on Reason.” In it, he presents compelling research that humans are not wired to deal with problems which are not immediately proximate. Evolution and natural selection left us with a brain that was very good at perceiving and dealing with immediate dangers, both in terms of time and space. the more immediate the threat, the more likely we would act; conversely, the further off — in time or space — the less likely we are to act.

    And while reason allows us to perceive threats that will emerge in the future, our more primitive systems — the ones that dominate action — have a hard time gearing up to act on dangers that are understood but not felt.

    The challenge for scientists is to make it palpable.

  6. Gail says:

    John, I do agree however, I think part of the problem is that the scientists, because of their training and I do not fault that, aren’t for the most part making it clear that the danger isn’t far off, it’s now. For instance, very few publicly connect the wildfires – in Europe, Australia, and the US – with climate change. Ditto for hurricanes and endangered species. They have a tendency to say when records for temperature, or the number of tornados, something like it’s “the worst drought in 100 years.” In some cases it appears to me that only means the records only go back 100 years and it’s actually the worst drought in 100,000 years. But when the put it that way, it’s all to easy for the average person to read that and think, well, it was the same as 100 years ago so it’s just a natural fluctuation.

  7. Rick says:

    1 Scientists are easily and entirely ignored by most people.

    2 Activists are laughed at. Consider the recent headlines about Prince Charles zipping to South America in his big Jet to talk about global warming.

    3 Politicians are all about holding power. Even for Obama, I’m convinced that climate change talk is just window dressing for him. You just can’t get to high office without being self absorbed and self focused. The economy will be the most important thing during his Presidency and the economy will run entirely on coal and oil for the duration.

    Therefore the climate is going wherever it’s going. We’re just along for the ride.

  8. Ronald says:

    It’s also how much good fossil fuels have done for us. It’s heated our homes, powered our vehicles, paid quite a few people good wages and made some people very rich. What good has a climatologist done for anybody? It’s not a fair balance. Fossil fuel is intregral with our economy and culture. Not easy to make changes.

  9. Gail says:

    Rick, call me an Obamabot but I disagree. He’s smart enough to understand the science, he’s got kids, and no matter how rich or powerful you are, if food can’t be grown, everyone will suffer.

    I think he’s planning to use the economic crisis to finally make health care available to all, and to green the economy. It may be too little too late, but consider the alternative (rapture, anyone?)

  10. paulm says:

    “Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought.”

    Here is an example of the scientist getting it wrong again…another inadequate statement which misleads the public.

    Even WITH effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult than we thought!

    I am afraid that it is very likely (in scientific speak, ie probable ie going to happen) that Lovelock’s outlook is the future we are going to pass on to future generations (despite all Joe’s efforts and good work )!

  11. TomG says:

    This just keeps getting better and better…:(

  12. Bob Wright says:

    Vicki Pope at Hadley recently urged alarmists to stop tagging every event to climate change. To tone it down a bit. She knows the score, so what gives? Is the public getting numb to the alarms and the “debate”?

    George Will this morning once again published that the same scientists who got a coming ice age wrong in 1975 are now alarmed about warming, there has been no warming since ’98, found Chu’s statement on southwest desertifiction preprosterous, and reported that warming is rapidly falling down the averagse person’s list of concerns.

    It might take another decade of increased tmperatures, fires, killer heat waves… before we really reach a ploitical consensus.

  13. DavidONE says:


    I thought your 2014 for IPCC AR5 must be a typo, but no:

    “…AR5 is to be finalized in 2014, with a target date of early 2013 for the release of the Working Group I report.” –

    What. The. Feck? How can it take *seven* years (from AR4) to produce a report that builds on and updates an existing one? OK, the subject matter is a ‘little complex’, but – *seven* years?! Are they waiting for trees to grow to print it on?

    This just adds to my disappointment with the IPCC and its appearance to the public. A while back they had this image – – front and centre on their site (still in the sidebar) and some blurb congratulating themselves on their 20 year anniversary. It made the site look like a front for a gold-plated, luxury tour company, not the scientific front for a ‘slightly’ pressing problem that faces the entire planet. They need to change their marketing company – or get one.

  14. Vicki Pope wrote a nearly incoherent article published last week in The Guardian. She blamed the scientists for exaggeration when clearly it is the press which consistently gets it wrong and in very loud ways.

    OK, the time to act is not now, it was yesterday, so why is anyone waiting for the 5th IPCC report to be published in 2014, for Christ’s sake!?!

    The guy is saying that all bets are off, that the worst-case scenarios of the 4th report do not even contemplate what we know now.

    I used to have a modicum of respect for George F. Will, but no longer.

  15. K. Nockels says:

    I’m glad to hear scientists finally getting to the point where they speak out but again it is to little to late. Joe, they are saying the same things you have been reporting for a long time, finally catching up I guess. I used to think we had a chance and we did back in the 1990’s to get a handle on this and prevent the worst of the effects of Climate Change. Now I know that the change we need is not going to happen in time to keep us (present and future peoples) from very hard times and the fact that we have as a people let this happen to our PLANET. I have gone through the same up’s and down’s as all of you have I’m sure, thinking we will do the right thing, we won’t let this happen to our children for money, but it seems no matter how hard we try-changing our life style, being an outspoken advocate for change, voting it just is not in the finale crunch going to be in time. The excellerated speed of change is catching up with us. This is not a statement of doom it is a fact. But on we fight for not to would be to give up all hope for our children. Thank you Joe for the right to hope you given us.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Require an “Excess Carbon Dioxide Removal Fee” on all fossil fuels.


  17. paulm says:

    …require the removal of air heads in the journalistic community!

  18. Henderson does acknowledge that science all to often remains in academic circles. For that reason, his book (The 21st Century Environmental Revolution, ) does take his large-scale environmental strategy directly to people and makes it as palpable as possible.

    The question is, what are we going to do about it!

    Tags: global warming solutions

  19. @DavidONE

    You do know that a passel of climate scientists are meeting next month in an emergency session to publish an update to the IPCC 4th Assessment Report that will be presented to negotiators prior to the Copenhagen summit, right?

  20. Davian says:

    “Preventing deforestation in the tropics is more important than in northern latitudes, the panel agreed, since lush tropical forests sequester more carbon than sparser northern forests. And deforestation in northern areas has benefits, since larger areas end up covered in exposed, heat-reflecting snow.”

    Not according to the latest estimates of sequestered carbon (Leighty et al.2006)
    Forests have a wide range of capacity for carbon sequestration. The many centuries-old temperate rainforests of Southeast Alaska, lack the catastrophic fire events typical of other forests. The Tongass contains among the highest amounts of sequestered carbon of all the world’s forests. The Tongass National Forest, alone, represents 8% of the total carbon in all the forests of the conterminous United States (Leighty, Hamburg, Caouette 2006).

  21. I agree with the others who feel that the new administration is sincere in its commitment to effective climate change legislation. I hope that includes a full and open discussion of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. We need to raise the cost of carbon based fuels while protecting consumers and incentivizing the creating of new, climate-friendly technologies. A carbon tax does all of that while avoiding the evasion and market manipulation that plague a cap and trade system.

  22. Linda S says:

    I agree with Gail. I believe Obama is serious when it comes to reducing the threat of climate change while ridding America of its dangerous reliance on foreign oil. But he cannot do it alone. He needs congress and he needs grass roots movements. The power is with the people but the people are ill-informed at best and mis-informed at worst. We need a strong media sending a strong message and we don’t have it.

  23. Phillip Huggan says:

    If rainforests dry out en masse and if it becomes obvious threat they will burn, I suggest aggressive forestry management practises.

    View the Amazon as a checkerboard of forested squares. If you separate the squares via logging firebreak “checkerboard” lines tens of kms wide, throughout all dried out forests, a single fire would be contained. Such a practise would destroy ecosystem and biomes of the largest incubator of new species on Earth, but would sequester carbon.
    A much more ambitious scheme would see no logging, but massive river diversions and irrigation designed to keep a firebreak of intact forest “wet” enough to halt a forest fire. Here the logged out areas from the cheap plan are instead rainforests that has been expensively irrigated while the forest “squares” dry out.

  24. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Hey there, Rantin’ Joe!

    Hope you keep all my posts in a special file: Prophet Pierce

    [JR: I keep most of your posts in one of two special files: Spam and “missed his meds again.”]

  25. energyguru says:

    If we do not start thinking with new and breakthrough ideas our planet is doomed . I recently saw 2 new ideas that I think offered some hope!
    I read a great article on Digg about harnessing the power of stars here on earth. Plus I have also been flowwing cold fusion as an energy source. I
    discovered a company called Energetics Technologies. They have a process called SuperWaveFusion, which could be a possible breakthrough in cold fusion. I am trying to learn more about this process and would like to hear from others about what they think.