Washington Post corrects itself: “Make no mistake, Arctic Sea ice is melting,” may be gone in summer by 2013, “renders climate studies and models seemingly obsolete”

The Washington Post famously let George Will make a variety of mistakes and misstatements in three recent op-eds (see “Post editors let George Will publish a third time global warming lies debunked on its own pages“).

Will’s misstatements on Arctic ice were so egregious that Post reporters took the unprecedented step of contradicting Will in a recent news article:

The new evidence … contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

But the Post has topped that stunner:  Today, the Post ran an editorial, “Arctic Ice Is Melting:  The 30-year decline is accelerating, new data show,” which begins:

MAKE NO mistake, Arctic Sea ice is melting. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the maximum extent of the winter sea ice cover for 2008-09 was the fifth-lowest on record. Underscoring their point, the agencies added, “The six lowest maximum events since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years (2004-09).”

Global warming is doing a number on Arctic Sea ice.

“Make no mistake”?  How about make no mistakes twice? (see “Post lets George Will reassert all his climate falsehoods plus some new ones“)

When my father was the editorial page editor of a mid-sized newspaper, he wrote all of the editorials himself.  That almost certainly isn’t true of the Post, but it is inconceivable that its editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, didn’t okay every word in this piece — including the stinging rebuke to Will (and himself), “Make no mistake”!

So I’m going to have to give major props to the Post on this one.  Even if this editorial doesn’t mention Will by name, it is an amazing admission of its own mistakes.

And this is a terrific editorial.  The Post appears to have learned the single most important message from climate science in the past two years — the scientific consensus is wrong (see “Disputing the ‘consensus’ on global warming“).  Climate change is coming faster and harder than the IPCC “consensus” warned even 18 months ago (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm and AAAS: Climate change is coming much harder, much faster than predicted).  That’s why the deniers deserve no attention from the Post or NY Times:

The true debate is not between those who say global warming is a serious problem that deserves strong action and those who say it isn’t.  The debate is now between those who say global warming is a serious problem that deserves strong action and those who say global warming is the gravest threat to human civilization in history that demands we bear any burden, pay and price, to prevent.

Here is the rest of the editorial, which even goes a tad farther than I do (!):

The report noted that the Arctic winter was 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average. This and other factors are causing the surface ice to melt. That ice is vital for reflecting the light and heat of the sun. Without it, the heat warms the Arctic Ocean, which then melts the ice below the surface of the water. This, along with older ice moving out of the Arctic, decreases the thickness of sea ice cover, which then melts more easily in the summer. “Ice older than two years now accounts for less than 10 percent of the ice cover,” according to the study. “From 1981 through 2000, such older ice made up an average of 30 percent of the total sea ice cover at this time of the year.”

These new data come as predictions of an ice-free Arctic Sea during the summer get ever closer. Just two years ago, an NSIDC scientist estimated that worrisome event could happen within 20 to 30 years. Last month, Warwick Vincent, director of the Center for Northern Studies at Laval University in Quebec, told Reuters, “2013 is starting to look as though it is a lot more reasonable as a prediction.”

That forecast, if proven true, would have dire consequences for the polar bear. A 2007 report from the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that a melting of Arctic ice caused by global warming would wipe out two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population, estimated at 20,000 to 25,000, and all of Alaska’s estimated 4,700 polar bears, by 2050. The polar bear is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But we’re all threatened as long as the build-up of greenhouse gases renders climate studies and models seemingly obsolete the moment they’re released.

Note to Post:  The polar bear is the least of our worries when the Arctic goes ice free in the summer (see NSIDC: Arctic is on thin ice “” literally “” and that means the “perma”frost is too).

But the prediction of on ice free Arctic summer in 2013 is faster than the proposition I have been offering to bet against (here):

At no time between now and the end of the year 2020 will the minimum total Arctic Sea ice extent be less than 10% of the 1979-2000 average minimum annual Arctic Sea ice extent….

I got three climate bloggers to take that bet for a total of $1000 — James Annan, William Connolley, and Brian Schmidt— back in December 2007.

Still looking for any takers.  George Will, perhaps?

45 Responses to Washington Post corrects itself: “Make no mistake, Arctic Sea ice is melting,” may be gone in summer by 2013, “renders climate studies and models seemingly obsolete”

  1. David Freeman says:

    This is excellent news (the Post getting it right that is; the Artic melting is of course tragic). We can amplify the effect by writing our local papers, many of which reprint Post editorials, and letting them know how much we appreciate getting the straight dope on Climate Change. Yes, it’s great when we write editors to express our frustration with the inaccurate stories and the outright lies in some columns but it’s also useful to give them positive feedback. This is especially true with local papers. When we read good articles we should write letters expressing our interest and perhaps point out an additional point not mentioned in a story.

  2. The increasing rate of change is also shown in CO2 levels

    CO2now calculated the 10 year average rate of change for March CO2 in parts per million (ppm):
    March 2000 – March 2009: 1.93 ppm (increase per year)
    March 1990 – March 1999: 1.58 ppm
    March 1980 – March 1989: 1.55 ppm
    March 1970 – March 1979: 1.25 ppm
    March 1960 – March 1969: 0.89 ppm

  3. I look forward to more comic relief from George Will and the rest of the flat-earth fundamentalists.

  4. Gail says:

    Wilmot McCutchen,

    Pass the popcorn!

    Also can we all give ourselves a little credit for haranguing the WaPo editors? Yay Climate Progress!

    David Freeman, you are right. We should now write the paper and say thank you for printing the truth.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Any chance you are going to make the artic sea ice page a link as we watch what happens this summer?

  6. ecostew says:

    The WaPo should also print more AGW news stories, including new peer-reviewed science.

  7. paulm says:

    I think we deserve a little pat on the back here.

    Can you imaging how much assault on reason there would be with out blogs…

    Blog for the Environment—It’s Working

  8. sarah says:

    On a related front, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble store yesterday and complained when I found their section on climate prominently featured books such as “Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know” by Patrick J. Michaels, “Climate Confusion : How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor” by Roy Spencer, “Unstoppable Global Warming : Every 1500 Years” by S. Fred Singer, Dennis Avery, and 5 or 6 others on this theme. (It’s remarkable how they all quote praise by each other on the cover blurbs and how all seem to be endorsed by the cato institute.)

    On the shelves these books nearly outnumbered those based on actual science and were more likely to be displayed with the cover forward.

    The cashier seemed shocked when I pointed that out and said he’d look into it.

  9. paulm says:

    Its not that hard to see that the arctic could go ice free in 5yrs. The trends indicated this probably will happen.

  10. Sasparilla says:

    Nice to see this, thanks for pointing it out Joe, I would have totally missed it – I’d basically given up on the Post. You’re right though – they’re still missing the big picture (talking about the danger this represents to the Polar Bear instead of people) – but at least they’re getting closer.

  11. barbiplease says:

    I posed this question elsewhere but let me pose it again from another angle:

    The NASA study cited above (if same one) states that 45% or more of Arctic ice melt since 1976 is from aerosol emissions (black carbon emissions) from industrial plants in China rather than from CO2. Since BC only stays in the atmosphere from a few days to a few weeks (as opposed to CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for several hundred years or more), it recommends focusing on BC reduction over CO2 reduction for more immediate impact by reducing BC to decrease the rate of temperature rise in Northern latitudes and to prevent further Arctic ice melt.

    Given these conclusions, does this mean that current climate policies and future emissions scenarios–which focus almost exclusively on CO2 reduction or scenarios based on rising CO2 ppm–are inadequate or obsolete? Or does mitigation of one pollutant (CO2) result in automatic mitigation of the other (BC)?

    Another concern I have is that this study could undermine efforts to reduce CO2 altogether (still a very serious concern). Already, denier sites are using the NASA study to proclaim “NASA: clean air regs, not CO2, causing Arctic ice melt” and that “CO2 is not the main cause of global warming.”

    NASA article:

    [JR: It would be great to have a major global effort focused on BC. No doubt BC is one reason that the Arctic has melted as fast as it has. So is polar amplification. Deniers sites are anti-scientific and thus unimportant in understanding what is happening, what will happen, and what we must do. The study won’t “undermine efforts to reduce CO2 altogether” — since, uhh, we don’t have any such efforts. More to the point, you parenthetical statement “still a very serious concern” — is the understatement of the year. The NASA study has no bearing whatsoever on the catastrophic warming we face on business as usual emissions.]

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Joe Romm — Either you are behind the times or else, more likely, somebody has figured out how to make $$ from climate “hysteria”, so WaPo has to now promote it. Sorry I’m feeling so cynical today.

  13. Martin says:


    you could do what I did with an Anne Coulter book once… move them all to the fiction section. I got a chuckle out of it anyway.


  14. john says:

    Great news and great work — I do believe that Joe ignited a firestorm and forced the Post to deal with reality — and we few, we faithful few bloggers (not so few, I guess these days) did our part by flooding the Post with letters.

    On another note, I am curious why the focus is on ice extent — the real issue is ice volume, and the news on that is even worse than extent.

    It’s ll very grim, but for now, a small victory!

  15. GFW says:

    I could believe an ice free arctic summer by 2020, but 2013 seems faster than any current trend justifies. Where did the 2013 prediction come from (how was it derived)? Don’t get me wrong – any ice free arctic summer is a serious problem and to have happen in my lifetime is shocking, but I’m concerned that promoting such a statement about 2013 could leave Climate Progress with a little egg on its face.

  16. John Hollenberg says:

    > I’m concerned that promoting such a statement about 2013 could leave Climate Progress with a little egg on its face.

    I don’t see Joe agreeing with this statement, just pointing out that the Post has done a complete turnaround. Joe seems to be sticking to his date of 2020–still frighteningly soon.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    The 2013 date comes from a study (as yet unpublished) by the U.S. Navy’s sea ice modeler, Wieslaw Maslowski. It received quite a bit of attention at the AGU fall meeting in 2007, and remains credible because it’s the only study to have gotten the sharp reductions of the last decade even close to right. Maslowski says the major advantage of his model (not a GCM, BTW) is that it’s fine-grained enough to accurately represent the warming currents that seem to be the big added factor driving the summer loss.

  18. ecostew says:

    I would update best estimates based on peer-reviewed climate science and report the empirical data as we get it.

  19. GFW says:

    John, Steve, thanks for the clarifications.

    Steve, the warming currents you mention – I’ve read that the “cool phase” of the PDO would take heat out of the atmosphere in the mid latitudes, take much of it deep, but release some in the arctic. Is that the same thing you’re talking about?

    John, you’re right, Joe didn’t endorse that statement, so I guess my concern is more diffuse – such a strong claim is not likely to come true, which will give ammo to the deniers. OTOH, it *is* likely that we’ll have another couple of record lows for arctic ice by 2013, so it probably wouldn’t be a data point deniers would want to discuss.

  20. Kipp Alpert says:

    Joe Romm or ANYONE!!:I am extremely concerned about the recent news on AGW.
    I can fight deniers at Accuwhatever, learn more Science at Open mind, Real Climate, or your Climate progress and other sites, or I can take political action. I have been conflicted lately about what to do and where to spend my energies most effectively. I am 58, so I don’t have forever, to fight for the cause that I am dedicated to . What does anyone think we could do as a group or individually, to further the acceptance of AGW, or effect real hands on Political change. Happy Easter,Thomas B.Kipp Alpert

  21. David B. Benson says:

    It seems that black carbon, AKA soot, is considered to also be a significant factor in Arctic ice melt.

  22. Leland Palmer says:

    After the Post got the Iraq story so disastrously wrong, I stopped trusting them on anything. The same goes for the New York Times, and Time magazine – financial establishment rags, every one of them. Our financial establishment, if judged by the output of the Council on Foreign Relations, now wants a new cold war with Russia over the 90 billion barrels of oil projected to be under our current polar icecap. They talk about “the new great game in the arctic”, and a gold rush for arctic resources.

    Chances are, they are just setting their readers up for the “adapt to it” conceptual frame, very popular in Time magazine. As if adapting to a methane catastrophe was even possible:

    No we can’t adapt to this thing. And we can’t take a chance that James Lovelock was right, when he realized, as quoted in his interview in Rolling Stone in 2007 ” I realized that the climate system was in failure mode”.

    We can’t even take a chance that Lovelock was right, and hope that the earth climate will stabilize at a new stable state something like 15 degrees C warmer than it is right now, even though the climate has stabilized in such a state in the past. CO2 has never increased so rapidly in the atmosphere as it has in the last 100 years, with some notable exceptions, perhaps. There were some huge apparent runaway global warming events such as the Permian/Triassic mass extinction, the Paleocene/Eocene thermal maximum, and a really huge runaway warming event back in the Precambrian that may have ended the hugely glaciated “snowball earth” state of the earth’s climate and changed it rapidly into a tropical one. During these runaway heating events, CO2 and methane may have increased this fast…but probably not.

    We are increasing CO2 by 2 or 3 ppm per year – on the order of ten thousand to thirty thousand times as fast as nature generally has done. Life has nearly zero time to adapt to change that happens this fast. Methane doesn’t have time to oxidize into CO2. The hydroxyl radical, that oxidizes methane into CO2, is likely to be overwhelmed and is itself projected to decline in concentration as warming increases, making methane which is now 25 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas 30 or 40 times worse than CO2.

    This thing has so much momentum and is happening so quickly, that it could completely overturn the climate as a self-regulating system. If that occurs, all life will likely die and the climate will return to thermodynamic equilibrium – a state similar to the atmosphere of Venus, as Stephen Hawking speculated in the documentary “The Eleventh Hour”.

    Don’t trust the Post, Joe. Don’t trust the New York Times, or Time magazine, even when they appear to agree with you. Look for hidden conceptual frames in their output, such as the “adapt to it” meme.

  23. John Hollenberg says:

    > John, you’re right, Joe didn’t endorse that statement, so I guess my concern is more diffuse – such a strong claim is not likely to come true, which will give ammo to the deniers.

    I agree that a strong focus on 2013 could give the deniers a bit of ammo if the forecast is off a few years. However, as you say, there will probably be so much other bad news coming out, and a precipitous decline in sea ice would still be strong evidence for warming, even if the Arctic didn’t become ice free in summer. As I recall, generally one million square kilometers is arbitrarily defined as the Arctic being ice free (low in 2008 was something like 4.5-5 million sqaure km).

  24. Sasparilla says:

    Leland Palmer said:

    “If that occurs, all life will likely die and the climate will return to thermodynamic equilibrium – a state similar to the atmosphere of Venus, as Stephen Hawking speculated in the documentary “The Eleventh Hour”.”

    I doubt we’d get to Venus – fortunately. However, on our current path we could easily go down the track of 4 of the 5 largest extinction events (including the largest one) in Earth History (the KT extiction was asteroid based so its the 1 out of the 5 that wasn’t) – they all involved large increases in CO2 (if they did have polar ice it was melted) to kick things off and eventually the ocean circulations changed so that warm low oxygen water was poured on the bottom asphyxiating the oxygen based life there (this is an anticipated side effect for the North Atlantic current, as the ice melts, which brings cold water down right now but would switch to warmer non oxygenated flow diving earlier up the globe). Non oxygen bacteria (that’s always in the bottom) thrived in this environment, one type of which releases hydrogen sulphide (I think) which builds up and poisons anything in this environment…the thermocline containing this stew eventually works it way to the surface – killing all life (except for the bacteria and a type of algae that works with it) in that section of the ocean (becoming a Canfield Ocean) and, if the area of ocean is large enough starts working on land creatures and wipes out the ozone layer. Great book detailing these previous extinction events is Under a Green Sky, it really lays out the paleontogic evidence for the prior big extinctions (except for the KT of course). If we don’t change things, we’re really setting ourselves up for something like this eventually.

    One side note (supposition of mine) to these extinction events that ties into crude oil, which supposedly came from huge amount of algae – I could never figure out how you could get such huge amounts of algae with fish and other creatures in the sea which would want to eat it – with a Canfield Ocean (which existed many times for long periods of time) you get a sea full of algae that can handle the hydrogen sulphide – the irony being that our crude oil supplies may have come from (basically) global warming events that spiraled into exctinction events eons ago – and here we are, unknowingly having unlocked pandora’s box to it.

  25. paulm says:

    Sasparilla over the next few decades we will be well on the way to a great extinction .

    I don’t think there is any way around this. It the tipping point action – it gathers pace and then everything is new.

    We are in fact right in the middle of this now. See slides and talk at…

    There is but a miracle that would stop the world state change that is happening. Our reduction of greenhouse gasses will not now have an effect. 100ppm over the ideal of 280ppm is way over and were going to go higher.

    Like Pirates of the Caribbean, …. the ship is about to flip.

  26. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Sasparilla-

    Thanks for the reply.

    Unfortunately, about all we know for sure is that if we return methane and CO2 levels to what they were a couple of hundred years ago, and do so rapidly enough, we will probably be OK.

    We don’t know what will happen if we ignite runaway global warming.

    At this point, we have a range of probable scenarios, and at the high end some of those include dissociation of the methane hydrates. If those things start to dissociate, at least most of us are likely dead, and all life on earth might die.

    We are increasing CO2 at a rate that is unprecedented, and also increasing methane at an unprecedented rate. Couple that with deforestation, and half a trillion tons of carbon stored in the forests that is likely to be released by firestorms, and a trillion and a half estimated tones of carbon in the permafrost some of which is likely to be released by bacterial and fungal decay (and perhaps even peat fires) when it melts. The oceanic methane hydrates contain something on the order of five or so trillion tons of carbon in the form of methane gas, a greenhouse gas currently 25 or so times worse than CO2. The oceans could also start evolving large amounts of dissolved CO2 – think of how CO2 bubbles out of a warm soft drink, compared to a cold one.

    Compare this to something like three quarters of a trillion tons of carbon currently in the in the atmosphere, and a third of a trillion tons of carbon released by the entire industrial revolution. So, to spell it out, runaway heating could dump at least 10 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as it currently has, in a form that is initially 25 times worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

    No matter how robust a self-regulating system the climate is, and it is robust, it’s hard to see how it could handle this sort of stress.

    Lovelock may have had it right, IMO:

    In this interview in Rolling Stone, he predicts 6 billion dead by 2100. Even he might be conservative in this estimate.

    Or Hawking may have been right, about our future resembling the atmosphere of Venus, with temperatures of hundreds of degrees C and sulfuric acid rain, after all.

    We don’t know. The climate system has never been subjected to stresses like this before, that we know of, this sort of immensely rapid forcing. We don’t know what it will do.

    I know that I’m “preaching to the choir” here with you, and you likely know all of this stuff.

    The very amount of uncertainty involved in future scenarios, some of which involve extinction of ourselves, and some of which could even lead to a dead biosphere and return of our atmosphere to thermodynamic equilibrium, is a really good argument not to allow this to happen.

  27. Harrier says:

    Leland, I like to tell myself that if the methane in the Arctic started rushing out, the world would warm so rapidly that the resulting chaos and hysteria would ultimately shut down most of our CO2 emissions as everyone scrambled northward with whatever they had. It would be rather barbaric and nasty, and plenty of people would die, but it would keep us from turning into Venus.

    That to me is an essential thing to keep in mind: that humans won’t just fail to react to increasingly evident signs of climate change. Stronger signs beget stronger reactions, and eventually, one way or the other, we will entirely eliminate our industrial emission of greenhouse gases. Whether we do that by switching to alternative sources of energy, or by shutting off our industry and returning to pre-industrial conditions, is still to be decided. But we’ll do it, and I think we’ll do it before we can destroy all life on Earth.

  28. Leland Palmer says:

    Humans are capable of solving this crisis, or at least I believe this.

    Certainly, blogs like this one and the internet are spreading the word, and even mainstream media outlets are covering the story that we may be entering into an era of runaway climate change.

    But it’s about billions of tons of carbon. Billions of tons of carbon are entering the air, each year, even as we speak, as of course we all know.

    To stop this thing, I think we need to put billions of tons of carbon per year back underground:

    Trying to visualize this problem, the way I do with the chromatography methods I develop in the lab where I work, I can’t visualize a happy ending without putting carbon back into the ground.

    So, certainly we are capable of solving this. But, here in the U.S., we are dealing with a financial elite that has become an elite because of oil and other fossil fuels. They don’t want to change, and they are so rich and powerful we may not be able to force them to change. The Council on Foreign Relations, traditionally dominated by the Rockefeller family (who remain major stockholders in ExxonMobil and who are powerful enough within ExxonMobil to recently force the ex-CEO, Lee Raymond, to resign) has run a series of truly incredible articles by Scott Borgerson, talking in really incredibly daft terms about a new gold rush for “resources” including oil in the arctic and especially under the current icecap. Borgerson has recently carried this message to Congress, and testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, who thanked him for his testimony and told him he had been very helpful. This campaign has included at least one op-ed in the New York Times by Borgerson, who also talks about “adapting” to global warming.

    I’m not worried about ordinary, reasonable people. I’m worried about ExxonMobil, and Peabody Coal, and the Koch brothers that fund the Cato Institute.

    I’m worried about an immensely powerful, disconnected financial elite with strange desires, apparently, who have recently apparently collaborated in bringing us the Iraq war and the financial crisis, and whose heavily influenced corporate media seems to want to talk about everything including pirates…but not very much about potentially exponentially increasing global warming.

  29. paulm says:

    “Lovelock knows that predicting the end of civilization is not an exact science…..’The trouble is, all those well-intentioned scientists who are arguing that we’re not in any imminent danger are basing their arguments on computer models. I’m basing mine on what?s actually happening.'”

    An important observation by Lovelock. Many of us are rushing around trying to figure out what we can do to mitigate emissions or were trying not to face up to the extreme events now occurring.

    We have not gone 1dC over 280ppm yet and look at whats happening all around us. We are going to past 2dC for sure. What do you think the effects will be then?

    All hell is breaking out right now.

  30. Jim Beacon says:

    Perhaps it’s time for all sides to tone down the rhetoric and exaggeration- for-effect and get back to the genuine consensus science and the frustrating politics of doing what each of us can about controlling emissions (which is a lot). Serious concern is called for, but running around screaming that the sky is falling will not help matters.

    A single rash predictions of an ice-free arctic within 4 years is a good example of what we should NOT be focusing on. Only one computer model’s results (as yet unpublished) show that as a possibility (and a possibility only) and yet suddenly 2013 is being tossed around like that date is God-given destiny. The end result of that will be that if we don’t have an ice-free arctic in 2013, the computer models will be discredited in the eyes of the pubic and the deniers will be crowing.

    And before anyone breaks their arm patting themselves on the back for “forcing” the Washington Post to see the error of its editorial ways we should probably pause to consider that most likely the internal revolt of Post staffers who were outraged that the paper they work for had pulled such a stunt probably had much more to do with the official change and retraction than anything said in the blogosphere.

    And, Joe, I’m surprised that you would become so caught up in this frenzy that you would write such a line as:

    “The scientific consensus is wrong”

    Surely you’re smart enough to realize what an opening you’ve provided for the deniers to take that line out of context. I can see the headlines on their blogs and columns now:

    “Climate Change Advocate Joseph Romm admits we were right all along and procliams “The scientific consensus is wrong!”

    How about we all settle down a bit, put the egos away and get back to work?

    [JR: Not sure what your point is here in this comment — that climate science advocates are somehow making too STRONG and effective a case? Don’t think so. If I censored myself because I worried how deniers might take my words out of context, I’d never get anything done. I’ve said the consensus is wrong for many years now, including in a major Salon article, so that isn’t news.

    As we’ll see in a post Monday, they do just fine misunderstanding my words in context!

    BTW, “”Climate Change Advocate Joseph Romm ” — not me. I’m no advocate of climate change :) ]

  31. Leland Palmer says:

    I remember last summer in northern California. We had a million acres burn, in California, last year, when a couple hundred thousand or less is normal.

    The smoke from the California fires blew across the country, all the way to Montana, I think. It was easily visible from space.

    It was almost comical, going to work, and walking out the door at work, to see the orange colored sunlight and smell the faint smell of wood smoke, with everyone at work trying to pretend that nothing unusual was happening. Every day, for over a month, the sky was brown, and the sunlight was orange. During this time my brother’s house was threatened by the Yosemite/Mariposa fire, which burned faster and wilder than any fire in the area in memory. This fire ended up burning all around his house, but left an area of a couple of square miles around his house intact.

    Google Images contains many images taken from space at this time, showing plumes of smoke drifting across several states.

    Chris Field recently testified before Congress. He is a Stanford climate scientist, and one of the IPCC group leaders. His testimony before Congress was rather subdued, but the next day on Democracy Now! he laid it on the line:

    If we look since 2000, we’ve seen a rapid acceleration in CO2 emissions, so that the actual trajectory of emissions has grown more rapidly than in any of the scenarios that were characterized in detail. The reason I say we’re on a trajectory of climate change that we haven’t explored is that we have only looked at scenarios where the growth of CO2 was limited to in the range of two to 2.5 percent per year. We genuinely don’t know what a climate will look like with the more rapid rate of increase that we’re actually seeing….

    ….The IPCC projected that with the scenarios it explored, we could see 2100 temperatures that were anywhere from as little as two Fahrenheit to as much as eleven to twelve Fahrenheit warmer than possible.

    And what we increasingly see is that with temperatures at the upper end of this warming range, we begin to get a large series of very dangerous feedbacks from the earth’s system. In particular, we see tropical forest transitioning from taking up large amounts of carbon to taking up very little or even releasing carbon. And it looks like there’s an increasing risk that high latitude ecosystems that are characterized by these frozen soils called permafrost may release some of the organic matter that’s stored in this permafrost to the atmosphere. So you end up in a situation where, instead of having ecosystems storing large amounts of carbon, their storing very little or releasing large amounts.

    The calculations to date are that tropical forests—and this is something that is explored in the IPCC—could, at the higher ranges of temperature forcing, release anywhere from a hundred billion to 500 billion extra tons of carbon to the atmosphere by 2100. And that should be put in the context of understanding that during the entire period from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until now, all of the world societies have only released a little over 300 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere….

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask not only about what’s happening in the Southwest, but a vicious cycle you talked about that could do everything from ignite tropical forests to melt the Arctic tundra.

    CHRISTOPHER FIELD: The idea of these vicious cycle feedbacks is that once warming reaches a certain point, the amount of assistance that we’re getting in terms of carbon storage from the land and oceans tends to go down. And this is quite clear from the IPCC models, and it’s clear from a number of other more recent lines of work. In the IPCC, the models characterize a future in which tropical forests at the high range of warming have a potential to release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.

    One of the new numbers that’s a great concern to me is that we’ve been doing studies of how much organic matter is stored in these frozen soils in northern latitudes, permafrost soils, and the new numbers are that approximately a billion tons [the number is actually over a trillion tons – Leland Palmer] of carbon is stored in the organic matter in these high latitude soils. Climate model projections indicate that at high amounts of warming large fractions of the permafrost could melt, and some of the projections have that at from 60 to 90 percent of the permafrost melting.

    And the surprising thing about these permafrost soils is that the organic matter that’s contained within them is not this incredibly stabilized, difficult-to-decompose stuff; it’s basically frozen plants that have been sitting there for, in some cases, tens of thousands of years. And when the permafrost is thawed, these plants decompose quite quickly, releasing their carbon as CO2 to the atmosphere or as methane to the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas that, on a molecule per molecule basis, is about twenty-five times as powerful as CO2.

    The basic risk is that if we reach a certain point in the warming, what we’ll end up with is a vicious cycle, where the warming causes additional permafrost melt, which causes additional CO2 to be released to the atmosphere, which causes additional warming, which creates this vicious cycle.

    So, even Chris Field, one of the group leaders that authored the latest IPCC report, says that the scientific consensus as expressed by the IPCC report was wrong, and understates the actual magnitude of the problem. He mentioned the tropical forests and the permafrost, but didn’t mention that the boreal forests and the oceans could also turn into net carbon sources rather than carbon sinks, and he did not mention specifically the ice albedo feedback in which a melting polar cap reflects less sunlight back into space.

    Joe was really just saying what Chris Field said himself on Democracy Now!. The IPCC report seriously underestimated the effects we are already seeing.

    We need to take whatever action that we need to take to put billions of tons of carbon back underground, I think.

    I don’t think any of us would really mind being wrong, if it turns out that the CO2 fertilization effect is much larger than estimated, and the earth’s climate corrects itself, and is not in failure mode. I just really don’t see that happening, sorry to say.

    The people that are telling us that the scientific consensus is wrong are the intellectual leaders in the field, including Chris Field, James Hansen and James Lovelock. That’s somewhat beyond ominous, and panic may in fact be an appropriate emotion right now.

    The deniers will say what they will say, anyway, and kissing up to them won’t change what they say.

  32. Lee Wells says:

    I’m confused. Why is it that ‘climate deniers’ [or as I know them ‘the overpopulation freaks’] get as much press as the ‘climate chaos cheerleaders’ [or as I know them the overpopulation silencers]

    Why is it that the climate folks never talk about OVERPOPULATION as the real problem? Could it be that BIRTH CONTROL is harder to talk about than CO2 control?

    Nope. it’s just that BIRTH CONTROL could solve the peak oil problem, the animal habitat destruction problem, the war problem, and the ‘climate crisis’ problem ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

    Of course it would also make a lot of rich people poorer, and since the rich people control the media (and a lot of other things) that can’t POSSIBLY be the the problem.

  33. Bob Wright says:

    There are studies indicating carbon black aerosols in the northern hemisphere are contributing to arctic warming. Aerosols are short-lived, so this portion of arctic warming could be mitigated over a short period by carbon black emission controls.

    BTW, I hear the new low particulate diesel trucks are in the shop all the time.

  34. Gail says:

    Lee Wells, I guess according to your paradigm I would qualify as a “climate chaos cheerleader” but let me assure you, I am just as concerned about overpopulation being part of the problem, and I am not silent about it.

    It frustrates me that it is not a larger part of the discussion but I suspect that perhaps because it is political poison many conservationists steer clear of that particular debate. And the scientists are trained to focus on their science.

    In any case, I don’t see how JUST birth control could be nearly enough to solve the problem of fossil fuel emissions because we are already in deep trouble.

    It’s also quite obscure to me how rich people would become poorer if birth control were widely available, and practiced.

  35. Jim Beacon says:


    Of course you’re not “really” a Climate Change Advocate — anymore than Marc Morano is really a “Climate Change Dissenter” as reported in a puff-piece in the Business Section of the on April 9 (see for the disgusting details). I was just trying to phrase my example of disinformation the way they would. Not very funny, I admit, but then neither are they.

    And naturally I’m not suggesting you self-censor because of how they might twist your words, but only perhaps consider certain phrasing as just too inflammatory or confusing to the general public/media which is still making the mistake of listening to the dissenters and giving their deliberate lies some credence. Not to play at Editor, but perhaps phasing the concept another way (as indeed you have done in other posts) like “climate change accelerating faster than predicted” would serve the cause better than using words which cast doubt on the fundamental concept of scientific consensus being wrong or suspect (that is, after all, the big hammer the deniers have been using from the beginning).

  36. paulm says:

    This guy is much more eloquent than most….and he is from auz, where they know about what it is like on the curve of climate change…

    Poor prognosis for our planet

    Climate change is often described as linear decline followed by some kind of distant “tipping point”. But consider these statistics: in 1979 Arctic sea ice cover remained above 7 million square kilometres all summer; from 1989 it was consistently above 6 million; in 2002 above 5 million; since 2007 above 4 million. I read recently we may have reached a tipping point and the ice will be gone in 20 years. But there is no tipping point – a curve is always tipping, and each new finding redraws the curve. If this year’s figure comes in under 4 million square kilometres the patient could be dead inside five years, and ships will be crossing the North Pole in September 2014.

    The rest of us are less evolved; my suspicion is that most of us still don’t get it. Because here’s the paradox: wherever you look in the natural world the message of exponential change is reinforced, yet humans have a weird predisposition to see change as linear. I’m guessing this is a throwback to the caveman days when, if someone threw a rock or a spear at you, it was sensible to assume that the missile would keep coming at a constant speed. Strangely, we unconsciously apply the same neanderthal logic to our understanding of ageing, birth and climate change.

  37. Lee Wells says:

    On how the richer become poorer…..(for Gail and anyone else interested in how the world works)

    This is how social security works: many people put in money that few get out. Some people know this only works with a growing population, and it is one of the reasons people are saying social security will go bankupt in a couple of decades is because the American population is no longer growing as fast as it once was.

    So as the demographic pyramid beomes a column one either has to give more money to support the recivers of social security or their benefits have to be cut or the system goes belly up.

    No school teacher is happy with the idea of teaching fewer students, because she knows soon they will need fewer teachers. Just like those rich folks that make diapers, and houses, and cars and virtually everything else in this GROWING economy.

    Birth control in the long run means fewer customers, that means EVERYONE gets poorer, (in the short run) but of course the CEOs lose the most because their job depends on the customer base.

    As for Crime Please read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner the part on abortion making the crime wave go down.

    The fact that birth control would cure all these problems, I believe is fairly common knowledge, but when the reason for most people’s existance is to make money, and not to actually solve problems you get ‘do gooders’ like Bill Gates who literally gave billions for birth control in other countries, but said very little about it in the USA.

    Why? in the USA where birth control would do the most good where you won’t need as many SUVs if you had fewer kids, is where all of Bill’s customers are. Also Americans have this weird idea that since they own the world anyway, and all the oil in it, they should get their way. Obama and the recession are changing this idea but it takes time….

    Being told they are the most overpopulated country on the planet doesn’t make them feel good. At least the USA is overpopulated to me how else to explain we have 5% of the world’s population use 25% of the world’s energy, and take 50% of it’s illegal drugs? [I need a reference on this, but knowing we were founded by religious fanatics, it sounds right to me]

  38. paulm says:

    OK, I get it, civilization is one big ponzi scheme.

    That’s why they rise and fall on a cyclic schedule dependent on resource and energy availability.

  39. barbiplease says:

    JR — you wrote in response to my comment:

    “[..Deniers sites are anti-scientific and thus unimportant in understanding what is happening, what will happen, and what we must do. The study won’t “undermine efforts to reduce CO2 altogether” — since, uhh, we don’t have any such efforts. More to the point, you parenthetical statement “still a very serious concern” — is the understatement of the year. The NASA study has no bearing whatsoever on the catastrophic warming we face on business as usual emissions.]”

    My purpose was not to understate the seriousness of CO2 but rather to 1) get credible scientific information on whether the NASA study on BC could have any bearing on future emissions scenarios (such as your “Hell and High Water” scenario which, apparently, the study does not; yet, is a legitimate concern to express by an intelligent layperson) and to 2) get credible scientific information on “what the science says” in response to those skeptics who are writing to me and citing this NASA study on BC to argue against CO2 emissions standards and climate legislation.

    You are correct to point out that denier sites and deniers are unimportant in understanding what is happening from a scientific standpoint. However, it is also true that denialists and skeptics pose the single greatest threat toward policy action by continuously raising doubts by citing the “latest scientific studies” (most of them irrelevant and already thoroughly discredited and/or misunderstood) to undermine the collective political willpower to do anything about it. It is therefore critically important for an intelligent layperson to know how to respond to such skeptic and denier questions or claims in a timely fashion when a new study comes out and they use it to try to refute the scientific consensus.

  40. David B. Benson says:

    Jim Beacon — The IPCC concensus has already been demonstrated to have too low an estimate of the significant results; that concensus is wrong, by simply looking at about two years of additional data.

  41. Here is a puzzling story in Mail Online dated April 10, 2009:

    “Temperatures in the Arctic have climbed by 1.5C since the 1970s – far exceeding the modest 0.35C increase in the Antarctic, where aerosols play a much smaller role, Nasa claims.”

    And “Climate scientist Drew Shindell of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York found that declines in solid ‘aerosol’ particles brought in under laws to improve air quality likely triggered 45 per cent of temperature rises.

    “Aerosols – including the man-made particles sulfates and soot – have a direct impact on climate change by reflecting and absorbing the sun’s radiation, Nasa explains.

    “But laws brought in by the U.S. and European countries over the past three decades have slashed emissions of sulfates, and with them atmospheric cooling.”

    In other words, black carbon is good for offsetting CO2 warming, instead of being an aggravating factor. Amazing how pro-polluter spin gets spread.

  42. David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen — Black carbon ==> warming
    Sulfates ==> cooling (but bad effects on soils and plants)

  43. @Lee Wells…

    Overpolulation is part of the problem. Overconsumption is the main problem.

    Yale360 takes up the debate.

  44. Gail says:

    Richard L., thank you for that very fascinating link. It also makes it clearer why deniers must deny – they don’t want to give up their 10 spots on the lifeboat. I had a conversation with one yesterday at an Easter dinner. His logic (even though he was surrounded by grandchildren he dotes on) was more or less, he loves to drive powerful cars; therefore, global warming is a hoax.