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WashPost: “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”

By Joe Romm  

"WashPost: “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”"

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IPCC errors are “trivial mistakes”

THE EARTH is warming. A chief cause is the increase in greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. Humans are at least in part responsible, because the oil, gas and coal that we burn releases these gases. If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.

Contrary to what you may have read lately, there are few reputable scientists who would disagree with anything in that first paragraph.

That’s the opening of a pretty good editorial on climate from the paper that has all but destroyed the credibility of its opinion pages (see and the 2009 “Citizen Kane” award for non-excellence in climate journalism goes to “¦).

Since they’ve devoted so much ink to Sarah Palin and George Will, and I have devoted so much ink to debunking them, it only seems fair to excerpt this editorial at length.  It presumably represents the views of the paper’s editorial staff (notwithstanding the editors’ open invitation to the Palins and Lomborgs of the world and their refusal to fact check the anti-science pieces they write).

Yet suddenly we’re hearing that climate change is in doubt and that action to combat it is unlikely. What’s going on? First, climate science is complex, and there is much that we still do not understand. Politicians, advocates and scientists who have claimed a level of certainty unsupported by evidence — about exactly how climate change will unfold or is unfolding — have not helped the cause. Second, as in any research effort being conducted by thousands of scientists across many years and many countries, mistakes will be made in the research or in its collection and reporting. The mistakes that have been revealed recently — about, most prominently, the likely melting rate of Himalayan glaciers — need correcting. But in the overall picture, they are trivial.

Politicians nonetheless have seized on both the trivial mistakes and the complexity of the science to cast doubt on the underlying and unrefuted truth of human-caused greenhouse gas accumulation. In many cases, it is hard to know whether they are being obtuse or dishonest, and hard to know which would be worse. To see Virginia’s newly elected attorney general join in this know-nothingism is an embarrassment to the state.

What’s the right response? It seems to us there are two key arguments that can provide some shelter for politicians who want to do the right thing. The first is to acknowledge a level of uncertainty in the predictions and make the case for taking out an insurance policy, as would any prudent homeowner. It’s true that we don’t know for sure how many degrees warmer the Earth will be, on average, by 2050 or what effect this will have on the ferocity of storms or coastal flooding or starvation-inducing drought. But it’s also true that, as the science has progressed, the predictions have become more dire, not less — and that they are still as likely to be too optimistic as the reverse. If there is action that can be taken, now, to begin to reduce the dangers, why would we not do so?

The only cogent answer we have heard is that action is hopeless: that wrenching the economy away from its dependence on oil and coal would be so expensive, and the resulting benefit so minimal, that it’s not worth trying. Those who make this case in a rational way don’t deny the existence of climate change, but they say that the money should be spent instead on mitigation and research into alternative technologies. Our view is that it makes no sense to give up before trying — especially since measured government action could unleash technological innovation that in turn would make the costs far less than predicted.

And all the more so when — and this is the second key point — the action that would have the most beneficial effect with regard to climate change is in the national interest anyway….

Not bad, though again, it is a bit disingenuous to be shocked, shocked that “suddenly we’re hearing that climate change is in doubt” when you’ve been publishing the anti-science crap they have.

MEMO TO WASHINGTON POST EDITORS:  If you don’t want people to be confused about climate change, stop publishing disinformation about it:

‹ Will novels save the world?

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25 Responses to WashPost: “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”

  1. Patrick says:

    Another FastCompany.com article on the amazing Bloom Box (a potentially significant contributor to climate solutions, Joe?):

    http://www.fastcompany.com/1560450/bloom-box-ebay-interview?partner=homepage_newsletter

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Two Issues

    First, the opening passages are good. This is a step in the right direction.

    But, there are two things that aren’t addressed well in the WashPost piece or nearly anywhere else.

    For one thing, there is something about the nature and “complexity” of the issue that, even when writers convey (and audiences begin to understand) that the notion of “doing nothing” doesn’t follow from the existence of some degrees of “uncertainty”, nevertheless, we still don’t connect those dots well.

    In other words, people begin to see that the existence of some “uncertainty” shouldn’t be a reason to “do nothing”, BUT, by that time, the notion of how to think clearly about that relationship is nearly lost. We’ve spent so much mental energy trying to “see Point X”, that by the time we “see Point X”, we don’t know how to think about it or what to do about it.

    This notion of taking out some “insurance” is a nice comparison, and better than nothing, but it only takes you so far, and it doesn’t really represent the issue well, in vitally important ways. It falls way short.

    For one thing — and this is only one of the problems — thinking of “taking out insurance” tends to entirely monetize the matter. That itself is a problem. It’s relevant, as part of the argument, when we are specifically discussing economic and non-human implications, but it falls WAY SHORT of being THE way to understand why we should address the climate change problem, even in the face of some uncertainty.

    For another thing, insurance (as normally thought of) protects you by replacing losses after the fact. You get fire insurance on your house, and if your house burns down, the insurance company pays you to get a new house. That is NOT — of course — all that relevant to what we are talking about. It is a different paradigm. We are — or should be — talking more about prevention than about “insurance”. And how do we help people see that, and help them “connect the concept” to everyday common sense and wisdom, if not by using some comparison, like to “insurance”. Well, the answer is this: In the face of uncertainty, it is common, wise, and a matter of everyday life to act to prevent or minimize risk (uncertainty), completely apart from the comparison to “insurance”.

    If you have a house, you may (hopefully) buy fire insurance. But, you also clear away dead and dry weeds from around your house; you don’t light fires right near your house; you make sure that hoses and water are available; the community usually has a Fire Dept. nearby; you replace your shingles periodically; and so forth.

    The insurance comparison falls short. It can help inform PART of the discussion, but it is not the “be all and end all” of understanding the relationship between uncertainty and responsible action. Indeed, it doesn’t capture the most important part of the matter. (Joe, I’ve sent you a piece that does capture the most important part of the matter, on this aspect of the subject, and you can, I’m sure, see the difference between that and the “insurance” comparison.)

    We face situations involving uncertainty and risk all the time. The avoidance of harm, the notion of prevention, and the minimization of the risk of harm are not the same as taking out an “insurance policy” in the normal sense of what that means. Building a brick house, or having a source of water near your house, are not the same as buying a fire insurance policy that will somehow “make you financially whole” after your house burns down.

    On another note, I’ll just say this: Very often, people who use the argument that “there’s no point in trying, it’s too late” are the same people who don’t want to try, for their own selfish reasons, and who combine that argument with all sorts of other arguments about why we “need” to continue using coal, oil, and etc. Usually, their arguments are inconsistent and can be shown to be so. If someone is genuinely concerned about climate change, so much so that they would say “it’s too late”, then that degree of concern should also express itself as SUPPORT for making the necessary changes to do whatever we can, to at least try. If someone says “we need to keep using oil and coal” and “oh shucks, it’s too late to address that huge problem of climate change” in the same breath, essay, speech, or editorial, there’s a problem. If someone says, “don’t regulate the free marketplace because free marketplaces are Godlike and can do no harm” and “oh shucks, it’s too late to address the oncoming tragedy of climate change” in the same breath, essay, speech, or editorial, there’s a problem. Don’t put up with that sort of thinking. Shine light on it.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  3. Richard L says:

    “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”

    The underlying tone of this sentence, to me, is that climate change will affect some people somewhere (else). We are all interconnected and dependent with each other and the planet. The devastating effects will be felt by ALL of us…. We need to act to save ourselves. Alarmism? No.

  4. Craig says:

    Could this be a situation where the star power of pundits like George Will and Sarah Palin push around the opinion editors? With declining circulation and ad revenue, the Post is increasingly desperate to sell newspapers. And big name columnists, even when publishing garbage (or maybe exactly for that reason), draw readers.

  5. mike roddy says:

    This is a step in the right direction, and should be encouraged, but I also agree with Jeff: framing it as insurance is a little cowardly.

    This language throws a bone to those who are claiming that maybe all of this talk about global warming is not accurate, but just in case it is we should do something. Policies that derive from that position are likely to be inadequate.

  6. Leif says:

    Patrick and Jeff, #1 & 2: So far the Bloom Box looks to be a paradigm shift that looks promising. If it holds true, suddenly all the efforts of huge electrical grid improvements become less important. With electricity produced on site “line loss” is essentially zero. True, fossil fuel is still used but that was going to happen during transition time anyway. Efficiency does look to be up.

    Jeff. Well said. The Right have succeeded in framing the discussion as “us verses them” and continue to this day. That turns each discussion into a win or lose situation when in reality we are all in this together and need to look rationally at the cost benefits of mitigation for the well-being of all. The rich have gamed the system to their benefit, to the extent that ~5% of the population control ~90% of the wealth. Huge segments of humanity have little to no money and close to zero carbon foot print and these same folks are being asked to pony up so that the affluent can carbon stomp thru life. What a deal the GOP have backed.

  7. Don says:

    Craig has it right, spot on. WAPO like all newspapers except the Wall Street Journal, are financially challenged. May of their best healed readers — those that attract advertisers — want to read Sarah and G F Will. Without the right wingers, the WAPO would be toast, and thusly the WAPO talks out of both sides of its mouth. The NYT is following the WAPO lead with the editorial and “news” page items on AGW reversed; not much antiscience on the editorial pages of NYT but lots of silly superficial reporting on climate science in the “news” pages. NYT, like all other newspapers except the WSJ are attempting to maintain a diverse readership, right and left. Television, with the exception of NPR (most of the time, but not always) is worse. the networks stage entertaining events that are only superficially news or informative explorations of complex events. Commercial TV has for sometime known that more viewers will be drawn to reality TV than to serious, thoughtful programming; TV news has become reality TV lite. The most successful television network, Fox News, has a small number of extremely committed right wing viewers, who hunger for the Punch and Judy shows that are their staple. A liberal version of Fox News does not emerge because the radical left has more interesting things to do than watch TV, MSNBC Olberman and Maddow are but a shadow of Fox News’ heavy hitters.

  8. Leif says:

    Bloom Box with feed in tariffs and smart meters. Assuming the success of the Bloom Box concept, we can look a little further out. With many homes having said Bloom Box capacity, and most of the time not using the maximum output, that remainder is now available to sell at peak time for top dollar. In essence we have produced a “factual” power supply that could even help pay for it’s own up front costs. Gas lines for the most part are in place. Sustainable gas sources can be added as it becomes available. A perfect marriage to intermittent sustainable sources.

  9. Esop says:

    Huge step in the right direction. Hopefully the rest of the MSM will also regain their senses and get off the silly and thoroughly non-scientific denialist trip they’ve been on for the last four months.
    One would think digging into the real conspiracy and exposing the denialists for what they really are, along with making public the questionable science and their failed predictions would attract some readers and viewers.
    Let the public know that these shady characters are putting the future well being of the public at risk, just to make a short term profit.
    The media is quite good at digging up stuff, now they’ve tried to crucify the good guys, without success. Put the same energy into research of the denialist camp and they will have front page quality stuff for months. And a very angry public.

  10. Leif says:

    Joe, has any thought been given to a daily,? weekly,? TV or radio program with your CP format and a good moderator?

  11. Barry says:

    If you plotted the MSM’s swings on climate, from concern to denial, you would get a graph not unlike the global yearly temperature. Ups and downs mark the path of maximum controversy in either direction. Maximum controversy = maximum eyeballs = maximum ad revenue. These cycles are dictated by the current revenue strategies of most of the MSM.

    But just like with global temps, the relentlessly overheating climate is forcing this multi-year MSM trendline towards ever more concern.

    People may not all understand complex science…but they do understand weather well enough to “get it” as extremes increase and predictability decreases.

    The climate concerned community should keep the focus on a clear set of climate-mitigation actions for the public to sign on to when the next cycle of MSM “concern” inevitably comes along. It’s coming as sure as CO2 is a ghg and advertisers want maximum impressions.

    A related sideshow will be watching the most vocal deniers try to back and fill their way out of responsibility for their actions so far. Get ready for some howlers.

  12. paulm says:

    They still don’t get how serious it is though.

    Even with immediate, war scale action billions are going to die unless theres a miracle hovering in the wings.

  13. ChrisD says:

    The rest of the second paragraph quoted above is as follows:

    Yet suddenly we’re hearing that climate change is in doubt and that action to combat it is unlikely. What’s going on?

    Seriously? They’re befuddled by what’s going on?

    Evidently the Post’s editorial writers haven’t been paying attention to the stuff that’s been appearing regularly on the opposite page.

  14. Dana says:

    “MEMO TO WASHINGTON POST EDITORS: If you don’t want people to be confused about climate change, stop publishing disinformation about it”

    Well said. It’s amazing they can both publish so much disinformation in their editorial section and then complain about the propagation of disinformation. Try looking in the mirror, Post editorial staff.

  15. john atcheson says:

    Well, if this is what they believe, then it is incumbent on them to stop publishing BS by George Will, Sarah Palin, Bjorn Lomborg, and S&N’s Broken Institute.

  16. Gestur says:

    I agree with Jeff and I also concur with Mike Roddy when he notes that these editorial stances need to be encouraged as much as possible. And clearly an important way of doing so is by pointing out rhetoric improvements to the message. Jeff has made an excellent point concerning the use of insurance policies in such arguments.

    I would simply add that the counter-argument brought up by The Post’s editorial that “it’s too late to do anything, and that the money should be spent instead on mitigation and adaptation” is implicitly making the assumption that there would be some more or less fixed level of ‘disaster’ that we would need to mitigate and/or adapt to. While there is, of course, uncertainty about just what these effects would be and their overall power to disrupt our societies, I believe that the underlying science would support no such upper bound on its ability to wreak havoc on civilization. People need to understand this critical point that things could, and likely would, simply get worse and worse, without limit, if levels of GHGs were allowed to increase continuously. And that makes a mockery of our ability to mitigate and adapt.

  17. It is strangely bothersome to hear the Washington Post accept AGW and then quickly skip to talking about caps, taxes and insurance.

    It is a little bit like standing before a burning house and talking about whether or not to turn off the gas line. We are in an emergency state that requires direct action now, and this pundit pontification and lobbying is just like discussing what to wear to the bucket-brigade.

  18. Steve Bloom says:

    Yet another fundamental misunderstanding: “(climate) predictions… are still as likely to be too optimistic as the reverse.”

    Why that’s wrong would be a great topic for a post, Joe.

    Thumbnail: As we learn more about how the climate system behaves as anthropogenic stress continues, we can say that some aspects will be benign and others will have a negative effect. The net result is an increased overall negative effect.

  19. Peter Sergienko says:

    I agree with the critiques of the insurance analogy–it’s not particularly accurate or helpful.

    It may not be very sophisticated, but I prefer the overflowing bathtub visual. It’s readily understood by all and generally an accurate portrayl of the situation we’re facing.

    The first thing to do when the tub overflows is to turn off the water (bring GHG emissions into line with nature’s “sinks”). The second thing to do, now that we have a tub filled to the brim, is to drain enough water so we can get back in the tub and take a bath without causing overflow (sequester GHG emissions to bring us back to 350 or less).

    The delayers are essentially arguing that continuing to flood our house is acceptable because a technological fix we don’t have yet will appear in the future and prove cheaper than turning the water off and mopping up now. The deniers are either arguing that the overflowing bathtub doesn’t exist or that flooding our house causes no damage. This explains many of the comments in yesterday’s post on Joe’s appearance with Neil Cavuto.

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Instead of selling insurance, how about “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”?

    And how about “a penny saved is a penny earned — tax-free”?

    I always liked Ben Franklin — call me old fashioned.

  21. sailrick says:

    I don’t read the Wash Post so I was suprised to learn that they print articles by Sarah Palin. Does she use a ghost writer for that as well?

  22. mark says:

    you’re efforts are working.

    Thankyou.

  23. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    To Peter Sergienko at 19/.

    “The first thing to do when the tub overflows is to turn off the water (bring GHG emissions into line with nature’s “sinks”). The second thing to do, now that we have a tub filled to the brim, is to drain enough water so we can get back in the tub and take a bath without causing overflow (sequester GHG emissions to bring us back to 350 or less).”

    Your dual response to the overflowing bathtub seems to me particularly apt, so far as it goes. But the reality is sadly more complex in some critical regards.

    It seems to me that the tap of our GHG output must be turned off, not reduced to match the sinks’ capacity, since that capacity
    a/. is declining on many fronts, i.e. ocean acidification, soil & forest desiccation & abuse, etc; and
    b/. is in danger of being swamped in the coming decades just by the GHG outputs (and output-equivalents) of a wide variety of positive feedbacks of GW, some of which have the potential to utterly dwarf anthro-GHG outputs. The earliest awake of those feedbacks, was the exponential rise of Dissolved Organic Carbon [DOC] from peatbogs worldwide which rapidly outgasses from the streams. It has been accelerating at least since the early ’60s (with CO2 then at about 320ppmv) demonstrably in response to the rising ppmv of airborne CO2.
    If the latter maintains its rising trend, then by about 2060 this (fairly modest) Peat-DOC feedback alone would emit a volume of CO2 equal to the entire anthro output in 2003 (when these findings were described in ‘Nature’, and New Scientist).

    As you may know full well, the problem of the feedbacks is exacerbated by the time lag of three to four decades between GHG outputs and their full warming effect (due to the oceans’ heat sink effect until they have ‘caught up’. In this light, the present warming that is driving emissions from droughts, forest fires & permafrost melt, etc., plus loss of albido from declining snow and ice cover, is from the pollution of the 1970s.
    We have another 30 to 40 years-worth of rising GHG outputs accelerating the feedbacks before anything we achieve now in closing the tap of our GHG outputs can take effect.
    It is further worth noting that the feedbacks are also of course mutually iterative – they will act as forcings on eachother.

    From this perspective, cutting our GHG output just to match the sinks is evidently unwise. We have both to terminate those outputs and to bale out the bathwater (cut airborne CO2e ppmv) if we are to gain a better-than-even chance of preventing the feedbacks swamping the sinks and thereby imposing catastrophic climate destabilization.

    Your suggestion that after matching our GHG outputs to the sinks, the sequestration of part of our remaining CO2 output could then return us to 350ppmv is highly unlikely to pan out. I suggest that we cannot build the physical infrastructure fast enough to avoid our emissions, in tandem with feedback emissions and emission-equivalents, swamping the planet’s carbon sinks.

    To get an idea of the scale of that sequestration infrastructure, it is reported that a mere 10% of global daily output of CO2 compressed into liquid form would equal the volume of the entire global daily thruput of fossil oil. Even to build infrastructure to handle that 10% of CO2 would be a vast undertaking over decades – for no material profit but only for assumed damage-avoidance. The affordable option is closing the coal mines.

    This is not to deny the need of carbon sequestration at all – much of the excess bathwater (airborne CO2e ppmv) must be removed ASAP to start the deceleration of the feedbacks. Achieving 350ppmv CO2e would be a milestone allowing the possibility of a cleansed atmosphere with CO2 at 275ppmv, if that is our grandchildrens’ eventual decision.

    The mode of carbon sequestration that is in my view essential for the above bale-out, is the very widespread adoption of native-species afforestation, whose productivity is then optimized :
    a/. by the ancient silviculture known as Coppice (which perpetuates the high carbon intake of young trees), and
    b/. by the use of the coppice harvests for Biochar (by which carbon can profitably be buried in farm soils where it can greatly assist yields, while co-product hydrocarbon gasses can be processed for heat, liquid fuels or power supply; and
    c/. by the notable synergy that human coppicing of woodland provides habitat for exceptionally high biodiversity, due to effects including the annually changing shade levels and the high nutrient turnover.

    In conclusion, that afforestation for Biochar, Energy and Biodiversity reportedly has the potential, in tandem with the use of farm & town biomass wastes, to sequester up to 9.0 gigatonnes of carbon per year. This scale of sequestration is in my view essential, yet it is on a scale that fully warrants the term ‘geo-engineering.’

    Therefore, I wonder if Joe Romm, whom I can only hope will read this screed, would consider further investigation on this blog of the geo-engineering options, and of which entities might be entrusted with applying one or more options and for what purpose, alongside further exploration of the increasingly evident need, in light of the feedbacks’ acceleration, to reduce airborne CO2 far faster than cutting our emissions can hope to achieve.

    My apologies for the length.

    Regards,

    Lewis

  24. James Newberry says:

    “it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change”

    So glad to hear that today we don’t have a thousand square mile iceberg floating in the Southern Ocean. The scope of denial and fraud is astounding. By the way, these editors don’t know the difference between mitigation and adaptation (like the purchase of scuba gear!).

  25. Peter Sergienko says:

    @ Lewis.

    I agree completely. The overflowing bathtub analogy is simple and intended as a sound bite or conversation starter with friends and colleagues who are persuadable.

    Also, by “draining the tub” the analogy shouldn’t been seen as favoring geologic sequestration as the only option or even a particularly good one for reducing GHG concentrations in the atmosphere. “Draining” to me broadly includes all of the sequestration methods that are talked about here regularly, which need to be pursued aggresively now and in tandem with reducing GHG emissions.

    Maybe to improve the bathtub analogy we should put the bathtub in an earthquake zone and add an earthquake risk to represent feedbacks. The delayers are betting blindly that there won’t be an earthquake while we wait for the technological solution that doesn’t yet exist. If an earthquake occurs while we wait(e.g., massive methane release from permafrost melting) the valves fail, water runs into the tub uncontrollably, and it’s game over for humanity. I suppose the deniers would put the earthquake risk down to God’s will.