Australian Climate Commission says act now or “the global climate may be so irreversibly altered we will struggle to maintain our present way of life.”

ACC tempsAnother week, another group of leading scientists pleading with humanity to stop the self-destruction of modern human civilization as we know it ASAP.  The Australian Climate Commission even titled their report, “The Critical Decade.”

The figure on the right shows the catastrophic warming we risk if we stay on our current emissions path (in °C — multiple by 1.8 for °F).  The report warns, “A plausible estimate of the amount of sea-level rise by 2100 compared to 2000 is 0.5 to 1.0 meter.” The report notes that we are acidifying the oceans at “an exceptionally rapid rate of change, likely unprecedented in the 25 million years of the record,” gravely threatening marine life.  The study documents how the weather is already becoming more extreme in Australia — worse droughts, worse deluges, and worse heatwaves — and warns of “Abrupt, non-linear and irreversible changes
in the climate system.”

The report opens by slamming the media miscoverage of the story of the century.  It explains that climate science “is being attacked in the media by many with no credentials in the field….   By contrast to the noisy, confusing ‘debate’ in the media, within the climate research community our understanding of the climate system continues to advance strongly.”

Indeed, the conclusion uses language that will be familiar to Americans — language I recommend everyone use:  “we know beyond reasonable doubt that the world is warming and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the primary cause.”

The report warns, “Failing to take sufficient action today entails potentially huge risks to our economy, society and way of life into the future. This is the critical decade for action.”

Here are the “key messages” of the report:

1. There is no doubt that the climate is changing. The evidence is overwhelming and clear.

– The atmosphere is warming, the ocean is warming, ice is being lost from glaciers and ice caps and sea levels are rising. The biological world is changing in response to a warming world.

– Global surface temperature is rising fast; the last decade was the hottest on record.

2. We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate.

– With less than 1 degree of warming globally the impacts are already being felt in Australia.

– In the last 50 years the number of record hot days in Australia has more than doubled. This has increased the risk of heatwaves and associated deaths, as well as extreme bush fire weather in South Eastern and South Western Australia.

– Sea level has risen by 20 cm globally since the late 1800s, impacting many coastal communities. Another 20 cm increase by 2050, which is likely at current projections, would more than double the risk of coastal flooding.

– The Great Barrier Reef has suffered from nine bleaching events in the past 31 years. This iconic natural ecosystem, and the economy that depends upon it, face serious risks from climate change.

3. Human activities – the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation – are triggering the changes we are witnessing in the global climate.

– A very large body of observations, experiments, analyses, and physical theory points to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – with carbon dioxide being the most important – as the primary cause of the observed warming.

– Increasing carbon dioxide emissions are primarily produced by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, as well as deforestation.

– Natural factors, like changes in the Earth’s orbit or solar activity, cannot explain the world-wide warming trend.

4. This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience.

– Without strong and rapid action there is a significant risk that climate change will undermine our society’s prosperity, health, stability and way of life.

– To minimise this risk, we must decarbonise our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. That means carbon emissions must peak within the next few years and then strongly decline.

– The longer we wait to start reducing carbon emissions, the more difficult and costly those reductions become.

– This decade is critical. Unless effective action is taken, the global climate may be so irreversibly altered we will struggle to maintain our present way of life. The
choices we make this decade will shape the long-term climate future for our children and grandchildren.

The whole report is well worth reading, including chapter 3 discussion of “the budget approach” to reducing emissions.

Australian media coverage has been pretty good, see, for instance, The Age‘s “Sea-level fright as climate report goes public.”  The BBC writes:

… the commission says the evidence that the planet is warming is stronger than ever.  It said that climate science was being attacked in the media by people with no credentials in the field….

The BBC’s correspondent in Sydney, Nick Bryant, says the commission’s report delivers a strong rebuke to those who question that human emissions are causing global warming.

It warned that the window to take action to limit global warming was closing fast.

It reminds me of the NPR headline on the (weaker) National Academy report, “Top U.S. Scientists To Nation: Global Warming. Really. We Are Not Kidding.

It is time to act.  And is time for the media to stop misreporting and underreporting this most consequential of news stories.

48 Responses to Australian Climate Commission says act now or “the global climate may be so irreversibly altered we will struggle to maintain our present way of life.”

  1. Mark Shapiro says:


    CNET has a good, detailed story about energy-efficient building upgrades in Boston:

  2. Mike Roddy says:


    Joe, any thoughts on organized and comprehensive monitoring of climate coverage in the US media?

    The oil companies are already doing it on their end, and have either bribed or intimidated most major media outlets to fan the “debate”. There appears to be a void on the fact based side- people like you, Hansen, and Mandia are doing great work, but it’s scratching the surface of what is required.

  3. Peter M says:

    what the AU Climate commission is saying is basically the same message from the NAS- we are in deep trouble.

    the question here however is anyone really listening?

    the American MSM says nothing, anywhere. It might be buried somewhere in the NYT- where the official line is ‘We do not see global warming as a threat to humankind….’

    Ditto basically down the road at the WAPO

    the AU Climate commission offers a conservative estimate on sea rise ‘up to a meter’ Hansen sees up to 5 meters.

    2015 basically is the point of no return- its also the time when C02 passes 400ppm in its upward trajectory.

    By the time C02 reaches 450ppm around 2030- it will be way beyond too late- tipping points will be a decade past , which will manifest itself in the form of runaway environmental degradation. Nature’s ecosystems will begin to collapse on a scale rarely witnessed in Earth’s history.

    and good night…..

  4. This is a nice report. One of the things I like best about it is the use of the warming limit/carbon budget approach to show why arguments for delaying action are nonsense. For background, see

  5. jcwinnie says:

    Misleading. More altering of The Global Climate will occur. End of statement.

    To say “irreversibly” is dramatic, yet diminishes the impact that climate change already has had.

    And, “may”? Pleasant Dreams, everyone.

  6. Peter M says:

    From the PHILLY Enquirer today

    Why has the weather gone cuckoo?

    After historic flooding along the Mississippi River, record tornado sightings, and even a twister in Northeast Philadelphia last week, it is reasonable to ask if the atmosphere has gone out of its mind.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And the chorus sang:

    The last 10 years have been cooling
    The Medieval Warm Period was warmer
    The carbon tax will destroy the economy
    Scratch Cocky, scratch Cocky.

    This provides a test of sorts for our so-called well educated population. I look forward to the next round of opinion polls, ME

  8. Wonhyo says:

    Great report, but it perpetuates two common mistakes in expressing the urgency of action. First, “critical decade” gives the impression we have a decade in which to start passing policies (with actions to follow even later). Second, it sets a deadline almost 40 years in the future to transition to clean energy.

    To policymakers, that effectively extends the deadline for political action. The reality is we have to make massive cuts in CO2 emissions by every means available right now, then cut back even more tomorrow and more the day after that.

  9. Barry says:

    Thanks Joe. Another great post that highlights the key points on yet another stark climate warning from a top science group.

    One of the best things about Climate Progress is Joe’s understanding of how important it is to keep repeating a set of facts with clear and accurate messaging.

    Much of the public needs repetition to make something feel familiar and real. The GOP have used this for decades to sell their memes. And they are doing the same thing to try to stop Americans from acting on climate change.

    Joe is one of the few that is countering this with the same persistence on the facts.

    [JR: I’m just glad I found a core audience who are OK with the repetition, even as I continue to expand the overall audience. I am trying to also have more variety in the subject matter covered.]

  10. Tom Bennion says:

    This incredible story has not made any front pages in NZ that I am aware of, and doesnt even seem to have made the national daily paper based in our capital city, Wellington.

    Dwynne Dyer’s “Climate Wars” is becoming more and more prescient. I see that he includes a scenario in 2056 where Indonesian immigrants overwhelm northern Australia, and New Zealand stops free immigration by Australians – after about 1.5 million turn up. Maybe. In any event, I think it is hard to disagree with his prediction that we will need geo-engineering.

  11. Rob Jones says:

    Merrelyn Emery is an Australian.

    And this post by Joe is far more detailed than the pathetic attempt dished up to Australia by their own media. We pay a massive price for allowing Rupert Murdoch to own over 90% of all Australia’s media. You need look no further than this man to attribute the blame for the public missinformation campaign that repeadly spouts such nonsense as “the science is not settled” and “Australia going it alone”. I am entirely confident that it is the same evil mans media empire in the US that is muddying the waters over there and stalling the public from demanding better of your leaders.

  12. Ethan Von Braun says:

    The pacific ocean has risen so much in the last 30 years the water is getting close to the see wall and hot tub of my Malibu beach house.

    Only at low tide am I able to walk on the beach. It’s so sad. My garden is so beautiful and I will miss it when the water finally comes over.

    When will people finally understand that fossil fossil fuels are going to destroy lifestyles such as mine?

  13. dbmetzger says:

    and tornado’s…
    US Tornado Season May be Costliest Ever
    Tornadoes have been tearing up American lives and pocketbooks in 2011. The season is on track to be the second deadliest in US history, and the most expensive on record.

  14. Laphroaig says:

    Is that graph at the top of the post from the report? If so, the report does a disservice to its readers by truncating the ordinate at six degrees. People need to understand that there IS a chance of 9-10 degrees (i.e. utter catastrophe) by 2100… and more beyond. I’m constantly amazed by “climate skeptics” who refuse to countenance any of the measures necessary to mitigate the risks of climate change without 100% certain proof that catastrophe is right around the corner, and yet are perfectly willing to shell out hard-earned money every year for insurance without demanding that their agents PROVE to them that their houses are going to burn down and kill them. There are such people out there. I find them far more baffling than the hardcore denialist-conspiracy-theorists, whose behavior would make sense if their ridiculous beliefs were actually true.

    [JR: Go to the report. I gave the link.]

  15. Jeff Huggins says:

    To Support Unconditionally, OR To Set High Conditions For Support? — THAT Is The Question!

    Of all the influences and factors in the world today that could shift the U.S. public’s understanding of climate change, and what we can do about it, the President himself has the office, opportunity, and potential to be by far the largest single influence, short of some huge climate-related calamity that leaves no question about the matter.

    Again, the President has the office, the opportunity, and the potential.

    BUT — clearly! — he’s not using them.

    So we all face a question, and THIS is the time to raise it and face it:


    A) A stance on the part of citizens concerned about climate change that amounts, in essence, to “We’re with you no matter what, Sir”. Such a stance conveys to the President (and worse yet, to his political advisers) the notion that he’ll get our votes, no matter what, because we’re all afraid of “the alternative” and/or we’re all suckers and softies for big promises, nice smiles, and the word ‘hope’.

    OR …

    B) A stance that involves CONDITIONAL SUPPORT — that is, support closely tied to CONDITIONS. “Dear President Obama (and advisers), IF (and only IF) you do X, we’ll vote for you next time around. If you don’t, we won’t. Period. Simple as that. And X needs to start NOW and continue from now through the upcoming election. Got it? Any questions?” This is called conditional support, offered with (if you like) “tough love”.

    What then is X? Well, X would be a dramatic “up” and shift in his focus, commitment, approach, strategy, and tactics related to climate change. X would be an attitude and approach that treat climate change with the verve, courage, passion, persistence, and creativity that the problem demands, dammit! (Please excuse the language.)

    You get the point.

    Now, the question WE have to answer is, Is the best stance “A” or “B”?

    As far as I can tell, at this particular juncture, this is the single most important question we face. Don’t get me wrong, please: I didn’t say that it’s the only question we face, or the only important question. There are many other things we should be doing, of course. But this question is probably the single most important question, at least as it relates to the “politics” of climate change and the next twelve months.

    And as a question, I like it — because it can’t be avoided. In other words, let’s take as an example. There is no way for to avoid this question. They ( will either need to take an EXPLICIT stance on the matter, or else they will (in effect) take a vague version of option “A” as a default. Their actions, activism activities, messages, speeches, appeals, and so forth will either reflect Approach “B” or Approach “A”.

    And the same goes for CAP, CP, other climate change groups, other blogs, and the environmental groups.

    I also like this question because it is a timely — indeed, urgent — one. By four months from now it will be clear, and we will all know, the approaches adopted by the various organizations and spokespersons — either explicitly or by vague default. Indeed, by two months from now we’ll all know which organizations are even willing to acknowledge and face the question, and answer it. Don’t you just love a question that will be answered one way or the other, and reasonably soon? After all, if nothing else, at least curiosity will be satisfied.

    I for one am beginning to tire with the same-old same-old. (To be clear, this isn’t a reference to the present post or to CP or Joe, of course. Instead, it’s a reference to the broad situation and to our own tactics related to the broad situation.) So, this is THE question I’m posing, and it implies THE approach that I think would be most productive — and indeed necessary.

    I think people — the climate organizations, the climate blogs, and all concerned citizens — should (and that’s a strong ‘should’) adopt Approach “B” and convey that stance clearly to President Obama, his Administration, and his political advisers ASAP. We need a change in approach NOW. I for one am not going to vote for President Obama again — I enthusiastically voted for him the first time — UNLESS I see a huge change in his approach (with respect to climate change) DEMONSTRATED SOON AND CONTINUOUSLY BETWEEN NOW AND ELECTION-TIME.

    This is a “live” question, of course, and it’s unavoidable. I’ll be interested to see where the blogs, the climate organizations, and the environmental organizations “come out” regarding it. I hope that their approaches will be the most productive possible.


    Be Well,


  16. Alex 77 says:

    Indeed, the word “may” in the title is worth tens of millions to fossil energy companies the world over. It is a qualifier that diminishes and neuters the impact of all that follows in the report to the general public. I hope the ACC had the wisdom to collect for this well rendered service.

    [JR: Nah. They were talking about IF we don’t act this decade. It is a very strong statement.]

  17. malcreado says:

    >People need to understand that there IS a chance of 9-10 degrees (i.e. utter catastrophe) by 2100…

    The year 2100 is a nice round number and easy to work with but it is probably starting to do us a disservice. On the one hand, we will most likely all be be dead by then so who cares. On the other hand, to say 1 meter of sea rise (or what ever the level du jour) doesnt seem like that much to the average joe. On the third hand; it is used so much that it sounds like it is the terminal point (ok thats it, Global Warming all over now) when in reality it is an arbitrary date near the beginning of the long road to hell of which at some indeterminate point the Human race will become extinct should we not act soon.

  18. Bernard J. says:

    Laphroaig at #14.

    Don’t worry about the truncation. The full report, found here:

    shows in figure 36 the probability distribution of temperature increase up to 8 degrees C by 2100. For anyone half competent in graph interpretation it would be clear that there is a low probability of temperature increase reaching 9 C or more, but to be honest I doubt that most of the lay public or the mainstream media are sufficiently scientifically literate to be able to understand what this means.

    I thoroughly recommend that people spend the 30 minutes or so that it takes to read this report. It is a very succinct and targetted summary of the state of the science, and it sets a very high bar for the IPCC’s next assessment report.

    It is important to remember that it is Australian in context, but even so the implications are profound. Consider for example figure 17 which shows the impact that a (very conservative) 0.5 metre rise in sea level will have – given the high proportion of the country’s population that lives on the coast, and the cost of coastal flooding events, insurance companies and governments of all levels will be sweating profusely, and the general populace should be very concerned.

    Or consider figure 21, which shows how rapidly rainfall trends are decreasing in the areas where the vast majority of Australia’s drinking water catchments are. The last year’s La Niña and its attendant heavy precipitation have masked this trend in the goldfish minds of many Australians, but the long-term consequences of this trend are very serious indeed.

    Then there are figures 18 through to 20, which clearly show the effect that CO2 has on ocean acidifcation and on calciferous marine life. Again, the implications are staggering, and relevant to the whole world.

    And yet in Australia we still have politicians who are so ideologically blinkered that they cannot accept that humans are the cause of this. Today on one of the local radio stations the notoriously conservative senator Eric Abetz spoke immediately after Will Steffen was interviewed, and loudly and proudly proclaimed his ‘agnosticism’ about the human cause for warming. He cited “good men and women of science” who disputed the mainstream (after Steffen repeatedly and insistently explained that the truth was “unambiguous”), and Abetz’s first two examples of “good men of science” were Ian Plimer and Bob Carter, who need no introduction to the readers here for their misrepresentation and lying about the actual science.

    The interview can be found here:

    and it’s worth listening to for Steffen’s concise summary of the science. I only wish that he’d been given a right of reply to Abetz, but I suspect that he was booked to do interviews all morning across the country, so I doubt that he even heard Abetz’s mealy-mouthed commentary. I hope that Will’s attention is drawn to them though, because it would be interesting to have him explicitly address them in public and show Abetz to be the ill-informed and ideological non-scientific partisan that he is.

  19. VL says:

    While JR’s points 1-3 above do the job nicely, I do think that even the language of this report leaves something to be desired in conveying the urgency that will get through to the lay reader.

    I agree with Wonhyo, Laphroaig, Jeff Huggins and Alex 77, with the following additions:

    1) Any statement with “may” in it is NOT a strong statement to the lay public.

    2) I suggest the phrase “beyond all reasonable doubt” be removed from JR’s “recommended wording.” It sounds like a defense attorney in a courtroom drama defending a shady-looking character: “Ladies and gentlemen, can you conclude, beyond all reasonable doubt, that this fellow was at the scene of the crime on the night of February 11 2007?” Not only does the reminder of the legal setting undermine the case you’re making (no pun intended), but, from a rhetorical standpoint, using the word “doubt” in a sentence that also contains the words “climate change” links the two concepts in people’s minds. (Look at how much trouble Obama has had merely because of the sound of his name.)

    3) It’s not that the “weather in Australia is already becoming more extreme.” It _has become_ more extreme. And it is going to become even more extreme thanks to feedback loops, even if we start making progress toward the Copenhagan accord targets (which I don’t think were strong enough — they were 450 ppm, right?).’

    4) The graph not only should show more of the ordinate, it could be made more compelling by showing the effects of going for 350ppm sooner rather than later, and by inserting at various points along the curve the consequences — like, no polar ice; no lower Manhattan, whatnot– and by focusing on the first half of this century. I think 2100 is too far away for people to “get it.” “This century” just doesn’t register with most people. (The mortgage crisis proved that the majority of Americans can’t even be realistic about money that they actually pay out on a monthly basis.)

    We as a people clearly have difficulty facing reality. We need all the help we can get.

  20. VL says:

    Oops, one more:

    “the global climate may be so irreversibly altered we will struggle to maintain our present way of life.”

    NO – if we don’t take effective action, the climate WILL BE irreversibly altered.

    And “we will struggle to maintain our present way of life”?? We can’t maintain our present way of life even now, because we’re running out of resources, including water to drink and species to eat — and our population is only growing. Are the Australians “maintaining” their way of life? According to reports, farmers are regularly committing suicide because they’re so desperate. And let’s look beyond humans: What about the thousands of birds, fish, etc. dropping dead because of sizzling temperatures and god-knows-what pollution? What about the trees sickening and shriveling because pollution/ozone has so weakened them they are succumbing to insects and parasites?

    Maybe we’re so used to being treated like Cassandras we don’t see how we contribute to our message falling flat. But if Cassandras we must be, at least let us present a clarion call, not a muffled moan.

  21. Jeff Huggins says:

    Feeling Neglected

    Sigh, sniffle, honk, hhmmmm. I’ve just returned from a nice walk to find that you, Joe, have responded to the comment just before mine (Laphroaig’s Comment 14) and the comment just after mine (Alex77’s Comment 16) but not to my question at the end of my Comment 15.

    If I’m not careful, I’m going to develop some sort of identity crisis.

    In all seriousness, the point I’ve made and question I’ve posed in Comment 15 are key, and we all face that question. Howsoever people, and organizations, choose to answer it, it would be most helpful for all of us to acknowledge and consider it so we at least know where the organizations do stand or will stand.

    It’s really a question that should be posed for discussion, and certainly to all the organizations that are climate, energy, and environmental organizations. To ignore that question, or to “punt” on it, is in effect to answer it — but to answer it in a way that’s less productive (than the more proactive approach) and will result in much less than the movement actually needs. Indeed, if an organization adopts Approach “A” (see my earlier comment) rather than Approach “B”, or if an organization avoids the question entirely, it’s not clear to me how/why that organization could ask people to make contributions to it or join in its other activism events. After all, if an organization isn’t willing to expect and demand a lot from President Obama — who we elected, who made promises to us, and who gets paid reasonably well to do what he does — how can it ask and expect much from the general public? It’s a good question that the organizers should ask.

    To be clear, I’m not (at all) suggesting that the public shouldn’t do anything and that the President should do all the heavy lifting. Not at all. We (the public) should be doing lots of things! But ONE of those things — and an essential one — should be to flat-out insist that the President DO heavy lifting to the utmost of his ability and to the full degree that his Office makes possible. And we should make our votes in the next election conditional upon him beginning that new strategy now, pronto, and demonstrating it so we can judge by actions and not have to place our trust in “hope”.

    Joe? (Sorry to be a pest.)

    Thanks, and Cheers,


  22. Tom Bennion says:

    Surely Obama has a low risk political strategy now. He could:

    Deliver a speech which says he has been handed reports by Defence Department and Homeland Security which say there is a reasonable risk that recent floods, tornadoes etc are a result of climate change. Say, “this cannot happen on our watch. We cant take these risks with people’s lives. Just as, when we hear Al-Qaeda chatter of an attack, we dont know when and where the attack will come, but we act to prevent it, so with this matter – etc”.

    Call for ideas from both sides of the aisle to urgently combat this threat.

    Do the kind of thing Chicago has done – immediately implement small scale but wide ranging changes – solar on all govt buildings, bigger push on insulation, big push on teleconferencing, govt buildings growing food etc.

    Then put a carbon tax or cap and trade forward, see GOP reject that. Respond with, what a shame, take that to the election.

    Everyone can now see that weather is getting strange. To have one party denying that it has anything to do with climate change is a heaven sent opportunity for political advantage. Every day, and every new report of weird weather, reinforces your message – like water on a stone.

    A sign up site with “Please President Obama and Michelle. You have kids. Act now for the sake of our children” with 10 million adherents would also help.

    If he isnt moving now to take political advantage of this moment, let alone save the planet, you gotta conclude that he is beholden to some very unhealthy interests.

  23. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Good caution by Australian Climate Commission on Global Warmingg and Climate Change.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  24. Keenneth Larsen says:

    Rereading copies of the “New Yorker” from nine and ten years ago, it is sobering to realize that full knowledge of of the extent of the effects of climate change existed then, yet very little has since been done by the PTB. WE each of us must be the change we wish to see in our world NOW.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Australian report was immediately attacked by the Federal Opposition. The more deranged and disinhibited denialists started screeching that the Commission was stacked with ‘alarmists’ (all reputable scientists in the field are certainly alarmed)and Tony (‘Climate Change’ is crap)Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, continued his expert dissembling. Abbott, who I would bet my life is still a hardcore denialist, but pretends otherwise for political advantage, pushes a hare-brained scheme to reduce emissions by carbon sequestration in agriculture and through tree planting. Good, as far as it goes, which is plainly not even as far as the risible and demented bi-partisan target of a massive 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. Yes, folk, the Magnificent Five, ‘The Mighty Handful’ and it was plain what Kevin Rudd was holding when he made this ‘pledge’. The gasps of derision and outrage that met this announcement were truly memorable. No matter how dire become the scientists predictions, the politicians hereabouts are not interested in truth, reason or human posterity. Power, its attainment and continued possession, social eminence and, in due season, a little pecuniary rememberance from grateful business leaders, for loyalty and ‘services rendered’,- these are what drive our politicians. The world of 2030, when half of them, felicitously, will be dead, and the rest Alzheimic, is of as much interest to them as 4000 AD.

  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Further to the release of the report yesterday, today the Commission held a huge public forum at Parliament House. Both the oppositions’s shadow Minister for climate change and energy and the last ex leader attended and swore their undying support for the climate science. The current leader, locally known as the Mad Monk, Mr Rabbott or the budgie smuggler, is famous (?) for saying “Climate change is crap”.

    I think our politics are about to get even more ‘interesting’ but the big question is still the Aussie public, ME

  27. Richard Brenne says:

    Yesterday at a memorial service I chatted with a professor of chemistry at a large university with his PhD from Oxford.

    He was a climate change denier and I planted all the seeds I could without antagonizing him or ruining the relationship between our two families. I’ve practiced this to something of an art form, standing strong in my convictions (and those of 97% of all climate scientists) without being disrespectful, and have so far always managed to part as friends.

    When he said we need more proof to determine if humans are causing climate change I asked “What proof would convince you?”

    There were many such moments, but this excellent paper reminds me that I might have asked him, “Are there other positions of the National Academy of Sciences (and the equivalents in the other 17 nations that have them) that you disagree with?”

  28. Mulga (25) is correct, the denialist loonies came out today. Nick Minchin for example–
    “The so-called Climate Commission is a Labor government-appointed committee of known climate alarmists, selectively appointed … to further the cause of global warming alarmism,”. (Senate leader of the right wing oposition party) He also called the report offensive nonsence.

  29. Joan Savage says:

    Richard Brenne (#27)

    I enjoy and appreciate the way you keep bringing in the human interaction stories. What if any was the chemist’s response to your question about proof?

    The ‘fingerprinting’ of the carbon isotopes in the atmosphere came to mind as something that I’d want him to address. If he wants to ignore the NAS, there is still room for finding out how well he understands the science itself.

    (A Ph.D. confers neither additional critical thinking skills nor eternal and everlasting brain function. I say that with compassion, having been born into a family abundant with advanced degrees.)

  30. Mark says:

    That’s a good riposte, Richard (@27). On the other hand, the scientists I know all fantasize about making the paradigm shifting break through that proves the major institutions wrong!

    Jeff (@15) you only gave two possibilities, both focused on support for Obama. Option C is to get serious about third party organizing.

  31. prokaryotes says:

    “the global climate may be so irreversibly altered we will struggle to maintain our present way of life.”

    “the global climate is so irreversibly altered we will struggle to find a new planet for life.”

    The question is how long we have left till the planet becomes uninhabitable, or lets say uninhabitable without serious lifeboading measurement. I can here the echos of Asimov’s foundation trilogy and related themes.

    [JR: People. Read the original. It’s about what happens if we don’t act this decade. “May” is perfectly fine and the whole darn thing is considerably stronger than anything the NAS has done.]

  32. Joan Savage says:

    The Australian report does a better job of communicating ‘clear and present danger’ than the NAS report’s tendency to put all the serious consequences out in the future.

    I had a chat with someone who vigorously acknowledged that human influence is changing the climate, but like many, yet he still thought of the serious (“dire”) consequences as being in the future.

    Perhaps someone has already done a list of “What has already happened” or “The Losses” that would include loss of water from snow and glaciers in Bolivia, loss of health security where malaria has spread, decline in phytoplankton, stuff that is clearly already occurring in A CLIMATE CHANGED. If not, I’d like to work on such a list.

  33. adelady says:

    Time marches on. It is now May, next month is June. And goody, goody gum-drops, my South Australian head may lift a bit when we say goodbye forever to the execrable Nick Minchin on June 30.

    Only a bit. We still have the stunningly awful Cory Bernardi to ‘represent’ us.

  34. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Mark (Comment 30),

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I realize that in offering Approach “A” or Approach “B”, it might seem that I’ve overlooked or ruled out the third-party approach. That wasn’t my intent. Approach “B” is a deeply conditional approach, genuinely. That is, if President Obama doesn’t “step up” his commitment, approach, strategy, tactics, and etc. regarding climate change, votes should go elsewhere — e.g., to a third party candidate. Unless President Obama changes his approach very soon, I think that more and more people should consider voting for a third party candidate, IF one of them is deeply serious (and smart) in her/his approach to climate change and has other excellent qualities to be President. That said, my own view is that I’d like to give President Obama “one more chance” to change his approach — although he’ll need to demonstrate that change ASAP — before committing my vote elsewhere.

    (It will be interesting to see if the climate change organizations, environmental organizations, blogs, and etc. will even acknowledge and raise the question — i.e., this choice that faces us — explicitly and seriously. They may not?! It is a very, very real question but an “inconvenient” question, politically speaking. That said, ignoring it or avoiding it will ultimately do more harm — ultimately to credibility and to the movement — than good. The question poses a real choice, and a pivotal one, to anyone who thinks that climate change is a real problem and that the Presidency is an important office that is presently being underutilized in terms of its potential to help the country face and address the problem. We’ll see.)

    Cheers for now,


  35. prokaryotes says:

    [JR: People. Read the original. It’s about what happens if we don’t act this decade. “May” is perfectly fine and the whole darn thing is considerably stronger than anything the NAS has done.]

    Yes, sorry i picked this one comment without reading your post, apologizing. However my point is that we have already altered the climate, considered the biggest experiment in human evolution, exceeding the planetary boundaries in many life supporting systems. For example what we have done to the ozone layer or with introducing aerosols to the climate, something totally artificial, with hard to predict consequences. Further the wiki is not very well written …

    Further considering the polar melts, these changes are irreversible in terms of several human generation lifetime.

  36. Bill W says:

    Jeff, I think, realistically, your “conditional support” pledge belongs in a primary election, not the general election. No third party candidate will be electable in 2012, and having a Republican in office will be far worse than having Obama. Sadly, Obama knows this, so we have no leverage.

  37. Mark says:

    speaking of glacial melt, I just saw this new post

  38. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bill W (Comment 36),

    Bill, thanks for your comment. A few thoughts …

    First, I agree with you that what I call Approach “B” — the conditional support approach — should apply in and to the primary election cycle. Indeed, I think the approach should begin now and apply to everything that follows, beginning with the pre-primary period, going into the primaries, and into (and in) the general election. I think that we should put the choice to President Obama and that he, not we, should make the choice (to change his approach) that will ultimately allow us to vote for him and for him to actually DESERVE that vote. In other words, I think you have the thinking backwards by assuming that he won’t change even if we demand that he does and make our votes conditional on him doing so. You seem to be somehow jumping to the conclusion (which misses the whole point of the approach) that a conditional approach on our part would result in us having to not vote for President Obama — because he won’t meet the conditions. That’s a mere assumption and not really a warranted or productive one. Indeed, it’s a self-defeating one.

    Second, along the same lines, you say that “Obama knows this”, so “we have no leverage”. Surely you can see that we WILL have leverage if we genuinely adopt Approach “B”, if enough of us do so, and if we tell President Obama so, and if we genuinely commit to that approach. President Obama only “knows” what he either assumes and/or what we tell him, if we tell him clearly enough. The proof of the matter is this: President Obama does NOT “know” that I’ll have to vote for him and that he’ll get my vote, no matter what he does, because it’s a fact that I don’t have to vote for him and that he won’t get my vote unless he changes his approach on climate change, ASAP. Ultimately we DO have the leverage, we just have to see it, state it, and use it. It is your assumption and choice (that you are communicating in your comment) that gives away the leverage that you do and would actually otherwise have.

    The sooner that we realize this, the better, because otherwise we will fragment ourselves and “give away” a very productive opportunity that we actually have to DEMAND BETTER. Putting it another way — and putting a stake in the ground — I’m exercising my leverage by choosing Approach “B”. Thus, people who want to get President Obama reelected face a choice: either to ALSO follow the conditional approach, conveying it solidly to President Obama and hoping that he’ll “get it” and change his strategy (so we can all vote for him together); or to simply do without my vote and without the votes of many others who will also opt out if the President’s performance is not up to par with what it needs to be. In this way I actually DO have leverage. If President Obama wants my vote, or if you (and others) want my vote FOR President Obama, he will have to change his approach, and the sooner we all tell him that, the better for everyone. (This is the ultimate leverage, of course, unless someone can find a way to force me to vote for him even in light of his current performance on climate change.)

    To be clear — and as I’ve said before — I hope that he DOES change his approach so that I CAN vote for him. That would be a win-win-win. We’d have a candidate and eventually second-term President who (finally) gets it, he’d have my vote, he’d have adopted a more committed and vibrant and effective strategy, and thus we’d all make much better progress with respect to climate change. Win-win-win-win. But we can’t get there if we don’t try our very, very best, using all the leverage in our fingertips and votes. And the best way to do that is to make our votes conditional. The more of us who do it, the better, and the greater the chances will be for success.

    Again, the only option available for those people who DO want to get President Obama reelected and who DO want my vote to that end, is to get President Obama to change his approach to climate change, ASAP. My vote is conditional on him making that change. That’s what I call leverage.

    This said, I appreciate your comment, and I do agree that the conditional support approach should apply in the primaries (and starting now), but I also believe (for the reasons just mentioned) that it should apply throughout the whole process, as it will in my case.

    President Obama can get reelected, including with the help of my vote, IF he adopts an effective approach to climate change. He’s a smart guy, wants to be reelected, and gets the big bucks, so I hope he’ll make the right choice and do the right thing. Our task should be to communicate our requirements, expectations, and demands clearly to him. He has said, “make me do it”. I can only hope and assume that he’ll read this or his advisers will read this; or that someone will give him the message; and hopefully that serious climate-change activists and organizations will also send the same message.

    Thanks and Be Well,


  39. malcreado says:

    >No third party candidate will be electable in 2012. . .

    “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Einstein

  40. prokaryotes says:

    On Wednesday, 17 Nobel laureates who gathered in Stockholm have published a remarkable memorandum, asking for “fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change”. The Stockholm Memorandum concludes that we have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene, where humanity has become the main driver of global change. The document states:

    Science makes clear that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. […]
    We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.
    We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial.

  41. Ian says:


    I think most of what you are saying makes sense. Yes, pressure should be put on President Obama and it should come from us and activist organizations and I think you’ve accurately outlined the problem.

    However, you said you will vote for him “if he adopts an effective approach to climate change.” What are your qualifications for an effective approach?

    Obviously there are many, many, many effective approaches to climate change but we should be asking how many of those approaches are possible in our current political situation. Example: a carbon tax is an effective approach, supposedly. This is absolutely in no way politically possible even with the maximum amount of pressure coming from individual activists and organizations.

    If he somehow felt actual pressure from us, the best he could do is give us soundbites about clean energy.

    You answered your own question when you said, “he wants to be reelected…so I hope he’ll do the right thing.” These two things are not necessarily exclusive but in reality they often are. This is not Obama’s fault but an effect of candidates trying to be all things to all people.

    So it is confusing to me that you are asking he change his approach. Yes, obviously there are a lot of smaller battles to be won that he could greatly help with. Yes, we can support a Green party candidate if it makes us feel better. But I don’t see how an “effective approach” can be adopted by Obama or any other candidate. Again, this has nothing to do with Obama but is endemic to our system of government and electoral process.

  42. madcity smitty says:

    Koomey at #4. thanks very much for the link to your 2009 article “why 2C really matters.” I had never quite thought of it the way you put it, but I will from now on.

    Politically, any warming LIMIT (say, 2C or 3C) inherently implies a total GHG BUDGET(GtC, or GtCO2, or CtCO2 equiv.) over 50 to 100 years (typically, the end of the century) which can be allocated AMONG countries (by addressing “fairness” questions) and WITHIN countries (by addressing nation-by-nation “feasibility”).

    I also agreed with some of the comments to your article that it would be helpful to clarify that the 2C “limit” is also the likely “threshold” for irreversible positive feedbacks–when we out of the driver’s seat and stuck on cruise control.

  43. Jeff Huggins says:

    Ian (Comment 40),

    Thanks for your comment and thoughts.

    Of course we can’t demand and expect that President Obama accomplish the impossible in this term or at any time. If we take the term ‘impossible’ to mean what it means, nobody can accomplish the impossible. None of what I’m saying is meant to require or demand that President Obama somehow get a Cap-and-Trade or Carbon Tax passed in this term. Of course not.

    But there are many, many, many things that he could and should be doing. Many of them. Indeed, he is barely doing much of anything relative to what the Office of President allows him to do in the way of leading the dialogue, educating and preparing the public, challenging false messages and confusions, effectively utilizing and encouraging the scientific community, and all sorts of others things. I hope you can see the many, many, many things — in terms of focus, attitude, seriousness, communications, and etc. — that President Obama could be doing, quite easily, but isn’t.

    And that’s part of the point. It’s not for me to say that any precise and particular “solution” is required — i.e., not for me to set a “condition” (on which my vote will depend) having to do with a particular type of means of putting a price on carbon, for example. My point is not to pretend to require that President Obama get something passed, in this term, that would be impossible to get passed in this term. Nor is it to be narrowly particular in terms of actual policy. Instead, my point has to do with his level of effort, focus, verve, commitment, courage, and so forth — including (and importantly) his willingness to use the bully pulpit to educate the public on all fronts, i.e., the problem of climate change, the implications and risks, the responsibility and need to address it, the wisdom of addressing it, the various solutions available, and so forth. He’s not even scratching the surface relative to what he could and should be doing.

    But I have a question for you: If this (what I’ve said above) isn’t clear to readers here, then why not? If it isn’t clear, then I think we have an even bigger problem than we think we have. Here’s what I mean: Is it not clear, to you, that President Obama could and should be doing much, much, much more regarding climate change? Is it not clear, to you, that if he doesn’t (and/or other future Presidents don’t) do much more than he’s been doing, we’ll never adequately face and address the climate change problem? Here again, I’m not talking about accomplishing the impossible. Instead, I’m talking about treating the topic, and the challenge, with the focus, verve, energy, straightforwardness, priority, courage, commitment, verve, communications skills, clarity, persistence, and creativity that it calls for — and indeed that real progress will require. Let’s face it. We aren’t getting anywhere, really, relative to what the challenge requires. And President Obama’s less-than-lackluster efforts and effectiveness are a huge part of the reason why. So we ought to demand that he (genuinely) lead, and lead with verve, or get out of the way.

    But is this not clear? Do YOU think that he’s doing as much and as well as his Office and the present situation allow?

    Thanks again for your comment, Ian.

    Cheers and Be Well,


  44. Ian says:


    Thanks for the response.

    To answer your questions: Yes, it is clear he could be doing more. No, I don’t think he’s doing as much as his situation allows.

    Again, I agree with you that he could be doing more. I also agree that we could be putting much more pressure on him to do those things. I don’t think anyone would really disagree with you there.

    Correct me if I’m incorrectly summarizing your thoughts: you recognize that Obama can’t make an effective legislative contribution to the climate change fight but you want him to completely change his messaging to be much more aggressive.

    I agree that if Obama were to aggressively tackle climate change, it would be extremely helpful to our cause. So why isn’t he? Is it because we aren’t putting enough pressure on him? Sure. Is that the only factor in his decision making? I would argue, no.

    Just as you and I understand he can’t pass legislation to effectively address climate change, so does he. Therefore, what incentive does he have to pursue climate change as a main goal? He would be expending a great deal of political capital to accomplish nothing from a political perspective.

    So, you could argue that he has a moral responsibility to address climate change regardless of the political consequences. But from Obama’s perspective, he could very well be taking the most moral route right now. How does he know what will happen in the 2012 elections?

    From his perspective, the most moral thing he can do is ensure his reelection in 2012 and help Democrats retake the House and maintain the Senate. Do do this, he should be going for easy political wins and maintaining the perception of strong leadership. Going off on the bully pulpit about climate change does not create the perception of strong leadership. Right now, addressing economic issues and jobs does that.

    Now, suppose that the Democrats retake the House and maintain the Senate. Then it will be possible for him to address climate change and he will not have wasted his political capital right now and can go after climate change as much as he wants through 2014/16. If the House stays red or the Senate flips, then he will again have no moral incentive to address climate change because he could be muddying the waters for the Democratic candidate in 2016. If he is stuck with an unresponsive Congress through his next term, he will be faced with political and moral incentives to go (again) after easy wins to create the perception of Democrats being strong leaders. Again, climate change is not an easy win.

    I am not saying this cynically at all. Acting in a true moral fashion does not always mean one should go in with guns blazing. Morality can be highly political when you are The President.

    Again, you’re right. He COULD be doing more. But, from Obama’s perspective it is much more complicated than merely saying, “I SHOULD be doing more.” Yeah, he has a lot of power but honestly he can only do so much and only has so many cards he can play.

    I am not arguing with you about your main points. I think you are right that we could be doing more to put pressure on him and if that means we shouldn’t vote for him then so be it. But maybe we should think about the possibility that The President (no matter who serves) isn’t capable of, or responsible for all the things we wish.

    Thanks again for the great discussion,


  45. Jeff Huggins says:


    thanks for your comment (Comment 43).

    Without going into all sorts of detail, I’ll try to reply in a nutshell.

    First, the President should be doing everything possible with respect to climate change. That point does not mean, at all, that he shouldn’t be doing a very, very great deal with respect to the economy and jobs and a couple other top-top issues too. Indeed, we need to address those issues together, and (if we believe our own stuff, and if we are thinking correctly) they CAN be addressed together, and should be. It’s not an EITHER/OR thing.

    Second, you assume that the President would be spending — and reducing — his “political capital” by taking climate change much more seriously and by treating it (in the senses I’ve mentioned) much more effectively. I disagree. I think he would be increasing his so-called “political capital”, whatever that might be. Indeed, he would be increasing his “political capital” (although let’s call it credibility, respect, enthusiastic support, and etc.) with ME if he treated climate change much more seriously. And you have so much as said, or at least implied, that he’d be increasing his political capital with you if he did so. (After all, you’re saying that he could do so, and you’re simply deferring to his judgment when it comes to the fact that he’s not doing so, right? So if he chose to do so, you’d be extra happy with that, I assume?)

    In any case, I think his “political capital” would improve — among many constituencies, including many readers here — if he treated climate change much more vigorously and seriously.

    So in short, I think there are at least a couple, and perhaps a few, big assumptions embedded in what you’re saying with which I disagree. (I say this in a positive sense, and we of course have the same aims and good intentions in mind.)

    What’s not clear to me is why this whole argument is not obvious or at least easy for people to see. People are somehow hung up on one or two, or perhaps many, of the following sorts of assumptions: that President Obama would not change his approach even if lots of potential voters made clear that he’d better, as a condition for their voting for him; that President Obama has such good judgment that we should not question it or demand better; that President Obama is doing everything possible (which is not an assumption you’re making, as you’ve said); that we’ll simply have to passively live with President Obama, no matter what his performance is like; that there is no active strategy for us (with respect to the election) other than to “hope” that President Obama will do better in the next term; and so forth. As far as I can tell, all the arguments in favor of “voting for President Obama no matter what, and not demanding anything from him as a condition for our votes” have major flaws. I don’t get it.

    I agree that the President isn’t responsible for every wish we might have or for the entire condition of the universe. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make our votes deeply conditional on his actual performance. It doesn’t mean that he should have — or that he should think he has — a free ticket to do (or not do) whatever he feels like doing or not doing, in relation to climate change, and still deserve our votes.

    In any case, thanks to you, also, for the great discussion. Be Well,


  46. Mimi K says:

    Joe, Jeff, VL, et al: re the politics.

    Check out out of the UK as a totally innovative approach to climate change. “Simpol” stands for “Simultaneous Policy.” The idea is to offer support, i.e., vote, for leaders who agree to act simultaneously, all at the same date — i.e., before 2015 — on climate change.

    The rationale behind Simpol is that individual nation states and individual leaders are caught in a double bind in which they lose too much economic competitiveness by acting solo, but will agree to act simultaneously. Whether or not that is the case (we’ll see how the UK’s Green Bank does), the idea of simultaneous action is an interesting shift out of politics as usual. It is, in essence, a strategy to get global leadership to act together.

    I think our political strategies need to be directed toward getting global leadership to act together somehow, and Simpol is one ‘how,’ and, at the same time, becoming more committed to and effective at getting global citizens to act together. We have the tool – the internet — what we need is more coordination and synchronization of the individual organizational actions going on.

    A group in Cambridge, the Tellus Institute, is working on how to do that, get more synchronization in the global sustainability and climate change movement. Check out The Great Transition Initiative.

    Also, consider that the problem is not ignorance about the facts, but the far more terrifying thing, that those in positions of power in the world, especially economic power, do not CARE. That underneath our environmental tragedy is the tragedy of sociopathic leadership. We do not develop or reward empathy. See Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization. At some point, scientists have to realize that not understanding the science is not the (only) problem; not caring about the human cost in the science is.

    SO I am very much with VL on the graph needs to show the individual human case behind the big numbers and arcs. Neuroscience tells us that we only respond in action if an issue is presented to us as the individual human case — but then, only if we are empathic.

  47. Ian says:


    Sounds like we’re wrapping up so I’ll make a few short points:

    – Like I said, from Obama’s perspective its very possible that he is “doing everything possible.” Which could include waiting for the proper moment to address these problems.

    – You’re right, talking about climate change could increase his political capital. To what end though? No matter how much he increases his political capital, he can’t pass any legislation until (hopefully) 2013. Talking about climate change also carries the very real risk of decreasing his political capital. Why should he risk this when his prospects for reelection look extremely good right now? All he has to do is play it safe until November 2012 and he guarantees himself election. Again, from his perspective, reelection is the best thing he can do to help everyone.

    – I think you are right about people mistakenly voting for Obama no matter what. If he doesn’t represent what we want, then we shouldn’t vote for him. I just think we have to be fair to Obama on this. No, he isn’t fulfilling his potential. But his potential is already severely limited by the context in which he’s working. So if one decides to not vote for Obama is it because we have a problem with him or the system in which he’s working? Both? We should just be clear on what we’re doing.

    I’m not sure if I’ll vote for Obama for all the good reasons you’ve stated. However, if I vote for him, I will understand that he can’t do much about climate change.

    A vote cast for any candidate entering our system of Government is a vote endorsing that system, more than it is a vote endorsing a particular human being. That system is the entity which is seemingly incapable of adequately addressing climate change.

    Thanks again. I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to get in the last word. I don’t think we are really disagreeing and our views stand equally. But I think we have illustrated that there really aren’t many effective paths forward, unfortunately.


  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mimi K (any connection with Kafka?) Simpol is so deliciously sinister, so redolent of an Orwellian dystopia of phonetically threatening abbreviations, that slide of the tongue with brutal finality. Why are you being dragged off for re-education? Because Simpol requires it. Why was that mad, bad, decision taken? Simpol said that it must be so. Perhaps in the distant future, as the tiny bands of our descendants roam the high north, or the craggy heights of an ice-less Antarctic, they will worship the great God ‘Simpol’. Please, just call it ‘Simultaneous Policy’ with which I could not agree more, nor wish the Tellurians of the ‘Tellus’ Institute more success.
    Inane blathering aside, I agree with your contention that human psychopathy lies beneath the utter refusal of the right to acknowledge, let alone address the greatest crisis in human history. But I have always believed that ‘Right’ in an ideological context does not refer to seating arrangements at long gone French Assemblies, but to a personality type and psychopathology, group and individual, that is more or less congruent with that of the psychopath. I’m afraid that the Right has always, with their egotism, greed, preference for violence, antipathy to others, and lust to dominate, impressed me as nothing grander or more complex than psychopathy in action. Capitalism does not reward or encourage empathy, it actively punishes and disencourages both. What it does encourage and reward beyond the dreams of avarice are greed and total indifference to the fate of others. It is antithetical to life and continued human existence, and must go. Destroying the planet’s life-supporting biospheres in pursuit of money and power may be the apotheosis of their ideology, but it is by no means whatsoever the first of their crimes.