Monday, April 11, 2016
The Most Important Thing We Don't Know About Climate Change
We keep thinking that, at last, we know and then something comes up to prove us wrong. The most important thing we don't know about climate change is how bad our predicament really is. The worst part of it is that we invariably find what we had believed was unduly optimistic.
It's not anyone's fault. We've never done this before. We, mankind, have never had to deal with a change in geological epoch, the current shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. We're still finding new aspects of the mechanics of climate change - new knowledge about the physics, geology, hydrology and so many other Earth sciences that weigh on the overall picture.
Over just the past two months research has come in indicating that the "carbon budget" - the amount of CO2 we can still emit to the atmosphere before going over the edge - was unduly optimistic, by a factor of two. Then there was the Hansen and company paper claiming that we missed the sea level rise prediction by several metres. Most recently a report on clouds found that we wrongly assumed they contained far more sunlight reflective ice crystals where in fact there's water instead. That translates into more heating than we had expected. These reports have been rolling in lately and yet our governments are sticking with the outdated data produced by the IPCC.
The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the advisory group most governments rely on in planning for climate change, setting emissions reductions targets, etc. Unfortunately, in the 20 years that the IPCC has been issuing reports and predictions it has consistently understated the rate and breadth of onset of climate change impacts.
Here's a blast from the past - 1995. Back then the IPCC predicted little change in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets "over the next 50 to 100 years." That hasn't turned out too well, has it? Then again they predicted the same time lines for Arctic sea ice. Oh dear. Sea level rise? They got that wrong. Ocean acidification? They're not even guessing on that one. The IPCC did figure out tundra melting and methane release in 2007 but they still won't touch the nasty business of the methane rich permafrost beneath. And the biggie - tipping points - natural feedback loops a.k.a. runaway global warming. On this one the IPCC bobs and weaves, admitting that this is a worrisome problem but adding that they don't know where the threshold lies.
So much for the IPCC. If your financial advisor gave you that quality of advice you would either be broke or that would be your ex-financial advisor. But that's your individual financial portfolio, a bit different from the future of our world and the survival of mankind.
Now, here's the thing. If there's any area, any issue where you don't want to find yourself a dollar short and a day late, it's climate change or anthropogenic global warming (AGW). That's because it's a win/lose proposition. There is no second prize. If you can't get and stay ahead of the threat, you lose. But do our governments approach it that way? Do we organize our societies, our lives that way? Oh, please, don't be silly - we have pipelines to build, bitumen to flog. Maybe later. Oh dear.