Climate Change, Boiling Frogs and Pearl Harbors

As we move further into 2012, media interest in climate change continues to decline. The chart below from  The Center for Science and Technology Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder shows a clear downward trend for world newspaper coverage. At the national level, a similar time series for US newspaper coverage can be found here and the UK here.

In my mind, media coverage of climate change is probably determined by four factors: 1) the setting of new temperature records, 2) visible iconic climate events, 3) media coverage of scientific studies that contain pessimistic forecasts of future climate and 4) extreme weather.

As regards the record setting, the fact that we have had a relatively moderate period of warming over the last decade has certainly helped to blunt the perceived threat posed by climate change in the public eye. The step nature of the trend in global mean temperature rise suggests we get bursts of record setting spaced out by extended periods when not much happens. Two charts taken from Skeptical Science’s excellent escalator graphic highlight this pattern:

Glenn Tamblyn at Skeptical Science recently had an interesting post explaining the mechanism that produces the periodic plateaus in warming. Basically, periods of accelerated heat transfer from the upper to lower ocean causes surface warming to slow from time to time. The post also makes the important point that the oceans are where the main action takes place in terms of earth’s heat balance, leaving surface temperature as almost a residual in the grand scheme of things (not that this should be any comfort to us).

Heating since 1961 Church et al Heating
Referring to a paper by Meehl et al (2011), Tamblyn explains that during these plateaus, which the paper calls hiatus periods, the bottom of the ocean (defined as greater than 750 metres deep) is absorbing an above average amount of radiation than the top (less than 300 metres). The heat transfer highways are the down-wellings and up-wellings that connect surface and bottom currents. However, the periodicity between relatively active and quiet heat transfer periods means that a plateau, or hiatus, will only be a temporary state of affairs. Before long, global mean surface temperature increases will accelerate again. Nonetheless, the staircase nature of the temperature rise will allow climate skeptics to regularly claim that warming has stopped and therefore climate change science is wrong—for example, as in this op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Where I differ from Tamblyn, however, is in how this periodic pattern of surface heating influences climate change awareness among the public (and politicians). In Tamblyn’s eyes, the escalator pattern of warming has provided concerned scientists with few favours in terms of securing public and political support:

Personally I hope that the model results reported by Meehl are right and that this Hiatus ends soon. Only when we see more serious warming will the dam of Denial break. Humanity can alter our energy systems rapidly if we are sufficiently motivated. But that motivation is esentially an emergency war-time like mobilisation. We won’t do that if most people can treat AGW as a problem to worry about later. Mother Nature really hasn’t done us any favours in the last decade.

In my opinion, a smoother pattern of warming, with records falling almost every year (rather than in concentrated bursts) is just as likely to bring about boiling frog syndrome. In other words, individuals will adapt their expectations accordingly, and the novelty of record-breaking will gradually disappear. Ultimately, the subtlety of such accumulated change would build unaware until manifesting itself as a full-blown climate disaster.

So what are the prospects for imminent record-breaking that will shock us out of our stupor? Global warming has three main components: a long-term rising trends of around o.2 degrees Celsius per decade (but growing), a cyclical component that fluctuates with the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and some weather noise on top. Simplistically, temperature records are generally smashed when we have a strong El Nino in operation but are pretty bullet proof when we have a La Nina in charge. Currently, we are in the process of exiting a La Nina phase (good coverage is available from NOAA here), but the residual effect of the departing La Nina on the first few months of the year will make it difficult for 2012 to rewrite the record books. A better bet is likely to be 2013.

A bit of a wild card here is the possibility of major recession in China—although again the timing appears more likely to be in 2013. The fact that China has been so dependent on fixed capital formation (roads, railways, airport, ports, power stations, factories, houses) to drive its near double-digit GDP growth rates for the last decade or so makes it uniquely vulnerable to a turndown of historic proportions. Now you would think that such a recession/deprecession would lead to a turn-down in CO2 emissions, which it true. However, it would also lead to a drastic reduction in sulphur aerosol emissions from the burning of coal. The average CO2 molecule will reside in the atmosphere for around 100 years, but an aerosol particle will stay up for, on average, a mere 10 days (a good introduction to aerosol science can be found at Real Climate here). This asymmetry means that should China’s economy screech to a holt we could get—counterintuitively—a noticeable jump in warming.

So if 2012 is unlikely to be the hottest year on record, how about some of those climate icons raising awareness instead? The climate icons generally relate to ice, either in the form of glaciers or the polar ice cap. For the United States, the disappearance of glaciers from Glacier National Park would certainly draw headlines, but we are probably at least a decade or so away from that depressing announcement (here). Likewise, Asian and European glaciers are in retreat almost everywhere, but total disappearance looks like an end of century phenomenon.

Arctic sea ice extent has become a very high profile icon, conjuring up images of the opening of the fabled northwest passage above Canada and the northern passage above Russia (and, for that matter, drowning polar bears). Indeed, we almost broke the 2007 record in 2011. For 2012, there is certainly a chance that the ice pack could shrink to its lowest extent ever in the modern era. The National
Snow and Ice Data Center
shows us currently extent neck and neck with 2007. This is despite the fact that 2011/2012 saw no repeat of the arctic oscillation inversion that gave rise to Snowmageddon and Snowpocalpse over the previous two winters in the US and freezing conditions in northern Europe. So this winter, the cold air has generally stayed up north, but sea ice has still not recovered to the expected extent.

Given that the crunch months for sea ice extent records are in summer, it is too early to tell whether 2012 will see more open Arctic ocean than ever before. (For a great site on all things arctic ice, I recommend Neven Acropolis’ Arctic Sea Ice blog here.) Nonetheless, even if the record is broken, I am not sure if the public will really care that much. Indeed, the financial press appears to have more articles on the business opportunities for transportation and oil drilling provided by shrinking arctic ice rather than treating the retreat as a symptom of a sick planet.

The third source of media coverage is the hash-up of the scientific press release. Frequently, this involves taking an article from Nature or Science and stripping out all the scary bits and then repackaging them as a news story. The public appears to have become rather immune to this kind of reportage. On the one hand, it is always met with an instant riposte from the climate skeptic attack dogs (who shout ‘alarmist, alarmist’ again and again); on the other hand, a disquieting scenario a  few decades into the future appears to have little traction for someone worrying about healthcare coverage or the size of their pension. Of course, and as I have argued in this blog before, people are capable of looking beyond their own immediate near-term interests, especially if they have children, but this is hard to do when you have had no personal experience of the risk that you are called upon to respond to. Accordingly, for the greater part of the population the bitter taste of a negative climate event will make a far deeper impression than any knowledge imbued from journalistic renditions of worthy academic articles. Which brings us to extreme weather.

The hurricane is the totemic extreme weather event but tentative academic evidence suggest that the frequency of this phenomenon will if anything fall slightly as global warming progresses (although the intensity of the worse hurricanes may grow). Accordingly, while hurricane hits in quick succession on, say, Miami and Houston would certainly concentrate minds, such a course of events appears a very low probability outcome at present.

The model predictions and empirical evidence for the increased incidence and severity of draught look a lot more robust. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see what scale of drought would be required to reenergise a broad-based political movement to tackle climate change. Texas is witnessing one of its most severe droughts of the last 100 years, and the possibility exists that it will grow far worse in 2012 as the spring and summer months arrive despite some recent rain (see here for an update). However, successive La Nina’s have played a part in causing the drought, so making it difficult to disentangle the role of climate change. Further, few Texans these days are farmers; the majority are white collar office workers for whom air conditioning and easy access to water makes drought an alien concept in their everyday lives—and certainly nothing that would make them take to the political barricades.

So what would we need to stimulate a broad-based political movement that forces a reaction from the world’s political elites? Joe Romm, over at Climate Progress, once suggested that it would take multiple hits of what he termed climate Pearl Harbors to provide the catalyst. In a post titled “What are the near term climate Pearl Harbors?” he came up with the following list:

  1. Arctic goes ice free before 2020. It would be a big, visible global shock.
  2. Rapid warming over next decade, as recent Nature and Science article suggests is quite possible (posts here and here)
  3. Continued (unexpected) surge in methane
  4. A megadrought hitting the SW comparable to what has hit southern Australia.
  5. More superstorms, like Katrina
  6. A heatwave as bad as Europe’s 2003 one.
  7. Something unpredicted but clearly linked to climate, like the bark beetle devastation.
  8. Accelerated mass loss in Greenland and/or Antarctica, perhaps with another huge ice shelf breaking off, but in any case coupled with another measurable rise in the rate of sea level rise.
  9. The Fifth Assessment Report (2012-2013) really spelling out what we face with no punches pulled.
He also made it a necessary condition that at least half of these events occurred within a decade.

I say multiple events because we need a critical mass understanding the climate is changing catastrophically. Multiple events will be needed to make the case that this is global and climate-related, as opposed to local and weather-related.

The pattern of ‘climate impact, response’ appears the only feasible one from a political perspective. The question then is whether it is economically practicable too. By the time the Pearl Harbors are coming thick and fast enough to produce the reaction, it is likely that atmospheric CO2 concentrations will be considerably higher than today. Given that the economics of actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere are appalling, then the only option available at that stage would be to slash emissions close to zero to make a difference. However, as noted by the IEA in my post here, the sunk costs and long lead times of energy infrastructure would make such a response an incredibly expensive thing to do. At the same time, the costs of adaption will be moving up their own exponential curve, particularly as sea level rise accelerates and climate in general departs from the Holocene norms of the last 12,000 years.

The question then is whether growth will be robust enough to take the strain of the dual requirements of drastic mitigation and accelerating adaption. Given a combination of diminishing returns to technology and burgeoning resource and energy restraints, I suspect that the potential global growth rate will already have been radically reduced by the time the climate change chickens come home to roost. In other words, all of this has the makings of a perfect storm: we will suffer a severe lack of capacity to act just as we realise we have no choice but to act.

Interestingly, the idea of the slowly boiled frog is an urban myth (see here): if the frog is able to escape the heated container, it will do so. Unfortunately for us, our container—earth— is all we have got.

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