UN Panel Says More Severe Weather On the Way

But it’s still hard to pin down what, where and how bad

Climate change is likely driving some of the extreme weather events we’ve been seeing and more such weather is on the way, according to a much-anticipated report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“This is a pretty hard-hitting report,” says Chris Field, a Stanford climatologist and one of the co-chairs for the report. “What we can say is that some kinds of extremes are occurring more frequently,”

Some kinds. The UN panel carefully couches all of its findings in terms of probabilities and confidence levels, which vary widely depending on the type of weather event. Hence (italics are mine):

Sea Level Rise: “It is very likely (90-100% probability) that mean sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels in the future.” Continue reading

Climate News Roundup: the Melting Arctic, Solar Power, and Peak Oil

Rooftop Solar Panels in Vacaville. Photo: Craig Miller

1. MIT study finds IPCC underestimated Arctic ice melt

A forthcoming study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts that Arctic ice sheets are melting four times quicker than was forecast in the latest IPCC report. According to the study, the Arctic may be ice-free several decades sooner than 2100, which was predicted by the Fourth Assessment Report. Study authors say the IPCC data did not include forces such as wind and ocean currents that cause ice to break up.

The Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans will publish the study next month, but you can read the full news release at MIT’s website. Continue reading

On the Capitol Hill Climate Hotseat

And the Smoking Gun that Never Fired

This week’s hearing on climate science before the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology had some observers on the edge of their seats.

Berkeley Physicist Richard Muller testifies on Capitol Hill, Thursday (Image: House Committee on Science, Space & Technology)

Much of the pre-game analysis focused on Richard Muller, UC Berkeley physicist and author of Physics for Future Presidents.

Muller started taking hostile fire weeks ago when bloggers noted that the famously anti-climate-regulation Koch Brothers were providing funding for his audit of the global temperature data used in UN climate reports. When he was slated to testify, speculation arose that Muller was hand-picked by House Republicans to savage the prevailing science.

But if there was any agenda behind Muller’s remarks, it wasn’t in evidence at this hearing, as Andrew Revkin notes in his Dot Earth blog. After Muller’s opening statement, which was deadpan and laden with technical detail, committee members seemed to shy away from him and pursue soundbites from more colorful panelists, who included: Continue reading

Melting Ice Sheets Spur Sea Level Rise

By Michael D. Lemonick

A new study says melting ice sheets will likely be “the dominant contributor to sea level rise in the 21st century.”

A tidewater glacier in Greenland, pictured in 2008. (Photo: Michael Lemonick)

About 110,000 years ago, global sea level began to drop as the planet cooled, and evaporating seawater was transformed into massive ice sheets that covered large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. About 10,000 years ago, the Earth warmed up again. The ice retreated dramatically, and sea level rose. Since then, the planet’s ice, and the level of the ocean have been more or less stable.
Continue reading

IPCC by the Numbers

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa contributed reporting on this blog post.

Photo: Aerial View of the Arctic Ocean, Photo.com.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has announced the contributors for its next Assessment Report. All 831 of them. Of those authors, proportionally more are women, more are from developing nations, and a pretty good number are from California.

The Fifth Assessment Report by the numbers:

  • 1990 was the year the first IPCC Assessment Report was published. Since then, they’ve come out every five to seven years.
  • The report is divided into three Working Groups. Working Group I sums up the physical science, WGII is on impacts and adaptation, and WGIII gets into mitigation strategies.
  • 831 scientists are contributing to the report. They were selected out of about 3,000 applicants.
  • 30% of those scientists are from developing countries; 25% are women; and for 60%, this is their first time contributing to an IPCC report.
  • 39 of those scientists are based in California at universities, NGOs, and government agencies. That’s out of 169 American contributors.

And an introduction to some of those Californians:

Stanford biology and environmental science professor Chris Field heads up Working Group II, as he did on the previous Assessment Report. In an email he said in this 5th edition, “there will be new chapters on parts of the world that were not considered before (especially the oceans) and on key processes (e.g. human security).”

Rebecca Shaw, the Nature Conservancy’s associate director of conservation and climate change programs in California, is a first-time contributor to the IPCC. She’s also on the Governor’s Task Force for Climate Change, and is leading a vulnerability assessment on the Golden State.

Peter Brewer is the Senior Scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) where he researches ocean chemistry. No stranger to the ocean, Brewer has gone on numerous deep sea expeditions and taken part in over 90 remotely operated dives for MBARI research. Brewer’s expertise was featured in previous IPPC reports where he was a lead author on carbon capture and storage. He will be the lead author on an open oceans chapter in this report.

Robert Cervero is a transportation and land-use policy professor at UC Berkeley. In addition to teaching at transit development, Cervero has authored numerous academic journal articles on the Bay Area’s transit systems. He’ll be the review editor for the IPCC’s chapter on human settlements, infrastructure and spatial planning.

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa mapped where California’s IPCC contributors are based. Click on the icons to find out more about them.
View IPCC AR5 Authors from California in a larger map

Update 7/8/10
Here’s a complete list of the California participants:

Alex Hall

Ken Caldeira
Chris Field
Stephen Schneider
Noah Diffenbaugh

David Lobell
Terry Root
John Weyant

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Michael Wehner
Jayant Sathaye
Ryan Wiser

Mark Levine
Lynn Price
James McMahon

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Karl Taylor
Peter Gleckler

Michael Prather
Eric Rignot

Ronald Kwok

Lynne Talley
Dean Roemmich

UC Berkeley
Maximilian Auffhammer
Kirk Robert Smith
William Michael Hanemann
Richard Norgaard
Lee Schipper
Robert Cervero

Climate Central
Philip Duffy

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Peter Brewer

CSU San Marcos
Victoria Fabry

RAND Corporation
Robert Lempert

Electric Power Research Institute
Richard Richels
Geoffrey Blanford
Steven Rose

Nature Conservancy of California
Mary Rebecca Shaw

Climate Scientists Respond to IPCC Critics

Snowstorm at Donner Pass, January 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Snowstorm at Donner Pass, January 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

As we all know, climate scientists have been on the hot seat lately. Among other recent incidents, they’ve drawn fire for the leaked East Anglia emails and for the now-retracted assertion in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Himalayan glaciers might be gone by 2035.  In both cases, researchers admitted missteps and expressed regret. But they say neither incident invalidates the mass of evidence that the Earth is warming and that human activity is a likely cause.

On a call with journalists this week, three leading scientists defended the IPCC, its processes, and climate science in general.  Fielding questions were Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley, Scripps Institute climate scientist Richard Somerville, and Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institute Department of Global Ecology at Stanford.

“There are errors, and you can find errors on both sides,” said Alley, referring to the fact that previous IPCC reports had underestimated sea-level rise.  “It’s done by humans. It’s not perfect.  But these errors in no way impact our fundamental understanding that we’re adding CO2 to the air, that this is turning up the Earth’s thermostat,” he said.

Somerville made a similar point about the false Himalayan prediction in the 2007 report.

“I liken what’s happened here to the occasional error that happens a bank statement or a phone book,” he said, noting that the 2007 report was 3,000 pages long.

Just because a bank makes a mistake on your statement, he argued, “That’s not a reason to distrust banks.”

The scientists defended the IPCC standards and review process, but supported the IPCC’s recent announcement that it will seek an outside review for future studies in efforts to avoid mistakes in the future.  It’s not clear yet what the independent review process will look like.

“The best thing we can do to push errors to the minimum is to have more eyes looking and to have more expertise and more transparency,” said Field.

There’s no question that errors such as the one about the Himalayan glaciers have provided fodder for critics of climate science and may have contributed to a recent decline in public concern about (and belief in) global warming. During their call this week, the climate researchers bemoaned the fact the urgency of their findings isn’t getting through.

“The fact is that we don’t have forever to decide to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases,” Somerville said. “That’s not something you can procrastinate for ever. Mother Nature imposes a time scale and it’s measured in a few years, not a century.”

Scientists are being forced to defend their work against attacks that are based on policy, not science, Somerville said. The IPCC has a mandate to be policy-neutral, and its goal is to provide information that is policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive, he said.

“And yet, when you take apart the criticisms that have been made of IPCC and climate science in general, you’ll find, I believe, that in many cases they are motivated by policy concerns rather than scientific concerns,” he said.  “And so I think you’ll find individuals and organizations who have strong views on carbon taxes or government participation in free markets or ceding sovereignty of one country by signing international agreements – all kinds of things like that that are disguised as concerns about the science.”

There’s an interesting conversation happening at Yale Environment 360 about the future of the IPCC.  Robert T. Watson, chair of the IPCC from 1997 to 2002, argues in an essay that while there’s room for improvement in terms of implementation, the IPCC’s procedures are sound.   On the other side, University of Colorado Environmental Studies Professor Roger A. Pielke argues for sweeping reform, citing, among other criteria, a need for a mechanism for resolving allegations of error and a policy pertaining to real and perceived conflicts of interest.

Santer: “Loss of Innocence” for Climate Scientists

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA.  Photo: Gretchen Weber

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA, September 2008. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Yet another climate controversy has revived what have become increasingly common attacks on scientists’ credibility.  The latest flap arose when  the IPCC admitted on Wednesday, that its 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was unfounded.

Attacks on the integrity of scientists have brought about a “loss of innocence” in the climate science field, said Ben Santer, a Research Scientist for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Santer lamented that “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was possible to do science and not be too worried about being the subject of Congressional investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and very personal and very public attacks. Those innocent days are over now.”

Santer, who’s been a key author of some IPCC reports, said the science that goes into those reports is the most rigorous that he’s seen in his career.”If your research suggests that humans are having a pronounced effect on climate,” he continued,  “I think the expectation is that you will be subjected to tremendous scrutiny.  And some of that is appropriate, certainly in terms of the science and the integrity and credibility of the science, but unfortunately, that scrutiny is moving to very unwelcome areas, and it’s also focusing on individuals and motives, and all of this stuff is very distasteful,” he said.

Santer was joined on the call by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center , who raised concern that the intense and personal nature of much of the criticism climate scientists have been facing (most recently in response to the East Anglia hacked email incident, now widely known as “Climategate”) may be keeping promising young scientists out of the field at a time when they are most needed.  In the wake of the East Anglia emails, a blizzard of accusations of data manipulation blew through the blogosphere and in certain corners of the Senate.

“It does make it difficult to bring young scientists into the field,” Santer agreed.  They look at what has gone on and there is genuine concern there. They must be asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in critical but possibly contentious issues if there is the possibility that I will spend months or even  longer dealing with questions not about the science that I have done, but about my own personal integrity?'” said Santer.

Thompson affirmed that while it’s difficult to put a specific timetable on the disappearance of glaciers, the scientific evidence documenting glacier recession is overwhelming.  Research indicates that more than 90% of the world’s glaciers are receding, he said, including approximately 95% of the glaciers in the Himalayas.

“Glaciers do not have any political agenda,” said Thompson.  “They just sum up what’s happening in the environment and they retreat or react to that en masse.”

The conference call was organized by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.

UPDATE 1/25/10
The London tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported yesterday that a lead author of the Asia chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment admitted that he knew the 2035 claim was unsubstantiated, but he approved including it in the report anyway.  Murari Lal reportedly said in an interview with the Daily Mail that he knew the 2035 number came from a report that was not peer-reviewed, but that the claim of imminently disappearing glaciers would, “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”

Michael Schlesinger, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to the Daily Mail report with dismay.

“I am greatly saddened and deeply offended by this person’s behavior,” he wrote in an email. “A scientist does not lie nor change the facts to suit an agenda.  Rather s/he tells it as it is, as best as it is known to her/him.”

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a spirited response to the Daily Mail story.  According to Romm (who reached Lal by phone):
[Lal] He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions.  He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers….  We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

Scientists Respond Cautiously to Hijacked Email

I’ve spent several days dithering over whether to weigh in on the recent email heist from a server at the University of East Anglia in the UK. For those who choose to read it that way, the hacked email originally passed among climate scientists worldwide has, rightly or wrongly, provided those who reject the prevailing climate science with enough radioactive ammo to fill Yucca Mountain.

Some high-profile California researchers figure prominently in the material. In a searchable database of the messages, for example, the name of Ben Santer, a climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Lab came up 173 times. Stanford’s Steve Schneider came up 71 times. Both are outspoken defenders of science supporting the human contribution to global warming.

Another scientist quoted or referred to (99 times), Kevin Trenberth, is a name familiar to readers of this blog and listeners to Climate Watch radio coverage. Trenberth is a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO.  I’ve interviewed him mostly about the role of the Pacific oscillation known as El Nino in climate patterns. After the decade’s worth of email came to light, I wrote Trenberth for a response. His reply may not be entirely original. Some lines have also been attributed to a spokesman for the university whose servers were invaded. In any case, here’s Trenberth’s response to Climate Watch:

It is a matter of concern that data, including personal information about individuals, appears to have been illegally taken and a criminal investigation is underway. The selective publication of some stolen emails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way. The volume of material published and its piecemeal nature makes it impossible to confirm what proportion is genuine.  Many elements have been published selectively on a number of websites. Generally the items are out of context, incomplete and very misleading. Some others are wildly misinterpreted and have a simple explanation.

The material published relates to the work of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and other scientists around the world.  Many of the scientists featured in the emails with [Phil] Jones [of East Anglia] have web sites and freely and openly make available their papers, presentations, blogs and other information. Several of the emails document the detailed procedures used in the IPCC AR4 Fourth Assessment report for Chapter 3 (for which Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth were coordinating lead authors) and other chapters. They actually reveal the integrity of the process and the hard work that goes into such an assessment.

Trenberth then went on to cite some specific “examples of misinterpretations:”

From Kevin Trenberth, interpreted as a failure of computer models:

“The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.”

This refers to the inability of our current observations from satellites and in situ to account for where all the energy has gone. A paper on this is available here:

Trenberth, K. E., 2009: An imperative for climate change planning: tracking Earth’s global energy. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 1, 19-27, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2009.06.001. [PDF]

This paper tracks the effects of the changing Sun, how much heat went into the land, ocean, melting Arctic sea ice, melting Greenland and Antarctica, and changes in clouds, along with changes in greenhouse gases. We can track this well for 1993 to 2003, but not for 2004 to 2008. It does NOT mean that global warming is not happening, on the contrary, it suggests that we simply can’t fully explain why 2008 was as cool as it was, but with an implication that warming will come back, as it has. In 2008 there was a La Nina event.  We now have an El Nino underway.

Kevin Trenberth

Meanwhile, the university’s Climate Research Unit has posted a series of rebuttals. Still, this digital hijacking is disturbing on a lot of levels. Whether you accept the prevailing climate science or consider the email damning evidence to the contrary, it is a distraction from the business at hand in Copenhagen and a public relations train wreck for the IPCC and many of its most eminent contributing scientists. You can bet that it won’t be forgotten when a major climate bill hits the floor of the U.S. Senate for debate, early next year. Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, vocal critic of global warming science, is already calling for an investigation.

UN Climate Chief: 2014 "Will Alarm the World"

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wrapped up his three-day Global Climate Summit today, with signatures and ceremony, the U.N.’s top climate official set a sobering tone with his own parting shot.

In a final panel this afternoon, the Governor was joined by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Pachauri said the worst-case scenarios from previous climate modeling appear to be coming true, and warned that the next climate change assessment from the IPCC, due out in 2014, “will alarm the world.”

Then he went on to reiterate a prediction he made before the U.N. earlier this month; that based on the science he’s seen, 12 countries are in danger of becoming failed states due to the impacts of climate change. And while he stopped short of listing the nations, previous statements appear to imply that several of the states on his list are in Africa.

Elsewhere at the summit, 30 delegates from state and local governments around the world signed a final agreement to collaborate on climate change. If they follow through with some muscle on the partnership, they’ll be collaborating on clean transportation and on climate adaptation strategies.

Governors from Brazil, Indonesia and U.S.also called on their national governments to address deforestation at the UN climate treaty talks in Copenhagen. Forest loss accounts for 20% of climate emissions globally. California also signed its agreement with the Jiangsu Province of China.

The three-day summit’s title was “On the Road to Copenhagen” and the international talks have been front and center in the discussions here. The governors attending would like their role in combating climate change formally recognized there. They see themselves on the front lines of climate change, as evidenced by this much cited statistic: 50-80% of the emissions cuts needed to reach the UN’s goals will be implemented by states and cities.

But despite the Copenhagen-mania, Schwarzenegger stuck with his subnational message, saying: “Climate change isn’t all about this one treaty.” Even if the talks at Copenhagen fail, he says states and provinces should keep forging ahead.

Photo: Office of the Governor.

Few Surprises as Climate Symposium Opens

A broad spectrum of scientists, entrepreneurs and public officials are meeting in Sacramento this week for the sixth annual Climate Change Research Symposium, sponsored by the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Today and tomorrow are packed with technical lectures on topics ranging from “Decadal Changes in the El Nino Pattern and Impact on the Hydroclimate…” to “Climate and Wine Grape Phenology in Napa Valley.” But yesterday it was up to the policy honchos to set the scene.

There was little in that preamble that hasn’t been heard before. When asked about recently expressed doubts that the state’s utilities can attain a one-third proportion of renewable energy within the next decade, air board chief Mary Nichols said “Not only can we do it, we have to do it.” Nichols, probably the state’s highest-profile point-person on climate policy,  said the the state’s broader, longer-range goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions simply can’t be achieved without it.

Just as if they’d heard her, legislators tonight passed SB 14 out of committee. The bill requires utilities to meet the 33% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) by 2020 (in other words, to derive a third of their power from low-carbon sources). Green energy activists lamented language in the current version that allows utilities to slip that deadline, if there are delays in bringing new renewable energy sources online.

There was a clear signal from yesterday’s symposium speakers that, as we’ve previously discussed in this space, adaptation is taking center stage on the policy front. California has set targets for “mitigation” of global warming and put some of the wheels in motion. Now attention has turned to preparing for inevitable climate change effects, already in the pipeline.

The CEC’s newest Commissioner, Julia Levin, warned against the onset of “NIMBY” syndrome as measures are implemented across the state, such as the build-out of solar and wind “farms.”

And Stanford scientist Chris Field, who heads the IPCC’s Working Group II, noted that while growing interest in the “other” greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxides, etc.) is justified, the focus should remain on controlling carbon dioxide.  “As long as the world maintains an aggressive focus on economic growth,” said Field, “It’s the economic growth that’s the driver of future emissions and that’s why strategies to find ways to grow the economy without increasing carbon emissions are so important.” While some of the other gases are more potent greenhouse gases, Field says they’ll see little or no growth in volume in coming years.

Field previewed some of what he sees as the focal points of the next major IPCC climate report, known as AR5. Field predicted that we’ll see a shift in focus from making the case that global warming is real and human-induced, to providing more and better information that “stakeholders” can act upon. Field cited a recent study projecting that corn yields in Africa could fall 30% by 2040, due to climate forces.