Climate can be a pain in the ass to blog because most of the time it amounts to this or that news item reinforcing what most of us already know. People who understand the science more or less agree that dumping carbon into the atmosphere has the effect of warming the Earth. When reports come out underlining some new development sensible people will shrug their shoulders because we’ve been doing what we can do already. One more report of melting glaciers, or warmer minimum nighttime temperatures (a very important statistic) or an ice-free arctic sea won’t make us vote or donate any more than we already are. The “skeptics” (actual skepticism, as opposed to “skepticism,” implies a degree of open-mindedness that I don’t think fits here) will find some excuse to quibble. The major networks will predictably settle the dispute by giving equal time to some expert with impeccable credentials, and Michael Crichton. Surprise, people who don’t have the training to tell right from retarded figure that the problem is still up in the air when it’s not.
Democratic governments have a particular problem with climate because you can’t convince people that you have a problem until it’s already begun to manifest itself. By that point dealing with the problem has become prohibitively expensive, and it keeps getting more expensive the longer you wait. Even in the best of cases a sensible solution runs up against inertia, uncertainty and interested parties playing defense. Needless to say, this isn’t the best of cases. You can’t deal with a problem when your government is made up of “skeptics” determined to deny the problem by thumbing the scales.
Some folks have talked about an approaching tipping point, roughly ten years off, beyond which we can’t do a thing to forestall change. In my view that’s a simplistic assessment. Does anybody seriously think that we can shut off our carbon emissions in the space of a year? Of course not. Even in the best of cases any sort of change has a significant lead time over which it has to happen, e.g. ‘inertia.’ Taking inertia into account, and disregarding for a moment interested parties playing defense, I’d say that a ten-year window for total change is simply ridiculous. If a climatological tipping point is ten years out then sociologically-speaking we’ve already passed it.
With that out of the way, the latest climate bombshell features Greenland’s ice cap:
Greenland’s glaciers are melting into the sea twice as fast as previously believed, the result of a warming trend that renders obsolete predictions of how quickly Earth’s oceans will rise over the next century, scientists said yesterday.
The new data come from satellite imagery and give fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming. The Greenland data are mirrored by findings from Bolivia to the Himalayas, scientists said, noting that rising sea levels threaten widespread flooding and severe storm damage in low-lying areas worldwide.
James Hansen, the expert that NASA tried to stifle, comments in The Independent.
Our Nasa scientists have measured this in Greenland. And once these ice streams start moving, their influence stretches right to the interior of the ice sheet. Building an ice sheet takes a long time, because it is limited by snowfall. But destroying it can be explosively rapid.
How fast can this go? Right now, I think our best measure is what happened in the past. We know that, for instance, 14,000 years ago sea levels rose by 20m in 400 years – that is five metres in a century. This was towards the end of the last ice age, so there was more ice around. But, on the other hand, temperatures were not warming as fast as today.
How far can it go? The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today – which is what we expect later this century – sea levels were 25m higher. So that is what we can look forward to if we don’t act soon. None of the current climate and ice models predict this. But I prefer the evidence from the Earth’s history and my own eyes. I think sea-level rise is going to be the big issue soon, more even than warming itself.
Keep your eye out for similar reports from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). Unlike the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), which is what Crichton is talking about when he simplistically declares that Antarctica’s “glaciers are growing,” climate models suggest that the WAIS could start sliding into the sea much more rapidly than it is now.
On the topic of government scale-thumbing the editor of Science has some choice words as well. I would only add that if the Deutsch-Hansen debacle set a high-water mark for beaurocratic stupidity, it won’t last. When it comes to making government run stupid these guys are pros.
Am I too harsh on climate skeptics? There’s no question that I have a low opinion of folks on the other side of some “scientific” debates. During my training I’ve tangled with both creationists and climate skeptics, and both experiences have left me with the very unpleasant impression of dishonest people who intentionally confuse straightforward science for the purposes of a disguised agenda. That isn’t to say that people who doubt either field of science are necessarily dishonest, but rather that there exist well-organized and privately-funded enterprises to feed and manipulate that doubt. You can be sure that the Discovery Institute has literally dozens of well-funded parallels in the climate field. Of course environmentalist groups have their own axe to grind, and god knows they can manipulate science when it suits their interests. That shouldn’t discount science as ‘liberal’ or wrong when results fall disproportionately on the environmentalists’ side. We’re only allowed one set of facts, and the act of thumbing the scales (see above) is an excellent sign that you’re on the wrong side of them.