Alert! Climate change is ‘urgent’ again

The ABC had Professor Flannery being urgent again the other morning. We are being left behind, he cried. We must do something about climate change. Why the ABC takes notice of Professor Flannery and the self-proclaimed ‘Climate Council’ must escape other bemused listeners as well as me. But he was doubtless stimulated into enjoining us to action by the publication of the IPCC’s recently published Synthesis of its Fifth Assessment Report.

I wrote about the cries of urgency some time ago. Donna La Framboise, a Canadian sceptic, wrote an acid piece on the cry that we were ‘running out of time’ to deal with the imagined problem of ‘climate change’. It’s been going on for quite a few years now, and warming has ceased to be measurably significant. But that only pushes the orthodox activists into even louder cries.

Judith Curry ran a good piece on it all at the beginning of the month. ‘How urgent is ‘urgent’? she asked. A few years ago, before the Copenhagen conference that was to settle everything else, the science already being ‘settled’, leaders were talking about imminent doom should we not agree on a global treaty to control emissions. These days the urgency is about how we can stop bad things happening a long way ahead of us, since it is plain that no bad things have been happening in the last ten years — not, anyway, because of global warming, climate change, extreme weather, or any others of the popular catch phrases.

The UN’s Ban Ki-Moon talked about the new Synthesis report in tones eerily reminiscent of Al Gore: “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.” How long do we have to act? Professor Curry asks, and adds,

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that there is a risk that adding CO2 will eventually cause undesirable climate change.  Further, there seems to be broad agreement that it is in everyone’s long term interests to move away from fossil fuels as a primary energy source (these resources are finite, at some point they will become very costly to extract, and there are pollution/health issues associated with burning fossil fuels).

When science is asked — How long? — the replies differ. James Hansen says (0r said, differently in 2006 and 2009) ‘a decade at most’ or ‘four more years’. Michael Mann, he of the hockey stick, says that the planet will cross  the danger threshold in 2036.The BBC summarises: fossil fuels have to be phased out by 2100. The IPCC says that we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half by 2030 or global temperatures will rise by between 2C and 5C, eventually. The 2C threshold might be crossed by 2040, and then things will be very bad. No one seems to agree on the timing.

Professor Curry is one of those who puzzles about where all this anxiety comes from. Temperature has stopped rising, and there are strong suggestions that there will be no return for a decade or two. Climate sensitivity seems to be low, not high. The IPCC projects the future burning of coal at what experts think are unrealistic levels. What exactly is the problem?

She points out that if we go back ten years no one had predicted the sorts of changes we have already seen. Fracking wasn’t a word most people knew. Wind and solar were to save us, but little had actually been installed (we know now that both alternative energy possibilities come with real problems). Carbon taxes and their like were the go. The USA was the world leader in emissions, and China was at the start of its massive modernisation. Who would like to guess at what will happen in the next ten years?

She offers these suggestions.

*   the pause will continue, or surface temperatures will resume warming.  If the latter, then climate models are demonstrated to be not fit for purpose for projecting 21st century climate change and climate sensitivity, and the IPCC’s attribution conclusion will become unsupportable;

*   greater clarity on the role of the sun in 20th and 21st century climate variations and change;

*   longer historical perspectives on sea ice, ocean temperatures, etc. and refinements to paleo climate analyses of the last two millennia, which will clarify detection of anthropogenic climate change relative to natural variability;

*  continued growth in emissions, particularly from the developing world;

*   continued strains on food and water associated with growing populations, unless effective plans for dealing with this are implemented;

*   growing vulnerability to extreme weather events associated with population and property increases in hazard-prone zones, unless effective plans for dealing with this are implemented;

*   new advances in energy technologies;

*   continued regional experiments with new and renewable energy technologies.

I used to play around with futurology, and my greatest success came in predicting that Bob Hawke would become Prime Minister, well before he had even entered Parliament. But it’s a chancy game, and the further ahead you apply your crystal ball the less likely you are to be accurate in your forecasts. But I think that the possibilities above are reasonable. They are not frightening, at least to me, and they do not demand global treaties.

I’ll write a piece soon about science fiction and prediction, because that is also a form of crystal-ball-gazing. But to finish  this essay, the IPCC’s Synthesis document is not even a good version of its actual AR5, because the uncertainties that were accepted in the larger document have been ignored in this one, which is just another piece of environmental advocacy, dressed up with selective science. If you’re interested in a critical analysis of the Synthesis, try this.

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Well Don I will make a prediction and I would even bet on it. Given that China alone expects to increase its cold fired power generation by 400 GW in the next 25 years that is 25% more than the USA currently it is certain that CO2 in the atmosphere will increase greatly. There is nothing that will stop it I think more than likely that is a good thing. See to read more.

    • dlb says:

      So what do you make of today’s announcement by China that they will peak their carbon emissions in 15 years time? Does that mean the 400GW of coal fired power will be installed in the next 15 years? They are also claiming that by 2030 they will have 20% renewables. Care to bet on that?

      • Mike says:

        So after the mid-term Obama agrees with the Chinese to make a unenforceable long term commitment with no consequences. At Copenhagen Rudd made an assessment of the Chinese but did not point out that we are the rats.
        I think 20% renewables will need very inventive maths to achieve it.

      • dlb says:

        Never believe a politician:

        Sen. Inhofe said in a statement on Wednesday. “China builds a coal-fired power plant every 10 days, is the largest importer of coal in the world, and has no known reserves of natural gas.”

        In fact China was the ninth largest producer of natural gas at 83 billion cubic metres in 2009. (CIA report)

        • JMO says:

          But he also commented the United Nations’ climate change deliberations as a
          “Soviet-style trial” where “ideological purity trumps technical and
          scientific rigour”.(Yep I agree with that one!).

          The US/China climate agreement made no mention of a carbon dioxide price and sends any chinese emission reduction commitment into the political la la land. On the US side, they have to ramp up their emission reductions now (good luck with that one getting the tick from Congress) the chances of adopting an emissions trading
          scheme or carbon tax any time in the foreseeable future are nil. Always remember even when the Democrats controlled both houses of
          Congress, Obama did not attempt to impose a ‘price on carbon’.

          Xi is laughing all the way to the climate bank and Obama has lost his shirt (no one can shirt-front him now!). Abbott left in the cold on US/China agreement? I think not.

      • DaveW says:

        I read somewhere that it is most likely the Chinese expect to max out their coal reserves in the next decade or so, so peak emissions would come whether they want it or not. Also, it is a good excuse to maximise coal plant production in the immediate future. Perhaps the people who made these claims were being cynical, but it doesn’t pay not to be cynical in climate change matters. My guess is the Chinese will do whatever seems most profitable in 15 years.

      • Gus says:

        “>>> So what do you make of today’s announcement by China that they will peak their carbon emissions in 15 years time? <<<"

        This means, they plan on *increasing* their emissions for another 15 years, without any restraint whatsoever, and afterwards perhaps the emissions will stabilize and stay at the same, very high level for as long as they deem necessary, or they may declare, when the time comes, that this was never a binding agreement anyway.

        Since the US Congress, now fully controlled by Republicans, will undoubtedly reject this agreement, it'll be so much easier for the Chinese to do likewise.

  • David says:

    The Curry argument has a few holes in it.

    Curry writes that Lewis and Curry argue in a publish paper that the predicted 2C increase by 2040 will be delayed for it 10 years. Seriously, that is hardly much cause for comfort. Then Curry’s shares her personal and unsubstantiated view that the “delay” will be much longer. Really, it must be “the vibe” 🙂

    Then this!

    “The solutions to decarbonizing the global economy are more likely to
    come from technological advances rather than from global UNFCCC treaties.
    Does it make any sense to push the decarbonization policies faster than
    they can be supported by technology?”

    With all due respect unless Dr. Curry has some formal business/economics qualifications and or experience she is way off-base offering opinions about incentive structures for R & D. (And if by some chance she does it would strengthen her argument if she shared her insights)

    I personally agree with Nordus (Economics Professor Yale) who argues for
    a “gentle” tax.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I think you should take it up with her.

      I don’t have any ‘formal business/economics qualifications or experience’, but I was involved with R&D for thirty years, and think she is likely to be right. But of course Nordhaus may be righter.

    • Gus says:

      “>>> The solutions to decarbonizing the global economy are more likely to
      come from technological advances rather than from global UNFCCC treaties. <<<"

      This is indeed well said.

      I have never read of a UN treaty that would have accomplished anything useful at all. Do not forget that for years Gaddafi's Libya chaired the UN Committee on … Human Rights. What makes you think that anybody is going to take such a corrupt and indolent organization seriously for starters and that their pronouncements on any topic deserve our consideration.

      • Mike says:

        Quite ironic really as I understand it one of the big changes in the US is because of fracking this means there is far more natural gas which is less CO2 intensive. So this gives them a possibility of reducing emissions. China on the other hand is planning on building a massive amount of nuclear power stations after they have expanded their coal greatly. The left here in Australia have criticised our Conservative government for going away from the carbon tax.

        Now the left here and I include the Greens in that are dead against fracking and nuclear. Do they live in the real world?

        • Gus says:

          “>>> Now the left here and I include the Greens in that are dead against fracking and nuclear. Do they live in the real world? <<<"

          No, they don't. They live in a Utopia and they want to impose it on everybody else. But in the real world, their Utopia always turns into a nightmare.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    Climate change …. urgent again! Same old….same old or perhaps a development of some significance?

    Given the US/China announcement there has been plenty of commentary on Twitter. Some even may think this is a game-changer but how deluded they are. Guardian Australia: tweets: Republican set for top environment post says US-China climate deal is a ‘charade’

    When Obama returns home, that’s when the full orchestral music will be conducted.

    Other tweeters are embroiled in the heightened emotion of it but definitely have a point of view.

    G. Chan: Click on the future consumption button and watch it blow up. How the world uses coal – interactive

    The Conversation: US-China climate deal: Oz can no longer hide behind fiction that others are unprepared to cut emissions.

    Climate Changer: Why the U.S.-China CO2 deal is an energy, climate, and political gamechanger

    Brad Johnstone: To be clear: The US+China commitment is for the 2 countries alone to use up ~70% of global 2050 carbon budget by 2030. #climate

    David Roberts: People. There’s more to US/China climate diplomacy than particular numerical targets. Political economy matters.

    Jonathan Alter: US-China climate pact truly historic because they account for HALF of all carbon emissions. Rest of world will now go along. Huge deal.

    Admidst the turbulent emotions and hurly-burly of such commentary, this site offers great solace and such steady scholarly interpretation: ‘It is an ever-fixèd mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken’.

  • Gus says:

    There actually isn’t enough fossil fuel reserves in the world to cause a catastrophe, see Cui, Kump and Ridgwell, in “Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology,” vol. 389, pp. 128-136, 1 November 2013, doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2013.09.001,

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