Timetable of doom

(Originally published in The Greening Earth Society

The Independent, a newspaper published in the United Kingdom, is doing everything it can to position itself as the world's leading newspaper of environmental doom and gloom. Here's a sampling of headlines in the past two weeks: "Apocalypse Now: how mankind is sleepwalking to the end of the Earth," "Greenhouse gas threatens marine life," "Dramatic change in West Antarctic ice could produce 16ft rise in sea levels," "Coral reefs may start to dissolve in 30 years," "Global warming is 'twice as bad as thought,'" "Countdown to global catastrophe," and "Global warming approaching point of no return, warns leading climate expert."

            Each article seizes upon the most extreme and outrageous claims of scientists and politicians whose like-minded goal appears to be scaring the world back into the Dark Ages and the U.S. into the Kyoto Protocol.

            A case in point is found in their latest incantation: "Global warming: scientists reveal timetable" which establishes a timeline for humans' eventual destruction of the planet. According to The Independent, it will go something like this:

As present world temperatures are already 0.7ºC above the pre-industrial level, the process is well under way. In the near future—the next 25 years—as the temperature climbs to the 1ºC mark, some specialized ecosystems will start to feel stress, such as the tropical highland forests of Queensland, which contain a large number of Australia's endemic plant species, and the succulent karoo plant region of South Africa. In some developing countries, food production will start to decline, water shortage problems will worsen and there will be net losses in GDP.

It is when the temperature moves up to 2ºC above the pre-industrial level, expected in the middle of this century—within the lifetime of many people alive today—that serious effects start to come thick and fast, studies suggest.

Substantial losses of Arctic sea ice will threaten species such as polar bears and walruses, while in tropical regions "bleaching" of coral reefs will become more frequent—when the animals that live in the coral are forced out by high temperatures and the reef may die. Mediterranean regions will be hit by more forest fires and insect pests, while in regions of the US such as the Rockies, rivers may become too warm for trout and salmon.

In South Africa, the Fynbos, the world's most remarkable floral kingdom which has more than 8,000 endemic wild flowers, will start to lose its species, as will alpine areas from Europe to Australia; the broad-leaved forests of China will start to die. The numbers at risk from hunger will increase and another billion and a half people will face water shortages, and GDP losses in some developing countries will become significant.

But when the temperature moves up to the 3ºC level, expected in the early part of the second half of the century, these effects will become critical. There is likely to be irreversible damage to the Amazon rainforest, leading to its collapse, and the complete destruction of coral reefs is likely to be widespread.

The alpine flora of Europe, Australia and New Zealand will probably disappear completely, with increasing numbers of extinctions of other plant species. There will be severe losses of China's broadleaved forests, and in South Africa the flora of the Succulent Karoo will be destroyed, and the flora of the Fynbos will be hugely damaged.

There will be a rapid increase in populations exposed to hunger, with up to 5.5 billion people living in regions with large losses in crop production, while another 3 billion people will have increased risk of water shortages.

Above the 3ºC raised level, which may be after 2070, the effects will be catastrophic: the Arctic sea ice will disappear, and species such as polar bears and walruses may disappear with it, while the main prey species of Arctic carnivores, such as wolves, Arctic foxes and the collared lemming, will have disappeared from 80 percent of their range.

In human terms there is likely to be catastrophe too, with water stress becoming even worse, and whole regions becoming unsuitable for producing food, while there will be substantial impacts on global GDP.

Where did this writer earn a journalism degree, the Ross Gelbspan School of Journalism? The only thing missing from this scenario is an alien invasion after our global defenses are down due to ecologic and economic destruction. If that was in there, we'd know the writer is a graduate of Whitley Strieber University.

            Such an apocalyptic view of our future contains the essential elements of environmental science fiction — a world tomorrow not so unlike our world today except for scientifically unjustifiable events inevitably leading toward widespread (and spectacular) destruction. Did anyone think to ask where all that water came from in Waterworld? Even complete melting of both polar ice caps couldn't flood the entire planet. How does cold air from the upper atmosphere get to the surface in defiance of the Ideal Gas Law and flash-freeze New York City as in The Day After Tomorrow? Why is it an "advanced" alien species only can communicate with a single Earth species (the humpback whale) as in Star Trek IV: The voyage home? Why is it humans will cease our centuries-old practice of matching crops with climate and choose starvation instead as temperatures warm, according to this article in The Independent?

            One of the major problems tilting The Independent's story away from science fact and into science fiction is that the average temperature of the surface of earth is rising at a rate of about 0.17ºC (0.31ºF) per decade. It has been doing so, at a fairly constant rate (after accounting for temporary departures resulting from such episodes as El Niño events and volcanic eruptions) for about the past thirty to thirty-five years. If this rate persists into the future, the resulting global average temperature rise will be about 0.77ºC (1.4ºF) by the year 2050 and about 1.62ºC (2.91ºF) by century's end. This rate of increase is about half that in The Independent's scenario. The difference between reality and The Independent's fiction has a number of significant implications: (1) it doubles the time that passes before each 'crisis' occurs, (2) it allows greater time for adaptation, both natural and technological, and (3) it improves the chance that breakthrough advances will be made in the way we produce and use energy.

            You might ask if we are assuming the rate of warming will stay constant in the future given the growing demand for energy? Yes. That's the lesson from the past and what all those sophisticated climate models tell us will happen.

            Figure 1 provides the history lesson. The top chart (1a) tracks total global emissions of carbon dioxide between 1970 and 2000. There has been a relatively steady increase as world population and GDP have grown. This resulted in current emissions being about two-thirds greater than emissions thirty-five years ago.

            The lower chart (1b) plots the year-over-year change in global average temperature against total global carbon dioxide emissions. Notice there is no relationship between them. While global carbon dioxide emissions increased by nearly 66 percent, the rate of global temperature rise has not changed at all.

            There are a number of factors that appear to combine and produce this result. Some are known; some are unknown. But Figure 1 is a perfect integration of actual observed data.

Figure 1a (top): Annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Figure 1b (bottom): Relationship between annual global carbon dioxide emissions and year-over-year change in annual average global surface temperatures. While global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by nearly 66 percent, the rate of global temperature rise has not changed at all.

            The same cannot be said of climate models. The models are a product of what goes into them. If the modelers' understanding of some of the atmosphere's chemical and physical processes is incomplete, or entirely lacking, then their climate models (elegant as they may be) cannot produce accurate results. Nevertheless, let's assume that climate models get the general concept right — an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration leads to an increase in global temperature. We'll rely on observations to fill in the details. What we get is illustrated in Figure 2 (taken from the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

            The chart's seeming bowl of colorful spaghetti represents projected global temperature increases from nineteen different climate models when each is run assuming a one percent per year increase in carbon dioxide concentrations. Notice how the great majority (as well as the model mean) take the form of a straight line if one ignores short term, year-to-year variations. In other words, even though atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase every year, the average year-over-year change in global temperature remains constant.

            If this concept sounds familiar, it is because it is precisely the same behavior seen in Figure 1b using actual observations. The only difference between the models and observations is the rate of temperature change from one year to the next.

            In Figure 2's models, the average rate of global temperature increase is about 0.25ºC (0.45ºF) per decade. You'll recall observations show the rise to be about 0.17ºC (0.31ºF) per decade. The reason is easily explained. The models are fed an increase in carbon dioxide of one percent per year. The real increase — after accounting for other greenhouse gases, such as methane — is much less, around a half a percent per year. Therefore the average of the climate models must be considerably adjusted downward.

Figure 2. Change in average annual global temperatures as projected by 19 different climate models under a scenario of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increasing at 1 percent per year (a value that is about twice the current trend). (Source: Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

            Coupling climate models with observed reality indicates a continuation of current temperature trends into the foreseeable future and makes for a robust projection. Scary scenarios of our planet devastated by ecological catastrophe as a result of rapidly rising temperatures is not supported by the best available science.

            The future rate of temperature rise is but one problem with The Independent's timetable for climate apocalypse. Another is their linkage of economic/environmental catastrophe and the levels assigned to global temperature change. We'll leave that rebuttal for someone else or another day.


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