Forecasting Climate Doom

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorNov 11, 2011 10:26 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The report issued this week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) made a splash in the climate blogosphere and in some big-time media outlets like the Guardian, which ran a story with this headline:

World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns

That got me thinking of James Hansen's in 2006 and how it pretty much lined up with the IEA's. Add a pinch of Richard Betts and here's what I ended up writing over at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media. Speaking of Hansen, he's just put up a new paper on his website, titled "Climate Variability and Climate Change: The New Climate Dice." He writes:

The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is the natural variability of climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change, given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year? This question assumes great practical importance, because of the need for the public to appreciate the significance of human-made global warming. Actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming, mainly CO2, are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public perceives that human-made climate change is underway and will have disastrous consequences if effective actions are not taken to short-circuit the climate change.

Hansen goes on to argue, "with a high degree of confidence," that the severe weather in Texas this summer and the 2010 heat waves in Moscow "were a consequence of global warming." He continues:

People who deny the global warming cause of these extreme events usually offer instead a meteorological "explanation". For example, it is said that the Moscow heat wave was caused by an atmospheric "blocking" situation, or the Texas heat wave was caused by La Nina ocean temperature patterns. Of course the locations of the extreme anomalies in any given season are determined by the specific weather patterns. However, blocking patterns and La Ninas have always been common, yet the large areas of extreme warming have come into existence only with large global warming. Today's extreme anomalies occur because of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns and global warming. For example, places experiencing an extended period of high atmospheric pressure will tend to develop drought conditions that are amplified by the ubiquitous warming effect of elevated greenhouse gas amounts.

If the oil & gas industry maintains its stranglehold, which the IEA in its report says is all but assured, then climate doom is also assured, Hansen (unsurprisingly) concludes:

Science does show that business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions will cause atmospheric CO2 to continue to increase rapidly. The increasing greenhouse gases will cause the rapid global warming of the past three decades to continue, and this warming will cause the climate dice to become more and more loaded with greater and greater extreme events. The probability that this conclusion is wrong is about as close to zero as one can get.

There are two different scenarios forecast by both Hansen and the IEA, which threaten to collide very shortly. The first is that we are a few years away from irreversible global warming being locked in. The second is that we are a few years away from the fossil fuel economy being irreversibly locked in for the foreseeable future. And some people wonder why geoengineering is taken seriously.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.