Language Heating Up as Planet Continues to ...

Four New Sobering Reports: Serious Warnings on Warming Planet

First came independent reports from respected global banking, energy, and national security perspectives … and then came a new study in Science by 47 international researchers cautioning about faster losses of land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica over the past two decades.


The chorus of those singing the climate change woes continues to broaden and deepen, with recent entries from financial, energy, and national security experts among the latest examples.

Not all of these entrants are “new,” as some are repeating and refining concerns they have voiced earlier. But as Arctic sea ice melting continues to accelerate, and as temperature records steadily fall to be replaced by higher highs, close observers might be struck not only by the proliferation of those expressing significant concerns, but also by the heightened tone of concern they are voicing in hopes of capturing new ears, new interests, and new efforts. (See related posting concerning financial investor Jeremy Grantham’s strongly worded call-to-action for climate scientists.)

No sooner had the three reports been released, in fact, than a group of 47 researchers from 26 laboratories worldwide published in Science a “landmark study” — said to be more than twice as accurate as previous estimates because it reflects more satellite data — on melting of Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. Showing rates of ice sheet loss three times what it was in the 1990s, two thirds of it from Greenland, the new research points to loss of the land-based ice sheets in both Greenland and Antarctica. Combined, that lost sea ice has contributed nearly a half-inch (0.44 inches or 11.1 MMs) to global sea levels since 1992 — one-fifth of the all sea level rise during the 20-year period surveyed. (The remaining sea-level rise during that time, according to a NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory release, resulted because of thermal expansion of the warming ocean, melting of mountain glaciers and small Arctic ice caps, and groundwater mining.)

NASA/JPL research scientist Erik Ivins said in a statement that the research shows ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland losing more ice now than they were 20 years ago. “But the pace of ice loss from Greenland is extraordinary, with nearly a five-fold increase since the mid-1990s,” Ivins said. Loss of ice in Antarctica “has remained fairly constant,” he said, “with the data suggesting a 50 percent increase in Antarctic ice loss during the last decade.” (This report, and reactions to it, will be the subject of an upcoming in-depth Yale Forum report.)

World Bank Group’s ‘Shocking’ Report

“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, Ph.D., opened the Bank’s November report cautioning against the prospects for a warming of 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F).

He immediately launched into implications of a 4 C world:

  • Inundation of coastal cities;
  • Increasing risks for food production;
  • Unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics;
  • Substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions;
  • More frequent high-intensity tropical cyclones; and
  • Irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

“And most importantly,” Kim continued, a world “so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.”

It’s not simply the risks of putting prosperity “out of reach” for many in the developing world that concerns the World Bank. It’s also that warming on that scale “threatens to roll back decades of sustainable development” generally. The Bank backs “ambitions action” on climate change “not only because it is a moral imperative, but because it makes good economic sense.” The implications of warming on development can be reduced, Kim wrote, “without slowing down poverty alleviation and economic growth.”

Energy Agency: Cool It on Fossil Fuels to Achieve 2 Degree C Goal

The just-released 2012 “World Energy Outlook” offers a bounty of material on energy and related climate issues, not much of which will lead readers to a sense that things are just hunky-dory. Some verbatim examples (emphases in original):

  • Energy efficiency can keep the door to 2°C open for just a bit longer. Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. Our 450 Scenario examines the actions necessary to achieve this goal and finds that almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing at that time. Rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies — as in our Efficient World Scenario — would postpone this complete lock-in to 2022, buying time to secure a much needed global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
    No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal, unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed. This finding is based on our assessment of global “carbon reserves,” measured as the potential CO2 emissions from proven fossil-fuel reserves. Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22% to oil and 15% to gas.
  • Different shades of gold for natural gas. Natural gas is the only fossil fuel for which global demand grows in all scenarios, showing that it fares well under different policy conditions; but the outlook varies by region. Demand growth in China, India and the Middle East is strong: active policy support and regulatory reforms push China’s consumption up from around 130 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2011 to 545 bcm in 2035. In the United States, low prices and abundant supply see gas overtake oil around 2030 to become the largest fuel in the energy mix. Europe takes almost a decade to get back to 2010 levels of gas demand: the growth in Japan is similarly limited by higher gas prices and a policy emphasis on renewables and energy efficiency.
  • Will coal remain a fuel of choice? Coal has met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand over the last decade, growing faster even than total renewables. Whether coal demand carries on rising strongly or changes course will depend on the strength of policy measures that favor lower-emissions energy sources, the deployment of more efficient coal-burning technologies and, especially important in the longer term, CCS. The policy decisions carrying the most weight for the global coal balance will be taken in Beijing and New Delhi — China and India account for almost three-quarters of projected non-OECD coal demand growth (OECD coal use declines). China’s demand peaks around 2020 and is then steady to 2035; coal use in India continues to rise and, by 2025, it overtakes the United States as the world’s second-largest user of coal. Coal trade continues to grow to 2020, at which point India becomes the largest net importer of coal, but then levels off as China’s imports decline. The sensitivity of these trajectories to changes in policy, the development of alternative fuels (e.g., unconventional gas in China) and the timely availability of infrastructure, create much uncertainty for international steam coal markets and prices.
  • Unconventional gas accounts for nearly half of the increase in global gas production to 2035, with most of the increase coming from China, the United States and Australia. But the unconventional gas business is still in its formative years, with uncertainty in many countries about the extent and quality of the resource base. As analyzed in a World Energy Outlook Special Report released in May 2012, there are also concerns about the environmental impact of producing unconventional gas that, if not properly addressed, could halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks. Public confidence can be underpinned by robust regulatory frameworks and exemplary industry performance.

Climate and National Security

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis,” points to accumulating scientific evidence that “the global climate is moving outside the bounds of past experience and can be expected to put new stresses on societies around the world.”

In the staid language that is a hallmark of most of its work, the Academy in this report points to “choices of focus” needed to help it manage the scope of its study … but resulting in “some notable limitations.” The report, in its opening, offers the following caveat:

Our study includes the full range of potentially disruptive events that are becoming more likely because of climate change, whether or not a particular event can be unequivocally attributed to human-caused climate change rather than to natural variation. We made this choice because any such climate events can become disruptive and create a need for U.S. government action regardless of whether they can at this time be uniquely attributed to anthropogenic climate change.

The Academy report says that “anthropogenic climate change can reasonably be expected to increase the frequency and intensity of a variety of potentially disruptive environmental events — slowly at first, but then more quickly. Some of this change is already discernible.”

Among its conclusions:

  • Security analysts [should] expect climate surprises in the coming decade, including unexpected and potentially disruptive single events as well as conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence, and for them to become progressively more serious and more frequent thereafter, most likely at an accelerating rate.
  • The overall risk of disruption to a society from a climate event is
    determined by the interplay among several factors…. security risks are unlikely to be anticipated by looking only at climate trends and projections.
  • … it is essential for the intelligence community to understand adaptation and changes in vulnerability to climate events and their consequences in places and systems of concern, including susceptibility to harm and the potential for effective coping, response, and recovery. This understanding must be integrated with understanding of changes in the likelihoods of occurrence of climate events.
  • It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events—including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being — will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global systems to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response. It is also prudent to expect that such consequences will become more common further in the future.
  • The links between climate events and security outcomes are complex, contingent, and not understood nearly well enough to allow for prediction. However, the key linkages, as with societal disruptions, seem prominently to involve (a) exposures to potentially disruptive events directly or through globally integrated systems affecting human well-being and (b) vulnerabilities (i.e., susceptibility to harm and the effectiveness of coping, response, and recovery efforts). In addition, security outcomes depend on the reactions of social and political systems to actual or perceived inadequacies of response.

Four different reports. Each, on its own, sobering in terms of its implications. How and whether the reports individually, or collectively, might shape public and policy makers’ attitudes will depend, in no small part, on how popular media treat or don’t treat them. (The Science magazine report on ice sheet loss garnered substantial coverage in prime-time major network news programs on November 29.)  Each warrants a close read from policy makers and others interested in and concerned with the nation’s energy, economic, and climate future.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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2 Responses to Four New Sobering Reports: Serious Warnings on Warming Planet

  1. Charles Mac Arthur says:

    A dozen years ago I planted a willow hedge on my farm using 17 willow cuttings abut the size of a #2 pencil of my youth 80 years ago. 100% of the cuttings flourished into a hedge about 20 feet tall. I have wildly estimated the the willows have absorbed perhaps 1 1/2 to 3 tons of carbon, half above ground, half under. I could pelletize the above ground and by using it as heating fuel return it to the atmosphere, where other vegetation would make use of it as “food”.
    But overhear, 24 hours a day, I see contrails of aircraft on the flight path to Europe, and have heard that each whispy sky writing represents 300 tons per flight, with often as many as a dozen in view at once.
    Greenland’s Icecap has accumulatd over 110,000 years, its gradual weight pressing continental mountains down into the magma. Rapid weight loss for Greenland could foster a Fukushima quake and tsunami for the Atlantic, but the fault off Japan was only 200 miles long?What if the fault slippage is 4400 miles long.
    Did the first English coal mine encouraging the beginningx of the Industrial Revolution doom life on Earth, both plant and animal?

  2. Dan Rogers says:

    “Did the first English coal mine encouraging the beginning of the Industrial Revolution doom life on Earth, both plant and animal?”

    I think that’s what we are supposed to believe. There is a leap of faith involved. The Earth’s climate is growing warmer, so now let’s all jump to the conclusion that the burning of fossil fuels is the cause.

    Any fool can see the truth in that conclusion. Many have.