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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Scientists connect the dots from identifying to preventing dangerous climate risks

Posted on 23 December 2014 by dana1981

Last week, over 20,000 Earth scientists gathered at the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall conference. They shared their scientific research, ranging from identifying the causes of past climate changes, to estimating the risks of the changes we’re causing now, to how we can successfully communicate the need to mitigate those risks.

Richard Alley (the host of Earth: the Operator’s Manual) summarized the scientific community’s consensus about the threats of abrupt climate change from various potential “tipping points.” Scientists aren’t too worried about a huge methane burp from the ocean or shutdown of the thermohaline circulation (which would cause dramatic cooling in Europe) happening anytime soon. On the other hand, a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and large associated sea level rise are becoming increasingly worrying.

This tied into paleoclimate research presented by Aaron Goldner. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at similar levels to today’s (400 parts per million) 15 million years ago during the mid-Miocene period. However, the Earth’s climate was very different. Geologic records give us estimations that sea levels were 25–40 meters higher than today, global mean temperatures 3­–6°C hotter, and there was very little sea ice relative to today.

As Goldner and colleagues showed in a 2013 paper, climate models couldn’t reproduce that hotter climate very well; especially the extreme heat at the poles. However, the Community Atmosphere Model his team used was recently improved, in particular to better simulate cloud properties. Goldner showed that this newer version, which is more sensitive to the increased greenhouse effect, more accurately reproduces the high global and polar temperatures during the mid-Miocene. The difference is that in the newer simulation, more clouds form at the poles, trapping heat, causing the sea ice to melt.

Today, we’re already seeing Arctic sea ice vanish at an alarming rate. The worry is that we may be approaching a tipping point that kicks us into a climate regime with significantly less ice, higher sea levels, and hotter temperatures, like the mid-Miocene or mid-Pliocene when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were similar to today’s, but for an extended period of time. We’re on the verge of entering a hot climate state not seen in tens of millions of years.

There were many AGU talks about the climate impacts we’re already seeing. For example, human-caused global warming is amplifying many types of extreme weather like drought, heat waves, and storms. There’s uncertainty about just how bad these impacts will get, and how fast. Stephan Lewandowsky gave a talk discussing the problem that although more uncertainty translates to greater risk and urgency, people perceive the opposite. People often think we don’t need to act until uncertainty is gone, but that means letting the problem get worse in the meantime. As Andrew Dessler said in one of his AGU talks,

Uncertainty is the hammer policy advocates use to smash scientists over the head.

The Communication Problem

Climate and social scientists have struggled to communicate this urgency to the public. While most people accept that humans are changing the climate, few understand the urgency of mitigating these risks. This is particularly a problem for ideological conservatives.

Among social scientists, a consensus is forming that more climate-specific knowledge translates into greater acceptance of the science and support for mitigation. However, facts are more effective when ideological barriers are first weakened. For example, conservatives are more likely to accept the science when presented with free market solutions, as opposed to government regulation.

Scientists John McCuin, Katharine Hayhoe, John Cook, Daniel Bedford, and Scott Mandia reported success in climate education through misconception-based learning. People form mental structures of the world, and debunking a misconception can leave a gap in those structures. As it turns out, people would rather have a complete but incorrect understanding of the world than an incomplete but more correct understanding. Thus, the most effective education and communication must explain why a person’s misconceptions were formed and why they’re incorrect, replacing the mental gaps with factually correct information.

Misconception-based learning replaces a myth with a fact by explaining the origin and fallacy of the misconception.

Misconception-based learning replaces a myth with a fact by explaining the origin and fallacy of the misconception. Created by John Cook.

In April 2015, the University of Queensland will be hosting a free online course (MOOC) taking this approach to teaching climate science. At AGU, my colleagues and I recorded many lectures for that MOOC, and John Cook interviewed a ‘who’s who’ list of climate rock stars. In those interviews and during other talks and events, I heard about the attacks many climate scientists have faced for having the temerity to do their jobs.

Ben Santer was attacked for summarizing the evidence behind how we knew humans were driving global warming in the 1995 IPCC report. Michael Mann and Malcolm Hughes spoke of the incessant attacks they’ve faced since publishing their “hockey stick” study over 15 years ago (a result since replicated dozens of times). Katharine Hayhoe (quite possibly the nicest person on Earth, and one of the most influential) was attacked for writing a chapter about climate change for a book Newt Gingrich was writing. Naomi Oreskes, for publishing the first study in 2004 on the climate consensus.

My colleagues and I got a taste of those attacks after we published our follow-up consensus study last year. Fortunately, as Mann and Hayhoe and others noted in a terrific climate science communication session that I had the privilege of speaking in, they’ve borne the brunt of the storm. Young climate scientists today can do their research and communicate with the public with less threat of being attacked, thanks to those groundbreaking individuals and groups like the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Making Policy Reflect Science

As Katharine Hayhoe pointed out in one of her AGU talks, our infrastructure and society are constructed based on the assumption of a stable climate, but we’re in the process of destabilizing it. We’re not doing enough to protect our investments, security, or future well-being.

Andrew Weaver spoke about his decision to shift from science to politics, quipping,

We need evidence-based decision-making. What we have is decision-based evidence-making.

Similarly, Aaron Goldner started working for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse after finishing his doctorate in paleoclimate research. He told me,

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Comments 1 to 2:

  1. The determination of consensus can be a bit iffy (though not, of course, on the general issue of GW). A number of scientists who have been most closely involved in research on the Arctic do think that a 'huge methane burp' cannot be ruled out. Few have spent more time researching the area directly than Wadhams, Shakhova and Semiletov, and they are among the most concerned. IIRC, Mann has also stated that he did not think that a relatively large, sudden release could be ruled out. And of course the large number of people associated with the Arctic Methane Emergency Group are quite concerned. (Whatever one may think of certain of their members, certain of their studies, or certain of their objectives, the fact of the matter is that they have a number of scientists among them who have studied the area.)

    Given the importance of establishing the very real concensus on AGW, I think it unwise to use the term where real debate still exists among major figures in the field (wherever one may personally come down on the controversy).

    Also, dismissing what would be a civilization threatening event as a 'burp' does not help to show that a careful and sober judgment has been made of the issue, imho.

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  2. Changing the view of the public is not only a job for the scientists, it is also a job for the media and for popular writers to create the right fictional (and non-fictional) literature that will be widely read. While SkS is predominately a forum for scientific discussion. Perhaps, while I don't pretend to be any great writer, I have a more scientific and mathematical bent, I have penned something, while it's not great liteature and it may be an inappropriate forum, it might get the ball rolling.

    AGW and CC
    Doggerel for the Anthropocene

    More extremes,
    Less in betweens;
    Records broken,
    That are not a token;
    Longer lasting,
    Wider happening,
    All a sign
    Of what's to come.

    Warmer hot days,
    Warmer cold days,
    Warmer OK days,
    Just changing to a warmer way.
    More summer times,
    Later autumn times,
    Earlier spring times,
    Shorter winter times,
    Sometimes sharper,
    Most times milder,
    Years not quite,
    What they've always been;
    Where only some days,
    Seem the same.

    More sunny days,
    More droughts;
    More cloudy days,
    More rain;
    More floods;
    More storms,
    More wind;
    More homes destroyed,
    More houses wrecked,
    Oh well what the heck.

    Warmer land,
    Warmer seas,
    Glaciers smaller,
    Poles retreating,
    Ice just disappearing;
    High tides higher,
    Low tides higher,
    The coast we know,
    Just eroding;
    Coral reefs fewer,
    Sea shells thinning,
    All the while
    Cities slowly sinking.

    Less land to farm,
    To keep us fed,
    More sandy deserts,
    And a few more dead;
    Fewer species,
    Animals disappearing,
    While others just seem to thrive,
    Over a range,
    A little more wide;
    More pests,
    To cause us harm,
    More sickness and disease,
    To threaten us all.

    While climates tropical
    Become more topical
    And milder climes
    Are in decline
    As poles shrink
    You have to think
    For polar bears
    It's now quite clear,
    It's simple,
    They just won't be here.

    Early signs now,
    Give a clue,
    And climate scientists,
    Seem to know;
    That clearing forests,
    Burning more oil, gas and coal,
    Will only achieve that final goal;
    Of seeing what happens,
    From feeding the Anthropocene;
    Sending CO2 to levels not seen,
    Since sometime before the Pleistocene,
    Increasing at rates that have never been;
    So finally we will know,
    What business as usual,
    Truly means,
    Unfortunately it'll be all too late,
    We'll have sealed our fate,
    Where, in a few centuries,
    There will be a climate that took eons,
    For the natural world to make.

    97% of scientists,
    Do agree,
    And have spoken through
    Their journals, Academies and the IPCC;
    3% think something different,
    And have sown seeds of uncertainty,
    While doubters lay doubt,
    With skepticism and deniability,
    With their talk of conspiracy
    From their political ideology,
    Or simply for reasons monetary;
    With arguments, politic,
    And few, scientific;
    All to get in the way,
    So action is stopped again and again;
    For a little more money,
    From a 19th century technology;

    But it's not so funny,

    Because it keeps on happening,

    And it will be our children,
    Who will surely pay.

    Some will win,
    Most will lose,
    But for everyone,
    It won't be the same;
    One thing though,
    As certain as day,
    It will be the poorest
    Who will have to pay;
    While the air conditioned move to higher ground,
    Where a more pleasant clime can be found,
    To continue their lives day to day,
    As if nothing ever happened.

    It's not a good idea,
    To change the climate,
    To one not seen,
    Long before the thylacine,
    It might be a little more green,
    In some places,
    While in others,
    Only desert;
    Where in the future
    All we'll see,
    Is a world where we didn't exist,
    A world where we would never be.

    Should we worry,
    And chance our luck,
    Just ignore the science,
    And hope for the best;
    Well, our children will certainly know,
    In a hundred years or so;
    We will leave them a legacy,
    For them to live by,
    To wonder why,
    People, so supposedly enlightened,
    Like us,
    Could just let it happen.

    Despite all the controversy,
    Debate and prophecy,
    There's one thing certain,

    There is no doubt,
    With CO2 increasing,
    There will be heating,
    Unlike anything we've ever seen.

    So for Paris,
    In two fifteen
    Scientists have spoken;
    Will the politics remain same,
    Just still broken;
    Or will we stop the rot,
    So the world doesn't become,
    A lot more hot?

    mancan18 Dec 2014

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