Dr. Richard Nolthenius - Program Chair of Astronomy, Cabrillo College
Purpose and Prolog: This website is not meant as a review article suitable for a scientific journal, nor is it to give a wide range of conflicting papers equal credibility. It is intended for the non-science student to understand why there is ample reason to be extremely concerned that future climate will be dominated by human activities and significantly hotter and quite possibly disasterous for societies world-wide. I have looked for criticisms of papers and if those criticisms are judged by good reasoning from climate scientists to be valid, I honor that. I do not blindly look at a person's position and immediately give their paper(s) weight simply by the "argument from authority". It must stand the test of scientific criticism to be given credibility. This site is my digest into (I hope) more easily grasped language, visualizations and logic of the physical processes at work in climate, as too much out there tends to either be in intimidating mathematics, specialized jargon and acronyms, or conversely, oversimplified to the point it has no compelling logic. It is an ongoing project, and often includes late- breaking news and publications. Sometimes, they don't stand the test of outside critical review and in that case, I'll alter my content. It is meant for the intelligent layman, and for my Cabrillo College students especially. My goal is to show there is no scientific debate on whether global warming is real and human-caused (vs. "natural variation"), to debunk in as brief and compelling a logic as I can, the climate denialist claims and what the science says. It is to show what the latest research is indicating to be in our future if we continue "business as usual". It is also to show what strategies are being explored to confront climate change. I provide plenty of links to longer papers in quality journals. In some places I also provide links to YouTube videos which have animations, references, and commentary which get the points across to my particular audience perhaps much better than the journal papers referenced therein. Some journal papers are behind pay walls, and in this case I may link to a Science News or similar more popular science media outlet for the gist of the results. Be prepared to see occasional outbursts of moral outrage. Engineers design components to survive worst-case scenarios, yet climate denialists will leap at every questionable source claiming things may not be all that bad, as an excuse to cross fingers and not reconsider our lifestyles for the sake of a disaster that is not yet "proven". To me, this is unconscionably selfish towards future life on Earth; selfish in the worst sense of the word.
I teach a Cabrillo College class "Astro 7 - Planets and Climate" which spends much more time on the scientific principles underylying planetary atmospheres and climate. I invite you to look at the PowerPoint presentations for this course for a more comprehensive look at climate, beyond the political dynamics which get a bit more attention here on this website.
With those caveats, let's start...
The climate debate - Is the strong global warming of the past ~60 years due to human activities or not? But wait... is there really a "climate debate"? No. Not among climate scientists themselves. Global warming is strongly supported by the evidence to be human-caused. The idea that human-generated CO2 can change climate significantly dates back over 100 years. By 1990, data, computer modelling, and theory were solid enough to leave little doubt that human-generated fossil fuel emissions were changing climate and that it would accelerate. Since then, the widening disagreement between reality and climate models which neglect human causes has caused growing alarm and consensus that dramatic and urgent action is needed. More recently, 98% of working, publishing climate scientists support the conclusion that global warming is real (i.e. not just a wiggle in noisy climate records, or "natural variation") and caused by human activities, mainly though fossil fuel burning, according to this analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Anderegg et.al. 2010) . But, you say, we hear all the time on the news how controversial the issue is and it seems scientists are arguing fiercely about what is causing climate change - isn't it obvious there's a genuine debate on global warming's cause? No - the problem is that there are well-funded lobbying efforts by oil and mining corporate interests to get the public and the politicians to believe there's a big scientific controversy, as a way to stall policy changes which threaten their profit streams. While there is a very active continuing research effort to clarify key climate processes, including modelling clouds and their feedbacks, the evidence strongly indicates that while these refinements will improve the error bars, they will not change the verdict. Depending on how that goes, the business-as-usual scenario will, by the end of the century, vary from being very bad, to being truly disasterous. There is no reasonable possibility that they will exonerate humans as the cause of the rapid warming that we're seeing. And therefore, that it is up to human beings to change, if they want to avoid disaster. I will justify that statement in this website.
If this were a resource page on purely astronomical understandings, there'd be no need to delve into politics and junk science. There's no corporate interests who feel threatened by what astronomers discover or conclude. Not so in climate research. Unfortunately, students cannot simply accept on trusting faith that what they hear in the media, or even in some classrooms, can be taken at face value. (note: AGW = anthropogenic global warming = global warming which is caused primarily by human activities, a useful abbreviation in what follows.
I'll organize this website as follows:
1. The Politics of Climate
2. Debunking the AGW Denialist claims, and some Denialist Tactics
3. The Key Evidence That Global Warming is Human-Caused and Condensed in One Page
4. Today and Beyond: New Evidence and Consequences
5. Strategies... What is to be Done?
Growth rate of CO2 in parts per million per year, with 10 year averages included (horizontal bars). I've added the economic recessions for the past 50 years, which correlate well with drops in the rise rate of CO2. This is most dramatically seen in the "oil-shock" recessions of the Arab Oil Embargo of '74, and the first Gulf War in '91, which particularly affected the availability of oil. The correlation is obvious.
Net human and natural contributions, in percent of total, to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange). Note that "natural variation" contributions in most studies are actually slightly cooling the planet, so that human-caused global warming is actually slightly stronger than 100% of the warming that we observe.
We know that the denialists have provided not a single theory shown to be consistent with the observations, nor even an idea which pretends to be a plausible explanation for what we have seen. They attack by seeding doubt, and they attack by smearing the integrity of climate scientists and even the process of science itself. We know that many millions of dollars of corporate money is being funneled to climate denialists and that their media and political connections have succeeded in dis-informing lay people, politicians, and even second-rate teachers who should know better, playing on their psychological tendencies. We know that this is especially prevalent in the United States, and that people in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, for example, are much better aligned with the scientific consensus. As of 2009, only 36% of average Americans believe that global warming is caused by human activities, from a Pew poll. We know that there is already further warming of 1 degree Fahrenheit "in the pipeline"over the coming decades which will happen even if, against all politico-corporate inertia, we keep CO2 atmospheric levels constant, due to fact the vast majority (~93%) of the greenhouse heating that has already occurred has gone into the oceans, where it remains, and due to the well understood thermal inertia of the ocean and its decreasing ability to absorb CO2 with increasing temperature. And we know that the relatively mild policy proposals so far discussed, including Kyoto, are inadequate to prevent economically and environmentally devastating consequences. We know that even these proposals can't get any political traction, due to the efforts of denialists (example: the CRU email theft just before the Copenhagen Climate Summit , and see the denialism of the Republican candidates of the 2010 election). The Copenhagen Climate Summit, thanks in part to the efforts of climate denialists, was a dismal failure. Even the one "accord" agreed upon, that we must confine total global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, is derided by scientists as far too much ("2 C is the boundary between dangerous and extremely dangerous climate change" - A. Bows; Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research), and yet at current emission rates, by 2028 we will have already used up our entire allotment (~565 billion tons of CO2 emissions), which can have some hope of keeping us under 2 C. This represents only 1/5 of proven oil reserves. Said another way, if we continue on "business as usual" till 2028 and then STOP ALL EMISSIONS PERMANENTLY, we will have commited to 2 C of warming and that warming would be permanent (as we'll see). 2 C is more than 1/3 of the warming that happened emerging completely out of the last great Ice Age. In the face of this, oil and coal companies continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to discover and plan to exploit additional fossil carbon which, if burned, will devastate our future.
We need immediate and severe reductions in CO2 emission, a fact which is in such strong conflict with the desires of the Third World and Asia to adopt the conspicuous consumerist lifestyle they envy from the West, that it may well take a whole series of catastrophic events spaced closely enough that they do not exceed our shrinking attention span - events unequivocally tied to global warming - before civilization will take the drastic steps required to prevent the worst consequences. Perhaps even more serious than climate change is the tragedy that CO2 is inflicting on ocean ecosystems due to CO2-induced acidification (links here, here, and references therein).
Maybe this is a good place to repeat something I have, for 26 years now, told all my Astro lecture classes at one point or another - Nolthenius' First Law: People Learn the Hard Way. Most (a voting majority certainly) are unable to make real and compelling enough within their own minds what the difficult truth is, and to support the necessary action. They will eventually commit to serious action when they see the world seriously going wrong around them - but by then it's far too late. That is the inexorable physics of time scales, and the very unfortunate time scale for climate forcing and response, as we'll see.The Larger Problem - Living Beyond the Carrying Capacity of The Earth
Meanwhile, as the American public and politicians appear unwilling or unable to see through the fog financed by the oil and mining industry and face up to human responsibility for global warming, the rest of the world moves on. China, only recently having elevated itself out of Third World status, is already leading the U.S. in all measures of clean energy technology development and use, and by a significant margin. China is hardly a model world citizen, but they are not indulging in the self-deception that we are, here in the U.S. That said, China sees the U.S. making no efforts towards facing climate change, and they have a deep collective feeling of inseurity which manifests as an insatiable desire to become the #1 world power once again. So, clean technologies or not, net/net, China continues to grow its CO2 emissions, now at twice the rate that the U.S. is, and their coal plants in particular are pushing the climate past tipping points (Simons 2012) and towards environmental disaster.
All of human civilization, beginning with paleolithic man emerging from the last Ice Age, has taken place in this time frame, and enabled by a stable climate that allows consistent growing zones and building of civilization infrastructure. Now look at the man-made carbon-induced climate change that has started. Taken from Marcott et.al. (2013), and described for the layman here
A Few Degrees Warmer - So What?
You may think - "What's the big deal? Heck, I don't even know if I can tell when it's a couple of degrees warmer. Temperatures go up and down more than that every day of every year. Maybe I'll have to crank up my air conditioner a notch during summer, maybe we'll have to say good bye to a few species. It's not a disaster (After all, Richard Lindzen says so!)". What this naive thinking fails to grasp is two things. First, that the change in temperature is held consistently, not oscillating as in the daily or seasonal cycle with no net change in the average. A consistently held temperature rise, even when small, has very strong consequences. Second, that the world is adapted to a global climate which is disappearing far too rapidly - species cannot adapt when change happens this quickly. Species adapt when changes happen slowly over thousands of years or longer. When change of this magnitude happens in decades - species instead go extinct. A few degrees, held permanently, will melt all the ice of the poles, will cause mass die-offs of present forests and crops, will melt Arctic lakes and tundra with large reservoirs of methane. Methane from the melting permafrost is now calculated to add fully another 30% or more to greenhouse forcing, beyond what has already been assumed in the IPCC AR4 of 2007 (UN report 2012). A warming ocean has the very real (but still poorly understood) possibility of destabilizing large continental shelf methane hydrate deposits in a positive feedback loop, rapidly escalating warming still further. Another dangerous positive feedback is the thawing of the large carbon stores in the permafrost. A new study of past Siberian climate finds that this permafrost melting all the way down to the level of underground caves, begins at a temperature of only 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels (Vaks et al. 2013 and Science News summary here). The Vaks study does not include a newly identified positive feedback - the record wildfires that are now beginning in the Boreal forests, with their killing of the insulating vegetation and exposure of the permafrost to blackened ground warmed by the sun (Kelly et al. 2013 in PNAS, and good digest for the lay person here). We are already halfway there (0.88 C), and the other half is guaranteed "in the pipeline" even if CO2 levels in the atmosphere are held constant into the future. The release of Arctic methane was not included in the IPCC AR4 projections, due to the large uncertainties at that time of how it would evolve. Clearly that underestimates the contribution to global warming.
As sea levels rise, countries will lose their most valuable and populated property - coastal property. You may say - there'll ALWAYS be coastlines, so what's the big deal? But as sea level rise accelerates, it makes it very difficult to count on shoreline positions stable enough over time to hold their economic value. A recent paper by geophysicists (Raymo and Mitrovica 2012 in the journal Nature) indicates that, based on the observed sea level rise during a comparable temperature rise such as we are seeing in the 21st century (during interglacial MIS 11, 400,000 years ago), we saw a sea level rise of 31 feet above today's level. That will devastate most of the Earth's great cities. Countries like Pakistan (a nuclear power, and not a very stable one) will lose a high fraction of its agricultural land, and a significant part of their entire country. Some island countries will simply disappear under the ocean. Crops will fail as rain patterns change. Wildfires will become larger and more widespread, yet another positive feedback further adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Here in California, droughts will become more common and more severe. This is confirmed by the observations that the Hadley Cell boundary (which now borders California's southern edge), marking the latitudes of descending drying air that cause the Earth's great deserts, has widened by ~5 degrees of latitude (about 350 miles) since 1979, corresponding to the period of rapid CO2-induced climate change (Johanson and Fu 2009). Drought in the mid latitudes is and will continue to fuel more fires and the ash from these fires is finding its way to the ice caps, especially worrying is wildfire ash and coal plant pollution dirtying Greenland's pristine ice , lowering its reflectivity, accelerating the melting of the ice. Ice also becomes darker when it partially melts, affecting the geometry of the snowflakes. Rapidly rising CO2 will continue to be absorbed into the ocean much faster than it can be taken out by natural processes, raising its acidity and ruining the ability for calcium carbonate to form, which is the basis for a vast array of sea life which depend on this chemistry. The pH of the oceans have changed more in the last 150 years than in the previous several million years. The effects on all calcarious ocean life forms is serious. This includes corals which form the habitat for 1/4 of all marine species at some point in their life cycles. Already we are seeing mass die-offs of coral reefs. Half of one of the world's great heritage sites - Australia's Great Barrier Reef - is already gone, due mostly to weakened and bleached coral combined with increasingly severe storms. Prior to the 1980's coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef was unknown. Now, it is common, due to rising ocean temperatures. Corals can only survive in a bleached state for a few weeks, Even using the overly conservative 2007 IPCC scenarios, by mid-century the oceans will be too acidic for the survival of coral reefs (Lang 2007), and they will disappear (Silverman et al. 2009). In CO2 conditions corresponding to the end of the century with "business as usual", experiments at the Great Barrier Reef show corals will be gone (De'ath et al. 2013). At higher acidifications, more carbonate-based species will perish. Already, at the beginning of the cascade of global warming effects, rising ocean temperatures (93% of global warming has been absorbed by the oceans) have reduced marine phytoplankton by 40% since 1950. Note that 45-70% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere (Fenicle 1983, and here) is produced by marine phytoplankton. Here is a good introduction to anthropogenic CO2 and the consequences of ocean acidification. Here is an introductory video program on ocean acidification designed for the general public. There are already serious pH-induced reproductive failures among shellfish happening now. The pH in the Puget Sound of Washington, uncorrelated with any local pH drivers, has plunged (acidified) from 8.3 to 7.7 in just the past decade (Wootten 2013). Freshwater systems face a bleak future as well. The Great Lakes are predicted to degenerate into a soup of deoxygenated water and surface scum, as indeed is already beginning in the most fish-rich (historically) and southern-most of the lakes; Lake Erie (Michalak et al. 2013). Climate change is rapidly destabilizing our ability to provide food for a still growing population. Already, we have seen revolutions whose initiating cause was famine. Dismissive reassurances from Exxon's CEO that "we'll adapt" conveniently ignore that all of human history has occurred during a period of very stable climate, and worse still, unlike past climate changes (CO2 certainly has been higher in the distant past, for example), the anthropogenic-driven climate change of the present is happening 10 times faster than any previous climate shift of the last 65 million years, according to Stanford researchers (Diffenbach et al. 2013). New studies (2012) by integrative biologists provide evidence we are rapidly heading towards a world in which it will be difficult for us to live (versus just sending off to extinction many of our fellow creatures which we short-sightedly deem not sufficiently economically useful to us). And exactly how sensitive is climate to a doubling of CO2 levels? Pagani et al. (2006) argue that to explain the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum may require a much higher sensitivity of global temperatures to a CO2 doubling (including all feedbacks) than has been conventionally assumed. This argues that positive feedbacks (clouds most likely) are more powerful than the base case assumes. This conclusion is also consistent with the work of Fasullo et al. (2012), who finds that it is the most "alarming" climate models which do the best job of predicting what we have already seen. (see an interview with Fasullo on this work here).
Scientific and Societal Uncertainties
The largest scientific uncertainties are likely in cloud feedbacks. At the currently small temperature changes already seen, cloud feedback appears to be a small net positive (i.e. clouds amplify the GHG induced warming), but we can't rule out that it is in fact a small net negative, although there is no evidence nor theoretical backing that they are or should be negative. For larger temperature rises such as are expected we have not enough theoretical or computational ability to say with confidence how clouds will respond. Increased cirrus clouds such as we might expect from stronger, taller convective storms driven by the warmer ocean would, in and of themselves, be a positive feedback, but there may be other effects. Aerosol feedbacks are also not as well understood as needed. Sulfate aerosols act to cool climate, but soot aerosols act the opposite. Aerosols also act as cloud condensation nuclei. The greatest uncertainty in aerosol calculations is how much humans will contribute pollution aerosols into the future. Global climate models usually assume no cloud feedbacks, which is consistent with observations so far. Aerosol assumptions vary. Is it possible that in the hotter future climate regime a strong negative cloud feedback could develop and significantly reduce eventual heating? Not impossible to rule out but I've yet to see a paper which has survived critical scrutiny by climatologists which predicts this. And we have certainly seen extreme climates in paleo climate data. Confronted with this, we could nevertheless cross our fingers and hope. Is it possible that despite warming, that Greenland will acquire enough more ice at its highest elevations through increasingly humid air to offset melting at the coast and reduce sea level rise? Can't rule this out with confidence, but it is certainly not consistent with what we have seen with recent data, nor with paleo data from past interglacial climate periods.
Equilibrium response of the global temperature as a function of CO2 concentrations, based on three different approaches. a) from the PALEOSENS workshop, using data from the late Pleistocene of the past 800 kyr; b) Using data of the past 20 Myr from RW_11; c) Based on JH_12 using similar data of the past 800 kyr as in a); and d) Combination of all three approaches. Plotted areas include uncertainty estimates of one standard deviation from PALEOSENS.
ECS with "fast" response only is 2.2-4.8 C. Millenium+ length feedback equilibrium gives ECS=~7C
Range is 2-5 Celsius
Here's another case in point about apparent uncertainties: Climate sensitivity to rising CO2 is not as accurately known as we need. A recent paper by Otto et al. 2013 (pdf here) finds a low equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) of 2 C, vs the 3-4 C favored in the IPCC AR4 based in part on paleoclimate data. While initially hopeful upon reading this, I'm less so now. The analysis simply takes data from the late 19th century up to now and extrapolates it to get to a full doubling of pre-industrial CO2 atmospheric levels. This assumes warming is a fairly linear process with CO2 levels, which it almost certainly is not. It assumes the next 40% (of rise in CO2) will be like the first 40% which got us to the present day, so that the first 0.9C we currently have experienced halfway, is followed by another 0.9C when we go the next 40% for a resulting full doubling. But it has taken up until now to slowly melt through nearly all the permanent ice of the Arctic Ocean. Ice, whether thick or thin, is still white and reflective. When the summer ice is gone - a time which is now arriving - there's a quantum shift in reflectivity which is only now beginning to be felt. High temperatures in Siberia are already causing serious melting of the permafrost. The dark Arctic is calculated to accelerate thawing the permafrost soon, and the 21st century steepening in atmospheric methane levels may already be reflecting this (although we are not 100% certain this accounts for the change in slope of methane rise rate seen in the graph above). This is a positive feedback which has no counterpart in the dataset used by Otto et al.. Paleoclimate data, however, includes all feedback effects. Studies using paleoclimate data find an ECS which consistently falls in the 2-5C range, with 3 C the most likely value (at left: right panel graph). Lewis also found a low CO2 climate sensitivity using only recent data (not so good) and Baysian statistics (good!), but his definition is not consistently defined and in fact looks to be a transient climate sensitivity rather than equilibrium. He also apparently uses an outlier value for aerosol indirect effects which sends his estimate lower - a fact which some climatologists are surprised got past the referee. Lewis also misrepresents Aldrin et al. 2012 review article as showing agreement with his value, when it does not. See discussion here
Even if the Arctic methane and Arctic ice loss albedo effects somehow were not to raise equilibrium climate sensitivity above the Otto et al. estimate, a "business as usual" scenario or anything close to it, will result in global temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsium above the pre-industrial temperature well before the end of this century, and the fossil fuel companies are determined and confident they will do just that, as evidenced by their investing hundreds of millions of dollars in exploring for even more carbon fuel sources to exploit, beyond those already identified - and the existng known reserves already are 5 times the amount that can be injected into the atmosphere and have any hope of confining temperature rise to +2 C above pre-industrial levels (even the International Energy Agency is now acknowleding this, although say 3 times).
What will be the response of civilization as rapid climate and ecological change accelerate in coming years? Will we rise to the occasion and work together? A 2013 study looking at global data over the entire span of human civilization, find a significant correlation between hot weather and violence, rioting, and civil war (in Aug 1, 2013 Nature, summarized here). World wars, in fact, have started over much less. Fighting over desires or "status" is one thing.... perhaps tempers can be calmed.. But fighting over basic food, water, and the very existence or habitability of the land you live on, is quite another. The 6 C global temperature rise which is now a serious possibility in a "business as usual" scenario for the end of the 21st century, is larger than the global temperature difference between the depths of the last great Ice Age (5 C), and the current warm interglacial, before human-caused global warming. This is happening in a mere century or so, rather than over thousands or millions of years, as in past climate changes.
These changes are predicted to continue for 10's to 100's of thousands of years (Eby et al. 2009, Zeebe et al. 2013). The higher global average temperatures we cause now, will remain high. They will not go back down - even if we stop all carbon emissions today - temperatures will not drop (Solomon et al. 2009, and Gillette et al. 2011). Held high in this way, all ice will disappear. In a relentless "business as usual" scenario, within just 3 centuries, half of Earth's current population is living on land which may become uninhabitable due to extreme heat (McMichael et al. 2010 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, behind pay wall, but good summary is here).
Pause, and let that sink in. A few degrees will be devastating to human civilization and likely much of the life on Earth. It is worth almost ANY economic cost we must pay to stop it. Now. We owe this to our children and their children, and the millions of other species on this rare planet we occupy.
A Final Comment
The first warnings of anthropogenic CO2-induced global warming date back fully a hundred years, to the work of Arrhenius. One hundred years! The evidence for human-caused global warming was strong enough in the late 1980's to be "settled" for strong policy changes. Denialism and oil/mining lobbying have combined with a science-ignorant American public (and alarmingly poor public education) to stonewall the hard policy needed to drastically reduce carbon emissions and save what we can. Denialists continue to claim that strong action is premature, that more science is needed, that it's too costly to our lifestyle to think about significant reductions in CO2 emissions until the "science is settled" (conviction happened long ago - it's us.) and worse - that climate scientists are liars, group-think'ers akin to religious zealots, and conspirators. Consider this cautionary tale: Merrill Lynch in 2008 used a few million dollars in extra bonuses to motivate its own brokers to buy billions of dollars of Merrill Lynch-created CDO's (collateralized mortgage debt obligations) which the wider market judged to be of both very low-value and very high-risk. They did this just to move these CDO's out the door. This essentially was committing suicide - just a few years ago, Merrill Lynch, through its own short term greed for a few million dollars, destroyed itself - a 100 year old financial institution once worth tens of billions of dollars. In the same way, the oil and mining corporations appear just as willing to do almost anything to keep just one more quarter of big profits coming in, even if it means long term disaster for not only our children but for all future generations. Climate scientists are receiving threats of bodily and other harm. There is the prospect of McCarthy Era -style inquisitions of climate scientists by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives (and here). The Arctic Ocean is projected to be only a couple of dozen years away from losing the last of its permanent ice, with dire consequences for the albedo of the Earth and further warming. We are in the midst of the 6th great Mass Extinction since life began on Earth, this one caused by humans - the Anthropocene Extinction, with approximately half of all species of life on Earth predicted to go extinct by the end of this, the 21st century - half, or more, of all species of life on Earth . Given the overly conservative estimates on the loss of polar ice in the (2007) IPCC AR4 and the much faster environmental damage which observations are showing (see bottom of this page), a rapidly growing number in the climate science community are afraid it may already be too late. That the tipping point towards a catastrophic climate future has already been passed. The oceans are already rapidly declining, and the plastics we've dumped into the oceans may kill most sea life over the coming century. If so, what a stupid and tragic legacy we are leaving to all future generations. Climate scientists are, privately, angry and appalled at the reaction to their work. Biologists that I know personally are so bitter that they have expressed the sentiment that we deserve the fate which we ourselves are going to suffer, including massive loss of human life. Future generations will look back on us with contempt. To stumble into a tragedy is one thing - but this tragedy we have known was in the making for decades, while policy makers, corporate heads, and most unforgivable of all - even some educators, decided their own petty agendas were more important than communicating the weight of evidence for what is happening, and what is coming.
From the IPCC AR4 document, 2007. More recent studies now include factors previously ignored, and show these projections are almost certainly significant underestimates of the severity of warming in the future, as Arctic Ocean melting and albedo effects are far ahead of schedule.
From Wigley & Weaver (2010) with explanation here. The red curve is climate change if all greenhouse gases are kept at 2010 values - warming continues for at least 200 years (essentially the purple curve from the IPCC graph at left). The blue curve is if we stop ALL GHG emissions today - the result is that we only keep temperatures constant - they do NOT fall. This is a vital point which seems unappreciated in the popular press. The naive notion that if you just stop doing "bad things", then the world will stop punishing you - is false. We need to REVERSE what we have done - immediately.
Update Dec 17, 2012
Significant parts of the current draft of the new IPCC AR5 (assessment report #5 since the IPCC was created over 20 years ago) have just appeared ahead of full publication anticipated in 2014. They confirm the key points of what I've presented on this website (no surprise). Yet climate denialists continue with their standard behavior - ignorance of basic science, shrill slander against scientists, and ideology-driven anti-science spin. See the latest IPCC graphs and the nonsense from denialist bloggers here, and the response of the IPCC author/scientist here. Still, the leaked draft of AR5 remains on average more conservative than is the actual science of the past 6 years since the previous IPCC AR4. This is, after all, a report that gets science from the scientists, but every word gets tinkered with later by the politicians; it must get the unanimous approval of the political leaderships as well. The IPCC is a United Nations sponsored entity, and the largest carbon emitters are also the countries with the largest contingent of IPCC scientists. According to Stanford climatologist and IPCC AR4 key contributor Stephen Schneider, China's veto power significantly played down some aspects of the AR4 report. Nevertheless, I continue to give the IPCC credit in persevering with the science they DO manage to get past all the desks along the way to publication.
Update October, 2013
The IPCC AR5 is out. It is disappointing that oil-sponsored interests continue to block publication of the most scientifically representative conclusions and projections, and instead underplay the dangers of human-caused CO2. Here's more from the IPCC scientists on what the process is for getting the document from science, past the politicians, to the public , and how the world's major oil producers succeeded in blocking key risk studies and data from being published in the last IPCC AR4. Note that the IPCC AR5 document, in the policy summary statement (the one the politicians and governments are most concerned with, knowing only the wonks will pay attention to the scientific details) follows the AR4 in making making the muddled position of "95% probability that global warming is human caused". This is up from 90% in the AR4. This statement makes no sense, as any scientist will tell you there is ZERO uncertainty that CO2 has risen to the levels the instruments say, and that there is ZERO uncertainty that this WILL warm Earth's climate, and that no other cause has passed any test whatsoever for being a possible competing cause. A better statement might have said "Global warming has been X% caused by humans, plus or minus X", but politicians and that tiny fraction of oil-company supported scientists who volunteered to be part of the IPCC refuse to sign off on such statements. Read the actual scientific papers and you'll find no backing to this notion of a 5% chance it's all "natural variation".
-- See the powerpoints and other web material I have assembled for my Cabrillo College course "Astronomy 7 - Planets and Climate", which has a great deal of material on current climate change on Earth
--Here's a good set of video programs covering in concentrated form the scientific case for human-caused global warming and a close look at the attempts to discredit human-caused global warming, from a prominent science writer.
--A set of videos from the National Academy of Science, for the layman, on the evidence for human-caused global warming
--Earth: The Operator's Manual (PBS program hosted by Professor Richard Alley)
--A UCAR module for the scientifically minded layman and weather people, on climate modelling
--Prof. David Archer's Univ. of Chicago course Phy Sci 134: "Global Warming" in a series of mp4 lectures.
and below as a series of video lectures for the non-science major. Note, these had been on YouTube but have been removed, and the higher resolution versions are freely available at the University Chicago link provided. I would suggest downloading them and then using your favorite mp4 player to watch them...
0 - Global Warming in Geologic Time (1hr 10min)
1 - Intro (11min)
2.2 - Heat and Light (50min)
2.3 - Blackbody Radiation and Quantum Mechanics (44min)
3 - Our First Climate Model (46min)
3.2 - The Greenhouse Effect (43min)
4.1 - What Makes a Greenhouse Gas? (45min)
4.2 - Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere (45min)
5.1 - What Holds the Atmosphere Up? (51min)
5.2 - Why It's Colder Aloft (45min)
6 - Wind, Currents, and Heat (50min)
7 - Ice and Water Vapor Feedbacks (35min)
7.2 - Clouds (48min)
8.1 - The Weathering CO2 Thermostat (37min)
8.2 - The Lungs of the Carbon Cycle (47min)
9.1 - The Battery of the Biosphere (43min)
9.2 - Coal and Oil (49min)
9.3 - Oil and Methane (44min)
10.1 - The Carbon Cycle Today (34min)
10.2 - The Long Thaw (41min)
11.1 - The Smoking Gun (46min)
11.2 - The Present in the Bosom of the Past (44min)
12 - Six Degrees (46min)
13 - Hot, Flat, and Crowded (13min)
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