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  • 31-Jan-09 Climate Damage May Be Irreversible, Report Indicates.
  • SEPP Science Editorial #5-09
    (in TWTW Jan 31, 2009)

    S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)

    Climate Damage May Be Irreversible, Report Indicates.

    Jan 31, 2009

    "Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions." Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein. PNAS 28 January 2009, 10.1073/pnas.0812721106

    NBC Nightly News (1/26) reported on a "disheartening finding on the environment." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says "that if carbon dioxide continues to build up unchecked in our atmosphere, then the effects of global warming could be irreversible for more than a thousand years. That could mean severe drought in some parts of the world. Researchers conclude things are not hopeless as long as immediate action is taken to cut greenhouse gases."

    ScienceDaily (1/28/2009): A new scientific study reaches a powerful conclusion about the climate change caused by future increases of carbon dioxide: to a large extent, there's no going back. The pioneering study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, shows how changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years - even after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. On its front page, the Los Angeles Times (1/27) reports, "The gas already here and the heat that has been absorbed by the ocean will exert their effects for centuries, according to an analysis published in the

    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."* According to the report, "changes in rainfall patterns will bring droughts to the American Southwest, southern Europe, northern Africa and western Australia comparable to those that caused the 1930s Dust Bowl in the U.S." The Times adds, "Scientists familiar with the report said it emphasized the need for immediate action to control emissions."

    As far as I can tell, the paper is all bunk. Looks like PNAS is trying to outdo Science and Nature in publishing really bad science -- all to get some media publicity. Deplorable. Actually, the bunk is 5-fold. But I want to run my thinking past some fellow physicists -- before I go public and make an ass of myself:

    (1) There is the fundamental issue of whether increases in CO2 produce any appreciable warming. If you read the NIPCC report, you all know where I stand on this. The authors adopt a climate sensitivity that is likely too high by a factor of ten. Much ado about nothing. I trust they remembered the fact that the response to increasing CO2 grows only logarithmically.

    (2) Then there is the claim of increased drought (and related disasters). Ah, Clausius-Clapeyron, where are you when we need you? If the oceans warm, then there must be more evaporation and precip. Can one really trust models to know where it will rain? If circulation is affected so that the Earth's desert belts expand, then wouldn't this also guarantee more negative climate feedback from water vapor - offsetting the warming from CO2? And what about the 'verdant Sahara' during the Holocene Warm Period?

    (3) Sea-level rise. The paper produces numbers that greatly exceed those of the 2007 IPCC report (and even more those of NIPCC - 18cm per century) by ignoring the considerable offsetting effects that come from ice accumulation, mainly on the Antarctic continent.

    (4) Much more subtle -- and disputed -- is the question of lifetime of CO2 increases. Is it really the complicated composite of several removal mechanisms that would let CO2 increases remain in the atmosphere for millennia? I don't think so -- but to overcome conventional wisdom I will have to make my arguments more convincing. We also have contrary empirical evidence from volcanic injections.

    (5) Finally, this business of "the warming in the pipeline," which has become folklore and unchallenged since Hansen and Wigley first invented it about 20 years ago. Hansen used it recently [Science 2005] -- and now Solomon. The "pipeline principle" claims that even if GH gases are stabilized, temperatures will keep increasing because of heat stored in the oceans. Apparently, many 'skeptics' believe it also. I think it may violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics - which is a no-no for physicists like me.

    View The Week That Was in which this editorial appeared.

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