James White in his lab at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (photo by Tom Yulsman)
This posting is the first in what I plan to be a series that will be looking at climate change. With the election of Barack Obama as president, and the strengthening of the Democrats’ hand in Congress, long-forestalled climate legislation is a likelihood. So after two or three decades when the evidence of humankind’s meddling with the climate system has been accumulating steadily, significant, concerted action on global warming may finally be possible. So it is a good time to take a look at where the global warming story is heading. That will be the focus of this series.
I’ve been commission to write a story about this (for a publication that prefers not to be mentioned here until the story appears there first in total). So what I have in mind for CEJournal is an ”open notebook” project in which I will share some of my reporting as I go along. I hope to include both text summaries of my interviews and background reporting, along with podcasts, pictures and, if possible, video.
This first installment is based on my first interview for the story. Yesterday (1/3/08) I spoke with James White, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. White is a paleoclimatologist, which means he studies ancient climates using data from ice cores and other sources to glean clues about how the climate system works — and how it may continue to respond to the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases that we are pouring into the atmosphere. Toward the end of this posting, I also include some comments from Andrew Revkin, who covers climate change for the New York Times. More details from that interview will come in subsequent posts.
Click here for an audio podcast of a portion of my interview with James White.
Since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 to help get a grip on global warming, the world has gone on a fossil-fuel-burning binge. This raises serious questions about whether we’ll be able to deal with the problem before it is too late for coastal cities such as Miami, which risk being flooded by rising seas on a warming planet.
The protocol was supposed to commit 37 major industrialized nations and the European community to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of five percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. And some countries have done better than others. For example, Germany reduced its emissions by more than 20 percent between 1990 and 2005 (the last year for which I was able to find data). The United Kingdom didn’t do nearly as well, but it still managed to reduce emissions by almost 4 percent.
The United States never ratified Kyoto. (See the ratification list here.) So perhaps it is not surprising that our emissions grew by almost 16 percent between 1990 to 2005. But our growth has been swamped by that in some fast-developing countries. During the same period, for example, India’s emissions grew by 106 percent, and China’s by a whopping 131 percent.
So, despite progress by European countries, carbon dioxide emissions globally haven’t come even close to leveling off. Instead, they have shot up by nearly 30 percent since 1990.
Kyoto was never intended as the solution to global warming. It was supposed to be a first step in the right direction. Says White, “many of us, myself included, thought that Kyoto was one of those necessary baby steps that you take on the way to actually dealing with the problem.”
It obviously hasn’t turned out that way. That’s because the pace of change driven by our need for energy has been “so fast and so enormous,” White says. So it is long past time for scientists to begin to engage in the policy debate over climate change, he argues. “We have to be scientists as well as thinking about policy at the same time.”
White believes the election of Barack Obama offers some opportunities, but the new president and Congress must act very quickly. “If I had five minutes with Barack Obama, I would say, look, you know, the real key problem here is that you can’t wait four years and expect to have results . . . Time is not a luxury we have.”
We have known about the risks we face from pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades. So we’ve lost a lot of time. And transforming our fossil-fuel-based economy to one based on renewable energy will be an enormous undertaking, one that will require 50 or more years.
“We’ve been giving policy makers the sense that there is time to deal with this, and that if we reach 450 ppm, dangerous climate changes would not necessarily occur,” White says, speaking of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in parts per million. “We’re revising that right now.”
James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and other scientists have been arguing that dangerous climate changes could occur at levels well below 450 ppm, and that we have to drop back down below current levels to be safe.
“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm,” Hansen and his colleagues have written in a scientific paper.
The fate of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are among the things that keep scientists like Hansen and White up at night. IPCC predictions of sea level rise from melting ice do not take into account somewhat disturbing new research about ice sheet dynamics. (For more, go here, and here.)
The stakes are huge. “It’s Greenland and West Antartica that really are going to dictate whether or not Miami is around in 2100 or 2150,”White says. “And it’s Greeland and Antarctica that are going to dictate whether we can turn this ship around. This is a very large oil tanker out in the ocean, and it takes a lot for these things to stop — and to reverse direction takes even longer.”
Scientists now know that melting in Greenland and Antarctica is lubricating the base of ice sheets, in many areas hastening the flow of ice into the sea. This contributes to sea level rise. How much can we expect? White says we just don’t know for sure.
This argues for adopting the precautionary principle and reducing our emissions so we will do no more harm. But White isn’t even sure whether that would work: “Once you’ve lubricated the base of these ice sheets, as we know is happening now, can you unlubricate them? Can you refreeze them? Are these things just going to naturally do what they do under a warming scenario, and there’s not much we can do about it?” White even wonders whether a colder climate will be able to stop them.
He says finding answers to these and similar questions is going to be a big focus of global warming research in the coming years.
All of this points to just how complex the climate story is. How well will that complexity be covered in the news media as the United States finally begins to move on climate change legislation? Perhaps not so well, according to Andrew Revkin, who covers climate change at the New York Times and blogs about the subject at DotEarth.
“It will be interesting to see how coverage evolves,” he says. “It will be a lot harder from here on in. For the most part, the media ‘got’ the basic story. But to my mind they have oversimplified it, and that can come back to bite both the media and the public in the butt.”
For more on that subject, come back in the next few days when I post the next installment in this open notebook project.