Each time you encounter someone trying to claim human-induced global warming is a myth (e.g. because “Mars is warming too!”), you can save a lot of time and energy by just saying, oh yes, that’s myth #16 on the standard list of misunderstandings about climate change. Here’s the list, lovingly and painstakingly put together by John Cook.

Once you’ve got that out of the way, you can then challenge your assailant to identify a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and to get them to give evidence to justify that choice. If they don’t feel qualified to answer this question, then you get to a teachable moment. Take the opportunity to teach your assailant the difference between greenhouse gas emissions and greenhouse gas concentrations. That’s the single most important thing they have to understand. Here’s why:

  • We know that the earth warms by somewhere between 2 and 4.5°C (with a best estimate of about 3°C) for each doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere (this was first calculated over 100 years ago. The number has been refined a little as we’ve come to understand the physical processes better, but only within a degree or two)
  • CO2 is unlike any other pollutant: once it’s in the atmosphere it stays there for centuries (more specifically, it stays in the carbon cycle, being passed around between plants, soil, oceans, and atmosphere. But anyway, it only ever goes away when it eventually gets laid down as a new fossil layer, e.g. at the bottom of the ocean).
  • The earth’s temperature only responds slowly to changes in the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That means that even though we’ve seen warming of around 0.7°C over the last century, we’re still owed at least that much again due to the CO2 we have already added to the atmosphere.
  • The temperature is not determined by the amount of CO2 we emit; it’s determined by the total accumulation in the atmosphere – i.e. how thick the “blanket” is.
  • Because the carbon stays there for centuries, all new emissions increase the concentration, thus compounding the problem. The only sustainable level of net greenhouse gas emissions from human activities is zero.
  • If we ever manage to get to the point where net emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities is zero, the planet will eventually (probably, over centuries) return to pre-industrial atmospheric concentration levels (about 270 parts per million), as the carbon gets reburied. During this time, the earth will continue to warm.
  • Net emissions is, of course, the difference between gross emissions and any carbon we manage to remove from the system artificially. As no technology currently exists today for reliably and permanently removing carbon from the system, it would be prudent to aim for zero gross emissions. And the quicker we do it, the less the planet will warm in the meantime.
  • And 3°C global average temperature is about the difference between the last ice age (which ended about 12,000 years ago) and today’s climate. In the last ice age there were ice sheets 0.5km thick over much of North America and Europe. Now imagine how different the earth will be with a further 3°C of warming.

Okay, so that might be a little bit too much for just one teachable moment. What we really need is a simple elegant tool to illustrate all this. Anyone up to building an interactive visualization? John Sterman tried, but I don’t rate his tool high on the usability scale.

This post by Paul Gilding sums up my experience very well:

Some days my head hurts, as I shift between what feels like two parallel universes in the climate change debate. First I have these conversations with world-class scientists who calmly lay out the scientific view of the various risks posed by climate change and their relative scale and likelihoods. They tell me the science says it is almost certain the impacts will be serious and destabilising for our society and our economy. The science also describes a lower level of risk – which they find hard to quantify but generally say between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse. Not certain, but a reasonable possibility.

It is very clear when you listen to these scientists and read their peer-reviewed reports that, on any calm and rational analysis, we should be preparing for a carbon reduction war. Yes, a war – with all that implies about focus, effort and sacrifice. The threat posed is, after all, a “clear and present danger” and the response should be strong, global and immediate. This should be a ‘whatever it takes’ moment.

Then I shift into the parallel universe.

I spend time in corporate boardrooms and listen to the analysis of business executives who explain how we mustn’t damage the economy by “over-reacting”….

Go read the rest.

The Global Campaign for Climate Action is an umbrella organisation, based in Montreal, which aims to coordinate many diverse environmentalist and science groups (including Greenpeace, WWF, Union of Concerned Scientists, Oxfam, 350.org, and many others) to focus attention on the need for an ambitious, fair and binding climate treaty at the Copenhagen talks in December. Their campaign leading up to the Copenhagen meeting is called TckTckTck, and it promises a bold series of actions over the next few months.

The first of these is next week: Global Wake Up Call (which nicely fits with the “sleepwalking into disaster” idea), and ties in with the premier of The Age of Stupid on Sept 21. The idea is to coordinate the sound of bells and telephones ringing around the world at 12:18pm on Monday, as the wake up call. There’s quite a few in Toronto – including one at Dundas Square. I’ve no idea if this flashmob style protesting works, but I guess there’s one way to find out. Anyone fancy a walk down to Dundas Square on Monday lunchtime?

Update: The Age of Stupid is being screened at the Royal Theatre on Monday night, 7pm.

…is a section heading on page 23 of this new report, “Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges” from the APA on how the field of psychology can contribute to the climate crisis. It’s a very good report, covering many of the core issues in the psychology of climate change, and laying out a research agenda for the field. Let me just quote the final paragraph of the report:

“a psychological perspective is crucial to understanding the probable effects of climate change, to reducing the human drivers of climate change, and to enabling effective social adaptation.  By summarizing the relevant psychological research, we hope not only to enhance recognition of the important role of psychology by both psychologists and non-psychologists, but also to encourage psychologists to be more aware of the relevance of global climate change to our professional interests and enable them to make more of the contributions the discipline can offer.”

Or, if you’re short of time, just read the press release.

Now, where’s the equivalent task force for the computer science community?

23. July 2009 · 6 comments · Categories: advocacy

Here’s a simple parable for climate change:

A large group of kids has congregated out on the sidewalk in front of their school. It started with just a few friends, showing off their latest video game. But the crowd grew, and now completely blocks the sidewalk. A guy in a wheelchair wants to pass, but can’t. The kids are so wrapped up in their own interests that they don’t even notice that together they have completely blocked the sidewalk.

Further along the street there is a busy pub. The lunchtime crowd has spilled out on to the sidewalk, and now has become so big that again the sidewalk is blocked. When the guy in the wheelchair wants to pass, quite a few people in the crowd recognize the problem, and they try to squeeze out of the way. But individually, none of them can make much difference to the blockage – there are just too many people there. They shrug their shoulders and apologise to the guy in the wheelchair.

In both cases, the blockages are not caused by individuals, and cannot be solved by individuals. The blockage is an emergent property of the crowd of people as a whole, and only occurs when the crowd grows to a certain size. In the first case, the members of the crowd remain blissfully unaware of the problem. In the second case, many people do recognise the problem, but cannot, on their own, do much about it. It would take concerted, systematic action by everyone in the crowd to clear a suitable passage. Understanding the problem and wanting to do something about it is not sufficient to solve it – the entire crowd has to take coordinated action.

And if some members of the crowd are more like the kids, unable to recognise the problem, no solution is possible.

Big news today: The G8 summit declares that climate change mitigation policies should aim to limit global temperature increases to no more than 2°C above 1900 levels. This is the limit that Europe adopted as a guideline a long time ago, and which many climate scientists generally regard as an important threshold. I’ve asked many climate scientists why this particular threshold, and the answer is generally because above this level many different positive feedback effects start to kick in, which will amplify the warming and take us into really scary scenarios.

Not all scientists agree this threshold is a sensible target for politicians though. For example, David Victor argues that the 2°C goal is a political delusion. The gist of his argument is that targets such as 2°C are neither safe (because nobody really knows what is safe) nor achievable. He suggests that rather than looking at long term targets such as a temperature threshold, or a cumulative emissions target, politicians need to focus on a series of short-term, credible promises, which, when achieved, will encourage greater efforts.

The problem with this argument is that it misses the opportunity to consider the bigger picture, and understand the enormity of the problem. First, although 2°C doesn’t sound like much, in the context of the history of the planet, it’s huge. James Hansen and colleagues put this into context best, by comparing current warming with the geological record. They point out that with the warming we have already experienced over the last century, the earth is now about as warm as the Holocene Maximum (about 5,000-9,000 years ago), and within 1°C of the maximum temperature of the last million years. If you look at Hansen’s figures (e.g. fig 5, shown below) you’ll see the difference in temperature between the ice ages and the interglacials is around 3°C. For example, the last ice age, which ended about 12,000 years ago shows up as the last big rise on this graph (a rise from 26°C to 29°C):


The wikipedia entry on the Geologic temperature record has a nice graph pasting together a number of geological temperature records to get the longer term view (but it’s not peer-reviewed, so it’s not clear how valid the concatenation is). Anyway, Hansen concludes that 1°C above the 2000 temperature is already in the region of dangerous climate change. If a drop of 3°C is enough to cause an ice age, a rise of 2°C is pretty significant for the planet.

Even more worrying is that some scientists think we’re already committed to more than 2°C rise, based on greenhouse gases already emitted in the past, irrespective of what we do from today onwards. For example, Ramanathan and Feng’s paper in PNAS – Formidable challenges ahead, sets up a scenario in which greenhouse gas concentrations are fixed at 2005 levels, (i.e. no new emissions after 2005) and discover that the climate eventually stabilizes at +2.4°C (with an 95% confidence interval of 1.4°C to 4.3°C). In other words, it is more than likely that we’ve already committed to more than 2°C even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today. [Note: when you read these papers, take care to distinguish between emissions and concentrations]. Now of course, R&F made some assumptions that can be challenged. For example, they assumed the cooling effect of other forms of pollution (e.g atmospheric aerosols) is ignored. There’s a very readable editorial comment on this paper by Hans Schellnhuber in which he argues that, while it’s useful to be reminded how much our greenhouse gas warming is being masked by other kinds of air pollution, it is still possible to keep below 2°C if we halve emissions by 2050. Here’s his graph (A), compared with R&F’s (B):


The lower line on each graph is for constant concentrations from 2005 (i.e. no new emissions). The upper curves are projections for reducing emissions by 50% by 2050. The difference is that in (A), other forcings from atmospheric pollution are included (dirty air and smog, as per usual…).

But that’s not the end of the story. Both of the above graphs are essentially just “back of the envelope” calculations, based on data from previous studies such as those included in the IPCC 2007 assessment. More recent research has investigated these questions directly, using the latest models. The latest analysis is much more like R&F’s graph (B) than Shellenhuber’s graph (A). RealClimate has a nice summary of  two such papers in Nature, in April 2009. Basically, if developed countries cut their emissions by 80% by 2050, we still only get a 50% chance of sticking below the 2°C threshold. Another way of putting this is that a rise of 2°C is about the best we can hope for, even with the most aggressive climate policies imaginable. Parry et al argue we should be prepared for rises of around 4°C. And I’ve already blogged what that might be like.

So, nice to hear the the G8 leaders embrace the science. But what we really need is for them to talk about how bad it really is. And we need action. And fast.

(Update: Gareth Renowden has a lengthier post with more detail on this (framed by discussion of what NZ’s targets should be)

Okay, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the session on Software Engineering for the Planet that we ran at ICSE last week. First, I owe a very big thank you to everyone who helped – to Spencer for co-presenting and lots of follow up work; to my grad students, Jon, Alicia, Carolyn, and Jorge for rehearsing the material with me and suggesting many improvements, and for helping advertise and run the brainstorming session; and of course to everyone who attended and participated in the brainstorming for lots of energy, enthusiasm and positive ideas.

First action as a result of the session was to set up a google group, SE-for-the-planet, as a starting point for coordinating further conversations. I’ve posted the talk slides and brainstorming notes there. Feel free to join the group, and help us build the momentum.

Now, I’m contemplating a whole bunch of immediate action items. I welcome comments on these and any other ideas for immediate next steps:

  • Plan a follow up workshop at a major SE conference in the fall, and another at ICSE next year (waiting a full year was considered by everyone to be too slow).
  • I should give my part of the talk at U of T in the next few weeks, and we should film it and get it up on the web. 
  • Write a short white paper based on the talk, and fire it off to NSF and other funding agencies, to get funding for community building workshops
  • Write a short challenge statement, to which researchers can respond with project ideas to bring to the next workshop.
  • Write up a vision paper based on the talk for CACM and/or IEEE Software
  • Take the talk on the road (a la Al Gore), and offer to give it at any university that has a large software engineering research group (assuming I can come to terms with the increased personal carbon footprint 😉
  • Broaden the talk to a more general computer science audience and repeat most of the above steps.
  • Write a short book (pamphlet) on this, to be used to introduce the topic in undergraduate CS courses, such as computers and society, project courses, etc.

Phew, that will keep me busy for the rest of the week…

Oh, and I managed to post my ICSE photos at last.

One interesting conversation I had at SciBarCamp was on how to get science fiction writers talking more to climate scientists, so they can take the latest science and turn it into compelling stories. The idea would be to tell it like it is. Instead of techno-optimizism or space opera, stories set in the current century that explain what the climate crisis will really do to us.

Several people talked about the need for some more positive visions, rather than the apocalyptic stuff. So, how about a set of stories from the latter half of the 21st Century, set in the world in which we won the battle. We made it to a completely carbon-neutral world. There were heroic efforts along the way by colourful individuals. There were political battles, and maybe a few bloody revolutions. But we avoided burning the trillionth tonne. The world is a little warmer, and we lost a few coastlines, but we avoided the critical thresholds that trigger runaway warming. I’d like to read stories about how we made it.

Maybe a volume of short stories?

(via Grist) A new report from the World Bank on effects of storm surges and extreme weather as a result of global warming. (See an overview in the NY Times, and the draft report). 

(via Gillian) A report in the Lancet on the impacts on health, which begins with the sentence “Climate Change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century”. (See an overview in New Scientist, and the Editorial and full report in the Lancet). But to me, this is the most interesting bit: a roadmap for applied research in health and climate change.

And while we’re on the topic of research roadmaps, here’s one on Psychology and Climate Change, from the Australian Psychological Association.

Update: And another one from WWF And ETNOA – a roadmap on how the ICT sector can contribute to emissions reduction.

I like these roadmaps – send more!

Lately I’ve been advocating for smart people to start asking themselves how their special skills and expertise can be adapted to the challenge of climate change. And for them to get involved and do something. And I don’t just mean dabble around with trying to live a greener lifestyle. I mean to jump in completely and devote their careers to this. Because this is a planetary emergency, and we need a massive brain gain to address it. And because we have a moral obligation to act. (Wish me luck: I’ll be pitching this message to software engineers next week).

But having immersed myself in the climate science for the last couple of years, I’m also aware of a huge cognitive dissonance. It’s like this incredible horrifying secret: the climate scientists have mapped out an apocalyptic future, demonstrating the urgency and the magnitude of the challenge, and have even calculated the probability factors. But most of the rest of the world is blissfully unaware. They carry on living their lives, burning through fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. Why is it not in the papers every day? Why do politicians make speeches and conduct election campaigns with barely a mention of it? Why aren’t there protest marches and sit-ins and hunger strikes?

I frequently meet people who don’t want to know. Some of them have convinced themselves its not happening. More often they treat it as some vague future threat that they’re too busy to worry about right now (and after all, they have changed their lightbulbs already). And some admit it’s too scary to talk about. Almost none of them are willing to take the time and explore what the climate scientists have to say.

And I have to admit, all of these people probably sleep better than I do. They might even be making good rational choices. Because if you spend too long immersed in the science and politics of climate change, there’s a serious danger of “climate trauma”, which appears to be as serious as other kinds of trauma. Gillian Caldwell discusses this at length, and has a bunch of excellent tips to deal with it. Add that to the tips from the Australian Psychological Association that Jon blogged about a few months ago. Because, if you’ve read this far, and want to get involved, you’ll need to heed this advice.

I’m going to SciBarCamp this Saturday. The theme is open science, although we’re free to interpret that as broadly as possible. So here’s my pitch for a session:

Climate Change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. In the last two years, it has become clear that climate change is accelerating, outpacing the IPCC’s 2007 assessment. The paleontological record shows that the planet is “twitchy“, with a number of tipping points at which feedback effects kick in, to take the the planet to a dramatically different climate, which would have disastrous impacts  on the human population. Some climate scientists think we’ve already hit some of these tipping points. However, the best available data suggests that if we can stop the growth of carbon emissions within the next five years, and then then aggressively reduce them to zero over the next few decades, we stand a good chance of averting the worst effects of runaway warming. 

It’s now clear that we can’t tackle this through volunteerism. Asking people to change their lightbulbs and turn off unnecessary appliances is nothing but a distraction: it conceals the real scale of the problem. We need a systematic rethinking of how energy is produced and used throughout society. We need urgent government action on emissions regulation and energy pricing. We need a massive investment in R&D on zero emissions technology (but through an open science initiative, rather than a closed, centralized Manhattan Project style effort). We need a massive R&D effort into how to adapt to those climate changes that we cannot  now avoid: on a warmer planet, we will need to completely rethink food production, water management, disease control, population migration, urban planning, etc. And we will need to understand the potential impacts of the large scale geo-engineering projects that might buy us more time. We need an “all of the above” solution.

Put simply, we’ll need all the brainpower that the planet has to offer to figure out how to meet this challenge. We’ll need scientists and engineers from every discipline to come to the table, and figure out where their particular skills and experience can be most useful. We’ll need to break out of our disciplinary straightjackets, and engage in new interdisciplinary and problem-oriented research programs, to help us understand this new world, and how we might survive in it.

Governments are beginning to recognize the scale of the problem, and are starting to devote research funding to address it. It’s too little, and too late, but it’s a start. This funding is likely to grow substantially over the next few years, depending on how quickly politicians grasp the scale and urgency of the problem. But, as scientists, we shouldn’t wait for governments to get it. We need to get together now, to help explain the science to policymakers and to the public, and to start the new research programmes that will fill the gaps in our current knowledge.

So, here’s what I would like to discuss:

  • How do we get started?
  • How can we secure funding and institutional support for this?
  • How can professional scientists redirect their research efforts to this (and how does this affect the career scientist)?
  • How can scientists from different disciplines identify where their expertise might be needed and identify opportunities to get involved?
  • How can we foster the necessary inter-disciplinary links and open data sharing?
  • What barriers exist, and how can they be overcome?

When my children grow up, the world they live in is likely be very different from ours. There’s a small chance that humanity will rapidly come to its senses, start massive program of emissions reductions, and avoid the worst climate change scenarios. The Hadley Centre gives us about a 50/50 chance if carbon emissions peak by 2015, and then fall steadily at a rate of 3% per year (They are currently rising by nearly 3% per year). If we manage to pull this off, and also win the 50/50 bet, our children and grandchildren will ask us how the hell we managed it.

If we can’t stop emissions growth in the next five years, things look much more grim. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is the picture painted by the New Scientist: How to survive the coming century: a world that is 4°C warmer, 90% of the human population wiped out, the rest relocated to dense cities in Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Uninhabitable deserts across the subtropics. Virtually no life in the oceans. And that’s the good part. The New Scientist article glosses over the climate wars that are almost certain if large parts of the world become uninhabitable. If they survive, our children will demand to know what the hell we were doing: we knew it was coming, we knew how bad it would be, and still we did almost nothing to prevent it.

What did you do in the war?When my kids ask me these questions in decades to come, I need to be ready with an answer. I’d like to say that I did everything I could possibly do. I’d like to say that what I did was effective. And I’d like to be able to say that I made a difference.

This is depressing.

We were at the bank this morning, setting up some investment plans for retirement and for the kids to go through University (In Canada-speak: RRSPs and RESPs). We started to pick out a portfolio of mutual funds into which we would be putting the investments, and our financial advisor was showing us one of the mutual funds he would recommend when I noticed the fund included a substantial investment in the Canadian Oil Sands. “No way” says I. So we went to his next pick. Same thing. And the next. And the next….

The oil sands have been described as the most destructive project on earth. They are the major reason that Canada will renege on its Kyoto treaty obligations. They will devastate a huge area of Alberta, and threaten clean water supplies and the wildlife of large parts of North America.

So, I was struck by the irony of funding the kids through University by investing in a project that will so thoroughly screw up the world in which they will have to live when they grow up.

But then I thought about it some more. Pretty much the entire middle class in Canada must have money invested in this project, if it shows up in most of the mutual funds commonly recommended for retirement and education savings plans. Most of them probably have no idea (after all, who actually looks closely at the contents of their mutual funds?) and of those that do know, most of them will prefer the high rate of return on this project because they have no real understanding of the extent of the climate crisis.

Those funds are being used to maximize the profit from the oils sands, by paying for lobbyists to fight environmental regulations, to fight caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and to fight against alternative energy initiatives (which would eat into the market for oil from the oil sands).

How on earth can we make any progress on fighting climate change when we all have a financial stake in not doing so?

We’re fucked.

In our brainstorm session yesterday, someone (Faraz?) suggested I could kick off the ICSE session with a short video. The closest thing I can think of is this:

Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip

It’s not too long, it covers the recent science very well, and it is exactly the message I want to give – climate change is serious, urgent, demands massive systemic change, but is not something we should despair over. It also comes with a full transcript with detailed references into the primary scientific literature, which is well worth a browse.

Except that it scares the heck out of me every time I watch it. Could I really show this to an ICSE audience?