IPCC Discovers Infographics – Communicates Climate Change

Working Group II put out their state of the climate for AR5 this March and finally worked out how to communicate climate change.

WHO: The many, many world leading scientific authors of the IPCC – the list is here.

WHAT: Working Group II – the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation group from the IPCC

WHEN: 31 March 2014

WHERE: The IPCC website

TITLE: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (open access)

Remember in October 2013, when the first chunk of the IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5 for us nerds) was released and I was really snarky about how everyone at the UN speaks a really dense dialect of bureaucrat that almost no-one else can understand and will therefore not bother to read?

Well this time the IPCC got it right! The report from Working Group II who look at the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation humanity will have to do because of climate change discovered colours and infographics and language that normal people actually speak and then used it in their summary for policy makers. They even improved the website to make it more user friendly. Round of applause to the IPCC, the UN Foundation and all the communicators who probably spent many hours de-wonkifying the scientific and bureaucratic language.

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

The IPCC discovers colour and images (from paper)

This means my job this week was much easier as I don’t even need to translate the 44-page summary for you, but since it’s 44 pages long, I’ll give you the short version.

This time around, the IPCC deliberately went with a risk management frame for communicating climate impacts, and noted that doing something about climate change isn’t really related to the science, so much as it’s a value judgement on how much we’re willing to roll the dice. They do however helpfully point out that ‘climate change poses risks for human and natural systems’ and that it’s being felt in all countries, on all continents and in all the oceans as well. Sorry to burst your bubble if you thought climate change wasn’t going to get you too.

They even put a glossary up the front so you know what they’re talking about when they use words like ‘hazard’, ‘exposure’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘impacts’, ‘risk’, ‘adaptation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘resilience’. Communication high five, IPCC.

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

Siku the polar bear (image: Polar Bears International)

So what’s happening so far because of climate change then? Well, it’s a long list of nasty stuff; glaciers are melting, there’s drought, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane. Species are being forced out of their habitat faster than they can move and going extinct and the IPCC can report with a high level of confidence that we’re causing climate change extinctions at a much faster rate than has ever happened with previous natural cycles of climate change.

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Plant and animal migration opportunities and how far they could get pushed with climate change (from paper)

Crops are getting more negative impacts from climate extremes than the extra CO2 is helping them grow, and the ability to grow lettuce in Greenland will be a coin toss depending on how good the quality of the soil is at such high latitudes. Climate change is already affecting the yield of wheat, maize, rice and soybean crops.

Climate change is affecting (and will continue to affect) humans too – it’s harming our health through heatwave deaths and increased waterborne diseases. It’s a ‘threat multiplier’, which means it makes stressful situations more dire, like the drought in Syria which was a big factor in the current civil war there.

The authors also point out that vulnerabilities differ because of inequality, which is their nice way of saying that if you’re poor or you live in a poor country; climate change will hit you first. This makes sense from what we’re already seeing of climate impacts and clean up from extreme weather disasters – it’s much harder to plan for climate adaptation when you live in a warzone.

After all that depressing news, they follow up with some good news – what we’re doing to adapt to climate change. They point out that adaptation is becoming embedded into planning processes, so areas will be more resilient to changes. Adaptation knowledge is accumulating in both the private and public sectors and is being incorporated into risk management processes.

They do point out though that adaptation and mitigation choices that are made now will affect the severity of climate change for the rest of the century. No pressure or anything, but if we get this wrong all your grandchildren might hate you for it.

Future risks
Then they get into how bad it could get if we do nothing. Low-lying Pacific Islands go underwater (the first one was actually evacuated last weekend), coastal cities get flooded, people die in storms and heatwaves, food runs short in some places, farmers lose their land from drought and desertification and places we are really fond of like the Great Barrier Reef die too.

But even if you don’t care about the plants, animals or people in far away countries, the IPCC isn’t going to let you off the hook. They point out that human influence on the climate system is clear, and it’s the level of danger to humans that we have to manage.

Then they do get a little wonky and come up with a hilarious acronym: RFC which stands for ‘Reasons for Concern’ (bureaucrats have a deep love of acronyms). What are the RFCs and should they be keeping you up at night?

Well it’s your call to lose sleep over it, but you should be worried about losing unique systems (any natural wonder of the world basically), extreme weather, uneven distribution of impacts (even if climate change doesn’t destroy your home city, where do you think all the migrants from the dustbowl will go?), global aggregate impacts (like ocean acidification killing all commercial fisheries), and abrupt irreversible impacts (hello melting Greenland ice sheet!).

Sensibly, they point out that increased warming puts us at a greater risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’, and that the cost of adapting to all these scary disasters is much cheaper if we mitigate (you know, stop burning carbon).

Sectoral risks
Just in case you still thought that climate change is not going to affect you, your friends and family, your hometown and your favourite holiday location, the IPCC would like to let you know it’s also going to affect your livelihood and your access to food.

We’re going to have more drought and water shortages, could have abrupt change in the Arctic or Amazon rainforest causing all kinds of disruption to not only carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity but also economic activity.

Coastal populations will be threatened by flooding, fisheries could collapse and ocean acidification already caused the loss of $10million worth of scallops in Canada. We’ll probably get more famines thus wiping out all the great work charities have done to try and end world hunger, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the report says ‘all aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change, including food access, utilisation and price stability’. Everything is going to get more expensive and harder to source.

Cities will have more heat stress, flash flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought and water scarcity (the difference being that drought is when you’re short on water for your garden, water scarcity is when you’re short on water for people). Rural areas will have more food and water insecurity and could lose their farms and livelihoods to drought.

And if that laundry list of destruction wasn’t enough for you, here’s what the IPCC says about their worst case scenario projection (which is what will happen with business as usual): ‘by 2100 for the high-emission scenario RCP 8.5 the combination of high temperatures and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities including growing food or working outdoors’.

Yeah, business as usual will make it too hot to go outdoors in some places and you won’t be able to grow any food.

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Too hot to go outside – business as usual in 2100 on right (from paper)

Building resilience
So now that the IPCC has told us with high levels of certainty that we’re in big trouble and that climate change is going to affect everyone, no matter how much money you have to still import bacon, coffee and avocados, what can we do about it?

Firstly – coordinate across different levels of government for things like flood proofing and building infrastructure. Use the range of available strategies and actions to make sure communities are reducing their vulnerability – each of the risk bars on the IPCC infographic have a shaded area, which is the amount of risk that can be reduced through adaptation. Make sure planning takes into account diverse interests, circumstances and sociocultural contexts.

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Adaptation risk management opportunities for Australia (from paper)

Some of the really hard conversations around climate change in the future are going to be with communities who will need to relocate or will lose their way of life because of climate impacts. These discussions are both really important and really difficult – we should be planning for that.

The report gives a slight nod to fossil fuel subsides (and the need to remove them) by saying ‘improved resource pricing, charges and subsidies’ which is their way of saying ‘divest, people’.

Also, (and somewhat obviously, but these things need to be said) the success of any adaptation will depend on how much we mitigate. Unless we stop burning carbon, we won’t have anything left we can adapt to – remember, business as usual makes it too hot to go outside and grow food.

So there you have it – the IPCC have kicked a massive goal this time around managing to stop speaking bureaucrat and start communicating with people. Kudos where it is deserved. Working Group III have their report coming out next week, so we’ll see if they can keep up the great work.

In the mean time, let’s stop burning carbon.

Crash Diets and Carbon Detoxes: Irreversible Climate Change

Much of the changes humans are causing in our atmosphere today will be largely irreversible for the rest of the millennium.

WHO: Susan Solomon, Chemical Sciences Division, Earth System Research Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Gian-Kasper Plattner, Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, Zurich, Switzerland
Reto Knutti, Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, Zurich, Switzerland,
Pierre Friedlingstein, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace/Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de  l’Environnement, Unité Mixte de Recherche à l’Energie Atomique – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique–Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique-Saclay, l’Orme des Merisiers, France

WHAT: Looking at the long term effects of climate pollution to the year 3000

WHEN: 10 February 2009

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), vol. 106, no. 6 (2009)

TITLE: Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions

Stopping climate change often involves the metaphor of ‘turning down the thermostat’ of the heater in your house; the heater gets left on too high for too long, you turn the thermostat back down, the room cools down, we are all happy.

This seems to also be the way many people think about climate change – we’ve put too much carbon pollution in the atmosphere for too long, so all we need to do is stop it, and the carbon dioxide will disappear like fog burning off in the morning.

Except it won’t. This paper, which is from 2009 but I came across it recently while reading around the internet, looks at the long term effects of climate change and found that for CO2 emissions, the effects can still be felt for 1,000 years after we stop polluting. Bummer. So much for that last minute carbon detox that politicians seem to be betting on. Turns out it won’t do much.

The researchers defined ‘irreversible’ in this paper at 1,000 years to just beyond the year 3000, because over a human life span, 1,000 years is more than 10 generations. Geologically, it’s not forever, but from our human point of view it pretty much is forever.

So what’s going to keep happening because we can’t give up fossil fuels today that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandkid is going to look back on and say ‘well that was stupid’?

The paper looked at the three most detailed and well known effects: atmospheric temperatures, precipitation patterns and sea level rise. Other long term impacts will be felt through Arctic sea ice melt, flooding and heavy rainfall, permafrost melt, hurricanes and the loss of glaciers and snowpack. However, the impacts with the most detailed models and greatest body of research were the ones chosen for this paper (which also excluded the potential for geo-engineering because it’s still very uncertain and unknown).

Our first problem is going to be temperature increases, because temperatures increase with increased CO2  accumulation in the atmosphere, but if we turned off emissions completely (which is unfeasible practically, but works best to model the long term effects) temperatures would remain constant within about 0.5oC until the year 3000.

Why does this occur? Why does the temperature not go back down just as quickly once we stop feeding it more CO2? Because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a much longer time than other greenhouse gases. As the paper says: ‘current emissions of major non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxide are significant for climate change in the next few decades or century, but these gases do not persist over time in the same way as carbon dioxide.’

Temperature changes to the year 3000 with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Temperature changes to the year 3000 with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Our next problem is changing precipitation patterns, which can be described by the Clausius-Clapeyron law of the physics of phase transition in matter. What the law tells us is that as temperature increases, there is an increase in atmospheric water vapour, which changes how the vapour is transported through the atmosphere, changing the hydrological cycle.

The paper notes that these patterns are already happening consistent with the models for the Southwest of the USA and the Mediterranean. They found that dry seasons will become approx. 10% dryer for each degree of warming, and the Southwest of the USA is expected to be approx. 10% dryer with 2oC of global warming. As a comparison, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was 10% dryer over two decades. Given that many climate scientists (and the World Bank) think that we’ve already reached the point where 2oC of warming is inevitable, it seems like Arizona is going to become a pretty uncomfortable place to live.

Additionally, if we managed to peak at 450ppm of CO2, irreversible decreases in precipitation of ~8-10% in the dry season would be expected in large areas of Europe, Western Australia and North America.

Dry season getting dryer around the world (from paper)

Dry season getting dryer around the world (from paper)

Finally, the paper looked at sea level rise, which is a triple-whammy. The first issue is that warming causes colder water to expand (aka thermal expansion) which increases sea level. The second is that ocean mixing through currents will continue, which will continue the warming and the thermal expansion. Thirdly, warming of icecaps on land contributes new volume to the ocean.

The paper estimates that the eventual sea level rise from thermal expansion of warming water is 20 – 60cm per degree of climate change. Additionally, the loss of glaciers and small icecaps will give us ~20 – 70cm of sea level rise too, so we’re looking at 40 – 130cm of sea level rise even before we start counting Greenland (which is melting faster than most estimates anyway).

Sea level rise from thermal expansion only with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

Sea level rise from thermal expansion only with different CO2 concentration peaks (from paper)

What does all of this mean? Well firstly it means you should check how far above sea level your house is and you may want to hold off on that ski cabin with all the melting snowpack as well.

More importantly though, it means that any last minute ‘saves the day’ Hollywood-style plans for reversing climate change as the proverbial clock counts down to zero are misguided and wrong. The climate pollution that we are spewing into the atmosphere at ever greater rates today will continue to be a carbon hangover for humanity for the next 1000 years or so. Within human time scales, the changes that we are causing to our atmosphere are irreversible.

So naturally, we should stop burning carbon now.

What’s in a Standard Deviation?

“By 2100, global average temperatures will probably be 5 to 12 standard deviations above the Holocene temperature mean for the A1B scenario” Marcott et al.

WHO: Shaun A. Marcott, Peter U. Clark, Alan C. Mix, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
 Jeremy D. Shakun, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

WHAT: A historical reconstruction of average temperature for the past 11,300 years

WHEN: March 2013

WHERE: Science, Vol. 339 no. 6124, 8 March 2013 pp. 1198-1201

TITLE: A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Years (subs req.)

We all remember the standard deviation bell curve from high school statistics; where in a population (like your class at school) there will be a distribution of something with most people falling around the mean. The usual one you start off with is looking at the height of everyone in your classroom – most people will be around the same height, some will be taller, some shorter.

The more you vary from the mean, the less likely it is that will happen again because around 68% of the population will fit into the first standard deviation either side of the mean. However, the important bit you need to keep in mind when reading about this paper is that standard deviation curves have three standard deviations on either side of the mean, which covers 99.7% of all the data. The odds that a data point will be outside three standard deviations from the mean is 0.1% either side.

The standard deviation bell curve (Wikimedia commons)

The standard deviation bell curve (Wikimedia commons)

What does high school statistics have to do with global temperature reconstructions? Well, it’s always good to see what’s happening in the world within context. Unless we can see comparisons to what has come before, it can be really hard to see what is and isn’t weird when we’re living in the middle of it.

The famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph that was constructed for the past 1,500 years by eminent climate scientist Michael Mann showed us how weird the current warming trend is compared to recent geologic history. But how does that compare to all of the Holocene period?

Well, we live in unusual times. But first, the details. These researchers used 73 globally distributed temperature records with various different proxies for their data. A proxy is looking at the chemical composition of something that has been around for more than our thermometers to work out what the temperature would have been. This can be done with ice cores, slow growing trees and marine species like coral. According to the NOAA website, fossil pollen can also be used, which I think is awesome (because it’s kind of like Jurassic Park!).

They used more marine proxies than most other reconstructions (80% of their proxies were marine) because they’re better suited for longer reconstructions. The resolutions for the proxies ranged from 20 years to 500 years and the median resolution was 120 years.

They then ran the data through a Monte Carlo randomisation scheme (which is less exotic than it sounds) to try and find any errors. Specifically, they ran a ‘white noise’ data set with a mean of zero to double check for any errors. Then the chemical data was converted into temperature data before it all got stacked together into a weighted mean with a confidence interval. It’s like building a layer cake, but with math!

Interestingly, with their white noise data, they found the model was more accurate with longer time periods. Variability was preserved best with 2,000 years or more, but only half was left on a 1,000 year scale and the variability was gone shorter than 300 years.

They also found that their reconstruction lined up over the final 1,500 years to present with the Mann et al. 2008 reconstruction and was also consistent with Milankovitch cycles (which ironically indicate that without human interference, we’d be heading into the next glacial period right now).

Temperature reconstructions Marcott et al. in purple (with blue confidence interval) Mann et al. in grey (from paper)

Temperature reconstructions
Marcott et al. in purple (with blue confidence interval) Mann et al. in grey (from paper)

They found that the global mean temperature for 2000-2009 has not yet exceeded the warmest temperatures in the Holocene, which occurred 5,000 – 10,000 years ago (or BP – before present). However, we are currently warmer than 82% of the Holocene distribution.

But the disturbing thing in this graph that made me feel really horrified (and I don’t get horrified by climate change much anymore because I read so much on it that I’m somewhat de-sensitised to the ‘end of the world’ scenarios) is the rate of change. The paper found that global temperatures have increased from the coldest during the Holocene (the bottom of the purple bit before it spikes up suddenly) to the warmest in the past century.

We are causing changes to happen so quickly in the earth’s atmosphere that something that would have taken over 11,000 years has just happened in the last 100. We’ve taken a 5,000 year trend of cooling and spiked up to super-heated in record time.

This would be bad enough on its own, but it’s not even the most horrifying thing in this paper. It’s this:

‘by 2100, global average temperatures will probably be 5 to 12 standard deviations above the Holocene temperature mean for the A1B scenario.’ (my emphasis)

Remember how I said keep in mind that 99.7% of all data points in a population are within three standard deviations on a bell curve? That’s because we are currently heading off the edge of the chart for weird and unprecedented climate, beyond even the 0.1% chance of occurring without human carbon pollution.

The A1B scenario by the IPCC is the ‘medium worst case scenario’ which we are currently outstripping through our continuously growing carbon emissions, which actually need to be shrinking. We are so far out into the tail of weird occurrences that it’s off the charts of a bell curve.

NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 data (396.80ppm at Feb. 2013)

NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 data (396.80ppm at Feb. 2013)

As we continue to fail to reduce our carbon emissions in any meaningful way, we will reach 400ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the next few years. At that point we will truly be in uncharted territory for any time in human history, on a trajectory that is so rapidly changing as to be off the charts beyond 99.7% of the data for the last 11,300 years. The question for humanity is; are we willing to play roulette with our ability to adapt to this kind of rapidly changing climate?

Sleepwalking off a Cliff: Can we Avoid Global Collapse?

‘Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster’
Drs. Paul and Anne Ehrlich

WHO: Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Department of Biology, Stanford University, California, USA

WHAT: An ‘invited perspective’ from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the Royal Society) on the future of humanity following the election of Dr. Paul Ehrlich to the fellowship of the Royal Society.

WHEN: 26 January 2013

WHERE: Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences (Proc. R. Soc. B) 280, January 2013

TITLE: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Dr. Paul Ehrlich has been warning humanity about the dangers of exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity for decades. He first wrote about the dangers of over-population in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, and now following his appointment to the fellowship of the Royal Society, he and his wife have written what I can only describe as a broad and sweeping essay on the challenges that currently face humanity (which you should all click the link and read as well).

When you think about it, we’re living in a very unique period of time. We are at the beginning of the next mass extinction on this planet, which is something that only happens every couple of hundred million years. And since humans are the driving force of this extinction, we are also in control of how far we let it go. So the question is, will we save ourselves, or will we sleepwalk off the cliff?

Drs. Ehrlich describe the multiple pressures currently facing the planet and its inhabitants as a perfect storm of challenges. Not only is there the overarching threat multiplier of climate change, which will make all of our existing problems harder to deal with, we have concurrent challenges facing us through the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity from mass extinction, land degradation, the global spread of toxic chemicals, ocean acidification, infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance, resource depletion (especially ground water) and subsequent resource conflicts.

you have humans Wow. That’s quite the laundry list of problems we’ve got. Of course, all these issues interact not only with the biosphere; they interact with human socio-economic systems, including overpopulation, overconsumption and current unequal global economic system.

If you haven’t heard the term ‘carrying capacity’ before, it’s the limit any system has before things start going wrong – for instance if you put 10 people in a 4 person hot tub, it will start to overflow, because you’ve exceeded its carrying capacity.

The bad news is we’ve exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. For the planet to sustainably house the current 7 billion people it has, we would need an extra half an empty planet to provide for everyone. If we wanted all 7 billion of us to over-consume at the living standards of the USA, we would need between 4 – 5 extra empty planets to provide for everyone. Better get searching NASA!

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The Andromeda Galaxy (photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/NHSC)

The next problem is that a global collapse could be triggered by any one of the above issues, with cascading effects, although Drs. Ehrlich think the biggest key will be feeding everyone (which I’ve written about before), because the social unrest triggered by mass famine would make dealing with all the other problems almost impossible.

So what do we need to do? We need to restructure our energy sources and remove fossil fuel use from agriculture, although Drs. Ehrlich do point out that peaking fossil fuel use by 2020 and halving it by 2050 will be difficult. There’s also the issue that it’s really ethically difficult to knowingly continue to run a lethal yet profitable business, hence the highly funded climate denial campaigns to try and keep the party running for Big Oil a little longer, which will get in the way of change.

The global spread of toxic compounds can only be managed and minimised as best we can, similarly, we don’t have many answers for the spread of infectious and tropical diseases along with increasing antibiotic resistance that will happen with climate change.

Helpfully, Drs. Ehrlich point out that the fastest way to cause a global collapse would be to have any kind of nuclear conflict, even one they refer to as a ‘regional conflict’ like India and Pakistan. But even without nuclear warfare (which I hope is unlikely!) 6 metres of sea level rise would displace around 400 million people.

One of the most important things that we can be doing right now to help humanity survive for a bit longer on this planet is population control. We need less people on this planet (and not just because I dislike screaming children in cafes and on airplanes), and Drs. Ehrlich think that instead of asking ‘how can we feed 9.6 billion people in 2050’ scientists should be asking ‘how can we humanely make sure it’s only 8.6 billion people in 2050’?

How can we do that? Firstly, we need to push back against what they refer to as the ‘endarkenment’, which is the rise of religious fundamentalism that rejects enlightenment ideas like freedom of thought, democracy, separation of church and state, and basing beliefs on empirical evidence, which leads to climate change denialism, failure to act on biodiversity loss and opposition to the use of contraceptives.

And why do we need to push back against people who refuse to base their beliefs on empirical evidence? Because the fastest and easiest way to control population growth is female emancipation. Drs. Ehrlich point out that giving women everywhere full rights, education and opportunities as well as giving everyone on the planet access to safe contraception and abortion is the best way to control population growth (you know, letting people choose whether they’d like children).

More importantly, Drs. Ehrlich want the world to develop a new way of thinking systematically about things, which they’ve called ‘foresight intelligence’. Since it’s rare that societies manage to mobilise around slow threats rather than immediate threats, there need to be new ways and mechanisms for greater cooperation between people, because we are not going to succeed as a species if we don’t work together.

They’d like to see the development of steady-state economics which would destroy the ‘fables such as ‘technological innovation will save us’’. They’d like to see natural scientists working together with social scientists to look at the dynamics of social movements, sustainability and equality and to scale up the places where that kind of work is already happening.

They point out that our current methods of governance are inadequate to meet the challenges we face and that we need to work with developing nations who are currently looking to reproduce the western nation’s ‘success’ of industrialisation, so that they can instead be leaders to the new economy, because playing catch up will lead to global collapse.

Do Drs. Ehrlich believe that we can avoid a global collapse of civilisation? They think we still can, but only if we get fully into gear and work together now, because unless we restructure our way of doing things, nature will do it for us. It’s your call humanity – shall we get going, or will we sleepwalk our species off the cliff?

Climate Change Book Review: Under a Green Sky

Ever seen a greenhouse extinction? It looks like this.

WHO: Peter D. Ward (Earth and Space Sciences, College of the Environment, University of Washington, WA)

WHAT: Under a Green Sky: Global Warming the Mass Extinctions of the Past and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future

WHERE: Your local bookstore, your local library, Amazon.com etc.

WHEN: Published 2007

I’m taking a moment away from research papers to talk about a book I just finished reading (yes, I read climate change non-fiction as well as climate change research papers – I am that nerdy). Now, when someone says Palaeontologist, not only do I struggle to type it, I also don’t immediately think ‘great writing style’ – no offence to all the budding Palaeontologist/authors out there!

So the fact that Peter Ward has a really evocative style of writing that was able to transport me to the various digs and periods of ancient history that he studies, was one of the reasons I wanted to write about this book. Additionally, he paints a vivid picture of what our future could be like with catastrophic climate change.

I know that most communications people will tell me that we can’t be too doom and gloom, that we have to keep the really ugly truth of what we’re doing to our atmosphere and planet under wraps because people will be frozen with fear and overwhelmed by the problem. Some days I agree with them, but on other days I think it’s really important to look down the long term road to remind ourselves why it’s so important to act on climate change now.

Dr. Ward is an expert in mass extinctions. He has spent much of his career looking at Ammonite fossils to see where in the fossil record mass extinctions occurred and why. Through his studies, he’s discovered that many mass extinctions were greenhouse extinctions.

So what does greenhouse extinction look like? It looks like this:

Buse Lake, Barnhartvale, BC (photo: Norm Dougan)

See the water? It’s purple. It’s purple because there is no longer any oxygen in the water in this lake near Kamloops BC. The bacteria in this lake ‘eat’ hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs and allows the bacteria to take over when there is no oxygen in the water. No animals can live in this water – we need oxygen to survive.

So what does a lake in BC have to do with climate change? Climate change caused by human pollution is creating a warmer world and a warmer world means a world with less oxygenated water. I think Dr. Ward put it best in this description of what the earth would have looked like at the end of the Triassic period (p. 138, metric conversions mine):

‘No wind in the 120-degree [48.8c] morning heat, and no trees for shade. There is some vegetation, but it is low, stunted, parched. Of other life, there seems little. A scorpion, a spider, winged flies, and among the roots of the desert vegetation we see the burrows of some sort of small animals – the first mammals, perhaps. The largest creatures anywhere in the landscape are slim, bipedal dinosaurs, of a man’s height at most, but they are almost vanishingly rare, and scrawny, obviously starving. The land is a desert in its heat and aridity, but a duneless desert, for there is no wind to build the iconic structure of our Sarahas and Kalaharis. The land is hot barrenness.

Yet as sepulchral as the land is, it is the sea itself that is most frightening. Waves slowly lap on the quiet shore, slow-motion waves with the consistency of gelatine. Most of the shoreline is encrusted with rotting organic matter, silk-like swaths of bacterial slick now putrefying under the blazing sun, while in the nearby shallows mounds of similar mats can be seen growing up toward the sea’s surface; they are stromatolites. When animals finally appeared, the stromatolites largely disappeared, eaten out of existence by the new, multiplying, and mobile herbivores. But now these bacterial mats are back, outgrowing the few animal mouths that might still graze on them.

Finally we look out on the surface of the great sea itself, and as far as the eye can see there is a mirrored flatness, an ocean without whitecaps. Yet that is not the biggest surprise. From shore to the horizon, there is but an unending purple colour – a vast, flat, oily purple, not looking at all like water, not looking anything of our world. No fish break its surface, no birds or any other kind of flying creatures dip down looking for food. The purple colour comes from vast concentrations of floating bacteria, for the oceans of Earth have all become covered with a hundred-foot-thick [30m] veneer of purple and green bacterial soup.

At last there is motion on the sea, yet it is not life, but anti-life. Not far from the fetid shore, a large bubble of gas belches from the viscous, oil slick-like surface, and then several more of varying sizes bubble up and noisily pop. The gas emanating from the bubbles is not air, or even methane, the gas that bubbles up from the bottom of swamps – it is hydrogen sulphide, produced by green sulphur bacteria growing amid their purple cousins. There is one final surprise. We look upward, to the sky. High, vastly high overhead there are thin clouds, clouds existing at an altitude far in excess of the highest clouds found on our Earth. They exist in a place that changes the very colour of the sky itself: We are under a pale green sky, and it has the smell of death and poison. We have gone to the Nevada of 200 million years ago only to arrive under the transparent atmospheric glass of a greenhouse extinction event, and it is poison, heat, and mass extinction that are found in this greenhouse.’

Are you terrified now? Because this is what our future with runaway climate change could look like. The past that he describes could be the future we are unwittingly creating. The planet will be fine – the planet has gone through this before. But the humans might not be.

Climate Blindness: Why Your Moral Alarm is Malfunctioning

What psychology says about why we’re still sitting around doing nothing about Climate Change.


WHO:  Ezra M. Markowitz (Psychology Department, University of Oregon)
Azim F. Shariff (Psychology Department, Environmental Studies Program, University of Oregon)

WHAT: Why the majority of people are not getting outraged about climate change when the scientific consensus is so strong

WHEN: April 2012

WHERE:Nature Climate Change, Vol 2, April 2012

TITLE: Climate Change and Moral Judgement (subs required)

There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of current climate change – it’s us. Humans. We’ve spent the past several hundred years since the Industrial Revolution burning fossil fuels and pouring gigatonne after gigatonne of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is starting to get pretty weird because of it.

Yes, climates have changed before, but on scales of millions of years. Currently, we’re pouring so much pollution into the atmosphere at such a great rate that we’re causing changes in decades that would normally occur over millions of years.

So why are we all still sitting around twiddling our thumbs hoping it will go away instead of trying to minimise the kickback the atmosphere is going to give us? Well, these two researchers had a look at all the recent psychology papers on morality and climate change and tried to find out why.

Firstly, there’s a problem with climate change itself as an issue. It’s kinda abstract, so you have to think about it pretty seriously, which is way too hard for a [insert day of the week] afternoon. It’s also unintentionally caused – we didn’t know we were ruining the atmosphere until recently, and as anyone who has siblings knows; if you didn’t create the mess – you’re not cleaning it up.

There’s also guilty bias – we don’t want to think about how we’ve loaded the climate dice for extreme weather and are now playing Russian roulette with our futures – that’s a massive downer that makes you feel guilty. Is there something on TV we can watch instead?

Uncertainty also plays a part. While most scientists are currently trying to work out which level of unbalanced the atmosphere is from around 2c (mildly unpleasant) to +6c (catastrophic, humanity pretty much over), all people hear when they’re only half paying attention to the news is ‘uncertainty’ which leads to unreasonably wishful thinking. Oh, we don’t know for sure? Excellent, let’s grab a beer till they’re sure eh?

Another problem is what the researchers call moral tribalism, which is where you want to listen to the people you know and trust. Which is great, until it leads to things like ‘my uncle is really smart and he says climate change isn’t real’ regardless of the lack of facts in the statement.

And finally, there’s the long term timelines. When a scientist somewhere tells you we’re all pretty screwed in 2100 if we don’t stop our carbon addiction now, it seems REALLY far away.

These things are definitely all issues. Some of the suggestions the researchers came up with to try and get us up and doing something were:

  • Highlighting things of concern to conservatives as well as liberals (social justice and fairness doesn’t resonate as well with conservatives)
  • Highlighting things like profaning the purity of nature for religious people who react well to purity framing (eg. the What Would Jesus Drive campaign that I almost can’t believe is real)
  • Talk about the bad things we’re leaving for our children rather than the diminished good things we’re leaving for our children (negative qualifiers generally don’t stick in people’s minds)
  • Use emotional carrots rather than sticks (because telling people exactly how much we’ve ruined the planet makes them just shut down)
  • Go for things that encourage and reinforce positive behaviour, civic pride and peer pressure
  • Increase affinity for future generations (it’s not some abstract children – it’s YOUR child)

Now, all of these suggestions are excellent, and as Jim Hoggan (who I greatly admire) says – smashing heads doesn’t open minds. But I don’t think they go far enough in trying to reach through people’s psychology and get them to wake up. I’m a climate hawk, which means I believe in being realistic about exactly how much we’ve messed up the planet and exactly what kind of very serious ramifications we as humanity are going to face.

The thing is, climate change is no longer 100 years away – it’s here and now. It’s in the record lows of ice in the Arctic this year, the record heat in the US, the tropical storms on steroids, the unstoppable wildfires, massive floods and the unprecedented melting in Greenland.

These stark realities that increasing numbers of people across the globe including the first world are facing will be our new ‘mild summer’ if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels in the next fifteen years. Yes, fifteen years.

I think the time for being positive and allowing people to think they’ve ‘fixed it’ once they’ve changed their lightbulbs is over, because the scope of what we’ve done, intentionally or not is much greater than the emotional carrots of what kind of SUV Jesus would drive.

Psychology is going to play an increasingly important role in dealing with climate change as the rest of the world wakes up to the reality that is hurtling towards us about 100 years ahead of schedule, so all these messages now need a large dose of reality contained within them.

When I was training to be a violin teacher, we were taught that repetition is the key to learning things. You’re not going to play the violin if you’ve been shown how to do it only once – you need to do it over and over again.

So let’s do this and repeat it 100 times: we have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.

We have fifteen years to stop burning fossil fuels otherwise the change will be catastrophic within our lifetimes.