Global warming does not slow down

9 04 2013

Julien Emile-Geay

Thanks to the miracles of credit card reward programs, I have been gainfully receiving, for some time now, a weekly copy of the distinguished magazine The Economist. It is usually a fine read, especially since its editors distanced themselves from the laughable flat-Earthing of the Wall Street Journal a long time ago. It was therefore  a bit of a shock to read last week (on the cover, no less): “global warming slows down” (holding the quotation marks with gloves).  Had they been bought by Rupert Murdoch, or were they privy to new data, of which the  isolated climate scientist that I am had remained woefully ignorant? Well, neither, it seems.

Opening its pages with a mix of curiosity and skepticism (yes, we climate scientists are skeptics too – skepticism is not the privilege of deniers but the hallmark of healthy minds), I read the piece “Global Warming: apocalypse perhaps a little later”. It argued that since some recent estimates of climate sensitivity have been revised downward, the world might not scorch as early as we once thought. Still, they wisely argued that this was no excuse for inaction, and that the extra time should be used to devise plans to mitigate, and adapt to, man-made climate change.

Though I  agree with the consequent, I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise.

Digging a little deeper, it appears that they devoted a whole piece on climate sensitivity (“Climate Science: a sensitive matter“).  James Annan was right in pointing out its quality – it is a nuanced piece of science writing for a lay audience,  something all of my colleagues and I know the difficulty of achieving. It wasn’t the science journalist’s job to pick winners, but as a climate scientist I can tell you that not all the evidence presented therein carried equal weight. My issue has to do with the emphasis (here and elsewhere) that just because surface temperature  has been practically flat for the past decade (i.e.  the transient climate response (TCR) may not be as high as one would have concluded from the 1970-2000 warming), this means that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) must also be lower.

Now, the “sensitive matter” piece does take care to distinguish the two concepts (transient vs equilibrium warming), but the message did not reach the editors, who conflate them with flying colors on the front page (“global warming slows down”). So while said editors can apparently hire good science writers, it would be even better if they  read their writings carefully.

My personal take is that TCR  is an ill-suited measure of climate response, because it only considers surface temperature. When energy is added to the climate system (e.g. by increasing the concentration of heat-trapping substances like carbon dioxide), it can go do any of 3 things:

  1. raise surface temperature
  2. help water change phase (from liquid to vapor, or from ice to liquid)
  3. raise temperature somewhere else (e.g. the deep ocean).

Tracking surface warming is certainly of paramount importance, but it’s clearly not the whole story. Focusing exclusively on it misses the other two outcomes. Do we have evidence that this might be a problem? Well, most glaciers in the world are losing mass, and a recent article by Balmaseda et al [2013], shows very clearly that the heat is reaching the deep ocean (see figure below). In fact, the rise in ocean heat content is more intense as depth than it is at the surface, for reasons that are not fully understood. To be fair, nothing involving the tri-dimensional ocean circulation is particularly straighforward when viewed through the lens of a few decades of observations, but the ocean heat content is quite a  robust variable to track, so even if the causes of this unequal warming are nebulous, the unequal warming isn’t.


The Balmaseda et al study concludes that, when considering the total rise in ocean heat content, global warming has not slowed down at all: it has in fact accelerated. I’m not quite sure I see it this way: warming is still decidedly happening, but it does look like this rate of increase has slowed down somewhat (as may be expected of internal climate variability). Therefore, to meet the Economist halfway, I am willing to embrace conservatism on this issue: the climate system is still warming, and let’s agree that the warming has neither slowed down nor accelerated.

In fairness, the Economist’s “sensitive matter” piece did quote the Balmaseda et al. study as part of its rather comprehensive review ; in my opinion, however, this is not just one data point on a complex issue (as their piece implies), but is a real game-changer. It confirms the findings of Meehl et al, [2011], who predicted exactly that: greenhouse energy surpluses need not materialize  instantly as surface warming ; in many instances, their model produced decades of relative “pause” in surface temperature amidst a century-long warming. It did so because the ocean circulation is quite variable, and sometimes kidnaps some of the heat to great depths, so it takes time before the whole of the climate system feels it. This is one reason for the essential distinction between ECS and TCR: the inherent variability of the climate system means that it may take a long time to reach equilibrium. That’s what’s really bothersome about ECS: it’s not observable on any time scale we care about, so it is of limited relevance in discussing reality (it is important to understanding climate models, however).  Perhaps TCR should be based on some measure of ocean heat content? This might already have been done, but I am not aware of it. Actually, sea level might be our best proxy for integrated ocean heat content plus melted ice, and non-surprisingly it is still going up.

So despite the jargon, the basic idea is quite simple: more CO2 means a warmer climate system as a whole, and sooner rather than later.  So it is becoming increasingly urgent to do something about it, as they point out.  Now, what would it take to convince the Wall Street Journal of that?

UPDATE (April 16, 3:30 PST): further accounts of The Economist’s unduly optimistic perspective are given here and here.  Another paper published this week in Nature Climate Change (nicely summarized here)  also emphasizes the important role of the ocean in mediating surface warming.


What does clean coal buy us?

26 02 2009

Some pretty cheap laugh, but not much else. It’s a well-known fallacy that there is no such thing as “clean” coal.

Yet our friends from the coal industry would rather have us believe otherwise, and go to great lengths of ridiculousness to convince the less discerning among us of the undying virtues of Carboniferous deposits in our energy infrastructure.  As done here :

Fortunately, our friends from This Is Reality are not sitting on their hands, and we owe them a pretty hilarious counter-offensive, crafted by no less than my favorite movie directors, the Coen Brothers :

Enjoy without moderation, and don’t breathe the black stuff if you can advoid it (you can in the US, just call up your representative if they try to shove it down your throat).

The improbable environmentalists

30 07 2008

I would like to tell you today about 2 renowned Texas oil billionaires who have recently taken public stances to move away from fossil fuels, oil in particular.

The first is T Boone Pickens Jr, a legendary oil man, who recently lauched the so-called Pickens plan, an initiative to free the US from foreign oil imports. His plan is focused on wind, solar and natural gas, the latter being scarcely carbon-free – and clearly that’s not his concern. There’s nothing revolutionary in the technologies he is advocating – but his business model and PR seem to push the envelope. An interesting fact is that he has heavily contributed to George W Bush’s campaigns, so can scarcely be accused of being a communist, like the Marietta nitwits I was mentioning in the previous post.

The second is Matthew Simmons, also a leader in the oil industry. Simmons is a pundit on Peak Oil, which he believes was reached some time in 2005. You can read more about his conversion here, and look at his very informative speeches here. I heard about Simmons in an interview in GOOD Magazine, which makes clear that he is also a confessed Republican, and one not too concerned about the urgency of global warming.

Power quote :

“If we don’t create a solution to the enormous potential gap between our inherent demand for energy, and the availability of energy we will have the nastiest and last war we’ll ever fight. I mean a literal war.”

As a potential solution, Simmons is advocating an unlikely alchemy : Oil to Seawater. He is spearheading the Ocean Energy Institute, which aims at assessing the electricity generation potential of ocean currents. A little science here from yours truly : if you can make wind turbines, you can make water turbines. There are plenty of steady currents in the ocean, whose power dwarf almost anything we can think of. Cyclical currents like those due to tides have also been recognized for a long time (tidal mills were used by the Romans), albeit never developed to a significant extent. As a French kid, I heard about tidal energy generation  because of a pilot project started in our oil-poor land  in the 60’s on the La Rance river. Given that there are only 2 other plants like this in the world, the principle can hardly be said to have gone viral, but it could be because the field of ocean power generation is still in its infancy. Interesting readers can learn about tidal power here.

The oceans, due to their inertia, are an inherently more steady source of mechanical energy than the atmosphere for us humans. So the upside is that ocean power is much more predictable than wind power. The downside, has every seaman will tell you, is that the ocean eats everything : seawater is extremely corrosive, hence sea-worthy equipment is very expensive.  There is still much that we don’t know about the feasibility and scalability of ocean energy generation for our power-hungry civilization,  and I will be extremely keen on seeing what Simmon’s institute comes up with. It is especially interesting to be looking above the low-hanging fruits and trying to tap into the ~3.7 TW of gravitational potential energy that the Moon and the Sun give to our fluid envelopes, ocean and atmosphere [source].

I think both examples are remarkable in that neither man is remotely close to a Greenie Hippie, yet has understood the economic and national security implications of the current oil crisis. As entrepreneurs, they are wasting no time in finding solutions, because their is tremendous economic incentive to do so. Since they have a few horses in the race, it would be easy to claim that they are merely advertising their latests investments, but I believe the story runs deeper.

I hope it gives food for thought to everyone, irrespective of political leanings.

El Niño

PS : Since i am not an expert on peak oil, and for the sake of offering a balanced outlook, I hereby refer readers to this excellent blog on Peak Oil.

Repower America

23 07 2008

After a long absence, I am back blogging for a minute. Essentially, I have refrained from participating in the blogosphere, in favor of the postdoctoral research I am actually employed for, writing a book on week-ends, and visiting family in Europe. I have also looked at Climate Audit a few times, only to be shocked that the herd of barking dogs has gotten way out of hand to be worthy of my time. Until the next idiocy calls for a spanking…

I was tempted to blog a few weeks ago about an utterly gruesome article that was the front page of a newspaper I would be reluctant to wipe my bottoms with, The sunday paper. The front page touted “Is Gore wrong ?”, while the story was largely about a tiny rally of anti-AGW nuts still stuck in 50’s McCarthyist rhetorics. Essentially, trying to curb greenhouse emissions was a “socialist” move, and the wackos celebrated their inalienable right to use to incandescent light bulbs by flying a hot air balloon : swift, to say the least. The offensive part wasn’t so much the tone of the article, which actually also gives space to the pro-AGW side (albeit not to its most credible defender, IMHP) ; the offensive part indeed was the editorial spin of the front page headline, insidiously suggesting that all of the climate crisis is bogus because of an insignificant event that gathered a few misguided armchair skeptics.

I clearly have a long way to go on the road to climate communication, because just re-reading this article heated my blood a tad too high, and made me wish I had a few nitwit ballooners around, just to strangle them à la Bart Simpson. That is why I stayed silent then. Yet, the Sunday Paper mishap did not go unnoticed, and a moderate commentary of it can be found here. I would certainly have been way more incisive, but preferred to calm down in the face of some obvious facts :

  1. Anger never solves anything.
  2. Too few people read the Sunday Paper for this to be of importance.

So I waited until something more positive came along, which happened just a few days ago.

On July 17, the inevitable Al Gore delivered an inspiring address at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C, hosted by the WE campaign. Gore challenged U.S. policymakers, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens to change their entire approach to energy use. He proposed that the U.S. produce all of its electricity using carbon-free energy sources by 2018.

To those afflicted by the Gore Derangement Syndrome : this will be extremely offensive material. To others, I think it gives an excellent example of a forward step out of the triple crisis we are currently in : economic, energetic, environmental.

Power quote :

“We are borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian gulf, to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change”.

Since nothing seems to happen these days without McCain’s or Obama’s commentary, no one should be surprised that they reacted to it ; what’s more surprising is that they agreed about it. McCain apparently said, “If the vice president says it’s doable, I believe it’s doable.” [Source: Associated Press]. Obama’s praise was even higher.

As I have said before, I am not here to endorse a party, but I am pleased that both presidential candidates can hear the voice of reason. It makes me hopeful that this is not a lost cause, whichever the outcome of the November election.

It remains to be seen how many key players do get on board. I surely hope not too many of them are flying hot air balloons instead of getting busy, because that would be grounds for practicing slingshot in Marietta, GA.

MIT’s Susan Hockfield on the Global Energy Challenge

22 02 2008

I thought I would share some opening remarks of MIT president’s Susan Hockfield, given last week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

With all the fossil fuel denialism out there, it’s sometimes good to remember that some world science leaders have their priorities straight : free access to knowledge, research in renewable (and scalable) energy, efficiency and sustainable development.

Her address can be found here in RealVideo format. (< 15 min)