Coal Tattoo

More hard truths about climate change

Old Coal

There’s been a a flurry of stories over the last few days about the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported first through a leaked report obtained by Reuters:

Climate scientists are surer than ever that human activity is causing global warming, according to leaked drafts of a major UN report, but they are finding it harder than expected to predict the impact in specific regions in coming decades.

The uncertainty is frustrating for government planners: the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the main guide for states weighing multibillion-dollar shifts to renewable energy from fossil fuels, for coastal regions considering extra sea defenses or crop breeders developing heat-resistant strains.

Drafts seen by Reuters of the study by the UN panel of experts, due to be published next month, say it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities – chiefly the burning of fossil fuels – are the main cause of warming since the 1950s.

That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame.

There’s a lot of other reporting out there on this, but over on his Climate Progress blog, Joe Romm rightly points out regarding the Reuters coverage:

This is a doubly impressive story since, as we’ve reported, Reuters has slashed climate coverage and pressured reporters to include false balance. Leading climatologists who have seen drafts of the report confirm this story’s accuracy.

Undoubtedly, there will be much said about all variety of details from the latest IPCC report. Here in West Virginia, where political and industry leaders try desperately to pretend the issue doesn’t exist, what’s important is the bottom line from these drafts, as explained by The New York Times:

An international panel of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could conceivably rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a draft summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change doubters, attributing it most likely to short-term factors.

The report emphasizes that the basic facts about future climate change are more established than ever, justifying the rise in global concern. It also reiterates that the consequences of escalating emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

It’s interesting to note the findings of this new study out of Stanford:

Not only is the planet undergoing one of the largest climate changes in the past 65 million years, Stanford climate scientists Noah Diffenbaugh and Chris Field report that it’s on pace to occur at a rate 10 times faster than any change in that period. Without intervention, this extreme pace could lead to a 5-6 degree Celsius spike in annual temperatures by the end of the century.

And if you haven’t checked out the latest issue of National Geographic and its big story on rising seas, you should. Here’s a bit of it:

A profoundly altered planet is what our fossil-fuel-driven civilization is creating, a planet where Sandy-scale flooding will become more common and more destructive for the world’s coastal cities. By releasing carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, we have warmed the Earth by more than a full degree Fahrenheit over the past century and raised sea level by about eight inches. Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the existing greenhouse gases would continue to warm the Earth for centuries. We have irreversibly committed future generations to a hotter world and rising seas.

In May the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, the highest since three million years ago. Sea levels then may have been as much as 65 feet above today’s; the Northern Hemisphere was largely ice free year-round. It would take centuries for the oceans to reach such catastrophic heights again, and much depends on whether we manage to limit future greenhouse gas emissions. In the short term scientists are still uncertain about how fast and how high seas will rise. Estimates have repeatedly been too conservative.

Global warming affects sea level in two ways. About a third of its current rise comes from thermal expansion—from the fact that water grows in volume as it warms. The rest comes from the melting of ice on land. So far it’s been mostly mountain glaciers, but the big concern for the future is the giant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Six years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report predicting a maximum of 23 inches of sea-level rise by the end of this century. But that report intentionally omitted the possibility that the ice sheets might flow more rapidly into the sea, on the grounds that the physics of that process was poorly understood.

As the IPCC prepares to issue a new report this fall, in which the sea-level forecast is expected to be slightly higher, gaps in ice-sheet science remain. But climate scientists now estimate that Greenland and Antarctica combined have lost on average about 50 cubic miles of ice each year since 1992—roughly 200 billion metric tons of ice annually. Many think sea level will be at least three feet higher than today by 2100. Even that figure might be too low.