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Anyone for tipping? The climate debate begins to shift, perhaps.


Unusual weather this winter seems to be causing a change in the tenor of climate discussions.  Some politicians are beginning to speak out in the way many of us have been hoping they would.  Not in Canada, of course, where today’s Toronto Star reports further cuts coming to Environment Canada’s climate change budget.  But Canada is not the world except when it comes to winning hockey gold medals.

I’ve already commented on NOAA’s analysis of January 2014 – the 4th warmest January on record globally – and I am watching their site to see what they say about February.  The unusually cold weather in Eastern North America this winter was countered in January by a mild to warm winter in Western North America especially in Alaska which had the 3rd warmest January on record (96 years of measurements), and an average January temperature 8.2oC above the average for the 1971-2000 period.  It was the warmest Alaska January since 1985.  There was also continuation of the severe drought in California – 2013 was the driest year on record there, and the drought extends into the other south-west states.  (The drought broke for Oscar week, but time will tell if it is easing or not.)  In Europe, temperatures were warm – 3rd warmest January in Spain, tied for warmest January in France, 5th warmest January in Switzerland – and the UK experienced its 3rd wettest January, receiving 51% more rain than usual.  Western Australia also had a wet one, while Australia’s January was warm once more.

Warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic

The extent of warming in the Arctic is truly alarming, or should be.  On January 27th, NOAA published a news release highlighting the results of a paper published in the journal Earth’s Future by James Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle WA, and colleagues from University of Washington, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and University of Colorado, Boulder. summarizes the article somewhat more forcibly than NOAA’s measured news release.  But since the paper is on open access, it seems best to read it directly, using summaries to remind you what the measured science-speak is really saying!

Overland and colleagues examine recent trends in temperature and sea ice volume, and projections of these using the results of 3 dozen global climate models that are now available to researchers under the CMIP5 program.  The model data make use of four scenarios for our future releases of greenhouse gases (GHG): RCP8.5, RCP6.5, RCP4.5 and RCP2.6 – business as usual and three progressively more rigorous efforts to curtail GHG emissions.  Overland and colleagues refer to RCP2.6, which projects a 70% reduction in emissions of GHG by 2050, as “highly unlikely” and “implausible” given current attitudes and rate of progress in climate negotiations.  They focus on RCP8.5, business as usual, and RCP4.5 which would achieve stabilization of GHG (at ~650ppm CO2 equivalent) around 2060, and they divide the century into an “adaptation” period until 2050, and a “mitigation” period to 2100 (reflecting the fact that efforts to reduce GHG emissions introduced now will have negligible impact on warming until after 2050).

Overland et al Fig 4

Figure 4 from Overland et al. 2014.  Sea ice volume in September each year has been falling rapidly (black line), and all four scenarios for GHG emissions show it continuing to fall until 2050.  Only the very aggressive mitigation scenario, RCP2.6, shows it leveling off much before 2100.  (RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 are shown as the mean trend plus the range of trajectories to emphasize the limited precision of projections.  The other RCPs are shown as mean trends only.)

Overland and colleagues show that the observed downward trend in sea ice volume is consistently more rapid than any of the simulations, indicating that the models are not sufficiently accounting for the various positive feedback effects, termed Arctic amplification, that together account for the very rapid rates of climate change being observed in the Arctic.  In their view, the CMIP5 models cannot adequately predict future rate of sea ice loss, and the likelihood that the Arctic will be seasonally ice free in a couple more decades from now is a reasonable expectation.  Certainly, the chance of retaining summer sea ice looks negligible under any scenario of GHG emissions abatement.

The loss of sea ice leads directly to rapid warming and follow-on climate and environmental changes in the Arctic.  Overland and colleagues argue that while the rate of melting of ice is not well-modeled, the CMIP5 data are better at tracking temperature, particularly towards the end of the century (when summer sea ice will be long gone).  Their Figure 7 presents likely Arctic temperatures for each month of the year under the RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 scenarios.  Yes, they really do project average temperatures in 2100 approaching +14.0oC from October through January under business as usual.  Say goodbye to Greenland’s ice cap, and hello to a sea level about 6 m higher than at present (although the melting of the ice cap will take an additional century or more).

Overland et al Fig 7 Earth's Future 2014

Figure 7, Overland et al., Earth’s Future, 2014.  The individual plots are graphs of average Arctic temperature for each month of the year, during the time from 1950 to 2100 under two scenarios: the business-as-usual behavior of RCP8.5, and an achievable RCP4.5 mitigation of GHG emissions.  Notice the substantial warming under RCP8.5, particularly during the final three months of the year.

Maybe it’s not really that bad after all?

Now that you have digested the implications of an Arctic region that could become 14 degrees warmer than at present, maybe it is time for a word from the denialist camp.  Dr. Judith Curry has been reported to have said, when asked what conclusion to draw from reported evidence of global warming, “I can’t say myself that [doing nothing] isn’t the best solution.”  Whether she said that or not, she has been a master at creating a sense that the data on climate change do not add up, that we do not have a clear understanding yet, and that we should be cautious about making any decisions about what to do.  And plenty of other people have also used this “the evidence that smoking causes lung cancer remains unclear” argument to delay action.  In fact the climate skeptics seem to have learned well from the tobacco wars.  And so has provided an educational cartoon.


 Cartoon © John Cook/

It makes the point quite well.  There is such a thing as the precautionary principle and we should apply it whenever considering environmental damage.  We should act to take care of possible risks, even if those risks turn out to be not quite as bad as people feared.  Maybe the Arctic will not become 14 degrees warmer in 2100, but would it not be wise to take action to try and prevent this, given that it now looks increasingly likely that it WILL warm to that extent if we continue business as usual?

Or maybe we should all migrate to North Carolina, where they almost legislated in 2012 to ensure that sea level rise will NOT be considered in any land planning exercises for this notably coastal state.  The final watered-down version of their bill sort of considers science on the matter.  But not really.  They are planning on not planning appropriately.

Extreme weather as a boon – an unexpected good thing

Still back to the present weather, and the effects on the climate discussion.  On March 5th, The Guardian reported on a speech by Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, the climate change convention.  She was speaking in London prior to meeting with a group of senior business people including representatives of Royal Dutch Shell, largest corporation on the planet.  Christiana Figueres is not one to mince words, and she did not disappoint, stating that it was frankly amoral to turn climate into a political debate.  Her talk, and her meeting are clearly all part of a coordinated ramp-up to develop momentum prior to the critical 2015 meetings of UNFCCC, and the needed global agreement.  Looking back to the Warsaw meetings last Fall, we need all the ramping-up we can get.

A major point in Figuere’s conversation with The Guardian was that the extreme weather events we have been having is a welcome boon that is helping to focus peoples’ minds on the problem of climate change.  People are beginning to realize that there are real economic costs in not taking action to slow down climate change.

Certainly, the weather seems to be freeing some political tongues.  John Kerry has come out swinging several times now, most notably during a visit to Indonesia in mid-February.  A main point in several speeches was that the mitigation of GHG emissions cannot be done by the developed world acting alone, and that several Asian nations including Indonesia and China are becoming major emitters and must be part of the solution.

In a speech in Jakarta, he took aim at the denialist crowd, stating “we simply don’t have time to let a few loud interest groups hijack the climate conversation,” referring to what he called “big companies” that “don’t want to change and spend a lot of money” to act to reduce the risks.  He also referred to “shoddy science,” “Ideologues,” and “the Flat Earth Society,” and commented, “nor should we allow any room for those who think that the costs associated with doing the right thing outweigh the benefits.”  In the course of his speech, he did a reasonably accurate rendition of the science of climate change.  (The New York Times has posted a video of the speech.)

Prior to his visit to Indonesia, Kerry had been in Beijing where he had successfully negotiated an agreement with his Chinese counterparts to work together on climate change.  The joint statement released as he departed said that they had “agreed on steps to carry out commitments to curb greenhouse gases, including reducing vehicle emissions, improving energy efficiency of buildings and other measures.”  Sure it’s just words so far, some on paper, some into microphones, but it’s an excellent start to what looks to be a longer campaign by the US Secretary of State.

Not to be outdone (or maybe they were just coordinating messages), Barack Obama to the opportunity of his meeting with Canada’s Stephen Harper and Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto to give them a quick Climate 101 course.  He commented (again) on the need for the Keystone XL Pipeline to not exacerbate GHG emissions, and then said with reference to climate change, “frankly, it has to affect all of our decisions at this stage, because the science is irrefutable.  We’re already seeing severe weather patterns increase.  That has consequences for our businesses, for our jobs, for our families, for safety and security.  It has the potential of displacing people in ways that we cannot currently fully anticipate, and will be extraordinarily costly.”  Then, to make his point crystal clear to Harper, he said, “But we only have one planet, and so I believe that ultimately we can both promote economic development and growth, recognizing that we’re not going to immediately transition off of fossil fuels, but that we do have to point to the future and show leadership so that other countries who will be the main emitters fairly soon – China, India, other emerging markets – so that they can look at what we’re doing and we have leverage over them in terms of them improving their practices as well.

Obama Harper Pena Nieto 2014 Jacquelyn Martin-AP

Stephen Harper repeating, “Canada is working hard on climate change, Canada is working hard on climate change…” while Enrique Peña Nieto suppresses a grin, and Barack Obama quietly thinks, “Keystone XL?  Not while he acts like this.”  Photo © Jacquelyn Martin/ AP.

Now I think I understand why Canada’s Ambassador to the USA, Gary Doer, sent a letter in February to John Kerry, stating, among other things that “Our energy and environment officials are currently assessing common energy issues, including potential oil and gas issues, which we could usefully address together,” and “Canada is committed to further action including regulations for our oil and natural gas sectors.  As Prime Minister Harper said publicly on 19 December 2013, ‘Our government is prepared to work with the United States on a regulatory regime that will bring our emissions down’.”  (Unfortunately, Maclean’s Magazine seems to have misplaced its copy of the letter, so I could not read the whole document.)

I feel at this point that I need to warn Kerry and Obama to be careful when they hear that the Harper government is “prepared to work on a regulatory regime”.  After all they have been “working on” a regulatory regime for the tar sands for years now with nothing to show for it, and Harper’s Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, is always telling people Canada is “working on” climate change too.

Who is to blame for climate change?

All of which brings me finally to “Whose fault is it anyway?”  Because one of Stephen Harper’s favorite arguments for why it should not matter if Canada mines the tar sands concerns the trivial contribution that the tar sands, or indeed Canada, makes to global GHG emissions.  Of course, it all depends on the way in which you measure contributions, and a new paper by Damon Matthews and colleagues at Concordia University published in Environmental Research Letters in January 2014 tries to do just that, in several different ways.  Again, this is an open access article so is easily found and read.

Let’s talk about three of their maps.  Each map represents the countries of the world, colored on a scale showing degree of cumulative contribution to GHG emissions up to the present.  The first map, Figure 1, looks at the total increase in global temperature that is attributable to all the emissions by each country.  Included are emissions of CO2 from use of fossil fuels and from land-use changes (chiefly clearing of forests), emissions of other GHGs, and releases of sulphate aerosols.

Fig 1 erl483242f1_hr

Figure 1, Matthews et al 2014.  The scale represents the amount of global warming that can be attributed to the cumulative emissions by that country of GHGs from all sources – fossil fuel use, land-use change, non-CO2 emissions and sulphate aerosols.

On this map, Canada comes out looking bad, but definitely not worst, and the accompanying table shows Canada ranked tenth in the world, behind the USA, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany, UK, France, and Indonesia (in that order).  Not a trivial contribution, but also not the worst record on the planet.

The second map (their Figure 3), shows each country’s cumulative contribution to warming per unit of its land area, on the reasonable assumption that a physically larger country is likely to have produced more GHGs than a smaller one and it would not be fair to criticize a major emitter simply because it was a large country.  To show this, the map is distorted, expanding or contracting the country’s borders according to whether it is a major or a minor emitter on a per area basis.

Fig 3 erl483242f3_hr

Figure 3, Matthews et al 2014.  This map shows cumulative GHG emissions from all sources, but sizes of countries have been normalized so that total emissions are shown on a per area basis.  In this map, Africa, Australia and Canada nearly disappear because emissions per unit area in those places are low relative to other parts of the world (the color scale shows the degree to which the country’s size has been expanded or contracted).

As expected, in this map, the USA and Europe are swollen almost beyond recognition while India and Brazil are a bit plump.  Japan is noticeably obese, while Australia and Canada are trim green sprites.

Finally, the third map looks at cumulative emissions expressed as emissions per capita – emissions per person assuming every individual in a country has responsibility for an equal share of emissions.  The conventional shapes of countries are retained, but the color scheme reflects the global temperature change for which each individual is responsible.  Canada ranks third after the UK and the USA, in that order.

Fig 3 erl483242f4_hr

Figure 4, Matthews et al 2014.  Map showing cumulative emissions of GHGs expressed as the per capita share for each country.

Now, all three maps are perfectly appropriate ways of comparing countries in terms of their relative impact on climate due to GHG emissions.  All are based on the same data.  And all are different, because they look at cumulative responsibility in three different ways.  (Another set of maps could be developed that would only examine current emissions – these would measure relative importance today as GHG emitters.)  On an historical basis, the USA is clearly a major emitter (or a major cause of climate change as most would say) no matter how we measure.  China is a major emitter (and becoming more important every year as its economy grows), but largely because it is a large and populous country.  When its emissions are examined per capita, it ranks well down (19th among the top 20 countries in terms of total emissions, and below a number of much smaller, but highly developed countries).  On a per area basis, China and Brazil are about average for countries across the planet and well behind the USA.

Now, why does any of this matter?  Because Canada (and I suspect Australia also now that its government has shifted to the right) has consistently focused on total emissions, or better still, emissions per unit of area, to claim that it is a minor player in this game of polluting the atmosphere.  (It’s funny how Canada wants to ‘own the podium’ at the Olympics, but not so much when it comes to climate change.)  Using our second map (Figure 3 in the article), it’s clear that nothing Canada does actually matters if other countries do not also act – we are a huge country that emits, relatively speaking few GHGs.  On this logic, Stephen Harper is correct when he says the tar sands are not a major emitter of GHGs, and Canada is not a major emitter either.

However, we do only have one planet, and each one of us should be taking responsibility for that planet’s care.  And, I’d suggest the correct way to assess the performance of a nation (composed, after all, of numerous individuals), is to focus on the per capita data in the third map (Figure 4 in the article).  This map shows that Canadians, on average, have a substantial cumulative impact on climate, third most intensive impact on the planet.  We have a responsibility to get serious about climate change, and I hope our politicians will begin to recognize that climate is an issue they need to get on the right side of.  Time will tell.  Who will say what about climate during Canada’s next national election.  “We are working on it” WILL NOT DO.

Climate change will alter our lives

And finally, as if I have not wandered far enough away from the science at this stage, I have to report on this.  In surfing the news media, I learned, that climate change is set to reduce the quality of waves along Australia’s east coast surfing beaches.  Andrew Dowdy and colleagues at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology ran 18 climate models to make this discovery.  If ever there was a reason to fight to mitigate climate change this is it.  Not only will climate change generate huge increases in infrastructure costs and insurance, not only will it depress struggling economies, it will cut into and degrade our leisure activities.  Even a right of center politician with half a heart will now admit that climate change must be brought under control.  Hear that, Mr. Tony Abbott.  (And if you do hear, please tell Stephen Harper because climate change will likely affect Canadian sporting pursuits as well.)


A surfer negotiating the tricky surf at Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania.  Image from

1 thought on “Anyone for tipping? The climate debate begins to shift, perhaps.”

  1. you are old enough to remember the Harmonic Convergence, right? I’m hoping that this one – Global Climate Convergence ( – will actually get off the ground (or was that the Pentagon that got levitated?)

    seriously, last year when 40,000 demonstrated in Washington, 35 turned out in Canada (in Edmonton of all places), we’ve got nowhere to go but up!

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