By Solveig Torvik
During these lovely summer days here in our Magic Methow World, the last thing anyone wants to hear about is unlovely weather.
But pesky climate scientists persist in annoying us with weather forecasts none of us want to hear.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already has laid the American Meteorological Society’s unsettling annual State of the Climate Report on us. The scientists who produce it are into measuring and recording. Here’s some of what they recorded for 2012:
It was the warmest year on record in the United States and Argentina. Global sea levels stood at the highest level since measurements have been made, raised by melting ice. Northern Alaska’s permafrost temperatures were the highest ever recorded. This part matters because melting permafrost will release unknown quantities of methane or carbon dioxide (CO2) and further – and maybe faster – heat up our warmish atmosphere.
The extent of global summer sea ice, measured by satellites for 34 years, was 18 per cent less than the previous record low. And the top half-mile deep layer of ocean water remained at near record high temperatures, prompting some researchers to wonder if oceans are capturing more heat from the atmosphere than expected. That may explain why the overall atmospheric heat-up rate has been less during the last 15 years than it was between 1951 and 2012. Or it may not.
Meanwhile, seas were saltier where there’s high evaporation and fresher where there’s more rainfall. This suggests rain is increasing in rainy climates and heat is increasing where it’s drier. Ninety-seven percent of the Greenland ice sheet showed some form of melt, a new record, while the Antarctic sea ice extended further than ever.
CO2 levels briefly reached 400 parts per million at places such as the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, proof that reaching this remarkable milestone level of CO2 is perfectly achievable. The last time CO2 was that high was 3 million years ago.
These State of the Climate people don’t pass on much official advice on what we should do about any of this. That’s mostly left to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which doesn’t conduct research but reviews findings of other scientists. The panel is in the business of informing world governments about what’s understood about climate change so they can try to do something about it. The last time the panel unburdened itself was 2007, and now it’s about to issue a new set of reports.
This panel consists of hundreds of scientists from around the world. They seem to be a typically quarrelsome bunch; the blood sport of academics is savaging one another over abstruse scientific protocols. This can make it hard for mere mortals to sort wheat from chaff or character assassination from legitimate critiques. In addition, scientists often are handicapped, perhaps by temperament and certainly by training, in getting to the bottom line and clearly communicating what that bottom line is to those of us who are paying them to find it.
Let me say in their defense that climate science is devilishly difficult, mind-numbingly complex and far more nuanced than we want it to be. There are too many moving parts. Many of those parts, and their relationship to one another, remain poorly understood. Plus, we humans have a very short record of experience with Earth’s climate, all things considered.
All this makes it easier for climate change deniers to seize on disagreements and mistakes that have been – and will be – made by scientists who are stumbling along as best they can to comprehend the Earth’s operating mechanisms under conditions humans never have experienced.
Climate change deniers ridicule scientists who in the 1970s – before evidence of global warming became undeniably apparent – feared that another Ice Age was coming. They were wrong then, goes that line of thinking, so of course they’re wrong now.
But some who are anxious to proclaim humans guiltless of contributing to climate change do seem to have other, shall we say more short-term, interests. There are even those who claim efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions are socialist plots by some climate panel members who want to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor.
Hello? If fear of socialism is what’s preventing us from getting serious about limiting the effects of climate change, we’re already in deeper water than we know.
Perhaps these critics are worried about who will pay to relocate the many millions of residents of places like New York, Miami and London when, at the end of this century, the panel in a fit of unaccustomed certitude now says seas will have risen as much as 3 feet. It’s a legitimate worry. (NOAA, for its part, puts the most extreme sea level rise at 6 feet by 2100; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans on 5 feet.)
The habitually cautious panel was emboldened to say that it’s “extremely likely” – 95 percent certain, as their leaked draft report puts it – that humans caused more than half of the observed increase in average surface temperatures between 1951 and 2010.
“There is high confidence that this has warmed the oceans, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea levels and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century,” the panel said of human intervention in the Earth’s climate.
And, really, that ought to be the end of that. But it isn’t. Next month the panel will convene in Stockholm with politicians and bureaucrats to massage the draft into its final, officially blessed form. Stay tuned.
Still, the striking thing to me is the quiet, widespread resignation to the stark new reality that we’ve crossed the long-feared tipping point and irreversibly – irreversibly – condemned our kind to live in a markedly hotter world with markedly higher seas.
Thirty years ago, when I first started reporting on climate change, we were advised that it was still possible to avoid this irreversible outcome. And perhaps it was.