Tuesday, March 21, 2023

I guess it's possible to be optimistic about the new IPCC report, and some are. I'm not.

The newest United Nations report on planetary climate, different from previous cautious reports, minces few words. 

Things are getting worse, and faster than ever, and we have no time left to act. Paraphrasing Yoda, it's time to do something; simply trying is not an option.

“The report is a full-throated call for the massive—yet doable—changes our species must enact to limit the damage that comes with each fraction of a degree of warming,” said Wired, the online magazine. 

There is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 410 parts per million, than in the past 2 million years—that’s before there were humans on our planet. No other period in the past 2,000 years has seen climate warming as fast as in the past 50 years.

The impacts of these changes have been seriously inequitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2023 report says the people least responsible for the change are suffering the most.

“Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. This has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people. Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected,” the report said in its summary for policymakers.

You can find the actual report summary and various associated documents here

Nearly half the world’s population is vulnerable and at risk of climate change disruptions, from coastal inundation, storms, flooding, drought, food and water shortages, and related issues. That risk is playing out now, and continues to increase.

“Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability,” the report said.

The already-observed changes include water shortages, crop failures, livestock health problems, reduced fishery yields, malnutrition, infectious diseases, community displacement, and immense impacts on ecosystems. The report cites throughout how much faith it has in its observations.

“Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater, cryospheric, and coastal and open ocean ecosystems (high confidence). Hundreds of local losses of species have been driven by increases in the magnitude of heat extremes (high confidence) with mass mortality events recorded on land and in the ocean (very high confidence). Impacts on some ecosystems are approaching irreversibility such as the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from the retreat of glaciers, or the changes in some mountain (medium confidence) and Arctic ecosystems driven by permafrost thaw (high confidence.)”

As we move along in time, it gets worse. “Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.”

There are two primary options: Mitigation, or doing something about it; and adaptation, or learning to live with it.

The report says we have the technology to mitigate, to turn things around. But it would take severe and dramatic action. We do not seem to be willing as a planet to do what’s necessary.

“Deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years.”

But we are not spending enough money on it, and not committing enough of our policy initiatives to it.

So what about adapting? Realistically, even with drastic action, things would get worse before the arrow of livability starts to turn upward. So some adaption will be required anyway.

Clearly the poorest among us will be hit soonest and hardest, and they will have the fewest opportunities to adapt. The wealthier communities will be able to adapt, to a degree. But increasing climate change will threaten even their adaptation options.

“Adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming. With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits,” the report said.

To avoid catastrophe, the report says, the world needs immediate and severe cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. To limit the worst impacts in the coming few decades, emissions need to be driven to near zero.

But policies currently in place don’t do that. If anything, they leave emissions flat, meaning the situation continues to get worse.

This is the frustration. We can do it. We must do it.  But it is not clear we will do it.

What are the odds that this particular planet can galvanize its systems to do what the IPCC says is required? Here is the IPCC’s vision:

“Effective climate action is enabled by political commitment, well-aligned multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies and strategies and enhanced access to finance and technology. Clear goals, coordination across multiple policy domains, and inclusive governance processes facilitate effective climate action. Regulatory and economic instruments can support deep emissions reductions and climate resilience if scaled up and applied widely. Climate resilient development benefits from drawing on diverse knowledge.”

Lots of media reports—ignoring the essence of the report—are all about the upside: “We can fix this! Yes, we can!”

The Christian Science Monitor takes the middle path, noting that the IPCC “walks a fine line between desperation and hope in an effort to spur a more forceful global response.”

Some publications get lost in the weeds. CNBC decided to focus on reflecting the sun's light and heat back into space. Others wondered whether carbon capture technology is ready for prime time.  

All the while ignoring the elephant in the room--we need to stop burning oil and coal.

So, the thinking goes, maybe we can do these interesting techie things, and keep on burning coal in power plants and gasoline in our big luxury cars. And everything will be just fine.

That, of course, is dithering. And while dithering, perhaps we can ponder this: 

How much misery are we willing to subject our grandchildren and their grandchildren to, to keep living the way we are living?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Climate shifts further: La Niño is over, El Niño coming by summer

The La Nina oceanic condition, which we’ve been in for many months, has ended, and an El Nino appears likely to form in the summer or fall.

That’s the latest prediction from the Climate Prediction Center: 

It builds on the report we filed last month, when we suggested a fair chance of El Nino by mid year. That fair chance now seems to have been elevated to a pretty good chance. Spring predictions tend to be problematic, but most models see us going that way.

Thus the La Nina cool phase of Central Pacific climate is behind us, and we are in something called ENSO-neutral, ENSO being the term for the whole warm-cold cycle, El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Most climate prediction models now suggest we should shift into El Niño during the summer, and it might happen pretty quickly: “it is possible that strong warming near South America may portend a more rapid evolution toward El Niño.”

One of the things that can mean for Hawai’i is that we are likely to have a more active hurricane season. Also some other changes. More on that a little further down.

But one the questions that still challenges climate researchers is where climate change is taking the ENSO pattern broadly. There’s some suggestion that the past 40 years—since 1980—have been a little cooler than expected, a little more La Niña.

Now, many researchers say their models suggest the next few decades may swing toward more active El Niño conditions. But they don’t fully trust those models: the computer climate models of past climate don’t match up real will with actual observations of the climate. So how to be sure? A whole lot of smart people are working hard to make sense of that.  A discussion on this can be found at the ENSO blog

Among the variables: Warmer oceans can feed circulating storms, but warmer oceans and changing wind conditions can also cause changes in deep ocean upwellings. If they bring cool water to the surface from the deep ocean, then that could reduce the energy available to circulating storms like hurricanes. Changes in cloud cover could also create cooler surface conditions. And there are other variables.

“Heroic efforts are being done at modeling centers around the world to improve the representation of the physical processes,” wrote Kris Karnauskas, of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

That’s the long term.

For the coming year, what does an El Niño mean for us? There’s a nice NOAA fact sheet here. 

It suggests wetter weather at first, in late summer and fall, then drier. Maybe a dry winter this year. Weaker trade winds. More hurricanes and tropical storms. Warmer water around the Islands.

And sea levels slightly higher than normal, meaning big storm surf will reach farther inland.

All in all, interesting times.

© Jan TenBruggencate