Rekindling the Climate Embers

Goodbye Hockey Stick, hello Burning Embers? A paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences resurrects and updates a fancy graphic published in the IPCC’s TAR in 2001, but which was omitted from AR4 in 2007, and finds – guess what – that global warming is more serious than previously thought.

Gosh, yes, that does look much worse, doesn’t it? The dangers are much more red than they were eight years ago. As Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin puts it:

It vividly shows how, in many areas of concern, the transition to big problems is much closer than research implied eight years ago.

‘Vividly’ is the word. You certainly couldn’t describe it as scientifically informative. For all of the faults of the hockeystick graph, at least it doesn’t substitute numbers with colours of the rainbow.

The study re-assesses vulnerabilities to small rises in Global Mean Temperature (GMT). From the abstract:

Here, we describe revisions of the sensitivities of the RFCs to increases in GMT and a more thorough understanding of the concept of vulnerability that has evolved over the past 7 years. This is based on our expert judgment about new findings in the growing literature since the publication of the TAR in 2001, including literature that was assessed in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), as well as additional research published since AR4. Compared with results reported in the TAR, smaller increases in GMT are now estimated to lead to significant or substantial consequences in the framework of the 5 “reasons for concern.”

Expert judgement is a Good Thing, of course. (Although it’s interesting that in fobbing us off with a fancy colour chart, it asks that we suspend ours.) And here we have the judgement of fifteen experts, including some authors of AR4. But we would suggest that it is perhaps a tad early for co-author Hans-Martin Füssel to claim that it follows from this one study – or consensus within a consensus, if you prefer – that

Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago

Revkin provides some interesting background on why the Burning Embers diagram didn’t make it into AR4:

An updated version of the diagram was created for the panel’s momentous 2007 report on climate, but it met resistance from some scientists who thought the color bars were too vague or subjective and from some governments, which thought the artwork was too unnerving, according to interviews with the lead authors.

In a follow-up post yesterday, Revkin publishes an email from co-lead-author of the paper, Stanford University climatologist and activist Stephen Schneider, which sets out his take on why it was omitted:

We first presented the revised figure at the WG 2 Plenary and it attracted great interest and many calls to include it. Unfortunately governments of 5 fossil fuel dependent and producing nations opposed it. It was never debated in the Plenary since Chapter 19 materials didn’t get into Plenary debate until 9AM the last day after an all night session and a press conference due in one hour and still the Report hadn’t been finished — nothing controversial was possible as there was no time for a contact group. SO in essence it was a casualty of time.

At the Synthesis Plenary there was no time issue, as many countries in writing in advance asked to have it brought back since it was synthetic, and thus even if not appearing in the WG 2 Report, it was still appropriate for the Synthesis, and in addition it was the author’s judgments for graphing what was already approved text — the “reasons for concern” update in words. That did get a floor fight to my memory, and this time if my memory serves, 4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”. But in the TAR it also was a judgment and this was just an update using some of the same authors and the same logic, so their logic was faulty–but their filibuster successful. Hope that helps.

It’s always funny to hear complaints from climate activists that IPCC documents are too conservative as a result of political influence. Because politics is precisely what they are very quick to say the IPCC is not influenced by should anyone suggest that it overstates evidence, or that ‘the consensus’ is rather less scientific than they would have us believe.

Revkin also quotes the IPCC chair:

In an email, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said he was glad the diagram has been resurrected. “Some of the scientists (including some senior functionaries) involved” in the report “were dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram, and I just could not push it through,” he said. “I am glad that there is a revival of this characterization, which I hope will lead to some discussion and debate.”

‘Push it through’? So that’s what the IPCC chair is there for.

It is entirely appropriate that it is Schneider who should be resurrecting a diagram that was considered by scientists as ‘too vague or subjective’ for AR4, but which nevertheless ‘vividly shows’ how close to disaster we are. After all, in a notorious unguarded moment, he did once make this telling comment to a reporter:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. [Quoted in: Schell, J., “Our fragile earth,” Discover, 10(10):44-50, October 1989.]

If Schneider was thinking that the burning embers diagram might achieve the sort of influence enjoyed by the hockeystick, he’ll be disappointed with its impact so far. Apart from Revkin’s coverage, the paper has received scant attention in the press. Even the BBC didn’t cover it! Which is doubly surprising given the press release:

Risks of global warming have been underestimated

“Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago,” says Hans-Martin Füssel from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK)


It’s just the sort of presser that can be pasted directly into a new document and called a news report. And since when has the BBC been able to resist that sort of thing?

So what’s going on when the media turn their noses up at good old-fashioned climate catastrophe when it’s handed to them on a plate? Perhaps journalists spotted the following line of small print under the authors’ names and affiliations on the paper:

Contributed by Stephen H. Schneider, December 9, 2008

This indicates that Schneider himself has administrated the peer review process including selection of reviewers. (A privilege that PNAS grants to members of the US National Academy of Sciences.) It’s probably fairly safe to assume that he didn’t pick any of those IPCC scientists who were ‘dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram’.

But we doubt that is the reason somehow. It might be explained in part by the fact that PNAS for some reason did not include the embers paper in its weekly publicity material. But there has to be more to it than that.

Could it be that, following a barage of criticism from the likes of the MET office about catastrophe-mongering by scientists and the media, and following a bout of outlandish claims of the worse-than-previously-thought variety from the likes of Chris Field, James Hansen and James Lovelock, journalists are counting to ten before regurgitating such empty rhetoric? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Then again, now that the UK has its Climate Change Act and the USA’s is well on its way, and with the climate Satan out of the Whitehouse, perhaps there is just less demand or need for salacious news items about our imminent doom.