Rekindling the Climate Embers

by | Feb 28, 2009

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.


  1. Rich

    D’you know, if you convert the graphic to grey scale it looks like all the risks have fallen not risen?

    Another oddity: “Risk of large scale discontinuities” used to go down to “Very Low” and now only goes down to “Low” just like they simply rescaled it to leave off the bottom bit and make the rest look bigger.

    Mind you, I haven’t solved the puzzle of what it’s trying to say yet.

  2. Sigil Squiggle

    I am not surprised the media haven’t touched it – at least the hockey stick looked like a temperature graph but as a green mandala to aid ones eco meditations this really makes little sense at all – it looks for all the world like a Brass Eye prop.

  3. geoff chambers

    Excellent point by Rich about the change in the labelling from “Very Low” to “Low”. Since the whole point is a “before” and “after” comparison, that sneaky change alone should have got the article thrown out by peer review.

    At first glance, the two five-bar electric fires seem to be suggesting that its going to get hotter. (Except that the IPPC doesn’t do predictions, according to one of its lead authors). What it’s really saying is that the results of a given amount of heating (whatever that may be) willl be worse than we thought (in a hundred years time) – a fact they’ve apparently discovered in the two years since the last IPPC report .
    In fact the message of both graphs is broadly the same: at 5°C temperature increase, it’s going to be reallly bad; at 1°C increase, nothing much will happen. Remember that the IPPC thought that temperatures a century from now would probably be between 1 and 5°C warmer than now (They couldn’t be more definite). Which the chart translates (reading from top to bottom, red to white) into: maybe bad things will happen, maybe not.

    In the abstract of the article you refer to, the eleven (!) authors state:
    “In presenting the “embers” in the TAR, IPCC authors did not assess whether any single RFC [reason for concern] was more important than any other; nor did they conclude what level of impacts or what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases would constitute DAI [dangerous anthropogenic interference], a value judgment that would be policy prescriptive”.
    Of course they didn’t. They left the value judgements to the journalists. They spread the petrol over the undergrowth. They left it to others to drop the cigarette end to start the forest fire.

  4. Robert Wood

    “…the transition to big problems…”????

    I wish I had the gall to write such a blathering line. Most regular mortal folk only have small problems like money, housing, love affairs, etc. My goodness, wouldn’t a big problem be rather a relief to them.

  5. Robert Wood

    That chart is the most disgraceful piece of porpaganda I have seen in a long time. It is, in fact, completely meaningless but there is lots of dangerous red.

    In fact, the reds are taking over the world, it aoppears.

  6. Robert Wood

    “…perhaps there is just less demand or need for salacious news items about our imminent doom.”

    Don’t count on it. We have a year to build up to Copenhagen

    (Sorry for the triple posting. I should read th whole thing before commenting).

  7. Alex Cull

    It’s a rather interesting situation now developing in the world of climate politics.

    On the one hand, this year we have Stephen Schneider telling us that “Risks of global warming have been underestimated”, James Hansen warning us that “Only in the past few years did the science crystallise, revealing the urgency. Our planet is in peril…” and biologist Chris Field predicting that “warming is likely to accelerate at a much faster pace and cause more environmental damage than had been predicted.”

    This I would have expected. December 2009 is when the climate talks in Copenhagen will take place. If Copenhagen is a washout, the chances of success for Kyoto 2 will be reduced accordingly. For proponents of catastrophic AGW, this is surely the time to ramp up the dire warnings – they have just nine months or so now to press governments (and the populations who vote for them) to sign up. The clock is ticking.

    However, in February we heard the relatively sensible words of the Hadley Centre’s Vicky Pope, warning of the dangers of “overplaying natural variations in the weather”. And now there’s Kyle Swanson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee saying that we might not have much warming for the next 30 years, and NOAA’s Isaac Held saying that “the warming might possibly slow down or even stagnate for a few years.”

    So: a rather mixed message. Now of course the last two, Swanson and Held, are also warning of rapid, even “explosive” global warming coming back after the hiatus. And Vicky Pope is still saying that “the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.”

    But – global warming back in 30 years’ time? For cash-strapped governments everywhere, who have already thrown billions into propping up the banks and face problems of rising unemployment, protectionism, shrinking economies and even civil unrest just around the corner, 30 years might as well be 3000 years.

    I think the next few months will be interesting.

  8. geoff chambers

    I agree with Alex Cull that the next few months will be interesting; as I agree with him tactically – that it’s important to speculate on the future developments in the global warming story, even if our speculations are no more than the ruminations of a couple of thistle-munching Eeyores (though maybe the editors have other, higher aspirations for C-A than to be a donkey sanctuary).

    The current consensus appears to be that global warming concerns will be swamped by the economic crisis, and all those wind farms, anti-air-travel campaigns and other green initiatives will fade away in the cold light of economic reality. An alternative scenario is that politicians, incapable of effective action on the economic front, go all macho in Copenhagen, and try and outbid each other in supporting extremist “environmental” programmes.

    It was interesting to see your account of the lineup of countries for and against the absurd “Embers” icon; with democratic NZ, GB, Germany and Belgium for, and autocratic China, Russia and Saudi Arabia (plus the USA) against. I place my hopes in the enlightened self-interest of democratically elected scoundrels like Sarkozy and Berlusconi, whose interest in politics is limited to their own political survival, and who can therefore be trusted (!) to do the sensible thing and keep the CO2 flowing.

  9. Robert Wood

    Alex Cull,

    I have posted elsewhere, sorry can’t remember where, thta it will be very difficult for the hysterics to maintain this level of hysteria for 9 more months; especially given the economic situation.

    Expect to see a change of tack: no longer will global warming policies save the planet; now, they will save your job. No one will mention global warming; it will be climate change and the change in your pocket and energy efficiency … amazingly, at the same time these people insist on policies to make your energy more expensive.

  10. geoff chambers

    to Robert Wood
    You say: “It will be very difficult for the hysterics to maintain this level of hysteria for 9 more months”.
    I’m afraid it’s in the nature of hysteria to repeat the same crisis over and over – just one darned tipping point after another. Monbiot’s Booker Bullshit award at the Guardian is a casebook study in hysteria straight out of Freud – the same obscenity repeated week after week, the empty menace to reveal all, the challenges to his all-powerful yet worthless enemies… Certainly they’ll change tack – continually – in order to maintain the essential thing, which is the hysteria itself. Reasoned argument won’t change their minds, but it might eventually dislodge them from their pulpits in the media, in government, and elsewhere. One day maybe we’ll see the President of the Royal Society in his rightful place, on a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner …

  11. Alex Cull

    Robert, you’re right about the change of tack – at least where the government and NGOs are concerned. I’m thinking of the “Act on CO2” campaign in the UK:

    “Save money and cut CO2 into the bargain” – note the order in which this is written.

    Geoff, I like your phrase “enlightened self-interest of democratically elected scoundrels”! It’s one of the (many) ironies of this whole debate that some see heroic collective action as the only way to avoid catastrophe (one comment I’ve read recently is that we need a “World War II scale effort to save humanity from self-destruction.”) However, I think some of us see self-interest as being one of the factors that will probably restore a measure of sanity to the world. A bit like individual lemmings deciding to put their own interests first and edge back from the cliff, rather than marching over it in lock-step.

  12. Greg Cavanagh

    If risk rises with average global temperatures, they might have a point. But they havn’t demonstrated that risks do in fact rise. There is no option in these graphs whereby a risk does not rise with temperature.


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