Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review of Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Climate Wars – Gwynne Dyer – Review

Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their 4th report in 2007, the influence of anthropomorphic climate warming has been made clear to many although enough skeptics remain to challenge the anthropomorphic cause. And the recent global economic recession has driven concerns about climate to around 20th on the list of the typical American’s concern. Jobs and the economy are near the top of the list as of 1st quarter, 2009.

Yet, key contributors to the IPCC 2007 reports have become even more concerned about the momentum that GHG emissions and the climate response can be. Well known scientific voices like Jim Hansen, John Holdren, and Dan Kammen (UC Berkeley) have spoken out about the need to take action even more proactively than that encouraged by the IPCC 2007 reports – the need to bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 350 ppm.

Politicians are naturally caught between the realities in our face today, the economy, less dependence on foreign fossil fuels, health care, social security, and economic migration just to name a few of the 21st Century challenges noted by James Martin and Bjorn Lomborg and the future problems of climate change. In part this reluctance to go beyond the IPCC reports is based upon the uncertainty that remains about GHG emission, climate response and various potential triggers such as methane release from previously frozen tundra and perhaps methane hydrates in the deep ocean.

I was reminded of the complexities that politicians face when reading Holmes Hummel’s dissertation on “Interpreting Global Energy and Emission Scenarios – Methods for Understanding and Communicating Policy Insights.” When you are faced with around 700 scenarios projecting GHG emissions resulting from various energy policies from many different groups around the world, with obscure data sets and differing models and an order of magnitude or more of differences – what are you to believe? So you go to the experts and trust their interpretations of limited data and incomplete models. Once a benchmark is set by the IPCC, it’s risky to challenge it.

But Mr. Dyer notes that the IPCC could only accept inputs of research material that had been peer-reviewed and published by the end of 2005. Peer reviewed work had to be submitted to the review process well before that time. Much has been learned in the past 6 years hence the current concerns by Jim Hansen and others and that has caused them to lower atmospheric CO2 targets from 450 ppm down to 350 ppm.

One lesson any broad thinker takes from these inputs is that a useful metaphor for understanding the response of the climate system is the oil supertanker. It takes miles to stop one once you decide that’s what you want to do. In climate terms, the equivalent is decades during which a number of positive feedbacks may occur that take matters out of your hands (like a sudden storm or surprising current in the supertanker metaphor).

Mr. Dyer has created a very helpful set of facts and narratives to help us better understand the climate change dilemmas that we face. He interviews several of the leading scientists post IPCC 2007 and gets their current views of what is in store for us – not only in climate change but in social stress that will accompany inevitable warming. The stresses will be larger or smaller depending upon how much warming occurs and what our responses are to mitigation, adaptation and suffering.

His review of several key aspects of climate history and science from conversations with various experts provides a foundation for speculating on the potential meaning for us and our children in the 21st century. He reminds us of the history of climate and how there have been at least five mass extinctions in the past 450 million years, and only the K-T extinction 65 million years ago seems to be related to a meteor strike. Several others seem correlated to higher CO2 in the atmosphere and possible hydrogen sulfide release from stagnating and overturning (anoxic) oceans in warming temperature (Canfield Oceans).

Mr. Dyer supplements his interviews and reviews of climate history with seven scenarios that describe events that might occur as the planet warms during this century. Although he does not explicitly identify the primary drivers, I suggest that most if not all of his narratives are basically founded on the tensions between actual climate response and our human actions with application to the issues in specific regions. What we do affects climate and vice versa – a typical feedback system reality.

Unfortunately, as behavioral economists and game theorists caution, humans do very poorly at protecting their future selves from known possible adverse consequences. So we are sobered by the challenges covered in the narratives such as: 1) who has rights in the ice-free Arctic, 2) how will India and Pakistan resolve dwindling water resources from the Indus waters, 3) what to do about economic migration from Central America into the US as drought strikes the tropics, 4) should geo-engineering attempts be initiated to make up for delayed action, and 5) what are the indicators of impending disaster – to name a few of the questions. Do we wait until disaster is in our face before taking action?

If you are concerned about population growth, over-burdened planetary environmental services, and anthropomorphic climate change, you will find Climate Wars provides provocative insights to our climate challenge of the 21st century. Have you thought about the planet that you will leave for your children?

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