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Jan 27, 2011

NASA climate chief: Labor's targets a 'recipe for disaster'

NASA climate expert James Hansen says that the Australian government goals of limiting human-made warming to 2 degrees and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster, writes author David Spratt


When James Hansen talks climate change, people listen. The head of climate studies at NASA, Hansen first gave evidence on the issue to the US Congress in 1988, and is now an eminent scientist and a prominent public advocate.

In new research just out, Hansen concludes that at the current temperature, no “cushion” is left to avoid dangerous climate change, and that the Australian government target goals  “… of limiting human-made warming to 2° and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster”.

The question Hansen raises is direct and brutal in its implications: is the planet already entering a zone of dangerous climate change?

With Arctic sea-ice in a “death spiral”, Greenland in 2010 melting at an unprecedented rate, a seemingly extraordinary number of extreme climate events in the past year from the Russian fires to the Pakistan floods, and 18 countries setting temperature records, have we already gone too far for a safe climate?

In a draft of a new research paper, Hansen and his collaborator Makiko Sato has opened a new debate about what might be the conditions for a safe climate; that is, one in which  people and nations can continue to live where and as they have been, with secure food production, and in a bio-diverse environment.

sprat one

The period of human settlement over the past 10,000 years is known as the Holocene, during which time temperatures and hence sea levels (the two having  a close correspondence) have been remarkable stable.  Temperatures over the period have not been more than 0.5C warmer or cooler than the mid-line (see chart). The warmest part of the Holocene (the “Holocene maximum”) was about 8000 years ago, and according to Hansen, today’s temperature is about, or slightly above, the Holocene maximum:

“… we conclude that, with the global surface warming of 0.7C between 1880 and 2000, global temperature in year 2000 had returned, at least, to approximately the Holocene maximum.”

Note, this is to the year 2000, and temperatures have increased ~0.15C in the last decade, so:

“Global temperature increased 0.5C in the past three decades to a level comparable to the prior Holocene maximum, or a few tenths of a degree higher.”

sprat two

That is, we are already a little above the Holocene maximum. This matters because Hansen’s and Sato’s look at climate history  (paleoclimatology) in this new research finds that it is around this temperature level that the large polar ice sheets start to behave differently. During the Holocene, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been relatively stable, as reflected in the stability of the sea level. But once substantial melting starts, the loss of heat-reflecting white sea-ice, which is replaced by heat-absorbing dark ocean water, produces an “albedo flip”:

“Summer melting on lower reaches of the ice sheets and on ice shelves introduces the “albedo flip” mechanism. This phase change of water causes a powerful local feedback, which, together with moderate global warming, can substantially increase the length of the melt season. Such increased summer melting has an immediate local temperature effect, and it also will affect sea level.”

Their conclusion is that:

“… the stability of sea level during the Holocene is a consequence of the fact that global temperature remained just below the level required to initiate the ‘albedo flip’ mechanism on Greenland and West Antarctica.”

The implication is clear that “just above” the Holocene maximum lurks real danger. As Hansen and Sato say:

“… the world today is on the verge of a level of global warming for which the equilibrium surface air temperature response on the ice sheets will exceed the global mean temperature increase by much more than a factor of two.”

That is, warming at the poles will become more rapid and exceed the ratio so far, of being twice then global average. This change, they say, can be found in past warming events such as the Pliocene about 3 million years ago, so that:

“… even small global warming above the level of the Holocene begins to generate a disproportionate warming on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. “

To put it bluntly, we are on the edge of a precipice in terms of large ice-sheet losses and sea-level rises, and there is little “cushion” left:

“Polar warmth in prior inter-glacials and the Pliocene does not imply that a significant cushion remains between today’s climate and dangerous warming, rather that Earth today is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate additional warming.”

Sea-levels are one devastating metric of “dangerous climate change”:

“Sea level rise potentially sets a low limit on the dangerous level of global warming. Civilisation developed during a time of unusual sea level stability. Much of the world’s population and infrastructure is located near current sea level.”

While some suggest a linear (or flat line) increase in sea-levels this century, Hansen and Sato argue forcefully that:

“… the fundamental issue is linearity versus non-linearity. Hansen argues that amplifying feedbacks make ice-sheet disintegration necessarily highly non-linear. In a non-linear problem, the most relevant number for projecting sea level rise is the doubling time for the rate of mass loss. Hansen suggested that a 10-year doubling time was plausible, pointing out that such a doubling time from a base of 1 mm per year ice sheet contribution to sea level in the decade 2005-2015 would lead to a cumulative 5-metre sea-level rise by 2095. “

Here Hansen repeats his view, first published in 2007 but widely ignored, that a 5-metre sea-level rise is possible.  In fact, recent research by Blancon et al published in Nature in 2009, examining the paleoclimate record, shows sea-level rises of 3 metres in 50 years due to the rapid melting of ice sheets 123,000 years ago in the Eemian, when the energy imbalance in the climate system was less than that to which we are now subjecting the planet.

So what evidence do we have of Hansen’s and Sato view that sea-level rises will be non-linear?

“The most reliable indication of the imminence of multimetre sea level rise may be provided by empirical evaluation of the doubling time for ice sheet mass loss. “

Looking at recent research on mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica:

“These data records are too short to provide a reliable evaluation of the doubling time, but, such as they are, they yield a best fit doubling time for annual mass loss of 5-6 years for both Greenland and Antarctica, consistent with the approximate doubling of annual mass loss in the period 2003-2008. There is substantial variation among alternative analyses of the gravity field data, but all analyses have an increasing mass loss with time, providing at least a tentative indication that long-term ice loss mass will be non-linear… We conclude that available data for the ice sheet mass change are consistent with our expectation of a non-linear response, but the data record is too short and uncertain to allow quantitative assessment. The opportunity for assessment will rapidly improve in coming years if high-precision gravity measurements are continued.

Further evidence of our lack of “cushion” can be found by looking at the warm Eemian inter-glacial peak 125,000 years ago, when it is generally understood that:

“… temperatures in the Eemian … were less than 1C warmer than peak Holocene global temperature”

In fact, Hansen and Sato conclude that:

“… global temperature was only slightly higher in the Eemian and Holsteinian interglacial periods than in the Holocene, at most by about 1°C, but probably by only several tenths of a degree Celsius.

Yet at these times:

“…  some paleodata suggest rates of sea-level rise perhaps as high as 1.6 ± 0.8 metres per century and sea level about 4-6 metres above present-day values.”

A look at the Pliocene, three-to-five million years ago, leads to the conclusion that:

“… in the early Pliocene, when sea level was about 25 metre higher than today, was only about 1C warmer than peak Holocene temperature.”

While atmospheric CO2 amount in the Pliocene is poorly known, a typical assumption, based on a variety of imprecise proxies, is 380 ppm, or less than today’s level!!

So at today’s level of carbon dioxide, and not much above the current temperature, the world has experienced sea-levels five to 25 metres higher than at present!  From that, it is not hard to understand why Hansen and Sato conclude that:

“… goals of limiting human-made warming to 2C and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster.”

Summing up:

“Earth at peak Holocene temperature is poised such that additional warming instigates large amplifying high-latitude feedbacks. Mechanisms on the verge of being instigated include loss of Arctic sea ice, shrinkage of the Greenland ice sheet, loss of Antarctic ice shelves, and shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheets. These are not runaway feedbacks, but together they strongly amplify the impacts in polar regions of a positive (warming) climate forcing … Augmentation of peak Holocene temperature by even 1C would be sufficient to trigger powerful amplifying polar feedbacks, leading to a planet at least as warm as in the Eemian and Holsteinian periods, making ice sheet disintegration and large sea level rise inevitable.”

In a line:

“Earth today is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate additional warming.”

We are perhaps already a few tenths of a degree above the Holocene maximum, and the system seems to be in the early stages of rapid change. It is widely expected Arctic sea-ice will be totally lost in summer with a few years to a decade or so, perhaps at less than 1C or warming.  Very few scientists think Greenland would be stable in an Arctic with little or no summer sea-ice, and opinion is split as to whether it is past its tipping point already.

It is hard to argue that anything above the Holocene maximum (of about 0.5 degrees above the pre-industrial temperature) can preserve a safe climate, and that we have already gone too far.  The notion that 1.5C is a safe target is out the window, and even 1 degree looks like an unacceptably high risk.

*This first appeared on Climate Code Red.


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28 thoughts on “NASA climate chief: Labor’s targets a ‘recipe for disaster’

  1. mattsui

    Yep, we’re screwed……but, hang on a minute, that graph you published has an altered time scale.
    Maybe there’s still hope.
    What we need is a shrill chorus of denial to tell is all one big lie (nazi reference apparently intentional).
    Help us climate denialists, you’re our only hope……

  2. Lorry

    CRAP CRAP and more CRAP.

  3. gregb

    Cue deniar trolls….

  4. Daniel

    but Lorry, you’re a truck, a road vehicle, a cabin with wheels powered by an internal combustion engine! Of course you would think climate change is crap!

  5. PFD311

    Thanks David Spratt for a sensible, worthwhile article about the most important challenge facing us – one that my children will have to deal with, and for which my grandchildren will probably despise people like poor, misguided ‘Lorry’.

  6. joanjett

    Well I’m a parent and hope one day to be a grandparent (if my kids are willing) and I’d prefer to give the head of climate science at NASA the benefit of the doubt on this one. As well as the overwhelming majority of other scientists in the world as well. And the planet.

  7. Ramble

    It is a pity, and of course no surprise, that the entire LHS of the graphs were not shown; instead they have been conveniently truncated at 20k years so as to remove any suggestion that global climatic variability may be totally unrelated to the legacy of Henry Ford and others.

  8. Glen Fergus

    But once substantial melting starts, the loss of heat-reflecting white sea-ice, which is replaced by heat-absorbing dark ocean water, produces an “albedo flip”

    A minor point, but that is not quite what Hanson and Sato mean by “albedo flip” (and have written about before). They’re talking about the effect of shallow summer melt water (and consequent loss of “whiteness”) on the surface of the glacial ice sheets and shelves of Greenland and Antarctica, not loss of sea ice … though they suggest that both may be important.

  9. nadia david

    I went through a range of emotions as I read this….starting with ‘Who the f@ck lets Andrew Bolt write the crap he spewed forth in today’s SMH?”….then “We’re all going to die in the most awful way….every animal, butterfly, tree, everything we love, it’s all going to die”….then “What’s the point in anything I do? It won’t matter – none of it matters because human beings are just wired to destroy everything for the sake of their comfort.”

    Now, I’m at a low-boiling rage at the sheer stupid, lazy bloody-minded wankers who just want to keep driving their cars, powering their big-screen tvs and air-conditioners and flying their planes. Too narcissistic to change for the sake of everyone.

  10. harry troedel

    Sounds like a decent warning to me.
    Perhaps we should be looking to help organisations like Beyond Zero Emissions come up with the solutions that will leave us, at worst, with a healthier environment and less pollution – not to mention increasing our know-how in the fastest growing sector of the world economy.
    Australians it is time to look outside of our shores and see where we could be heading instead of being trapped in this 20th century mindset.

  11. MichaelT

    Compare and contrast: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/26/greenland-ice-sheet-climate-change

    An obvious objection to Hansen’s speculations is that if sea levels were 25 metres higher in the Pliocene and CO2 was lower than today, this suggests that some other major factors apart from CO2 drive changes in sea levels.

  12. gregb

    Of course ramble would complain if the graph was truncated at 20k years or 40k or 2k. He’d always find something to complain about – so long as he can continue to push his head further into the sand. If the variability shown on the graph during the Younger Dryas is not enough for him, what will be enough to acknowledge, as everyone does anyway, that the climate IS variable?

  13. michael crook

    Nadia and Harry, dont get angry, get active and join one of the climate change groups such as BZE or T10, show Gasland at your local community centre as I did last week. Educate your friends and Neighbours. Realise that it is government by corporations that have created this lack of action. Subscribe to Green left Weekly, which appears to be the only newspaper interested in publishing scientific analysis (as opposed to Andrew Bolt). It is up to you and me and them, get active, now.

  14. davidk

    do people still read bolt? Why do they bother?

  15. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Jesus, I’m pleased that Ramble has noticed: “… that the entire LHS of the graphs were not shown”. Ramble, that is to balance up the presentation: the entire right hand side of the graphs were not shown either. The view is about as clear in front as it is behind. It’s hard to accurately describe the present isn’t it?

  16. Frank Campbell

    So why do you think climate millenarianism is waning?

  17. tones9

    You can’t even get present day facts correct.

    “Note, this is to the year 2000, and temperatures have increased ~0.15C in the last decade, so”

    The IPCC dataset is Hadcrut which recorded COOLING in the last decade.


    As for Hansen, who “first gave evidence on the issue to the US Congress in 1988”. His projections prewsented to congress are now about 0.4C too high in just 22 years.
    I wouldn’t be trusting Hansen’s predictions about anything.

  18. Norman Hanscombe

    We can blame politicians, big business, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, but the reality is that there are no easy solutions, and anyone in power who attempts to actually take realistic steps to face up to not just climate change but also problems arising from such things as declining non-renewable resources, increasing living standards, and the planet’s increasing population, would be brought down by citizens baying for his blood.

  19. ben_ausculture

    It may be worth clarifying what the ‘quasi-log’ time scale in the top graph actually means. The Holocene period has been ‘stretched out’ in order to focus on it and be able to label the points in history. If time was a constant along the bottom, the current period of rapid warming would appear as an almost vertical line.

    Obviously, it’s this extreme rapidity that’s a problem for humanity and the ecosystem – it’s less clearly illustrated here for the reasons I just mentioned.

  20. Syd Walker

    An excellent article. IMO the climate change debate is really about risk and risk assessment, so we need to look at worst case scenarios and take them very seriously. Humanity’s uncontrolled experiment on our only habitat is incomparable folly. We developed complex societies and civilisation inside a remarkable climatic ‘sweet spot’, which we began to threaten before gaining a basic understanding of it’s importance and the prerequisites for its continuation.

  21. Norman Hanscombe

    Another thing we might consider taking “very seriously” would be the need to stop pretending there are easy solutions, and the need to be less dismissive of the costs they’d incur.

  22. alec

    as Al Gore said:
    “if a frog jumps in boiling water it just jumps right out again, because it senses the danger.
    but the very same frog, if it jumps in to a jug of lukewarm water, that is slowly brought to a boil, will just sit there and it wont move and it will just keep sitting there and the temperature is just going up and up, and it will stay there until, until, until its rescued….”

    i just though this was well put.

  23. Norman Hanscombe

    Quoting Al Gore is bad enough, but surely that trite tale from my Infants School days (quite apart from its dubious status) is hardly PRAISE?

  24. alec

    so do you not think that this is right? and this one quote is wrong?

  25. Norman Hanscombe

    Alec, a) who does not think what is right, and b) does your question relate to ‘wrong’ in the sense that Gore didn’t say it, or wrong in the sense that empirically it’s not true?

    Please explain.

  26. Glen Fergus

    A thought from this week in Queensland. Authorities have been engaged in fevered preparation against an imminent cyclone threat, largely on the basis of the output of a suite of complex atmospheric computer models about which they know nothing. Politicians and bureaucrats have displayed skilful leadership which has probably saved many lives. So why, in the face of similar devastating predictions from a suite of essentially similar global climate models, is their response so often inaction … even scorn?

  27. Norman Hanscombe

    Glen Fergus, if you can’t understand that, you represent a very big part of the problem.


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