Is Climate Change Caused by Human Activity or by Natural Cyclical Phenomena?

by on October 1, 2013 · 4 comments

in Editor's Picks, Environment, Government, Politics

The British newspaper, the Guardian, wrote that the conservative American Enterprise Institute offered $10,000 and a very generous out-of-pocket compensation for any article written by a scientist that brought the credibility of the IPCC in doubt

globalwarming7By Frank Thomas

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been around for 25 years. In their report released last Friday, IPCC data surprisingly suggested a “15 year pause” in climate warming … a cooling period perhaps not too dissimilar to what occurred before in 1965-79.

This view comes from a one-year 60% increase in Arctic sea ice coverage between September 1, 2012 and August 31, 2013. Of course, this fires up the endless debate on how much global average temperatures have risen (and will rise) due to human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and how much due to natural variability.

Climate research experts agree that there has been a stagnation in global warming since 2000. Increased release of GHG emissions in the 1980s and 1990s led to a new atmospheric high of 400 ppm vs 310 ppm in 1962. An entirely possible 500 ppm GHG concentration or more in the next 40 years spells severe survival problems for all life.

Even though global warming has slowed in recent years, the long term trend is clear: the annual average rate of increase in atmospheric C02 has been going up steadily decade to decade – more than doubling at 2.1 ppm per year for the last 10 years vs 0.9 ppm per year 50 years ago! Statistical variations may suggest a temporary cooling effect, but the long term trend largely due to GHG emissions is for more global warming.

globalwarming6The sharp contrast with the stagnation in average earth temperature increases over the last 12 years and the expected cooling down over the next 15 years has climate change skeptics crying “lies” to predictions that CO2 pollution is the cause of climate change. Nevertheless, ice-free Arctic summers could occur as early as 2014. The Arctic permafrost could disappear in 5 years. An ecologically calamitous earth-warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more – accelerated by a potentially massive release of Arctic methane – could envelop planet earth by 2050.

“RUBBISH” say the skeptics! Some climate historians see the IPCC recent ‘cooling pause’ data as just more evidence that Arctic ice levels are cyclical. In short, they are mainly due to natural variability and not to human activities. Climate-warming and change deniers point to the huge ice meltdown in the 1920s and 1930s … followed by an intense ocean ice recovery that ended in 1979 … followed by a repeat huge Arctic ice meltdown in 1980s and 1990s … followed by IPCC’s modeling data now spelling a 15 year pause in Arctic ice meltdown. This ‘return of the Arctic ice sheet’ and climate effect has been discussed in a crisis IPCC top meeting in Stockholm which concluded just a few days ago.

The haunting questions remain: What’s happening with the Arctic ice and its ice-captured gigantic reserves of CO2 and especially CH4 (methane)?

How certain is it that humans are causing climate warming and the resultant climate change? Notwithstanding the cyclical trend noted above, the IPCC still says it is “95% confident that global warming has been caused by humans and will continue to be caused by humans” … unless drastic action is taken on reducing the deadly greenhouse gas emissions from methane and fossil fuels.

A very brief historical overview follows of the IPCC’s previous four reports on disturbing trends in global climate warming and change … trends that continue to be treated as simply pure climate science nonsense and deception by hard-core skeptics.

Brief Overview of Reports of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Since 1990 and Reactions

• In its first 1990 REPORT, the IPCC refrained from suggesting that the 0.5 degrees Celsius rise in the average global earth temperature since the start of the 20th century was due to humans or from natural variability.

• In its second 1995 REPORT, the IPCC did not move much from its earlier position of the origin of higher global temperatures. However, it did say that subsequent research since the last report gave a strong indication that, “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on the global climate.”

• In its third 2001 REPORT, the IPCC went a step further when saying the continuing trends in climate warming were “likely” – meaning more than a 66% chance of being due to humans.

• In its fourth 2007 REPORT, the “likely” scientific viewpoint got much stronger with the term “very likely” – meaning more than a 90% chance of being due to humans. Conclusions were more definitive that the warming up was unmistakable from measurements of atmosphere and ocean temperatures, from worldwide rapid melting of glaciers and pole ice and from the rise in sea level.

globalwarming5The provocative statement was also made that, even if the greenhouse gas effect stabilized, the warming up of the earth and the rising sea levels could continue for a 100 years with irreversible effects on nature and humans. As noted, not surprisingly, the neo-conservative Tea Party types call this “voodoo” science and lies, playing on fears of traditional fossil fuel, auto and chemical industry polluters that they will be faced with the unnecessary huge costs of going green.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, wrote that the conservative American Enterprise Institute offered $10,000 and a very generous out-of-pocket compensation for any article written by a scientist that brought the credibility of the IPCC in doubt.

In 2009, the neo-conservative outcry achieved new levels when in effect criminal actions were taken to discredit the climate science represented by IPCC and other credible climate science organizations.

Just before a meeting of top climate people in Copenhagen in 2009, “CLIMATEGATE” broke out. Thousands of e-mails of climate researchers were stolen and published by anonymous hackers who accused the science community of a plot to manipulate climate data. Nothing fraudulent was found.

But the Copenhagen meeting ended postponing indefinitely discussions of ideas and actions to save the world from climate over-warming. A year later in 2010, a careless mistake occurred in IPCC’s 2007 REPORT. It was discovered on page 492 in the second part of the three part REPORT, each part of which contained about a thousand pages! On page 492 the statement was made that all of Himalaya’s thousands of glaciers will be melted by 2035.

Further, it was thought that when the ice melted, 1.5 billion people below would be without drinking water from the many Himalayan rivers. In a Science report of June 2012, Dutch researchers learned that most rivers in the area were NOT dependent on melted ice water since much rain water falls into the rivers each year. So, as the Dutch report concluded, Himalayan drinking water availability for the next 100 years is not at risk.

The IPCC failed to help themselves by immediately admitting to the error and correcting it. Instead the reaction was arrogant and slow. Recently, IPCC’s Chairman had this to say in a Dutch internet interview:

“We were confronted with an organized attack. No one knew how we must react. We had no communication strategy … Science is one expertise, communication is another … We were naïve and in any event not very efficient. The climate “doubter” promoters have much money. The Chairman of IPCC is not paid. We are an organization that works with 2000 to 3000 scientists and that has 800 writers for the REPORTS – all not paid.”

(SOURCES: Reports of IPCC; NRC Weekend, “Negotiations Over the Climate,” Sept. 21/22, 2013; NRC, “The Analysis of the Environment is Becoming More Precise,” by P. Luttikhuis, Sept. 23, 2013)

globalwarming3Needless to say, this and recent news about a 12-month 60% increase in Arctic ice coverage has been fertile grounds for climate-denier critics of how the IPCC operates and its very existence. IPCC has since asked for advice from an independent commission, The Interacademy Council.

Under the leadership of Robert Dijkgraaf, a study conclusion is that the IPCC has grown inadequately with the pace of environmental developments and has operated amateurishly. It’s not always clear who speaks for the organization or when scientists are giving their own meaning or are speaking for the IPCC.

This critique, among others, has been addressed in the upcoming fifth REPORT of the IPCC. Important organizational changes have already been made. Recently, its Chairman, Jean-Pascal Van Ypersele came forth with interesting clarifications to allay the confusion about IPCC’s functions:

“We do not write policy. Our mission is to be “policy relevant.” This we do by laying out choices, pluses and minuses, limits and costs. It has been asserted that the IPCC has said the average global temperature must NOT exceed 2 degrees Celsius. BUT, we have never said that. We have exposed the risks if the temperature increases 1 degree Celsius or 2 degrees. But we do not determine which choice should be made. Never! Never!

“The climate of the last 10,000 years has been very stable. Now we are talking of a temperature increase of 1 degree to 6 degrees Celsius in less than 100 years. That is unbelievable, an enormous change in climate! Many policy-makers underestimate the scale of the changes we will experience in the next 100 years. So it’s frustrating that, even when the diagnosis is getting more precise, we make such slow progress on implementing rules to protect the planet.”

Summary

The brings me back to the essential question: How certain is it that climate warming is human caused?

U.S. climate expert, Prof. Judith Curry, strongly faults the IPCC forecast models as being too sensitive to CO2 as the root cause of climate warming.

She omits the overwhelming supporting evidence of fossil fuel pollution and related positive feedback effects in breaking down sub-sea ice clathrates containing massive amounts of methane. The ongoing serious acidification of oceans (particularly from burning very dirty coal), the resultant destroying of microscopic phytoplankton that supplies most of our planet’s life oxygen and the continuing high rates of deforestation due in part to forest fires contribute significantly to reduced C02 absorption.

Scientists have confirmed that the oceans are turning into acid 10 times faster than they were 300 million years ago during the biggest mass extinction event in earth history. Prof. Curry apparently sees no relationship whatsoever between climate warming and a historical 50 year CO2 growing proliferation in the atmosphere to a concentration of 400 ppm … a consistent curve upward from a mild annual rate of increase of 0.90 ppm/year during 1963-1972 to a shocking 2.07 ppm/year 2003-2012.

She seems to be a believer that historically CO2 levels have increased FOLLOWING a global warming event rather than PRECEDING a global warming event and causing it. As well as being a myth over the past 50 years, this thinking has long been a myth used to explain environmental extinctions occurring millions of years ago – the latter has just been credibly shown to be FALSE by a French research team.

Today, the scientific proof is overwhelming that heat trapping CO2 acceleration in the atmosphere plus the related positive feedbacks are the primary cause of intensified climate warming. This ecologically destructive dynamic is going to be super-accelerated by CHINA and INDIA’s 2.5 billion people, 98% of whom earn less than $2,000 a year plus another 2 billion population increase mostly in undeveloped countries. This represents over 4.5 billion people living in mostly relatively un-industrialized, low standard of living countries who will eventually naturally want to have many of the material possessions – or should I say material obsessions – expected by people in the more maturely developed countries.

These interrelated demographic, living standard developments combined with the pollution from fossil fuels and the positive feedback loop factors are seriously compounding climate warming problems.

This is unaddressed by Prof. Curry and summed up with the vague and empty epithet, “Uncertainty is getting bigger” … concerning the role of these factors in increasing unstable climate warming. Furthermore, and most importantly, the 60% Arctic ice increase in the last 12 months was already expected by climate scientists, most of whom say this statistic is largely irrelevant (see: Guardian Climate Consensus – “The 97%,” by Dana Nucciteli) because:

“Arctic ice generally reaches its minimum in September and scientists had already predicted LESS MELT for this year compared to last year. The reason so many climate scientists predicted more ice this year than last is quite simple. There’s a principle in statistics known as the ‘regression toward the mean,’ which is the phenomenon that if an extreme value of a variable is observed, the next measurement will generally be less extreme. In other words, we should not often expect to observe records in consecutive years. The year 2012 shattered the previous record low sea ice extent; hence ‘regression to the mean’ told us that 2013 would likely have a higher minimum extent.”

The Arctic sea ice minimum is the day usually in September when the sea ice is at its smallest extent (coverage). BUT, the National Snow and Ice Data Center(NSIDC) points out that the currently high Arctic sea ice September coverage is still well BELOW the 1981 to 2010 average for the month. In words of NSIDC director, Mark Serreze, “While today’s coverage is a welcome recovery from last year’s record low, the overall trend is still decidedly downwards.” NSIDC officials further pointed out:

“Sea ice extent for August 2013 averaged 6.09 million sq. kilometers (2.35 million sq. miles). This was 1.03 sq. kilometers (308,000 sq. miles) BELOW the 1981 to 2010 average for August, but well ABOVE the level recorded last year, which was the lowest September ice extent in the satellite record. Ice extent this August was similar to the years from 2008 to 2010. These contrasts in ice extent from one year to the next highlight the year-to-year variability attending the overall, long-term decline in sea ice extent.”

As usual figures can be misleading and downright misused, especially when the multi-faceted environmental pollution picture I’ve summarized is not taken into account. I certainly have an open mind as to how much greenhouse gas emissions are due to carbon dioxide and potentially to Arctic methane versus how much is due to natural variability (non-human caused).

Professional research on climate change and pollution to date convince this investigative reporter that the climate warming course of the last 30-40 years is human caused … and will become increasingly human caused by a 7 billion world population, rising to 9 billion by 2050. Excluding North America and Europe, the world population comprises over 85% of quasi-developed and developing nations – nearly 40% from China and India alone! That’s a lot of heat trapping CO2 and CH4 coming into the atmosphere!

The risks to Mother Earth are simply too great to gamble on a “life as usual” acceptance of a potentially massive ecological and human extermination event – especially knowing the speed and scale of the CO2 and CH4 pollution trend line we are now on. Placing all bets and blame on cycles and natural variability for the obvious human disproportionate disturbance of nature’s environmental balance on the only planet known to harbor human life … is a bet we should all pass on for the sake of our children’s children and their children’s children.

Frank Thomas, writing from The Netherlands

POSTSCRIPT:

Concerning the just published IPCC REPORT, the following was reported in the International Herald Tribune today (September 28-29):
Within three decades scientists warn, warming could be irreversible. The world’s top climate scientists on Friday formally embraced an upper limit on greenhouse gases for the first time … establishing a target level at which humanity must stop spewing them into the atmosphere or face catastrophic climate changes. Scientists warned the target was likely to be exceeded in a matter of decades unless steps were taken soon to reduce emissions. The experts cited a litany of changes already under way, warned they were likely to accelerate and expressed virtual certainty that human activity was the main cause.”   
So much for the exaggerated, unfounded reactions by die-hard climate change skeptics! The recent revelation of a 60% increase in the Arctic ice cap over the last 12 months does NOT support “the doubters and deniers” propaganda that climate change is thus inherently NOT human caused … that it is a cycle and a fluctuation process naturally caused which has existed for millions of years!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Lawrence October 1, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Frank,

I don’t get the connection between a 15 year slowdown in the diminution of arctic ice and the “regression to the mean” for one year. Is this slowing down of the trend towards less sea ice a relatively long term phenomenon (15 years) or is it a statistical variation from year to year or both?

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avatar Frank Thomas October 2, 2013 at 5:16 am

John,

To answer your question directly, the past decade slowdown in earth warming and expected 10-15 year future continued stagnation, with possible implications for less Arctic ice meltdown, is considered a short term fluctuation. But this begs for more explanation without getting too technical , I hope. This whole subject is super complex. The challenge is to simplify the complex without being too simple.

The 259 scientitists from 39 countries that drafted IPCC’s 5th IPCC Report are more convinced than ever that global warming is “unequivocal” and humans have been the main cause over the last 60 years. The report finds it “extremely likely” that the warming-up trend is human-cause — upgraded to a 95-100% certainty from a “very likely” 90% to 100%” certainty in the 2007 IPCC Report.

What the authors are not so confident about is the slowdown in the rate of warming over the past 15 years, despite rising carbon dioxide concentrations. The report admits this is not fully understood, but that the most plausible answer is the natural variability of climate. The report concludes the 15-year “pause” in warming — the highest average global temperature occurred 15 years ago — is partly due to changes in the climate system … for example, a redistribution of heat within the ocean, and factors such as aerosols produced by volcanic eruptions that can reflect radiation back into space and therefore have a cooling effect.

So there are some substantial uncertainties, e.g., the likely amount of warming at given levels of greenhouse gas emissions, how much will the sea level rise, and the certainty plants and animals will be exterminated. But the report is adamant in saying that a 15-year “warming pause” is too short a period to make a clear judgment. As one American scientist who participated in writing the 5th Report commented, “People think that global warming means every year is going to be warmer than the year before. It doesn’t work that way. It’s more like a stair-step process.”

The temperature ups and downs are short-term fluctuations, mostly reflecting natural variability, around the underlying 60-year gradual trend of warming surface air temperatures, considerable retreat of mountain glaciers and Arctic sea ice, rise in global sea level, soaring acidification of the ocean, deforestation, etc .

From my readings, natural external climate variations like volcanic eruptions and fluctuations in solar output also play a role. For example, the increase in solar radiation penetrating the earth likely contributed to the mid-century 1930-40 warming. The Philippine volcano, Mt. Pinatubo, caused a sharp short-lived drop in global surface air temperature in 1991. A well-know example of an internal natural climate variation is El Nino. This is a warming of the Equatorial Pacific that occurs about every four years. This event happened in 1997-98 and contributed significantly to making 1998 the warmest year to date for the world.

The point is that natural fluctuations have to be ignored to correctly see the human influence on climate. In this regard, IPCC scientists are trying to do a better job of taking into account natural variability. As one scientist noted:

“Had forecasters extrapolated the mid-century warming into the future, they would have predicted far more warming than actually occurred. Likewise, the subsequent cooling trend, if used as a basis for a long-term forecast could have erroneously supported the idea of a rapidly approaching ice age. The detection of the anthropogenic climate direction thus requires at least the analysis of long records. This is because we can easily be fooled by the natural fluctuations or background climate noise, and we need to understand their dynamics to better estimate the internal noise level, i.e., the anthropogenic emission of GHGs. (from: Professor of Physics Mojib Latif of Kiel University).”

As summarized in the IPCC 5th Report: because of natural changes in the climate, ‘trends’ based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning-and-end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends. The larger trend is clearly towards warming. Each of the past three decades has been warmer than all others since 1850 and the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest.

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avatar Frank Thomas October 2, 2013 at 9:08 am

John,

I neglected to mention that IPCC scientists believe Arctic summer ice may have already vanished quicker in the past 30 years than in the previous 2000 years! Further, it may vanish completely before the middle of this century. Scientists say this is the long-term trend along with superimposed short-term climate fluctuations like the recent Arctic ice cap increase.

In the words of one climate expert, “The GHGS in the atmosphere will continue to acumulate for years and possibly even decades, which together with the climate inertia of the climate system will support further warming.”

On the positive side, Nature Geoscientist published a recent study suggesting the planet will warm more slowly than feared, perhaps buying an extra decade for more aggressive near-term actions on policies like improved energy efficiency, rigidly limiting and quickly phasing out of inefficient coal-fired power plants, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and phasing out of oil.

Also, an encouraging sign is the bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China signed in July to cut carbon emissions from heavy duty vehicles and coal-fired plants. But offsetting this good step is reality that consumption and greenhouse gas emissions have more than doubled in China the last decade. And, as noted above, China’s per capita GDP, energy consumption and average income of its 1.3 billion people are a small fraction of those in the West.

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avatar Frank Thomas October 3, 2013 at 8:50 am

John,

Following recent scientific observations may be additionally helpful to SDFP readers in grasping why IPCC scientists are now bluntly saying a long-trend towards increasing anthropogenic-induced earth warming — made worse by positive feedbacks like a potentially massive methane release in the Arctic — is a relatively not too distant climate reality.

Ice-floe research stations in the Arctic could be maintained for 2 or 3 years up until the 1980s. High-latitude ocean measurements have been critical, for example, to Russian and U.S. research of what’s happening to the Arctic ocean. Most research stations have lasted for only one year since 2003. The breaking up and splitting of Arctic ice recently forced the Russians to evacuate a station in May 2013 that was established in October 2012 and was supposed to last through September this year. This is another sign Arctic sea ice is rapidly shrinking despite “pause” in the rise of average surface air temperatures.

As noted in previous writings, more than a trillion tons (some say 1.5 trillion tons) of methane (CH4) lie under East Siberian Arctic shelf … trapped inside subsea icy lattices (clathrates) at depths as shallow as 20 meters going up to 200 meters. Researchers Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov of the University of Alaska have recently calculated that a methane release of 50 billion tons, or less than .o5% of 1 trillion tons of methane below the surface of the East Siberian Arctic shelf would be possible within the next 2 or 3 decades.

Since methane is 25 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, this equates to a carbon dioxide equivalent of 1.2 trillion tons entering the earth’s atmosphere BEFORE adjusting for the lifespan of methane. The carbon dioxide equivalent after that adjustment is still an incredibly extraordinarily high figure! Especially when viewed in relation to 2011 global CO2 emissions of 34 billion tons I have documented in prior writings (source: Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and European Commission’s Joint Research Center).

The research work of Chris Hope and Arctic Ocean specialist Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University and Gail Whiteman of Eramus University in the Netherlands confirm this potential economic and environmental catastrophe with the words:

“A release of 50 billion tons of methane would bring forward by 15 years or 2035 (and possibly 35 years) the date at which global average temperatures rise to exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Most of the damage would come in the poorer parts of Africa, Asia and South America. The largest costs envisaged include loss of crops to heat and drought, worsening tropical storms (and fires) and coping with sea level rise. (see: Nature, volume 499, page 410).”

While an apparent slowdown in earth warming — as CO2 emissions continue to soar into the atmosphere — may offer more time to address the exceptional hazards of climate change, TIME is getting TIGHTER and TIGHTER … while the costs of inaction are getting HIGHER and HIGHER.

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