Is Climate Going Off the Rails?

While climate communicators debate how to get the public to pay attention to climate change, it’s important for communicators (and everyone) to have a realistic understanding of the state of climate change.

Well, the climate has been acting rather strangely in the past couple of years!

It is above freezing at the North Pole (in November!) and the sea ice has stopped increasing during a period when it is normally refreezing at a rapid rate.  It’s about 1 million km^2 less than it’s been on this date since records began.  Scientists now say we may see a virtually ice-free Arctic (a “Blue Ocean Event”) around 2030 (down from the original estimate of 2080~2100) but it could come much sooner… even next year.  You’ll soon be able to sail a boat to the North Pole for the first time in human history!
And the global sea ice (Arctic plus Antarctic) is going off the rails (the red line is 2016):
Meanwhile, global temperatures have been on a tear the past 3 years.  2015 was the warmest by a lot (about +0.15ºC) and 2016 is on track to be warmer by about +0.20ºC.  It doesn’t seem likely that we will avoid +2ºC warming and we could be at +1.5ºC warming in a decade or so (we actually hit +1.5ºC warming in February, but that was a monthly average… still, not a good sign).  On a related note, while the world is proud for (theoretically) halting the increase in global CO2 emissions, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (the thing that matters) is currently increasing at a record rate (about +3.2 to 3.5 ppm/year).  This is due to the Earth giving off more CO2 and/or not sequestering as much CO2 than in the past (e.g., a warmer ocean holds less CO2).  There are also signs that the Amazon rain forest is becoming a source of CO2 instead of a sink due to warming and drought.
As for the +2ºC “guardrail,” the IPCC says we can maintain it if we drop emissions to zero around mid-century and then maintain “negative emissions”(!) from then on.  And, I should note, that even these predictions are likely a “best case analysis.”  Scientists need to be very sure about things before they will publish results and make predictions.  Because scientists do not know how to properly quantify climate feedbacks and tipping points, they leave many of them out of their analyses.  Therefore, things like rapid warming (+1ºC in a few years) and rapid sea level rise (a few feet in a decade) cannot be ruled out and have happened in the past.  Abrupt shifts in climate have happened in the past and it can take less than 10 years to go from one climate state to another.  It is not clear if we are in or near such a shift, but the risks are such that if this was a threat from an enemy such as ISIS or North Korea, we would be taking urgent action.

I’m not sure that this unvarnished view of climate change will work well with the general public, but I do think that climate communicators should have a clear view of what is happening.  If you were going to warn the occupants of a building about a fire hazard, how you communicated to them would vary depending on whether you saw exposed electrical wires near flammable material, smelled smoke, or saw roaring flames…

The smell of smoke is strong and there is a flickering yellow glow in the next room.


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