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A Strange Urgency

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:56 PM GMT on May 20, 2007

A Strange Urgency

I've been away, so it's been more than a week since the last blog.

There is so much about climate percolating through the news and journals that I'm not exactly sure where to go. I try to not just regurgitate what is going on, and I'm enough of a contrarian that I don't jump into massive group conversations. In situations like this, I often think about--what's next? What's next? When there is such a flurry of publicity and discussion, there is a certain element of fashion in it all. Or it's like a stock market bubble--it will burst. Go out of fashion. So what does one do to contribute to sustaining the attention that will be demanded by climate change? Is there a danger that the rush to "do something" about climate change will lead us to do things that seem good in the short term, but turn out to be not so good in the long term? Perhaps even inhibiting.

In the Tallahassee Democrat on Saturday (May 19, 2007) there was an article about Professor William Gray's presentation at the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. The front page of the printed version of the paper has the following quote: "Major cuts in carbon emissions would hurt the nation's economy with little or no environmental benefit, a top hurricane predictor said." Professor Gray has a distinguished career in statistical hurricane prediction, and in recent years has become a controversial figure in both hurricane prediction and climate change. (BTW, I don't see this quote following directly from the information presented in the article.)

This quote brings to the forefront a number of issues about climate change and time scales. Especially since the record hurricane year of 2005, there has been a feeling of urgency in the spirit of here is a warning that we must do something about climate change. However, it is true that if we were to start reducing carbon dioxide today, cut off the electricity, stop the cars, then it would have very little effect on hurricanes this year, next year, and in the next few decades. There would major disruptions to the economy, with little impact on mitigating the damage from hurricanes. So if the scope of the argument is strictly limited, then the statement from the paper is true. Some want to take that statement and run.

A curious contradiction is that the most substantive urgency, perhaps, is represented by this figure. On the left axis is the number of tons of CO2 emitted in a year. The bottom axis is the year, and the curve shows both the maximum and the stabilization values of CO2 which go with a certain emission. Remember that the pre-industrial CO2 was about 280 parts per million (ppm), today we are about 380 ppm, and many like to say that 550 ppm is the most that we can tolerate without "dangerous" climate change. What this chart says is that if we are going to peak at 550 ppm then we can't go past about 9.5 billion metric tons of CO2. Therefore, we need to do something by 2015 or so. That's not very long from now. So the real urgency comes from the need to limit the total amount of carbon dioxide many decades from now. People are not generally so good at making decisions whose impacts are realized 5 years from now, much less 50 to 100 years.

Figure 1: Stabilization of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide as a Function of Emissions (from IPCC). (Note 20130117: This figure is flawed, and in fact, suggests stabilization more quickly and at smaller values as revealed by future research.)

In either of the scenarios posed in the previous two paragraphs there is the problem that reduction of CO2 will not have immediate realizable consequences on the climate. Therefore, the investment in climate takes on something of an abstract cause. We are doing this for the long-term common good of our species. Again, it is difficult for people to maintain a sustained investment in something for the long-term common good. The short-term pressures and opportunities are too tempting. Therefore, we are faced with how we structure our behavior to contribute to the sustenance of our climate. Ideas?


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.