by Frank Thomas
The slower rate of rise in global surface mean temperature since 1998 has been the last straw for Britain’s respected, eccentric, environmental scientist, James Lovelock. He now has made a complete reversal from being a ‘radical alarmist’ on climate change to being a ‘radical non-alarmist’. In 2008, Lovelock said climate warming had already become irreversible, “Catastrophe is unstoppable and everything we are trying to do about it is wrong.We won’t invent the necessary technologies in time and “80%” of the world’s population would be wiped out by 2100. People have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, but this is the real thing. Enjoy life while you can because if you are lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”
The same man in his new book, “Restore The Natural Balance,” is now saying:
‘We've got it all wrong with climate models, planet earth has not been warming the last 15 years as fast as it was – meaning we won’t be warming as much and as fast as previously expected. Climate alarmism is unwarranted. Warming will happen, just not as catastrophically as I once imagined. We need to stay skeptical about climate models. In the past, I tended to exaggerate the immediacy of global warming. I was led astray by ice cores that seemed to imply changes in CO2 were the dominant changes. It is a mistake to take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections as if written in stone. I don’t think anyone really knows what’s happening. They are just guessing.’
This tone echoes Princeton’s Dr. William Happer's disbelief in the near-term threat of global warming and CO2 as causing same – i.e., a climate cataclysm doesn’t exist. In Happer’s words, “The increase of CO2 is not a cause for alarm and will be good for mankind. GHGs make the Earth warmer and hospitable.” For Happer, the correlation, or ‘coincidence’ as skeptics are prone to say, of CO2 and rising global temperatures is not causation. Unlike Happer, Lovelock doesn't dismiss the correlation of CO2 growth and related feedbacks with earth warming over the last century but he thinks the oceans may be playing a bigger role in climate warming. For him, surface warming is going at such an extremely slow rate that we'll not reach a “dangerous” 2 degrees C increase possibly for centuries despite the fact that CO2 emissions have been accelerating the last five decades.
Why Don’t Global Surface Trends Match Atmospheric CO2 Increases?
We all know the global rate of surface temperature warming has slowed down the past 15 years. The IPCC has admitted this is not well understood and may add another ten years to the irreversible tipping point expected in 2030 if GHG emissions are not sharply curtailed. But this short-term drop in the rate of warming does not mean we are not on a long-term warming trend that could well exceed a 2 degrees Celsius increase by 2050. The last 15 years of up and down fluctuations (see Graphs below) largely due to natural variability is too short a period to identify a climate trend. Let’s not forget that CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for a century or more which means its increasing concentration due to human activities warms our climate for a long time.
Also, the growth in CO2 concentrations is a far cry from being ‘modest’ as some skeptics falsely claim. In 1850, the concentration was 280 ppm rising only 10% (110 years later) to 310 ppm in 1960, and skyrocketing 30% (53 years later) to 400 ppm in 2013. This definitely is not a modest increase. The atmospheric annual average rate of CO2 increase in the last decade (2.1 ppm/year) was more than TWICE as steep than 50 years ago (at 0.9 ppm/year). In 2013 alone it increased by 2.6 ppm.
The atmospheric average annual rate of C02 increase was 1.2% between 1970-2000 rising to 2.2% between 2000-2010 and now accelerating further to 3% per year between 2010 and 2013 as the economy meekly recovers. If it rises just 1% over the next 40 years, the atmospheric CO2 concentration will easily reach an extremely high 600 ppm by 2050. This means the planet will be absorbing ever more energy from the sun than it radiates to space. Where will the excess heat energy go? Answer – probably the oceans with all the ecological damage that will bring. But then again, the alarm-proof Lovelock is telling us not to panic. His recent solacing remark, “We may muddle through into a strange and viable new world,” is not very solacing.
The CO2 concentration today of 400 ppm does not include the equivalent effect of other GHG emissions, e.g., methane, nitrous oxide, etc. These bring the adjusted 400 ppm to 435 ppm equivalent CO2 concentration in 2013. This also would bring the 600 ppm CO2 concentration forecast for 2050 as stated above to well over the 700 ppm equivalent CO2 range ... leading to a plus 4-5 degrees Celsius warmup of the earth by 2050. Most publications of CO2 emission growth and atmospheric concentrations neglect to include the equivalent CO2 emissions of other GHGs. IPCC reports do include the full effect.
The danger of the ongoing warming up of the Arctic is overwhelming given the higher toxicity or earth warming potential of methane! The Artcic melting permafrost has relatively more methane than carbon dioxide. Research confirms there's at least 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the permafrost and another 1.5 trillion tons of housed methane clathrates in Arctic waters.
The 20 year global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 86. GWP is a relative measure of the amount of heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere. The 86 figure for methane means that over the next 20 years, if a comparable mass of methane and carbon dioxide were injected into the atmosphere, the methane will trap 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide. It's the same as saying that 1 metric ton of methane is approximately 86 times as effective at warming as one metric ton of carbon dioxide over a 20 year timescale ((dropping to 34 times on a 100 year timescale).
We are living in an interglacial period known as the Holocene. It began about 14,000 years ago with a warm period that suddenly cooled about 10,000 - 8,500 years ago. Over the past 8,500 years, the climate has had 5 intermittent periods of cooling and warming with the coldest period being 1550-1850 AD, called the Little Ice Age. The big lesson of the last 8,500 years is that even seemingly small changes in global average surface temperatures can be quite significant for weather and climate change - especially on regional scales - like we are experiencing today. From 1850 to the present, there’s been a warming trend with C02 atmospheric concentrations averaging in the 180 - 280 ppm range, increasing a little after the industrial revolution and starting to surge after WWII. Prior to 1900, most climate changes are considered natural in that the changes could not have been caused by human activity.
Now we are in a new world with over 7 billion people on earth – an increase of almost 5 billion people since 1950 – injecting 34 billion tons of heat trapping CO2 into the atmosphere per year now amounting to 400 ppm and rising. The last 50 year rapid pace of increase in C02 atmospheric concentrations has been driving ice melt, ocean acidification, rampant fires, droughts, heat waves, reordering of climate and ecological zones. For example, the volume of Arctic ice now is about 9,000 cubic kilometers (after a one-time spike of 3,000 cubic kilometers over the previous 12 months) vs. 20,000 cubic kilometers in the early 1980s or a 55% meltdown.
Lovelock and Happer say that there is no need for panic. After all, the 1998 - 2012 data shows that mean surface temperatures are warming at a minimal rate, far below what’s expected with increasing CO2 emissions. Is Lovelock thus right when he says the 1998 - 2012 trend means the Earth is not warming up, and if it is, very slowly?
The following graphs by NASA and NOAA confirm that, Yes, the Earth is clearly on a long-term warming cycle where temperatures are going UP!
Let’s look at the rate of increase in global surface temperatures and what it means. The earth has warmed by more than 0.6 degree C since 1951. Surface temperatures accelerated in the 1980s, peaking at 0.28 degrees C per decade in the 1990s, falling to 0.09 degrees C per decade in the 2000s. Thus, the average rate of surface warming dropped to 0.04 degrees C per decade from 1998 to 2012 versus 0.11 per decade since 1951. This recent trend going forward means the planet's surface would be less than 1% hotter in 2100 – well under the 2 degrees Celsius the IPCC warns is “extremely likely” by 2050 unless CO2 emissions are sharply reduced. Of course, 1998 was an extremely hot year because of El Nino. So this makes the slowdown in surface temperature appear more striking for the 1998 - 2012 period than it really was.
But the 1998 - 2012 0.04 degree per decade average rate of warming excludes the Arctic – by far the fastest warming region in the world. Using satellite data to obtain Arctic temperature changes , Kevin Cowtan of the University of York, UK has recently discovered that the average global surface rate of warming was three times higher or 0.12 degrees C per decade during 1998-2012. Using weather stations for Arctic temperature changes, NASA arrived at a global warming rate of 0.07 degrees C per decade for the same period. (see: New Scientist, 7 Dec. 2013)
It makes no difference whether the 0.12 or 0.07 figure is correct as this does not mean warming has suddenly stopped or slowed down indefinitely just as the rapid warming of 0.28 degrees C per decade during the 1990s does not mean that warming had accelerated. Surface temperatures go up and down, as they have in the short 1998 - 2012 period, because of natural variability, e.g., changing currents, winds, volcanic eruptions, aerosols, black dust. The natural and human contributions must be separately identified. The IPCC and other institutions have completed this scientific calculation task very meticulously. This work has revealed the steadier long-term warming trend being heavily amplified by human activities, feedbacks and significantly disguised by a stupendous ocean sink where most of sun’s radiation has been going. More on this ocean phenomena follows.
The point that needs stressing is that every day surface temperatures are not expected to perfectly track CO2 as CO2 proliferation isn’t the only element driving climate change. The varying temperatures we feel every day are only a part of the solar energy taken in by the earth. For example, the oceans have over 100 times the thermal storage capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the excess heat caused by human greenhouse activities. Human-caused warming is superimposed on a naturally variable climate system.
Thinking in terms of heat energy rather than surface temperature helps in understanding earth warming. The content of heat energy has been building up in the atmosphere. This is because rising levels of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere reduce the amount of heat energy escaping into space – creating a radiative imbalance of heat arriving and leaving the planet. The atmosphere stores less than 2 - 3% and the planet’s surface can only absorb heat slowly because it’s a poor heat conductor. All this does not mean the earth has stopped warming! Quite the opposite. The Arctic and oceans in general are heating up which contributes to earth warming.
Some key reasons why the rate of increase in average global surface temperature has been somewhat slower the last 15 years include: (1) the sun is getting dimmer; (2) more heat than usual is escaping from the top of the atmosphere as the result of increased sulphur aerosols (from coal burning particularly in China, volcanic eruptions, and other human activities); (3) more of the planet's heat is going into the ocean, especially the Southern Ocean. Studies show that a huge 94% of the net heat energy coming to the planet since 1971 has gone into the oceans, 4% has been absorbed by land and ice, leaving the surface absorbing only 2% of the heat. The IPCC 5th Report says that from 1971 to 2010 more than 60% of the net energy increase in the climate system is stored in the upper ocean at 0 to 700 meters and about 30% is stored in the ocean below 700 meters. Bad news for lots of reasons, the most important being the potential release of highly toxic Arctic methane hydrates, destruction of phytoplankton generating much of earth’s oxygen, and the severe effect already being felt on coral reefs. This is an area I wholly agree with Lovelock – namely, we need to know much more about the ecological dynamics of serious warming up of the oceans.
We do know water moves back and forth between the oceans and atmosphere. For example, the El Nino phenomenon occurs when easterly winds spread hot water across the tropical Pacific ocean forcing so much heat into the air that the planet surface temperature rises. This contributed greatly to the very hot year 1998. But this phenomenon happens about once every 15 years, so it’s ripe now to reoccur! The opposite is true of the frequent occurrence of La Ninas where westerly winds spread cold water across the sea surface which the tropical Pacific soaks up resulting in planet surface temperature falling or cooling. A large number of long-lasting La Ninas have been taking place in the last 12 years and also figure in as a natural contributor to a lower rate of global surface warming.
But another complex Southern Ocean development under continuing intense scientific study is that changing westerly winds that are going south also determine how much heat and carbon dioxide go into and out of the southern seas. The Southern Ocean has been absorbing vast amounts of heat. Because Southern surface water temperatures are similar to water temperatures deeper down, this enables winds to push surface waters down or pull up deeper waters. Winds that churn up just the top ocean waters are considered to increase carbon dioxide absorption as these waters are not as saturated with CO2 as the atmosphere is. The deep water soaks up heat, thereby slowing land surface warming. This is another factor that partly explains why the average global surface temperature rate of increase has slowed down the last decade.
BUT, there comes a point when the deep ocean sink becomes overwhelmed. Changing winds are affecting how much heat and CO2 go into and out of the Southern Ocean. The danger is that winds that stir up deeper waters can lead to a reduction of CO2 absorption which would heat up the surface areas where we humans live. The release of CO2-rich deep water to the surface would seriously drive up global surface temperatures. Leading scientists are warning that this process is getting closer to the stage of actually happening. That’s why Lovelock is quite right in warning the climate science community there’s much more to be learned about the influence of oceans on climate change and what can be done – given the extremely high CO2 emissions going into the atmosphere annually (see: Geophysical Research Papers vol. 40, p 1754; New Scientist, 20 July 2013.)
A Great Scientist Suddenly Goes Radical Non-Alarmist On Climate Change
Lovelock is a provocative, inventive independent scientist . His book, “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth,” outlines a fascinating hypotheses about how the planet is a living and evolving system favorable to life. The Earth acts like a living self-regulating organism, controlling the planet’s chemical-physical interconnections and temperature to keep Earth habitable for life. The Gaia theory has attracted worldwide attention and stimulated vital research on the Earth’s biogeological system. However, Toby Tyrell, researcher in ocean acidification, marine biogeochemistry and interaction between environment and life at the University of Southhampton, UK, has carefully analyzed the whole Gaia hypothesis. Is it right? Tyrell concludes Lovelock's main arguments fail to accurately explain how the planet works. In brief, he finds Gaia a ‘beautiful but flawed’ concept with little if any scientific basis when applied to global environmental phenomena. (see: The New Scientist, 26 Oct. 2013)
On the other hand, Lovelock’s inventive genius has vastly benefited mother Earth. For example, CFCs had long been the dominant compounds in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosol sprays even prior to WWII. In the 70s, using Lovelock’s invented electron capture detector and measurements of atmospheric CFCs (chlorofluorcarbons) in the Arctic and Antarctica, two scientists discovered the threat of CFCs to the stratosphere’s ozone layer, an important shield against incoming ultraviolet radiation. Lovelock’s invention helped in detecting the growing hole in the ozone layer, an extremely dangerous development now under control.
Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004. By 2006, he was an adamant climate alarmist fearing technologies wouldn't arrive in time and that billions of humans would die by 2100. He now believes that although climate change is still happening, warming is proceeding gently at a very slow pace in contradiction to the voluminous peer-reviewed research of IPCC scientists and other independent scientific institutions.
He’s now saying there's no need for alarm - that we can ‘enjoy global warming.’ Although we’re in the middle of a 30,000 year Holocene interglacial for the first time with 7 billion people going to over 9 billion shortly and 1 billion vehicles going to over 2-3 billion vehicles by 2050, he strangely believes it may be hundreds of years before the earth warms 2 degrees C or more. He’s migrated to the other extreme of the climate threat urgency spectrum. This 180 degree reversal comes from a 94 year old amiable, loner-scientist for years dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory who said in 2008, “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky, it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan”… “Billions of people will lose their lives by 2100.” Is his new admission, “I made a mistake, no need to worry,” an act of courageous scientific objectivity or is his Gaia theory at work (in his mind) that the Earth is a self-correcting organism in which case he’s projecting the prejudices his vision of the future is based on?
Lovelock seems obsessed that a 15 year slower global surface warming trend is the key to understanding the Earth warming cycle we are in and the role of natural and human activities as determined by observations and modeling. The problem is that surface temperatures do not reflect the ever growing complexity of the changing climate, e.g., the multiple interacting positive and negative feedbacks, C02 exchanges with the oceans, ocean current, wind changes, etc.
Lovelock has always said the world is wasting time on renewables like wind turbines and solar. Wind is ineffective for the scale of energy needed and solar will not be effective for another 10 years – about the same time it takes for making a new nuclear plant operation. In his mind, nuclear is the safest, most effective alternative possibility ... but of course that's the opinion of just one scientist. He thinks Germany’s closing of its nuclear plants is a colossal mistake. I couldn’t disagree more … but that’s only one man’s opinion. His unsupported assertions about renewables would not be accepted by many like Mark Jacobson, Prof. of environmental engineering at Stanford University, who has co-authored a series of reports and scientific papers arguing solar, wind, and hydropower could provide 100% of world energy by 2030.
Working with oil firms and small innovative firms, we need a Massive, Rapid but pragmatic step-by-step transition to clean energy sources. The technical knowhow is there but not the leadership. Meanwhile, the value of oil industry assets that are embedded in ever more costly onshore/offshore exploration is going SOUTH … and alert investors are now starting to realize the returns are also going SOUTH – brought on by environmental pollution and all new production coming from extraction of limited expensive unconventional energy sources such as tar sands, gas hydrofracturing, tight oil and deepwater oil.
Like Happer, Lovelock questions the professionalism and motives of the IPCC. He has had some disrespectful things to say about all who represent the international scientific community through the IPCC process, dozens of national academies of science, the leadership of all nations who have endorsed the IPCC assessment findings, and many others. “They don’t know what’shappening. They just guess.” But the question is, is Lovelock also guessing?
Presumably his new book will present credible evidence supporting his radical non-alarmist reversal. It will be interesting to see if Lovelock is guessing or not guessing, denying or not denying the speed of the melting away of Arctic permafrost and sea ice in a region warming up more than Twice as fast as the rest of the world … setting the stage for huge quantities of methane soaring into the atmosphere in the relatively short time frame of a few decades. This environmental threat is without question a short-term near extinction possibility! Some humans will undoubtedly survive in the Arctic region.
The following statement by Princeton’s Dr. William Happer illustrates how people fail to set the high tone for the discussion they expect of others:
“I want to discuss a contemporary moral epidemic: the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous consequences for mankind and for the planet. The “climate crusade’ is one characterized by true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry governments, manipulators of various types – even children’s crusades – all based on contested science and dubious claims.”
As one esteemed climate scientist, Dr. Michael MacCracken responded: (see: “The Real Truth About Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change,” Climate Science Watch, 21 Sept. 2011)
“If people with similar views want respect in exchange, they need to be high-minded and give respect as well rather than saying such things.” ... “What all scientists should be doing is pursuing a better understanding of the very complex Earth system on which we live, wherever the investigation may take us. It’s fine to raise new issues, offer tough criticisms if justified, and seek deeper insight – but it is also important to be taking an even-handed look at all information, be willing to adjust one’s views as further scientific findings emerge, and not question motives of those who disagree with you.”
April 10, 2014
I have read much of about Lovelock's environmental research and theories. He's a quirky genius scientist and experimenter of unquestionable originality. His Gaia theory is fascinating and also scientifically controversial when applied to global environmental phenomena. He works in sober simple conditions ...is a truly independent scientific loner-tinkerer and thinker. His sudden switch from being an alarmist activist to being a radical non-alarmist about global warming is both perplexing and strangely appealing to some.
He and Prof. William Happer of Princeton, among others, are now among the most outspoken opponents of the so-called climate 'panic,' alarmist reactions taking place globally regarding climate change. As mentioned though, Prof. Michael MacCracken's 42 page report is an impressive, pithy detailed scientific rebuke of Dr. Happer's theories. Much of his critique of Happer’s ideas appear on first glance to apply to Lovelock’s new-born skepticism.
Will return again to this interesting man, James Lovelock, after reviewing his new book carefully once it’s available here.
It's great to have credible scientists like Lovelock questioning status-quo scientific thinking on climate change. I just find ridiculous his criticism and dismissal of IPCC scientists and scientists from other esteemed professional institutions worldwide as demonstrating a “herd-like” behavior on the near-term urgency of the climate threat … that compromises much of their rational thinking about what’s environmentally taking placing, where it’s going and what can be done about it. He’s obsessed like Happer that now he has the real answers. But is he more honest admitting his mistakes than the hundreds of scientists contributing to the IPCC reports as well as other scientific academies? I doubt it.