Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Abrupt Climate Change - Again!

Summary: Dr. James White, Arctic specialist at U of Colorado, says abrupt climate shifts happened in the past, happen now, and will come again. Huge changes possible. Then UK psychotherapist Ro Randall on how to talk to a denier. Clip of Robert Kennedy Jr. on coal.

Dr. James White is the Director of INSTARR, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. Last December he delivered the important "Nye Lecture" at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on abrupt climate change.

I ask Dr. White for examples, and they could curl your hair. The climate of Miami could arrive in Montreal Canada within this lifetime. Seas will rise not centimeters, but tens of meters, more than 20 feet. All this has happened in the past, and some of it is happening now.

UK psychotherapist Rosemary (Ro) Randall founded the circles of people who meet to talk about how they feel about climate change. It's called "Carbon Conversations" and they have a new workbook available to the public called "In Time for Tomorrow".

We also talk about how NOT to approach a family member or work-mate who denies climate change is happening, or is caused by humans.

Then I go on a slight rant about a right-wing business front group that tells us coal is good for the economy and the environment. It isn't good for either one.

That ends with a classic quote from Robert Kennedy Jr. on the mirage of "clean coal". He lists the dead lakes, dead people, and dead world coming out of the coal business.

Download or listen to this Radio Ecoshock show in CD Quality (56 MB) or Lo-Fi (14 MB)

Or listen on Soundcloud right now.


As I said, Dr. James White is the Director of INSTARR, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. He also lectures there as a Professor of Geological Sciences.

Last December White delivered the important "Nye Lecture" at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on abrupt climate change. The title is "Abrupt Climate Change: The View from the Past, Present and Future." That lecture was available to the public for a short time, during which I made an audio recording, and took lots of notes. Then it disappeared behind an AGU members-only paywall. But it showed up on You tube. See that Nye lecture with all the slides here.

Dr. James White, University of Colorado

White's specialty is the Arctic, and especially evaluating Greenland ice cores. That's a window into the past 100,000 years or so. Scientists can study different molecules of air caught in the ice, to evaluate the carbon dioxide levels, but also the temperature based on different oxygen isotopes. Advanced science now empowers scientists to see layers of ice right down to a single year. They can also tell how much precipitation fell in that area in a particular year.

I asked James White a question I've been pondering for years - and got a good answer! It's this:

OK, we find temperatures in Northern Greenland went up 1 or 2 degrees in just one or two years. But what does that tell us about the whole planet? The Arctic is warming rapidly right now, but the global mean temperature is only going up slowly. Do abrupt changes in the Arctic really apply to the rest of us?

Here is the best current scientific estimate: the amplitude of polar changes is about 3 times what happens in rest of world. For example a 10 degrees C change in pole may be 3 degrees C change in hemispheric temp, especially the Northern Hemisphere. Change in the Southern Hemisphere might be delayed, possibly for a long period of time, until the ocean heat exchange system catches up to change in the atmosphere. Unlike the North, the Southern Hemisphere is mostly ocean.

Let's get to it. What does this experienced scientist say about abrupt climate change?

In his Nye Lecture, White says this is the biggest moment in human history. It's a watershed moment, but he doesn't like the word "crisis". We are in the midst of the climate change. That is increasingly critical to many issues adaptation, economy, society. How we cope, and all other species cope, depends on how fast climate changes.

His Nye Lecture follows this report came out last year "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises". That in turn builds on a 2002 report by Richard Alley.

A key point that comes out in both the lecture and our Radio Ecoshock interview: in addition to abrupt climate changes, we may also experience "abrupt climate impacts".

One example: storms and hurricanes hit the U.S. East Coast, but then with Hurricane Sandy a combination of slowly rising seas, a powerful storm surge, and long-term subsidence flood the New York City subways. All of our human systems have their own "tipping points" - a kind of built in fragility or intolerance that leaves us open to "sudden" impacts.

I could add a lot of examples. Here's just one: if rice is near it's highest temperature tolerance in a particular area, just a small increase in heat could mean rice could no longer be grown there.


In fact, we don't really know where these sudden impact points are in our civilization. Some tipping points are unseen until they are already passed. White gives the example of an early European explorer going down the Niagara River. A prudent person would stick near shore, but if our explorer was in a hurry, they could make good time down the fast moving river. When they get close enough to hear the roar of the up-coming giant Niagara Falls, it is too late to get to the shore.

The tipping point is not when the explorer goes over Niagara Falls. It is the point several miles back when there was still time to get back to shore. That point would not be seen or known until it was already too late. That is what we have to worry about in so many aspects of abrupt climate change.

"There are many more human systems that have abrupt thresh-holds than there are natural systems".


The Greenland Ice cores show many instances of dizzying changes. The temperature can go up or down 10 to 15 degrees Centigrade in a few years, or in 40 years. There have been periods where Greenland heated 1 degree per year for 5 years - which is 100 times faster than our current warming. It might plateau there for 30 years or so, and then go into another 5 year period of 1 degree warming per year.

The Earth's climate is NOT STABLE. There have been 24 warming events found in the ice cores in the last 115,000 years. Studying the warming, about 14,000 years ago, as discussed by scientist Geoffrey C. Bohling, they found 10-15 degrees C happening in 1 to 2 years.

Think about what that means for us, who are so concerned about a 1 degree rise in 100 years. Even if we "only" experienced 1 or 2 degrees C rise in 5 years, the impacts could be near catastrophic for humans, plants, and animals. Some systems would break down, and there would be so little time to adapt. Certainly some crops would fail, forest fires would go out of control, and water cycles (rain, snow, drought) would be upset.

White told our Radio Ecoshock listeners: "There are even changes where you get 10 degrees [C] in a year, which is a thousand times faster."

Rate of snowfall can double in 1-3 years, methane goes up 50% in a lifetime, nitrous oxide goes up 10% in a lifetime.


One of the biggest signs of abrupt climate change is the melt-back of the Arctic Sea Ice, especially starting in 2007. It's not just the stunning change in the extent of the ice, but the thinning of ice, and younger ice, that is more open to wide-scale melting in a hot year.

Here is a video showing the old ice disappearing, replaced only with new ice.

A second great sign of change is that we are in the midst of one of the great species extinctions.

A third indication that an abrupt climate change is happening now is ground water loss in many places of the world. New gravity measuring satellites can detect how ground water is declining (think California for example, or under the Indo-Gangetic Plain in Asia.) A change in the hydrological cycle is one of the great signs of a climate shift.

Here is a graphic from the National Science Foundation which shows Earth morphing from a planet largely covered by deserts, into one clothed in green vegetation, in just 200 years (that happened fairly recently, around 14,500 years ago).

I ask Dr. White how good this ice core science really is. It has progressed a long way, with computer and other technical aids. Plus, they cross-check the information with other markets, such as known periods of volcanic dust, or the records found in sea bed samples. It all fits together into a coherent snap-shot of the planet in different ages.


In the Nye Lecture, Dr. White shows a plot from Foster and Rowling from PNAS showing sea level for last 400,000 years. Sea level is very tied to temperature on the planet.

When you heat air, and oceans, that eats away at the land ice. In the public almost no one appreciates the surprising size of sea level rise. It goes from zero to 130 meters sea level change. 20,000 years ago Florida was twice as large as today, and it will go underwater when land ice melts.

People think a foot or six inches is a big deal. Average person can't imagine 20 feet higher really happening.

"We're expecting sea level rise of about one meter by 2100" [32 min] But in the geological record, rates three times faster than that (3 meters in a century) are common."


1. how fast is the change occurring

2. how far

3. how inevitable

Here are more of my notes from the AGU Nye Lecture:

Sea level rise is "a long slow losing battle". [36:20] West Antarctic has started to shed ice and will do so for centuries. It's slow, with abrupt changes within the system.

Federal Flood Insurance may become larger than Medicaid and other government programs - with huge tax implications.

Infrastructure will be hit, and salt water intrudes on fresh water wells.

[38:40] Work by David Archer at the University of Chicago showed the last time Earth had 400 ppm CO2, was about 2.5-3 million years ago. Sea level was 20 meters higher - 65 feet higher!! Earth was less than 2 degrees C warmer than now.

[39:30] Scientists Foster and Rohling looked at relative sea level. There was a fairly stable plateau of about 14 meters higher than today; 45 feet higher, which lasted from about 300 ppm to about 600 ppm; over 600-700 ppm you start to melt all of Antarctica, and sea level eventually goes up 70-80 meters.

We are at 400 ppm, and Jim White bets we will hit 600 ppm at the end of the century.

We say we love our kids, but do we show it? "We live on a water planet, and on a water planet the impacts show up 50 years later, because it just takes a long time to warm up water."

"When one generation is not to set aside short-term profits to deal with the benefit of their children, you're never going to solve this problem because we live on a water planet."

In order to solve some climate problems, White says we have to control population. That means women's education and women's rights. Empower women economically and politically to help prevent catastrophic climate change. Oh, and that makes a better, fairer world as well.

Listen to or download this important Radio Ecoshock interview with James White in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.

Some James White You tube videos are "Dr James White on Methane and Abrupt Climate Change", James White at the Weather and Climate Summit 2012 on the connections between weather and climate change.


Despite the winter cold covering North American listeners - the year of 2014 was probably the hottest ever recorded. It's another milestone in the road to extreme climate change.

Maybe you've noticed the resistance. Friends, family, or workmates don't want to talk about it. You know the science and truth about warming - and you're stuck with it. Are we alone with this awful knowledge?

Back in 2013, we heard from Rosemary or Ro Randall. She's the UK psychotherapist that co-founded Carbon Conversations - the circles of people who meet to talk about climate change. It's time to connect again.

Ro Randall. Find her blog here.

Their new handbook is now available to the public, rather than just for people who took part in Carbon Conversations. It's called "In Time for Tomorrow". Find it here.

Admittedly this book is geared toward a reader in the United Kingdom. However, it could be used to base a similar "carbon conversation" in other parts of the world. So far, this handy way to express your feelings and worries about climate change has not year reached North America, except for one group leader in Alberta. Are Americans and Canadians finally ready to talk about climate change?

It really isn't easy. Bring up climate change, and friendly conversations can drop with a dull thud, leaving us feeling exposed. How do we handle that?

I found Ro's advice for tackling relatives and work-mates who deny climate change is happening, or that we humans are responsible for it.

First of all, "think strategically". Choose the best place and time to bring it up. That may not be when your in-law proudly announced their new pickup truck. Try later.

Second, don't become the archetype of the scolding parent or teacher we've all rebelled against. It's better to talk about the worries you have personally, and what you are doing - not what the other person "should" do or not do. Let them see you open up without pointing fingers, says Randall.

And third: really listen to the other person. This isn't your chance to overwhelm the person with your vast collection of climate facts, like a prosecutors' summation of the case. It's a chance to let the other person open up about their concerns, reasons and doubts. Let them have all that, and then return to your own wrestling with climate problems.

Don't expect an instant conversion. Just keep planting seeds, and be there as support. As before, you don't know when a tipping point has been crossed, and your friend or loved one will come around.

We have to keep in mind that some people grab the climate issue as part of their explanation of their deeper selves. They may choose to rebel against science for personal reasons that are not easy to explain or change. It can take time, or a sudden trigger, for people to let those fundamental drives go, and wake up to the facts. Until that happens, likely there is no weight of evidence that could convince them.

I find Ro Randall is one of the more thoughtful voices out there on the psychology of climate change. Don't miss this interview.

Listen to Ro Randall on Radio Ecoshock (22 minutes) in CD Quality or Lo-Fi


Would you like me to talk dirty? Of course, I'm talking about coal, the fossil fuel that can wreck Earth's climate for 50 generations. Unless of course we go extinct along with most other mammals and species long before that.

But hey don't worry about that. American jobs are at stake. That's the message coming from the National Center for Policy Analysis, or the NCPA. It's a tax-exempt organization that's been pumping out the big business message for over 30 years.

These days the NCPA gets big bucks from the Koch brothers, just part of a network of front groups we call the fossil fuel octupus.

The NCPA puts out an alleged "report" which turns out to be a couple of pages written by staffer Jacopo Zenti. Here's the first paragraph of their press release:

"Increasing U.S. coal exports could be good for the U.S. economy, workers, and the environment, according to a new report by National Center for Policy Analysis Research Associate Jacopo Zenti." Really? Coal is good for the environment?

Zenti just used an online coal fact browser put out by the U.S. government Energy Information Administration, the EIA. Since America brags it has the world's biggest coal reserves, capable of sinking us all, I went to the EIA, to see who's buying the black poison.

The buyer's club is suprising. We like to think Europe is getting greener - and many countries there are adding renewable energy at a break-neck speed. In the meantime though, some European countries are buying record amounts of coal from the U.S.

Take Germany. Despite shutting down nuclear reactors after the Fukushima melt-downs, Germany is still on track to achieve 40% of their energy from renewables by 2025. Renewables are now larger than the dirty brown lignite coal German mines produce, and gaining on gas and hard black coal. While the German economy has grown 40% since 1990, electricity demand is actually going down. Even better, German emissions of carbon dioxide in 2014 hit their second lowest level since 1990.

The bad news, as the NCPA tells us, quote:

"Germany imports of American coal doubled from 2010 to 2011, and could continue to rise as Germany shifts from nuclear energy production to coal by 2022.

[And] The United Kingdom and the Netherlands were the two largest importers of American coal in 2012, and American coal exports to Britain were 73 percent higher in the first three quarters of 2012 than in 2011.

European coal and climate activists should take note, and start closing that door to American coal shipments.

Of course the NCPA is bullish on exporting American coal. As they admit, coal burning in America has fallen from 50% of all electricity produced in the 1990's to about 40% now. New power plants in the U.S. are powered by gas, not coal. So they need to sell it overseas.

Efforts to build new coal shipping ports, in places like Washington State and Oregon, have hit several snags, with some projects abandoned, due to the environmental impacts. No worries, the big Wyoming coal mines have struck a deal to ship their climate-killing product through the Port of Vancouver, in Canada. It's like the Keystone Pipeline in reverse.

The biggest black dream is to sell more coal to China, which still runs about 70% of it's expanding economy on coal. And there's always India, still very coal dependent.

Let me quote further from the NCPA press release:

"Yet Zenti says concerns over environmental detriment are misplaced.

'For example, restricting coal exports to China will not reduce its emissions from burning coal,' says Zenti. 'Without American imports, China would simply look elsewhere or consume more of its own coal, which often comes from unsafe, less regulated and environmentally damaging mines.'

The United States should take advantage of the global movement on coal, says Zenti. 'Restricting coal export will not dissuade other countries from burning coal, and will instead hurt the American economy and U.S. workers.'

This is the classic drug-dealer's argument. We know high school kids will try heroin. We may as well sell it to them, because if we don't somebody else will! You see, worrying about wrecking the world's climate is foolish. Let's make some money here boys! Although it's strange, I can't find any mention of climate change in this coal-lover's press release...

The lobbyists bribing Congress people to boost American coal exports, by slashing environmental regulations, are actually building the next trap door for an economic collapse. Take a look at Canada right now. The Canadian government built their holier-than-thou economic hopes on expensive oil from the Tar Sands. Now that is collapsing with cheap oil prices. Without those oil royalties, Alberta's Provincial budget is in the toilet, along with the Canadian Federal Government. The Canadian dollar has collapsed, losing more than 20% of it's value, in just a few months. All that infrastructure, and all the public spending, is in doubt.

Fast forward just a few short years, as people all over the world demand action to save what is left of the climate. Coal will be the first shoved overboard from the sinking ship. The railways, ports, city budgets, and state budgets built on coal will crash. (Are you listening, Australia?) So will pension plans that invest in coal.

While Germany, and even China, are building toward a renewable future, America seems hell-bent to stay in the horse-and-buggy age of un-burnable fossil fuels. That won't end well. So more coal exports are not good for the economy or the environment. Some people don't mind a big lie, as long as it keeps today's profits coming in.

Nobody tells you about coal like this guy: Robert Kennedy Jr. The world may try to forget what he told Real News back in 2008, but my hard drive never forgets, and You tube remembers... Here is Robert Kennedy Jr. speaking to Matt Palevsky of Real News on the 26th of August, 2008. And don't forget


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