30 October 2009

Roger Pielke Sr. is Sure Going to Like This

UPDATE: My father does indeed like this, he comments here.

For years my father has been arguing that:
. . . attempts to “control” the climate system, and to prevent a “dangerous intervention” into the climate system by humans that focuses just on CO2 and a few other greenhouse gases will necessarily be significantly incomplete, unless all of the other first order climate forcings are considered.
His views are now being robustly vindicated as a quiet revolution is occurring in climate science. Here is how PhysOrg reports on a study out today in Science by NASA's Drew Shindell and others:

According to Shindell, the new findings underscore the importance of devising multi-pronged strategies to address climate change rather than focusing exclusively on carbon dioxide. “Our calculations suggest that all the non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases together have a net impact that rivals the warming caused by carbon dioxide."

In particular, the study reinforces the idea that proposals to reduce methane may be an easier place for policy makers to start climate change agreements. “Since we already know how to capture methane from animals, landfills, and sewage treatment plants at fairly low cost, targeting methane makes sense,” said Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C.

This research also provides regulators insight into how certain pollution mitigation strategies might simultaneously affect climate and air quality. Reductions of carbon monoxide, for example, would have positive effects for both climate and the public’s health, while reducing nitrogen oxide could have a positive impact on health but a negative impact on the climate.

“The bottom line is that the chemistry of the atmosphere can get hideously complicated,” said Schmidt. “Sorting out what affects climate and what affects air quality isn’t simple, but we’re making progress.”

Of note, Shindell et al. cautiously suggest that the entire framework of international climate policy may be based on an overly-simplistic view of the human effect on climate, by focusing on carbon dioxide equivalencies in radiative forcing (i.e.,g "global warming potential" or GWP), from their Science paper out today (emphasis added):
There are many limitations to the GWP concept (25). It includes only physical properties, and its definition is equivalent to an unrealistic economic scenario of no discounting through the selected time horizon followed by discounting to zero value thereafter. The 100-year time horizon conventionally chosen strongly reduces the influence of species that are short-lived relative to CO2. Additionally, GWPs assume that integrated global mean RF is a useful indicator of climate change. Although this is generally reasonable at the global scale, GWP does not take into account the rate of change, and it neglects that the surface temperature response to regionally distributed forcings depends on the location of the RF (26) and that precipitation and circulation responses may be even more sensitive to RF location (27). Along with their dependence on emission timing and location, this makes GWPs particularly ill-suited to very short-lived species such as NOx, SO2, or ammonia, although they are more reasonable for longer-lived CO. Inclusion of short-lived species in agreements alongside long-lived greenhouse gases is thus problematic (28, 29).
The Shindell et al. paper comes fast on the heels of a paper published a few weeks ago in PNAS by Molina et al. which argued similarly that a broader perspective is needed on the human role in altering climate. They write (emphasis added):
Efforts to limit CO2 emissions alone may not be sufficient to avoid or reduce the risk of DAI on a decadal time scale, including the risk of abrupt climate change from committed warming (8, 9). . . there is growing demand among governments and commentators for fast-action mitigation to complement cuts in CO2 emissions, including cuts in non-CO2 climate forcing agents, which together are estimated to be as much as 40–50% of positive anthropogenic radiative forcing (17, 18). . .

The 2008 Major Economies Forum Declaration calls for ‘‘urgent action’’ to strengthen the Montreal Protocol for climate protection (22). The 2009 G8 Leaders Declaration calls for ‘‘rapid action’’ on BC [black carbon] and pledges to ensure HFC reductions (23). The 2009 North American Leaders Declaration commits to phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol (24). The 2009 Arctic Council Tromsø Declaration urges ‘‘early actions’’ on short-lived climate forcers (25) including tropospheric ozone. A Nature editorial in July 2009, Time for early action, calls for ‘‘early action’’ on BC and methane, and on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol (26), and another in April 2009, Time to act, notes ‘‘short-term opportunities’’ to cut BC and methane (27). Wallack and Ramanathan call for action on BC and tropospheric ozone in their 2009 policy paper in Foreign Affairs to produce ‘‘rapid results’’ (28).
This recent research suggests that we must now be open to the possibility that there will not and cannot be a single policy approach to addressing the full spectrum of human influences on the climate system. The recognition of complexity may present an opportunity to move climate policy forward, by providing a justification for reconsidering the flawed (and some would say doomed) approach. My father has argued that (PDF),
. . . humans have an even greater effect on climate that is suggested by the IPCC. The human influence on climate is significant and multi-faceted.
As the community begins to realize these significant, multi-faceted and hideous complexities, it would not be a surprise to learn that a policy framework design 20 years ago is now somewhat out of step with current scientific understandings. The upshot is that as presently designed, international climate policy is both too complex and too simplistic. It is too simplistic because it is built upon a set of scientific perspectives on climate change that are increasingly seen as outdated and appropriate only for dealing with a narrow set of very important human influences -- long-lived greenhouse gases. It is too complex because in trying to deal with added complexity it has become unwieldy and clearly impractical from the standpoint of not just implementation but the politics of even reaching an agreement about implementation.

Climate policy can be improved by reconstructing climate policy from the bottom up. This process should begin by recognizing that no single policy instrument will ever deal with "climate change" (human caused or otherwise). An approach to climate policy that is decentralized and more focused in its elements will be better able to adjust as science evolves (and it will continue to evolve, to be sure) and allows for progress to be made incrementally along a set of parallel paths. The all-or-nothing approach to climate policy that dominates the present agenda is incapable of keeping pace with evolving scientific understandings as they relate to policy implementation, and from a pragmatic perspective, pretty much guarantees the "nothing" outcome.

As Molina et al. accurately point out in PNAS, there are already a large number of policies in place that might be considered as part of a multi-pronged approach to minimizing the human influence on climate. And it is certain that new policy vehicles will need to be developed. The most important short-term step that can be taken is, as my colleague Steve Rayner has persuasively argued to me, to reconceptualize the Framework Convention on Climate Change as a Framework Convention on Long-Lived Greenhouse Gases, which would signify a more focused approach. Dealing with long-lived greenhouse gases presents a daunting enough challenge by itself, and is impossible if burdened with other aspects of climate change. Once reconceptualized, climate policy can proceed upon multiple, parallel tracks, and thus have a greater chance to keep in step with evolving science and actually have a chance to make progress with respect to policy goals.


  1. Roger,

    I have long said that as CO2 hysteria becomes more and more fully debunked, the climate alarmists would begin to shift their focus to new sources of hysteria mongering.

    I still say that if the (unattainable) goal is to stabilize the climate, then the hysteria mongers should welcome the tiny bit of AGW we may have been responsible for.

    After all, this tiny little bit of AGW acts -- in a VERY small way -- to marginally counterbalance the on going, unbroken 10,000 year cooling trends in both the Arctic Circle AND the Antarctic Circle.

    Click here and here for more details, citations, etc. on those last two graphs..

    Let the new games begin (and the new gravy train roll)!

  2. Methane? That ppb stuff in the atmosphere that's been stable for about 10 years, with a couple of upward blips in 2007 and 2008, attributed to natural causes (in the literature)? Yeah, an emergency, not. Hey Wifey, is that steak cooked yet? Lord Stern's coming round for dinner.

  3. I still say the supposed long-lived nature of CO2 is a likely fiction. The lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is widely acknowledged as between 4 and 10 years even by the realclimate spinners. Those higher numbers are achieved by very iffy assumptions and modeling which should really be given a 3rd party review. If it's anything like the counter-factual modeling of deforestation then the IPCC are probably being unreasonably pessimistic.

  4. This going to further upset the CO2 Clergy! The High Church Of The Cow Fart is being shaken to its very foundation.

  5. -4-W.E. Heasley sez (as I insert a fitting YouTube clip):

    The High Church Of The Cow Fart is being shaken to its very foundation.”

    Too funny! And, soooo true!

    Of course, more methane is released by cow belches than cow farts. But, we’ll leave that for another YouTube clip.

    Enjoy your grilled hamburgers while it’s still legal to burn charcoal to cook cows!

    Soon, only Polar Bears will be able to enjoy a good cookout!

  6. Ignoring the first four comments (ok, lifetime of CO2 is only 4-10 years if the carbon cycle were in equilibrium. The lifetime of the additional CO2 we add to the atmospheric bathtub is far longer).

    It is worth noting that this important study is not necessarily "good news" about non-CO2 mitigation. By their calculations, aerosol cooling due to SOx, NOx and NHx counteract much of the warming. The air pollution "co-benefits" of many proposed actions will offset some of the radiative benefits of those actions.

  7. Nice graphic here of published CO2 residence times V IPCC:


  8. How 'bout we try to figure out what's going on before we fix it?

    Anyone who tries to perform complex surgery without a good understanding of his tools or his subject is a brain-dead, blithering idiot.

    Or a climate alarmist. [but I repeat myself]

  9. Does anyone know why methane stopped rising? My instinct says there should be more entering the atmosphere from human sources e.g. natural gas, farming....

  10. This is one of the reasons that I argue that perhaps CO2 emissions in and of themselves aren't particularly all that bad.


  11. 9-ESRL says this is "under study":


    Dlugokencky, E.J., L. Bruhwiler, J.W.C. White, L.K. Emmons, P.C. Novelli, S.A. Montzka, K.A. Masarie, P.M. Lang, A.M. Crotwell1, J.B. Miller, and L.V. Gatti. (2009) Observational constraints on recent increases in the atmospheric CH4 burden, Geophys. Res. Lett., in press.

  12. #11
    Andrew, the only pointer, to why methane has leveled, I could find in the study you refer to is this:

    "he approach to steady state may have been accelerated by the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union and decreased emissions from the fossil fuel sector."

    The statement sounds a bit like a fantasy to me. Furthermore, they also argue:

    "Causes for the current increase are currently being studied"

    Thus, I don't think they have the slightest clue why methane trend changes.

    Seen from totally subjective logic viewpoint, there is little to suggest that neither human activity nor the activity of their animals have anything to do with this phenomenon.

  13. Simon D's response to my comment is very representative of the wooly thinking in this debate. It doesn't matter how many assumptions the IPCC has made up to now that have turned out to be wrong we should still apparently trust the remainder. I propose a 3rd party review of the iffy assumption of "carbon cycle...in equilibrium" (which is actually more philosophy than science), and a 3rd party review of the iffy models that presume a filling "atmospheric bathtub". As evidence I cite models which assume net deforestation in a real world of net REforestation, the results of which also feed into the bathtub model. I could cite evidence where scientists managed to find missing sinks by actually going out and looking for them in the width of treetrunks or I could point out that a warming ocean should scientifically be a net emitter rather than a sink or i could point out that we emit 27 tonnes CO2 per annum but nature's equilibrium is a flux of 700 tonnes which puts it all in perspective: Quite simply, a small error in model input makes for a huge error in model output.

    Now if you care about whether assumptions are correct you might agree that a proper scientific review is smart but if your ideology is enough to sustain you then the more pessimistic the message the better and to heck with reality.

    But crucially the postulate of a 100* to 1000* year lifetime is actually doing more harm to the cause of decarbonization than the alternative because it directs us towards the proposed solutions of air capture rather than putting less carbon in the air in the first place. Greens don't want air capture apparently so logically the really should support an independent review of that lifetime assumption.

    *Yes those are the range of ridiculous numbers that are bandied about; the 1000 years one being from Susan Solomon et al. quite recently.

  14. It is intersting to note that James Hansen's 2000 paper "Alternative Scenario" (http://www.pnas.org/content/97/18/9875.full) said much the same thing. In that paper he suggested that focussing on non-CO2 emissions (methane, BC, ozone) for the short term yields faster success. For the long term, however, CO2 emissions are of paramount importance because of its very long lifetime.
    It is good that there is more emphasis on the myriad of chemistry-climate interactions, but it's not a new line of thought (not either among much slandered scientists such as Gavin and Hansen) that there are more climate forcings besides CO2, and that they should also be targeted in climate policies. Note the "also"; it's not either-or.


  15. It is interesting to see that climate scientists finally start considering atmospheric chemistry and composition in their model assessments. Shindell et al. make a good point in raising awareness that atmospheric chemistry can not be neglected in climate model scenarios. In this context however it should be noted that the tropospheric chemistry scheme used by Shindell et al. represents at best a faithful attempt in thinking outside traditional climate model frameworks. The assumption that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be substituted with CO is fundamentally flawed, because (unlike methane and CO) VOC produces organic aerosol (OA), which has been shown to be a major constituent of tropospheric aerosol (e.g. Zhang et al., GRL, 2007); this leads to another fundamentally flawed assumption, that is that sulfate is the dominating constituent of atmospheric aerosol. The best estimate of the global VOC flux into the atmosphere is about 1200 TgC/a and therefore exceeds that of methane and CO (ca 500 TgC/a each). Any climate sensitivity calculated with such simplified models therefore needs to be viewed with extreme caution.

  16. Lo and behold there is a 2009 paper that backs me up:
    "Carbon cycle data (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1996) indicate that fossil fuel use accounts for emissions to the atmosphere of 5.5 +/-0.5 GtC (Gigatons of carbon) annually. Other important processes in the global CO2 budget are tropical deforestation, estimated to generate about 1.6 +/- 1.0 GtC/yr; absorption by the oceans, removing about 2.0 +/- 0.8 GtC/yr; and regrowth of northern forests, taking up about 0.5 +/- 0.5 GtC/yr. However, accurate measurements of CO2 show that the atmosphere is accumulating only about 3.3 +/- 0.2 GtC/yr. The imbalance of about 1.3 +/- 1.5 GtC/yr, termed the “missing sink”, represents the difference between the estimated sources and the estimated sinks of CO2; that is, we do not know where all of the anthropogenic CO2 is going .............

    Radioactive and stable carbon isotopes (13-C/12-C) show the real CO2 lifetime is about 5 years; i.e. CO2 is quickly taken out of the atmospheric reservoir. There is a theoretical possibility that the given fast CO2 flux (short lifetime) is greater than 5.5 +/- 0.5 GtC of fossil fuel CO2 contributed annually to the atmosphere. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1996) reports that the CO2 lifetime (residence time) in the atmosphere is 50 to 200 years. This
    long probably creates the inexplicable “missing sink” of 1.3 +/- 1.5 GtC/yr in carbon cycle budget."

    Well ok you have to laugh at the 1.3 missing sink number since the 1.5 error range negates it. But that's IPCC arithmetic for you.

    Mind you if we assumed a net reforestation of -1.6 (speculative but since the world is demonstrably greening [ref NASA] it is at least far less in error than the deforestation number of +1.6), and if we assumed zero ocean absorption (again speculative but rather more scientific than -2.0 in a warming world) then we could eliminate that missing sink just as well.

  17. It seems to me that there is good evidence that atmospheric methane concentration is primarily a function of temperature. Look at the ice core data for example, especially the GISP2 data showing Younger Dryas. So the simplest explanation for the recent lack of change in atmospheric methane is that the temperature hasn't changed. That also means that attempting to reduce atmospheric methane by controlling anthropogenic methane sources would be a completely wasted effort. It also means that Ruddiman's hypothesis about humans causing an extended interglacial based on an unexpected leveling of atmospheric methane may have cause and effect reversed.