Home > Environment > Climate and catastrophe (updated)

Climate and catastrophe (updated)

September 20th, 2012

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has just announced that Arctic ice cover has reached its minimum extent for 2012, far below the previous record[1]. Peter Doherty discusses some of the implications here. As far as the broader debate about climate change is concerned, there are some big implications.

* First, this is irrefutable evidence that the climate is changing, and that the idea that climate change stopped or slowed down after 1998 or 1995, as delusionists have regularly claimed, is nonsense. On the contrary, the loss of Arctic ice is accelerating, far ahead of model predictions{2] In this context, I have yet to see any “sceptics” actually accept the evidence proving them wrong. But, with a handful of exceptions, we have silence rather than the usual rash of talking points to explain the evidence away. A notable example is Andrew Bolt, who ran lots of posts claiming there was no problem (most recently here), but hasn’t mentioned the topic since the minimum extent record was broken nearly a month ago.

Update While the blog was off-air, Bolt came up with a snark about the Antarctic, which presumably is supposed to offset the long string of posts he made claiming that there was no problem in the Arctic. As usual, Bolt’s talking point has already been debunked, here at Skeptical Science, but you can do it yourself. Compare Bolt’s graph of the Antarctic, showing a small increase in the winter maximum, to the NSIDC graph of the Arctic showing the summer minimum collapsing. End update

* Second, the “catastrophic” part of the delusionists favorite acronym “Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming” is looking a lot more likely. Not only will an ice-free Arctic produce a bunch of feedbacks that accelerate warming, but it will substantially affect climate conditions in Northern Europe, though exactly how remains to be seen.

On the other side of the coin, there’s one predicted catastrophe that didn’t happen. As elsewhere in the world, the introduction of the carbon tax did not “send a wrecking ball through the economy”. In fact, adverse effects are barely detectable. Of course, a lot more action is needed, but the near-universal view of economists that the cost of stabilising the global climate will be of the order of 1 per cent of income is certainly supported by the evidence from the initial steps in this direction.

fn1. The record is for the period of satellite data, going back to 1979. But as I mentioned a while ago, the fact that the Northwest Passage, sought unsuccessfully for centuries, is now routinely navigable in summer shows that this melting is unprecedented in the last 1000 years or so. Other research suggests that ice cover is probably the lowest in 8000 years

fn2. For those whose claimed “scepticism” rests on distrust of models, this is a useful reminder that models can be wrong in both directions.

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  1. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 10:25 | #1

    The sensible skeptical approach has always been to expect that the modelling, if anything, is likely to underestimate significant impacts. There are/were a variety of detail left out of the models simply because scientists either lack days or sufficient knowledge of the processes involved.

    One thing is clear, and that is that the various factors left out are unlikely to mitigate or make things better.

    JQ highlights one very important and dangerous unknown. What might happen to Europe? Who knows? Disruption to things like the gulf stream are certainly not impossible. And the result of that not trivial.

  2. John Quiggin
    September 20th, 2012 at 12:57 | #2


  3. Alan Wood (not that one)
    September 20th, 2012 at 16:31 | #3

    John, when you say…
    ‘the near-universal view of economists [is] that the cost of stabilising the global climate will be of the order of 1 per cent of income’
    …is there an easy citation I can use for that, or is that ‘the vibe’, as experienced by a practising economist?

  4. Ikonoclast
    September 20th, 2012 at 17:19 | #4


    More importantly, IPCC models, or at least IPCC predictions about probable outcomes, were deliberately skewed towards to the low end of the range in order to not appear sensationalist or panic-mongering. Now we are finding out that the real case is easily as bad or very likely worse than the worst case scenario.

  5. John Quiggin
    September 20th, 2012 at 17:31 | #5

    @Alan The 1 per cent estimate is from Stern for 550 ppm. Other estimates are higher, and more ambitious targets cost more. But at least down to 450 ppm, all serious estimates are of this order of magnitude (in the 0.5 to 5.0 per cent of income).

    Stern assumed feasible CCS, which now looks less likely, but that’s been more than offset by the massive reduction in the cost of solar PV in recent years.

  6. Peter T
    September 20th, 2012 at 17:32 | #6

    The linked article does not say much about the consequences. There seems to be a fair bit of uncertainty about the actual effects on climate, but they don’t look to be good. Some are mentioned here:


    Second Alan’s question. What does one per cent of income cover? Phasing out coal use rapidly? Nuclear and renewables?

  7. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 17:42 | #7


    There is that as well. Scientists are after establishing eternal verities rather than in the game of speculating on what is most likely where foundation for that speculation is scant. Hence, what has been left out is relevant.

  8. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 18:25 | #8

    The massive reduction in the costs of solar cells is what ought to have been expected due to scale economies, learning by doing etc., especially given the example of cost reductions in ICs (although quite tthose magnitude cost reductions too much to expect).

    Imagine if we had gotten serious s couple of decade ago.

  9. rog
    September 20th, 2012 at 18:27 | #9

    Denialism is alive and well, this clot has just been voted in as Mayor of Newcastle.


  10. BilB
    September 20th, 2012 at 18:43 | #10

    “Andrew Bolt, who ran lots of posts claiming there was no problem (most recently here), but hasn’t mentioned the topic since the minimum extent record was broken nearly a month ago”

    Wait for it. After a suitable seperation period Bolt will be back with “the catastrophic failure of the gillard government to field suitable and sufficient Climate Protection policies to protect the “Australian Battler”. This is called the “Switch”, a manouvre that is performed with as much cacophony as possible to distract the weak minded followers from noticing that they are now on the other side of the road, where it will be pointed out “there are more pubs”.

    The “Switch” will also declare that only an Abbott government will have the knowledge and resolve to face the devastating challenge of Climate Change.

    Abbott has much history with the Switch. Here is one famous (but completely forgotten) example….


    With the Federal Government under fire over its decision to restrict access to the Medicare safety net — breaking a core election promise — the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is really in the hot seat, after his comments in September last year: “That is an absolutely rock-solid, iron-clad commitment.” Mr Abbott will be talking to Sunday’s political editor, Laurie Oakes, about what happens now that the pledge has been dumped …

    HELEN DALLEY: One of the Government’s main vote-catchers in the Federal election was the Medicare safety net. The scheme that protects battling families and pensioners from spiralling doctors’ bills.

    During the campaign Health Minister Tony Abbott gave a cast-iron guarantee that the safety net would not be raised. But this week it was. Families will have to pay hundreds of dollars more on their health care each year because the cost of the scheme has blown out, just as Labor predicted.

    That broken promise would seem to put the Health Minister in an untenable position. Mr Abbott is in our Sydney studio this morning to talk with <ISUNDAY'Spolitical editor Laurie Oakes.

    And my favourite Abbott maxim…

    "Well, Laurie, when I made that statement, in the election campaign, I had not the slightest inkling that there would ever be any intention to change this. But obviously when circumstances change, governments do change their opinions, and that is actually the responsible course of action"

  11. Sam
    September 20th, 2012 at 19:47 | #11

    I don’t know what you guys are complaining about. Northern hemisphere summer is over now, so we can put all this unpleasantness behind us.

  12. September 20th, 2012 at 20:01 | #12

    Of course the deniers can also shift across to “we KNOW the climate is changing, it’s always changed – there is no PROOF that it is caused by CO2 (which is found in beer bubbles), and certainly no proof linking it to fossil fuel use”.

    Others ‘deniers’ can then run around the outside and sound sensible: “Of course the climate is changing. We need a strong free-market-friendly adaptation strategy, which means burning all the extra fossil fuels we expect to find in the Arctic so that we have the money to lift all boats on the rising sea through keeping the economy vibrant.”

    Sadly, the most money is to be made backing this horse: They wait until it snows somewhere, or better still until they can report that “Arctic sea ice has increased by a new record of Xmillion km2 – the largest ever Arctic sea ice freezing event – driving the last nail into the coffin of the failed warmist alarmist broken hockey stick forged e-mail arguments once and for all.”

    I’m willing to bet that last one, in some form, will appear in the next six months. $20 to a charity – any takers?

  13. truth
    September 20th, 2012 at 22:14 | #13

    @John Quiggin

    The sceptics will certainly appear to be quiet, if you continue to silence them by banning them from your blog, as you did when I posted on this topic, citing peer-reviewed papers that provide different conclusions from those of the ‘consensus’—and I also included the following report.

    [ “The Arctic sea is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer, great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, at many points well-known glaciers have entirely disappeared (US Weather Bureau 1922)”…..commentary from the US Weather Bureau, 1922. ]

    No mention of the North-West passage there, but neither CO2 nor black carbon were the big problems then that they are now—so it must have been something else—part of it being the natural warming that accompanied the emergence from the Little Ice Age—as now.

    And that record, starting as it does at the end of ‘the coming ice age’ alarm by some of those who are now proponents of CAGW—is a very short record in science.

  14. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 22:47 | #14


    You can’t handle the …

    Does the host of a blog have a duty to provide an unfettered platform for every hobby-horse whack job with an impressive disregard for the …

  15. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 22:52 | #15

    Ellipsis Complete! Mission Accomplished!

  16. Freelander
    September 20th, 2012 at 22:59 | #16

    By the way, the amusing thing about the ice age prediction meme is that that prediction was always a minority view. Even at its height, in the relevant peer (as opposed to pear) reviewed literature, those predicting warming out numbered significantly those predicting cooling.

    Of course, media reporting an entirely different thing. Thanks Rupert (and others).

  17. BilB
    September 21st, 2012 at 00:10 | #17


    Did you do that on purpose to make my point?

  18. September 21st, 2012 at 00:14 | #18

    Ummm, web-tyrant, you have a big security problem!

    That last post was me, not “BilB”.

    I just got all of “BilB”‘s info on my computer and a “welcome back BilB” message when I have nothing whatsoever to do with BilB.

    I assume everyone else now has my info too?

  19. BilB
    September 21st, 2012 at 00:16 | #19

    That last post was “Megan” not “BilB”.

    Is Stephen Conroy in this room somewhere? Or does someone have some security issues?

    I just got all of BilB’s info by trying to write this comment.

    We never had this problem before you went to the great new land of “Observistan”.


  20. BilB
    September 21st, 2012 at 00:21 | #20

    This is really weird!

    I have nothing to do with BilB but suddenly I’ve become ‘BilB’.

    Gives you great confidence in the competence of our brave new heavily armed and droned up to the teeth security state doesn’t it??

    MEGAN!! NOT BilB

  21. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 00:31 | #21

    You have nothing to fear. Stephen Conroy, his giant great firewall of Australia, and all his religious nutca-se friends (or fiends) are here to help and protect your freedoms (or at least those ones you seem deserving of).

    Normal transmission? Far too good for you!

  22. September 21st, 2012 at 00:43 | #22



    Am I me again?

    PS: Any assurance that everyone doesn’t have everyone else’s “will not be published” info like I just was given for another poster?

  23. Brian
    September 21st, 2012 at 01:16 | #23

    This post has two interesting videos. The first is a speeded up image of the year’s ice cover. The second is said to be of the big Arctic storm, but it shows the wind patterns for about a month after the storm finished.

    One remarkable factor is that this year the weather was not particularly conducive to melting, as it was in 2007. However, the storm did stir up the water column and bring warmer, saltier water to the surface.

    One point to note is that while the air temperature above ice can be fiendishly cold at those latitudes, above open water it doesn’t get much below zero.

  24. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 01:39 | #24


    Simply put your trust in Stephen. Not as though he’s ever let us down?

    Here is some interesting about the fragility of our moral positions in a significant section of the general population.


    Makes you think! Let’s hope not! Could be habit forming.

  25. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 01:48 | #25

    Moder what? Seems to bin the most innocuous.

    JQ, with all this disruption I assume you’re still off Santa’s list!

  26. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 01:52 | #26

    Deniers are like those in the cannibals cooking pot thinking the natives are simply giving them a nice warm bath.

  27. rog
    September 21st, 2012 at 08:13 | #27

    @truth Truth cites no peer reviewed papers to support his opinion or the opinion of others.

  28. TerjeP
    September 21st, 2012 at 08:37 | #28

    Abbott has much history with the Switch.

    At least there will be no switch under a government Gillard leads. Oh wait!

  29. rog
    September 21st, 2012 at 08:43 | #29

    When Muller and the team from BEST studied temp data for errors Watts said “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” When BEST had completed the study Muller said that the findings made him change his position, which had been that of a sceptic. Watts went back on his word, saying that he would not accept Muller until peer review had been completed. The problem with Watts argument is that he essentially does not accept peer review.

  30. TerjeP
    September 21st, 2012 at 08:52 | #30

    Will the southern hemisphere experience a higher albedo effect this summer?

  31. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 10:22 | #31

    Abbott would not last a term as PM. Animals can be entertaining while constrained by opposition. However, when released into the relative freedom of government, his currently amusing antics will quickly begin to grate.

  32. QuentinR
    September 21st, 2012 at 10:48 | #32


  33. QuentinR
    September 21st, 2012 at 10:58 | #33

    For debugging, the current system seems to randomly allocate a prior correspondant tag in the “Welcome back XXXXXX” greeting, above the Submit Comment button.

  34. QuentinR
    September 21st, 2012 at 11:21 | #34


    In Abbotts case the Switch is a habit, and for himself this is perfectly understandable as he states in the quote above. But for anybody else this is an unforgiveable failing, in his opinion.

    Abbott = total hypocrit, and habitual liar, as Laurie Oakes demonstrates.

    Abbott is not a fit person to be Prime Minister for this country.

    By the looks of the data the summer albedo effect will be lower but the winter will be higher, probably because of the spread and thinning of the dispersing ice as glaciers accelerate.

    SOI graph archive


  35. quokka
    September 21st, 2012 at 11:45 | #35

    Over at Stoat, “gavin” who I assume is Gavin Schmidt of NASA makes the important point that the early loss of sea ice doesn’t necessarily imply a higher climate sensitivity than the “most likely” 3C per doubling of CO2. Basically because loss of sea ice causes an albedo feedback, is not a forcing and is already accounted for in estimates of climate sensitivity. Which is somewhat reassuring, as the 3C is plenty to be concerned with.

    Of course this certainly does not mean that loss of Arctic sea ice won’t have consequences.

    One thing we do know for sure about IPCC projections is that emissions are right up there with the highest IPCC scenarios.

  36. Skinny Pete
    September 21st, 2012 at 12:35 | #36

    Bolt has finally broken his silence on the issue. Did you know that Antarctic sea ice is at record high levels?

  37. Hermit
    September 21st, 2012 at 12:50 | #37

    I wonder if weather patterns are changing rapidly here but we don’t have the nous to recognise it, for example the long dry spell in the Centre
    appears to be matched by steady rain in southwest WA and western Tasmania. No matter we have lots of lovely coal to power our heaters and aircons whatever the trend.

  38. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 12:54 | #38

    Andrew back on the ganja and projecting his high on to the article ice.

  39. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 12:56 | #39

    Sorry … Antarctic Ice.

  40. Freelander
    September 21st, 2012 at 12:59 | #40

    Andrew back on the ganja and projecting his high on to the Antartic ice.

  41. jrkrideau
    September 23rd, 2012 at 23:34 | #41


    You really don’t know anything about the Arctic do you?

    It took Amundsen roughly 3 years (1903-1906) to complete the first transit of the North West Passage but he was just using a slightly modified fishing boat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roald_Amundsen#Northwest_Passage_.281903.E2.80.931906.29

    The St Roche http://www.vancouvermaritimemuseum.com/page216.htm was the second vessel to complete the Northwest Passage traverse. It took just over a year the first time and, amazingly, the second time, under a year due to favourable ice conditions. Please note it was a custom build.

    Now cruise ships and yachts do it. I believe I heard of some adventurers (idiots?) doing it in a rowing boat this summer.

    BTW, you wouldn’t happen to have a citation or link to the original US Weather Bureau report would you? All I have found after hitting three or four links is denier blogs with the quote and no real citation.

  42. September 23rd, 2012 at 23:48 | #42

    “Got Science? Not at News Corporation”

    “Representations of climate science on Fox News Channel and in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages are overwhelmingly misleading”


  43. Freelander
    September 24th, 2012 at 02:18 | #43


    I would have to agree with you but the polls suggest for far too many he has not yet begun to grate. Great if it were otherwise.

  44. Freelander
    September 24th, 2012 at 02:23 | #44


    Rupert knew nothing! Neither did his family!

    Like in the UK, a giant conspiracy of underlyings all throwing their careers away to keep the truth from them.

    Rupert will be very angry and ashamed when he finds out!

  45. QuentinR
    September 24th, 2012 at 10:44 | #45

    The biggest unknown with the loss of Arctic sea ice, Quokka, is the effect of he warming on Arctic Methyl Hydrates, sub (water) surface permafrost, land permafrost and the rapid decomposition of peat bogs. None of these as far as I am aware are included in the IPCC projections.

    The elephant in the room is the combined effects of the above as exacerbated by the combination of open Arctic water, weather pressure systems and subsequent wind patterns. None of these are fully researched and so cannot be quantified for modelling. Of course assumptions can be made for the amount of methane to be released, and from what I’ve seen these assumptions range from the “no worries” to the absolutely horrific. So as we are learning to look at the high side of assumptions, I’d be very worried. One effect that I am concerned about is with the decomposition of the peat bogs, as the decomposition begins will the heat generated accelerate the permafrost thaw?

  46. BilB
    September 24th, 2012 at 10:47 | #46

    The above comment was from BilB, not Quentin. Hopefully it will stay on my name for my comments from now on.

  47. Freelander
    September 24th, 2012 at 11:06 | #47

    Seems reasonable to believe significant methane release will be important. Although relatively short lived, a big release could significantly accelerate warming in the short term. The warming hasn’t hit 1 C, but the results are already nasty and figuratively we are only just pulling away from the curb. With universal do next to nothingism global stupidity must be at record highs.

  48. John Quiggin
    September 24th, 2012 at 11:55 | #48

    Sorry about the comments problems, which arose during the blog problem. Fixed now, I hope.

  49. BilB
    September 24th, 2012 at 12:10 | #49

    Freelander, the volume of the hydrates I recall can release something like 13 trillion tonnes of methane. The problem with this material is that it can be released in a very short period of time. Consider a situation where a warm current punches up into the Artcic seas, this can destailise huge amounts of ice bound methane in a period of just months. And there are many dangers in this. Whole ships have been sunk by the turbulence created by perkelating methane releases, amoungst the dangers from this threat.

    Past research papers have attributed previous global warming events to the realse of this material. I don’t know what the status of that research is relative to more recent studies, but if it holds up then the message is of rapid and massive devastation.

    No biggey, ……some will say.

  50. Freelander
    September 24th, 2012 at 12:39 | #50


    One of my fears too. The unknowns all seem to change the story in the ugly direction. The modeling it about what scientists have a more reasonable understanding of, and are best interpreted, in many cases, as the lower bound.

  51. quokka
    September 24th, 2012 at 17:26 | #51

    On the subject of Arctic methane release, people should read what the RealClimate team have to say about it. Some of the salient points:

    1. Despite higher current estimates, Arctic release remains modest compared to that from low latitude wet lands.

    2. The system response time appears to be slow and the influence may be more in the long tail of the warming event than in short term effects.

    3. There is no convincing evidence of large methane pulses in the previous inter glacials

    4. It is (or can be) incorporated into climate models by adjusting the net carbon flow of land in the carbon cycle.



    Or maybe better still wait for IPCC AR5 before hitting the panic button.

  52. Nick
    September 25th, 2012 at 10:28 | #52

    Well,it depends on the average sea ice extent for summer. Are you presuming that it will be anomalously high,because of the current spike of the last month? The satellite record shows average summer Antarctic sea ice extent barely has any trend.

  53. Ikonoclast
    September 29th, 2012 at 11:16 | #53

    Solar passive design for whole suburbs is worth a look. As an added bonus it creates, I think, very interesting architecture.


  54. BilB
    September 29th, 2012 at 13:21 | #54

    Again, Quokka, you are attempting to isolate and marginalise environemntal effects that work in concert, not solo performance.


  55. quokka
    September 30th, 2012 at 22:47 | #55


    I’m doing what? And again? Whatever you want to believe if it makes you happy.

  56. BilB
    October 1st, 2012 at 08:33 | #56

    There is an excellent highly detailed study of a domestic solar installation on The Oil Drum right now


    There is also a highly detailed refutation of the recent Maugeri “oil to burn” paper by a long term oil industry analyst.

  57. BilB
    October 1st, 2012 at 09:05 | #57


    I may be being a little harsh, but saying at this stage “don’t push the panic button” is bad advice.

    We are in unprecedented global change territory on exceeded in speed of change by massive meteor strike.

    The last change that took global temperatures up 5 degree C was due to planetary orbital change and axis tilt, slow changes relative to our 200 year and rapid escalation of CO2 atmospheric release.

    The current pace of change is in geological scales instantaneous. Last week I viewed a documentary of a Russian scientist standing in the tundra saying that he was standing on 25% of stored atmospheric CO2. I don’t know how accurate that is but if true it poses a huge threat. There is a recent atmospheric model study that reexamines the 50 million year ago event and is able to create the climatic change in the model using the stored carbon in the permafrost. And that is with the continents as they were at that time which is substantially different to how they are now. This time around the permafrost zone is much larger, the Arctic seas are shallower, and the current circulations are very different.

    The possibility of a rapid permafrost melt is quite high. The recent heat wave in Moscow triggering massive forest fires points to the mchanism that has the potntial to trigger large scale melt with self sustaining year round decomposition of peat bogs. Here is an example of how that can work


    As I said, it is the sum of all events that is our risk, not any one threat in isolation.

  58. Ikonoclast
    October 1st, 2012 at 09:30 | #58


    I agree with you BilB but people are sick of my gloom and doom posts so I won’t say much. It will take a series of salutary and frightening disasters to actually force people to see what is happening. Logical, rational, scientific argument is not enough when you see the forces arrayed on the other side. Ignorance, selfishness, blindness, stupidity, greed, advertising, propaganda, duplicity and denialism rule the scene. Not until the equation becomes very simple, ie. change or die, will we see movement on this issue.

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