Good and bad news on climate

Although China has been moving away from coal-fired power for some time, provincial governments didn’t get the memo. They’ve been approving new plants at a cracking pace, with as many as 250 on the books, through a combination of inertia and desire to keep construction going. Now the national government has started pulling them into line, banning new coal plants in 15 provinces.

As this report shows there’s a similar tendency in many developing countries, with a long-standing push for coal running into the reality that it’s economically and environmentally disastrous. The result is a potential trillion dollars in stranded assets.

Still, progress in reducing carbon emissions has been much greater than seemed possible even five years ago. The problem is that the news from the scientists keeps getting worse. I haven’t had time to digest the discussion around the Hansen et al paper on sea level rise, but it’s certainly alarming. Closer to home and undoubted is the disastrous coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.

And of course, while the world is moving to cut emissions, Australia is going backwards under the Abbott government (now notionally led by Malcolm Turnbull). The defeat of this government would be an important step towards saving the planet.

32 thoughts on “Good and bad news on climate

  1. …the defeat, arrest and imprisonment of this treasonous government would be an important step…

    There, that’s better.

  2. You might want to add to the deficit column the issues raised in:

    HANSEN, J., SATO, M., HEARTY, P., RUEDY, R., KELLEY, M., MASSON-DELMOTTE, V., RUSSELL, G., TSELIOUDIS, G., CAO, J., RIGNOT, E., VELICOGNA, I., TORMEY, B., DONOVAN, B., KANDIANO, E., VON SCHUCKMANN, K., KHARECHA, P., LEGRANDE, A. N., BAUER, M. & LO, K. W. 2016. Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming could be dangerous. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 3761-3812.

    This paper is notable not only for the contents but also the peer review process. The draft paper version was published for discussion and extensive critiquing in mid 2015. That critiquing is also accessible allowing far more than the usual reality checking by outsiders. Despite this the story hasnt changed much that I could tell.

    I still have to get my head around the full text which is long and dense and acronym heavy. But basically the thesis is that during the Eemian period about 175,000 years ago there was a 2 oC rise in global temperature which provides a conceptual model or at least comparison for what we might expect if the lousy agreement currently touted as the great breakthrough at Paris is realized and which itself is still far from set in stone – companies like Shell for example gearing themselves in fact for a 4 oC rise. This temperature rise doesnt sound much but the sea level rise at the time was 6-9 m and associated with storms like nothing we have seen in modern times.

    The paper has two distinct parts…a modelling section to understand what happenned and especially important, the speed of change in the global climate and seas level, something that appears to be have been a problem for past IPCC models which have struggled to include changes of state in the global weather system. Then it has an evidence section/reality check which describes among other things sedimentation and boulder transport on the shores of Bahamas Islands which provide evidence of megastorms.

    As I understand it some take home points for consideration are as follows:
    – Melting may have been much faster due to disruption of ocean circulation and the formation of freshwater lenses underneath the ice caps.
    – The process is complex but involves large scale disruption of the earth heat exchange and this seems modellable.
    – The thesis is testable in that central to the process is accelerating ice cap melt – this is being measured by the Grace and other microgravity satellites, accounts for concerns about ice sheet melting in Antarctica published about a year ago. The signal is noisy but within another decade this wont matter. (Hansen made a justifiably big deal of this very hard evidence at a public seminar in Sydney a few years back though its signficance didnt seem to widely register that here was a real way to determine whether “the Icebergs are Melting”).
    – (in the draft especially) There are pictures that tell a thousand words – illustrations of 1000 tonne boulders way up the cliffs begging the question of how they got there. Of course there are different mechanisms and addressed in a balance of evidence. That they appeared coincidentally in the Eemian period is not questioned though some suggest other mechanisms including of course Tsunamis.

    The further killer is when/how quickly might this happen today. The modelling indicates the possibility (likelihood?) of the tipping point being seen in 2080 but possibly as soon as 2040 depending on ice melt rate.

    Now no one should take such assertions on blind faith but fortunately it is possible to try and understand the process and development of this paper/thesis and reality check the above via:

    – the paper web site –

    – a general search which turns up critical discussion e.g. about superstorms

    – links to copies of the paper which may include ones which are in effect open access,5&as_ylo=2015


    – If I was a denier I would realize this is another example of the mad greenie/commie/science anti-capitalism conspiracy and confirm this by a discussion with my friends Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.

    – If I were a mad greenie I would say “I told you so” and go off on a rant about the neoliberal capitalist conspiracy cheerled by the likes of Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.

    – But as I am a transitioning to retirement scientist who views these extremes as more reflecting hangovers from high school debating, I am simply be further disturbed about the future and confirmed in an earlier opinion that the Grace satellite data and similar hard evidence are not looking good in the direction they are pointing.

    And since this is an economics blog which is tied closely to economics I would go to:

    to discover the potential impact sea level rises.

    Which show in short, that even before superstorms are taken into account, investment in Queensland along the current lines (99.9% coastal real estate speculation) looks problematic.

  3. There is a question that must be asked,…is Malcolm Turnbull a sock puppet to Tony Abbott?

  4. It was high time you got back.

    BilB – you are 1% correct with your question. You would have gotten higher marks if youd asked – ‘is Malcolm Turnbull a sock puppet to IPA, coal companies and Rupert Murdoch ?’

  5. The world political-economic system (as a system of systems) appears to be reacting too late to the dangers. The interesting questions are why is this so and what happens now? Rather than state my own opinions again, I will leave these questions hanging.

  6. ps there is also this paper from two other authors

    Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise Robert M. DeConto & David Pollard

    Somewhat slower rate than the Hansen paper but the direction and concern is the same. It suggests there will now be a range of models emerging in the next few years looking at this question.

    The paper seems to be freely accessible. There is a link in this article

  7. I assume the Greenpeace report on the coal plant pipeline is primarily aimed at the banks who would have to provide project finance. If they have any sense, they should be pulling out now. If a coal mine like Carmichael is a dud in a falling coal market, how much worse is a coal generating plant in a glut? With falling total thermal coal burn, they are just fighting each other for ever thinner slices of a shrinking and malodorous pie. In the top floors of the banks, we can be sure that the confident renewable energy teams are making this case against the defensive fossil energy ones, and pretty sure they are winning.

  8. The import of these papers is that all of the world’s major coastal cities will be destroyed in less than 200 years. That’s less than the time since the Napoleonic Wars so it is a rapid event in historical terms.

    Just 1 meter of sea level rise (which will likely happen by 2050) will have enormous consequences.

    “There is no comprehensive global assessment of the number of people who would be displaced by a 1-meter sea level rise, but it’s thought that roughly 1 billion people live at sea level or just a few meters above it. Regional studies conducted by the IPCC suggest that the impacts will be devastating, especially in the tropics and warm temperate regions, where many coastlines are heavily settled. The most vulnerable areas are concentrated along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, the west coast of Africa, South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Maldives), all coastal states comprising Southeast Asia, and low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These regions contain some of the poorest and most heavily populated countries in the world, with some of the highest fertility levels. Just over 2 billion people inhabit these places and up to half of them live on the equivalent of $2 a day or less. China and Southeast Asia include the most crowded coastlines in the world, with population densities averaging over 2,000 people per square kilometer. All of these regions are primed for profound social upheaval, as a quick survey will show.” – Worldwatch.

  9. It’s already happening. I have seen reports of villages or farmlands abandoned in the Indus, Ganges, Chao Phraya and Mekong deltas due to increasing salinity. This creates a slow pressure on social systems as people move to nearby cities, slums grow, food issues worsen and so on. But it takes a triggering event or events to push things over the edge. This can be small (the Iranian revolution was sparked by a cinema fire) or diffuse (drought plus radical Islam plus corruption leading to Syrian revolt), and the form it takes will be locally conditioned. It’s also unpredictable in both timing and spread – Iran pretty much stayed in the immediate neighbourhood (noting a million dead courtesy of Saddam and Rumsfeld), Syria metastasized across the ME and North Africa.

    What would an environmental push do to people in these conditions:

  10. Climate change and mankind’s approach (attitude) to sorting it out is a major part of the solution.

    BUT, it doesn’t end there. You may recall a certain pollie saying coal is good for humanity.

    Well, coal mines should be replaced by renewable energy construction. But we aren’t seeing these coalmines closing down, are we!!

    This is because there’s a secret plan for the future of coal in Australia.

    This carton gives a clue to these plans . . . .


  11. One of the things that people easily miss is that a small sea level rise can cause much greater loss of shore line through storm-based erosion and collapse of the shore into the ocean. England and America have seen it happening in the Atlantic; in fact, there are some recent videos, taken by drone, of cliff face collapse into the ocean several metres below, taking beach-front property with it.

    There are two principal forces at work: the first is that the storm activity, as explained in Hansen et al, changes so that exceptionally powerful storms occur more frequently; the second is that as the sea level rises from ice sheet disintegration, the rise in sea level supplies more water mass pounding into the coastal edge. A larger volume of water to slosh about, and stronger storms capable of shifting that extra mass.

    Meanwhile, I’ve seen some very low level development springing up like weeds, all within cooee of the beach. Whether that’ll turn out to be canny investment, or heroically stupid, is something we’ll know soon enough.

    As for the fossil fuel companies whose staff think that they are preparing for 4C of warming—they are deluding themselves and putting the rest of us at great peril, as the change in temperature is not a lever we can control. Quite the opposite: if we do find ourselves on a trajectory towards 4C increase, there are so many extra possible positive feedbacks that we have no certainty that we “only” get 4C increase. For example, should we have permafrost collapse, one quite possible consequence of surpassing 2C increase, we could be heading for 6–10C. Another issue is that we have almost reached the point where summer temperatures in the Antarctic exceed the melting point of ice. The 4C increase that the fossil fuel companies are prepared to cause virtually guarantees a summer melt season in the Antarctic, year on year. If either were to happen, it would be a different Earth from the current one, that is in no doubt.

    George Turner just might have got it right.

  12. Another point that people miss is that we are not just doing one thing to the biosphere. We are doing many things to the biosphere. The headline baddies right now are climate change and sea level rise. Indeed these are bad but there are many more insidious dangers and processes we are unleashing.

    The work on planetary boundaries by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen provides a framework for categorising these problems. The boundaries identified so far include;

    (1) Climate Change
    (2) Biosphere diversity – genetic diversity, functional diversity
    (3) Land-system change
    (4) Freshwater use
    (5) Biochemical flows – phosphorous, nitrogen
    (6) Ocean acidification
    (7) Atmospheric aerosol loading
    (8) Stratospheric ozone depletion
    (9) Novel entities – chemical pollution

    Sea level rise does not even get a guernsey in the above scheme which only illustrates that the scheme seems far from complete. This is only from a Wikipedia summary so the Wikipedia might be at fault in this case. Many of the other issues are easily as concerning as climate change and sea level rise. Species extinctions are of great concern with the rate of extinctions about 10 to 100 times greater than the earth has ever seen in previous mass extinction events. Chemical pollution is also very concerning with rising concentrations of toxic substances, plastics, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and radioactive contaminants in the environment.

    So, the real issue is Environment Change of which Climate Change is just one part and Ecology Change another. Many scientists now consider that the Holocene has ended and we have entered the Anthropocene.

    “A proposal to formalise the ‘Anthropocene’ is being developed by the ‘Anthropocene’ Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016.

    Broadly, to be accepted as a formal term the ‘Anthropocene’ needs to be (a) scientifically justified (i.e. the ‘geological signal’ currently being produced in strata now forming must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive) and (b) useful as a formal term to the scientific community. In terms of (b), the currently informal term ‘Anthropocene’ has already proven to be very useful to the global change research community and thus will continue to be used, but it remains to be determined whether formalisation within the Geological Time Scale would make it more useful or broaden its usefulness to other scientific communities, such as the geological community.” – Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.

    It is of signal significance that this issue has even entered serious debate; that “the ‘geological signal’ currently being produced in strata now forming” might “be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive” to merit a new classification. That is to say, we are changing the biosphere at the level of scale and power of at least some planetary forces and we are leaving a long term geological trace.

    The philosophical import of what we are doing is profound. If we are to survive, and if non-human as well as human ecologies are going to survive, we will have to completely change our moral attitudes and practices towards the environment and in relation to science and economics. Our current approach to science, politics and economics amounts to a “death cult”. This is the real death cult we should be concerned about now. But that is a topic to fill another post.

  13. Still, progress in reducing carbon emissions has been much greater than seemed possible even five years ago.

    How is this even measured?

    The current situation now pivots on the Paris Agreement – and whatever acts of whoever ends up signing it and if, maybe, doing something after 2020.

    The only “progress” I see is at least the support in the Paris Agreement for a 1.5C target not just a 2C target.

    There is no point waving Clayton’s “progress” over “5 years” when the Mauna Loa record is skyrocketing.

  14. @Ivor

    Good points. The whole issue revolves around carbon and “carbon equivalent” sources and sinks, their interplay and the continued dynamics (changes and feedbacks) of the systems and processes involved. In releasing so much CO2 and already generating some global warming we have affected many other natural source and sink processes. Without trying to enumerate them all, a number of these other processes from forest fires and peat fires, to ocean warming (less potential to dissolve CO2 in the long run), to methane releases from the tundra and sea floor, all have the potential to become processes out of our control and to generate runaway global warming in their own right.

    It is correct to point out that the final variable that matters, in terms of climate change causation, is the extant total of CO2e gases in the atmosphere, which the Mauna Loa data record best exemplifies. We could start reducing human CO2e emissions right now and still see the atmospheric concentration go up for a short term, long term or even indefinitely, due to other feedbacks now initiated. The relevant data show we now are on the cusp of potentially catastrophic change, and this to disturbing degree of real probability. Given this, the only rational approach would be to declare a planetary emergency, an existential survival approach, and to reduce fossil fuel use worldwide to absolutely nil within about 20 years.

    If we are to ask ourselves which should we risk, “the economy or the biosphere?” then the answer is clear. We must risk the economy. The economy depends on the biosphere. The biosphere does not depend on the economy. We must risk the lesser for the greater. It is plain that the biosphere (as a place supportive of human life) is of much greater worth than the economy. Instead, we have made the economy our ultimate goal and arbiter of all value. And not just any economy, but indeed just one form of economy. The decisions we need to make to save the biosphere are not economic decisions. They are moral and scientific decisions properly mediated by political and social processes.

    Economics is tactics not strategy. To elevate any tactical discipline, in any variant, and place it in charge of strategics (strategic planning) is the most egregious error possible. Yet, this is precisely the mistake we are making.

  15. With predictions on sea level rise that differ quite a lot in the next 85 years, it should be possible to see which path we are on quite a bit sooner.

    But of course we should act now as though we are on the worst possible path…

  16. Whilst you were enjoying your weekend, our state Government approved Adani’s mining license to build Australia’s largest ever coal mine in the Galilee Basin!*

    As global temperatures hit terrifying levels and the Reef turns a deathly white, the absurdity of this decision cannot be understated.

    Can you join us for a snap-action in partnership with AYCC to protest Queensland’s outrageous move?

    When: 9:15-10am, Monday 4th of April

    Where: in front of QLD State Parliament, Cnr of George and Alice Streets, Brisbane

    What: Press conference and snap protest with Giant Nemo fish swimming in a reef surrounded by coral bleaching

    Bring: Banners, placards — “Reef/Coral not coal”

    We know that the mining and burning of coal is destroying the Reef and we know that we must keep fossil fuels in the ground if we want to avoid dangerous global warming.

    Yet, our Government is intent on giving the coal industry everything they need to dig more coal out of the ground and wreck our precious Reef.

    Join us tomorrow morning to tell our politicians to stop putting the big polluters ahead of our Reef and our future.

    *Adani’s Galilee Basin project mine leases approved, The Brisbane Times, 4th April 2016.

  17. @John Chapman

    I would only conclude the Saudis had a clue if they did the following;

    (a) abandoned monarchical despotism;
    (b) abandoned fundamentalist religionism (Wahhabism);
    (c) abandoned funding terrorism and regional wars;
    (d) abandoned client state status re USA;
    (e) invested a large slice of the megafund in sustainable energy generation and transmission in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

    Even these changes would be a bare minimum. Of course, to ensure Australia is not forgetting the plank in its own eye we need to;

    (a) abandon the movement towards neoliberalism and corporatocracy;
    (b) create a genuine social democracy;
    (c) abandon our role in global state sponsored terrorism and illegal ears;
    (d) abandon our client state status re the USA;
    (e) invest our entire future fund in sustainable energy generation and transmission in Australia.

  18. @Ikonoclast

    In general I agree, however I do not see that:

    We must risk the economy.

    We must definitely change the economy into something much better and without the many risks it currently exhibits.

    This may mean a lower rate of output, but a stable – non capitalist – economy can still prevail.

    Except for capitalism it is possible to have a sustainable risk free, carbon neutral, economy once humanity reaches this conclusion.

  19. @Ivor

    I agree; with a few caveats. As a matter of socioeconomic and real economy complexity and the challenges of change, I am certain that there will be socioeconomic risks and costs in the short to mid term to ensure long term civilisational and ecological survival. Of course, one of the keys will be to spread the risks and costs fairly. That is where social democracy and even s o c i a l i s m come in.

    We have to accept that we must pay economic costs and live more frugally to save the biosphere. This is a global habitability emergency. Bourgeois economics wants to play the game of pretending these costs don’t ever have to be very high: that we can destroy our biosphere and have it too. It is this kind of “magic pudding” thinking which leads to “business as usual with a bit of embroidery around the edges”. Such weak attempts at systemic reform will never avert the emergency.

  20. @Ronald Brak

    We need much more than this. Tar sand operations need to stop today. The world’s coal mines all need to be closed within about ten years. Oil/gas wells need to be closed within about twenty years I would guess. I would say they all need to close today except that our entire economy cannot instantly switch to other power sources.

    If we had started getting serious in 1990 we would be there now. 25 years ought to have been sufficient to completely transform our energy base. But neoliberalism delayed, obfuscated and obstructed so that we have made almost no progress.

    Yes, the technology has progressed well but the actual implementation of it has dragged. It has been excruciatingly slow compared to the pace of change we really needed. This indicates to me that the current world political-economic system is incapable of making the necessary changes rapidly enough. I don’t know if any other system is capable of making the changes rapidly enough but I do know, from the real world test over the last 25 years, that this system certainly is not capable of making the necessary changes rapidly enough.

    It’s already too late to save the world from dangerous climate change. To a high degree of certainty we know now that it is going to happen. Our choice today is very likely between dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change. It is still worth acting but now we have to act at emergency speed. Of course, emergency action won’t happen until New Orleans goes under again and the Miami-Tampa metro area goes under with it. I mean more or less permanently this time round. When a disaster of this magnitude happens, then real action might start happening. Or maybe it will take 10 million climate refugees fleeing north from Florida or 20 million Californians with dry taps in their homes.

  21. The sea level rise research is very alarming.

    I put this on Monday Message Board as well, but there is a petition for the Goverment to make a Climate Emergency Plan here if anyone is interested in signing and sharing among your networks

    To Members of the House of Representatives and Senators,

    We call on the Australian Parliament to declare a climate emergency and to mobilise resources to restore a safe climate.

    1. In February 2016, global temperatures spiked to well over 1.5°C above pre-industrial times, just weeks after the Paris Climate Agreement set an aim of not exceeding that benchmark. Climate scientists say that we are facing a climate emergency, and that the future of ecosystems and human civilisation now hang in the balance. Our Great Barrier Reef is dying as the oceans heat up and recent fires in Tasmania burned ancient world-heritage forests.

    2. Declaring a climate emergency is a vital step in building support for the very large changes required to restore a safe, cooler climate.

    3. A society-wide mobilisation of resources is required at a scale and speed not seen since the Second World War. Carbon emissions must be reduced to zero within a few years, not several decades, and we must draw down all the excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere using measures that include mass tree planting. We must rapidly transition from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, replacing fossil fuel jobs with jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
    The climate restoration is an enormous task, but given the risks to ourselves and future generations we must rise to the challenge.

  22. Here is an excellent article by dana1981 at sleptical science, which frames climate denial in a new and understandable way which also buttresses the understanding of how Maurice Newman as CEO of the ABC was able to deliver the government to Tony Abbott with a daily direct channel to Old White Male voting sector.

    This coming election will see a snap back to the more natural Labout dominance but the degree of that snap will be moderated by the degree to which Abbott’s climate lies have been moderated by Climate Reality. In a recent discussion I had with a long time business friend I was horrified to get the full suite of climate denial myths delivered with religious fervour. I didn”t think to ask him what the source of his information was, but will. If you monitor the JoNova denialist heartland site you will see a steady decline in interest in the subjects while at the same time the articles are are moving progressively into the theatrical as there is zero supportable scientific basis upon which to argue. I had a look at the Catallaxy site going back 11 days, it took ages…so many words….so little point, without a single article on climate matters (not a rigorous enough Cat’ scan from which to make judgements). My impression is that climate denial is slowly giving way to acceptance of the climate reality. Certainly amongst farmers this is the case.

    Anyway dana1981 makes some very believable remarks and observations.

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