Moving the Climate Goalposts

2015 saw attempts to airbrush sensitivity out of the climate conversation, as folks like Micheal Tobis and the gentleman running And Then There’s Physics argued that we should move on. They (perhaps naturally, given their conviction that climate change is so catastrophic that ‘the survival of the f**king planet is at stake’) just want their assumptions of a high sensitivity accepted.

They want to replace sensitivity-based calculations with things like Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which started out innocently enough as inputs to climate models with the end points given as a starting assumption but were then hijacked to become ‘predictions, projections and/or scenarios.’ All with another assumption embedded–high sensitivity.

We also saw the introduction of a new target for temperature. We’re now supposed to aim for 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, rather than 2C. I suppose I shouldn’t complain–the 2C target was admittedly grabbed out of thin air, not based on science. Why not 1.5C instead? Of course, given that we’ve already achieved 1C above pre-industrial levels, it’ll take some doing, but if you’re just making stuff up, why not?

Now And Then There’s Physics has a new post up on Zero Emissions. It was apparently prompted by a post from David Roberts, perhaps best known for calling for Nuremberg Trials for ‘deniers.’

ATTP writes, “The zero refers to net global emissions, not to temperature. The argument is essentially that

zero is a much more compelling and evocative goal than the longer-standing and better-established climate goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees or less.

And then ATTP writes one of the strangest sentences I have seen in the climate conversation:

“David Roberts is, of course, quite correct that if we want to stabilise temperatures we’ll have to aim to get emissions to zero. If this could be accepted and focused on, it may well be more effective than having some kind of warming target.”

Stabilize temperatures? Does ATTP think temperatures were stable before humans began emitting CO2? Does he think that if we actually ceased emissions temperatures would no longer change?

Zero emissions is not possible now, of course. I would argue that it will never be possible. I would further argue that it is not strictly necessary, that the IPCC doesn’t call for it and that the world we would see with zero emissions would be without doubt worse than a world with 1.5C, 2C, 4C or 6C higher temperatures. We would have to abandon air travel, cement, ocean shipping–and even barbecues. No thank you.

It’s a pity, because ATTP ends his post with something that makes common sense. It’s something I’ve been writing for most of a decade, but I’ll forgive ATTP for not properly attributing it.

It’s based on conversations Paul Kelly and I used to have over at Bart Verheggen’s weblog. I would frequently write that the initial steps we need to take to combat global warming of 4C are exactly the same as those we would take to fight global warming of 2C. (The steps I advocate are found here.)

ATTP rephrases it as “These debates are moot, however, as the decisions that need to be taken now to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 °C are very similar. We need to agree how to start, not where to end mitigation.”

When he’s right, he’s right. You’re welcome, ATTP.

broken clock

Note: ATTP and I have banned each other from commenting on our respective sites. As I have mentioned him here, he is welcome to comment on this thread should he wish to.


11 responses to “Moving the Climate Goalposts

  1. The zero emission advocates have a greater fear for nuclear energy than for climate change. Zero emission is impossible without nuclear. Let’s wait and see what India and China do with Thorium in the next 30 years.

  2. The basic scientific error that you highlight here is embedded in the thinking of most climate activists. It’s also inherent in the language used, for example talk of the amount of warming “since pre-industrial times” falsely implies that the earth’s temperature was constant in the past.

  3. ATTP entered the climate debate about two years ago and has spent most of his time arguing with ‘deniers’. He’s collaborated with the Skepticalscience gang on two abstracts and a paper in Nature with Sou Bundanga. So you cannot expect him to know these things.

  4. I don’t want to sound stupid, but I want to point out a fraction of the co2 in the atmosphere is continuously removed by natural mechanisms.

    As far as I can see, their ability to remove CO2 is a function of CO2 concentration, temperature, and time. But co2 concentration is the main factor.

    This makes me think CO2 concentration should stabilize or drop once emissions fall below say 45 % of a peak rate, whatever it is. . ..??

    • Fernando,

      Your comment is very astute. The deep oceans and biosphere were presumably in something close to steady state with the pre-industrial atmosphere. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, there is now a large net flux into those reservoirs, soaking up about half of what we are emitting. So if we cut emissions in half, we would roughly stabilize atmospheric CO2. Of course, as the reservoirs move towards a new steady state, the net uptake would decrease, so emissions would also have to steadily decrease if e want to maintain a balance. But it would take centuries to get to the point where anthropogenic emissions need to be zero, by which time we might have the technology to do it.

      Not that I am advocating zero net emissions any time soon. But it is likely to be technologically feasible.

  5. The only way to get human XO2 emissions to zero is to have zero humans.
    ATTP and the other climate kooks are xenocidal misanthropes.
    Not to mention incredibly, dangerously, ignorant.

  6. “And then there is physics…”

    It is inevitable…. in conversations about climate, someone always says, it is all about physics and it is, the models are mostly accurate, we just don’t know what variables to feed them.

    We have had automobile accident models for decades. We know the physics of collisions but we still cannot answer the question: “What is the repair bill for a small car when a big car hits it?”

    In these cases, the collision modeler would ask the obvious questions, “how much did each car weigh? How fast was each car going? What was the angle of collision? What was the year, make and model of the small car?”

    In climate science we don’t know the answer to any of these equivalent question but people still insist that ‘it is all about physics'” and somehow, magically, they know how much it is all going to cost – and more importantly, who is going to pay the bill.

  7. Tom

    If you take CET as being reasonably representative of the globe-as many scientists do- pre-industrial would include the cold period around 1680-700, so we have actually already achieved the 1.5C (lets not complicate things by pointing out the temperature is highly variable and that we have been warmer during the MWP, Roman, Minoan and Holocene optimum).

    My question to you is:

    Assuming we could get back to the pre industrial temperature (.i.e an era not tampered with by man) that everyone seems so keen on, what would be our power requirements? Far greater heating would be required to stave off the cold in our homes and businesses which would have a knock on effect with food production and transportation.

    I suspect that we couldn’t generate enough power using fossil fuels, let alone using renewables, (often cloudier and stiller conditions) to cope with the energy requirements of 7 billion people.


  8. “Does ATTP think temperatures were stable before humans began emitting CO2? Does he think that if we actually ceased emissions temperatures would no longer change?”

    I wouldn’t put it past him. Ken Rice is an egregiously ignorant person.

    Why did you ban him though, out of interest? I’m sure it was a good reason but from experience, I can’t imagine Rice’s comments doing any damage to anyone but himself, usually to the amusement of onlookers.

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