The Uncertainties of The New York Times

Andrew Revkin, NY Times go to climate guy is speaking this Tuesday evening at the University of Vermont’s Campus Center Theater. For a preview Joshua Brown of UVM spoke with Revkin on February 27th. I’ve been going back and forth whether to post about this but I just need to know, does anyone else out there find this exchange peculiar?

UVM: As a reporter, you talk to a lot of experts and researchers. What do you see as the most important unanswered questions about the science of climate change?

Revkin: The big one remains the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gas build-up. We still don’t know if doubling carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will lead to a one-and-a-half-degree or four-and-half-degree warming. That’s a huge range with hugely different consequences.

And it’s about the same range it was thirty years ago. There are many uncertainties, like what clouds do and what vapor does. It’s not game over in terms of the science by any means.

UPDATE: Joshua Brown let me know that there was a formatting issue in his original post and this below was a separate question and answer. Which negates the text below now shown with strikeouts. (Thankfully Mr. Revkin isn’t entertaining the ice is growing argument!)

UVM: I saw papers in Science, one in 2005, one in 2006, and then one recently in Nature Geosciences, that seemed to be pointing in all sorts of directions about the Antarctic ice sheet. Is it growing or shrinking?

Revkin: In a warming world, Greenland and Antarctica will lose ice. In Greenland, sea levels were four to six meters higher 130,000 years ago during the last warm interval between ice ages, so we know warmer times had less ice and higher seas, but we don’t know how quickly that will happen. And that’s where, again, you get into very high levels of uncertainty in the science.

There’s been some attempt by some activists out there to portray everything as a closed case: “we’re in a disaster zone and it’s unfolding a clear way.” That really doesn’t hold up to the data. But climate change is real.

It left me saying yeah, okay….but, but, something’s wrong with this picture. It felt like he answered the question in a straight-up way but maybe the way our President would – somehow emphasizing the obvious, or the “unknowns” (that’s Rumsfeld, sorry) and throwing in a straw man. It left me unsettled. Maybe this was a little “throw away” interview. Maybe it’s transcribed wrong. Maybe Revkin misspoke. But something’s up.

UPDATE: I was pointed to an excellent post by Joe Romm on this very sort of thing – but in a larger frame. Which leaves me to ask why does Mr. Revkin keep making the same mistake? Which leads me to sarcastically note that the UVM interview was the week before the denier’s convention in NY – so maybe Mr. Revkin was just warming up? Anyway….

Then I started at the end and worked backward.

There’s been some attempt by some activists out there to portray everything as a closed case: “we’re in a disaster zone and it’s unfolding a clear way.” That really doesn’t hold up to the data. But climate change is real.

I realize we’re supposed to be talking about the uncertainties here given the question, but isn’t this a straw man argument? I’m not aware of anyone outside of James Lovelock that is saying this is a closed case toward apocalypse – do you? There are parts of the science that are debatable and parts that are not. Given what we know now, it would be interesting to ask Mr. Revkin to draw the line between the two.

-And let’s draw a line in the ice:-

-I- -saw- -papers- -in Science,- -one in 2005, one in 2006,- -and then one recently in Nature Geosciences, – -that seemed to be pointing in all sorts of directions about the Antarctic ice sheet.- -Is it growing or shrinking? In a warming world, Greenland and Antarctica will lose ice.- -In Greenland, sea levels were four to six meters higher 130,000 years ago during the last warm interval between ice ages, so we know warmer times had less ice and higher seas, but we don’t know how quickly that will happen.- -And that’s where, again, you get into very high levels of uncertainty in the science.-

-Again, this was a question about uncertainty I admit – -but…is Mr. Revkin implying there is a legitimate debate now about whether the ice sheets are losing mass due to global warming?-

Then the sensitivity unknowns:

The big one remains the sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gas build-up. We still don’t know if doubling carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will lead to a one-and-a-half-degree or four-and-half-degree warming. That’s a huge range with hugely different consequences.

And it’s about the same range it was thirty years ago. There are many uncertainties, like what clouds do and what vapor does. It’s not game over in terms of the science by any means.

Let me start with the clouds. Like much of climate science unfortunately, when there are options to resolve a question it seems more often than not it is turning out to be the worse one. It’s true clouds are still an uncertainty but the uncertainty is being lessened – in an unfortunate direction. As bluntly summarized in a February article in Science:

Greenhouse gases can directly reduce cloud cover and magnify warming.

Finally on climate sensitivity. I’m not sure if Mr. Revkin misspoke or not. But it’s my understanding that a doubling of CO2 to approximately 450ppm is generally believed to give us a 3 degree (celsius) rise. I’m not sure where the 1.5 number is coming from as it is generally understood that we are locked into at least that much right now. So it seems to me like another set of straw men. But why? Yes, he’s been prompted to talk about uncertainty, but why then throw out there that there is “a huge range of consequences.” ? It seems like another throw away line. Yes there is debate about climate sensitivity. But again the uncertainty is getting better defined, and again in the worst possible way. Jim Hansen last December revised his estimate to 350ppm as the tipping point of CO2 from 400 earlier in the year and from this mythic 450ppm number Mr. Revkin offhandedly speaks of. But there’s no context of this trending in Mr. Revkin’s analysis.

Which brings me to my overall discomfort with Mr. Revkin’s answers and why I feel compelled to post on this incidental interview. Because it betrays to me a detached gentlemanly game that is being played in the media regarding climate change. It’s like Mr. Revkin put on his Tim Russert hat and decides the best way to speak to the public is in a “he said, she said”. News flash: “he said, she said” does not inherently make uncertainty. Ironically it’s my sense that the scientists don’t share this detachment or overgeneralized uncertainty but unfortunately are constitutionally built to be reticent. Asked to expound on the primary uncertainties of climate change, the preeminent authority of the NY Times leaves one wondering if there’s any there there at all – despite his disclaimer at the end that it does really exist. If I want to have a New York Times writer treat me like he thinks I’m dim I’ll read John Tierney. Mr. Revkin, please don’t do this.

I guess for me it’s a matter of emphasis. What if the same sort of items were discussed like this:

Make Believe Revkin: Well yes, climate sensitivity is a big question at this time. We once thought it might be possible to safely double the CO2 levels but now it appears that we’ve already passed the tipping point. Once we have more precise knowledge of the sensitivity we’ll know whether it’ll be possible to stop just short of 2 degrees temperature rise and face “just” widespread drought, tens of millions of lives at risk and 20% to 30% species die-back; or whether it will approach 3 degrees rise (a more likely scenario given our lack of will to reduce emissions) where we’ll face hundreds of millions of lives at risk, accelerated ocean rise and “major” species extinctions around the world. Or who knows it could go to 4 degrees and the world basically stops being recognizable.

Yes there certainly are uncertainties.

I suggest that it would help a great deal if we could edit down to the truly meaningful uncertainties and place them in a trending context.

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6 Responses to “The Uncertainties of The New York Times”

  1. RPauli Says:

    It is difficult to segregate these discussions.

    Science can describe the problem but Politics has to fix it. And economics wlll be in there too.. .but only physics changes the science.

    The delusional bias we all hold is that we cannot yet imagine a political and economic world that is scientifically sustainable. Of course we CAN reach ZERO CO2 output,,, but not in any pretty, comfortable way.

    Poor Revkin, talking science, for a newspaper supported mostly by carbon business interests, to an audience that is mostly unwilling to look directly at the problem. Wealth is a form of reality insulation.

  2. Kiashu Says:

    Again, you just have to choose whose warnings you’ll follow. Do you go for the 1,000 who say X, the 5 who say X+1, or the 5 who say X-1? I’m inclined to go for the 1,000 in the middle.

    I don’t see that it matters much, anyway. Looking at dot-Earth, where denialists spring up after each post like mushrooms after rain, we see in a recent article that Hansen says we need to get back to 350ppm. Alright, fine: how?

    Hansen may be right, but I don’t see how we’d achieve his goals. We’re past 350ppm already, so it’s not even being “carbon zero” but instead “carbon negative”.

    I was writing recently about can we be zero carbon?, and I don’t really see how we can do it. That’s because the the breakdown of emissions contributions is,

    Fossil fuels, 56.6%
    Deforestation, 17.3%
    CH4, livestock, 14.3%
    N2O, fertiliser, 7.9%
    Cement & chemicals, 2.8%
    CFCs, 1.1%

    So take out fossil fuels and you’re left with 43.4%. I suppose you could take out the fertiliser and make all the livestock free-range so they don’t fart so much, and finally ban properly all the CFCs, but we’re still left with basically a fifth of current emissions.

    It’s that deforestation that’s really a problem. I mean, we in the West can halve our electricity consumption tomorrow, and use the money saved to build heaps of renewable energy, and we’ve cut down as much of our forests as we’re willing to. But most of the world’s deforestation is in the Third World, for timber for housing, land-clearing for agriculture and for growing biofuels for the EU and US. The Third Worlder is clearing forests for basic survival.

    So I don’t see how we’ll stop that land-clearing, still less how we’d reverse it. Current world efforts at stopping illegal logging have been dismal failures – between big money and corruption at high levels, and poverty and desperate at the bottom, it goes on unabated.

    I’d love to see it, but I don’t see how it could happen.

    I think stabilising at 450ppm is a more realistic goal. That it should be lower is not in doubt. But I don’t see how.

  3. kenlevenson Says:

    I think Hansen’s warnings are completely rational given the data and therefore he’s not an alarmist even if what he’s saying is alarming. Sometimes the theater is on fire. As for the IPCC, it’s my understanding that while a good baseline consensus perhaps – it is widely considered by scientists as a thoroughly watered-down political document as much as a scientific one. Lovelock’s an alarmist – but as we move forward even he seems less and less of one – and that’s beyond alarming.

  4. Kiashu Says:

    Hansen is certainly an “alarmist” – he wants to raise an alarm, to make people rush to action, and so on. If by “not an alarmist” you mean, “he is speaking the truth”, that remains to be seen.

    He’s predicting the future, and his predictions are the most pessimistic of anyone actually with any scientific qualifications. Things may turn out to be as bad as he thinks, they may be worse, or better.

    I think it fair to base public policy on the consensus position, such as expressed by the IPCC. 177 different scenarios presented by something over 1,000 extremely well-qualified people, I consider that to outweigh a few people saying, “doom!” or “what are they worried about.” Public policy has to look at the consensus and the sensible mean.

    Swearing at people certainly isn’t an argument, but it serves to dismiss those who are utterly unworthy of being talked to. There’s a bit too much tolerance in these discussions. If someone comes to me and talks about the world being flat, I don’t bother debating him or explaining in detail why he’s wrong. Likewise, if someone comes to me and denies human-caused climate change, I don’t bother debating him, either (it’s always a “him”, women seem to avoid this kind of deliberate stupidity). It’d just be endless, we’d never get anywhere.

    At some point we just have to accept certain things as given so we can move on and do something productive. In order to do that, sometimes we have to – whatever words we choose to use – tell people to just fuck off. Discuss these issues with people online for another couple of years and you’ll see why I say that :)

  5. kenlevenson Says:

    Thanks for the heads up on the formatting – I’m still trying to get the hang of this!

    Anyway, Jim Hansen is still at NASA running Goddard. And he is most certainly not an “alarmist” – he’s a totally level headed realist. He just happens to inhabit a world that currently believes in “alternate realities”. I agree Revkin will be attacked no matter what he does – which is why it makes no sense that he isn’t more careful to do what’s needed now. Typically I don’t find swearing at people you disagree with an effective argument – so I’m quite glad Revkin doesn’t have the option.

  6. Kiashu Says:

    You need to fix up your quoting, it’s unclear in parts where you’re quoting and where responding.

    Regarding Revkin’s comments, I had a similar problem over at The Oil Drum, where two of the staff gave interviews. It’s a question of emphasis. In this case, there are two things, both true,

    1) we are certain that pumping out extra CO2, etc, will affect the climate, and the more we pump out, the more the effect will be, and
    2) but we’re not certain of the exact effects with the exact amount, because it’s a complex problem

    If you overemphasise #1, you’re an alarmist; if you overemphasise #2, you’re a denier.

    Regarding CO2 rise, the IPCC is the organisation which is supposed to give us the consensus. You can see their latest report here. On the summary for policymakers, p21 has Table SPM6. There are summarised 177 different scenarios, put into ranges of “more carbon, more serious consequences”. Scenario groups I, II and III have total emissions being lower or equal to 2000 levels by 2050, and groups IV, V and VI have them being higher.

    The most optimistic scenarios (only 6 of the 177) give CO2 stablisation at 350-400ppm (in 2004, it was 379ppm), and CO2-equivalent (all greenhouse gases plus aerosols; in 2004 it was 374ppm) of 445-490; this requires a reduction by 2050 of total emissions by 50-85%, and gives us an eventual temperature rise of 2-2.4C.

    Note in there I spoke of CO2 in the atmosphere, and then all greenhouse contributors. It’d be possible to burn nothing to produce CO2 and yet still emit lots of greenhouse gases, methane from livestock, methane from landfills, methane and CO2 from cutting down forests, CFCs from refrigerants and extinguishers, and so on. And aerosols matter, basically soot from burning stuff. Aerosols have a cooling effect on the climate, but it’s temporary, soot drifts down after a bit.

    Likewise, it’d be possible to emit lots of CO2 by burning fossil fuels, and yet have no other greenhouse contributions, no livestock or rubbish or CFCs, etc.

    So the scientists give two figures, CO2 in the atmosphere, and net greenhouse effect in CO2 terms. Usually people confuse the two. Usually this doesn’t matter because they’re pretty close, and the same sorts of societies who emit a lot of CO2 also emit a lot of other greenhouse gases. But the distinction is important when we’re talking about scenarios of what’ll happen fifty or a hundred years from now, because the two figures start to diverge as more and more countries have lots of livestock, cut down forests, and so on.

    For example, taking the 450ppm figure, if they mean “total greenhouse gases”, then that’s just the “I” group of scenarios, with eventual temperature rise of 2-2.4C. But if they mean “just CO2”, that’s the “III” group of scenarios, with eventual rise of 2.8-3.2C.

    So much for the IPCC report. The thing is that the IPCC conducts no original research, it just takes the consensus of many different studies and scenarios done by others. This combined with most scientists’ natural reluctance to stick their necks out and make bold predictions makes the IPCC consensus position rather conservative; it errs on the side of saying, “not much will happen.”

    For example, a footnote to Table SPM6 says, “The emission reductions to meet a particular stabilization level reported in the mitigation studies assessed here might be underestimated due to missing carbon cycle feedbacks”.

    That is, “because we’re putting more into carbon sinks than they can handle, we might overwhelm them, and then more stays in the atmosphere, and then we’re fucked.” It’s the equivalent of looking at a man drinking, and trying to figure out how drunk he’ll be after so many drinks, but without accounting for the damage to his liver over many years.

    For example, the oceans are the major sink of CO2. But there’s only so much we can put in there. It’s like when you dissolve sugar in water, if you keep adding sugar eventually it stops dissolving and sits in a sludge on the bottom. A gas can’t sit as a sludge, so instead it just doesn’t dissolve. There’s a limit to how much CO2 the oceans can absorb.

    And of course, as the oceans warm, they’ll be able to absorb less still. Take some lemonade and heat it in a pot – after a short time, the lemonade will be flat; as water warms, it releases any gases dissolved in it. So as climate change gives us warmer oceans, less CO2 will be absorbed, and indeed some might be released.

    But this carbon cycle of oceans is not well-understood. Or rather, it’s understood qualitatively but not quantatively, they don’t have hard numbers for it all. So they just ignore it in their scenarios, and then put a footnote saying they ignored it.

    So Revkin’s speaking truthfully when he says there’s a lot of uncertainty about the scenarios. However, all of the uncertainty trends in the direction of “things are worse than we thought.” The scenarios the IPCC reviews can then be thought of as best-case scenarios. “It could be different, but it could only be worse. We’re just saying, we’ll get at least this much change.”

    The criticism of the IPCC has been to say that they’ve been too conservative and underestimated the scale of the problem; again this misunderstands the purpose of the IPCC which is not to do its own research, but to review the research of others and summarise it. “This is what people are saying, so here’s your information you can make decisions with.”

    Lovelock’s not the only one saying that things could be much worse than we commonly think. Revkin is probably thinking of James Hansen, formerly of NASA, who has been running around lately saying we’re all doomed, and were doomed at 350ppm of CO2. There are a few others like him. Revkin is probably also influenced by having a lot of discussions on the internet; amongst all the blather, extreme opinions really stand out and make an impression, and who it was expressing those opinions tends to get blurry.

    Overall I think it’s a question of emphasis, whether you prefer to swing more to the “she’ll be right, mate” side or the “oh my fucking god DOOM!” side. Revkin writes for a major newspaper, so is naturally inclined not to rock the boat. Whatever he says, he gets attacked in comments on his blog and elsewhere; the stronger an opinion he expresses either way, the more he’ll be attacked.

    On my blog I can just say, “you are a fuckstick, go away”. He can’t do that.

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