I sense a subtle but important change of emphasis in the ICC reports on climate change that I think was evident in this “Deep Dive: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate” I attended today. There was plenty of gloom about the projections of the future, and there is plenty to be gloomy about. The earth is warming at a rate unprecedented in human history. Oceans are rising both from thermal expansion of the water and lately from the melting of terrestrial glaciers (melting of sea ice does not raise sea levels) and there is danger that the Antarctic ice sheets could join in, something not previously anticipated in this century. The change in emphasis that I perceived is a more practical approach. There is more emphasis on trying to figure out what we can do, both to mitigate and adapt, and less of ultimately fruitless search for blame in the past.
An iterative process is making the science better
An important factor, IMO, is that projections are becoming more precise. Science is an iterative process and with each iteration we get better, never finding final truth but getting closer to usable ones.
Introducing the day’s program was Ambassador David Balton, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center and Pete Ogden, Vice President for Energy, Climate, and the Environment, United Nations Foundation. They laid out some of the facts I mentioned above and talked about the value of the new report. This is the first one to emphasis oceans and the cryosphere. These two were put into the same category more as an expedient than a plan, but their pairing was fortunate, since they are intimately connected. Water flows between them. Ogden talked about the usefulness of IPCC reports. The scientists do not make policy, but they inform it.
How the IPCC report function works
Ko Barrett, Vice Chair of the IPCC, talked about how the IPCC reports are produced. This one involved 104 authors combining 6981 studies and encompassing 31,176 comments. The report documents the thawing of glaciers and permafrost. Barrett explained that changes are coming too fast of natural systems to adapt. Humans can help, and we will need to adapt, but we need to mitigate change to slow it down enough that we can adapt. The oceans have been absorbing much of the heat of climate change, but marine ecosystems have been harmed (consider bleaching of coral) and there is a question about how long this can continue. Things often do not develop uniformly. Rather, natural systems feature punctuated equilibriums with tipping points of significant change. This is a risk.
Timely, ambitious and coordinated action are called for. In high mountains melting is evident. Smaller glaciers are shrinking, and some are disappearing. Glaciers and snow cover are reservoirs. Even if we limit greenhouse gas today, ¼ permafrost will be lost. This is already affecting arctic populations. Many low-lying islands will be under water.
She mentioned something I had not thought about – oceanic heat waves. Of course, it makes sense. Oceans have weather just like the land does. And the extremes are the issue, not the average.
The quicker and better we act, the better we will be able to address the issue
Next up was a panel discussion moderated by Monica Medina, Founder and Publisher, Our Daily Planet. First to present was Mark Eakin, IPCC Contributing Author. He talked about oceanic heat waves that cause coral bleaching. There have been three big bleaching events in recent years: 1998, 2010 and a long one 2014-17. The distressing fact is that this is still going on. Once coral ecosystems are dead, they take a long time to come back, even if the heat is abated. We are currently looking at big bleaching events around Hawaii and the Caribbean.
Robert DeConto, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; IPCC Lead Author, talked about his part of the report showing a set of charts, showing projections based on a low possibility, a blue curve with aggressive curbing of emissions, and a higher one, a red curve if current trends continue. We – and the world – probably can adapt to the blue line, red maybe not.
Sea level rises – thermal expansion and melting of terrestrial glaciers
There has been a change in why sea levels are rising. In the past, it was thermal expansion. Now it is more land-based melting. Greenland is melting from the top down. As it melts, it gets darker and absorbs more heat. There is more than 7 meters of sea level rise worth of ice in Greenland. An even bigger problem would be Antarctica. The danger here is sea level rise and the sea getting under the ice. Much of Antarctica is below sea level. It has been in the deep freeze, so it did not matter, but if water gets below the ice, it will be a bigger deal.
Adaptations requires mitigation, not a choice between them
Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University; IPCC Coordinating Lead Author, picked up with what can we humans do about the problem. The big thing is to reduce emissions so that we are closer to the blue line. We might have a chance to catch up with this, to adapt.
Adaptation will include retreating from the coasts and allowing for natural buffers. There have been buyouts after hurricanes. Those who do not want to move away might build higher off the ground. We can also build protections, like sea walls. We can even advance into the sea, as they have in Netherlands. But a precondition for any adaptation is to mitigate.
Mr. Oppenheimer was very critical of subsidized flood insurance. This encourages building where it otherwise makes no sense. This is exacerbated by incentives that do not include preparations. The Federal government will help after a disaster, but fixing the system gets politicians no credit. People forget the last disaster and they don’t appreciate the disaster avoided.
During the question period, Mr. Oppenheimer talked about adaptation. Some of our coastal problems are exacerbated by climate change, but climate change is not the primary driver. Conservation of coastal areas in ecosystems like salt marshes and mangroves could be very helpful. These systems are themselves adaptive. It is an ecosystem-based defense. But we tend to destroy these things as much as protect them.
Developments in the high arctic
There was supposed to be a second panel, but evidently the only one to show up was Ambassador Kåre R. Aas, Ambassador to the United States, Norway, so Moderator: Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center, interviewed him. Ambassador Aas gave practical advice. We cannot solve all the problems at the same time, and so need first to address the worst or the ones that pay off the most. Fix the problem not the blame. Norway is working toward a no net carbon future, but in the meantime is a big producer of oil and gas. The Ambassador emphasized that using gas is better than coal, even if the long-term goal is to use neither.
The thawing arctic is opening up new opportunities and challenges. Shipping is become easier in the region. The Arctic Ocean is a kind of frozen Mediterranean Sea. If it thaws, ships can move. Resources are also an issue if the deep freeze thaws. The Norwegians are watching with some alarm the Russians on the Kola Peninsula. This is an old concern, made more current by climate change. But the Ambassador has observed that many people feel more threatened by the Chinese than by the Russians. China is no where near an arctic power, but they have strong interests in the region’s resources.
Ambassador Balton and Rafe Pomerance, Chair, Arctic 21, closed the program. Mr. Pomerance emphasized the need to get lots of people onboard, to build consensus. These are big issues that affect everybody. Solutions imposed, even if they are objectively sublime, will not be as effective as those brought about by consensus.
All things considered, an interesting discussion, encouraging despite the gloom of many of the facts. We have to continue our striving.