Climate Change Alarm is Needed and Climate Scientists Aren’t Sounding it Loud Enough

Alarmist. It’s a term climate change deniers seem to bandy about often, these days, as if ‘alarm’ were some kind of bad word. As if alarm weren’t needed or necessary. As if climate change, a primary vehicle for a range of horrors ranging from mass extinctions to catastrophic Earth changes, were some kind of carnival ride or a happy walk in the park.

But what if alarm is entirely called for? What if, for example, you’re standing in or near a river and a massive glacial melt lake up-stream has suddenly released and an immense torrent is now rushing toward you (as happened to thousands in India this year). Would you want the person on the hill near shore who sees the onrushing water to say in a calm, steady voice:

“Hey, you might want to get out. That water could rise a little.”

Or, even worse, would you want them to say, as the deniers would:

“It’s all good. The water’s just fine for swimming.”

Is either of these responses appropriate?

How about just shouting:

“Megaflood on the way! Get the hell out!!”

The IPCC is version #1. The oil company dupes and lackeys are version #2. As for version #3 …

A Call For Climate Change Urgency

One fundamental point a rational observer of the ongoing catastrophe that is human-caused climate change should always keep in mind is that scientists are, by nature and as a group, very conservative. It’s one reason why science, in general, is not a very good indicator of alarm to an emerging crisis. Science is constantly checking itself, is rightfully uncertain about the nature of truth, is constantly challenging its own assumptions. This refinement is a needed part of the improvement of human knowledge. But this process, often, creates a marked underestimation of potentially large-scale events.

Take the cases of sea level rise, Arctic sea ice melt, human CO2 emissions, and ice sheet response over the last 30 years. The combined report of consensus science represented by the IPCC has consistently underestimated rates of loss or increase for all of the above. In short, the best description of past IPCC reports on climate change, and their related forecasts, could be that they were, overall, conservative, muted, and mild when compared to the changes that are being observed now.

The IPCC’s reports are so muted, in fact, that they tend to leave us very vulnerable to what can best be termed as catastrophic events that are ever-more likely as the vicious and violent pace of human greenhouse gas forcing continues to progress. In prognostication of these potential events, the IPCC is an abject failure. It does not take into account the very high likelihood that, if you push the world climate to warm faster than it ever has before, and if you hit temperature increases of 2, 4, 6 degrees Celsius within 30, 50, 100 years that set off Heinrich Events, large Earth system carbon responses (catastrophic CO2 and methane release), rapid sea level rise, and ocean anoxia (dead oceans) in the past, then you are likely to get at least some of these events coming into play over the next 100 years. Yet the IPCC does not issue a report on overall ocean anoxia, or the potential risk for catastrophic ice sheet collapse, or what might result from a massive methane and carbon release from a very rapidly thawing Arctic that is now liberating a massive carbon store to such violent processes as Arctic heatwaves, a raging pace of sea level rise, or a great and explosive outburst of wildfires.

Should the IPCC issue such reports, it might warrant the observation that it had sounded an alarm. But, then, it would be sounding a needed and necessary warning, one that was entirely outside the pejorative ‘Alarmist’ deniers so recklessly bandy at any hint of warning to an obvious and dangerous set of events. One entirely pertinent to the current age of rapid fossil fuel burning and rates of warming that are 30 times faster than at the end of the last ice age.

Sometimes, alarm is what is needed and absolutely called for.

In short, the scientists should be screaming at us to:

“Get the hell out!”

***

Related Reading:

NASA Scientist James Hansen:

“I suggest that a `scientific reticence’ is inhibiting the communication of a threat of a potentially large sea level rise. Delay is dangerous because of system inertias that could create a situation with future sea level changes out of our control. I argue for calling together a panel of scientific leaders to hear evidence and issue a prompt plain-written report on current understanding of the sea level change issue.”

Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise

(Hat tip to Sourabh)

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48 Comments

  1. Robert,

    If you haven’t already read it, then you should read “Scientific reticence” by Jim Hansen. Just google it.

    Reply
    • Thanks for that, Sourabh. I’m pretty sure I’ve already read this one. But a refresher is probably worthwhile.

      Hope all is well with you.

      Reply
  2. Thanks for checking on me. I am fine. I just graduated with MS in sustainable engineering. I haven’t been able to find a job in sustainability. So, I returning to India in less than a month or so. So, my USA journey ends pretty soon. I will continue to follow all climate change news/blogs. I will apply for Phd programs next year though.

    This year has been an interesting year for climate change followers. Floods, droughts, heat waves. In my hometown in India, it rained almost twice the average, making it one of the rainiest year. For Arctic, its been an ‘interesting’ year. Despite bad/cool weather, we witnessed above average melt. We can only imagine what would happen if there is another year like 2007/2012. Btw, Jan-July 2013 has become sixth warmest period. Lets see what happens in next few months despite ENSO neutral phase.

    Reply
    • We should have far more sustainability related jobs here. I am very sorry to see that you’ve had such a hard experience. Our priorities seem to be all out of whack. This field and these efforts should be a top effort. I sincerely hope you find better opportunities in India and that we don’t see another year like 2007 or 2012 soon. Not hopeful, at the moment.

      Reply
  3. From the essay:

    Alarmist. It’s a word climate change deniers seem to bandy about often, these days, like it’s some kind of bad word. But what if alarm is entirely called for?…. Should the IPCC issue such reports, it might warrant the term ‘Alarmist.’ But, then, it would be sounding a needed and necessary alarm.

    I have seen it suggested before that deniers are turning “alarmist” into a pejorative term, and that people who are concerned about the consequences of climate change should actually be alarmists, since this means that they are raising a warranted alarm. But deniers aren’t putting a bad spin on the term. It isn’t even a matter of mere connotation. The term “alarmist” denotes the raising of unnecessary alarm.

    From Dictionary.com:

    a person who tends to raise alarms, especially without sufficient reason, as by exaggerating dangers or prophesying calamities.

    From the Free Online Dictionary:

    A person who needlessly alarms or attempts to alarm others, as by inventing or spreading false or exaggerated rumors of impending danger or catastrophe.

    From the Oxford English Dictionary:

    Alarmist – One addicted to raising alarms; hence, one who raises alarm on very slight grounds, or needlessly; a panic-monger.

    OED, Oxford University Press 1973 (Compact 2-vol desk edition)

    This negative denotation has been a part of the definition of the term since the 1800s. It is by definition a pejorative term. If you are raising rational, warranted alarm you are not being an alarmist.

    Reply
    • It’s alarm that they are turning into a pejorative by falsely accusing those who issue valid warnings of ‘alarmist’ activity. They are hushing the rational alarm response.

      I’ve edited my post to clarify this point. Thank you for the feedback.

      Reply
      • Agreed — there is plenty of cause for alarm In my view. Over the next few decades, particularly in terms of the drought, flooding, the weather whiplash between the two, and their effects upon the food supply.

  4. It’s a tricky issue. By nature, scientists prefer to keep their fields of study out of the political arena – and for good reasons. Unfortunately, two things have happened which pushed climate science into that vile domain of politics: 1) the actual consequences of climate change have made themselves urgent public policy concerns, 2) powerful corporate and ideological interests have built a highly effective propaganda machine to maintain the status quo by dividing public opinion.

    My biggest criticism is not directed toward researchers (who are just doing their jobs), but towards the leadership of the political left for not countering the right-wing misinformation campaign when they had the chance. Simply quoting scientific reports through the media and expecting the general population to rationally form a consensus was foolish at best and patently negligent at worst. The seriousness of climate change cannot be personally appreciated through instinct or intuition. Education is the only way to reach the poorly informed.

    Admittedly, a PSA-type strategy would have been difficult years ago (when it could have been successful) and it would be even more difficult today. But unless something alters the current political dynamic, energy and environmental policy will likely remain unchanged.

    Reply
    • I think you’re absolutely correct. We need to blast the airwaves with PSA type climate messaging. I also think that any moral human being, be it climate scientist or otherwise, has an obligation to raise a necessary level of alarm. I’m not blaming the scientists, I’m trying to help give them cover to tell the truth.

      Reply
  5. Nancy

     /  August 23, 2013

    A few months ago, Dr. George Woodwell of Woods Hole wrote an opinion piece directed to Pres Obama and the scientific community. He wrote that Obama…..”must call forcefully on the scientific community to speak to the conclusions our research has made clear.”

    “We are the only ones with that information. There is no other source. No one else can tell the public – or our politicians – about our worrisome state of affairs. No one else can warn society what we risk, or explain how this weird, unpredictable, extreme weather is just a foretaste of what is to come.”
    http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2013/06/opinion-obama-climate-crisis

    Reply
  6. Of course it’s pejorative. It’s argument ad hominem, pure and simple. It dispenses with the carry of the facts. http://achangeintheweather.com/2013/08/05/silly-me-the-climate-alarmist/

    Reply
    • Exactly.

      ….

      A bunch of deniers sit around the campfire with one scientist.

      A wolf walks by.

      The scientist:

      ‘I saw a large canine.’

      The deniers:

      ‘What do you mean? That was a rabbit.’

      Scientist:

      ‘Similar to a coyote, but quite a bit more mass.’

      Deniers:

      ‘There’s no such thing as a coyote.’

      Scientist:

      ‘I have some coyote bones right here. It’s tough to tell from initial observation, but the creature that just passed is nearly four times the mass.’

      Two wolves approach the campsite.

      Scientist:

      ‘See, there they are again.’

      Deniers:

      ‘Alarmist!’

      Reply
  7. Reblogged this on Climate Force.

    Reply
  8. As if watching the 6th great extinction event unfold before our eyes , requires a detached point of view.

    Reply
    • It doesn’t get much more personal, does it? Detachment and dehumanization is a big part of how we got to this pass, IMO.

      We need more scientists like Hansen, Francis, Ward, Wadhams, Mann … Willing to sound the alarm. I’m nose deep in scientific papers pertinent to what’s happening and once you penetrate the wall of jargon and qualifications it’s frankly terrifying.

      Reply
  9. Russia’s Far East braces for peak of floods, builds 9-meter-high dams
    The level of the Amur River in Russia’s flood-ravaged Far East hit 7.2 meters as it rose more in the past 24 hours. Over 50,000 people have been affected by the disaster called the most severe in 120 years – but meteorologists warn worse is yet to come.

    In less than a week the level of the Amur River is predicted to reach 7.8 meters. In the worst case scenario, by September, 3 it might measure over 8 meters with the maximum predicted level now at 8.8 meters.

    “Forecasters are expecting the floods to peak on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean that as soon as it reaches its peak it will start to fall. It will stay around for a while,” Denis Ilyinov from the emergency services in Khabarovsk said.
    http://rt.com/news/flooding-peak-far-east-944/

    Reply
  10. Check out the mouth of the Amur River , where at this is going to discharge :
    http://huntingtonarchive.osu.edu/resources/images/maps/detailed/amurRiverRegion.png

    Reply
  11. Speaking of extreme rain events , 6 days ago Manila got creamed yet again . It usually takes a week for the numbers for these things to filter out , I found this report today -

    MANILA (2nd UPDATE) – As much as 600 millimeters of rain fell on Manila Bay on August 18, a new record high, according to scientists.
    http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/metro-manila/08/19/13/record-high-rainfall-swamps-southern-metro-manila

    This record was set without a cyclone hitting Manila.

    Reply
    • Interaction of monsoonal flow with TS Trami. But such heavy, record rain for a glancing blow is unprecedented.

      Reply
      • After the wettest July ever recorded in Florida, the Army Corps of Engineers is battling to draw down the level of Lake Okeechobee before the September peak of the rainy season. The huge lake represents an important source of fresh water to South Florida, but also poses a grave danger. The 25 – 30′-tall, 143-mile long Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake was built in the 1930s out of gravel, rock, limestone, sand, and shell using old engineering methods. The dike is tall enough that it cannot be overtopped by a storm surge from anything but an extreme hurricane, but the dike is vulnerable to leaking and failure when heavy rains bring high water levels to the lake. The Army Corps of Engineers is scrambling to complete a $300 million upgrade to the dike to reduce the chances of such a failure. However, those repairs are not scheduled to be completed until 2018, and the Corps is warning that the Lake Okeechobee dike is in danger of failure this year should heavy rains from a tropical storm or hurricane raise the lake level and put high stresses on the old dike. A 2011 risk assessment estimated the dike’s probable failure rate at every fourteen years. A 2008 Army Corp of Engineers study said this about the vulnerable dike:
        http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/article.html?entrynum=2499

      • Ouch.

        The Jet has been stuck in trough configuration for months now. The US SE has seen the rainfall equivalent of multiple tropical systems while only being impacted by one thus far. A single system could be catastrophic — a billion + impact. But if that dike fails, you’re looking at the potential for a Sandy-scale event.

      • The 25 – 30′-tall, 143-mile long Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake was built in the 1930s out of gravel, rock, limestone, sand, and shell using old engineering methods.

  12. RS -
    Kevin Trenberth’s work deals with the oceans , and water vapor coming off them in a warming world . He said this :
    “For every 1C degree rise in Sea Surface Temperatures the atmosphere carries & 7% more water vapor . ”
    Extreme precipitation events will in crease in a warming world , this means rain, freezing rain , hail, sleet, and snow.

    I’ve been watching the hail component of this , either baseball, or pea size . They are on the increase as well . The baseball storms now go 55,000 to 60,000 feet. I see this as heat going all the way to the poles to melt ice.

    Heat seeks cold , it needs a condenser, I am sure that this is our new climate , whenever a rain storm wants to go to the very top of troposphere to release it’s heat, once that pipeline gets started the heat in the water vapor at the surface will flow in at ever greater speeds.

    I went to the Dinosaur Monument once , there in the bend of a long dead river, dozens of dead animals were washed-up on the bank. I’ve been thinking about the flood that did that ever since. In that world , softball hail was very common , and rain drops were the size of pigeon eggs.

    Reply
  13. Masters post at Newsvine -

    Studiusbaguscommented 26 minutes ago

    We just came back from the lake and saw this. The lake was in rough shape, the boat ramp was unusable due to the water plants clogging the ramp all the way up to the access road. The grasses were all dead from being overwhelmed by water.

    Just off the water is a dirt access road and just above that a paved road, then the dike. The access road was 1/2 covered in water. I have lived in Okeechobee for about 7 years and have never seen it this high, even after the storms and hurricanes.

    There is a bunch of complaining from the surrounding communities about the water quality being run off. Fish are dying, crustaceans are being effected, hotels are losing money, guides are getting cancelled left and right and the fishing is horrible at the lake.

    We’re lucky to be at the very north end of the lake, I can just imagine what my neighbors south and west of me are enduring….
    http://coloradobob1.newsvine.com/_news/2013/08/24/20172225-the-battle-to-draw-down-lake-okeechobee#threadId3801030-lastNewId1

    Reply
  14. It`s Not Easy – The Rolling Stones

    Reply
  15. Greetings–Being a geologist myself, semi-retired, I thoroughly enjoy your commentaries. Well written and lacking the verbiage of a troll. Much appreciated. What we face in global warming, in my opinion, demands a response equivalent to, or greater than, our efforts in World War II. Coupled with an ominous population overgrowth, the challenge must be met internationally. Rather than giving up, now is our chance to correct some serious misconceptions in business-as-usual. May it be.

    Reply
    • Couldn’t agree more, Donald. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I worked at Janes first to help translate USAMRIID science into a chem-bio response guide, then to clarify the science, policy, and technological solutions/problems related to a number of emerging threats. My previous experience was as a military intel analyst.

      My opinion, reading these science reports and continuing to observe strange and highly anomalous weather, is that we need to speak very plainly and directly about climate change to provide clear warning. I think that a far larger campaign, in the form of a public information campaign, is needed from various political bodies to inform the public. I also think that scientists should not be intimidated by climate change deniers and should not allow such groups to make them even more reticent and conservative than they already are.

      Last of all, I’d like to help shine a light on that portion of the science that has identified, what appears to me, to be a number of very clear and present dangers with regards to climate science.

      It does seem, now and then, that I attract a number of subtle trolls who seem to be bent on coloring my views toward science or toward other victims of a broad disinformation and abuse campaign that has been so hurtful. This political policy of attacking the victims has, to me, seemed rather insidious and is very difficult to identify, at first, as it tends to feed into emotions that necessarily run high at the time.

      My view is that responsibility rests clearly, not on a vast number of captive consumers who have had their choices limited by business and government policy, but on those with the wealth and/or political power to generate that policy. Leadership is critical and, right now, I believe that we are being led in the wrong direction.

      It is sad that the scientists are being put in a position of dire responsibility due to this failure of political leadership. But, here we are. And since many among them are closest to the information that needs to get out in a clear, unclouded manner, then, in absence of real leadership, they can play that role by sounding a clear warning.

      Unfortunately, this opens them to attack — both by agencies and individuals outside of the science and by persons within the science who, inevitably, may be corrupted by the political nature of the conflict or whose already conservative views may easily be co-opted.

      This is a bad situation. But absent real leadership, I’m at a loss as to what else can be done. We are in dire need of the response you describe. But for it to happen, we need effective communication and understanding.

      Best to you, Donald, and thank you again.

      Reply
  16. Steve

     /  August 26, 2013

    Despite everything we see going on, people tend to get confused by how media outlets are handling the coverage of climate change. Recently here in the Chicago area, several outlets have decided to jump on the band wagon that things aren’t warming up recently as fast as it was 10 years ago. “So can we really know what’s going on?” No mention of the recent weather in China, Russia, or even the death of dolphins around these parts!

    Reply
  17. I am sounding ‘alarm’ on climate change for +8 years now. I am alarmingly ignored. Presumably, I am doing something wrong!

    Best,

    Alex

    Reply
  18. Liam

     /  August 27, 2013

    With respect & without demeaning the outstanding work done by many in your field .. I think scientists need to realise that they have been bought, and get unbought. The pay & privelidges of successful scientists are available only to those who play nice & follow the rules, habits of respectability which can be so ingrained as to be invisible.

    Another way to put it is stop being merely symbolic (words/papers/statements) and get material & physical: withdraw your labour, demonstrate, boycott, picket & blockade. Yes, capitalism can manage without climatologists, but not without the many allied technical trades that should in solidarity & in their own & all our interests follow your leadership & join in direct action.

    The science case & moral cause are unarguable, the lack of progress is due to middle class loyalty to the delusion that symbolic action changes anything – it doesn’t, never has, never will.

    Reply

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