Many journalists have penned exaggerated, click baity but inaccurate articles about the IPCC report on climate change. One of the worst is the one published in the NY Times. It doesn’t have that many out and out mistakes, but it is a highly respected source, and so its mistakes, particularly the confusion of carbon costs and carbon pricing, and not being clear about what happens in 2040, in 2075 or 2100, confused many people.
Journalists - please take especial care when you cover scenarios that scare people such as climate change. I am contacted by so many people who are panicking over your stories and saying to me “Does this mean I will die” and they are scared they are going to die by some particular future date mentioned in these articles, from climate change, because of misleading inaccurate stories.
- Co-chairs key points
- Press conference
- Debunking the NYTimes
- Close look at corals from chapter 3 of the report
- Paris agreement pledges designed to ramp up - never intended acros the board 1.5 °C pledges from the get go
- What happens in the US
- What happens in poorer countries - example of Bangladesh
- What about the increasing greenhouse gases
- Do comment
- Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears
A good way to get started on it is to hear these short summaries by each of the key speakers in the press conference by the co-chairs.
Debra Roberts on how we can each do something - about the choices we make in our lives:
The report talks about four transitions the word has to through in terms of energy, land, cities, and industry. And that’s a really empowering message because it means that each one of us as individuals can make choices about the energy we use to move through our lives, about dietary choices that impact on land use. It tells us that each of us can change the way we interact with the world’s cities, through the transport we choose to go to work and to play, It also talks to us that we have power as consumers, in terms of directing where industry goes, and goods are manufactured. So overall, a real call to action
Jim Skea on the key message that it is possible to stay within 1.5 °C and it is now over to the politicians (who will be meeting in December in Poland for their next meeting)
“The key message is that we can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees °C. It is possible within the laws of physics and chemistry. But it will require huge transitions in all sorts of systems, energy, land, transportation, but what the report has done is to send out a clear message to the governments that it is physically possible, it is now up to them to decide whether they want to take up the challenge.”
Human activity has already caused 1 degree °C of warming above preindustrial. At the current rate of warming, the world will reach 1.5C of warming in between 2030 and 2052.
Priyardarshi Shukla on how sustainable development is the key
The question is how the world can become more sustainable. That sustainability can be an anchor for the climate change instead of the climate change is a kind of hindrance to sustainable development.
So I think there is a very positive of this report which is reversing the direction between climate change and sustainable development compared to making the climate change a kind of handicap to sustainable development
We were invited to prepare this report three years ago because there was not enough knowledge of the subtle differences between 1.5 °C and 2 °C. And I am impressed by the amount of new knowledge. 6000 publications assessed in the report. And what comes out is a clear benefit from limiting warming to 1.5 °C compared to 2 °C to avoid multiple risks. And I want to stress risks associated with heat waves, heavy rainfall and drought in many regions.
Then, you can also watch their press conference for a good overview of the situation:
If you want to go into technical details then you can read the summary for policy makers. It is very technical but watching the videos helps makes it a bit easier to read. Then if you have time and can stomach an even more technical but very detailed read, there’s the report itself. IPCC - SR15
What it is basically is a round up of all the research into climate change for the last few years. The IPCC doesn’t do any research itself. Instead it looks at thousands of papers, 6000 for this last report, reviews them, assesses the various conclusions for how much confidence there is in them, and then builds this up to an overall picture for politicians, policy makers and the general public. That’s their job.
So what did it actually say? I will take the NY Times article as an example. Their article is here:
The NYTines is normally reasonably reputable. But they don't seem to have much by way of oversight / fact checking of their science reports as they do have occasional major blunders.
An example was when they made a major blunder describing some research about the previous eruption of Yellowstone. They claimed that the scientists had shown that Yellowstone might erupt in our lifetimes.Actually, their research was absoluely nothing to do with the current state of the Yellowstone volcano which is completely different from what it was like during the period they studied. It is currently not in a suitable state for a supervolcano eruption. Many other papers copied the NYTimes and many added exaggerations of their own to it. One of the authors of the paper himself a link to the e. But the NYTimes to this day has not issued a correction of this, just a minor correction of detail,don't explain to their readers that the entire premise of the article is incorrect. See my
This one wasn't as bad as that, but it did have a few major bloopers in it.
I will take a few quotes from the article and add more background information and correct mistakes in them:
The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.
The report, … describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.
This is half-true.
The bit about corals is true. There is a lot of lag in the system so many of the other effects take time. For instance the sea also has to warm up and some of the ice in Greenland and Western Antarctica has to melt and water and ice have a high latent heat and all of that takes time, it just can't happen overnight no matter how much CO2 we release. The sea level rises they talk about are for 2100. The sea is currently rising about 3 mm per year.
Also - it talks about reduced crop yields, but do bear in mind we have food surpluses worldwide, and year on year food security is increasing.
Yes it is true, at the current warming rate we reach 1.5 °C a5 2040, possibly a few years sooner or later and 2 °C at 2065
The worst impacts are on corals, because they are especially sensitive to temperatures, are used to living in oceans with a very steady temperature year round in the tropics, and they can't move easily because they need to build up an entire coral reef, which takes ages, before they can settle at a new latitude. They are also vulnerable to storms,which are stronger in a warming world, and their structures are weakened by the less alkaline water we are getting as the carbon dioxide dissolves into it.
So, let’s look a bit closer at the corals, which take up large chunks of chapter 3 of the report.
Under 1.5 °C, 90% of the corals die by 2040 or whenever it reaches 1.5 °C. However the remaining 10% can adapt to the warmer conditions. They can also migrate to cooler parts. There are already reports of coral organisms turning up in places where it is normally too cool for them. The problem is it takes a long time to build a new coral reef. The slightly more acidic water also makes it a bit harder for them to repair and grow.
(Here I say "more acidic" - strictly speaking it is "less alkaline" as the seas are still alkaline rather than acidic, but it's normal to call it ocean acidification even though it is really so far ocean reduced alkalization)
So that 90% die off is not necessarily a permanent reduction to 10%, they can grow again after that but it will take a long time. The report does talk about work into artificially evolving corals to adapt to warmer conditions but the evidence this could work is not strong - and also - there is the possibility of corals naturally adapting to warmer conditions than they are used to, but the warming rate is too fast probably. Another issue is that the storms and worse weather in a warming world will damage coral reefs already weakened because of the coral bleaching and the more acidic water.
When it reaches 2 °C then nearly all corals go extinct. How bad it is depends on how long it remains at 2C but it only needs to reach 2 °C for a few years to mean nearly all coral reefs are gone with almost no chance of recovery. So the difference between 1.5 and 2 °C is very dramatic for coral reefs, which are particularly sensitive.
Other ecosystems however that were thought to be potentially sensitive can manage fine up to 2 °C including mangroves for instance.
They say we need to start preparing for this future for the many communities that depend on coral reefs for either fishing or tourism and so on.
If we don’t stay within 1.5 °C, and it goes all the way up to 2 °C then the corals have probably had it as it doesn’t take long at 2 °C to make most of the corals extinct or nearly so.
Incidentally, an aside they don’t say but over long periods of time our oceans flip between sometimes being rather acid and corals are impossible and instead you have sponge reefs, and our current alkaline situation with corals plentiful and sponge reefs almost non existent.
Interestingly the corals evolve anew each time from scratch, not the same species returning to the corals, the old ones all go extinct and new species arise next time this happens. So this is nothing new, if the corals do go extinct, they will get replaced by sponge reefs as has happened so often before.
But it’s so fast and our world is used to coral reefs rather than sponge reefs.
Anyway if it does reach 2 °C, even for a few years, the corals are expected to be largely gone, sadly. But we can still do a lot to prevent all the other harmful effects, and spend the rest of the century using carbon capture and storage and go carbon negative from 2040 to the end of the century.
They recommend burning wood and other biofuel and capturing the CO2 generated as it is burnt as a one of the best ways to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. So, we'd have vast forests grown for fuel and we would use that for much of our energy in power stations that capture the CO2 that is emitted as the wood and other fuel is burnt.
This is also false in the NY Times article
For instance, the report says that heavy taxes or prices on carbon dioxide emissions — perhaps as high as $27,000 per ton by 2100 — would be required.
They did not say that. They said if you do an accounting of the costs of CO2 that's a realistic price. But if you use CO2 emissions as an incentive, then a price of $7 per ton would be appropriate as part of a mixed strategy of also encouraging efficiency measures etc.
And taxing CO2 emissions is just one of many ways of tackling it. Here in the UK there is no CO2 tax. We are on target for 2.6 °C at present. We have to ramp up. But that is built in to the Paris agreement. Every year the nations meet and are expected to ramp up their pledges.
PARIS AGREEMENT PLEDGES DESIGNED TO RAMP UP - NEVER INTENDED ACROS THE BOARD 1.5 C PLEDGES FROM THE GET GO
This is misleading:
The United States is not alone in failing to reduce emissions enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The report concluded that the greenhouse gas reduction pledges put forth under the Paris agreement will not be enough to avoid 3.6 degrees of warming.
It is true, sort of. But they do not explain that the idea of the Paris agreement was never to try to get pledges for everyone for 1.5 °C right away. It starts with what they can do right now. There is no way that China, say, could pledge to a 1.5 °C target right now. It is a rapidly industrializing country, with vast numbers of coal fired power stations. It can’t pledge to shut them all down overnight and replace them with renewables.
So, it’s first pledge is to increase renewables to 30% of its power production, making it about half the installed renewables in the entire world. It is on track to do this. It pledged to peak CO2 emissions before 2030. It is on course to do this indeed it is possible it already peaked by 2017. If that is true it is very good news. It is planting vast forests to soak up CO2. It is doing a lot, but it is not enough. They know that. It just was not practical for China without the vast solar farms and the things it has done already, to pledge to 1.5 °C. Not without plunging its population suddenly back to poverty country wide.
But every year, then all the nations involved in the agreement meet to increase their pledges. So this year expect increased pledges from them. But not instantly to 1.5 °C. Some are already within 1.5 °C. Some even well within. Bhutan is carbon negative. Costa Rica is going to be carbon neutral by the early 2020s.
Paris agreement pledge map. You can click on any country and see how well it is doing - what temperature rise its pledge corresponds to if everyone did the same.
It's interesting to click around. This is a screenshot:
The actual map is here, and you can click on each country to see what it’s pledge amounts to by way of temperature rise: Paris Equity Check | Pledged Warming Map
Many are already close to 1.5 °C. Switzerland 1.6 °C. Pakistan 1.2 °C is a good example from a rather populous country.
Many African countries are at 1.2 °C. Philippines, Peru and Ecuador all 1.2 °C. Guatemala and Costa Rica less than 1.2 °C. Indeed, it’s many of the poorer countries are leading the way.
For a very populous country, India at 1.339 billion, four times the population of the US, isn't doing badly at 2.6 °C.
Remember this is just the first of many yearly meetings. It's always been the plan that you have to start somewhere and they will do new more ambitious pledges.
Not just from time to time - the plan is to meet and increase their pledges each year. So - we don't expect them to reach 1.5 °C this time around.
But they will be trying to increase on their previous pledges each year and more and more countries to get down to within 2 °C and then 1.5 °C.
That so many are already well within 1.5 °C - it is quite encouraging if you look at it another way.
The others have major challenges. It won't be easy even for India to get down to 1.5 °C even though it is already at 2.6 °C.
China has a huge challenge to get to 1.5 °C from over 5.1 °C. But - you have to start somewhere and China is doing a great deal, vast amounts of effort into combating climate change. Getting on for half of the world’s total installed renewables in their vast solar farms they have built in the last few years. On track to fulfill their pledge of 30% of its power from renewables and
It's just that as a rapidly industrializing country it's not easy to achieve this.
Yes, if the rest of the world were to follow China and Russia, and they in turn did nothing, it would rise to 5.1 °C. But China and Russia are not going to stay at 5.1 °C and the others will get more ambitious if anything not less so - that’s the plan.
When we see that map next year then most of the numbers should be just a bit lower. And again the next year. And hopefully by 2030 they all say 1.5 °C if we follow the most ambitious timeline..That is a big ask though for China, to get its number down to 1.5 °C by 2030.
Most likely some of the numbers are still at 2 °C or higher and not enough at 1.5 °C or lower to compensate. If so then after 2040 then we need to start looking at carbon capture and storage technology. E.g. growing biofuels and using carbon capture for the CO2 emissions. Perhaps only some of the countries, e.g. China, have to do that.
Again from the NY times article:
And on Sunday in Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gas, voters appeared on track to elect a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has said he also plans to withdraw from the accord.
This is true - but he changed his mind and Brazil will not be withdrawing. They don’t have the political clout of the US and the political and financial repercussions of withdrawal were too much for him to go forward with it.
I think this is an example of irresponsible journalism. So many people are panicking, because of these exaggerated stories which are just plain false.
We can feed everyone through to 2100 even with 4 °C rise.
But we may get lots of refugees. Hundreds of millions of people will be affected. Many will become climate migrants. They won't be able to survive where they are living now without extensive climate mitigation. Example, large parts of Bangladesh flood and as a poor country it can't afford to mitigate this as well as a more wealthy country.
But if any country reaches a point where due to climate change it can no longer feed its inhabitants - they still only die if other countries callously refuse to aid them or let them emigrate or help them with the climate mitigation.
The US is a very wealthy country. Americans do not risk dying of climate change even if their country was to turn in on itself and refuse to aid anyone else. They may become less wealthy however. It may have a severe hit on their economy.
Florida is particularly vulnerable - especially the Florida keys and other low lying places and Miami which already gets storm surges. The coastal cities do not just sink under the sea permanently however. We are talking here about occasional floods at very high tides with storm surges. The tidal range is far more than the predicted sea level rise. You aren't going to have cities that are flooded at low tide or indeed any time except strong winds during the highest of spring tides. But that is enough.
Most cities can deal with this by flood defences, building expensive flood barriers. Miami can't, or only to a limited extent because it is built on top of limestone which is porous rock. The sea can just seep under any defences.
Possible plans for Miami involve raised streets, mangroves to soak up the sea water, giant cisterns you pump sea water into at high tide, buildings with sacrificial floors filled with limestone as a sponge, so the ground floor is just a chunk of limestone and the occupied parts start from the first floor upwards
But it might be that by the end of the century most of the population of Miami just have to evacuate, and you are left with a smaller version sort of a new Venice, maybe with floating houses and these houses with the ground floor filled with limestone.
But the population of Miami won't die. The worst case is they have to evacuate, to a higher place in Florida perhaps.
And though the Trump administration is still planning to withdraw from the Paris agreement, there are many in the US who are taking climate change very seriously and acting.
California would count as the sixteenth most wealthy economy in the world if it were a separate country and it is fully committed to fighting climate change which under the rules of the US it can do, it has a fair amount of autonomy independent of the government. Sixteen US states are doing this.
There is carbon trading in the northern US, involving several states in a combined scheme with Canada. Thousands of entities, including wealthy individuals, businesses, organizations and tribes are signed up as committed to fighting climate change in the US. Many cities in the US are, and they also have a fair bit of autonomy over even their own State on matters pertaining to their own city e.g. building regulations about efficiency, making buildings carbon neutral, and sourcing of energy.
And Trump may rejoin, and if not, the next president in either two or six years may well rejoin especially as the effects of climate change will become more and more obvious with the heat waves, occasional stronger hurricanes, drought, wildfires, and winter snowstorms affecting many states.
Some countries are already hard hit by climate change economically. Bangladesh particularly. It spends $1 billion per year on climate change adaptation - a lot for a poorer country. That is 6 to 7 percent of its annual budget. And three quarters of that money comes directly from the government, only a quarter from international donors.
The average European emits as much carbon in 11 days as a Bangladeshi in a year. Yet it is the average Bangladeshi who is footing a lot of the bill for our carbon dioxide. For poorer Bangladeshis, the climate change bill per year often reaches as high as double their annual income, and poorer communities there are picking up crippling debts apparently. So the costs of climate change are already hitting Bangladesh hard
That is like a foretaste of the worst problems we can expect in a 2 °C world. Not people dying, not directly, not like the world becomes too hot for humans or anything like that, but crippling poverty and eventually needing international aid and probably large populations of hundreds of millions who can no longer live where they used to live, simply can’t afford it, and migrate, climate migrants.
And technically we certainly can feed everyone too through to 2200 even with the highest “business as usual”. It becomes more of a challenge with the faster temperature rises but as far as the science and technology goes we can do it. But it makes far more sense to stay within 1.5 °C, save massive costs later on, and we end up with a much better world at the end of it.
Here are a few more of my articles that debunk some of the various climate change myths:
- Debunked: Soon we won’t be able to feed everyone because the world population is growing so quickly
- Debunked: Climate change will make the world too hot for humans
- Debunked - that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction
This has been in the news recently:
This is the press release it is based on:
The bulletin itself is here.
Let's comment on some of the BBC report
"I am very concerned that the three greenhouse gases most responsible for climate change (CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide) are all rising upwards unabated," said Prof Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia.
"CO2 concentrations are now well above 400ppm - levels were 321ppm when I was born, that is a big rise in a human lifetime!"
So - this is okay in a way - but it's not giving you the full context of what's happening.
Nobody was expecting the CO2 emissions to level off or go down so soon. Not yet. World CO2 emissions are still rising. None of the countries, even those who pledged to go CO2 neutral by 2030, none of them said they will instantly stop CO2 emissions. Costa Rica is one of the most ambitious of all but it is still adding CO2 to the atmosphere until early 2020s. Only Bhutan is currently carbon negative and they can't absorb anything like enough CO2 to compensate.
Meanwhile China, one of the largest has possibly stabilized but only promised to peak before 2030. And stabilized is far short from going carbon neutral, it just means it is adding the same amount each year instead of adding more CO2 each year. At the moment every year the amount of extra CO2 our industry adds to the atmosphere increases. First we have to stabilize that so that we add the same amount each year. Then we have to decrease it so that we add less and less each year and finally decrease to 0 so that we don't add any more at all. And then perhaps go carbon negative so we remove it.
The CO2 emissions are expected to still go up a bit even on the 1.5 C curve. Even if we have a quick ramp down to 0 CO2 emissions by 2030 or 2040, we will still have another several years of the CO2 in the atmosphere increasing every year with no obvious decrease yet even in the rate of increase of CO2.
It is simply impossible to instantly stop emitting CO2, many new power stations to be built, or solar panels, wind farms, replacing petrol run cars by electric - that's a big change by itself and won't happen overnight. Some way of making fuel for planes that doesn't add CO2 to the atmosphere (you can't run a jet on electricity). Before we go all the way to carbon neutral a lot of building and infrastructure and many other things need to be done. And policy changes, which take time to implement, new trees planted, it all takes time and can't happen overnight.
But when we get to zero emissions then the CO2 in the atmosphere will stop rising and then after that it will slowly decline. Half of the emissions we made in the last few years will be gone in 40 years. But because of the strange way CO2 is absorbed, 15% of them will be still in the atmosphere thousands of years later. That's why if we overshoot to 2 °C we can't just wait for the CO2 to come out of the atmosphere naturally we have to start actively removing it to get back to 1.5 °C as soon as possible. But if we do stop CO2 emissions completely then from then on the CO2 levels decline. Until then or a bit before then, the CO2 emission rise but then more slowly, finally level off, then decline. Nobody expects them to level off this year or next year or for like the next decade even they will still be rising even on the most ambitious targets.
Methane is one of the things we need to curb. But it is a very short lived gas in the atmosphere. Only 15 years half life and unlike CO2, then it continues to half, the methane that's in the atmosphere now will be just about all gone by 2100. It's important but only short term.
CFC-11 on the other hand is quite persistent and is a strong greenhouse gas, we need to crack down on that. It is illegal to use it nowadays so if it is due to factories, the factories are illegal and the governments involved, possibly mainly CHIna, need to be encouraged to crack down on it more.
For the effects on the ozone layer too CFC levels have been declining for many years and that's saved 24 to 75 gigatons of CO2 emissions equivalent per year by 2010. We emit around 30 gigatons of CO2 a year. So, if the CFC-11 levels were to keep rising then it would be very significant. Parts per billion of CFC-11 are more powerful than parts per million of CO2.
It was only recently discovered, and so it's a case of dealing with a new problem and it is indeed urgent to sort it out. But because it is illegal worldwide, it's not a matter of passing any new laws, or any new climate change initiatives, it's just a matter of stricter enforcement of the laws all the countries are already agreed to. This is how the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put it:
However though it is potentially very warming if the concentrations increase hugely, it's important to know the levels are minute at present. And in fact, it is still declining, the rate of decline of CFC-11 however has decreased to about 2/3 of its rate of decline in the previous decade. It's important to crack down on this, to make sure the rate of decline returns to normal.
For the details see press release:
The bulletin itself is here.
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