Climate clippings 50

This is serious!

First we were told that rising temperatures would make it difficult to grow tea in
Uganda and in Kenya, then it was going to become too hot for chocolate. Now Starbucks is warning that climate change will threaten the world supply of coffee.

This story has gone viral, but I liked this neat post. Obama should indeed do something. What Al Gore said.

Bad weather

Gore may be right too in linking the bad weather around the world to climate change.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a post on Thailand with some great photos, links to other posts about bad weather and once again quotes Trenberth on the relationship of climate change to unusual weather. And, yes, Thailand is the world’s top rice producer, so our food supply is affected.

BTW they’ve been getting it also in Cambodia and other SE Asian countries including The Philippines, and the Cairns area has had a dramatic early start to the wet season.

Al Gore also links what’s happening to the Great Lakes to climate change.

Socolow adds some wedges

What to do?

Al Gore said:

“The key to the solution for the Great Lakes and for human civilization on Earth is to think clearly about what our choices are and to think boldly and make a moral decision that we’re going to do the right thing.” (Emphasis added)

Yes Al, but what should we do? In the last thread Jess drew our attention to Rob Socolow’s update of the famous wedges he devised with Steve Pacala.

Open Mind said the RealClimate post was one of their most important ever.

Roger Jones reminded us that the wedges don’t work as policy. In the real world we muddle through. Make do with what is available to you, keep an eye on ultimate objectives, review, adjust and extend along the way.

But, Roger, in Socolow’s language muddling through has morphed into iterative risk management. I think the value in the wedges is to lay out the range of actions possible and to show that we have the means available to cope. But we do need to consider whether we are playing to come second in a two horse race, or indeed which game we are playing. Here Climate Progress points out:

So Socolow and Pacala were shooting [in 2004] at 500 ± 50 ppm CO2 with his 7 wedges. Now he would be over-delighted with 9 wedges and staying below 550 ppm.

That is to avoid catastrophic warming. The Hansen paper we looked at recently concludes we need to reduce CO2 concentrations to 350ppm. That would be for a safe climate.

The future of food

A practical approach to countering changing weather and disappearing coffee is concrete planning to mitigate risk in agriculture.

The article reports that 40 of the least developed countries have submitted urgent priority activities to the UNFCCC under the National Adaptation Programmes of Action program. It also outlines initiatives taken by private companies and other bodies.

In the cited HSBC report they analyse climate change as a risk multiplier of stresses already in the system. They focus particularly on food prices and falling yields, on energy and water. In one chapter they analyse the G20 countries:

The five most vulnerable countries are India, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil. The least vulnerable are Canada, the USA, Japan, the UK and South Korea.

They suggest that planning should incorporate the risk of 2C warming by the 2030s and 4C warming by the 2060s. Their science update includes this astonishing graph:


Doesn’t seem right. Nor does the notion that if we plan we can in any real sense ‘cope’ with 4C.

Will accelerating climate change turn the population boom into a bust?

In case that segment cheered you up we now bring you (thanks for the heads-up, John D) Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute, who may in more ways than one be the successor to Lester Brown:

Some analysts, ranging from scientists David Pimentel of Cornell University to financial advisor and philanthropist Jeremy Grantham, dare to underline the possibility of a darker alternative future. Defying the optimistic majority, they suggest that humanity long ago overshot a truly sustainable world population, implying that apocalyptic horsemen old and new could cause widespread death as the environment unravels. (Emphasis added)

Trouble may not be far away:

In a mere 14 years, based on median population projections, most of North Africa and the Middle East, plus Pakistan, South Africa and large parts of China and India, will be driven by water scarcity to increasing dependence on food imports “even at high levels of irrigation efficiency,” according to the International Water Management Institute.

Yes, we can, but can we even count

A bunch of scientists say, yes we can feed the masses, at least if we do all that they recommend. It’s behind the paywall, so I wonder what their assumptions were about climate change. Anyone?

But this post, which linked to the above study, raises the question as to whether we can even count the current world population, let alone predict future numbers. It seems the 7 billionth person is sure to be born sometime between next week and 2019!

The ethical dimension of tackling climate change

Stephen Gardiner, Professor of Philosophy and Ben Rabinowitz Professor of the Human Dimensions of the Environment at the University of Washington, says ethics is at the heart of the matter. Perhaps channelling K Rudd, he says that climate change “may turn out to be the defining issue of our generation.”

Climate change provides three major mutually reinforcing challenges to ethical action:

It is genuinely global, profoundly intergenerational, and occurs in a setting where we lack robust theory and institutions to guide us.

He’s only analysing the problem, not solving it. I like his identification of “shadow solutions” so that we can carry on regardless:

processes, proposals, and agreements that pay lip service to wider ideals but ultimately deliver very little in the way of substance.

These are some areas where our theories are currently inadequate:

intergenerational ethics, global justice, scientific uncertainty, and humanity’s relationship to nature.

Work to do there. I wonder what Gardiner makes of the #Occupy movement.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress links to the above article and to his own post Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?

Good question.

Pricing the future

A fundamental intergenerational issue according to Stephen Gardiner is the questionable notion that future generations will be able to cope with climate change because they will be richer.

Theory on ‘discount rates’ is under being challenged according to the New Scientist as far as I can make out because some economists are now conceding that people are not entirely rational. That’s probably a cheap shot, but it does seem economists are rethinking and using declining discount rates at least in certain circumstances. Apparently they were already used in the Stern Review in 2006, to much controversy.

Gardiner questions whether we will be financially better off at all if we carry on regardless. We’ve been warned. Back in 2008 Dr Vicky Pope, head of the Hadley Centre told us that under BAU we could be heading for 5-7C.

That’s unthinkable, and that might be a large part of the problem.

50th edition of Climate clippings

Sorry I got carried away with a jumbo edition. I started with coffee and couldn’t stop. Way back in the 20s in this series there are two editions with the same number. Too much work to correct them all. This one has the requisite gloom to qualify as a special edition, so I’ve skipped 49 and numbered this the 50th.

71 thoughts on “Climate clippings 50”

  1. Bad news is sometimes good news. The Coffee threat may well become the final branch (coffee is no straw issue for the US) to bring the US into the Climate Action Tent.

  2. Brian – see what happens when you have too much coffee!

    I was having a back-handed shot at Socolow and colleagues for finally getting to iterative risk management (they do know about risk – I’ve read the papers!) – but wedges are a heuristic device for thinking about the problem – not a good policy mechanism.

    I will readily link most of the moving extremes as having a clear anthropogenic component, particularly the heat extremes. In SE Australia, the warming is roughly 85% – 95% anthropogenic, depending on how it’s counted, as opposed to internal variability. Annual rainfall in eastern Australia has a statistical loading on an annual basis of about 14% due to warming – doesn’t say anything about individual events. Texas, Russia, whatever.

    Cautious on tropical storms, though.

    I want to link occupy X and the AGW issues. We are in a position where the current situation is unsustainable. A disproportionate number of people control a disproportionate amount of global resources. Neither the conventional left not the conventional right wish to dismantle that control – indeed, after the GFC the foxes were given back the keys to the hen-house and told to behave. As if. The taxpayer is paying for the broken eggs.

    At the same time, we are in a globalized world that needs to support ~7 billion people. Dismantling that support won’t help, but nor will turning a blind eye to current system excesses and the sociopathic notions of a disproportionate few.

    There’s a rich literature on discount rates, rates of time preference etc that is about. I can see it infiltrating some of Treasury’s thinking. Ironically, Richard Tol and Gary Yohe had an exchange of papers in Climatic Change some years ago about using cost benefit analysis when impacts are not marginal. Mathematically it can’t be done, which makes the question both a moral and philosophical question. Keeping it a purely economic question is a tactic by those who would prefer to avoid the implications of non-marginal damages. They might have to do something.

    Developing a system the understands and supports iterative risk management is not simple. It is an ethical project, as detailed above, and out of that needs to come a clear view of what constitutes the social licence to operate in that global environment. This is one of the issues that occupy X needs to consider because none of the “old” solutions will work this time around.

  3. dear Brian
    congratulations & thanks for all the reading, again.
    yours sincerely
    alfred venison

  4. Maybe we should be looking at how to live in a warmer world rather than flogging the dead horse that is stopping the warming.

    Or, in other words, it’s too late, learn to live with what’s coming.

  5. Marisan, the same could have been said about diseases. I for one am glad we got into the habit of washing our hands, remove rubbish and have immunisation programs. And remember it was science who warned us and gave us the tools to clean up our act.

    Thank you Brian for your persistent effort and integrity.

  6. Marisan, there’s a big difference between living in a 3 degree world compared to a 4 or 5 degree world. There are many limits to adaptation. Framing it as an all or nothing outcome one way or the other is not good risk management.

  7. Marisan said:

    Maybe we should be looking at how to live in a warmer world rather than flogging the dead horse that is stopping the warming.

    You don’t need a policy to do that. Doing that will be uncontroversial. People will demand adaptation. What we need to do is to point out that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of adapation.

    Your policy would condemn perhaps hundreds of millions or even more to greatly increased misery.

  8. Looks like efficient batteries and solar panels could get a bit more expensive as China increases its chokehold on the rare earth market.

    China’s largest rare-earth producer said Tuesday that it would suspend smelting and separation work for a month starting Wednesday to use its market power to rally falling rare earth prices.

    Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech, which accounts for nearly half of the world’s light rare-earth production, said in a filing with the Shanghai Stock Exchange that the move was aimed at “balancing supply and demand.”

  9. I put up a post about the “pricing the future” issue on my blog yesterday, riffing off of Professor Quiggin’s pesky cost-benefit analysis of the US defense department. My conclusion is that this business of expecting AGW mitigation to be analyzed by straight cost-benefit analysis is a cheap trick by the hard-headed realists and denialists of the establishment.

    It’s not a very good post, but the basic idea is: if the people demanding cost-benefit analysis of AGW mitigation refuse to apply it to defense, then all they’re really saying is that they don’t consider AGW to be a threat, regardless of how the economic analysis is handled. It’s a furphy to delay action.

  10. Marisan: Even if you think that we are not going to be able to stop the progress to a warmer planet, slowing the rate of increase is going to help adaption. Slowing it down both gives us more time to prepare and more time for plants and animals to either adapt or move.
    One of the things people forget is that WWll provided enormous stimulus to the economies and technologies of the countries that were actively involved without being bombed to pieces. Even those that were badly damaged surged ahead. Going on a “war footing” to dramatically reduce world emissions would not only cheer Brian up but would provide stimulus to a world economy that is looking sicker every day.

  11. Brian: The bit about discounted cash flows was interesting. Part of what is going on there is that the problems we are predicting in 40 yrs times are really serious issues that require long lead times to fix.
    We used to use a discount rate of 15% which gives a present worth factor of only 0.0037 for money that has to be spent in 40 yrs time. (It is worth spending only $4 to save $1000 saved in 40 yrs time.) But, in reality, I think it is still worth spending the $4 now if it means my grandchildren wont have to live like Somali herdsmen in 40 yrs time.

  12. John D@12
    I see you’ve read “The Great Disruption” by Paul Gilding, interesting fellow, interesting book.

    Some of his ideas should be embraced no matter if CO2 is as damaging as believed or not.

  13. John D,
    it’s more or less accepted that the social discount rate is to be used in such circumstances. It ranges between 2%-5%, according to ‘taste’. The UK uses the UK Treasury Greenbook SDR that decreases from 3.5% to 2% over >100 years. UK government sustainable investment is to be accounted for using this method.

    I’ve played quite a bit with the benefits of avoided damages using such rates. In most circumstances, except for the unlikely but plausible physically low end outcomes, pretty much all carbon pricing comes out ahead. $23 a tonne CO2 pays for itself, in spades.

    There is an argument – sustained by John Quiggin amongst others, that combining low social discount rate plus a premium for uncertain but potentially catastrophic outcomes justifies pretty much a zero discount rate (what Stern said). There is an ethical argument for this too (no discount rates), put forward by Clive Stark. These arguments are basically normative. There is an ecological argument that has proposed negative discount rates – I’m not sure how far this is getting – haven’t kept up with it.

    Positivist (or neo-classical) economists argue that one should cost a bunch of things using cost benefit analysis and spend the money on what gives the greatest return. This was Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus strategy. Trouble is, I don’t think the models used provide useful answers (equilibrium models of dynamic systems under high uncertainty). Path dependence means the only futures you can halfway reliably predict are the ones you don’t want (i.e., business as usual).

  14. @16 — cheers Jess — but we’d better take your link to the Salon thread.

    Although judging by the team of advisors they’ve assembled, I think their project will deliver an invaluable guide to what a bunch of white guys think about…stuff. ‘Cos Lord knows, the internet is a place where the voice of white guys is so rarely heard!

  15. “Looks like efficient batteries and solar panels could get a bit more expensive as China increases its chokehold on the rare earth market.”

    This just cannot be true.

    We were promised that if we introduce a price on carbon then China and India would fall into line and be good world citizens and help fight the good fight fairly.

    Guess that will never happen.

  16. Sorry Merc – will take it across to Saturday Salon! Wasn’t too sure whether to go with the peer review/science angle or the ambition angle. 🙂 Thought it was pretty funny though.

  17. Funny isn’t it how most bits of economic orthodoxy turn out to be wishful thinking.

    The ‘discount rate’ argument works until there’s nothing left to buy with your wealth. Then you discover you’re not wealthy and things like clean water are literally priceless. D’oh.

  18. Thanks for the compliments. This time a series of related posts just seemed to turn up, while a couple were held over.

    Marisan, you should follow the link provided by Alexincancun @ 2 to Professor Anderson’s slides. About half way through he talks of a 4C world. 4C could mean 10-12C in New York, and 40% lower yields on corn/maize at lower latitudes. He says it is thought to be incompatible with organised society as we know it.

    Worse still, 4C is likely to be unstable with the possibility of even higher temperatures being triggered. It’s to be avoided at all costs.

    Roger @ 4, that’s a very important comment on a number of points.

    On discount rates, I’ve always regarded the discussion as academic in relation to climate change, if not downright unhelpful. In view of the risks of high-impact outcomes we simply have to act on the basis of whatever it takes.

  19. Brian: Discounted cash flows are a useful tool when you are trying to compare clean energy alternatives with different lives and different mixes of capital and operating costs. It also provide a useful tool for dealing with those who want to argue that reducing a generator’s life from 20 to 15 yrs makes a lot of difference to the cost of power required to justify the investment.
    However, the New Scientist article is a reminder to people like me that the issues are more complex when longer term possibilities are being evaluated.
    Business includes risk assessment when evaluating alternatives with much different risk profiles. However, what they often do poorly is evaluating very high impact/very low probability risks. Companies often fail because management has “risked the business” to get some business and the risk has actually happened. Failures of construction companies is often related to this reason.
    In my private life it would make statistical sense not to insure my house. Despite this we have made the logical decision to insure because the impact on our finances of the uninsured house being destroyed is too high to be acceptable.
    Climate action decisions are much the same as the “insure the house” decision. The outcome of significant earth warming is just too high to risk doing nothing to slow down the warming. Can anyone other than nutters like Abbott seriously argue that we cannot afford to spend a few dollars per capita per day to at least slow down global warming?

  20. I’ve been thinking about discount rates in connection with disease eradication (e.g. polio or malaria) because they devalue anything that happens 20 years down the track, but if we were to set up a disease eradication plan for malaria then we couldn’t realistically expect to see results within a generation. This means that economic analyses of this kind that compare disease eradication with simple annual vaccination drives would not assign the full benefit to the eradication goal. This would be particularly relevant for influenza, I think, and also maybe HIV (because the vaccine is going to be expensive and by the time we get it we will probably have reduced HIV prevalence through other means).

    I think there is a lot wrong with benefit-cost and cost-effectiveness analysis which means that really they should be restricted to use only in situations where the improvement being considered is genuinely incremental, and there is no risk of extreme events interfering with the calculation (to, for example, shift the situation to a new equilibirum).

  21. Brian – A bunch of scientists say, yes we can feed the masses, at least if we do all that they recommend. It’s behind the paywall, so I wonder what their assumptions were about climate change. Anyone?

    I can see behind that wall and checked the article.
    There were no explicit assumptions about climate change in there I can see.
    It’s based on analysis of 20 yrs actual food production, 1985-2005.

    A major point was reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (30-35% of total emissions) by stopping the clearing of tropical forests. Which has added very little in terms of overall food production since 1985.
    Temperate zone food production has decreased and tropical food production has increased but is with a few exceptions less efficient and significantly higher in greenhouse gas production.

    Also eat less meat. They suggest devoting all of 16 major food crops used in animal production (and bioenergy as minor component) to entirely human consumption would see a 49% increase in total food energy (kJ) availability alone (28% by total food mass, >1 billion tons).

    Use less fertilisers, water more efficiently and it’s better and cheaper to intesify food production in already used land. Which I understood to mean look at remediation and changed practices in already degraded agricultural zones before clearing any more forests particularly in the tropics.

    Don’t waste food. Currently 30-50% of all food is lost somehow or somewhere from the farmer (developing countries) to the consumer (developed countries), so opportunity knocks for rodents and others.

    So what’s the chances of a global uptake of such practices I wonder?
    It really is about current practice and perceptions about food.
    Human relationship with foods and what they eat covers the gamut of beliefs and perceptions. This kind of eat less meat stuff sticks in the craw of many Aussies belief systems it seems.

    The authors seem to think without the changes together, there is no chance for a global sustainable food supply by 2050.
    They don’t mention any potential decrease in productivity due to climate change itself before then.
    They don’t consider the ocean and seafood, just terrestrial agriculture.

  22. Rare earth minerals are called that because they are, er rare. The price will reflect this rarity.
    Fortunately for the Electric Vehicle business there is a low embodied energy alternative called “switched reluctance” that just uses copper and iron.
    Even touch screens and such will have to find alternatives to the exotic stuff they use now.
    There are even some neat batteries that use sodium chloride a bit of nickel and some iron – not exactly rare.
    I guess my point is that until we factor in raw material scarcity , recycle capability and embodied energy we will continue to make stuff out of exotic, high energy environmentally destructive stuff.
    It is not a matter of a return to the mythical noble savage mung bean existence beloved of some. It is a wholesale and environmentally responsible application of the technologies we in the affluent countries enjoy; to the whole world.
    We have to start at the application level, the level where the people are, where the CO2 is generated; which I guess is my problem with the nuclear advocates, if ever there was a business as usual trajectory that is it.

  23. John D @ 23, I can see that discount rates may have their uses in certain circumstances, but not when they are being used as an excuse to do nothing.

    Quoll @ 25, thanks for the outline. Their approach seems seriously limited. The innovation dissemination cycle in agriculture is notoriously slow. In developing countries it is measured in decades, I understand, and that is where a lot of the world’s food is grown.

    In the HSBC report in the post where they assessed G20 countries’ vulnerability to climate change, Australia didn’t figure, basically because we are more resilient and responsive. Our farm sector copes better with change than most.

  24. Brian: That was what I was saying. I would also say that the use of financial analysis to put a value on things like climate action and education can be a diversion because models are difficult for people to understand and are often based on debatable assumptions that can be jumped on by opponents.
    The BHP I started working for in 1960 was putting money into exploration and research that was aimed at keeping the company viable 20 or 30 yrs into the future. It wasn’t done on the basis of financial analysis and discounted cash flows but on an understanding that these things had to be done if the company was serious about thriving in the long term. Ditto what they did about training people like me.
    Part of the difference between then and now was an expectation that the long term was a key part of the CEO role.

  25. “without the changes together, there is no chance for a global sustainable food supply by 2050.”

    Unfortunately, there is a relentless logic to sustainability. One way or another, there will be a sustainable food supply. That can happen the smart way (outlined above, including vegetarianism), or the hard way (as expressed countless times through history). We wont be in a position to keep eating our natural capital for ever.

  26. Brian,
    By slipping the graph from the HSBC into a climate clippings post you automatically infer that the frequency increase in flooding is due due to climate change alone for the period 1900 to present.

    Obviously you didn’t intend to do that, or did you?

    Flooding frequency, intensity and data is related to the following; climate change is probably a minor part of the cause:-
    1) landuse change and forest removal
    2) human water catchment engineering
    3) record keeping accuracy and frequency
    4) climate change
    & probably others that don’t come to mind at the moment.

    In many respects flooding is like climate change itself. It isn’t just about carbon dioxide.

  27. John M, I just wanted to draw attention to the graph, which on the face of it seemed incredible if it represented the physical “frequency of floods”. I’m aware that there are all sorts of difficulties in counting floods. The basis of the graph had no explanation, but it’s hard to imagine an explanation that could produce a graph like that.

  28. John Michelmore:

    …climate change is probably a minor part of the cause…

    Actually, if you read the report you will find that HSBC is entirely happy to link an increase in flooding probability (and other extreme events) fairly directly to changing climate – just not in the simple way you assume it can be linked. They say:

    Since climate is ‘average weather’, it is very difficult to attribute specific events to global warming. Nevertheless, there is increasing confidence about the linkage. For Munich Re, “it would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change” (Munich Re, 2010).

    The key is how climate change shifts the balance of probabilities. For the Pew Center “climate change is widening the probability distribution for temperature extremes and shifting the mean and the low- probability tails toward more frequent and intense heat events” (Huber et al. 2011)

    (emphasis mine). I believe Brian has discussed this on a number of occasions before.

    Quite apart from anything else, Munich Re have been worried enough about climate change’s effect on their bottom line to be thinking about these issues for quite some time. These guys have a lot riding on what happens in a changing climate, and are much less reticent about the effects; their stance has been that the effect of climate on flooding frequency has been anything but minor.

  29. Related to that debate, Jess and John (and Brian), the sydney morning herald has a link to a NASA time lapse video of Australian bushfires taken from satellite.

    If you look at the Northwest area of Darwin you can see every season over the 10 years of the video what looks like an increase in area and intensity. In fact, on that video, the vast majority of bushfires in Australia look like they have nothing to do with urban land-use patterns. I wonder if NASA will do the same thing for floods?

  30. Actually Jess,
    We are talking about a report from a bank, and HSBC got the data from another bank and left out the the rest of the data which had other events also plotted!!!!
    If I were them I’d be more worried about government legislation and regulation reducing the value of the properties they hold mortgages over.
    Do you know what the percentage of increased flooding frequency is related to climate change???
    Are temperature extremes related to flooding events?

  31. sg,
    How can you say what you just said about (urban) you meant rural land use? Where is the information to support what you say?
    From my limited experience, things like the types of imported grass planted , the fuel load, the stocking rates, the rainfall, the amount of human burning (fuel load reduction) all have an impact on fire area, frequency and intensity etc.
    About the only thing in the incomplete short list, in the sentence above, that is not considered to be land use is the rainfall, and even that is partially influenced by land use.

  32. John: Munich Re is a reinsurer, not a bank. They have to take events like floods seriously, since they’re left holding the liability for the losses to property. Take a look at their concerns about climate change here. In particular, they talk about recent flooding in China:

    Munich Re believes that weather extremes such as the massive floods experienced by China since early June are due to the advance of climate change. The trend towards increasingly higher losses from natural catastrophe losses is primarily due to socio-economic factors. The population is growing, more and more people are moving into exposed areas, and at the same time property values are also rising. Yet it would seem that the growing number of weather-related catastrophes can only be explained by climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings as set out in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report.

    I think that’s a pretty clear position from a bunch of people with real money in the game.

  33. P.S. I’m not disagreeing that land use is an important factor. But climate change is also an important factor, and not as negligible as you suggest.

  34. Sorry Jess,
    You changed the subject, we were discussing frequency not financial losses, which as you say is related to other issues .
    I never said climate change effects were negligible, I said minor in relation to landuse changes.

  35. John, it’s no biggy, but I think a lot of defenses against claims that there are increasing bushfires due to global warming rest on arguments that urban land use patterns have changed and so humans notice the fires more. e.g. increasing insurance costs are due to urban/forest interfaces changing, not due to more fires. I think this argument was also made about flooding in Brisbane (correctly, I think). But looking at that NASA time lapse, the majority of bushfires are happening away from the areas where a reporting bias or insurnace cost bias might be incurred due to land use patterns.

    The same evidence would be useful for flooding, since it would show floods away from areas that humans have changed.

  36. sg,
    I’m getting confused here, are we talking about urban land(cities) or rural land.
    There isn’t any rural land that has not had a human caused land use change in Australia, unless it was desert before the first humans arrived here and is still desert now!!

  37. Sorry John. I’m thinking of urban land use. I remember at the time of the last major bushfires (melbourne?) there was a debate about whether there is an increased frequency or severity due to global warming. The argument against this possibility is/was that a) improved reporting means the fires are happening at the same rate but being seen more and b) urban land use patterns have moved more housing into the fringe and thus the insurance cost of fires is increasing but the fires themselves are not becoming more severe.

    Satellite pictures of fire density may help to answer this question; the time lapse film suggests that bushfire intensity and frequency has increased in the northwest of the NT, not near e.g. Melbourne or Adelaide.

  38. I’m sitting on fire weather data for Victoria where the average annual Forest Fire Danger Index 1997-2009 is 38% higher than for 1972-1996. Paper in prep. Given mine and others work on the underlying data, the change is largely anthropogenic.

    On the other hand Munich Re has a very large data base for disasters but are a bit coy about protocols for how that data is selected. The environmental change, exposure, externally driven climate changes are very hard to untangle. At the very least it should be normalised for changes in coverage over time, but I don’t think it is.

  39. Roger @42
    Could you ( or anyone else) please put up a graph of the observed global temps covering the duration of the NASA time-lapse that sg linked to @ 33?

    I have been doing a bit of searching and my findings are a bit at odds with the ” warming causes bush fires ” assertion.

    I would rather work off a graph provided from someone here, rather than get into an “unreliable data ( or source )” argument.


  40. jumpy: did you notice an apparent increase in fire density in that time lapse? I thought I did, but it’s just eyeballing a movie, so could be completely wrong. If you did see such a change, temperatures alone might not explain it, because of a range of factors (local variations relative to global, precipitation changes, wind changes, el nino, etc.)

  41. Goodness Roger,
    How do you make a connection between fire danger index (related to wind speed, temperature and humidity) and anthropogenic climate change?
    Do you have a regression analysis and standard deviations etc to back that statement up? Would be interested in that data.

  42. From my limited experience, things like the types of imported grass planted , the fuel load, the stocking rates, the rainfall, the amount of human burning (fuel load reduction) all have an impact on fire area, frequency and intensity etc.

    Right…so…nothing anthropogenic there that could have an effect on climate then….

  43. Yes sg.

    I would have thought that ,”longer droughts and bigger floods” would decrease bush fires in most of Australia( mostly scrub not rain forests)

    Because rain events create one fuel load, and these events only create only one one fire event, ( can’t burn the same fuel twice), unless you get follow up rain.
    So droughts should reduce fire events.

    Thats only from a ” most of the continent perspective”, not a ” S/E quarter of the continent view”

    As for floods, bring em on, fill up the ( inadequate number of) dams.

  44. Jess @38: “I think that’s a pretty clear position from a bunch of people with real money in the game.”

    The oil and coal companies have got money in the game too, but I thought that the general view was that this makes them totally unbelievable if not downright evil.

    I am not pushing any barrels (to coin a phrase) for the oil companies; it certainly behoves us to be cautious for obvious reasons in assessing anything they say in this area. It equally behoves us though to apply the same criteria to assertions from others with a financial stake, not give a free pass to those whose assertions are convenient to the preferred argument. Or, worse, impute special authority to those assertions precisely because the asserters have a financial interest in what they are asserting.

    It seems at least possible to the cynical observer that an insurance company would have an interest in increasing its revenues by persuading its customers that they need to pay considerably higher premiums as the risk is increasing, whether or not it actually is.

  45. Wozza, alternatively, the insurance companies have a big interest in convincing their customers to take action to prepare for the risks, so that the insurance companies don’t have to fork out as much from future disasters.

    e.g. if I was a Japanese insurance company with the TEPCO account, say, 10 years ago, it probably would have been in my interests to make them think a big tsunami was coming, so that they would build a bigger wall.

  46. Jumpy @ 43,

    I’m not prepared to speculate on northern Australian fires because it’s so dynamic. The one thing I do know is that a drier dry season means more severe fires towards the end of the season. And the dry seasons have been hotter and drier, but I would also want to know what the land managers were doing.

    JM – I’ll go into detail when the final version of the paper is produced. FFDI (the Macarthur fire index) is wind, max temp, humidity and drought index. There’s an anthropogenic signal in the max temp and drought index (the latter mainly by induction). The main addition I have added is the non-linearity of the anthropogenic signal centred on 1996-7. The FFDI likewise shifts with the underlying climate indices, so the stats are step change, not the more classic linear analysis. The increase is equivalent to the worst case projected for 2050 by CSIRO colleagues a few years ago. If the rain comes back a bit, the shift won’t be so severe, but there’s almost no chance it will go back to where it was. Busy at the moment, but if I get time I’ll post some charts and link back to here.

  47. The CEO from Munich Re was out here a couple of years ago. He had a PhD in atmospheric physics and sounded interested in the science as well as the money. They say:

    For instance, globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes.

    The tripling since 1980 matches the graph I posted. I’m surprised mainly about the consistently low level during the first half of last century. It makes me wonder how they are calculating the floods.

    Do they count the flood in Pakistan in 20101 as one flood? Is the current flood in Thailand one flood covering several countries? Do they count the number of square kilometres actually inundated? I doubt it.

    On the EM-DAT Database they seem to be particularly interested in the number of people affected and the damage done which doesn’t tell you what you want to know if you are interested in climate change as such.

  48. Former skeptic scientist now argues global warming is “settled”science.

    “When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.”

    Its game over for denialism. The only question now is how we deal with it.

  49. Mercurious @ 46,
    “Right…so…nothing anthropogenic there that could have an effect on climate then….”
    Correct and thats why a carbon tax will have an immeasurable impact on climate, because climate change is not just about carbon.

  50. Jess @ 36,

    From your Munich Re link on climate change, did you follow through to this

    item, which is one of the most significant energy announcments in recent time. This is a 600 billion kick off proposal and a commitment which if you think it through explains much of Nato’s involvement in Libya. The stretch of desert from Morroco to Egypt is very much on Europes mind for many reasons.

  51. John Michelmore @ 50,

    I take it that you have come around to the concensus view that urgent action is the only way forward and are reinforcing the view that the Carbon Price will need to have an “immeasurably” large impact on climate.

  52. Attribution of regional impacts of climate change is always going to be a scientifically fraught matter. Scientists, and all of those who believe in paying attention to robust science, are right to be hesitant in drawing firm causal links between any severe weather event and climate change. That well-founded reserve however is not at all the same thing as declaring the reverse — that climate change and a specific severe weather event or regional impact is unconnected with climate change. If one is to be logically consistent, one must allow that a regional impact that is consistent with what one might expect in well-attested models of climate may well be a consequence of, or aggravated by climate change. As a matter of practice, the best science available to humanity may not be able to determine which events were or were not the consequence of climate change for another 50 or hundred years, at which point the question will be moot. It may well be that in 50 years the best science will be able to show how smoking causes lung cancer and how to distinguish how much each person who suffered from it was a victim of passive smoking. That too will be moot, because our action ought to be one in prudent risk-trading rather than informed by absolutely unimpeachable modelling.

    Once one accepts this, it doesn’t really matter whether one can show with near certainty that a given heatwave, flood, drought or cyclone was the direct consequence of climate change. Once one accepts that a substantial proportion of such events will be the direct consequence of (or aggravated by) climate change, it is plausible that a specific event might be an instantiation of the general trend and we are entitled to point to the human consequences and costs as costs as a guide to the costs we should expect to bear if the climate anomaly is not arrested.

    In the end, it doesn’t matter for example if the Southern Australian heatwave of 2009 or the Queensland floods/Yasi were attributable in substantial part to climate change or something else. We know that at least some such will be and if we want to avoid more than we would otherwise have, we are bound to do all we can to make them less likely. Those who point to doubt as a rationale for inaction or trivial action on climate change bear responsibility for all future harm from such events, whether these can be proven conclusively or not on timelines of pertinence to those involved.

    Interestingly, there was a very interesting discussion on climate change regional impacts, sea level rise and Northern Australia on Future Tense today on Radio National.

    Well worth a listen, if people have 30 minutes.

  53. Roger @ 50,
    How do you make a valid assessment about a step change in FDI, being related to climate change, (let alone humans), if you can’t apply a statistical evaluation to the data?
    Another variable may be possible , eg a change from Mark 4 to Mark 5 version for example.

  54. John M, I think in 50 Roger is saying he is going to apply a statistical analysis, using a step function rather than a linear relationship.

  55. JM. I’m using statistics and the null hypothesis, but based on your comments and the third reviewer of my last paper (the negative one), I wouldn’t expect you to give it any credence. (I said earlier the stats are step change rather than conventional linear analysis).
    And I’m not sure of your last comment. The method uses hydrometeorological methods, rather than climate models, to assess stationarity. The procedure is then repeated with models (for temperature and precip) to see whether they produce the same type of dynamic changes.

  56. Roger and sg, it’s pretty much a waste of your time engaging with John Michaelmore – he’s been wearing the shabby cloak of teh New Galileo!!!11!!eleven!! for years.

  57. I’m not sure who JohnM thinks they are impressing.
    The more that they write the more farcical and disingenuous they get.

  58. Fran said …

    In the end, it doesn’t matter for example if the Southern Australian heatwave of 2009 or the Queensland floods/Yasi were attributable in substantial part to climate change or something else.

    It matters to me, Fran! Because it’s an interesting scientific and statistical question how to model and then measure these things.

  59. sg said:

    {{whether} the Southern Australian heatwave of 2009 or the Queensland floods/Yasi were attributable in substantial part to climate change or something else} matters to me, Fran! Because it’s an interesting scientific and statistical question how to model and then measure these things.

    Of course it matters in an intellectual sense. It would also be fabulous to be able to prove it one way or the other beyond reasonable demur, because then we’d get quite a bit closer to having an undeniable cost on regional climate change impacts. My point however was that absolute certainty isn’t critical to public policy. No area of public policy (not even those entailing putting people directly in harm’s way in the short term) ever demands that level of certainty. I often wish that it public policy did adopt more robust standards for evaluating options, but mitigating climate change would easily pass that test, without relying on attributing Yasi and so forth directly to climate change.

  60. Roger @50: I would have thought that the current Qld fires reflect the growth surge after the Qld floods. The strong fire cycle in the NT is one of the side effects of the intensity of a typical nth NT wet.

  61. John D, that’s true but because there’s always a wet season to promote growth, it’s the intensity of the dry season that really causes the risk – when there’s plenty of very dry fuel to burn hot. Early dry season firestick management keeps fuel down. A decade or so ago I was told by a SE Queensland forester that fire risk in SEQ was a relatively recent phenomenon – don’t know how reliable that is.

  62. “””The strong fire cycle in the NT is one of the side effects of the intensity of a typical nth NT wet.”””

    Very true. And during an unusually long and wet season, with more intense grazing due to a higher number of animals ( both farm and native) because the optimal breading conditions, throw in a dirty great explosion in grasshopper/locusts , and the fuel load is reduced.

    During a drought, no fuel is produced.( not too much fire activity on the dry interior)

    I think it’s leap to far to say that fires are caused by the small amount of warming we may have experienced in the 100 years, let alone the last 10,
    despite what Ned Flannery says.

    It may help scare people under false pretences, which rarely gets condemned.

  63. It does not require much fuel load to create the most devastating fires, as was seen in Canberra (as well as in the Penrith area here). Grass just 600mm high is sufficient to provide a super heated layer of high velocity air which can cut through buildings like a knife under the right wind conditions. It is the weather systems that can deliver these conditions that are the danger, and the connection to climate change.

  64. Roger, there are so many distinct climate zones in Qld it’s impossible to make generalisations. Your forester contact could have been referring to the fact that many forest areas that have been sustainably logged for decades have been turned over to national parks. I heard one landholder NW of Brisbane (towards Mt Mee, I think) a couple of years ago say that it was now impossible for him to burn off. His neighbour used to be a forest area with 36 workers and they co-operated with burning off. Now it’s a national park with 6 rangers and they never burn. To do it himself he would have to construct a 5-metre fire-break which is impossible to do in the rugged country.

    Back in August, this post appeared. I grew up in that country and the situation described is real. It’s about 600-700mm rainfall, I think, and doesn’t always have a wet season. This year they did and after a cold dry winter, have a problem.

    Since Barakula State Forest has been turned into a national park it’s a disaster waiting to happen. As he says:

    The fuel load is currently very high in Barakula, all equipment has been sold off and the plant operators retrenched. Firebreaks are no longer maintained, there are no controlled burns and for the inevitable wildfires there is no means of restricting their damage.

  65. Roger @ 59,
    Let me know when the FDI paper is finished. Thanks for your responses. You’ll need to send it via this individual blog.
    My chemistry degree didn’t teach me much about the statistical methods you are using.

  66. jumpy, I’m not sure what he’s saying apart from the bleeding obvious:

    “My study shows that, apart from the larger-scale developments, such as the general change into warm periods and ice ages, climate change has previously only produced similar effects on local or regional level”, says Svante Bjorck.

    So larger scale developments are larger scale and happen all over, whereas regional changes are, well, regional. Maybe something has been missed in the summary.

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