Climate Change Unfinished or Too Late?

Posted on September 24, 2008


The second Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson talk this week was a panel discussion titled “Climate Change: Unfinished Business”.   Two locals, marine ecologist Steve Wing and geologist Garry Wilson) were also panelists but it was clear who the big crowd had come to hear.    

Here’s my notes (apologies to the participants if I scribbled anything misleading).   Brief introductions from the participants followed by a long Q&A session.

Garry Wilson: is unfinished as icecores only a snapshot – the real science will come from ocean sediment research.   Is not “unfamiliar territory”, we’re now 100ppm above pre-industrial atmospheric carbon, it has been that high before (3Ma) and was four times that 23Ma. 

Lonnie Thompson:

It is indeed “unfamiliar territory”.  Never before have we had 6 billion people with most of their significant infrastructure and critical agriculture at sea level.

We have two problems: how do we get along with each other, and how do we get along with our planet.  These two problems are not unrelated.  

Energy and climate are linked.  What is the energy alternative that makes economic sense?   We haven’t got there yet but it may be quite different path to what we expect (eg China by-passing the landline in favour of mobile phones).

Thompson states that he is an “optimist at heart”, joking that you have to be to survive at 20,000 ft. I think there is something in this.  His stories of supply chains, working with locals to move his precious ice, win:win management would make a nice model. 

Steve Wing:   A marine scientist but focussed on the business in unfinished business.  

like a business, we’ve already signed the contract, and we’re going to be paying for it for 100s of years

Wing talked about variability in physical systems.   He points out that the scientific use of means hide the real impact that is happening at the extremes – the impact is not the 2 degree temperature rise in the middle but the wild storms and severe droughts at the edges. 

Wing talks about complex systems and factors that make them more or less resilient.   Anthropogenic changes to ocean population structures, food webs and spatial metapopulation structures all mean that ocean systems are very much more “responsive to climate change”.  In other words, while have caused change, we’ve also created systems that are very vulnerable. 

Ellen Mosley-Thompson:  We have a number of interrelated key stressed systems:

  • water (availability and quality);
  • number of people (and most of the growth is in areas that are most vulnerable);
  • over consumption population (eg the US 5% of population and land, 25% of consumption resources);
  • global sea level, and with critical infrastructure and agriculture near sea level we’re going to face environmental refugees. 
  • power crisis, yet power underpins human endeavour.  Shortages will be uneven and detract from equitible growth


Q: What is the relationship between technological and social solutions?

A (EMT): The physical sciences have a big jump on the social sciences yet the problem and solution is the social system.  

A (GW): Is nothing to do with how we interact, rather is simply an addiction to energy

Q: Is it political dynamite in election years, nobody wins from this message, so politicians on all sides play to public who don’t want to change habits?

A (LT): There will be change when we are faced with a crisis that directly affects people.

Q: Should we be changing the story? clearly we are committed to a 2 degree warming yet the solutions are not apparent.  “Adaptation” is a euphemism that makes us complacent and even if we cut to 50% of current emissions surely India and China have the right to aspire to that.   So, you linked energy and development, is that the fundamental issue?

A (EMT then LT): Those are indeed the big issues.  When people reach 5K (US?) mean income, families buy cars – there isn’t enough energy to support that.  Like fishing (start with the big fish) we’re working down the energy ladder and it’s getting harder.

Q: Are technological solutions a pipe dream?

A (LT): Technology and social issues are integrated.   Story of fridge (got more efficient, then less as took out insulation to save space).   But our relationship with cars seems different.  

A (EMT): We need full energy accounting.

Q: You talked about carbon levels much higher than now.  What were sea levels and ice doing then?

A (GW): No ice sheets, sea level perhaps 70m above where it is now.

Q: What is the role of methane? 

A (EMT):  While it is more radiatively active, its abundance is an order of magnitude less than C02, largely because of a very much shorter residence time.  19% of the carbon we emit today will still be there in 1000 years. 

A (LT): Animal production is a problem that is linked to human population, the majority of animals being produced for foodstock.

Q: Are carbon emissions trading schemes workable/solve the problem?

A (EMT): Economic arguments are often simplistic. eg it would be economically devastating to stop mining coal in Ohio.  Cap and trade systems seem to be permits to pollute and some industry seems to get a free card. A problem is where on the energy chain the taxes should fall.

Q: Can the world sustain a population of 9B?

A (EMT): Yes, but at what level will those people be sustained.  At our (US) current level of consumption, perhaps 2B.  We need to do something about consumption. 

Q: I’m not looking for responses to specific criticisms, but what advice do you have for people who are presented with detractors to your work?    (this was my question, and I prefaced with a little story about how I was telling a colleague about Thompson’s Monday talk and got deluged with criticism of the Al Gore movie).

A (LT): Al Gore’s movie got climate change on the radar.  Frankly it wasn’t before. This was a visual that would get attention, working with a politician that is truly interested and wants to make a difference. As scientists it is our job to tell the story as accurately as possible.   Some of that accuracy is lost in retelling but more than 90% accuracy is still very  very good. Our obligation is an accurate story people can relate to.    This is a wider problem, science has become disconnected from the populace.   

We knew that a lot of people know about climate change.  They would happily wade through the dry science. The problem we faced was that a lot more don’t, and wouldn’t  – so how could we get people who aren’t convinced to watch the movie.  The Al Gore movie did that.  People have focused on the small areas that, looking back, make me cringe some.   But the central message that the moral issue that we all need to address remains and I’m proud that we got noticed. 

A (EMT): Anyone can write things, especially on the Internet, and get credence just because it’s there.  What the Internet doesn’t expose is peoples’ intentions and motivations.  It is easy to crucify scientists and we face an active denial machine.   Their singular message is that “science is divided and Bush’s not a problem message is sensible” is borrowed directly from the text book of the smoking lobby.    It frustrates me that deniers are described as skeptics, which we all should be.  Rather some people are being contrary, either by nature or payment.  There’s no point writing lengthy rebuttals if people have a preconceived notion they are not prepared to move from. 

A (LT):  Thirty years ago he set out to understand the hidden history in the  icecores.  Now, because of the significance of the story in that history, he has found himself centre-stage.  There is a Chinese saying that you shouldn’t aim to be the tallest tree in the forest.  He didn’t, but is comfortable that science will prevail: what is always wins.  And since 2004 the data is increasingly convincing. 

Q: Should we be focusing on more positives

A (EMT): Absolutely… Salt Lake City, Vancouver.  Should we have another Inconvenient  Truth with solutions? yes. While he was talking about different concerns, the words of Martin Luther King are appropriate:

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”


Lonnie’s Monday talk.