Rolling the dice on climate change

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Hot on the heels of a fresh data analysis by Richard Muller to which I referred in this discussion, here is another damning analysis which should give climate change deniers pause for thought.

I like the approach taken by this author, James Hansen, because he addresses the simplistic fallacy made (intentionally) by many deniers, and intuitively by those who simply go on gut feel and recent experience. I refer to the ‘but this winter has been so cold‘ or ‘but it’s been raining cats and dogs and our storages are full‘ approach to climate analysis. Some denialists drag out some more numbers to illustrate, but that’s their general point. Look no further than Andrew Bolt for example.

In this article Hansen refers to his new peer-reviewed study, (which you can read in full here) published by the US National Academy of Sciences, which makes clear that not only are average global temperatures steadily rising due to a warming climate, but that the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide. The interesting thing about this conclusion is that climate scientists have been avoiding this conclusion until this point – that is, they have not been willing to go on record to say that the increased rate of natural disasters is in any way linked to climate change, let alone man-made climate change. Why? Because they haven’t had the evidence. Hansen says:

… our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change. The deadly European heatwave of 2003, the fiery Russian heatwave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data is gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the US is suffering.

This changes the picture. Hansen’s report apparently shows that heatwave and drought and other extreme climate events in the last decade or two are well outside what he describes and ‘natural variability’. This natural variability is what your old aunt is referring to when she says that this winter has been particularly cold, so how can there be global warming? Hansen describes the situation nicely with a dice analogy thus:

The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.

Years ago, I introduced the concept of ”climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.

But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the dice would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the dice season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.

But loading the dice with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal.

So what does this mean in practice? He goes on to say of extreme weather events:

Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the past three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 per cent of the globe.

This is the world we have changed, and we have to live in it – the world that caused the 2003 heatwave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data shows, will become even more frequent and more severe.

This is certainly a gloomy and frightening outlook. What is his solution?

There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 per cent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.

From where I sit, the approach being taken by Australia is a no-brainer. And I don’t mean introduction of a carbon price was done without thinking it through. What I mean is that it takes very little in the way of brains to conclude that the science is telling us that we need to act. And even if you are not a fan of the science, just think through the economics of those extreme weather events – sure, we’re now in effect paying a form of tax, resulting from the price rises resulting from the introduction of a price on carbon for the big polluters. But we are paying a much higher tax in the form of a flood levy for recent events in Queensland. (This levy is 0.5% of gross income above 50k, rising to 1% over 100k. This far exceeds the impact of the carbon price on low income earners.) And as extreme events continue, that ‘remediation’ tax will only increase.

In fact, here’s a challenge to Alan Jones and all those ‘axe the tax’ nutters – apply the same standard to the Queensland flood levy – ‘axe the levy’ (ok, I need a catchier phrase, but you get the idea). After all, the levy is a tax which is hurting Australia’s working poor etc etc.

I won’t be holding my breath.

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5 thoughts on “Rolling the dice on climate change

    @blamer said:
    August 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    How about… ‘axe the levee’ 😉

      rationalbrain said:
      August 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Yeah, nice, but axing the levee will cause more flooding, in turn requiring a higher levy.
      In fact, the levy will be inversely proportional to the height of the levee, right?
      What about ‘bury the levy’?

    @blamer said:
    August 9, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    The “do nothing” crowd seem to think it isn’t worth saving for a rainy day because forecasting is as unpredictable as weather.

      rationalbrain said:
      August 9, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      I think you’re being overly generous. They’re not simply ‘do nothing’ because they’re lazy.
      It’s because their highest priority is their wallet, and keeping it full. Bugger subsequent generations.

    Vlad said:
    December 12, 2012 at 12:09 am

    I know I’m about to disagree here, but I’ve been following this subject for a while, since I personally believe not so much in denial of climate change, but more specifically in the fact that climate change is something that’s really going to happen with or without our influence.
    There’ve been plenty of peer-reviewed studies by either side (particularly one I prefer that measured planetary temperature averages across more than 400 years – no idea how they would have known, really, but what the hell – and concluded that while the weather was getting hotter in relation to the previous 100 years, on a longer time-scale we’re actually within a cooling period over-all.
    Extreme variations leading towards warming in some parts of the world would lead to cooling in others, etc.
    There was another study detailing how greenhouse gas, specifically carbon, is a very bad argument for anthropogenic global warming, particularly since just about every plant on the planet feeds on CO2 and releases oxygen, with the blame being placed at the feet of the massive cutting of vital forests and green land worldwide, as well as rising pollution in major industrial centers and the placebo of living in a polluted city lacking plant-life and claiming that it’s too hot in summer. I live in Bucharest and it’s HELL here in summer. Most of my life it’s been the same, but I distinctly remember that when i was a kid it was more bareable. I also remember a distinctly higher number of fucking trees, more than half of which have been cut down.
    I hate having anectdotes instead of proper research papers to show, so take this as you will, but at least as far as my country is concerned, the whole “climate change” thing can ONLY be felt in industrialized areas/cities. Take the car for a ride to the mountains or seaside, and it’s back to paradise.
    What I see happening with the whole climate change thing? Increase in taxes (we have a tax on breathing, go figure), massive increase in gas prices in my country which does not correlate to oil prices worldwide (although supposedly supply and demand might have a factor to play in this… although, really, it doesn’t justify 150% price increase in 2 years) and other statist-oriented bullshit.
    Fact is, I do consider that climate change, particularly due to pollution and deforestation is a problem. But I don’t agree with the greenhouse-gas emission theory, insofar as it concerns carbon dioxide.

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