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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A strong, alarming warning from scientific luminaries: We have to decide...

Sou | 1:03 PM Go to the first of 22 comments. Add a comment

This is an alert for denier watchers. Get ready for the possibility of another "whopping mad (crazy)" onslaught from the climate conspiracy theorists. Peter U. Clark and a team of leading scientists have published a paper in Nature Climate Change, this time looking ahead 10,000 years to changes in climate and sea level. The team is laden with some of the heaviest of heavyweights from the world of climate science:

Peter U. Clark, Jeremy D. Shakun, Shaun A. Marcott, Alan C. Mix, Michael Eby, Scott Kulp, Anders Levermann, Glenn A. Milne, Patrik L. Pfister, Benjamin D. Santer, Daniel P. Schrag, Susan Solomon, Thomas F. Stocker, Benjamin H. Strauss, Andrew J. Weaver, Ricarda Winkelmann, David Archer, Edouard Bard, Aaron Goldner, Kurt Lambeck, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Gian-Kasper Plattner.

From the abstract (my emphasis):
Here, we argue that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context that includes the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next ten millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist.
This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.

Deniers will be "whopping mad (crazy)"

The reason you can expect an onslaught is that one of the authors is Shaun Marcott. While this new study looks forward 10,000 years, one of his previous studies, the one that sent deniers "whopping mad (crazy)", was looking back 10,000 years or so. You might recall it. Anthony Watts singled him out for his headline, writing:
Marcott discovers that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” while saying “it’s worse than we thought”
Perhaps Anthony doesn't even recognise the names of all the luminaries among the list of authors. Most certainly Anthony cares little for his fellow human beings today, for the next 150 years and for the next ten thousand years. By his actions, Anthony Watts wants everyone who doesn't drown to burn. (His WUWT article is archived here.)

We are already committed...we have to decide

The press release is at Because I'm tied up for the next couple of days, I've taken the unusual step of just copying it below, without comment, but with some emphasis:
Climate change projections that look ahead one or two centuries show a rapid rise in temperature and sea level, but say little about the longer picture. A new study published in Nature Climate Change looks at the next 10,000 years, and finds that the catastrophic impact of another three centuries of carbon pollution will persist millennia after the carbon dioxide releases cease.

The picture is disturbing, says co-author Shaun Marcott, an assistant professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a nearly inevitable elevation of sea level for thousands of years into the future.

Most climate projections now end at 2300 at the latest, "because that's the time period most people are interested in," says Marcott, a expert in glaciers and ancient climate. "Our idea was that this did not encapsulate the entire effect of adding one to five trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next three centuries. Whereas most studies look to the last 150 years of instrumental data and compare it to projections for the next few centuries, we looked back 20,000 years using recently collected carbon dioxide, global temperature and sea level data spanning the last ice age. Then we compared past data to modeling results that extend 10,000 years into the future."

Climate -- the interplay among land, ocean and atmosphere -- has a long memory, Marcott says. "I think most people would tell you that temperature and sea level will spike as we continue burning fossil fuels, but once we stop burning, they will go back down. In fact, it will take many thousands of years for the excess carbon dioxide to completely leave the atmosphere and be stored in the ocean, and the effect on temperature and sea level will last equally long."

The study looked at the impact of four possible levels of carbon pollution that would start in 2000 and end in 2300. The complex modeling effort was organized by Michael Eby of the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University.

"Carbon is going up, and even if we stop what we are doing in the relatively near future, the system will continue to respond because it hasn't reached an equilibrium," Marcott explains. "If you boil water and turn off the burner, the water will stay warm because heat remains in it."

A similar but indescribably more complex and momentous phenomenon happens in the climate system.

New data on the relationship among carbon dioxide, sea level and temperature over the last 20,000 years was the basis for looking forward 10,000 years. "Now that we know how these factors changed from the ice age to today," Marcott says, "we thought, if we really want to put the future in perspective, we can't look out just 300 years. That does not make sense as a unit of geological time."

Current releases of the carbon contained in carbon dioxide total about 10 billion tons per year. The number is growing 2.5 percent annually, more than twice as fast as in the 1990s.

People have already put about 580 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The researchers looked at the effect of releasing another 1,280 to 5,120 billion tons between 2000 and 2300. "In our model, the carbon dioxide input ended in 300 years, but the impact persisted for 10,000 years," Marcott says.

By 2300, the carbon dioxide level had soared from almost 400 parts per million to as much as 2,000 parts per million. The most extreme temperature rise -- about 7 degrees Celsius by the year 2300 or so -- would taper off only slightly, to about 6 degrees Celsius, after 10,000 years.

Perhaps the most ominous finding concerns "commitment," Marcott says. "Most people probably expect that temperature and carbon dioxide will rise together and then temperature will come down when the carbon dioxide input is shut off, but carbon dioxide has such a long life in the atmosphere that the effects really depend on how much you put in. We are already committed to substantial rises in temperature. The only question is how much more is in the pipe."

The warming ocean and atmosphere that are already melting glaciers and ice sheets produce a catastrophic rise in the ocean. "Sea level will go up due to melting, and because warming expands the ocean. We have to decide in the next 100 years whether we want to commit ourselves and our descendants to these larger and more sustained changes," Marcott says.

First author Peter Clark and co-authors calculated that ocean encroachment from just the lowest level of total carbon pollution would affect land that in 2010 housed 19 percent of the planet's population. However, due to climate's momentum, that effect will be stretched out over thousands of years.

"This is a stunning paper," says Jack Williams, a professor of geography and expert on past climates at UW-Madison. "At one level, it just reinforces a point that we already knew: that the effects of climate change and sea level rise are irreversible and going to be with us for thousands of years," says Williams, who did not work on the study. "But this paper shows just how devastating sea level rise will be, once we look out beyond 2100 A.D."

The melting in Greenland and Antarctica from the highest level of carbon pollution "translates into a sea level rise of 80 to 170 feet," Williams says. "That's enough to drown nearly all of Florida and most of the Eastern Seaboard."

For simplicity, the study omitted discussing other major drivers and effects of climate change, including ocean acidification, other greenhouse gases, and mechanisms that cause warming to accelerate further.

"It's worrisome, for sure," says Marcott. "I don't see any good thing in this, but my hope is that you could show these graphs to anyone and they could see exactly what is going on."

Marcott says a recent slogan of climate campaigners, "Keep it in the ground," is apt. "In the ideal situation, that is what would happen, but I can't say if it is economically or politically viable."

"The paper emphasizes that we need to move to net-zero or net-negative carbon emissions and have only a few more decades to do so," says Williams. "But the real punch in the gut is the modeled sea level rise and its implications."

From the scientific illiterati...

At WUWT, Anthony Watts was overcome with anxiety of the denier kind. When Anthony copies a press release, he usually:
  • doesn't read it
  • doesn't understand it if he does read it
  • doesn't post a link to the press release
  • neither reads nor links to nor cites the underlying paper.

Nevertheless Anthony became quite agitated when he copied the press release he found, writing:
Gosh. Really? It’s so “stunning” they don’t bother to give the title of the paper in the press release, nor do they link to it or give a DOI. It’s like they’d just prefer journalists to take the press release at it’s word without reading the paper. I’m sure some will, because you know, deadlines and all that, and digging up the paper might be work. So, I tried at Nature Climate Change, and it seems the paper doesn’t exist online yet as of this writing Monday 10AM PST. I searched for “Marcott” and browsed the current edition with no luck. If somebody can find it, please leave a link.

As is sometimes the case at WUWT, a diligent reader helped Anthony out and found the paper for him. Anthony ended up adding two updates. He was particularly upset at a photo showing floods, which was included with the press release:

The Philippines is one of many densely-populated nations in and around southeast Asia that are endangered by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Global average sea level is rising. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Anthony followed the link to other supporting images but didn't like what he found. He wanted some charts, which is pretty funny, given Anthony can't read charts. (He can't even read a simple temperature chart for the USA.)

There's more. Anthony got most irate at the caption to one photo:
REFINERY Chrisangel Nieto, age 3, rode his tricycle in front of the Valero refinery in Houston. This refinery processes almost 7 million tons of carbon per year, most of which will end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Credit: Earthjustice

He whined about measuring carbon as carbon, writing:
A staged photo with a little kid riding in front of a refinery? Where they can’t even say “petroleum” but instead incorrectly, carbon,  From “Earth Justice”, in a press release about a scientific paper? Oh, please.
Well, it's not the petroleum that ends up in the air, it's the carbon as carbon dioxide.

There's more. Anthony wrote how he doesn't regard diligent scientific research as science:
This looks far more like tabloid climatology than it does science. It will be interesting to watch which reporters regurgitate this one, and which one of the typical suspects comes to the defense of this”scientific paper” posed as activist fodder.

I won't be able to write more for a day or two, as I'll be tied up. I can't wait to read the paper though, and will almost certainly be writing more about it in the next few days, as will others.

References and further reading

Peter U. Clark, Jeremy D. Shakun, Shaun A. Marcott, Alan C. Mix, Michael Eby, Scott Kulp, Anders Levermann, Glenn A. Milne, Patrik L. Pfister, Benjamin D. Santer, Daniel P. Schrag, Susan Solomon, Thomas F. Stocker, Benjamin H. Strauss, Andrew J. Weaver, Ricarda Winkelmann, David Archer, Edouard Bard, Aaron Goldner, Kurt Lambeck, Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Gian-Kasper Plattner. Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. Nature Climate Change, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2923

Watts is Whopping Mad (Crazy) after Marcott et al - Must be the Heat! - HotWhopper archives, March 2013


  1. Deniers shouldn't have any problems with 10,000 years, it is a mere blink of the eye geologically-speaking. I have had deniers argue with me about the relevance of CO2 over 450 million year timespans.

    1. The Cornwall Alliance won't be worried. God'll fix it so carry on as usual.

  2. Hmmm, I think that my previous comment has ended up in the span bin...

    Anyway, I just wanted to note that this is a whopper of a paper, in a good way. In particular I wanted to observe that the human population curve is likely to emulate the rate of atmospheric CO2 change shown in figures 4d and 4e. The only difference is that the lower the overall CO2 emissions scenario, the more likely that the population trajectory will have a shoulder on the right hand side of the peak.


  3. Despite Peter U. Clark being the lead author Anthony throws red meat to his desperate jackals by making the paper Marcott's in his headline:
    Marcott discovers that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” while saying “it’s worse than we thought”

    1. To be fair the press release that Sou links to is from Marcott's university (U Wisconsin) and quotes him heavily. Presumably Clark's university (Oregon State U) issued a press release as well, but it's not the source for the Science Daily article. This is not to suggest that the Serengeti Strategy is not alive and well.

  4. The WUWT method of predicting the future 10,000 years - curve fitting to 150 yrs of historic data - disagrees.

  5. The prediction assumes that we burn all the carbon and do nothing about it. It may be true given those assumptions, but I think the second is highly improbable, unless technical civilization totally breaks down everywhere; solutions impossible in coming decades will be inevitable in coming centuries. So it's useful as an 'if this goes on' teaching tool but not as a prediction. (Predictions of near-term catastrophe, on the other hand, seem pretty plausible.)

    1. That's not so, Treesong. The press release isn't clear, but from the paper:

      The highest emission scenario in our projections (release of 5,120 Pg C to the atmosphere) is substantially lower than known and currently attainable carbon reserves and resources, which are estimated to be between ~9,500 and 15,700 Pg C (ref. 42).

    2. Once the gravity-driven drainage of the WAIS gets underway it will be unstoppable by human agency and multimetre SLR will be locked in. That would be a long term catastrophe, in my book.

    3. The Very Reverend Jebediah HypotenuseFebruary 10, 2016 at 4:58 AM

      SLR due to drainage of the WAIS will be a secondary concern if the AMOC significantly weakens - Recent studies of Arctic freshwater fluxes are no cause for optimism.

    4. Sou, I don't see the relevance of the quotation. It doesn't matter if emissions are triple those of the paper; as long as technological civilization survives drowning of the seacoasts, food riots in the remaining cities, and so on, we will solve the problems. There's nothing physically impossible about drawing down carbon, damming the WAIS drainage, geoengineering cooling of the planet, and so on; if it has to be done, it will be done, particularly once it's clear to even the most brainless voters and politicians that it's a matter of their own survival.
      And I repeat that in no way am I denying catastrophe: billions dying, oceans depopulated by acidification, horrible consequences of geoengineering, Soylent Green, whatever. But a scenario in which mankind has no effect on the climate besides increasing CO2 should be thought of as a lesson, not a realistic projection.

    5. The risk of nuclear war, and after a few years, more warming. An of course wet bulb temperatures above 37C and enough CO2 to make you stupid outside.I hope our kids get fusion power.

    6. "There's nothing physically impossible about drawing down carbon, damming the WAIS drainage, geoengineering cooling of the planet, and so on; if it has to be done, it will be done, particularly once it's clear to even the most brainless voters and politicians that it's a matter of their own survival."

      I beg to differ on a few points...

      There's a big difference between something not being "physically impossible" and it being actually thermodynamically possible. The whole premise of technomagickery is predicated on the suspension of many laws of physics - and of ecology - including avoidance of Spengel's law of the minimum and Jevon's paradox.

      Further, some fragments of technological civilisation may well survive catastrophe, but this does not mean that its further growth is guaranteed. There may be paths that are permanently shut to them because of the physical nature of future catastrophies at various points along the timeline, or simply because the focus of attention in such a world is such that innovation takes a different path, and one that does not return the previous status quo.

      It's the nature of ecosystems that serious changes beyond tipping points are not easily corrected. And the profoundly energetic and culturally-/philosophically-alien efforts that would be required to repair a planet that had heated to 4 C or more above baseline are simply beyond the evolutionary psychology and the fundamental physics that constrain humans on this little blue marble.

      One way of thinking about the apparent inevitability of a techno-Utopia is that it doesn't seem to have occurred anywhere within a few dozen light years of this corner of the Milky Way. If it had we'd have little green neighbours, and the last time I looked we were still very much alone in the universe... If it hasn't happened in our neighbourhood it's not likely to happen here.

      There's only one feasible way to deal with the profound threat of climate change, and that is to not change it in the first place. The only half-feasible Plan B is to stop inflicting damage if you do start to change it - and unfortunately we're still dragging our heels even with that option.

      There will be no "Six Million Dollar" Planet option as any of Plans C through to Z.

    7. There's obviously nothing thermodynamically difficult about damming the WAIS or geoengineering, say, a cooling stratosphere. As for carbon capture, plants.
      I'm not arguing for a techno-utopia, I'm arguing against the likelihood of a techno-dystopia if we can survive the next century or two. I see no reason to believe anything in your fourth paragraph.

      None of which, of course, is to say that Plans C-Z won't be horrible.

  6. Perhaps Tony should read David Archer's "The Long Thaw".

    1. Good idea. He can crack it open at p. 137 chapter 11. If reading the words is all just too much work, he can focus on Fig. 17 p. 138.

    2. "If reading the words is all just too much work, he can focus on Fig. 17 p. 138."

      Well there's a thing, my copy fell open at that very page with a bookmark in it, a bookmark with a print of the Periodic Table - now obsolete.

      Of course if you shoot all the messengers (CSIRO now and if the Repug's win the next US election [1] NASA. NOAA etc could be on the ropes) we can rush blindly the future and not have to worry.

      [1] Read Jane Meyers book reviewed here

      for clues as to who could be bankrolling the fix, after all they helped Newt.

  7. What I'm trying to say is that catastrophe in the next hundred years is what worries me; catastrophe even in the next five hundred years adds no further fear. And in this I am in no way 'discounting the future' to make all future problems seem irrelevant.

    1. Perhaps the problem is a perceived solipsism. There's more to consider than fear of a near-term human catastrophe. That should be our clear and present concern, of course, but this does nothing to diminish the human responsibility for the destruction of the Holocene world that will unfold over millennia.

    2. On my gloomier days, I have doubts that we can avoid disaster becoming catastrophe. But if we survive it and work toward a re-livable world, the irreversible destruction of the Holocene will unfold over a couple of centuries, not millennia.

    3. It's moot that a couple of centuries of rapid, disruptive environmental change will leave standing a technological civilisation capable of global cooperation and geoengineering on a superhuman scale. I'm all for optimism, but there are limits.

  8. We're ffed.


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