In an ongoing series of debates about energy and environment on Amanda Lang’s The Exchange (the segment is called E-Squared) I have the opportunity to debate Ken Green, a savvy guy from the Fraser Institute. I encourage you to tune in alternate Mondays at 7 pm on CBC News Network (next up Dec 1). You can see the first two episodes here (IPCC report) and here (US/China climate deal).
It’s a great opportunity to engage the Canadian business community on the economic implications of climate risk – the core energy & environment issue for the 21st century. But every time we get there, we reach an impasse. Ken thinks it’s not much of a problem. I – like the IPCC (and others, eg the highly conservative International Energy Agency) – think it’s a serious risk with long-term consequences (threats and opportunities) for our energy sector and broader economy.
Ken’s stated position is (paraphrased): “I look out the window and don’t see much of a problem. There’s a pause in global warming that tells me it’s not so bad. Don’t worry.” (It’s certainly tempting to think there’s something right about this! But our intuitions don’t do things justice here.) Ken refers to a slight flattening of atmospheric warming that occurs post 1998 if you cherry-pick the time-scale just right … go online to see how pervasive this misleading ‘warming pause’ argument has become.
The problem is there is no pause. Here’s a simple counter-argument I’ve put to Ken, with no response (there are other more complex arguments, but this is the one non-scientists can easily understand – this stuff is straight from the last IPCC report):
1. The climate system is more than 90% H2O (water and ice), and about 1% air.
2. Water warming has not paused one bit (ice mass loss has accelerated since 2002, sea level rise linked to temperature has doubled since 1993)
3. Since water totally dominates thermal momentum (‘heat stuff’) there is therefore no ‘pause’ in warming.
It’s true that media reports have emphasized ‘atmosphere’ over ‘system’ in the past – which makes it more confusing! – but that’s just an accident of terminology. Climate is a system! Here’s what it looks like:
The only possible response to the above, it seems to me, is to simply hope the heat stays in the ocean (against all evidence and theory). It’s a ‘wish upon a star’ approach that’s totally inappropriate to a severe and existential threat to our economy and planet.
It’s not so much a matter of explaining the ‘missing heat’ as going into the oceans as it is understanding there is no missing heat if you include water – which, of course, you must.
Why is this important? Civic and business leaders have a tough time figuring out climate risk partly because there are so many bun-fights over bits and pieces of climate science in the media. It’s distracting and confusing. We’ve lost enough time. The business community deserves a substantive debate, one I am willing and able to be a part of – but to do that we have to start with the published IPCC expert consensus on climate risk and then move to the more difficult (and interesting!) questions: how does Canada best address climate risk and remain economically competitive? How do pipelines fit in with our long-term energy strategy? Can Alberta’s bitumen keep flowing? Is Canada’s cleantech sector capable of competing? Can clean energy keep the lights on? How fast do we have to reduce emissions? Is China really going to play ball? What are Canada’s best policy options? etc.
Let’s get the E-Squared debate going, Ken. Let’s put the ‘global warming pause’ bit to bed, and start by acknowledging expert opinion on the severity of climate risk. If the above argument is wrong, please let me know why (and refer to stuff published in widely respected peer reviewed journals).
Fraser Institute – your reputation is at stake. Are you evidence-based?
For those who’d like to read more about the ‘warming pause’ bun fight, see the following links: