The Weekly Carboholic: Tipping points will be difficult to identify

Posted on October 14, 2009

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Is the Earth’s climate approaching a critical transition, aka a “tipping point,” beyond which major and largely unpredictable climate changes are guaranteed to occur? At this point, scientists do not know the answer to that question. A study published in the journal Nature aims to explain the mathematics of critical transitions beyond just the Earth’s climate and in the process, determine if there are early-warning signals that indicate when a complex system is about to undergo a critical transition.

According to the paper, every complex system, whether it be climate, asthma attacks and epileptic seizures, or systemic crashes in financial markets, exhibits the same basic precursor signs of a tipping point, at least mathematically speaking. All complex systems exhibit one or more of the following early-warning signs: they can take longer to recover from small perturbations and become less random over time (“critical slowing” in the paper), they can bounce dramatically between the old and new states (“flickering”) before finally settling in the new state, or they can develop patterns that gradually change before suddenly disappearing into a new state (“spatial patterns”).

With regard to climate, reconstructions have identified the hallmarks of “critical slowing” in multiple climate transitions:

In a recent analysis, a significant increase in autocorrelation was found in each of eight examples of abrupt climate change analyzed.

And the authors reference one other paper which suggests that recent climate variability is an example of “flickering” that signals a transition to a significantly colder global climate.

The problem, however, is that not all critical transitions show each early-warning sign – some transitions might show more than one while others show one this time and another next time. The result is clearly state in the paper:

[D]etection of the patterns in real data is challenging and may lead to false positive results as well as false negatives.

In other words, not all fast transitions are “critical transitions,” not all critical transitions will be detected, and sometimes a critical transition will not occur even though there were signs of one approaching.

In essence, the science of critical transitions is still very young, and as such, projections of tipping points should be very carefully analyzed, whether they be toward a new glacial period or a sudden melt of all the Arctic sea ice.

For news of a few politicians expecting a “social tipping point” on climate disruption soon, please read this piece by my colleague Wendy Redal.

Thanks to Ubertramp for pointing this paper out to me and to Dr. Scheffer for providing a review copy of the paper.

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uscocU.S. Chamber of Commerce President complains about environmentalists

Over the last several weeks, three utilities, Nike, and now Apple have resigned from or otherwise reduced their participation in the United States Chamber of Commerce (USCOC), a business lobbying group that represents millions of U.S. businesses. As a result, the USCOC President and CEO, Tom Donohue, held an hour-long press conference to defend the USCOC’s decision to oppose EPA regulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

According to the Greenwire report on the event (linked above), Donahue claimed that an “orchestrated pressure campaign” by environmentalists was responsible for the recent defections. However, National Resources Defense Council climate campaign director Peter Altman disagrees. From the article:

“It’s nice of Donohue to give the environmental movement credit for being able to convince Fortune 500 companies what group they should be a part of,” Altman said. “But it’s a red herring. These companies are making the decision on their own.”

Furthermore, San Francisco venture capitalist Nancy Floyd was quoted as saying “This issue (climate change regulation and/or legislation) has really divided the business community. The divide is not really along traditional players versus technology players; it is across the board.”

To date, the USCOC has not changed its position with respect to EPA regulation of GHGs or chosen to get behind either the Waxman-Markey ACES act or the new Kerry-Boxer draft legislation in the Senate. However, two Silicon Valley business organizations ran an advertisement in the San Jose Mercury News and the Congress Daily saying, in part:

As our European and Asian competitors move forward to build the next generation of clean energy technology, the U.S. Chamber seems mired in false debates over settled science and a 20th Century approach to energy. It’s time for the “voice of business” to move forward, embrace a market-based cap on carbon pollution, and help lead a new century of American prosperity. (emphasis original)

The two Silicon Valley organizations are the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (SVLG) and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network (JVSV). A brief scan of the membership of SVLG turns up a veritable who’s who of tech companies, as well as some banking, health, and energy companies: Adobe Systems, Apple Computer, AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron Energy Solutions, Citibank, Dell, eBay, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Kaiser Permanente, Lockheed Martin, McAfee, Microsoft, NASDAQ, Netflix, Oracle, Palm, Roche, Seagate, Sun Industries, Symantec, and Yahoo!. And those are just the ones that most people would recognize – the list is even more impressive for someone who works in technology like I do – nearly all of the major U.S. electronics manufacturing companies have a presence in the SVLG.

Perhaps even more impressive, however, is that the JVSV signed on. The Directors include the mayor of San Jose, a product manager for Google, the Chancellor of the University of California – Santa Cruz, a senior VP at Bank of America, the CEO of Cypress Envirosystems, a California State Senator, to name just a few. The private companies who invest in JVSV are just as impressive as those involved in the SVLG: Cisco, National Semiconductor, Mitsubishi, PG&E, the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, and McKinsey & Company.

The JVSV represents business, labor, universities, city and state government, and non-profits, all of whom are involved in charting the future of the most visionary, profitable, and productive companies and region in the entire country. And they just told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that they were “dinosaurs.”

Perhaps this advertisement points will convince the USCOC to change its approach to climate legislation and regulation – or perhaps the USCOC will become irrelevant as the companies with vision abandon it and the USCOC’s positions become equivalent to those of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

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deloachbarrelBarrels instead of bottles

According to the NYTimes Green Inc. blog, a number of wineries are foregoing bottles and are instead shipping their wine in barrels. As a result, the wineries are saving money on reduced packaging and are dramatically lowering their carbon footprint due to shipping and bottle manufacturing.

As a beneficial side effect, the wine lasts longer in barrels than it does in bottles.

This is hardly the first time that companies have pushed for reduced packaging – Wal*Mart was one of the first, but it’s hardly the only company working this angle. Still, anything that makes wine cheaper to drink for myself and my family is all good for me – even if that means I have to buy nearly a case at a time.

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pteropodOcean acidification to turn parts of the Arctic Ocean corrosive by 2018

Scientists researching ocean acidification in the Svalbard Archipelago north of Norway have made a surprising and awful discovery – the Arctic ocean is acidifying so fast that 10% it will become corrosive within the next 10 years and the entire Arctic will become corrosive by 2100. The Guardian newspaper reported last week on a presentation by French oceanographer Jean-Pierre Gattuso that revealed the terrible news. From the article:

“This is extremely worrying. We knew that the seas were getting more acidic and this would disrupt the ability of shellfish – like mussels – to grow their shells. But now we realise the situation is much worse. The water will become so acidic it will actually dissolve the shells of living shellfish.”

According to the article, the problem is that shellfish form the base of a massive food chain for herring, salmon, and several species of whales. In addition, walruses and seals subsist on shellfish and fish, and polar bears and other top predators feed on the seals and walruses, as well as on fish. So if the bottom of the food chain is disrupted by corrosive seawater, then the entire ecology of the Arctic could be disrupted. And the only way to prevent this is to dramatically and immediately cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

If you enjoy salmon or king crab legs, or even if you just enjoy the show Deadliest Catch, you might want to consider enjoying them sooner – there may not be a “later.”

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El Niño and its relationship to ocean heat content

Back in October, 2008, I pointed out in comments to another Carboholic that La Niña years were cold because the ocean absorbed heat from the atmosphere and that El Niño years were hot because the ocean emitted stored heat back into the atmosphere. This comes from the physics of thermodynamics, specifically the fact that energy moves from hot areas to cold areas, and not the other way around.

I recently came across this same basic information presented in a different form by the Climate Prediction Center’s El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Diagnostic Discussion page and the weekly ENSO updates contained therein:

The basin-wide equatorial upper ocean (0-300 m) heat content is greatest prior to and during the early stages of a Pacific warm (El Niño) episode (compare top 2 panels) and least prior to and during the early stages of a cold (La Niña) episode. (emphasis original), from page 9

In other words, the ocean heat content is lowest at the start of La Niña because after that, the La Niña is absorbing heat from the atmosphere and cooling it. Similarly, the ocean heat content is highest at the start of El Niño because after it starts, El Niño is emitting heat from the ocean back into the atmosphere and heating it.

enso-heat

Image credits:
AFP: Antara News Agency
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
DeLoach Vineyards
Russ Hopcroft, via Australian Antarctic Division
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service, Climate Prediction Center

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