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CO2 Reductions Will Not Cool the Planet? We Know

Posted on 21 April 2011 by grypo

In a blog post by Andrew Bolt, Tim Flannery, the Australian Chief Climate Commissioner, was quoted as saying the following:

"Just let me finish and say this. If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as 1000 years because the system is overburdened with CO2 that has to be absorbed..."

This idea was repeated as a line of reasoning to not act on climate change by Austrailian Parliament member Tony Abbott:

"So this is a government which is proposing to put at risk our manufacturing industry, to penalise struggling families, to make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia. And for what? To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years."

These skeptics have argued that if reductions in CO2 will not cool the planet for hundreds of years, then it is not prudent to cut emissions and put any burden on a fossil-fuel-driven economy.  But does this make sense?

Let's look at Tim Flannery's explanation for his statement, from a segment of the letter to the editor of Weekend Australian:

"The Australian reported correctly that I responded by saying that if humanity ceased emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, it would take centuries for their concentration in the atmosphere to return to pre-industrial (1800 AD) levels. This is, however, not an argument for complacency, or abandoning the target. Rather, it highlights the importance of avoiding every kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions we can, for once in the atmosphere, they are extremely difficult to get out, and have long-term consequences."

Professor Tim Flannery, Chief Climate Commissioner

A choice between sustained temperature increase and doing nothing is not, unfortunately, the choice we are facing. The real choice we face is between decreasing CO2 emissions (in which case temperatures will still warm a bit more and then stabilize), and letting CO2 emissions go on and on (in which case temperatures will continue to rise and rise).  In the future, when technologically and economically feasible, it may be possible to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere, perhaps with increasing tree growth or chemical "scrubbing".  But this is just a goal for the future.

According the IPCC, from the Summary for Policy Makers:

  • Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century. 
  • Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the time scales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilised. 

Global surface temperature projections for IPCC Scenarios. Shading denotes the ±1 standard deviation range of individual model annual averages. The orange line is  constant CO2 concentrations at year 2000 values. The grey bars at right indicate the best estimate (solid line within each bar) and the likely range.  (Source: IPCC). Emission scenarios

This is one skeptic argument where one must wonder if some of those who wish to prevent action on climate change really understand what the argument is about.

NOTE: this post is also the Basic rebuttal to "CO2 limits won't cool the planet"

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Comments 1 to 25:

  1. The IPCC Summary for Policy Makers (as shown by the small citation here) is worded accurately and faithful to the science, but in language that looks like it is designed NOT to persuade either policy makers of the public they answer to. How so? Because the language is still diffident, and relies on vocabulary the policy makers are not even likely to understand. Yes, sad to say, but I doubt the key policy makers in the US really understand what 'anthropogenic' even means. Those who understand it, continue to deny that the warming IS anthropogenic, preferring to believe what is convenient politically rather than what is true. How is it diffident? Where they would have been fully justified in using more forceful language, they did not do so. Instead of "further warming", they could have said "more, longer and worse warming", where they said "changes", they could have said "pernicious changes" or "ruinous changes", where they said "would continue", they could have said "will continue". Unfortunately, the best single words to describe what responding to climate change is all about are also words the public is not likely to understand: words like 'amelioration', 'palliation' or 'mitigation'. So whichever word we use to summarize what it is all about must be immediately followed or preceded by a vivid explanation of its meaning. Otherwise misquotes like Abbott's -- whether deliberately perverting the sense or not -- will continue to flourish. Indeed: just as climate mitigation is the only option we have left, with outright improvement out of the question, so pernicious misquote mitigation is the only option we really have, we cannot prevent it entirely.
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  2. There is a section about halfway through which states, "...CO2 emissions go and and on...". Presumably this was meant to be 'on and on' rather than 'and and on'.
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    Moderator Response: [grypo] fixed, thank you!
  3. @Albatross "for once in the atmosphere, they are extremely difficult to get out, and have long-term consequences." I submit that this is false because the oceans did gradually suck all of the co2 out of the atmosphere, although it took quite a long time. I think it is more accurate to say that it is hard to get co2 out of the atmosphere over a short period of time.
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  4. Cadbury#3: "extremely difficult to get out, and have long-term consequences."" What is the difference between the above quote and your rejoinder "gradually suck all of the co2 out of the atmosphere, although it took quite a long time"?
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  5. Actually, cutting all emissions would have a short term effects, see this at RealClimate Climate Change Commitment II . First, temperatures would rise as aerosols emissions would stop as well as well, then there would be a steady decline as CO2 began to get drawn out of the atmosphere. The graphic in this article assumes constant concentrations.
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  6. Yes, as BBP notes there would be a relatively 'quick' (i.e. over the course of a few decades) decrease in atmospheric CO2 levels if we stopped emitting entirely. The amount of this 'draw back' is still subject to some debate, but the estimates I've seen have generally been less than 50 ppm (some much less). However, since we aren't anywhere near stopping all CO2 emissions and none of the major emitters have even begun programs which could eventually get them there... this doesn't seem likely to be relevant any time soon. Even the 'constant at 2000 levels' figure on the graph is now impossibly optimistic... we're already well past that and have no chance of returning to it soon.
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  7. It's interesting to discuss, but, as RC notes, the scenario is not realistic and, as CB notes, not a choice that's on the table, nor will it be anytime soon.
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  8. your car is shooting toward a wall at 100 kph and your foot is depressing the accelerator to the floor. Even if you slam on the brakes, you will not stop in time. Should you take your foot off of the accelerator?
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  9. Jay @3, Err, this is my first post on this thread.
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  10. The Aussie is smart He knows that it is methane oxidation that is causing all the extra CO2, and methane emmissions come from enhanced oil recovery, which the Austrailain government has no intendtion of stopping it is also methane hydrates that are bring all the heat up to the surface of the earth, as well as kill sea life.
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  11. "HadCM3LC simulates very low rates of decline in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Mean (regressed) rates of change for the following hundred years are predicted as −0.2 ppm y−1, −0.4 ppm y−1 and −0.75 ppm y−1" Environ. Res. Lett. 4 (2009) 014012 (9pp) doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014012 How difficult is it to recover from dangerous levels of global warming? J A Lowe1, And this is with a good carbon cycle model which includes loads, N ferilization effects, but not increased pests, fires, sea level rise vegetation loss, permafrost releases and eco-system loss effects from all human's other practices... Interesting times ahead.
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  12. The thing I hate is the obvious *lie* in Tony Abbott's comment here: "To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years." Tim Flannery didn't claim it wouldn't make a scrap of difference in the next 1000 years-only that it wouldn't cool the planet for another 1000 years. It will make a huge difference over the next 100 years though-the difference between about another 1 degree of warming vs as much as 4 to 6 degrees of warming.
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  13. BKsea @ #8 The slower you're going when you hit the wall, the less damage you'll do. I think any one in their right mind would take their foot off the accelerator, slam on the brakes and see if there's any anchors in the boot to throw overboard. Use whatever it takes to hit the wall as slowly as possible.
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  14. Nick, I rather think that was BKsea's point. :-) Whereas the 'skeptic' approach is more "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Actually, for a lot of them, it's more like "It's not going to be a problem until after I'm dead, so what do I care? I'm making my millions now, whatever it takes!"
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    Moderator Response: [DB] More like ramming speed.
  15. "{DB} More like ramming speed." Was that Charles and David Koch running the ship? Charles in the chair and David on the drum. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)
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  16. Bern#14: "the 'skeptic' approach" I like the ones who say 'I can't see it happening, so it must not be real.' In the car/wall analogy, they're driving with their eyes closed.
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  17. As they say, things are going to get worse before they get better. Unfortunately the global economy is so tightly tied to carbon that the addiction won't be broken for some years to come. The Alberta oil sands are evidence of this fact with them being poised to become the largest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. So much is riding on these oil sands that they have drawn foreign investment from countries such as China and Norway. So far it's been a lot of smoke and mirrors with the environment, but what the hell, people have to have something to put in the tank of the old Hummer. What does it matter if you pollute an entire watershed and destroy the lives and livelihood of the residents of the area. Similar to the phosphate problem of the Lake Winnipeg watershed. Government doesn't get it and are ill prepared to do anything (quite often having been the cause of the problem in the first place) when the kettle gets called black. Anyone interested can view an hour and a half documentary special hosted by Canada's Dr. David Suzuki here. And that is unfortunately the tip of the iceberg. There is still a lot of coal in the ground (860,938 million tons globally) that I'm sure someone would just love to convert to gas, and then there are those oil shale deposits in the U.S. at 301 billion metric tons. Even with alternative sources of energy to drive the economy it will take time to develop the infrastructure to support them and bring them to commercial scalings, especially in the transportation sector. But it can be done, the technologies are there. So hang onto your hats because there is still a steep hill to climb before this roller coaster ride even begins it's decent. The worst part is that this roller coaster ride won't reach the point from whence it began for a very long time to come.
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  18. Only if you believe the IPCC models- 5 times wrong- the approach has got to be totally wrong take the physics first thought of add more unproven physics positive feedback effects. Sure human introduced CO2 has a small warming effect but the reductions will have an unmeasureable small effect. Moderator- your cosmic radiation is totally wrong cosmic varies on the solar 11 year cycle. You can't average solar radiation over its cycle you don't average any other factor over 11 years The effect of the sun and cosmic rays adds an enormous basic model effect so CO2 mainly accounts for the tiny change we've had so far and that will slowly increase (logarythmically)
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Discussion of the "CO2 Effect is Weak" belongs on that thread, "It's the Sun" and "It's Cosmic Rays" all belong on their appropriate threads, not here. Really, all of this has been looked into at length; you just have to use the Search function and do a bit of reading to find out for yourself.
  19. Wow cloa513, yet another totally unsupported little rant from you. You care to back up even *one* of your claims with papers from *reliable* sources? ( -snip- ).
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Inflammatory snipped.
  20. Here is the text of the email I sent to Tony Abbot after the parliamentary display of his ignorance: Flannery Misrepresented To: Hon. Tony Abbot MP In parliament yesterday, you were quick to stoke the anger of your constituency by using the following remarks by Dr. Tim Flannery: If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow, the average temperature of the planet’s not going to drop for several hundred years, perhaps over 1000 years. You responded to his remarks by saying: So this is a government which is proposing to put at risk our manufacturing industry …. …. And for what? To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years. Climate change is an issue which will profoundly affect the world in which your children and grandchildren will live. As leader of the alternative government, you have a responsibility to have at least a layman’s understanding of the science. Regrettably you do not. Otherwise you would have understood what Dr. Flannery was saying. Let me interpret for you. We have already experienced 0.8 degrees C of warming. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time. If the world cut all emissions tomorrow, that CO2 would continue to warm the Earth until the atmosphere and ocean achieve thermal equilibrium. That is the extra 0.7 degrees C of warming that scientists say is “in the pipeline”. So even if all emissions were cut tomorrow, we are still committed to total warming of 1.5 degrees C, and the world would remain warm for centuries until the excess CO2 was absorbed. That was Dr. Flannery’s point. What is the outcome if we follow your lead and to do next to nothing because it “won’t make a scrap of difference”? If we keep emitting CO2, we will keep adding to the ultimate level of warming. The emission reductions pledged at Copenhagen, including Australia’s inadequate response, are not sufficient to hold total warming below 2 degrees C. The projected rise is more like 3.5 to 4 degrees C by the end of the century. Dr. Flannery was making a simple observation that the situation is bad and is not getting better any time soon. Please note that he did not suggest the situation won’t get any worse. If the world keeps emitting CO2 at near current levels, as you propose to do, it will get worse. I suggest you read the copy of Dr. Flannery’s book, “The Weather Makers”, that I sent you for Christmas 2009. If you make the effort to read reputable science, you won’t make the mistake of misunderstanding Dr. Flannery again. Regards, Alan Marshall
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  21. (logarythmically) Well, that sounds scientific. I'm convinced!
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  22. 21, Phila, loga-rythmically Sounds musically scientific. I'm not only convinced, but it's got a beat, and you can dance to it!
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  23. Good letter Alan. Has inspired me to write more myself.
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  24. Tony Abbott's statement, which I have copied below, needs to be understood from the other side's perspective: "So this is a government which is proposing to put at risk our manufacturing industry, to penalise struggling families, to make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia. And for what? To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years." Those of us who grasp that AGW is real and a serious threat easily see the flaws in this line of reasoning. The one sentence rebuttal might read something like this: "Tony, the flaw in your argument is that you fail to realize that failing to act now and going forward to reduce CO2 emissions will result in global temperature increases and climate changes that will end up costing Australian industries and struggling families much much more a generation or two down the line." This line of reasoning is second nature to many of us posting comments to this site, but it is clearly not one easily grasped by most members of the general public. For them, Abbott's statement appears to make quite good sense. As long as this holds true, we have a very perilous path ahead of us. The key flaw in Abbott's reasoning is not that he is denying global warming is happening. Instead, it is one that conservatives (in the general sense of preferring the status quo or old understanding of things rather than the new) by their nature are often guilty of: he has failed to take the additional steps in the reasoning process that are necessary to understand the need for action. Here in the U.S. I would venture to say that many opponents of taking significant action against AGW fall into Abbott's camp. A good analogy is found in the way the British government responded to Nazi aggression during the lead up to the Second World War. Over and over again, under Baldwin and Chamberlain, the British government chose to appease Hitler, rather than confront him. Appeasement had the immediate benefit of putting off the terribly unpleasant idea that much stronger action, as advocated by people like Winston Churchill, might be required. In a similar fashion, Abbott and his ilk are appeasers. Like Baldwin and Chamberlain, they are selective or biased in their use of facts, fail to follow the evidence to the logical conclusions, and yet the path they advocate offers up a far more rosy future to the populace. Whereas Baldwin and Chamberlain appeased Hitler and the Nazis, Abbott and others like him appease those of us who want to continue burning fossil fuels without any limits in the belief that doing so is not a threat. Fundamentally, as the British establishment knew full well, the alternative to appeasement in the 1930s inevitably boiled down to war. My point is that a similar situation exists today. Those of us who believe massive action is required starting right now are effectively in the position of Churchill in the lead-up to WWII. We are, in effect, calling for war. Against this, Abbott's line of reasoning is a siren call for "peace in our time" that many people find quite attractive: like Baldwin and Chamberlain, he and his ilk are betting that the consequences of their form of appeasement will either not be fully apparent till they are long gone, or will be less bad than the Churchills of our time are predicting. Our task is to convince the quavering or ignorant masses that our way is the right way forward. To do this, I think we must begin to draw attention to the craven and flawed nature of politicians like Abbott.
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  25. @ Don9000 Bravo, sir. You have coined a phrase: Climate Appeasement. With that in mind, let us all dwell on the words of Martin Niemöller: First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. Now is the time to speak out...while yet there is time to make a difference. The Yooper
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