MIKE HILLARD argues that climate change really is the biggest problem facing the planet – and says political and scientific leaders may well be doing too little, too late to safeguard our future

(Article originally published in Mensa Magazine March 25 2008. A PDF version [1.6MB] is available for download)

There is nothing of greater importance for the planet and our civilisation than the issue of climate change. All the other issues in the world put together are cumulatively not close to being as important. So widening the debate to reach a better understanding of the size of the problem and the viability of potential actions is crucial. To head in the wrong direction for even another five years is time we don’t have. We need to be spending all our capital, academic, practical and financial, on long and not just short term actions.

Many years ago I became deeply troubled about the state of our planet. It was clear we were being bombarded by frequently opposing views, opinions and analyses, of even the same research data, and that the true situation might be very bad. I decided to discover the truth and publish the findings. I had to be totally independent as ‘dependent’ analysts were clearly not reaching ‘independent ’conclusions. When money is at stake, and especially when global corporations are involved, the output is often comprehensively one-sided and the blindingly obvious ignored.

As far as climate is concerned, among this morass there are some great climate scientists working very hard to unearth the reality – and then we have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which appears very politicised with its output seemingly watered down to allow corporations and governments to argue that the status quo is acceptable when it patently hasn’t been for decades. Indeed, it is the pressure from these organisations that has stopped a proactive approach to climate change being adopted since the early 1980s.

So where are we with the climate and global warming? What is the reality? Are the conclusions from the international Climate Models correct? Are the IPCC reports even accurate?

My work and conclusions on climate are not derived from other reports but from original data. I have the entire historic climate record going back almost one million years, from the ice cores, along with a great deal of other primary research data.

As to the climate models, I would argue the situation is much worse than IPCC reports suggest, including the most recent Synthesis Report from Valencia.

If the models were correct, the outputs would be constant, so the early model predictions would be the same as those presented now – but they are not. They are constantly shifting and in one direction only… for the worse. Every new report paints a bleaker picture with ever more dire conclusions. For instance, we have gone from a temperature rise of around one degree in the early 1990s to a possible four to six degrees in 2007. And we have moved from a position where the Greenland Ice Sheet could not melt – and even if it did the time-frame would be measured in millennia – to a point where it is melting much faster than we thought and that melt is accelerating and will now contribute to sea level rise.

The information generally made public conceals a vast range of figures generated by the models themselves. For example, in the TAR(Third Assessment Report) the actual range for future temperature is between a small negative to plus-14 degrees. Even in the latest Synthesis report from Valencia, sea level rise (for the quickest stabilisation scenario) varies between 0.4 and 1.4 metres and these figures exclude the rise from melting ice, as ice melt data is not incorporated in the models – a major shortcoming. Also the latest estimates for the ‘cost of carbon’ are in the range minus-$3 to plus-$95 per tonne for CO2.

Every new report paints a bleaker picture with ever dire conclusions

From my perspective, ranges such as these move the findings from the ‘probable’ to nothing more than the ‘potentially possible’ with no more credibility than that. I am really not belittling the scientists as they deserve enormous respect but it is a massively complex issue and even now so badly understood as to render claims the models are accurate as spurious.

If the models were correct then the forecasters would not continually be being caught out by the reality. In every report we are told that ‘events are moving faster and further than anticipated’, which shows that the reality is outside the previous range of model expectations. If the models were correct such a statement might be acceptable on an odd occasion, or for an odd event, but not when almost every aspect measurable is unexpected.

Consider the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet; in the last year or so it has been discovered that the melt rate is more than twice as fast as was forecast as recently as ten years ago. This is of huge importance as this alone can cause many of the world’s most important cities to disappear, along with much of the world’s best agricultural land and several countries.

There are some hugely significant factors not included in the models as they are either not understood, or not understood well enough to be modelled. One such is the behaviour of the great ice masses, one of the most significant (though not perhaps the most significant) to be missing.

The thermal capacity of the great ice masses is staggeringly huge, and would seem to me to be the great regulator of the climate on our planet. The amount of energy taken to melt the lot would be a very great figure indeed, so as temperature moves up or down, the resulting change in ice mass absorbs the majority of the energy and damps the effect on climate. However, perhaps the biggest factor not modelled is what we know as ‘The Parasol Effect’, otherwise known as ‘Global Cooling’.

The ‘Parasol’ is almost the same as, and almost exactly the opposite of, the ‘Greenhouse’, in that it is also caused by man-made emissions that rise into the atmosphere. But these ‘particulates’ reflect the arriving solar radiation back into space rather than the escaping radiation back to Earth. They are often called ‘aerosols ’which are mostly sulphates resulting from burning fossil fuels. These will probably prove to be of mega importance as they are, and have been, masking the real effect of global warming.

(Picture of barren landscape)

Another major problem with the models is the method of validating them, which is almost self-proving. When model output essentially agrees with climate history since about 1800, it is assumed the models are correct. However, if we are currently on the cusp of major climatic change – that is that global temperature is in the process of moving towards the vertical – the temperature gradient will keep increasing with time, so every time the models are checked they will have to be modified to match the (now) steeper gradient. They do, however, have significant value right now as the models cannot simulate current climate without incorporating man-made emissions – thus ‘proving’ we are affecting climate. At least we have mostly got that far.

Of course, if the models are not assimilating a major temperature gradient change, and if that is the reality, then their predictions will necessarily be considerably too low as they are essentially extrapolating current trends. Might this be what is happening? I am in no doubt.

In another approach to validation, there would of course be one simple way to prove the models. We could start them at some historic time where we know what the climate was and what then happened – and see what they predict. There are several good dates to start from. Can they predict the actual events?

One major issue is that the body of climate science does not understand what happened historically, or more particularly why it happened. This is the area that I have tried to focus on, but studying climate history is an incredibly frustrating process. Things happened that, at first sight, and even second sight, seem inexplicable, yet it did happen and there had to be a reason – we just have to try to find the explanations.

Analysing such a vast amount of data is more than time consuming and I hope to present the analysis to the scientific community quite soon. But it is impossible not to notice an incredible correlation between CO2 and temperature. A look at just 400,000 years, on one page, tells us it simply cannot be chance that the two plots are so very close. Looking at it in full scale, with all the individual records plotted, moves thinking onto another plane.

There are times when one plot or the other suddenly makes a surprising break for it, but there is never an occasion when they do not chase one another down and eventually resume that original relationship, even if there is a considerable delay before they do. It is also amazing just how the shape of each plot is almost identical for most of the time. The shape of each peak for both carbon and temperature are close to identical, as are the troughs and many of the ‘blips’ on the way.

The rate of rise of temperature is normally a little faster than that of carbon for logical reasons, but the correlation is quite beyond any statistical chance. If CO2 is a greenhouse gas then, by definition, if it rises temperature must follow. If temperature does not follow then it is not a greenhouse gas. Following this, and the understanding that temperature rises at least as fast as carbon, would lead us to the view that temperature should perhaps already be rising faster – but we need at the very least to put the ‘Parasol’ into the equation.

This is complex, as we don’t fully understand it but we do know the aerosols have very short lives in our atmosphere (days to a couple of years) so the value of the Parasol is not so much cumulative as a function of current emission levels; it will vary as the fuel mix (coal, oil, gas etc.); total fuel burnt, and the cleanness of the burn, vary. In contrast, carbon is cumulative, so we are now between a rock and a hard place as the relative cooling of the parasol is close to static while the greenhouse romps up and away. My hypothesis is therefore that the temperature curve will at some stage move close to the vertical and as it does so its gradient may change rapidly. I fear this is where we are at, and, if so, then I believe we will be measuring temperature rises by decade rather than century.

This may not make pleasant reading but do we want to understand the true size of the problem so we can direct our energies optimally, or live in some world of ‘wishful thinking’? Clearly, the temperature predictions based on the above are not in the same frame as those of the IPCC.

Now the bad news. There are some other absolutely crucial elements not in the models that we must understand in order to determine an appropriate action plan. There have always been concerns about some sort of ‘disaster’ level of temperature rise at which the planet would take over, releasing potentially enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. In the face of this mankind would be impotent – in more ways than one. I have called it ‘The Runaway Effect’ the case for which I argued to a robust audience in Oxford several years ago. So what could cause this?

The lessons of our climatic history

There will be those who doubt my argument but maybe we should ask why. Is it because they simply don’t want it to be true? If so that cannot alter the reality, and further deferring action will clearly only make the future even more difficult. In answer to those who wish to argue CO2 doesn’t drive climate and that changing solar radiation does, all we need do is superimpose a plot of historic arriving solar radiation over a plot of historic temperature. First, the two do not correlate at all and, second, the maximum variation in radiation, even if it coincided, would account for not more than ten percent of the temperature range in a climate cycle. For those who argue that “the planet has been here before”, there are further observations. For any given GHG level the temperature can vary by what appears to be about 0.7 degrees Centigrade, for no reason I can understand – so variations within that range mean little or nothing. Also, based on my analysis, I can conclude that ever since man invented agriculture we have had an impact on climate, so this appears to go back about 8,000 years. Mini ice ages are not therefore consequential, nor is the middle age warm period. Deducing climate information across this period is therefore very complex and confusing. It is true the planet has been a little warmer than it was up until, say, 1950, but that is rapidly becoming untrue as the Polar regions are now up around five degrees. Also, CO2 is rising about 130 times faster than the fastest I can find in the climate record and this number also just keeps getting bigger!

  • Mike Hillard first began studying the environment in 1962. He has also designed and built Tranquility, a highly efficient low energy home which we hope to feature in Mensa Magazine next month. His work on climate change research will soon be presented to our environment scientists.

We may have heard of feedbacks, but what are they?

We have some understanding of the carbon cycle – how much carbon there is in, around and above our planet’s surface and how it all works. So we know there is a lot of carbon temporarily locked up in carbon sinks in many places. We also know that it is a very tiny proportion of the total carbon that inhabits our atmosphere, and it is this tiny fraction that controls our atmosphere. There is no doubt that CO2 (and other gases) are greenhouse gases as, without them, we, and other life, could not inhabit the planet. Even the doubters don’t argue it is not a greenhouse gas.

Our atmosphere would appear to be incredibly fragile and we should wonder how this planet has managed to support life for so long. The climate cycles the planet lives through are crucially limited in range as we cannot afford the upper or lower limits to be breached by much to render the Earth, our home, uninhabitable. It is generally assumed that a temperature rise of about 2.7degrees above pre-industrial levels might be that trigger for ‘Runaway’, because this would move the temperature outside the limits the climate records show have existed. Above that we are in new territory.

In Oxford I explained this phenomenon and made some key points.

  • The climatic destruction of the Amazon (and potentially other equatorial rainforests). Above this temperature it was considered that the Amazon could deforest all by itself, releasing all the carbon it and its soils contained back into the atmosphere. It was said that just this forest could release about 80 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions annually – so even if we reduced our carbon by 80per cent the forest would take us back to where we started.
  • The drying out of the peat bogs in the north of the northern hemisphere. There is a lot of carbon locked up in this enormous area, held only by an enzyme that only functions while wet. Dry the bog through climate change and the carbon is released.
  • The melting of the permafrost. Under this area there is a huge amount of methane locked up as methane hydrate, which is held as a solid only while it is frozen. Melt the permafrost and this can start to be released, and we must remember that methane is about 22 times more climatically toxic than CO2. These do not seem to have kicked in but other things are happening that are catching us all by surprise including:
  • The warming of our oceans. There is a great deal of carbon locked up in our oceans, and ocean acidification has been increasing. This is a deep worry for our marine scientists as above a certain level it is thought that crustaceans and corals will fail (though they will fail with temperature rise as well), which would have a dramatic impact on all marine life. Our oceans fortunately absorb(ed) a significant amount of the carbon we emit from burning fossil fuels which is why ocean acidification has been increasing.

The latest scientific reports, however, show that this level of absorption has more than halved since the early 1990s – good for our oceans but not for our atmosphere. The net effect is that our atmosphere is now gaining the CO2 our oceans are not absorbing, so atmospheric CO2 is rising way faster than we expected – about 20 per cent faster. This is beyond and above serious, but it could be even worse and I suspect we will know the answer to that very soon. I cannot find a logic that says that ‘conveniently, this effect will stabilise’. If oceanic uptake has already more than halved its seems enormously probable that it will drop to zero and we can all work out what that means…

Another feedback from the melting of the permafrost; apart from the methane hydrates there is also a great deal of organic matter held in suspended state within this environment that will decompose as a result of permafrost melt. More recent scientific reports show this is already happening and large quantities of methane – the result of anaerobic digestion of organic matter –are bubbling from the lakes even as you read.

  • The reduction of Polar Ice cover. There is another feedback (positive) that is much more widely understood and will add significantly to the problem if, or rather when, polar ice cover is reduced. It is referred to as the Albedo Effect and relates to the reflectivity of the surface of the planet. Looking at the surface from space the poles are pure white and white is a highly reflective colour. Water, on the other hand is dark and absorptive and the difference between the two is huge. Ice reflects about 95 per cent of arriving solar energy while the ocean absorbs about 95 per cent. As the climate warms the ice melts and the amount of solar radiation retained increases radically – which increases the temperature which melts more ice which, in turn, further increases the temperature…

Triggering any one of these feedbacks could well be that ‘tipping point ’we are so worried about, as one will cause another and so on. So the idea that two have already tripped in is very dire news indeed and suggests we have a very big fight on our hands.

Now we come to CO2 (or GHG) levels: Reference is often made to the target or safe level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere. This is the level that would avoid the ‘Runaway’ effect and maintain a stable if warmer climate and is conveniently argued to be in the 450 to 500 parts per million (ppm) range. Convenient, if that were true, for most of today’s generation in power, who think our economies can continue growing and that they can live out untroubled lives while leaving the problem to coming generations.

From my analysis I believe that the sustained level above which we court disaster is around 320/330ppm. For those who do not follow the science, atmospheric carbon was 379ppm in 2005, so we are already well above my tipping point, and CO2 now seems to be rising at about 2ppm/year, so I believe we are well above critical.

This would suggest that events might happen very fast – which, seen from a climate history timescale, is indeed what is happening. Even one more month’s emissions is deeply worrying.

Against this, the IPCC scenarios consider stabilisation levels in the 400 to 800ppm range, but even their most optimistic forecast is for global emissions in 2030 to be higher than now, with the range being between 20 per cent (incredibly optimistic) and 90 per cent higher.

I cannot see how such emissions could be any-thing other than fatal. We need to move to a zero (if not negative carbon) world as fast as our brains can get us there. The longer we leave facing up to the problem the more difficult it will become – and at some point the ‘impossible’ flag will go up.