The Committee on Climate Change
15th October 2013
Dear Lord Deben,
DECC and the Committee on Climate Change
Thank you for agreeing to read this letter. I hope you remember our conversation after the PRASEG Annual Conference. You may find some passages tangential but I hope you will see why I include them. The first tangent is about the classical theory of the optical properties of matter.
The classical theory of the optical properties of matter
When I was reading Physics at Hull, I attended a series of lectures on the optical properties of matter. This used classical physics i.e. the physics developed before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and quantum theory.
At the beginning of the series I wondered why we were being asked to learn a theory, which was based on concepts that had been overtaken by relativity and quantum theory. I assumed that the lecturer was lazy and just used some old notes of lectures he attended years before.
To my great surprise the theory, based on outdated concepts, seemed to work – and work reasonably well. Here was a theory about matter that had hard solid little things called atoms, nuclei and electrons whizzing round inside solid matter affecting the light that passed though it. We then knew such things were a nonsense and that the ‘reality’ was much more complicated, but the theory worked. Amazing!
Later, I realised that this could have been one of the examples that Thomas Kuhn had in mind when he wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This argues that there are concepts in well founded theories which completely disappear after a paradigm shift in scientific theory.
Kuhn argued that the theoretical terms in modern physics were not simply adjustments to those of classical physics but were completely different in nature. Some terms in the older theory would not correspond to anything in the new theory. He gave the term phlogiston as used by Alchemists as an example. This was a term which had meaning in older theories that could not possibly translate or approximate to anything in modern chemistry.
For reasons I will relegate to a later appendix, Kuhn was wrong – but the important message is that phlogiston made the theories of the Alchemists work well enough to be of practical use. Just as the anachronistic concepts in classical physics made the classical theory of the optical properties of matter work.
The Spirits in Government Departments
OK, that was hard work – for me anyway, but it brings me to the main players in my argument: the Spirits in Government Departments. I do not mean this as a mystical term. I use spirit as a term in a theory to predict and explain the actions of government departments. It is what R.B. Braithwaite called an uninterpreted theoretical term: This covered such terms as electron and atom.
My use of the term spirit is similar to that used in the phrase “in the spirit of” as in “that’s not in the spirit of the game”. The use of this construct has these advantages.
1. It avoids tedious and lengthy discussion about the minutia of departmental statements.
2. It allows discussion about departmental aims and objectives that can only be discerned from the externally visible patterns of the department’s behaviour.
3. Spirits can’t sue.
I know that the spirit will not be embodied in one person. It is similar to the concepts of zeitgeist and weltanschauung. I am using it as a tool for explaining the actions of government departments – those actions of that are visible to us outsiders.
The first spirit in the department (Sid) that I will discuss is in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I will call him (Yes, ‘him’) the Sid of Decc. I can describe him in some detail and, true to scientific method, can use his characteristics to make testable predictions of his actions and responses. Later I will discuss the spirit in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs, the Sid of Defra.
The Sid of Decc
The Sid of Decc has given up on climate change. He captured the brief from that other department (where you were once the politician in charge) in order that this awkward topic could be managed. He believes that the UK can do little about climate change so we need secure energy supply and he wants this to be as cheap as possible. I have heard it put like this “It’s too late to stop climate change. We need lots of nuclear power stations and a big navy.”
He is influenced by large commercial interests, like the big power companies, and little influenced by NGOs concerned with the climate. (See for example Energy companies have lent more than 50 staff to government departments.)
The Sid of Decc uses uncertainty and doubt to keep the climate change agenda under control, using the underlying assumption that, if something is not fully understood it cannot be considered in policy making. Examples of topics that this applies to are: the radiative forcing index for air travel, the missing feedbacks in climate models and the “weird weather” we may be now experiencing. The Sid of Decc maintains these are not properly understood so they do not exist. Sid maintains this but he does not really believe what he says.
Appointments to the Committee on Climate Change
The Sid of Decc manages Appointments to the Committee on Climate Change. I have met all of the members of your committee except Professor Julia King and Sir Brian Hoskins. I have had the response that Sir Brian is the only climate scientist on the committee and the committee defers to him on the science of climate change. (See, for example, my letter to Paul Johnson.) I do note from his Wikipedia entry that his expertise is in meteorology and climate modelling. As you may see from a piece on my BrusselsBlog, I have reservations about climate models.
A key aspect in understanding climate change is the study of the paleoclimate, in which it seems the committee has no obvious expertise. In his latest newsletter, An Old Story, but Useful Lessons, James Hansen says:
Paleoclimate, changes of climate over Earth’s history, provide valuable insights about the effects of human perturbations to climate, even though there is no close paleoclimate analog of the strong, rapid forcing that humans are applying to the climate system.
International discussions of human – made climate change (e.g., IPCC) rely heavily on global climate models, with less emphasis on inferences from the paleorecord. A proper thing to say is that paleoclimate data and global modeling need to go hand in hand to develop best understanding — almost everyone will agree with that.
However, it seems to me that paleo is still getting short-shrifted and underutilized. In contrast, there is a tendency in the literature to treat an ensemble of model runs as if its distribution function is a distribution function for the truth, i.e., for the real world. Wow. What a terrible misunderstanding. Today’s models have many assumptions and likely many flaws in common, so varying the parameters in them does not give a probability distribution for the real world, yet that is often implicitly assumed to be the case.
Can the committee be balanced without some expertise in interpreting the lessons from the paleoclimate?
I think the Sid of Decc has got what he wants: A committee that is not geared to answering some of the more serious messages about the state of our climate.
The Met Office and the Hadley Centre
The Sid of Decc will also be comfortable with the Met Office and their research arm, the Hadley Centre. One of their main activities relating to climate change is constructing computer models of the climate. I do not underestimate the expertise that goes into these models or their importance – but they are not yet capable of representing important physical and chemical effects that will affect our climate in the coming decades.
The key issue is the one of missing feedbacks. I have been raising this issue with your committee since 2008. I suspect that some of the answers that I received may have been influenced by staff from the Met Office. Is this correct? How much contact has their been between your committee and Met Office scientists?
The Sid of Decc would definitely be comfortable with the omission of missing feedbacks: this omission underplays the dangers of climate change.
Myles Allen and the Trillion Tonne hypothesis
I believe the Sid of Decc is keen to promote the work of Myles Allen. The crucial paper is Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne. The gist of this paper is that 1,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon can be emitted into the atmosphere before average global temperatures rise by 2°C. 2°C has often been seen as the limit at which “dangerous climate change” occurs. According to Allen et. al. , at the time of publication in 2009, anthropogenic emissions were about half the trillion tonne limit.
The Sid of Decc would be pleased by this result: since 1750 (ish) the world has emitted half its carbon budget for dangerous climate change. So we might assume that there is enough time to change our ways. No panic. We must simply plan to reach a peak – sometime in the future – before reducing the world’s emissions to zero in order to keep total emissions below the dangerous limit.
A key point in Trillion Tonne was that the timing of emissions had little effect on the final global average temperature. A corollary is that emissions of greenhouse gasses, which disappear from the atmosphere in a relatively short time, are not important if they disappeared from the atmosphere before the danger level is reached. Thus anthropogenic emissions of gasses such as methane were of little importance unless they lasted until atmospheric concentrations reached the danger level.
As you will know, methane is a greenhouse gas between 25 and 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This depends on the way it is calculated. One of its major anthropogenic sources is animal husbandry with cattle and sheep and other ruminants being big emitters of methane. If the production of beef and lamb were to be considered a serious threat to the climate then the cousin of the Sid of Decc, the Sid of Defra would not be pleased.
Trillion Tonne therefore gets the support of the Sids of two government departments. Other Sids from Biz and the Treasury would also approve.
But in my view, Trillion Tonne is a nonsense based on a incorrect assumptions. It was the product of running computer models many times with different scenarios for the emissions of greenhouse gasses. The authors say
the relationship between cumulative emissions and peak warming is remarkably insensitive to the emission pathway (timing of emissions or peak emission rate). Hence policy targets based on limiting cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide are likely to be more robust to scientific uncertainty than emission-rate or concentration targets. Total anthropogenic emissions of one trillion tonnes of carbon (3.67 trillion tonnes of CO2), about half of which has already been emitted since industrialization began, results in a most likely peak carbon-dioxide-induced warming of 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, with a 5–95% confidence interval of 1.3–3.9 °C.
But there are …
Missing climate feedbacks
One problem with Trillion Tonne is that the models used were good enough for predicting the future of the climate. They may have been models which were state-of-the-art at the time but even now the latest models seem to be struggling to incorporate important aspects of the real world: positive climate feedback effects. These feedbacks are likely to be large and, in my view, their omission greatly diminishes the value of the Trillion Tonne argument.
Let me underline this point. Last year Professor John Mitchell OBE FRS, Principal Research Fellow, at the Met Office, kindly replied to my email about the feedbacks that were in climate models. Here is the part of his reply that concerns the missing/incomplete feedbacks:
5. more forest fires
5 we don’t do yet, but could be important for changing ecosystems response to climate.
6. melting permafrost
6a/b [GB – a:CO2, b:CH4] we don’t have in the GCM, but have some simple modelling of. Too early to show any results yet, but we plan to publish later this year. Bottom line is that both CH4 and CO2 will be released as permafrost thaws. The magnitude is uncertain, but likely to be significant.
7. increased decomposition of wetlands
7, we have in HadGEM2 but didn’t enable as a fully coupled feedback, but we can diagnose changes in wetland extent and CH4 emissions
I would add that although these things may be important, they are not always easy to quantify, model, initialize and validate, especially 5-7. That is why is taking time to implement them.
Missing climate feedbacks and your committee
Since 2008 I have been highlighting such issues to your committee, particularly with respect to emissions of methane and carbon dioxide that come from melting Arctic regions. I characterise the responses I have received as: “It is not well understood so it doesn’t exist”.
If you look at previous correspondence that I have had with your committee, there are other issues I will raise in my next part of this letter. In the meantime you may wish to look at a report by the Global Commons Institute. It says:
IPCC publishes the 5th Assessment [AR5] in September 2013. & significantly under-state the rate extent of impending change
It is already clear IPCC AR5 under-represents the rate and the extent of the climate changes that are now increasingly likely to occur.
At the heart of this ‘conservatism’ is the omission of major feedback effects from the climate-models used to inform the AR5. In fact the entire suite of the climate-change projections in AR5 for the next 100 years come from models that omit significant ‘positive feedback’ effects from what are already starting to become potentially major sources of non-human carbon-emission releases.
We don’t understand it so doesn’t exist
I have just come across a very worrying video, Last Hours. It concerns the role of methane release in raising the Earth’s temperature during previous mass extinctions of life on Earth. I raised this issue with the Committee on Climate Change in 2008 to which I got answers, from the Committee and also from government sources, which seemed to mean “We don’t completely understand it so doesn’t exist in our policy considerations”. One answer from your committee was
On the subject of methane and climate feedback; we do not assign probabilities to methane release because we do not yet know enough about these processes to include them in our models projections.
This video raises the possibility of another mass extinction on Earth. It features several serious scientists. It deserves a better response than “We don’t understand it so doesn’t exist”. I shall ask my MP to forward my concern to the Secretary of State. I hope he asks your committee for a fuller answer.
An additional Note
The Committee on Climate Change
16th October 2013
Dear Lord Deben,
DECC and the Committee on Climate Change – A clarification
I added a postscript to yesterday’s letter concerning the video, Last Hours. This message in this video does deserve an adequate response from the Committee on Climate Change and the UK Government.
I now feel this may have diluted the other points in my letter.
I hope the expertise in the Committee on Climate Change can examine the climate feedbacks that have not yet been assigned probabilities. One example, can be found in a recent report in USA Today Alaska sinks as climate change thaws permafrost
USA TODAY traveled to the Fairbanks area, where workers were busy insulating thaw-damaged roads this summer amid a record number of 80-degree (or hotter) days, as the eighth stop in a year-long series to explore how climate change is changing lives.
The pace of permafrost thawing is “accelerating,” says Vladimir Romanovsky, who runs the University of Alaska’s Permafrost Laboratory in Fairbanks. He expects widespread degradation will start in a decade or two. By mid-century, his models suggest, permafrost could thaw in at least a third of Alaska and by 2100, in two-thirds of the state.
“This rapid thawing is unprecedented” and is largely due to fossil-fuel emissions, says Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. He says it’s already emitting its own heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane, but the amount will skyrocket in the next 20 to 30 years. “Once the emissions start, they can’t be turned off.”
As I am sure you already know, these missing feedbacks are already happening and do have serious consequences that need to be considered before the doomsday scenario presented in Last Hours.
Reply from Lord Deben
The Committee on Climate Change 1st Floor,
7 Holbein Place,
London SW1W 8NR
17 October 2013
Dear Mr Beacon,
The CCC is in the process of considering the effect of permafrost melt and other feedbacks on future global warming.
Previously we informed you that there were no comprehensive assessments to quantify these feedbacks, and this was why we did not include them (although we have been careful to flag this as an issue in our earlier reports). The IPCC’s 5th Assessment contains for the first time a set of quantitative estimates for permafrost and other feedbacks. See chapter 6, available at http://www.climatechange2013.org/report/review-drafts/ for further details.
The scientific confidence regarding the understanding of these processes is still regarded as low, but we are working with the Met Office to assess the implications for global emissions pathways. We will report our conclusions in early November.
Chairman, Committee on Climate Change
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