Congress re-boots on climate, Pt. 1: Senate climate science briefing


capitol_domeSigns of activity as the ‘climate silence’ from the President and Congress come to an end: On February 13 Senate Environment Committee chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) held a “Briefing on the Latest Climate Science” featuring scientists Jim McCarthy, Don Wuebbles, J. Marshall Shepherd, and John Balbus. I counted 7 Democratic members of the committee in attendance; all Republican members appeared to be AWOL. Maybe they already know all about what the climate science community is trying to tell them?

It has always been difficult to get Congress as an institution to come up a collective learning curve on climate change and its implications. It is safe to say that the great majority of members today could not speak knowledgeably and coherently about the most basic aspects of the subject for even six or eight minutes. And the politics of climate change avoidance only add to the problem. Why do members of only one side of the partisan aisle seem even to be trying to have their heads in the game?

An archived webcast of the briefing is posted on the Environment and Public Works Committee’s website (the briefing starts at 12:30 of the webcast), along with written testimony by:

• Dr. James J. McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University; leader of the IPCC Third Assessment Report (2001) on global climate change impacts and vunerabilities, an author of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005), and of the national assessment report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (2009); Past-President of the American Associated for the Advancement of Science and current board chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

• Dr. Donald J. Wuebbles, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Illinois; co-lead of the chapter on climate science in the U.S. National Climate Assessment report now out for public review and a Coordinating Lead Author on the next major IPCC international climate change assessment.

• Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, President of the American Meteorological Society and Director for Program in Atmospheric Sciences, University of Georgia; NOAA Science Advisory Board, NASA Advisory Council, and National Academy of Sciences studies.

• Dr. John M. Balbus, Senior Advisor for Public Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and a lead author of the chapter on Human Health in the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Each of the presenters gave a concise state-of-the-science overview for Senators and staff, followed by a substantial question-and-answer period. I call your attention to Dr. McCarthy’s “Update on the Role of the Oceans in Climate Extremes and Rising Sea Level.” An excerpt from what the AWOL Senators are choosing to avoid:

Some of the observed changes in the ocean, which only a few decades ago were thought unimaginable in our lifetimes, are now occurring as a result of  human-caused climate change. …

Today there is widespread agreement among specialists who devote their careers to perfecting and deploying myriad systems that monitor the state of these indicators that trends for all of them [ocean heat content, sea surface temperature, temperature over oceans, sea level, sea ice, temperature over land, air temperature near surface (troposphere), humidity, glaciers, snow cover] point as would be expected if the Earth is warming. This clear global signal becomes stronger with every passing year. …

Observed Changes in Ocean Temperature

The additional heat in the climate system caused by the greenhouse gases that we release with the burning of fossil fuels and land use practices is now penetrating deep within the oceans. … [I]t is now clear that the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the heat trapped over the past century by greenhouse gases that have accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere due to human activity.

Observed Changes in Arctic Climate

[R]ecent data indicate that new record lows for sea ice extent have been set during summer and autumn 2012. … New research shows links between the summer loss of Arctic sea ice and unusual extreme weather conditions across the temperate regions of North America and Eurasia. …

The extent and duration of summer Greenland melt was the largest since these satellite observations began in 1979. The melting period in 2012 lasted almost two months longer than the average for all years since the satellite observations began. 2012 was the first year in the satellite record that the entire ice sheet experienced melt at some point during the year.

Sea Level Rise

The rate of sea level rise has increased in recent decades, and is today greater than the conservative projections made by the IPCC one or two decades ago, and it is now clear that changes in sea level are speeding up. …

An average sea-level rise of even 2.5 feet [at the low end of some current projected ranges] during this century would be of enormous consequence for lives, livelihoods, and property in coastal regions across the globe. Major cities, large portions of nations, indeed entire island nations will be affected.

In the [U.S.] Gulf Coast area alone, an estimated 2,400 miles of major roadway and 246 miles of freight rail lines are at risk of permanent flooding within 50 to 100 years as [a result of] global warming and land subsidence (sinking). Seven of the 10 largest ports (by tons of traffic) are located on the Gulf Coast. The US Navy estimates that $100 billion of Navy installations would be at risk with a sea level rise of about 3 ft.

For many of us in ocean science the compelling evidence for human-caused climate change came with the observations of deep ocean warming, the ice core data that demonstrate linkages between Earth’s past temperature and atmospheric greenhouse gas content, the acceleration in sea level rise, the abrupt melting of land and ice shelves that had been in place for many thousands of years, and global changes in ocean chemistry. Such changes in these phenomena can only be consistently explained by an unusual rate of greenhouse gas release to the atmosphere.

And this from the presentation by Dr. Wuebbles:

Scientific analyses are now indicating a strong link between changing trends in severe weather events and the changing climate.

Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of a changed background climate. Globally, the temperatures are higher, the sea level is higher, and there is more water vapor in the atmosphere, which energizes storms. So nothing is entirely “natural” anymore. The background atmosphere has changed and continues to change due to human activity.

It’s a fallacy to think that individual events are caused entirely by any one thing, either natural variation or human-induced climate change. Every event is influenced by many factors. Human-induced warming is now a contributing factor in all weather events.

We’re seeing more heat waves and they are hotter and they last longer. And while a particular heat wave may still have occurred in the absence of human-induced warming, it would not have been as hot, or lasted as long, and such events would not occur as frequently. …

The changes occurring in precipitation are also consistent with our understanding of our changing climate. For extreme precipitation, we know why more precipitation is falling in very heavy events: Warmer air holds more water vapor, and so when any given weather system moves through, all that extra water dumps out in a heavy downpour. And in between these downpours there are longer periods without rain. So you get this cycle of very wet and very dry conditions. And we’re seeing this happening now, just as climate studies indicated it would. The same is true for heavy snowfall events.

At the same time, droughts like we have been seeing in recent years in the Southwest and Midwest are projected to become stronger and more frequent as climate change continues.

How much more plainly can such a discussion of global climate disruption be put? All the presenters at the briefing summarized the results of a great deal of highly sophisticated scientific work in readily understandable terms. This, and much more about climate disruption and its impacts, should be part of the consciousness of anyone with relevant policymaking or management responsibility. They should hear it, read it, learn it, be able to talk about it, and be seriously focused on its societal implications.

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Earlier CSW posts referencing Jim McCarthy and Don Wuebbles, two scientist-citizens who push policymakers to act and who push back against the global warming denial machine:

Scientists call on President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline

“Statement on the Cato Institute ADDENDUM Report” by co-authors of the 2009 assessment, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States”

“Like dentists practicing cardiology” – Climate scientists respond to Wall Street Journal disinformer op-ed. When you’re talking about planetary life suppport, it really matters what your credentials are.

James McCarthy and Tim Wirth: Time for Obama to Set the Record Straight on Climate Change

“The president can, and should, say much more [about] the strong scientific evidence on human-induced climate change and its impacts on the United States, and the rapidly closing window for action,” say Harvard Prof. Jim McCarthy and UN Foundation President Tim Wirth, giving voice to what Climate Science Watch has argued repeatedly since before President Obama’s inauguration. The public interest requires that he “deliver a major speech on climate change to the American public,” they write in an April 20 article at Huffington Post. In countering the global warming denial machine, “Scientists do not have a bully pulpit. President Obama does – and the public desperately needs him to use it.” We also endorse the recommendation: “The president should bring together scientists and others with relevant expertise for a White House summit on climate science, the urgency of action, and the opportunity for timely solutions.”

Scientists ill-equipped to deal with all-out war on climate science community

Open Letter to Congress from U.S. Scientists on Climate Change and Recently Stolen Emails

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1 Response to Congress re-boots on climate, Pt. 1: Senate climate science briefing

  1. Forest says:

    The principle driver of disinformation is money. Those who stand to profit will do what ever it takes for their own short term gain, even if it means bringing down the planet.

    How do you get into the mind of these types of (non) thinkers?

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