Doomed Planet

The IPCC’s Seldom Mentioned ‘Uncertainties’

The IPCC’s latest serve of climate catastrophism, released just before the UN General Assembly met in New York last month, ironically contained some good news. But not even “inadequate” models, “limited” observations, poor understanding, dodgy “projections” and revelations about “deep uncertainty” could rein in the hyperbole.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN agency that “assesses” the status of climate-change science and produces reports on it. It also prepares a Summary for Policymakers (SPM). This document is crafted to be digestible by climate bureaucrats, national leaders and the media, most of whom have been drip-fed alarmist rhetoric for years, if not decades.

The IPCC is an odd outfit. Created in 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it is no surprise to learn its Secretariat is located in the latter’s Geneva building. Except for the Secretary Abdalah Mokssit, a Moroccan applied mathematician and meteorologist, most of its 18 staff seem to be “communications and media specialists” or administrators. The current chair is Hoesung Lee, a South Korean economist. He was elected in late 2015, after Rajendra Pachauri. resigned under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations.

The assessment reports are described as “neutral, policy relevant but not policy prescriptive”. Translation: we are not telling you what to do, but encourage you to do what we are telling you. They are “drafted and reviewed in several stages”. This byzantine process with its own jargon – “a calibrated language for the communication of confidence” – apparently ensures “objectivity and transparency”. The IPCC does not conduct its own research.

As the reports “are a key input into the international negotiations to tackle climate change”, some critics suggest there is a conflict of interest. Could a carefully selected group of scientists come up with a document contrary to the wishes of its founders or the UN itself, especially on an issue that has morphed into a global secular religion? After all, a cynic might say any organisation that deliberately encourages eco-anxiety and the radicalising of juveniles “to meaningfully engage with decision-makers on the defining issue of our time” — as at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit 2019 — is capable of anything, even being economical with the truth.

More on that later. Over September 20 – 23, the IPCC met in Monaco to consider its latest offering, a 173-page Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). Approved on September 24, it was launched the next day at Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum. The Final Draft, we are told, was prepared by 104 authors – 31 women and 73 men – from 36 countries, 19 (53%) of which were developing countries or countries with economies in transition.

Can truth be determined by the number of references, however broad, scrutinised for a research effort, or how many comments are made during an assessment? If so, the SROCC is impressive, with 6,981 publications listed as references. As for comments, there were 31,176 from expert reviewers and governments in 80 countries (First Order Draft: 12,002; Second Order Draft: 16,137; Final Draft: 3037. None of them seem to be in the public domain.) The SROCC’s key findings were then recast as a 42-page Summary for Policymakers (SPM) by 49 “drafting authors”, under the joint scientific leadership of IPCC Working Groups I and II.

The word “cryosphere”, is from the Greek kryos, meaning cold or ice. How many comments were exchanged trying to decide whether such a word, one that hardly slips off the tongue in six languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish — should be used in a report designed to hype the “existential crisis” of a Hothouse Earth? Climate alarmism is not a dish that is best served cold. In the IPCC context, it “describes the frozen components of the Earth system, including snow, glaciers, ice-sheets and ice shelves, icebergs and sea ice, ice on lakes and rivers as well as permafrost and seasonally frozen ground.”

A global media chorus of concern followed the report’s release before one could say How Dare You!  Most agencies, however, seem to have read only the IPCC’s Press Release or the SPM. How dare they! Our ABC was one of them. On  September 26, two posts appeared on The World Today under the heading: “Climate change threat from the sea”:

 “The latest IPCC warning about the ‘catastrophic’ impact of climate change,” the ABC website declared, “concentrates on oceans and coastlines — and one expert says it may already be too late.” (Quadrant Online contributor Jack Weatherall took a close look at one of those reports and was not impressed, most particularly by the first item’s citing of a Newcastle beach’s erosion as evidence of engulfing sees and climate change.) One expert, of course, is sufficient when the end-game is alarmism. On this occasion the ABC turned to Professor Matthew England, Deputy Director of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, and a contributing author on two earlier IPCC Assessment Reports. “As we’ve been hearing, the IPCC report finds that the world’s oceans have been absorbing 90 per cent of the excess heat in our climate system and that’s been keeping atmospheric temperatures down,” the professor asserted. If more isn’t done “to tackle the problem, the implications for countries like Australia could be enormous.”

Professor England, “one of the world’s top oceanographers and climate scientists, warns we may be reaching a tipping point on that now,” said compere Eleanor Hall. “He says the IPCC warning of ‘catastrophic’ sea level rise is very unusual for a conservative organisation, and must be taken seriously.” It was, she intoned, a “very confronting finding”. Professor England shared the IPCC’s concern. He baulked, however, at the tipping point suggestion like a wary horse in a steeplechase. It was a hurdle too far on the day: “We don’t know how close we are to these tipping points,” he replied. They apparently can only be “discovered” once we have passed them. In other words, they are unpredictable. Oops. Could it be, dear reader, that tipping points are more at home at the races than in climate modeller nightmares?

Eleanor Hall: This report focuses on the oceans and the ice caps. It’s predicting more rapid sea level rises and faster melting of the ice caps compared to just five years ago. Some people accuse scientists of exaggerating the threat. Does this [new report] suggest scientists have been over-cautious in their predictions? (1.50min.) 

Professor England: Part of what’s happening is a lot of these signals we previously saw creeping along at a certain rate, these have picked up in the last five years because we’re basically pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They energise the system. They warm the oceans. They melt the polar ice caps. This acceleration is expected, but the fact it’s gone as high as we’ve seen has been surprising. (2.09min.) 

Eleanor Hall: One scientist calls the Arctic sea ice decline unprecedented in at least a 1,000 years. Are we getting closer to some of the feared tipping points for climate change at the Earth’s poles? 

Professor England: Yes, potentially. We don’t know how close we are to these tipping points. Unfortunately, they are only discovered once we’ve passed them. The Arctic is a great example. Once the ice melts there, that system absorbs heat much more rapidly than a reflective ice surface. And that warming at the Arctic is so rapid that the Greenland Ice Sheet sitting right next to it is exposed to much warmer temperatures.  

Unfortunately, there’s so much ice locked up there we’re talking a five metre sea level rise by 2300. (3.07mim.) All the world’s cities will have to be thinking about sea walls at massive costs or abandoning massive infrastructure. 

When you have tipping points, you get such a rapid rate of change to the system that actually adapting becomes probably impossible. 

Eleanor Hall: So you’re saying that even scientists are often not aware of when we’re approaching a tipping point? 

Professor England: Yes. Tipping points come about due to the non-linearity of the [climate] system. What I mean by that is you get a small change triggering a larger impact. You can get breaking up of an ice sheet and a rate of sea-level rise that we are [initially] comfortable to adapt to. At the moment, we have had only 15 cm of sea-level rise over the last 30 to 40 years. That has already caused a lot of damage to the coast. But 15cm is a very tiny fraction of the five metres being forecast by 2300. (3.55min.)

I should say 2300 does sound like a long, long time away but it’s only six or seven generations. That’s why we’re seeing all these protests from students today. They’re recognising the fact that we’re leaving them with a huge debt.

Yes, he actually said it: scientists are never – or seldom ever – aware of an “approaching” tipping point precisely because tipping points are unpredictable. Assertions to the contrary are somewhere between speculation and fear-mongering, given the “non-linearity of the [climate] system”. Paradoxically, the global climate itself is what the IPCC used to call “a coupled non-linear chaotic system”, hence “long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.” (IPCC 3rd Assessment Report; Section 14.2.2.2, p. 774, 2001).

The real mystery here, however, is not the climate. It is why so many researchers chose to remain silent about the veracity of modeller “forecasts”, especially decades or centuries ahead, even when the consequence is climate hysteria. One can hardly blame the ABC. It merely quoted from the IPCC’s emphatic Monaco Press Release the previous day:

Sea level will continue to rise for centuries. It could reach around 30-60cm by 2100, even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming limited to well below 2C, but around 60-110cm if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase strongly.

According to Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated in recent decades, “due to growing water inputs from ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, in addition to the contribution of melt water from glaciers and the expansion of warmer sea waters.”

One “feared tipping point” not discussed in the ABC interview was Antarctica, the world’s fifth-largest continent. Ms Masson-Delmotte certainly mentioned it.

This new assessment also has revised upwards the projected contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet to sea level rise by 2100 in the case of high emissions of greenhouse gases,” she said. “The wider range of sea level projections for 2100 and beyond is related to how ice sheets will react to warming, especially in Antarctica, with major uncertainties still remaining. (IPCC Monaco Press Release, 25 September, 2019)

A phrase of just five words – with major uncertainties still remaining – but one with momentous implications. How can the IPCC justify revising upwards Antarctica’s projected contribution to global sea level given this admission? The answer lies buried in an icy world of deep uncertainty, one where the planet’s coldest-ever temperature was recorded on 21 July, 1983 – minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius). Far too cold, surely, for melting of such a huge ice sheet to be a serious threat.

Ninety per cent of the world’s ice (29 million cubic kilometres) and approximately 80 per cent of its fresh water, is locked up in the Antarctic ice sheet. If all the ice were to melt, the level of the world’s oceans would rise by nearly 60 metres. However, the response of the ice sheet to global warming is the largest unknown in projecting future sea level over the next 100–1000 years. — Australian Antarctic Division

Furthermore, key SROCC “high confidence” alarmist statements are often contradicted or compromised by a “low confidence” statement, or by words like “potential”, “may be”, “within a few centuries”. For example:

3.3 Acceleration of ice flow and retreat in Antarctica, which has the potential to lead to sea-level rise of several metres within a few centuries, is observed in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica and in Wilkes Land, East Antarctica (very high confidence). These changes may be the onset of an irreversible ice sheet instability. Uncertainty related to the onset of ice sheet instability arises from limited observations, inadequate model representation of ice sheet processes, and limited understanding of the complex interactions between the atmosphere, ocean and the ice sheet. {3.3.1, Cross-Chapter Box 8 in Chapter 3, 4.2.3} (SROCC, 24 September, 2019)

It gets worse. From Chapter 1 of the SROCC Final Draft (pages 41 to 48):

In some cases, deep uncertainty may exist in current scientific assessments of the processes, rate, timing, magnitude, and consequences of future ocean and cryosphere changes. This includes physically plausible high-impact changes, such as high-end sea level rise scenarios.

Existing guidelines to ensure consistent treatment of uncertainties by IPCC author teams (Mastrandrea et al., 2010; Section 1.9.2) may not be sufficient to ensure the desired consistency or guide robust findings when conditions of deep uncertainty are present (Adler and HirschHadorn, 2014). The IPCC, and earlier assessments, encountered deep uncertainty when evaluating numerous aspects of the climate change problem.

Deep Uncertainty – Case B —Antarctic ice sheet and sea level rise: Dynamical ice loss from Antarctica provides an example of lack of knowledge about processes, and disagreement about appropriate models and probability distributions for representing uncertainty. However, the magnitude of additional rise beyond 2100, and the probability of greater sea level rise than that included in the likely range before 2100, are characterised by deep uncertainty (Section 4.2.3).

What can be learned, the authors ask, from addressing the SROCC cases of that “deep uncertainty”?  In Case B above, the lack of “adequate” models produced “divergent views on the probability of ice loss and led to deep uncertainty”, but clearly not for the authors of the IPCC media release.

As in any good horror movie, the SROCC’s coup de grâce does not appear until the final pages, at least in Chapter 3. Note the “critical priorities for future initiatives” below and prepare for yet more model mania. 

Overturning circulation in the Southern Ocean is a key factor that controls heat and carbon exchanges with the atmosphere, and hence global climate, however there are no direct measures of this and only sparse indirect indicators of how it may be changing. This is a critical weakness in sustained observations of the global ocean. (SROCC, Final draft, chapter 3, section 3.7, Key Knowledge Gaps and Uncertainties, 2019)

Snow depth on sea ice is essentially unmeasured, limiting mass balance estimates and ice thickness retrievals. Improved mechanistic understanding of the observed changes and trends in Antarctic sea ice is required, notably the decadal increase and very recent rapid retreat. This has consequences for climate, ecosystems and fisheries; however, lack of understanding and poor model performance translates to very limited predictive skill.  

There is a need to better understand the evolution of polar glaciers and ice sheets, and their influences on global sea level. Longer and improved quantifications of their changes are required, especially where mass losses are greatest, and (relatedly) better attribution of natural versus anthropogenic drivers. Better understanding of the sensitivity of Antarctica to marine ice sheet instability is required, and whether recent changes in West Antarctica represent the onset of irreversible change. 

So be vigilant when perusing an IPCC climate report. Read between the lines, especially the Press Release and Summary for Policymakers. For the Devil — or uncertainty monster — is indeed in the detail.

 Who would have thought there are (page 173): “critical gaps in knowledge concerning interactions between the atmosphere and specific elements of the polar ocean and cryosphere”?

For me, one comment – the last in the SPM – reveals the UN’s real purpose here: co-opt the IPCC to develop a “scientific” argument validating its 17 Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while trumpeting the need for urgent “transformative change”.

This assessment of the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate reveals the benefits of ambitious mitigation and effective adaptation for sustainable development and, conversely, the escalating costs and risks of delayed action. The potential to chart Climate Resilient Development Pathways varies within and among ocean, high mountain and polar land regions. Realising this potential depends on transformative change. This highlights the urgency of prioritising timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action.

How dare you!

8 comments
  • MichaelinBrisbane

    But what are we doing about it?
    I doubt glueing to a roadway will help.
    If “Carbon” is the problem then let’s get on with the job, properly, and not with those silly windmills and solar panels. They’ll al be obsolete before we know it.
    The job is simple — just build nuclear power stations and phase out those “dirty” “fossil” fuel jobs.
    We can do it!
    By my rough and ready arithmetic, we only need to build two 1GW power stations per week between now and 2050 to complete the target of “de-carbonising” the “planet” by then. (Perhaps I’ve forgotten to allow for additional generation to power all our electric cars, trucks, trains, boats and planes. Batteries??)

  • Ian MacDougall

    What does one do when driving on a winding mountain road with many blind curves and bends? Why, one treads on the accelerator, of course!
    The Earth’s atmosphere-hydrosphere-biosphere-cryosphere-lithosphere system is the most complex system we know of in the whole Universe. Uncertainties abound. But we have known since the work of Arrhenius around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries that CO2 is a heat-trapping gas. We also know of other uncertainties, like the possible release of massive quantities of methane trapped in Arctic tundra: with about 40 times more heat-trapping potential in every molecule than in CO2.. This IMHO should be adequate grounds for treading warily, and hastening the adoption of renewables over coal-fired power. But not for coal shills like Michael Kile. Uncertainty is presented above as an argument to literally pile on the coal and go full steam ahead..
    One could be forgiven for concluding that Kile owns a coal mine or two, or at least has a nice portfolio of fossil carbon shares.
    But don’t get in front of him if out driving on a mountain road.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Up against the wall! Now!

  • ianl

    > ” … a cynic might say any organisation that deliberately encourages eco-anxiety and the radicalising of juveniles “to meaningfully engage with decision-makers on the defining issue of our time” — as at the United Nations Youth Climate Summit 2019 — is capable of anything, even being economical with the truth”

    Why must saying that be cynical ? I won’t get a sensible answer to that.

    Antarctica has a central land ice mass over 4km thick, thicker than the deepest of the oceanic trenches and spread over a continent considerably larger than Australia. Winter temperatures peak around -60C while summer temperatures range from -20C to -30C. Calving glaciers are spectacular but not climatically significant. Only plate tectonics can finally push that icesheet to melt, eventually undoing the freezing begun by tectonics about 35 million years ago.

    Climate is a dynamic, continually evolving process with non-linear, coupled, chaotic inputs whose relative significance we do not know. Pretending to reliable prediction is genuine hubris – and quite mad.

  • rod.stuart

    In the comments we are given to understand that “we have known since the work of Arrhenius around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries that CO2 is a heat-trapping gas.” Who is this “we”?
    Was it Edith Foote in 1856, or John Tyndall in 1859, or Arrhenius in 1859 that came to a conclusion which is still indisputable? Have the fields of fluid mechanics and radiative physics not progressed a wee tad since those early days? Were those folks aware of Clark Maxwell’s future work which would demonstrate that the heat transfer related to this “feedback” nonsense of necessity would take place at minus 80 degrees C?
    The sun’s photosphere radius is 6.960 E8 m, spherical surface of 6.087 E18 m^2 and a surface temperature of 5,778 K for a S-B BB power flux of 6.320 E7 W/m^2 and a luminosity of 3.847 E26 watts.
    This luminous wattage expands through space and reaches the earth at an average orbital radius of 1.496 E11 m for a spherical surface area of 2.812E m^2 yielding a power flux of 3.828E26 W / 2.812E m^2 = 1,368 W/m^2.
    Notice in this sun/earth radiation calculation there is no mention or inclusion or calculation for “back” radiation from the earth’s ToA surface counteracting the solar radiation and a “net” radiation value.
    In an earth modeled as a ball suspended in a bucket of warm fluid this 1,368 W/m^2 power flux is spread evenly over the earth’s entire ToA. A sphere of radius r has 4 times the surface area as a disc of radius r, therefore 1,368 / 4 = 342 W/m^2 ISR. 102 W/m^2 reflected by albedo for 240 W/m^2 ASR at 100 km.
    NASA considers 100 km to be the ToA and location of the radiative balance, i.e. 240 W/m^2 ASR and 240 W/m^2 OLR.
    This 240 W/m^2 OLR wasn’t called “back” radiation in the sun/earth calculation.
    Now the earth’s surface plus atmosphere becomes the hot source and ToA the cold sink.
    (17 + 80 + 63) = 160 + 80 = 240 W/m^2 OLR
    All the energy numbers are accounted for, the balance is satisfied.
    Why is it now necessary to add on the GHG/GHE theory “back” radiation loop when it didn’t factor into the sun/earth surfaces, but now must be included in the earth/ToA calculation?
    Is that all there is to “know”, or is there much more to discover?

  • DG

    All this talk of CO2 and we still need to understand how varying the tiny percentage contributed to the atmosphere by human activity could have any effect when natural processes are thundering along. Even more, with CO2 response being logarithmic, the last couple of percent contribution is probably meaningless. So relax, everyone, and throw another lump of coal on the barbie.

  • Ian MacDougall

    “Even more, with CO2 response being logarithmic, the last couple of percent contribution is probably meaningless….”
    PHEW! What a relief !
    Pity all that worry and tension spoiled the NRL Grand Final for me. Still, there’s always next year. And the year after that….

  • Gerhard Reuter

    I would remind us, that we on Earth are living on the lucky planet.
    Our climate depends on the distance of it from our sun, our orbit about our sun and the presence of water on our planet.
    We humans are the most successful species of vertebrae on the planet. 
    This brings with it the responsibility to look after it to survive into the future.
    It is obvious that we are failing on just about every front.
    Firstly, the idea that we can change the Earth’s climate, to any noticeable degree, is ridiculous, so, we should concentrate on living with and adapting to any changes in our climate.
    We have developed the ability to keep warm when the temperatures drop and to keep cool when they rise above our comfort zones.
    We are obsessed about reducing the level of CO2 in our atmosphere but we should be very careful as to what we wish for. CO2 is a natural greenhouse gas and if one eliminates it, very little vegetation, on which we depend for life, will grow on this planet.
    We might be reminded that horticulturalists are pumping CO2 into their green houses to enhance the growth of seedlings.
    Our planet has been able to cope with the large increases of population of the last century, simply because we have produced more CO2.
    The idea that we can meet the needs for electricity from the second half of this century from renewable sources, is ludicrous and we will have to concentrate on building nuclear power plants for that purpose.
    Fossil fuels are far too valuable to just burn to make steam, to drive turbines to make electricity.
    4000 year ago we were building pyramids and in another 4000 years all fossil fuels are exhausted.
    There is enough uranium in our planet to provide us with power to the end of time on earth.
    One of the most urgent challenges for mankind, as I see it, is to improve our housekeeping. We have polluted our lands and oceans with plastic waste to the point where they threaten life.
    It is though as if we had been defecating on our doorsteps for decades.

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