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Two Studies Now Confirm Extreme Weather Caused by Global Warming

David Hone's picture
Chief Climate Change Adviser Shell International Ltd.

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member of the International Emissions Trading Association...

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  • Aug 13, 2012

As the NASA Curiosity rover touched down gently on Mars and began its 2+ year observation and exploration of its surrounding terrain, the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies announced the publication of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I reported on a pre-publication release of this paper back in April and was able to reproduce a much simpler version of the analysis using New York Central Park data in a more recent posting. As demonstrated by Curiosity, NASA is a formidable science based organization and one whose findings should not be taken lightly. An early version of the paper appeared back in March, before the extended heat wave experienced in the USA through most of July.

The analysis shows how the distribution of summer temperatures has shifted in recent decades, to the extent that there has been a notable change in the frequency of what were extreme outlying events. This in turn led NASA to assert that “the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming”.


As it turns out, July has been confirmed as the single hottest month ever recorded in the continental United States. The average temperature across the Lower 48 was 77.6 °F, 3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported. That edged out the previous high mark, set in 1936, by two-tenths of a degree, NOAA said. In addition, the seven months of 2012 to date are the warmest of any year on record and were drier than average as well, NOAA said. U.S. forecasters started keeping records in 1895.

Some of course will question the validity of the data used by NASA GISS, but just days before their announcement came a second release of findings from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. They found that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by 1.5 °C over the past 250 years. The Berkeley study noted that the good match between the temperature record and historical carbon dioxide suggests that the most straightforward explanation for this warming is human greenhouse gas emissions. One of their key charts is shown below.


While the analysis from NASA and the data validation from Berkeley will still not satisfy everyone, they will hopefully begin to put to rest the ongoing science controversy that seems to hamper any rational thought about the best approach to actually addressing the issue of rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

Since the creation of the UNFCCC 20 years ago after the first Earth Summit, many have lost hope that a multilateral approach can achieve anything, particularly after the setback of Copenhagen (another attempt plagued by science and temperature controversy just as world leaders gathered) and the eventual failure of that process to agree anything substantive in terms of mitigation efforts for the period 2013-2020. Yet it will ultimately only be such a multilateral approach that can eventually tackle the problem of global emissions – not necessarily to dictate to the world how to do it, but to at least set the direction and timetable for what will ultimately be a bottom up approach. No one country, region or industrial sector can solve this unilaterally. Even if the big three, China, the USA and the major EU economies acted alone (with China reaching a plateau in the short term and then reducing by 50% by 2050 and the US and EU reducing by 80% by 2050), global emissions would plateau at best (see chart below) assuming that the rest of the world emissions grew by no more than 1.5% per annum over the next 40 years (in fact they have been growing at well over 2% p.a. over recent decades). So this issue needs a response from all nations.

As the agreement at COP 17 in Durban “to try once again” gains momentum and turns into a full negotiation process it will be important to lay down foundations that might actually deliver a workable outcome. This is a subject that I hope to revisit in a number of posting between now and the end of the year.

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Rajat Sen's picture
Rajat Sen on Aug 14, 2012

I believe a majority of us accept that warmer temperatures we are experiencing is linked to global warming. I am glad to see detailed rigorous anaylsis proving that link. I am sure there are skeptics and there always will be skeptics. The question in my mind is how come, even with a majority of citizens accepting that global warming is contributing to our weather, we are unable to develop and implement coherent policies that may slow the warming in the future. How come the skeptics, even though they are a minority, can thwart the will of the majority? Is it because, even there is a link between the hot summers and intense weather events, they are not sufficiently bad for us to act yet? When will that time come when reality stares us in the face and forces us to act?

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 15, 2012

Living in a forested area attracting motoring tourists and now crop farmers, I have seen this trend explicitly for over a half century. And I have warned of not respecting the lessons learned from the past. The climate of plowed earth is different than forest and grassland. It amazes me something so fundamental gets so lost in this discussion. The birds and bugs know it.

A few months ago a stray kitten showed up hungry. We fed the sweet animal, and she will now become several hungry cats any day. This has happened before, until they get inbred and sickly. We've had cats with all the Vet treatments, and they disappear. You could try talk to the cats about limits and restraint, but they have a will of their own, until they beg for your sympathy.

Something happened in the 20th century that completely changed human interaction with the Earth: the tractor. The "Green Revolution" of agriculture is usally considered the rise in use of genetics and chemicals. But farm machinery played a far more significant role and led to a previous "dust bowl." Horses and oxen were first replaced by huge steam systems, then primitive steel wheel tractors started with a hand crank, now machines larger than an average house with a cab that looks like a spacecraft cockpit. And the global population soared while every corner of the Earth that could be farmed is farmed.

I don't know how we avoid catastrophe. President Obama says he will help the drought like he helped our economy and world peace and health care and renewable energy: just give him more money. It's hard enough for many just to be scared, and being treated like a fool is too much.

If those that talk so much of their concern for climate really cared about the human footprint, and not just money, modern agriculture would be included for consideration. A carbon tax is like another drink to cure a hangover.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 15, 2012

Willem, I think we just saw evidence of this issue.

Charles Dickens wrote extensively about the early coal based industrial England. Queen Victoria saw it and resolved improvements. The recent London Olympics was witness to clean air, clean old stone architecture, and healthy British. Congratulations London on a great global celebration of what people can do.

I had a visitor from England during much of the Olympics and we argued why I almost had trouble while there last year. I just couldn't stand all the negative punks I overheard in public places while I was dazzled by the splendor. Upon return home, our visitor said all the newspapers wondered aloud why their nation was suddenly nice again, and proud, and happy, and how they might preserve some positive attitude.

So I think we are all rubbed a little raw in this energy/environment discussion by self serving half truths and criticisms. The fact is it takes hard, smart work to accomplish anything. And we have a lot to admire and be thankful for. And for those who are ready to criticize, we would love to see your better way: that is how England clawed its way out of the stone age to the gleaming capital of progressive society it is today.

Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Aug 18, 2012

Rajat Sen,   You have said it so well.   So many feel this way.  Thank you sir.  

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 19, 2012

DannyE, Durwood Dugger has contributed many times to TEC. His contributions mostly pertain to the fact that Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium (NPK) are simply not available to continue current food production levels and methods. He works with aquaculture to expand resources.

He does not warrant the "shoot first, ask questions later" self righteousness of your comment. He is trying to help the problem. He has a good web site describing his efforts.

Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Aug 20, 2012

As always, Mr. Post chooses to use evidence of the need for solutions to attack one specific part of the solution: renewable energy. Normally, he's open about his hatred of wind energy, especially on the ridgelines of Vermont where he lives, and where he might have to look at a wind turbine.  In this case, he isn't.

Wind farms are responsible for about 32% of the growth of generation in the USA in the past year. They cut CO2e whenever they are spinning, which is much more than Mr. Post gives them credit for.  They are on track to exceed global generation capacity of nuclear by 2016.  They create US jobs, they are safe and they are effective.  Not that Mr. Post will ever accept this reality.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 20, 2012

Thanks again, Willem.

I have a little progress that might interest you in this regard. As we watch the western forests burn and cropland wither in the US, some are more open to discussing more respectful environmental stewardship. Since I'm treated like you are by the political loudmouths, just getting a conversation going is real progress.

I was able to tie together the US Energy Security Council (fuels) goals with agricultural and forestry academic and public agencies, and the U of M Physics Dept. Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar's aide was considerate after 5 years as a staunch defender of corn ethanol and windmills that helped little.

The U of M Physics Dept. was the most interesting, since Physics is the science of energy and without it we have the slop we have now. They have embarked on a large "nanotechnology" construction and research investment. This is a huge departure from 30 years ago when I failed to combine the methods of Solid State (Inorganic) Physics with (Organic) BioChemical Structures. Even though Bio Structures have been known for a long time, few had ever asked if there was any physics resulting from these structures.

So several areas are taking quantum leaps forward. But the windmill electric chaos advocates would never know it because they think they already know more than anybody else and quit looking for solutions a long time ago.

I wonder what the world thinks of our environmental crisis?? Probably similar to our space program, hitching rides to the International Space Station with Russia!

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 20, 2012

Yes, Jim we have discussed your similar ocean goals. I don't care who agrees or disagrees with whom about what. I'm just tired of the unfounded personal attacks. And I am most angry at myself for playing any part in it.

Good luck with your ideas. I have all I can do to keep energy from falling down on my head, or growing up to my neck.

Sad news this summer. The bluebirds abandoned their second batch of layed eggs. First time we've seen that in Central Minnesota. We figure it was too hot in their houses. Time is running out.

Steven Scannell's picture
Steven Scannell on Aug 20, 2012

Gentlemen All:     I can not tell you what a pleasure it is for me to read and be enlightened by such discourse.  Thank you.  I see that part of the discussion here is related to how we manage the oceans.   I have designed a fishery system called Market Quota System, which can be thought of as a "Pay to Play" style economic system based in equal opportunity and eco-system management.  Markets are the answer, and not the problem.  We must be smart, but we must also take risks and make investments in our advancements. As they say "No pain, no gain".   So the debate here is truly envigorating to me.   Harvesting noduels from the sea bed can be done using world class international based public resource management systems, and this public resource managment area is my own life work.   Being a fisherman and boatbuilder answers to offshore wind and wave infrastructure,  have always been on top of my to do list.      

Market Quota System:   The Ultimate in Public Resource Management   International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade (IIFET) 2000.     For many years this was a hot topic on FISHFOLK, an international list serve, based at MIT.  I'm just a fisherman who loves to design systems.    All we need is a bit of good old fashioned yankee ingeneuity, and we'll be just fine.    Let's keep up the good work and also keep our sense of humor too.  We're only human.   All these issues and problems have answers, and I think with a crew such as this ...  we can and will find them.   Much Thanks.  

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