Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
A new paper in Science magazine entitled “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet” (paywalled here) claims that we are all potential “transgressors” … a curious term more appropriate to a religion than to science. But given the total lack of science in the paper, perhaps it’s appropriate. The abstract says:
The planetary boundaries framework defines a safe operating space for humanity based on the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of the Earth System. Here, we revise and update the planetary boundaries framework, with a focus on the underpinning biophysical science, based on targeted input from expert research communities and on more general scientific advances over the past 5 years. Several of the boundaries now have a two-tier approach, reflecting the importance of cross-scale interactions and the regional-level heterogeneity of the processes that underpin the boundaries. Two core boundaries—climate change and biosphere integrity—have been identified, each of which has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed.
The text of their work starts out by saying:
The planetary boundaries (PB) approach (1, 2) aims to define a safe operating space for human societies to develop and thrive, based on our evolving understanding of the functioning and resilience of the Earth System. Since its introduction, the framework has been subject to scientific scrutiny [e.g., (3–7)] and has attracted considerable interest and discussions within the policy, governance, and business sectors as an approach to inform efforts towards global sustainability (8–10).
Ah, yes, the ultimate goal, “global sustainability”. And here is their graph showing how and where they think we have transgressed …
Let me start by saying that as I’ve discussed elsewhere, in the long run nothing is sustainable. Even this earth of ours will eventually be gone. So taking “global sustainability” as a goal merely reveals that the authors are not scientists, they are activists. This lack of scientific rigor is further indicated by the fact that despite having “global sustainability” as a stated goal, they do not make the slightest effort to define what “global sustainability” might mean in the real world. For example, they say:
The human enterprise has grown so dramatically since the mid-20th century (15) that the relatively stable, 11,700-year long Holocene epoch, the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies, is now being destabilized (figs. S1 and S2) (16–18).
And their “scientific” citation for this claim? To support it, they list a non-peer reviewed book by one of the no less than eighteen authors of the study … and the IPCC. Oh, indeed, that proves their claim beyond doubt … they say it’s true, and it must be true because one of them had said it before.
In any case, they propose that there are “planetary boundaries” which, “if transgressed … could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies.” Whoa, be very scared …
Now, is there any fundamental flaw in this concept of “planetary boundaries”? Not for me. Humans can do and have done damage to the planet. Our strength to do good or bad these days is very large. For example, humans definitely have the power to turn the whole planet into a cratered, smoking ruin through nuclear war, which would definitely be a Very Bad Idea™. And human-caused pollution is an ever-present problem. So the idea of “boundaries” for our cumulative actions is not inherently wrong … but as always, the devil is in the details. And in their case, they have most curious ideas about just where the boundaries might be located.
For starters, care to guess what their “Do Not Exceed” planetary boundary might be for atmospheric CO2? Well … it’s the 350 parts per million level made infamous by “Weepy Bill” McKibben. Now, we blew past this boundary about a quarter of a century ago, leading to … leading … to … well, nothing. To date, there have been approximately zero ill effects from the increase in CO2. There have been hundreds of claims that going past that “planetary boundary” would lead to destructive increases in everything from diseases to male pattern baldness. However, the threatened sea level rises and the “climate refugees” and the increases in male pattern baldness haven’t materialized. As a result, so far the only documented change has been a remarkable “greening” of the planet, as the plants have responded to the increased CO2 by greater growth.
The other proposed “planetary boundary” related to climate change is what they call the “Energy imbalance at top-of-atmosphere [TOA], W m-2”, as compared to the pre-industrial situation. The first problem with this “boundary” is that our current measuring systems are nowhere near accurate enough to measure such a trivial imbalance. The second problem is that we have no clue whether the “pre-industrial” TOA radiation was in balance or out of balance, and if so by how much.
Despite that, they are happy to give us the claimed current “TOA imbalance”, which they say is 2.3 W/m2 greater than it was in the land of Pre-Industry, which my hazy mental geography places somewhere near Pre-Columbia. And their citation for that assertion? The IPCC Summary for Policymakers (SPM) …
Now, when someone is serious about a citation, they cite the actual study. When they are less serious, they cite one of the IPCC Assessment Reports, usually with no volume or page numbers.
And when they are merely trying to spread fear and impress the rubes, they cite the Summary for Policymakers, which (as the title suggests) is the “Climate for Non-Scientists” part of the IPCC reports. But I digress. There is a more fundamental problem with their assertion—the IPCC AR5 SPM does NOT say that the TOA radiative imbalance is 2.3 W/m2. In fact, the word “imbalance” only appears once in the AR5 SPM, and in a very general sense.
So it appears that what they are talking about is not a “TOA imbalance” of any kind. Instead, they are talking about the change in the downwelling radiative forcing since 1750. Their calling it a “TOA imbalance” of 2.3 W/m2 as compared to pre-industrial values merely exposes their colossal ignorance about the subject.
In any case, the increase in TOA radiation is a rather unusual number to base a “boundary” on, given that it is not measurable. Strange but true, we cannot directly measure TOA radiative forcing. In part it is not measurable because it is downwelling (directed downwards) and thus not globally measurable by satellites. And in part it is not measurable because the “top-of-atmosphere” used is not really the top of the atmosphere. Instead, it is the top of the troposphere, which varies in height both spatially and temporally. So there’s no way to do the global measurement.
As a result, all we can do is estimate the change of forcing, and the error margins on that estimate are quite wide. The paper gives the value as 2.3 W/m2 increase since Pre-Industry, with a “confidence interval” (presumably 95%, perhaps not, and estimated rather than calculated) of 1.3 to 3.3 W/m2.
And in all of this, what is their “planetary boundary” for the increase in radiative forcing?
One watt per square metre … and we’re long past that one as well.
And what is the basis for their “boundary” choices of 350 ppmv of CO2 and an increase in forcing of 1 W/m2? Why pick those numbers? Here’s what they say:
Observed changes in climate at current levels of the control variables confirm the original choice of the boundary values and the narrowing of the zone of uncertainty for CO2. For example, there has already been an increase in the intensity, frequency and duration of heatwaves globally (35); the number of heavy rainfall events in many regions of the world is increasing (17); changes in atmospheric circulation patterns have increased drought in some regions of the world (17); and the rate of combined mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is increasing (36).
Of course, the citation for this is the vague handwaving at an IPCC report without any listing of page numbers. Regarding their first claim about heatwaves, their IPCC citation says:
In many (but not all) regions over the globe with sufficient data, there is medium confidence that the length or number of warm spells or heat waves has increased. [3.3.1, Table 3-2]
That’s it? That’s their evidence? A claim of “medium confidence” that there has been an increase in the length of “warm spells or heat waves” in “many (but not all)” regions … you’ll excuse me if I yawn. That is about as hedged, qualified, and useless a claim as I can imagine.
To try to tighten up what it was that they meant, I figured that I’d look to see what they were calling “warm spells or heat waves”. The document sends me to the Glossary, where it says I’ll find the definitions. The Glossary says:
A period of abnormally warm weather. Heat waves and warm spells have various and in some cases overlapping definitions. See also Heat wave.
Heat wave (also referred to as extreme heat event)
A period of abnormally hot weather. Heat waves and warm spells have various and in some cases overlapping definitions. See also Warm spell.
Dear heavens, this is what passes for IPCC science these days? They give us a hedged claim of medium confidence of an increase in something in some places and not in others, but they make no attempt to define what that “something” is in any but the vaguest terms. What is the minimum length of “a period” of warm weather? A day? Ten days? A month? And what is “abnormally”? More than one standard deviation? Two standard deviations? And deviations from what? The year’s average? The ten-year average? Thirty years?
And for that matter, what’s the difference between “abnormally warm weather” and “abnormally hot weather”? Where do they start and end? Regarding all of these important definitions, the deponent saith not …
And of course, this grade-school level IPCC regurgitated pabulum masquerading as science is then cited and re-cited by other authors as though it were something other than bovine excrement.
Friends, their study goes on to spew another metric buttload of fear-inducing misrepresentations about the so-called “Sixth Wave of Extinctions” and the like … but I fear I can go no further with this analysis of their specious claims. My stomach won’t take it, not to mention that it greatly angrifies my blood to contemplate this claptrap. I know it is peer-reviewed. I know it appeared in Science magazine. That just makes it all worse.
What keeps me from going further is that although I consider myself a reasonably adept wordsmith, I fear I can find no terms sufficient to express my immense contempt for that kind of imitation science from the IPCC, or my correspondingly profound contempt for the authors of the current study who are mindlessly pimping out that same pseudoscience as though it were real … not to mention my contempt for the peer-reviewers and editors of Science magazine for publishing it.
It is this kind of Chicken Little alarmism that has destroyed the reputation of climate science, and it is this kind of unadulterated garbage appearing in Science magazine that is doing great damage to both the reputation of the magazine and the reputation of science itself.
AS ALWAYS: If you disagree with someone, please have the courtesy to QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS YOU DISAGREE WITH so everyone can understand the exact nature of your objections.