Last night PBS aired the most impressive presentation yet of “Official” climate doctrine. I don’t say “science” because it mounts a powerful advocacy for a particular viewpoint and entertains no alternative perspectives. The broadcast is extremely well crafted with great imagery, crisp sound bite dialogue and sincere acting.
With all the invested effort, talent and expense, it is probably the strongest yet Blue Team argument for climate alarm and against fossil fuel consumption. As such we can expect that large audiences of impressionable people of all ages will be exposed to it. It behooves anyone who stands on skeptical ground, who wants to hold that position, to study what is asserted and decide what points are acceptable and what claims are disputed.
The telecast will be repeatedly aired this month on NOVA on US PBS stations. The website apparently blocks viewing in foreign countries, but the transcript is available and I will refer to it in comments below.
Update April 20: An independent review of the documentary is added at the end.
Decoding the Weather Machine Discover how Earth’s intricate climate system is changing. Airing April 18, 2018 at 8 pm on PBS
Disastrous hurricanes. Widespread droughts and wildfires. Withering heat. Extreme rainfall. It is hard not to conclude that something’s up with the weather, and many scientists agree. It’s the result of the weather machine itself—our climate—changing, becoming hotter and more erratic. In this two-hour documentary, NOVA will cut through the confusion around climate change. Why do scientists overwhelmingly agree that our climate is changing, and that human activity is causing it? How and when will it affect us through the weather we experience? And what will it take to bend the trajectory of planetary warming toward more benign outcomes? Join scientists around the world on a quest to better understand the workings of the weather and climate machine we call Earth, and discover how we can be resilient—even thrive—in the face of enormous change.
Outline Of Themes (Excerpts in italics from the transcript with my added images and pushback)
Introduction (The video clip above)
This is the essence of science …a global investigation of our climate machine.
We’re poking at the climate system with a long, sharp, carbon-tipped spear. And we cannot perfectly predict all of the consequences.
It’s a planetary crisis, but we’re clever enough to think our way out of this.
Alarming Weather and Wildfires
The rhythm of the atmosphere was off. We were seeing more freakish weather; storms were stronger and wetter. We’ve got a multitude of active large fires, and another megastorm en route.
Douglas had heard about global warming, but given all the crazy weather he’d experienced, he was skeptical. And he’s not alone. A third of Americans doubt humans are changing the climate.
But: Weather is not more extreme.
And Wildfires were worse in the past.
Litany of Changes
Seven of the ten hottest years on record have occurred within the last decade; wildfires are at an all-time high, while Arctic Sea ice is rapidly diminishing.
We are seeing one-in-a-thousand-year floods with astonishing frequency.
When it rains really hard, it’s harder than ever.
We’re seeing glaciers melting, sea level rising.
The length and the intensity of heatwaves has gone up dramatically.
Plants and trees are flowering earlier in the year. Birds are moving polewards.
We’re seeing more intense storms.
But: All of these are within the range of past variability.
In fact our climate is remarkably stable.
And many aspects follow quasi-60 year cycles.
Climate is Changing the Weather
Changes like these have led an overwhelming majority of climate scientists to an alarming conclusion: it isn’t just the weather that’s changing, it’s what drives the weather, Earth’s climate.
But: Actual climate zones are local and regional in scope, and they show little boundary change.
The Journey to Blaming CO2 and Humans
In 1824, Fourier was the first to deduce that it’s the composition of the atmosphere that governs the surface temperature of the earth; 1824, almost 200 years ago, and climate science has been accumulating ever since.
(Forty years later)Tyndall figured out that carbon dioxide traps heat. But even more importantly, Tyndall realized that when we dig up coal and burn it, it’s actually releasing more of these heat-trapping gases.
(In the 1950’s) This annual rise and fall of carbon dioxide is what Dave Keeling discovered. It is the breath of the world’s forests. The Keeling Curve established, without question, that the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere was going up steeply, sharply, rapidly.
But these(Antarctic) ice cores can extend the Keeling Curve back in time and reveal that today’s concentration of carbon dioxide is unusually high. The current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for 800,000 years.
From ocean mud, emerges a record of temperature that goes back tens of millions of years. That record shows temperature swings from warm periods to ice ages triggered by changes in Earth’s orbit. But when these temperature changes are paired with the levels of carbon dioxide from ice cores, a startling correlation emerges. The two graphs are a near perfect match.
Fossil fuels have been locked up underground for millions of years. So, when we emit fossil fuels into the atmosphere, we’re emitting carbon that is very different. It has a very distinct fingerprint. This chemical fingerprint and many other lines of evidence leave no doubt that we are responsible for the skyrocketing levels of carbon dioxide.
But: Ice cores show that it was warmer in the past, not due to humans.
And CO2 relation to Temperature is Inconsistent.
Linking CO2 to Climate and Weather
Climate and weather are flip sides of the same coin. You impact climate, it’s going to impact weather. Weather is what is happening in the atmosphere at a given time and place: hot, cold, rain or snow. Climate is an average of that weather, over longer periods.
It is fundamentally these two factors, Earth’s spin and heat differences between the poles and the equator that create the weather patterns we know. So, if you trap more heat in the system, you change the weather.
We are more powerful than nature in the push we are putting on climate. And we don’t entirely understand and cannot perfectly predict all of the consequences. It’s not we’re worried because it’s never happened before, Earth’s climate has changed. What hasn’t happened before is to change it this quickly.
But: Human emissions are dwarfed by CO2 from estimated natural sources.
The Race to Understand the Climate Machine
Across the globe, scientists are now racing to understand and model Earth’s climate system, trying to figure out just how damaging climate change will be.
The evidence is clear that by burning fossil fuels, we humans have changed the composition of the atmosphere, which is now trapping more heat. How the other parts of the climate machine will respond will determine how much our climate will change and how much the great diversity of life that it supports will be affected.
The land, part of Earth’s climate machine, is playing an essential role, because trees are absorbing about 25 percent of the extra carbon dioxide that is heating our atmosphere. It turns out that the oceans are doing the same.
Probing the Ocean’s Mysteries
When we talk about warming of the climate system, we tend to focus on the atmosphere, but the lion’s share of the warming of our climate system is in the ocean.
Along with teams from around the world, (Stephen Riser) is building fleets of underwater drones, called “Argo floats,” to do the work. These robots are pioneering explorers, designed to probe parts of the earth never seen before.
The Southern Ocean is this gateway between the deep ocean and the atmosphere. There’s not many places in the global ocean where that deep water can contact the atmosphere. Once at the surface, the deep cold water, that scientists call “old water,” soaks up heat like a sponge.
The Argo floats reveal that over the last 30 years, the ocean has heated up by an average of a half-degree Fahrenheit. If we put all of that heat into the lower atmosphere, the atmosphere would heat up by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s how much heat we’re talking about here.
In all, a staggering 93 percent of the heat that we’re putting into our atmosphere is getting soaked up by our oceans. This comes with consequences. Heating the ocean and adding carbon dioxide are damaging to life in the sea.
But: The Argo record is short and shows a mixed picture.
Studying Ice and Sea Levels
The data from the motion trackers and other high tech devices, like this radar, are giving Holland new insights into how glaciers disappear. What he has found is surprising. For glaciers in contact with the ocean, warmer air causes some of the loss of ice, but the real trigger for intense calving is warmer water coming underneath the glacier and destabilizing it.
Locked up in the Antarctic ice sheet is a total of 200 feet of possible sea level rise. And this vast continent of ice, especially the western part, is breaking up faster than anyone thought possible.
The melting or break up of all that ice would devastate much of civilization as we know it, as sea levels rise and flood cities and coasts.
By mapping this ancient Australian reef, Andrea Dutton is able to tell how high sea levels were the last time Earth was as warm as today. Our research shows that with just the amount of warming we’ve seen today, the seas could rise much higher, up to 20 to 30 feet higher than today.
The big question is how fast? Does it take us 500 years to get there? Well that’s one thing. Or does it take us 100 years to get there. That’s three feet in a decade. That’s a lot.
But: Sea Level Rise is not accelerating.
Sea Level Rise Today
So, when will we start to feel the impact of sea level rise? Some people already are. The Marshall Islands are a nation of low-lying islands in the Pacific. They are home to 50,000 people and a vibrant culture. Today, they face becoming a new kind of refugee: a climate refugee.
Sea level rise is now a reality even in the United States. And low-lying cities, like Norfolk, Virginia, are on the front line.
But: On site observations show no alarming sea level rise.
Rising Costs and Feedbacks
For the people of Norfolk, climate change is already affecting their lives. And across all of America, the costs are mounting. 2017 was the costliest hurricane season on record. Harvey alone caused catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas, with financial damages that rival Katrina, and Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Wildfires in the western United States have quadrupled since the 1980s, exacerbated by drought. Effects like these are being felt across the planet, and some are even accelerating the warming itself. When trees that have been helping by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere burn down, much of that carbon is pumped back into the air.
And in the Arctic, ice that has been cooling the planet by reflecting away some of the sun’s heat is melting. The loss of ice means more warming.
But: Arctic Ice has not declined since 2007.
Models Foretell the Future
Using nothing but basic physics, we can actually produce, in our computers, a virtual Earth. With this virtual Earth, scientists like Kirsten Findell work to predict where our climate is going, before it’s too late to change course.
Worldwide, there are dozens of models. They predict how each part of the climate machine will change, like sea surface temperature, storm intensity or the extent of the ice caps. Every detail is included. But the path to perfect models is still a work in progress, because Earth’s climate machine is such a complicated one.
The role that clouds play, for instance, is important, but poorly understood. And the speed at which ice sheets will break apart is another big unknown.
Computer models don’t exist in isolation. We calibrate them against what we’ve observed. We test them against the history of climate change. And we now know they’re pretty good.
But: Those models are running hot and vary greatly despite shared assumptions.
And the models only come close to observations when CO2 is left out.
The Grim Outlook from Models
The models can be used to run a virtual experiment: if we continue emitting carbon dioxide on the path we are on, what do they say our world will look like in 2100?
This map shows how temperatures could change. The models predict the average temperature could be 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. That means in New York City, days with temperatures over 90 degrees would more than triple. And in the Arctic, which will heat up even faster, it could rise, on average, more than 15 degrees.
Their results suggest we will see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and the prevalence of devastating heatwaves will be much more extreme.
The models also show that by the end of the century, it is likely the ocean will rise one-and-a-half to four feet. Without major changes, this would put parts of cities like Miami under water.
But: We have heard all this before.
What are The Options
The path ahead comes down to three basic options. We can do nothing and suffer the consequences; we can adapt as the changes unfold; or we can act now to mitigate, or limit the damage. The options are connected. The more we mitigate, the less we would need to adapt. The more we adapt and mitigate, the less we would suffer.
Adaptation is perhaps most urgent in the ocean, which, right now, is bearing the brunt of climate change by absorbing most of the heat. Billions of people depend on the sea for food or their livelihood. As temperatures rise, many species of marine life are moving to cooler waters, threatening local fisheries. And warmer water is killing off coral reefs, which support about 25 percent of all life in the sea.
Across America, cities are drawing up plans to adapt to the impacts of climate change, whether that’s too much water from rising sea levels and stronger storms, or too little water from harsher, longer droughts.
But there is a way to avoid the worst impacts of climate change in the first place. The more we mitigate, or limit, how much our climate changes, the less we will have to adapt. That will require shifting our economies away from burning fossil fuels. The good news is technology is moving so fast, there are many alternatives.
But: Fossil fuel consumption is poorly related to temperatures.
The scientific toolkit finally got big enough to crack this thing. Wind and solar are much further ahead than anybody ever thought they would be 10 years ago. They’re growing impossibly rapidly.
These turbines are 40 stories high, with rotors the size of a football field. Each can produce enough electricity to power up to 400 homes or make a lot of dishwashers. It’s time to innovate, and it’s time to change. Instead of having one plant that makes 1,000 megawatts, let’s have 100 plants and make 10 megawatts, or 1,000 plants that make one megawatt.
They’re working on endgame technologies that fully fill the gap between where we need to go and the track that we’ve been on since the beginning in the Industrial Revolution. So where do we need to go? Jet fuel made from plants; taller, more powerful wind turbines; better batteries; and the next generation solar cell.
Lisa Dyson envisions a day that our choices for solving the climate crisis are not just suffer, adapt or mitigate, but also prosper, by learning to recycle carbon dioxide into useful everyday products. If carbon capture and renewable technologies become more widespread, carbon dioxide levels will stop increasing.
But: Modern nations (G20) depend on fossil fuels for nearly 90% of their energy.
But even reaching that goal may not be enough, because we still would have record high levels, continuing to warm up our planet. We may need to find a way to pull more carbon dioxide out of the air than we emit into it, to go into what’s called “negative emissions.”
On most farms, the soil is tilled, or plowed, to reduce weeds and pests. But in the process, much of the carbon gets dug up and released back to the atmosphere. Dave decided to go another route called “no-till” farming. Every time you harvest, you leave the residue from that crop in place, so there is a protective blanket on the top of the soil. So, here we have residue left from last year’s corn crop. Corn stalks, leaves, an occasional corncob. Not tilling helped the soil become healthier.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we do agriculture, focused on soil building, soil health, putting carbon back in the ground. And if we’re able to do that, then agriculture could be a major contributor to very positive changes related to global climate.
But: The planet is greener because of rising CO2.
For over 200 years, in every corner of the globe, scientists have probed Earth’s climate machine, developing a deep understanding of how it works.
They have proven beyond reasonable doubt that climate change is happening and that burning fossil fuels is the primary cause. They have built computer models that can predict the road ahead, and they have come up with ways to adapt, or solutions to avoid the worst of the impacts. But there is one powerful piece of the climate machine so unpredictable and inconsistent that no computer model could ever guess how it will behave: us.
The scientific evidence is so clear about where we’re going, but there is an astonishing inertia. We’re not mitigating fast enough to stop the train crash. The technological solutions make it inevitable that we will solve this problem. The question is just how much damage we create before we finally reign it in.
Update April 20: This review of the documentary was posted by cerescokid at Climate Etc.
I watched the PBS show. Perfect……..for an 8 year old. Could it be more simplistic? It is warming. CO2 did it. That was the sum and substance of it.
No mention of previous warm periods or the debate about them. Not a word about questions over SLR acceleration. Nothing on previous warm periods in the Arctic. Silence on East Antarctica gaining ice or Antarctic Peninsula Cooling. Not a peep about geothermal activity in Greenland and Antarctica. Nothing about the 12 year hiatus in Cat 3 hurricanes. Nothing about trendless tornadic activity. Nothing about trendless snow levels in North America. Not any explanation why temperatures are believed to be unprecedented and not just natural variability. Why no discussion of endless stacked Oscillations. Why wasn’t the sun dismissed? Hasn’t glacier calving been happening for eons? They made a big deal of an iceberg the size of the Empire State Building. Big deal.
But there were plenty of pretty pictures and age appropriate explanations of the issues. See spot run.
It was nothing more than a propaganda piece, perfect for the marginally competent HP aficionados.
They did, however, have a nice voiceover stating that temperatures haven’t been this warm in 800,000 years while showing a graph, not of temperatures, but of spiking CO2 levels over the last 800,000 years. Nice Trick.