What climate change has to do with global warming
Special to capecodtoday by Jack Coleman
WOODS HOLE - Everywhere he goes to describe his new book, "Climate Crash," John Cox is asked, "what does abrupt climate change have to do with global warming?"
Cox related the anecdote yesterday afternoon to an audience of about 50 people at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in a decidedly humid Redfield Auditorium.
In writing his book, subtitled "Abrupt Climate Change and What it Means for our Future," Cox said his focus was "not so much on human pollution in the atmosphere as on the nature of the climate system itself."
"The ideas that form the concept of abrupt change are important whether global warming is taking place," Cox said.
Cox is a science and environmental reporter with The Sacramento Bee in California, where he has worked since 1979.
He began his career in journalism in 1963 and has written two other books, "Weather for Dummies" and "The Weathermen," and studied at Harvard, MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Our notions of what we can expect with climate are based on false several assumptions
Our notions of what we can expect with climate are based on false several assumptions, Cox said yesterday.
"Chief among these is a very comfortable notion of the time scale involved," Cox said. "Things are going to go along at a certain pace, the thinking goes, and this rate of change will be manageable.
But climate research in recent decades belies that notion, Cox said, and shows dozens of examples of "jarring" shifts in the last 100,000 years.
A thousand year change in a decade
In the introduction to his book (published by the National Academies Press, $27.95), Cox wrote that "change that might have been thought in the 1950s to take thousands of years was found in the 1990s to have occurred in a decade or less."
This was based, Cox wrote, on "the culmination of a progressive ratcheting up of the pace of events as succeeding generations of researchers found better methods and tools that offered accurate visions of the past."
More importantly, "it is not just that things happen more quickly that expected," Cox wrote."A climate that is subject to abrupt change is fundamentally different, more variable, and less predictable, posing questions that lead to different, more difficult explanations of causes and effects."
A century ago, climate science was dominated by the "steady-state climate theory" offered by Professor John Walter Gregory in 1906. "The most striking fact in the geological history of climate is that the present climate of the world has been maintained since the date of the earliest, unaltered, sedimentary deposits," Gregory wrote.
Within a generation, German scientists challenged Gregory's premise and concluded that climate dating back tens of thousands of years gradually alternated between cool and warm periods.
In turn, this premise was challenged by research efforts in the 1950s in Greenland, where an ice sheet more than a mile thick maintains a record of every year's snowfall going back a thousand centuries.
Cox pointed out that one of the scientists who took part in the research, Chester Langway of Harwich, was in the audience.
While scientists were questioning earlier assumptions about gradual climate change, the long-term model of equilibrium was still in place, Cox said. It was not until the work of the last two decades that this model was also challenged and global oceanic currents were found to have a major effect on climate.
"It is worth remembering now that all of the many abrupt changes that have occurred in the past were not provoked by human activity," Cox said. "But let's not let ourselves get too comfortable with this thought."
Greenhouse gases : a "trigger" for sudden changes
"Altering the concentration of greenhouse gases almost certainly qualifies" as a "trigger" for sudden changes.
Two major scientific expeditions to Greenland in the mid-90s found evidence of "24 episodes of incredible and rapid changes going back 100,000 years," Cox said.
These sudden shifts were not limited to Greenland, scientists were learning, but took place around the world.
In the last century, Cox said, the "Mother Theresa" model of gradual change, "that we are all in our mother's arms" and protected by a nurturing planet, has given way to the "Dirty Harry" model - "menacing and unpredictable. You don't want to mess with it."
As for predictions that "global mean temperatures will increase 2 degrees Celsius in the next century, "there's a problem with this concept," Cox said. "For one thing, nobody lives there. Nobody lives in the global mean. It's regional climate that matters."
When introducing Cox, Oceanus magazine science writer Mike Carlowicz referred to last year's movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," which depicted a world beset by sudden and catastrophic disruptions.
That was "the cartoonish version of abrupt climate change," Carlowicz said. "John has taken a lot more of a serious and thoughtful look at the subject."
Some groups of people can adapt while others do not
Another discovery in climate research is that some groups of people can adapt to it while others do not, Cox said. The Norse settled in Greenland a millennium ago and thrived for 400 years while Europe was beset by famine, disease and strife. "But the climate got cold in Greenland and in 150 years they disappeared," Cox said.
"The Norse died out at the same time that the Inuit in Greenland," indigenous to the huge island," were flourishing.
The Norse used woolen clothing for warmth against the bitter cold and were reluctant to use animal skins preferred by the Inuit, or the effective, toggle-style harpoon tip favored by Inuit hunters.
Answering questions after his 30-minute presentation, Cox was asked if abrupt climate change can be alleviated by reducing the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.
"Well, I hope so," Cox said. "I think there are a plethora of reasons to cut back on industrial pollution and certainly the potential for abrupt climate change is one of them. Global warming is another one."
"I don't mean to imply that it's not worth doing," Cox said. "If nothing else, it adds urgency and maybe ever a bolder look at the whole question. Because the risks aren't just nominal, slow, manageable change."
After the discussion, Cox signed copies of his book at a reception outside the auditorium.
Asked if he was familiar with Cape Wind's proposal to build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, Cox said he was aware of the proposal and but did not know enough about it to comment.