Looking at clouds from both sides now

Bernard Hickey & Cathrine Dyer discuss new research on clouds & climate sensitivity suggesting very-fast warming ahead, how heavier cloud cover produces SADness, & apocalyptic optimism's silver lining

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Photo: Lynn Grieveson / The Kākā

TL;DR: In this week’s wrap of climate news,

and talk about new research on the role of clouds in climate sensitivity suggesting very-fast warming ahead, how falling ice coverage of the Great lakes is creating heavier cloud cover linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and the potential silver lining of “apocalyptic optimism.”

  • Non-stop cloud cover over the Great Lakes region of North America is causing psychologists to fear for the mental health of the 34 million people who live in the area. The extra cloud cover is related to declining ice formation on the Great Lakes, down 71% between 1973 and 2010.

  • SAD (or Seasonal Affective Disorder) doesn’t even begin to cover the issues that arise when clouds are added to climate models. Data from cloud studies has been causing some of the climate models used by IPCC scientists to run hot for the past five years.

  • Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder explores the issue on her Youtube channel Science Without the Gobbledygook, explaining how it relates to Hansen et al.’s (2023) paper Global Warming in the Pipeline.

  • Don’t despair, disaster is near! That’s the message from this Times article ‘Apocalyptic Optimism could be the Antidote for Climate Fatalism’. Professor Dana Fisher suggests that, in the absence of widespread policymaking leadership, a mass mobilisation of society, or ‘AnthroShift’, may be driven by a series of climate shocks in which personal and economic risks reach a critical threshold.

  • Social tipping points are increasingly the subject of research, including this work by Professor Tim Lenton.

  • A study featured in Carbon Brief considers the risks associated with high land-based deployments of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies (which include CCS) in the future. They found that biodiversity loss and risks to food security, freshwater availability and human rights kick in earlier than previously assumed and suggest limitations be placed on its use (these are currently exceeded by Paris-aligned 1.5˚C pathways used by the IPCC).

  • We say that society is being manouvered into pursuing a morally questionable course that shifts risks from rich to poor and from current to future generations, while amplifying overall risks for everyone. A choice to pursue a high carbon removal path over a demand reduction-led path to a swift energy transition will quite literally sacrifice people for profit in coming decades.

Cathrine Dyer’s journalism on climate and the environment is available free to all paying and non-paying subscribers to The Kākā and the public. It is made possible by subscribers signing up to the paid tier to ensure this sort of public interest journalism is fully available in public to read, listen to and share. Cathrine wrote the wrap. Bernard edited it. Lynn copy-edited and illustrated it. See more detail below of the summaries above.

‘Clouds got in my way’

Cloud cover has been increasing during winters for the 34 million residents of the Great Lakes region in North America, causing psychologists to fear for their mental health. Stephen Starr, writing for the Guardian, does a great job of threading together a set of studies showing the effect that climate change is having in reducing ice formation on the Great Lakes, which can then lead to an increase in precipitation and cloud cover, which reinforce heating and further reduce ice. Due to the challenges in simulating clouds in models, it is proving difficult for scientists to conclude definitively that future winters will be cloudier, although that is likely to be the case.

“The possible direction of causality (linking climate change to increased cloud cover) is hard to determine because while the open lakes may have contributed to the cloudiness regionally, winter clouds also help to keep the lakes warmer than usual,” said Vavrus, the Wisconsin state climatologist.

“That said … less ice on the Great Lakes should favor more cloudiness, both locally and downstream of the lakes.”

What is certain is that the decline in ice cover over the great lakes, down 71% between 1973 and 2010, is expected to continue. Last winter, the month of January was particularly gloomy.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, saw just five minutes of sun during the first eight days of January 2023. The same month was the cloudiest January in Chicago in 129 years. At one stage, the 6.3 million people living in the greater Toronto area didn’t see the sun for more than three weeks.

This can lead to serious mental health consequences for millions of people, according to the experts.

“Seasonal affective disorder (Sad) is linked to changes in light, so cloud cover can have a significant impact on someone’s mood,” Dr Kia-Rai Prewitt, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, said. “People may notice they feel more depressed, have low energy, sleep more, overeat, crave carbohydrates and engage less with others, especially during the winter and fall months.”

The role that clouds play in climate systems, and the difficulties in modelling them, may have much greater consequences than a bit of SAD.

‘It’s cloud illusions I recall’'

Clouds are known to produce both heating and cooling effects – they can reflect energy from the sun back into space, resulting in cooling and they can also trap energy close to the earth’s surface, amplifying heating from the greenhouse effect.

Until 2019, the effects of clouds were not included in the major climate models. There was insufficient information, and it was assumed that the heating and cooling effects would largely cancel one another out.

A series of studies over the past decade, however, have revealed that this assumption is not correct and that clouds will likely amplify global warming.

Accordingly, in 2019, when the new cloud data was included in some of the climate models that IPCC scientists use, it produced a set of models that ran vey hot. IPCC scientists draw on a set of 50-60 models, known as CMIP (the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project) when making predictions about future temperatures and it was a subset of these, ten out of 55 models, that began to run very hot in 2019. Those ten models produced much higher climate sensitivity estimates than the other models (defined as how much the temperature increases when you double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere compared to the pre-industrial era). They were also out of alignment with what we know (or knew) about the historical, paleo climate records. The IPCC scientists concluded that the ‘hot models’ must be getting something wrong, and so they agreed that going forward, they would weight models in the combined set according to how consistent they were with the paleo climate record.

This is where things start to get interesting.

‘I don’t really know clouds at all’

Until recently, there has been a reasonably strong consensus about the paleo climate record. But Hansen et al. (2023)’s paper, ‘Warming in the Pipeline’, has produced new evidence suggesting that some periods of the historical record were hotter than is generally thought. This has significant implications for climate sensitivity. Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder provides a very clear explanation about the next bit on her Youtube channel ‘Science Without the Gobbledygookhere (the explanation about climate sensitivity begins around the 3-minute mark). It sounds so much more convincing coming from a German Physicist! As Hossenfelder points out, the assumption that cloud activity produced the same temperature results in the distant past as it does today is a big assumption that we cannot test because the dinosaurs “neglected to upload their satellite records”.

Hossenfelder goes on to discuss a study undertaken by a group of scientists from the UK Meteorology Office. The UK Met Office produces one of the ‘hot models’ and, unusually for a climate model, they are able to re-tool the model to look at short-term weather.

They tested the model, with the new cloud data and resulting higher climate sensitivity, to see how well it predicted short-term weather compared to the traditional five-day weather forecast. It improved the weather forecast, reinforcing the findings of the cloud studies and the ‘hot models’. The study was little noted at the time but is starting to attract renewed attention as the debate about climate sensitivity heats up in the field.

It is important to note here that this is an ongoing debate that will likely require a lot more evidence before the scientific consensus shifts. This is because there are also a lot of studies that reinforce the current consensus, and it will take some time for the experts to figure out why these various studies are now at odds.

‘As every fairytale comes real’

However, the implications are so profound that it seems like something that the general public might want to be aware of, in order to start mentally preparing for the possibility that it might be true.

If the climate sensitivity really is as high as these data points and studies are signalling, we are in big(ger) trouble. It would rapidly accelerate the rate at which climate change is occurring, and that is already plenty bad enough.

Hossenfelder goes on to speculate about how that might play out over the next twenty years – she suggests you only listen if your mental health is up to it. It’s not for everybody, at least not today.

An important thing to remember about any speculation regarding the future is that there is still one very important variable that has so far proven hugely unpredictable – human behaviour. It is still the case that human behaviour is driving climate change and can therefore still alter outcomes. The big question is, will it?

‘I’ve looked at love from both sides now’

In that vein, an article in The Times this week suggests that ‘Apocalyptic Optimism could be the Antidote for Climate Fatalism’.

They suggest that a solid enough dose of catastrophe might be just the ticket to wake society up and provoke an ‘AnthroShift (assuming, of course, that some solid disinformation campaign doesn’t manage to redirect the response, away from the asset-hoarding classes, who apparently don’t mind how long the game of life lasts, as long as they win it!).

The climate disaster that is coming is inevitable at this point, but it may also be our only hope for meaningful change. In the meantime, the best way through the climate crisis is to build strong ties within our communities, create solidarity, and cultivate social and environmental resilience capable of supporting one another and exploiting the windows of opportunity when the apocalypse arrives.

Other studies, such as this one at the University of Exeter, are searching for the moment, and the triggers, that will tip humanity into a transformational social response. Sadly, it is often some grim event that prises open the Overton Window, enabling the well-prepared to turn impossible policy into sparkling reality. C’est la vie.

‘Dreams and schemes and circus crowds’

Post COP-28, fossil fuel producing countries are already straining credulity with their interpretations of the agreed transition away from fossil fuels.

The UN warned countries to stop looking for loopholes this week after Saudi Arabia’s energy minister claimed at a conference that transitioning away from fossil fuels was just one of several choices on an ‘a la carte’ menu.

Abdulaziz bin Salman pointed at rich nations like Australia, Norway and the UK as examples of other major oil and gas producers that have no plans to stop producing with some countries, including Saudi Arabia, US and Canada, intending to increase their production of fossil fuels by 2030.

Quoted in APNews, United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said,

“Hiding behind loopholes in decision texts or dodging hard work ahead through selective interpretation would be entirely self-defeating for any government as climate impacts hammer every country’s economy and population,”

Stiell called for fewer loopholes and much more money, some $2.4 trillion for climate financing in developing countries to invest in the shift to renewable energy. To date richer countries have committed less than 5% of that figure.

Instead, they are piling investments into technologies that they hope will enable them to continue to use fossil fuels for longer.

Funding for carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, driven by a surge in US investment following the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Biden is currently looking to double down on this, proposing new power plant rules that would require natural gas-fired plants to install CCS technology. This is forcing other countries and regions including the EU, China, Australia and Malaysia to boost investment in order to try and hang on to their developers and capital.

Rapid growth in the technology is expected to continue. As mentioned in our pre-Christmas climate wrap, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US has been working on plans for the rapid deployment of CCS, claiming that more than half of the land area in the country is suitable for geological storage of CO2.

This is despite the fact that development of CCS technology has long lagged expectations due to both technical and financial risks and failures. These have forced the International Energy Agency (IEA) to declare the technology ‘not on track’ to deliver even a third of the modest 1.2 Gt of CO2 removals per year required in their Net Zero Emissions by 2050 (NZE) scenario. 

A Climate Analytics analysis found that large-scale deployment of CCS, combined with underperformance of the technologies could lead to excess greenhouse gas emissions of 86 million tonnes by 2050 (equivalent to more than double total global emissions in 2023).

Meantime, the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University has estimated that a high CCS pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050 is at least US$30 trillion more expensive than a low CCS pathway. They claim that:

“Using CCS to facilitate business-as-usual fossil use, even if feasible, would be highly economically damaging.” (p.3).

Why would countries actively choose a path that costs more than $1 trillion dollars extra each and every year? This is not something one would expect from an efficiently operating market system and, in fact, the market is not delivering it. Market, insurance and financial risks associated with the technology typically exceed the acceptable risk profile for private financing. Research and development of CCS is mostly being paid for, or subsidised, by governments, utilising public financing.

‘Now old friends, they’re acting strange’

One major reason for this is that powerful actors are influencing governments to protect their investments in fossil fuels and to extend the ‘business-as-usual’ paradigm for as long as possible. This misdirection of resources inflicts costs on society that will inevitably increase inequality, worsen overall welfare, delay the transition to renewable energy and weaken the overall capacity of society to tackle the complex interrelated problems that characterise the metacrisis.

The second major reason that governments are investing in CCS is because most of the IPCC’s modelled pathways to 2100 first see the world overshooting the 1.5 and 2.0˚C targets, and then bringing the temperature back down by removing CO2 from the atmosphere particularly in the back half of this century. This is referred to as ‘carbon dioxide removal’ or CDR and covers a range of nature-based and technological approaches, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation and reforestation (A/R). Despite these technologies already featuring in modelled pathways, there has been little by way of feasibility studies or risk assessments undertaken.

A study published this month sets out to remedy that situation, examining the risks and limitations of pathways that feature high levels of CO2 removal.

Reported by Climate Brief, the study published in the academic journal Science assesses the level of sustainability risks that would arise from a large-scale deployment of land-based CDR (carbon dioxide removal), be it nature-based or technological. The study identifies risks to biodiversity loss, food security, fresh water availability and human rights. They show that these risks are triggered at much lower levels of deployment than previously believed. They also show that many of the ‘Paris aligned’ 1.5˚C pathways used by the IPCC feature CDS deployments operating beyond the sustainability limits that their research identifies.

‘Something’s lost and something’s gained’

The costs and risks of these approaches are being ignored or downplayed in an effort to avert the necessary steep decline in near-term emissions – one that requires demand-side strategies to reduce energy and other material demands on the system.

We are increasingly running down our choices,  forcing an increased reliance on radical, speculative technologies in the future. This is also forcing us to attempt to navigate a morally questionable path that shifts risks from the rich to the poor, from current to future generations and as well, amplifies overall risk for everybody.

A choice to pursue high carbon removal paths over demand reduction paths will quite literally sacrifice people for profit over coming decades.

Despite the associated risks, our past choices and current situation mean that there is an important, limited role for CCS and CDR technologies in the future. This justifies ongoing investment in their development. However, continued misuse and misdirection of resources combined with unjustified delays in the speed of the transition to renewables amplifies the risks and increases the costs of that development.

The UN’s Simon Stiell is right – we need to accelerate financing for renewable energy in developing countries rather than continue the foolish quest for endless loopholes designed to protect business-as-usual in the global North. The global North should instead apply demand-side strategies to reduce energy demand, relaxing the steepness of the emissions decline required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The single most critical thing we could do to set society on the right path is to rid governments of special interest influence so that these choices start to be made on the basis of society’s overall wellbeing, both now and in the future, and not to benefit a few today, at the cost of the many.

‘From give and take, and still somehow’

President Biden paused decision making on several new LNG terminals, citing the potential impact on domestic energy costs, energy security and the environment. The review will likely delay decision-making until after the Presidential election this year.

Biden says the pause "sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time". Some environmental activists are claiming the pause as a huge victory for the climate movement, arguing that the LNG export boom is not compatible with US climate commitments and will lock-in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come.

Others, namely the Wall Street Journal, claim the exports are necessary to support a shift away from coal in Asia and Europe and a halt could worsen climate change. A wide-ranging analysis in Carbon Brief includes this:

The IEA has stated that the wave of new LNG projects on the horizon “raises the risk of significant oversupply” as the world heads towards net-zero.

Citing Rystad Energy analysis, Semafor’s climate and energy editor Tim McDonnell noted that the world is heading towards an LNG “supply glut”, potentially rendering new US export terminals unnecessary. He said, “ if every global LNG project under consideration now were to be build, the market would be oversupplied by 2028 and for the foreseeable future after that. ”He added that, if the world does not manage to ramp up renewable energy production to the level required to tackle climate change in the coming years, the world could be undersupplied with LNG by 2030, based on currently planned projects.

Carbon Brief ends with the suggestion that Biden is also driven by election-year priorities:

Commentators noted that the Biden administration had likely made the decision in order to appeal to young people and members of the Democrat base who prioritise climate action. 

This comes as polling suggests that many young voters are turning against Biden, a trend partly attributed to his stance on the conflict in Gaza. Writing in Heatmap, editor Robinson Meyer noted that “the administration seems to be hoping a pause on LNG approvals will help reverse that dismal momentum”.

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Ka kite ano


PS: This is a difficult song about things going one way or another. I try to make it go a good way, especially for Lynn.

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