“Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make most of the planet uninhabitable by Humans.” James Hansen et al. 
In the epigraph, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Jim Hansen and his co-authors point out quite explicitly that if we burn all available fossil fuels we may go extinct. There will be no place to live and grow food. There is disagreement. The climate scientist Richard Alley said in a recent lecture that only “parts” of the planet might be uninhabitable . While there is some uncertainty as to how much fossil fuels are really accessible, burning fossil fuels is not the only misbehavior in which humans are engaged and therefore whatever is left after parts or most may not be habitable for any number of other reasons.
Just this week in the latest issue of EOS , published by the American Geophysical Union, there is a news article on the Chesapeake Bay dead zone reminding us that most of this estuary is either hypoxic (low-oxygen condition) or anoxic (a near total depletion of oxygen). This is peripherally associated with global warming in that the chemicals we use on our farms which pollute the bay have a fossil fuel origin. Such conditions are leading to the displacement of complex fish ecosystems by jellyfish. This is also associated with overfishing.
On Thursday October 3, 2013, Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) published their State of the Oceans report . The report states “We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.”
In the latest issue of Nature , containing a special section on the state of agriculture, we are reminded that we are pulling down our aquifers by a few inches a year. California’s Central Valley will run dry in 60 to 100 years. This is also happening in India and the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin as well as Australia. This is due to over irrigation but also climate-change caused droughts. The same issue of Nature informs us that “The threat of insects to agriculture is set to increase as the planet warms.” So even if we want to pretend that Hansen is exaggerating the impact of human-caused global warming, his analysis still only considers a part of the problems we are creating.
Obviously, there is a rather large disconnect between what our science is telling us is true or at least certainly possible and what most Americans believe. Most Americans are in denial, or maybe we accept that some serious consequences are possible at some distance in the future, or maybe we are confused or completely unaware. Many of us are pretending that there cannot be a problem since the free market isn’t solving it. This state of affairs is partly cultural, partly ideological and partly motivated by greed and fear. That we have a propensity to believe nonsense is well documented .
While understanding is relative, there is a modicum of knowledge which is required of the individual in order to reasonably accurately comprehend the human condition. On the savanna where we evolved things were not nearly this complicated. In order to appreciate whether or not one understands climate physics sufficiently, I pose three not quite arbitrary questions:
What is ECS?
What is the Eemian?
What is PETM?
If a person cannot rattle off answers, blindfolded, with no recourse to the internet, then one’s understanding may be too fragile and too limited. One may have a difficult time assimilating the science directly and will be overly dependent on the main stream media for information. I chose these three questions because they are germane to being able to read Hansen’s paper. This paper is not a difficult read but like all scientific papers it assumes a specialist’s knowledge and at 25 pages is a tough slog if one constantly has to refer to Wikipedia every other sentence for a definition of terms. Any Blue Ridge Leader reader can do this. It just takes a lot of time which I fully appreciate most people do not have.
ECS is equilibrium climate sensitivity and is an estimate of how much the Earth will warm if the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is doubled and after the climate has stabilized. But there are caveats. It only takes into account fast feedbacks by definition. And here we see that one must understand what a feedback is, which may require yet another trip to Wikipedia. At any rate, ECS is what the argument between climate deniers and climate realists is all about. The consensus view is that the planet will warm between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius with a mean value of 3 degrees. Deniers pretend the value is less than 1 degree or even 0 since a few do not believe that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Some scientists think the value may be closer to 4.5 degrees or even higher because of evidence in the paleoclimate record. Authors of a recent article in the journal Science  wrote: “The Earth system response to small changes in carbon dioxide is bigger than suggested by earlier climate models.” These scientists are describing what actually happened in the past, in this case the mid-Pliocene (look it up in Wikipedia) and is climate model independent. The paleoclimate record is what the Hansen paper is about. ECS contrasts with Earth System Response or Sensitivity which takes into account long term feedback mechanisms as well.
The Eemian is the name for the last interglacial period before the present one, which is called the Holocene. It occurred between 135,000 and 114,000 years ago. The Eemian is a beautiful analogue to the current climate because the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels where a little lower than they are today. The climate was 1 degree C warmer and sea levels were four to nine meters (roughly 10 to 30 feet) higher than they are today. Physical models are only as good as all the physical processes which are included in the simulation. If a feedback mechanism is left out or if a physical process is not well understood then the simulations will have errors. But whatever actually happened, happened so that every physical mechanism is explicitly included in the paleoclimate record. There is some disagreement between the consensus view and the more pessimistic view regards some of the measurements and some of the timing. Did a process take place over decades, centuries or millennia? The time line derived from sediment is often blurry.
The PETM is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum which occurred 55 million years ago. There is an interesting lesson for us today in the PETM as it involved the dramatic release of methane and carbon dioxide from methane clathrate frozen under the ocean floor and/or melting and decomposing peat. Both of these phenomena are currently being observed. The magnitude of the release is on the order of the estimated amount of fossil fuels. But the rate of the release was slower by an order of magnitude. This is of considerable concern to climate scientists. The IPSO report states : “More worrying still, the scale and rate of the present day carbon perturbation, and resulting ocean acidification, is unprecedented in Earth’s known history. Today’s rate of carbon release, at approximately 30 Gt of CO2 per year, is at least 10 times faster than that which preceded the last major species extinction (the PETM), while geological records indicate that the current acidification is unparalleled in at least the last 300 million years.”
The lesson for us is that if we know these things, or take the time to learn them, we have access to the climate science literature directly. If we do not know these details, then reading the scientific literature directly becomes a bit tedious and overwhelming. Without access to the original science we are dependent on the main stream media for information. And unfortunately the only way to accurately characterize the MSM is as thoroughly unreliable. There is some reporting which is accurate but lot’s that is pure fabrication, and without the knowledge one can acquire outside the MSM, one cannot tell the difference. While there is considerable evidence of dishonesty, ambivalence, carelessness and ignorance, mostly the MSM is simply unreliable, unverifiable and irrelevant. And this is unfortunate and explains at least in part the widening gap between the reality of the human condition and what people believe.
I’m not a consumer of MSM, primarily because I spend so much time trying to acquire information from primary sources like scientific journals and text books. Think of it as my hobby. My wife subscribes to Time magazine. I don’t read it except for the “Briefing” page because I always have something better to read. A conservative Republican friend doesn’t read it because it is too liberal. But I know many people who do read it and rely on its presumed honestly.
In the September 23, 2013 issue, on the “Briefing” page the editors ran this one line story: “60 percent increase in ice-covered ocean water since last year, leading some scientists to believe that the planet is actually undergoing global cooling”. This is not true. And there is no attribution so it is unverifiable in any event. Time magazine is regrettably misinforming the public on a massively important issue. Yet the behavior of Time magazine is in no way exceptional. There are many worse news outlets than Time.
If one wants to be a skeptic, one must not believe everything one reads or hears without questioning it. First, Time did not attribute a source for this information. So the first question to ask Time editors is of course “what is your source?” Second, 60 percent seems rather high and does not square with any of the data from credible sources, as we will see. How was it measured or calculated? Did somebody at Time confirm the calculation? Who are these scientists who supposedly changed their view based on a single year observation? Did anybody at Time speak directly with “some” scientists? Did Time consult with any knowledgeable persons before running the item?
Curiously Time employs one of the best science writers in the MSM. Brian Walsh  writes consistently and accurately about human-caused climate change in addition to other science. In fact on May 10 this year in Time magazine Walsh wrote “Human civilization didn’t exist the last time that carbon levels in the atmosphere were as high as they are now. As a new study shows, temperatures were much higher—and the Arctic was largely ice free.” Walsh was writing about the mid-Pliocene paper I cited above. Before the editors of the “Briefing” page ran their global cooling canard they might have checked with their own in-house expert. If they didn’t even do that, we find it hard to believe they actually talked to “some” scientist.
An aerial view of the ice core drilling platform at Lake El’gygytgyn in Russia. From an article by Time Magazine science writer Brian Walsh. Image courtesy of Jens Karls 
Let’s examine the data.
Figure 2 shows the Arctic sea ice cover estimated by proxy data during the last 1450 years. I used data from Kinnard et al . The black curve is the forty-year smoothed proxy-based reconstructed late-summer Arctic sea ice extent over the period AD 561–1995. The data provided by the authors includes 95 percent confidence curves. The jagged blue curve is the yearly data for observed August (late summer) sea ice extent. The authors give this data up to and including 2008 and explain why they used August data in their article. I’ve supplemented this data with the August sea ice extent record published by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for the years 2009 to 2013 . The y-axis is the ice extent in square kilometers. Note that the ice extent over the last 1400 years is remarkably stable at around 10 million square kilometers. Of course it varies from year to year with the weather and the authors discuss error bounds. The authors also discuss the medieval warm period and the little ice age. It is an interesting article. But like the Hansen paper, a specialist’s background is useful if only for definition of terms.
Note the inevitable hockey stick blade beginning around 1970. This is the human-caused global warming signature. Our Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli sued our state university using our taxpayer money to make the hockey stick blade go away but it shows up unfailingly in every data set. The collapse of Arctic sea ice is clearly unprecedented in the paleoclimate record at least back to AD 561. In 2012, the sea ice extent set a record well below what any climate models had predicted. The “recovery” in 2013 was anticipated simply because of natural variability. Using the August data the increase in Arctic sea ice extent from 2012 to 2013 is 30 percent but the decrease in extent from the 561-1970 AD norm to 2013 is 40 percent.
The observed data, the blue curve, is jagged. From year to year it increases and then decreases. This is why I suspect that Time’s “some scientists” do not exist. And it is why in the science journals such as Nature, Science, Geophysical Research Letters, EOS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, we do not find scientist discussing global cooling. If we consider the expanded view of the observed data we can clearly see the year to year noise superimposed on the global warming trend line. No credible scientist would change his or her mind on one year’s data point while ignoring the overwhelming trend. It is just too farfetched to imagine a scientist flip flopping from one year to the next on the basis of noise. Further and more to the point, the 2013 sea ice extent was the sixth lowest on record and is still well below climate model estimates. The Arctic sea ice is not recovering as Time’s own Brian Walsh makes clear citing published science.
Since the Time quote refers to the ocean ice extent we should also look at the Antarctic. It turns out the sea ice in the Southern Ocean has been increasing slightly. According to Jason Samenow  at the Capital weather gang web site, using NSIDC data, the Antarctic sea ice increased from 2012 to 2013 using September data by 0.15 percent or hardly anything at all. So I do not know where the 60 percent number came from. I do not doubt that there may be some cherry-picked measurement that might show this. I doubt that it is relevant. As skeptics I suggest we all assume Time magazine is pretending. And that is a real shame because misinforming the public has huge costs.
“We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end
We were fated to pretend, to pretend
We’re fated to pretend, to pretend”
“Time to Pretend” from MGMT’s album Oracular Spectacular
 James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Gary Russell and Pushker Kharecha, Climate sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric carbon dioxide, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2013 371, 20120294, published 16 September 2013.
 Richard Alley, AGU Chapman Conference on Communicating Climate Science: A Historic Look to the Future, 08 June 2013 — 13 June 2013, Granby, CO, USA, about 22 minutes into the presentation: State of the Climate System http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_-8u86R3Yc
 Research Spotlight, EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, Volume 94, number 39, 24 September 2013.
 Nature Outlook supplementary section Agriculture and Drought, Adapting to a changing climate, 26 September, 2013, Vol 501.
 Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, Times Books, 2011.
 Brian Walsh senior editor at Time. http://science.time.com/author/bryanrwalsh/
 Christophe Kinnard, Christian M. Zdanowicz, David A. Fisher, Elisabeth Isaksson, Anne de Vernal & Lonnie G. Thompson, Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years, Nature, Vol 479, 24 November, 2011
 Fetterer, F., K. Knowles, W. Meier, and M. Savoie. 2002, updated 2009. Sea Ice Index. [indicate subset used]. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. http://dx.doi.org/10.7265/N5QJ7F7W . NSIDC ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/Aug/N_08_area.txt
 The State of the Ocean 2013: Perils, Prognoses andProposals, http://www.stateoftheocean.org/pdfs/IPSO-Summary-Oct13-FINAL.pdf
 This article was covered by Brian Walsh in Time magazine here: http://science.time.com/2013/05/10/studies-of-the-past-show-an-ice-free-arctic-could-be-in-our-future/ Julie Brigham-Grette, Pliocene Warmth, Polar Amplification, and Stepped Pleistocene Cooling Recorded in NE Arctic Russia, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/recent / 9 May 2013 / Page 1 / 10.1126/science.1233137 and Martin Melles, et al., 2.8 Million Years of Arctic Climate Change from Lake El’gygytgyn, NE Russia, Science Vol 337 20 July 2012.
Figure 2 (from Figure 3 in ) Forty year smoothed reconstructed late-summer Arctic sea ice extent.