Global Warming Underestimated
You leave yourself an enormous margin of safety. You build a bridge that 30,000-pound trucks can go across and then you drive 10,000-pound trucks across it. That is the way I like to go across bridges. (1)
—Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway
On estimating risks and margins of safety
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Projections
Gas Emissions Underestimates. China may have under-reported its annual
carbon emissions by as much as 1.4 billion tonnes a year. “According to a new paper [The gigatonne gap in China’s carbon dioxide inventories] published in the journal Nature Climate Change,
China may be under-reporting its annual carbon emissions by as much as
1.4 billion tonnes a year—roughly the amount that Japan, the world’s
fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), pumps out each year.
China's Emissions Gaps
Sources of China’s CO2 emissions gap by fuel type during 1997–2010. Nature Climate Change, June 2012
"It is hard enough to reduce the emissions in any case, but now we [are] saying [after analyzing carbon dioxide emissions from melting permafrost] that we have to reduce [greenhouse gas emissions] even more." (9)
— Dr. Kevin Schaefer
are worse than expected because scientists incorrectly assumed that
nations like China and India would choose to build cleaner low carbon
emissions power plants instead of less expensive higher carbon emissions
power plants. “[C]arbon emissions are not only still growing,
they're growing faster than ever, and the outcome is even worse than
scientists expected. That's mainly because the scientific models
underestimated the amount of carbon gas the world would be producing by
now. . . . So why did the scientists guess wrong?...
2010 Greenhouse gas emissions are higher than the worst case scenario forecast by the IPCC. “The global output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated, a sign of how feeble the world's efforts are at slowing man-made global warming. The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] climate experts just four years ago . . . . . [Tom Boden, director of the Energy Department's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge National Lab] said the latest figures put global emissions higher than the worst case projections from the climate panel. Those forecast global temperatures rising between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century with the best estimate at 7.5 degrees.” (Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, “Biggest Jump Ever in Global Warming Gases,” Time Magazine, Thursday, November 3, 2011)
‘There are two important messages from this study.
The first is that the melting permafrost can release huge amounts of
carbon and, secondly, the process is irreversible on a human timescale
and will affect our targets for reducing fossil fuel emissions,’ he
2020. Original target year (since revised from 2020 to the year 2009) China was predicted to surpass the U.S. in carbon dioxide global warming emissions. “Last November , the International Energy Agency in Paris predicted that China would pass the United States in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2009. China had been expected to surpass the United States as late as 2020, but its soaring consumption of coal has rapidly increased the country’s emissions. China derives nearly 70 percent of its energy from coal-fired power plants, many of them equipped with substandard pollution controls. Chinese officials have long noted that China’s per capita emissions remain well below the averages in wealthier countries, including the United States. Officials also argue that China remains a developing country without the financial resources or technological prowess to make a rapid shift to cleaner, more expensive energy technology.” [Emphasis added] (Jim Yardley, “China Says Rich Countries Should Take Lead on Global Warming,” The New York Times, February 7, 2007)
2007 worst case scenario forecast of 2 ppm annual increase in CO2 levels already exceeded in 2008 by a 2.5 ppm annual increase. "“[A study by Andrew Brierley of St Andrews University] and his co-author, Michael Kingsford of the James Cook University in Australia, examined the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on ocean habitats and marine organisms. The scientists compared current carbon dioxide emissions with those forecast in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel [on] Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body for the assessment of global warming, which was established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation.
2007, the IPCC predicted a ‘worst-case scenario’ that would see rapid
industrialisation cause carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to increase by
two parts per million each year. Parts per million (ppm) is a unit of
concentration used to measure pollutants. Brierley said atmospheric
carbon dioxide concentration had increased from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm to 385 ppm last year  and was now rising at a rate of 2.5 ppm per year...
2007 [the IPCC] made a series of forecasts and if you take the
worst-case scenario, carbon dioxide would be going up by two parts per
million [worst-case scenario of 2 ppm annual increase in CO2].
really august body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has
said these are the worst-case scenarios for carbon dioxide increase and
we are above that already. That's the thing that really frightens me.’
Shale Gas, Methane Leaks and Global Warming
Current climate change forecasts
underestimate projected impacts because they do
not include greenhouse gas contributions from methane leaks into the atmosphere arising from hydraulic 'fracking" of shale gas drilling operations.
Methane is the principal component of natural
gas. Because the natural gas delivered by public utilities to the bulk
of end-use consumers is almost pure methane, the two terms are sometimes
used interchangeably. Methane’s global warming potential (GWP)
presents a much greater near-term climate disruption risk than carbon
dioxide (CO2). Averaged over a 20 year period, methane traps 72 times
more heat than CO2. (15) Over a 100-year time horizon, methane traps 25
times more heat than CO2. (16)
"Methane is a powerful greenhouse
gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of
carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few
decades following emission. Methane contributes substantially to the
greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating
it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater
than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon,
but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of
shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great
on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.” (17)
Methane from Freshwater Lakes, Rivers and Dams
Methane emissions from lakes and rivers have been underestimated in climate change forecasts. “The amount of methane gas naturally released from lakes and rivers has been underestimated in scientists’ predictions about climate change, a recent study finds. An international team of scientists, which includes John Downing, an Iowa State University professor in the ecology, evolution and organismal biology department, has found greenhouse gas uptake by land environments such as forests is less than previously thought because of methane emissions from freshwater areas. Methane is considered a greenhouse gas. The study, [“Freshwater Methane Emissions Offset the Continental Carbon Sink”], published in the journal Science, finds methane gas release from freshwater areas changes the net absorption of greenhouse gases by natural land environments by at least 25 percent.
This is really a pretty big error. Imagine being off 25 percent in your accounting. It could sink your budget. In the same way . . . an underestimation in the amount of methane gas released by freshwater bodies may have made previous estimates about the rate of climate change inaccurate. (12)
— Prof. John Downing
Iowa State University
On findings that methane gas emissions from
freshwater areas change the net absorption
of greenhouse gases by natural land
environments by at least 25 percent.
January 22, 2011
Methane is the world’s real problem for greenhouse gas emissions. (13)
— Mickey Fulp
Methane gas discharges from dam reservoirs have been overlooked as a contributing source to climate change. Although it has been known that rising and falling water levels in dam reservoirs increase biological activity which in turn releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere, ‘their role in greenhouse gas emissions has been overlooked,’ points out Bridget Deemer, a doctoral student at Washington State University-Vancouver. (20)
Deemer and another Washington State researcher, Maria Glavin measured 20-fold and 36-fold increases in methane emissions during water reservoir level drawdowns in water column and lake mud samples, respectively. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Over a 20-year period, the emission of one ton of methane has the same climatic heat trapping impact as the emission of 72 tons of CO2. The Deemer/Glavin research is the first study to demonstrate and quantify the relationship between fluctuating water levels in dams and reservoirs and greenhouse gas releases. (20)
While the volume of methane emissions produced worldwide from dam reservoir drawdowns has yet to be quantified, these findings imply that the classification of hydroelectric dams as a ‘carbon neutral’ electric power source will need to re-addressed. The findings also raise questions about reservoir water fluctuation norms and how they will be impacted by the up and down volatility of increased flooding, more prevalent droughts, falling water tables, more frequent heat waves, higher levels of rainfall, expanding wild fire areas, sea level storm surges, melting permafrost, and other extreme weather events that are predicted in climate change forecast models. There are approximately 80,000 dams in the U.S., according to data published in the National Inventory of Dams (see map below) published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Temperatures and Global Warming
IPCC temperature projections found to be too conservative as current actual temperatures are now tracking worst case scenarios. “The climate science is getting more dismal at the same time this [decline in photovoltaic costs and growth in electric vehicle sales] is happening. We've seen the IPCC projections are now ground truthed against real world change, and we see that we're tracking the worst case scenario, which is 6° of warming . . . for the early part of the curve. . . . [I]n 2001, the IPCC produced these projections [See Climate Change 2001: IPCC Third Assessment Report] and they indicated that if we double CO2 above pre-industrial levels there's a 60% chance that the result will be a 2° or 3° rise in temperature, a 10% chance of a 1° rise and 10% chance of a 6° rise.
I did not expect to see anything [in temperature increases] this large within the next three decades [2010 – 2039]. This was definitely a surprise. . . .
[Our] results suggest that limiting global warming to 2 degrees C does not guarantee that there won't be damaging impacts from climate change. (7)
Stanford University, Aug. 2010
The widely used maximum 2 degrees C temperature increase target accepted by many scientists and policymakers may be insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. “[In their 2010 study Intensification of hot extremes in the United States, climate scientists [Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford and Moetasim Ashfaq, a former Stanford postdoctoral fellow now at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory] used two dozen climate models to project what could happen in the United States if increased carbon dioxide emissions raised the Earth's temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) between 2010 and 2039 – a likely scenario, according to the International Panel on Climate Change. In that scenario, the mean global temperature in 30 years would be about 3.6 F (2 C) hotter than in the pre-industrial era of the 1850s.
Earth is warming faster than previously predicted. “The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] warns that the planet is warming faster than previously predicted. The Nobel Prize winning group of scientists says carbon and other heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions must stabilize by 2015 and then decline to head off the worst consequences from climate change.” (Lisa Schlein, “VOA News: U.S. Wants More Balanced Approach To Climate Change,” Voice of America, US Fed News Service, Including US State News, November 27, 2007)
The message on the science is that we know a lot more than we did in 1997 [when the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement was signed] and it's all negative.
Eileen Claussen, President
Pew Center on Global Climate Change
November 23, 2009
[The impacts of climate change] ‘seem to be occurring faster than we projected just five or 10 years ago.
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado, May 2008
None of this has been taken into account by politicians and policy makers looking to cut humanity's carbon emissions with the agreed on target of keeping global temperatures below two degrees C. (11)
— Stephen Leahy, IPS, February 15, 2011
Fires and Global Warming
Rising Sea Levels Underestimated by Climate Models
IPCC (best estimate) sea level rise forecasts compared to actual sea level data measured by orbiting satellites. The chart above (click to enlarge for greater detail) shows the actual sea level rise record compared with the IPCC’s ‘Best Estimate” predictions about how sea levels were projected to change over time. Satellite data show that ocean levels are rising faster than anticipated. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted, climate scientists “didn’t get it right.” They “underestimated how fast the sea level was rising.”
IPCC sea level rise forecasts failed to include melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. “[M]ost climate scientists now believe that the main drivers of sea level rise in the 21st century will be the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (a potential of a 16-foot rise if the entire sheet melts) and the Greenland Ice Sheet (a potential rise of 20 feet if the entire ice cap melts). . . . The reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are balanced and comprehensive documents summarizing the impact of global warming on the planet.
But they are not without imperfections, and one of the most notable was the analysis of future sea level rise contained in the latest report, issued in 2007 [see Table on p. 8 of report]. Given the complexities of forecasting how much the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to increases in global sea level, the IPCC chose not to include these giant ice masses in their calculations, thus ignoring what is likely to be the most important source of sea level rise in the 21st century. Arguing that too little was understood about ice sheet collapse to construct a mathematical model upon which even a rough estimate could be based, the IPCC came up with sea level predictions using thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of mountain glaciers outside the poles.
Its results were predictably conservative — a maximum of a two-foot rise this century  — and were even a foot lower than an earlier IPCC report that factored in some melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. The IPCC’s 2007 sea level calculations — widely recognized by the academic community as a critical flaw in the report — have caused confusion among many in the general public and the media and have created fodder for global warming skeptics. But there should be no confusion about the serious threat posed by rising sea levels, especially as evidence has mounted in the past two years of the accelerated pace of melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.” (Rob Young and Orrin Pilkey, “How High Will Seas Rise? Get Ready for Seven Feet,” Yale Environment 360, January 14, 2010)
(1) Warren Buffett quoting his mentor, Ben Graham, in an interview with Charlie Rose, “A Conversation With Warren Buffett, The Charlie Rose Show, July 10, 2006
(2) Peter Backlund of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado quoted in Bill Scanlon, Rocky Mountain News, “Drier climate coming sooner, report says,” Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado, May 28, 2008 reporting on findings in Peter Backlund, Anthony Janetos, and David Schimel and Margaret Walsh, The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources and Biodiversity, Synthesis and Assessment Product 4.3, U.S. Climate Change Science Program, May 2008
(3) Mark Serreze, senior research scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder quoted in Adrianne Appel, “Arctic Ice Isn't Refreezing in the Winter, Satellites Show,” National Geographic News, March 17, 2006
(4) Olive Heffernan, "Interview: Katherine Richardson," Nature Reports, Nature Publishing Group, London, England, March 5, 2009
(5) Richard A. Lovett, “Arctic Ice Melting Much Faster Than Predicted, National Geographic News, May 1, 2007 reporting on findings from Stroeve, J., M. M. Holland, W. Meier, T. Scambos, and M. Serreze (2007), Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L09501, doi:10.1029/2007GL029703, May 1, 2007) Follow NSIDC on Twitter for the latest Arctic sea ice developments.
(6) John Doerr, “John Doerr sees salvation and profit in greentech,” TEDTalks, TED2007, Monterey, California, March 2007
(7) Noah Diffenbaugh, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford University quoted in Mark Shwartz, communications manager, Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, “Heat waves and extremely high temperatures could be commonplace in the U.S. by 2039, Stanford study finds,” Stanford Report, July 8, 2010
(8) Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, quoted in Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer, “Warming's impacts sped up, worsened since Kyoto,” Associated Press, November 23, 2009
(9) Dr. Kevin Schaefer, firstname.lastname@example.org, National Snow and Ice Data Center quoted in press release, “Thawing permafrost will accelerate global warming in decades to come, says new study,” National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colorado, February 16, 2011
(10) Arthur Max, Associated Press bureau chief, The Netherlands, “Leaking Siberian Ice Raises a Tricky Climate Issue,” ABC News, Chersky, Russia, November 21, 2010
(11) Stephen Leahy, “Permafrost Melt Soon Irreversible Without Major Fossil Fuel Cuts,” IPS, Uxbridge, Canada, February 17, 2011 reporting findings in Kevin Schaefer, Tingjun Zhang, Lori Bruhwiler, Andrew P. Barrett, Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming, Tellus B, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0889.2011.00527.x, article first published online on February 15, 2011
(12) Laura Millsaps, Staff Writer, email@example.com, 515-663-6922, “Research: Methane gas underestimated in climate change,” The Tribune, Ames, Iowa, Saturday, January 22, 2011 reporting findings in David Bastviken, Lars J. Tranvik, John A. Downing, Patrick M. Crill and Alex Enrich-Prast, Freshwater Methane Emissions Offset the Continental Carbon Sink, Science, Vol. 331 no. 6013, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196808, January 7, 2011, p. 50
(13) Mickey Fulp, Geologist, Resource Investment Analyst “What’s Up (Or Down) with the Natural Gas Market?,” ResourceInvestor.com, Friday, July 15, 2011
(14) EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC, April 26, 2011
(15) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policymakers," Fourth Assessment Report (FAR), Working Group 1 (WGI), Chapter 2, IPCC Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland, February 2007, p. 212
(16) Nobel laureate Dr. Kirk R. Smith makes the case that greater concern should be paid to methane's near-term 20-year global warming potential (GWP) impact (72 times more heat trapping consequences than CO2) because focusing on the 100-year or 500-year GWP impacts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide "would result in spending most money to protect people thousands of years into the future and ignoring the needs of ourselves and our children." Kirk R. Smith, PhD, Nobel Laureate, "Carbon on Steroids, The Untold Story of Methane, Climate, and Health," PowerPoint presentation to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Sacramento, California, November 10, 2008, Slide 18
(17) Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea, Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations, Climatic Change, Volume 106, Number 4, pp. 679-690, DOI: 10.1007/s10584-011-0061-5, published online April 12, 2011
(18) EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, DC, April 26, 2011
(19) EIA, Shale gas is a global phenomenon, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, D.C. April 5, 2011
(20) Washington State University, “New Global Warming Culprit: Methane Emissions Jump Dramatically During Dam Drawdowns,” ScienceDaily, August 8, 2012
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