Emissions Future Hot News

Mind the gap – distant climates and immediate budgets

Time for some updates from the world of climate science.

First up, the December issue of Nature Reports Climate Change is definitely worth checking out. (This spin-off internet magazine, produced by the Nature Publishing House, is always worth reading, and you can download a full-colour PDF if you prefer this format — good for printing).

Three articles, in particular, grabbed my attention this issue. The first revisited the premise of carbon budgets proposed by Allen et al. 2009 — a concept I covered in a BNC post back in May 2009. The conclusion was that to have a half-decent (50%) chance of keeping global temperature rise to <2°C below pre-industrial levels, given a climate sensitivity in the range of 2 — 4.5°C, humanity’s cumulative carbon budget between now and ‘forever’ (the next 100,000 years or so), is 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. We’ve burned 500 billion tonnes of fossil carbon and forests already, and on our current trajectory, we’ll break the global carbon bank within the next two to three decades.

In this latest paper, the authors suggest that in order  to better focus our attention to the immediate rather than perpetual task, we need a supplementary short-term budget for the period 2010 — 2030. They calculate that to avoid a rate of change of +0.2 per decade, the carbon ‘expense’ for the next 20 years must stay within 190 billion tonnes, or about 9.5 billion tonnes per year (for context, in 2008 global emissions were 9.8 billion tonnes). If we met this goal, we would then have a further 300 billion tonnes to spend for the period 2030 — 100,2030 AD (or thereabouts). Given the seeming inevitability of emissions growth for at least the next 5 — 10 years, we’ll have to have a serious turn around and decline in emissions in the period 2020 — 2030. Sobering thought. Massive deployment of nuclear and renewable power, anyone?

The second article worth reading is called “Mind the Gap”. Here, the question of novel and disappearing climates is considered (this problem has previously been addressed in the technical literature, here). Take a look at this grim figure:

This is a 4°C warming scenario — what’s expected by mid-century under a business-as-usual approach to fossil fuel use, or the likely climate state by 2100 under a mid-range mitigation scenario (BAU gives up to 7°C by 2100, but let’s  not go there). The grey areas are climates that currently exist nowhere on Earth. The orange-red are areas where the equivalent climate is 6,000 to 10,000 km away. Look again at that map. The grey and orange-red areas are predominant in the tropics. The tropical biomes — mostly humid and wet-dry tropical rain forest, and coral reefs — support over 60% of the world’s biodiversity. Under this scenario, they’re cooked. They’re stuffed. They’ve got nowhere to go. Sure, the tropics are naturally hot, but they’re also stable, with little temperature variation compared to the huge seasonal swings that most of us experience in the temperate realms. This makes well-adapted tropical species acutely vulnerable to rapid change. Crank up the warming ratchet in tropical areas during this century, and the only place these species have to go is back to the Palaeocene. Time machine anyone? I thought not.

The third paper of interest in this issue is an interview with my friend and colleague, Jim Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. He gives is frank and clear assessment of what to expect in Copenhagen, why cap-and-trade is a disaster, and a preview of his new (and first!) popular book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (I was fortunate to read an advanced copy that Jim sent me, and I can thoroughly recommend it — he writes extremely well, and his science is superb).

What else in the world of climate change?  For those BNC readers who don’t yet follow me on Twitter (click here to rectify that grievous oversight), you might be interested to hear me on a couple of radio interviews I did this week. In this one, from 5aa Adelaide, I give a frank assessment of Copenhagen. The morning show interviewers, usually a jocular bunch, seemed a bit down after our little chat. I guess I have a depressing effect on people when I’m talking climate change impacts rather than nuclear power prospects! Then, there is a ‘he said… no, he said‘ type of exchange on ABC 891, with an interview with Ian Plimer from Copenhagen, followed by one from me. Suffice to say that, in getting sick of this 50:50 denier vs science cr@p, I let rip.

The World Meteorological Organisation released its annual climate statement for 2009, stating that the decade 2000 — 2009 was the hottest 10-year period on record. This beat the period 1990 — 1999 (yes, 1998 was part of that average), which in turn beat 1980 — 1989. No surprises there, at least to anyone with half a brain. They also report on various unusual ‘extreme events’, including the unprecedented heat waves in Australia, the ongoing melt in the polar regions, intense storm activity, severe droughts, and record sea surface temperatures. Overall, 2009 looks to be heading for the 5th hottest year on record, despite the strong ameliorating effects earlier in the year of La Nina, and the sun bottoming out in a deep and persistent solar minimum. With a strengthening El Niño now coming into play, there is a pretty reasonable chance that 2010 will be the new hottest year on record. We’ll see, but I reckon it’s a better than 50:50 proposition, despite the lack of solar forcing at present.

Finally, if you want to know the reality behind the ‘Climategate’ nonsense (the hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia), then you must listen to this ABC World Today radio interview with former CRU Director, Prof Tom Wigley (full disclosure — Tom is a close friend and colleague of mine, and we are currently writing a number of papers together — Tom is also an extremely strong supporter of IFR Nuclear power). Despite he and others receiving a number of abusive emails, including quite frightening death threats from social psychopaths, he is keeping his chin up, and explains the situation with candour and dignity. I’ll end this post with a quote from Tom:

ELEANOR HALL: Of course climate change sceptic Andrew Bolt named you as a sort of hypothetical whistle blower on this whole affair. He says that if you weren’t then you should’ve been. How do you respond to that?

TOM WIGLEY: Well there are two things, I mean using the word “whistleblower” is really just another ploy on the part of Andrew Bolt and others to attempt to make it look as though the person who hacked these emails was a good guy and that they had a motive of trying to expose nefarious activities within the Climatic Research Unit.

Well of course there was no such nefarious activities and that’s the reason why what Andrew Bolt has said is just totally ludicrous. He says, “when did Tom Wigley finally choke on all that deceit and if he didn’t why the hell not”?

Well you know, I didn’t choke on the deceit because there was no deceit. All I did was ask a number of pointy questions and I received perfectly adequate answers. It would be really nice if someone like Andrew Bolt used the same approach and tried to get both sides of the picture and then he might learn to understand some of these issues better.

There is also a new ‘Climate Crock of the Week’ video on this issue, called “Smacking the hack attack“. Definitely worth a watch.

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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

21 replies on “Mind the gap – distant climates and immediate budgets”

At some point I would hope to see some reconciliation between the views of Jim Hansen and those of the authors who wrote the article on carbon budgets you discussed at the top of the post.

The carbon budget article assumes a further 500 billion tonnes of fossil carbon can be emitted and still avoid the supposedly “dangerous” climate change many say lies beyond the 2 degrees C limit, whereas Hansen states emphatically that there is no more carbon that can be emitted safely if we want to leave our descendants anything like the planet we inherited.

As his recently published Newsweek article restates: “it has become clear that 387 ppm is already in the dangerous range. It’s crucial that we immediately recognize the need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide to at most 350 ppm in order to avoid disasters for coming generations”.

Hansen commented on the stolen emails controversy in this way when interviewed for The Guardian:

“It has no impact on our understanding of the climate system. Its a public relations matter. And its very bad public relations for the science. You know its…[voice faded in the podcast for a second]

I think there were two fundamental mistakes revealed by that. The one is you have to make your data, your input data, available to the community. You can’t say its not available… with science you have to allow other people to try to duplicate your analysis that’s just very fundamental. So that was one mistake.

But the other one is the trying to prevent contrarians from making their viewpoint. I mean you could say its shoddy science so the review process should prevent them from publishing, but if you submit a paper to enough places you can eventually publish it even if its got some, if its somewhat shoddy. And the fact that Al gore in his movie says oh there’s 930 papers that agree on humanly… and [on the other hand] zero, well, that’s just not realistic. In any scientific issue there’s going to be some people who have contrary opinions, and you shouldn’t try to prevent that. I think that was a mistake.”


Hi Barry,

Recall the USGS emails that caused such a stir for the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository project? The DOE took the issue seriously and , IIRC, about $25M of what amounted to quality assurance remediation was performed. I think it was the right thing to do. It solved the problem.

I think the CRU email issue should also be taken seriously. It has affected public opinion. A loss of public confidence in the data would be the same thing as a loss of the data. A disaster. A casual response like trying to restore the authority of the CRU by appealing to it’s authority won’t work. Dismissive ad hominem (e.g., calling people “social psychopaths”) won’t work either. However, IMHO, a serious IV&V response would fix things. And I believe the MET Office is going to try and do just that.



Hi George,

What else do you call people who send you “death threats”? Fucking psychopaths, that’s what. “Ad hominen” … are you insane?


2010 could be a turning point in public opinion if it is both a hot year and liquid fuel prices are high. It will confirm that GW is real and that we need to decarbonise anyway. The weekly food and fuel cost could strain household budgets to which I suggest governments respond by cutting other taxes. If next year is tough the usual suspects will say let’s crank up the boilers or export more coal to cover all the extra costs.

Unfortunately right now the signs point to a retreat into denial and delusion. We’ll tell ourselves a few patches of scrub saved from the bulldozers have sucked up vast amounts of CO2. We’ll look at some minuscule alternative power source and tell ourselves coal is on the way out. So far the public is buying it. A tough year may achieve more than Copenhagen ever could.


Just got off the phone with a friend in Copenhagen. He told me things came to a screeching halt today and the conference was adjourned to try and deal with the impasse that had emerged.

(climategate = denier overreach)


There is no question that the stolen emails are an early Xmas present to the right-wing demagogues in the popular press, and it not being treated as it should be in a lot of the other new outlets I have seen covering it. The question is just how much is public opinion on the whole climate forcing issue being effected. Surprisingly, very little it would seem to this point.

The public seems to have embraced the idea of AGW and these ‘revelations’ don’t seem to be undermining that belief in any serious way as yet. The idea seems to be well entrenched in the public’s mind at this point, and it will take more than evidence of academic bickering at (what is for most people) an obscure school in Britain to shake it.

My suggestion is that we do not grant these e-mail too much legitimacy by continuing to acknowledge there existence.


Don’t get me wrong I believe in AGW and support nuclear power as a solution, however, quotes like this:

“My suggestion is that we do not grant these e-mail too much legitimacy by continuing to acknowledge there existence.”

Are actually a reverse denialism of a situation you wish didn’t exist. Most of the emails are benign but others suggest some scientists may have exaggerated warming trends. As such it is negative publicity for climate scientists and casts doubt on the sincerity of the profession on the whole.


I thought I should give you a perspective of someone who believes the science but also see the real problem of selling change. I have spent 30 years of my life “Selling Change” through complex Technical Innovation, I find the concept of the ETS very difficult to comprehend and see it having the potential to have much different outcomes to that that are intended or needed and can only agree with Jim Hansen.
I have tried to imagine how I could “SELL” the concept of an ETS and have really struggled beyond the emotional level of “saving the planet” and “me TOO” practically there are just too many insurmountable anomalies and red flags to overcome caused by it inherent complexity that a market creates.
I like many people close to retirement don’t trust the market alone to get it right:-
• Given the value changes in our retirement savings that have just occurred as a result of the GFC
• The oil Market continues to be very volatile and any ETS could well amplify that volatility
• The ETS has the smell of a Financial Derivative full of smoke and mirrors lubricated with snake oil and no one seems to be able to explain it simply to a point I have any sense of understanding, there are just too many variable to consider.
• Giving a problem just to the market or sharing regulation with a market mechanism shows an abrogation of responsibility of Government. I don’t trust the Market to get right and climate change is too important for it to be stuffed up.
• The Government needs to keep it hands on the levers of control and make iterative change as required. The Environment is something that requires Regulation not Market manipulation.
That said I do have a strong belief that Society does need to make the investment to change current energy generation practices and do it quickly. I believe an additional tax is the only way to motivate a change in consumer behaviour.
• I believe that a pure carbon tax is much easier to understand it can be directed at specific problems and be dissected with different rates and different legislation for Power Generation and Transport.
• Rebates could be provided for essential industries where appropriate. The whole system could be completely “transparent” and by dissecting the problem into multiple bills it may be easier to legislate.
• A published phased implementation with a changing tax structure could be announced to provide certainty for business (much as the Button Plan provided for the Car Industry)
Taxation sovereignty is also an issue much of the ETS’s perceived benefit is in the support of the third world. There is no reason a percentage of the Carbon Tax collected could not be set aside to support legitimate corruption free schemes( after vetting by an appropriate Australian Government authority). I don’t believe the benefit of this source of money should make the market manipulating Screen Jockeys rich shuffling bits of paper.
We should “Keep and Manage Australia’s Pollution” in the Australian Government’s control.
Other projects and R&D that don’t currently make commercial sense could be funded in part by tax collected but only after appropriate Government vetting.
Like many of my friends I believe most probably 4th Generation Nuclear will provide the most cost effective answer by 2015 – 2020 and would take the following 15 years to be implemented cutting 40% of the pollution Australia emits at a price below that of coal. To save money on transport we will need to plug in rather than fill up and this technology still has a way to mature. That said the demand on generating capacity and power distribution infrastructure will have to grow significantly.
If a political party wants electoral success they must provide some future and or present pain through taxation for the electorate to be credible and they must keep it simple understandable and most importantly sellable. The electorate is looking for a solution not just opposition to the problem. People buy (vote) for solutions not opposition to problems.
The best thing about this site is it canvasses solutions that appear economically viable that can have a real impact on the problems involved.


Wow, I’ve heard Ian Plimer speak before, and read parts of his poor excuse for a book, but that radio interview was one of the most infuriating things I’ve heard in long while. “Climate scientists don’t produce their own research and data”??? Utter crap.



Thanks for the summary, depressing but accurate as always. The more I have read about Copenhagen the less optimistic I am about the ETS. It seems fundamentally flawed in both consideration of equity and whether it can be self-enforcing in game-theoretic terms.

Kyoto established a mechanism to transfer money from rich offending nations (in CC terms) to poor vulnerable nations. The trouble is, not all rich nations are equally responsible, while not all poor nations are vulnerable. Indonesia, China and India are now large parts of the problem. I think the economists based the Kyoto style ETS more on “ability to pay” than willingness, need or desert. hence now it is becoming unenforceable.

I think the only solution now is to establish emission quotas for each nation based on sustainable totals, use a carbon cap and tax to get action within cooperating nations, and tariff goods from non-cooperating nations. This will encourage everyone to act. Developing nations with low emissions won’t have to act, but won’t get a large handout of cash either. Some percentage of carbon tax funds should be pooled though, to assist those who need to mitigate effects (eg Bangladesh, Maldives). There also need to be funding for international programs ot reduce population growth.

I think one problem now is that some poeple have spent so long working on Kyoto that they can’t let go if it, when it has clearly failed. After 12 years we have actually gotten worse, while adding another billion mouths to feed. I don’t think we are going to avoid severe harm from CC now.


At ~25t of CO2 per head Australia does not have the moral authority to impose carbon tariffs on goods from developing countries. However I suggest that their lower per capita CO2 is due to the fact most of their population live in energy poverty. The minority middle classes get most of the benefit. Long run the only way to help their rural poor will be through low carbon energy, not burning more coal.

I suggest that Australia should export yellowcake on the basis that it displaces CO2 emissions. That is, uranium is instead of not additional to coal or LNG. This could have considerable leverage around 2015 when it is believed China’s coal production will peak. India already needs hard coals for its steel industry with Australia not Indonesia the nearest supplier. In terms of electricity I believe it takes 1kg of black coal to generate a kilowatt hour, about .7 kg of LNG and about .02 grams of enriched uranium. That puts enriched uranium about 50,000 times ahead of coal if I am using the right numbers. Even more compared to coal with CCS. The deal should be take a cut in coal or LNG and get uranium instead.

I’m saying that Australia not only has the moral obligation to lead in carbon cutting but also has the physical means to greatly influence global emissions.


John N – it’s a 20,000 – 50,000 ratio with today’s thermal reactors, depending on burnup (and on the comparative coal – 50K with the best possible burnup and lowest grade coal). Even 20,000 is pretty impressive nonetheless. With fast reactors or LFTRs, the ratio can approach 4 million.



I wasn’t focusing my post on Australia. The problem is getting a world solution so I was looking at what woudl eb a rational way of getting that. I suspect if you calculated the CO2 share we should be emitting in a just solution, we would be so far over now that Australia would be one of the tariffed countries until we lowered our CO2 quite a bit. Same with the USA. Perhaps the political solution is for Europe and Japan to tariff countries like us until we get serious with real action.

I would agree that insecurity about our coal exports is driving our compromised position. We should realise that in the short to medium term Australia will still be exporting coal to India and China anyway, and find a way to stop domestic brown coal use. Since we don’t even have nuclear power or grid links to Victoria on the drawing board, I conclude Australia has no serious intention of reducing domestic CO2 emissions in the next ten years.


Perhaps off-topic…have you been following those who are advocating for thorium-powered nuclear power plants? In a quick glance around your site, I didn’t see any reference to it.

—referred from a post on RealClimate linked to here for “nukees”


thanks for this article Barry.

I just wanted to ask about something.
You wrote: “<2°C below pre-industrial levels, given a climate sensitivity in the range of 2 — 4.5°C, humanity’s cumulative carbon budget between now and ‘forever’ (the next 100,000 years or so), is 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. We’ve burned 500 billion tonnes of fossil carbon and forests already, and on our current trajectory, we’ll break the global carbon bank within the next two to three decades.

I'm a bit dubious that our glorious leaders will pull off any agreement at Copenhagen.

So what happens if we just keep making excuses and keep burning the oil, gas, and coal and yet peak coal turns out to be a reality hitting around 2025? (German Energy Watch Group).

I'm wondering if 2 effects would take over:
* The economic shock would see coal prices skyrocketting and compelling coal-importing nations to take a long hard look at their coal imports and balance of payments.
* The cultural shock that these fossil fuels were actually *finite after all* would take over, and a major new 'war-time' effort would be easier for politicians to sell to the public.

These are not excuses: they are how I have been keeping myself sane as I watch all the hot air coming out of Copenhagen.

THEN there's some very interesting claims that biochar could see us running an ENORMOUS co2 sink, which effectively negates our impact on the climate if ramped up to process the world's agriwaste and plantation forestry waste into biochar & syngas.

Just a few points that give me some hope in the face of political recalcitrance in Cop.


Barry, thanks for this roundup; I missed the “Mind the gap” piece earlier. Very interesting visual projection of what I consider to be one of the biggest and least-discussed dangerous aspects of global warming: the extent to which ecosystems and species will be unable to migrate or adapt.

It would be very interesting to see a visual rendering that illustrates the minimum migration speed required for species to stay in a stable climate – and where such migration will be impossible due to continental geography (e.g. there’s nowhere to migrate to south of Australia).


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