How Earth’s Future Could Soon Recreate a Lost World of 50 Million Years Ago

Humans have pulled too hard on our planet’s strings, and now we’re at a point where the global climate itself is unravelling.

A new study suggests that if nothing is done to reduce our carbon emissions, we could essentially reverse 50 million years of long-term cooling in just a few generations.

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The consequences could send us spiralling back in time by at least 3 million years. By 2030, the study predicts that Earth’s climate may resemble the mid-Pliocene – the last great warm period before now, when the world was 1.8 degrees Celsius warmer (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

From that precarious spot, we could retreat even further. By 2150, the study suggests our climate could most resemble the ice-free Eocene of some 50 million years past, when there were extremely high carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures were roughly 13 degrees Celsius warmer (23.4 degrees Fahrenheit).

This is a time when crocodiles swam in the swampy forests of the Arctic Circle and palm trees dropped coconuts in Alaska.

“If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society,” says lead author Kevin Burke, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We are moving toward very dramatic changes over an extremely rapid time frame, reversing a planetary cooling trend in a matter of centuries.”

Today, the accelerated rate of climate change is faster than anything the planet has ever experienced before. Now, we are so far off the road map that one of the only ways to figure out where we are going is to retrace the ancient steps the world took long, long ago.

Combing through Earth’s climate history, the new study sought to identify a time that is similar to current climate projections.

To do this, the researchers picked out six climate benchmarks from throughout Earth’s geologic history, dating as far back as the early Eocene to as recently as the early 20th century.

The team then compared these geological periods with two different climate scenarios, calculated using the best available data from the fifth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The first scenario is the worst case possible – a future in which humans do not mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at all – and the second scenario is one in which we do manage to moderately reduce emissions (a feat that will be difficult to achieve, given our current activity).

“Based on observational data, we are tracking on the high end of the emissions scenarios, but it’s too soon to tell,” says Burke.

Using no less than three different climate models, the researchers tested both of these scenarios, and then compared them to each of the geologic periods picked out.

The results are kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book with only two options: we can either do nothing and end up with a climate that resembles the Eocene, or we can try and reduce our emissions and halt our climate at Pliocene conditions.

Under both of these scenarios and across each of the models, the results for the short term are about the same. By at least 2040, Earth’s climate will most closely resemble the mid-Pliocene, and this is well beyond the “safe operating space” of the Holocene that we were shooting for.

At this point, no matter which way we slice it, it seems highly likely that our children and grandchildren will live to see a world where temperatures will rise, precipitation will increase, ice caps will melt, and the poles will become temperate.

During the Pliocene, the climate was arid and the High Arctic was home to forests in which camels and other animals roamed. Who knows what will happen to biological life and human society when the climate reverts to that state within just a few centuries?

65 Myr Climate Change 1


The findings of the new study reveal that these rapid changes will probably begin at the centre of Earth’s continents, spiralling outwards in concentric circles until they engulf the whole planet.

This means that in some areas of the world – for instance, the parts that lie at the centre of those circles – the climate consequences will be especially drastic.

“Madison (Wisconsin) warms up more than Seattle (Washington) does, even though they’re at the same latitude,” explains co-author John ‘Jack’ Williams, a researcher in ecological responses to climate change.

“When you read that the world is expected to warm by 3 degrees Celsius this century, in Madison we should expect to roughly double the global average.”

But while we can predict some of these extreme climate changes, others will no doubt take us by surprise.

In the worst case scenario, by the stage that our climate once again resembles the mid-Pliocene, the research found that nearly 9 percent of the planet will be experiencing “novel” climates.

This means that in some areas of the world, including eastern and southeastern Asia, northern Australia, and the coastal Americas, humans will be experiencing climate conditions that have no known geological or historical precedent.

“In the roughly 20 to 25 years I have been working in the field, we have gone from expecting climate change to happen, to detecting the effects, and now, we are seeing that it’s causing harm,” says Williams.

“People are dying, property is being damaged, we’re seeing intensified fires and intensified storms that can be attributed to climate change. There is more energy in the climate system, leading to more intense events.”

It’s difficult to put a positive spin on all of this, but the researchers tried their hardest. After all, life has a way of surviving and pushing through seemingly insurmountable challenges.

“We’ve seen big things happen in Earth’s history – new species evolved, life persists and species survive. But many species will be lost, and we live on this planet,” says Williams.

“These are things to be concerned about, so this work points us to how we can use our history and Earth’s history to understand changes today and how we can best adapt.”

What’s in a Half a Degree? 2 Very Different Future Climates

A new IPCC report shows the impacts in the near future that can be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees C.
What's in a Half a Degree? 2 Very Different Future Climates
Coral reefs, like this bleached specimen in Malaysia, could be virtually wiped out if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C. A more limited warming of 1.5 degrees C would still cause 70 to 90 percent of reefs to disappear.

A mere half a degree could spell the difference between the Arctic being ice-free once a decade and once a century; between coral reefs being almost entirely wiped out and up to 30 percent hanging on; and between a third of the world’s population being exposed to extreme heat waves and a tenth.

These alternate futures were laid out last week in a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that explores the possibility of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times by 2100, instead of the 2-degree C upper limit agreed to in the landmark Paris agreement three years ago. The report exposes the closing window humanity has to choose which future it wants.

Preventing a temperature rise of 2 degrees C will be a major challenge, one that the current commitments from various countries will likely be unable to meet. And that is before Pres. Donald Trump pulls the U.S. out of the agreement. But the report says a 1.5-degree C limit is not impossible—although it will require immediate and drastic action, because the current pace of emissions would breach that level between 2030 and 2052. The most likely scenario for achieving that goal may require blowing past it, and then sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to bring temperatures back in line.

With disruptions to the climate system already being felt now amid just under 1 degree C of warming, even the 1.5-degree C goal seems poised to bring major negative impacts. Preventing another half degree of warming on top of that, however, would spare entire ecosystems, cities and vulnerable populations from exponentially worse damage. “We still have choices to make; we’ve seen some of the leading-edge damage already,” says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology, who is an author on the next major IPCC report.

Here are some of the climate consequences that can be avoided if warming is limited to 1.5 degrees C:

Heat: Rising average temperatures have a clear connection to how often heat waves happen, and how bad they get when they do. Studies have already shown the fingerprints of global warming on major heat waves in today’s climate, and things will only get worse as temperatures on the hottest days rise faster than the global average. One study cited in the new report used climate models to see how the share of the world’s population exposed to a heat wave (one with a 5 percent chance of occurring in any given year) would change. That number increased from less than 10 percent of the population now to 50 percent with 1.5 degree C of warming, and more than 70 percent at 2 degrees C.

Ecosystems: Coral reefs have already been battered by warming and acidifying oceans, with widespread bleaching in recent years. Reefs have one of the bleaker future outcomes: a temperature rise of 2 degrees C would eliminate 99 percent of today’s reefs whereas 1.5 degrees C could save a sliver of them, with losses between 70 and 90 percent. Other animals face major losses in places to live. The amount of climatically suitable habitat lost by vertebrates and plants would double from a 1.5- to 2-degree C regime, and triple for invertebrates.

Arctic: The Arctic has already warmed at about double the rate of the planet as a whole, causing permafrost to thaw and sea ice to steadily melt. The jump from 1.5 to 2 degrees C could mean an extra 1.5 million to 2.5 million square kilometers of permafrost disappear, while the Arctic Ocean would go from seeing ice-free conditions in the summer once every 100 years to once every 10.

Food and Water: Warming temperatures also threaten the water and food sources humans depend on. Allowing the global temperature to rise by 2 degrees C could double the losses in annual ocean fish catches, up the number of people exposed to water stress by 50 percent and increase the declines in the yields of key staple crops such as maize, rice and wheat.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Sources: “Extreme Heat Waves under 1.5° C and 2° C Global Warming,” by Alessandro Dosio et al., in Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13, No. 5; April 25, 2018 (heat wave data); Carbon Brief, “The Impacts of Climate Change at 1.5 C, 2 C and Beyond”; accessed October 12, 2018, (rainfall data); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C”; October 8, 2018 (arctic, habitat loss, and coral reef data)

Thinning Clouds Put Climate Ahead of Schedule

With the help of satellite data, scientists have shown that low-level cloud cover in the tropics thins out as Earth warms. Because this cloud cover has a cooling effect on the climate, the two-degree warming target set by the Paris Agreement may arrive sooner than predicted.

It is indisputable that greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere heat up our planet. But it is harder to determine the exact dependence of the temperature rise on greenhouse gas concentrations. Scientists refer to this dependence as climate sensitivity. If we assume that human activity leads to a sustained doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, how much will the earth warm on average?

“Probably between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius” was the vague answer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its most recent Assessment Report from 2013.

Tapio Schneider, professor for climate dynamics at ETH Zurich, and Florent Brient, a postdoctoral researcher in his group, have achieved this with the help of new analyses. “It’s very unlikely that the climate sensitivity is less than 2.3 degrees Celsius,” says Schneider. “Climate sensitivity is more likely situated in the upper half of previous estimates, probably around four degrees.”

The main reason for the uncertainty in previous climate sensitivity estimates has been the difficulty in determining the exact influence of cloud cover—particularly low-level clouds in the tropics, Schneider explains. Scientists disagreed as to whether—and how much—this cloud cover might change in the future as the climate changes.

To get to the bottom of this question, Brient and Schneider evaluated a large quantity of satellite data from the past 15 years. The data came from radiometers situated on board of the satellites in NASA’s CERES program. The satellites continuously measure how much sunlight reflects from Earth back into space. The scientists were able to show that, in the past, there were fewer low-lying clouds in warmer years than in colder years.

The researchers used the new information to evaluate the quality of nearly 30 current climate models. They found that almost all models that were consistent with the observational data also predicted fewer low-lying clouds under long-term global warming. The scientists therefore assume that this cloud cover will continue to thin out as the earth warms.

All the models that match the observational data also have a climate sensitivity of at least 2.3 degrees Celsius, with most having much higher climate sensitivities.

This suggests that the threshold of two degrees warming above pre-industrial levels, which countries committed not to exceed in the Paris Agreement, may be reached earlier than anticipated. Because the climate sensitivity likely lies in the upper range of previous estimates, a smaller increase in CO2 concentrations than previously thought may suffice to reach the threshold.

A science news preview of 2014

Rosetta The Rosetta mission‘s Philae lander will try to ride a comet on its sweep into the inner Solar System

As the new year begins, the BBC’s science and environment journalists look ahead to what we can expect to see in the headlines in 2014.

David Shukman, science editor

With the fastest supercomputer in the world and a rover exploring the Moon, Chinese science is enjoying an unstoppable rise. And it’s backed by spending on a scale that would turn most Western scientists green with envy.

One leading British scientist likens China to the United States in the late 20th Century with a large population, huge resources and boundless energy – and “look what America produced in terms of science”. So watch out for advances in everything from cloning to robotics to spaceflight.

The scramble for energy, exacerbated by Chinese growth, is bound to throw up further controversy in the coming year. Russia’s arrest of Greenpeace activists and Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices are both reflections of mounting tension over the future of fuel.

The Arctic is only one of several frontlines: Africa is emerging as a major new source of oil and gas as well. And, as prices rise for the most-needed resources, expect the launch of a new gold rush in a realm many would regard as too precious to touch: the ocean floor.

Jonathan Amos, science correspondent

There is little doubt in my mind where the excitement is going to come from in 2014 in the realm of space exploration. It is Europe’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is 10 years since the Esa probe was dispatched to rendezvous with the 4km-wide hunk of ice, but the long engagement is very nearly over and the marriage ceremony is about to begin.

Rosetta will be woken from hibernation on 20 January. And after a period of instrument check-out and some rendezvous manoeuvres, the spacecraft should find itself in the vicinity of 67P in August. Mapping and remote-sensing will then be followed by an audacious attempt to put a lander, called Philae, on the comet’s surface in November.

This will occur some 450 million km from the Sun. Assuming Philae gets down successfully, it will try to ride 67P on its sweep into the inner Solar System.

How long Philae can withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to our star is anyone’s guess. But the little lander will try to hang on for as long as possible with the aid of ice screws and harpoons. This is one space rodeo you won’t want to miss.

Matt McGrath, environment correspondent

The next 12 months promise to be critical in shaping the global response to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2013 reported that humans were the “dominant cause” of global warming, will bring out two key reports in 2014.

The first, in March, will be on the impacts of rising temperatures, and the second, in April, will be on mitigation – how the world can limit or reduce the gases that are responsible for warming.

The contents of these reports are likely to significantly impact the political response. World leaders have been asked to attend a summit convened by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in September.

Mr Ban is expecting them to bring firm pledges of emissions cuts to the gathering.

If that happens, then it may re-invigorate the slumbering UN body tasked with negotiating a global climate deal which faces substantial hurdles in getting agreement on the scale of emissions cuts and the finance to cope with climate damage.

The hope, and I stress the word hope, is that when the negotiators gather in Paris towards the end of 2015, they will be finalising the details of a significant, legally binding agreement.

But insiders say that won’t happen unless everything is “pre-cooked” this year.

Otherwise we will see “climate souffle” in Paris – sweet, well made, but ultimately full of hot air.

Rebecca Morelle, science correspondent, BBC World Service

2014 could be the year when scientists shed a spotlight on dark matter. Mysterious particles of this dark “stuff” are thought to make up about a quarter of the Universe. But clear-cut evidence has proven elusive.

Lux detector
Scientists are hoping to witness the rare occasions when dark matter particles bump into regular matter

Early next year, the Large Underground Xenon detector (LUX), which is located at the bottom of a gold mine in South Dakota, will be switched on again. The results from its first phase have confirmed that it’s the most powerful experiment of its kind – and during its next 300-day run it is set to probe deeper than ever before in the hunt for this enigmatic substance.

The prime candidates for dark matter are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles – or WIMPs. Most of the time, these are thought to stream through the Universe without interacting with anything. But scientists think that on very rare occasions these ghost-like WIMPs do bump into regular matter – and it’s these collisions that LUX will aim to detect.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $2bn experiment that is positioned on the International Space Station, is also searching – in a distinct way. The first results, announced in April 2013, were encouraging. AMS detected promising numbers of electrons and their anti-matter counterparts known as positrons that are thought to shower deep space as dark matter particles annihilate each other – but the evidence was not conclusive.

James Morgan, science reporter

Every Christmas, children dream of the new hyper-promoted toy or gadget, and science reporters are no different. 3D printing – last year’s stocking filler – has become this year’s brussel sprouts. In 2014, it’s all about 4D printing – objects that “make themselves” by changing shape after they’ve been printed.

The coming year is also the 60th anniversary of Cern. The world’s biggest physics lab will be celebrating six decades of pan-European endeavour with several special events, beginning in July in Paris at Unesco. But in terms of actual physics, there are unlikely to be any blockbuster results popping out of the sexagenarian institute. That’s because the LHC remains offline until 2015 – undergoing a refit that will double its power. Supersymmetry and dark matter will likely remain mysterious for a little longer, though there could be a surprise or two sprung at the ICHEP conference in Valencia in July.

2014 is also the International Year of Crystallography – a new campaign to raise awareness of the wonderful technique that has revealed the secrets of DNA and drug discovery. It will also promote collaboration among scientists in Africa and Asia. And finally, this wouldn’t be a “preview of the next big thing” without graphene. The “wonder-material” (a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon) has been championed for use in condoms and microscopes. And for its next trick… graphene will allow bendable touchscreens on smartphones, according to Physics World.

Mark Kinver, environment reporter

Maize (AFP) Food for thought: There is appetite for a consensus on food security but not for GM technology

Since 1996, there has been a growing appetite for the concept of food security. Over the years, researchers have sought to gain a clearer insight into the social, environmental and economic drivers that shape our access to one of the most fundamental ingredients of life. Now, their efforts are bearing fruit. This year saw the first international food security science conference being held in the Netherlands, and one of the title themes of the 2015 Expo in Milan is Feeding the Planet.

On 23 September 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene a high-level UN Climate Summit and is inviting world leaders to bring “big ideas”. Expect to see food security among them. When it comes to delivering future food security, there is a consensus among experts that the world needs a wide range of technologies and techniques to feed the changing tastes of a growing population.

But mention GM crops, and that consensus soon breaks down. While the rest of the world grows more and more genetically modified food crops, the EU remains a fallow landscape for the technology. But this politically unappetising issue can no longer be pushed to the side of the EU’s policy plate and it will be on the menu again during 2014.

Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst

In theory this should be a big year for climate change, with three more reports from the UN Panel, amplified by Ban Ki-moon’s heads of governments meeting, all as a precursor to the annual climate conference in Peru.

It will be the last conference before the big 2015 Paris meeting at which nations have promised at last to stop arguing and solve the climate problem; really… no really.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that the mismatch between science and policy will magically shrink over the year, however many reports there may be. The pause in warming remains a puzzle and as the UN Panel’s documents become more rigorously cautious, opponents of climate action will seize on uncertainties as a reason for doing nothing. So don’t hold your breath on CO2.

One aspect of that troublesome gas is likely to feature more prominently in 2014 – the UN will also highlight ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of CO2 emissions by the seas.

The oceans generally are likely to receive a much higher profile. The Economist magazine will hold a “summit” on the seas and so will John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. There will be focus on over-fishing, warming, dead zones, plastics and pollution of all sorts in the UN meta-review of ocean science, probably at the end of the year.

The Arctic will loom large too after Russian prosecutors arguably did Greenpeace a publicity favour by jailing its campaigners. Shell hopes to re-start drilling off Alaska in the summer and should expect more coverage than during their last venture.

Global warming proponents and sceptics agree on one point: study into myth of ‘pause’ merits more research

A study suggesting that the “pause” in global warming is not real has managed to unify climate scientists and their arch-sceptics over the need for further research to clarify whether global average temperatures really have flat-lined over the past 15 years.

The study, by Kevin Cowtan of York University and Robert Way of Ottawa University, found that the global warming pause could be virtually eliminated by including temperature estimates from the Arctic, which are currently excluded because of a lack of weather stations in this remote region.As revealed today by The Independent, the study used an established statistical technique called kriging to fill in the missing surface temperatures in the Arctic with satellite readings of the atmosphere above. This eliminated the pause or hiatus in global average temperatures that appears to have developed over the past decade or more.The slowdown in temperatures has been used by climate sceptics, such as the former Chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby, to undermine the science of climate change, claiming that global warming has stopped despite a continuing rise in industrial emissions of greenhouse gases – set to reach a record 36 billion tons in 2013.However, Lord Lawson said yesterday that he would like to read the latest study before commenting on it in detail. “These things come out from time to time and sometimes they have merit and sometimes they don’t. It needs to be reviewed by other scientists,” Lord Lawson told The Independent.However, the science writer and climate sceptic Matt Ridley, now Lord Ridley, a Conservative hereditary peer, dismissed the latest study because it relies on swapping one type of “uncertain data” used to fill in the gaps in the polar region with another.”Even if that gives a slight net warming for the past 15 to 17 years, it does not change the fact that the warming over the full 34 years since warming began has been slower than predicted by 95 per cent of the [computer] model runs consulted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change….The key point is that warming is slower than expected,” Lord Ridley said.

Rasmus Benestad of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute in Oslo, who was one of the first scientists to try to estimate the effect of the missing Arctic warming data on global average temperatures, said that the latest study is a useful contribution to the debate.

“The pronounced recent warming can be inferred from different and independent observations, such as the melting of the ice on Greenland, thawing of permafrost, and the reduction of the sea-ice. Hence, when the most rapidly warming regions on Earth are not part of the statistics, the global mean estimate is bound to be lower than the real global mean. Hence, our picture of Earth’s surface temperature is somewhat ‘patchy’,” Dr Benestad said.

It is likely that the slowdown in global average temperatures to the Earth’s surface is the result of a combination of factors, such as the uptake of heat in the deep oceans, the effect of El Nino and La Nina conditions in the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the hidden temperature increases in the Arctic, he said.

Professor Richard Allan of the University of Reading said that the study by Cowtan and Way appears reasonable as they have tested their method by applying the technique to regions of the world where there are ground-based measurements to gauge its accuracy. However, the study is still preliminary and will need to be scrutinised by other scientists, Professor Allan said.

“There is still a slowdown in the rate of global average surface warming in the 21st century compared to the late 20th century and this still looks to be caused by natural fluctuations in the ocean and other natural climate fluctuations relating to volcanic eruptions and changes in the brightness of the sun,” Professor Allan said.

“However, the size of this slowdown and the discrepancy between observations and climate simulations may be less than previously thought.  The conclusions of the IPCC stands: we can expect a return to substantial warming of the planet over the coming decades in response to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases,” he said.

Ed Hawkins of Reading University added: “This is an interesting and important contribution to the continuing discussion about the recent temperature hiatus, but is unlikely to be the final word on the issue. It must also be remembered that a 15-year trend is still too short to be considered as representative of longer-term global temperature trends, and also too short to be meaningfully compared with climate simulations.”

The Conservative MP Peter Lilley said that he is not convinced that the latest study can explain the pause. “The IPCC tried to explain the pause by saying the heat is in the deep ocean and now these people say it’s in the polar regions. They both can’t be right,” Mr Lilley said.

Will more science expertise fix the sustainability crisis?


Constant calls for evidence-based policy miss the underlying politics of knowledge, argues analyst Peter Bille Larsen.

Knowledge and science for sustainable development are intimately interlinked. Not only did the very notion of sustainability emerge from the scientific community, a constant flow of scientific reports on burning topics ranging fromclimate change to biodiversity loss also suggests the central role of scientific observation.

But as the sustainability crisis grows, the recent history and practice of this science-policyinterface suggests a difficulty in bridging the two. The question is, what can we learn from this?

Milestone for science input

Forty-five years ago, a pioneering UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting on ‘The scientific basis for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere’ was a milestone global event bringing more than 300 scientists and policymakers together. It spearheaded the role of science in recommending action to resolve environmental problems.

A quarter of a century later, at the 1992 Rio summit, the Agenda 21 action plan (a non-binding plan for sustainable development) encouraged scientific research that integrates concerns over global population, environment and development with disciplines such as meteorology, hydrology, forestry and soil and plant sciences.

Chapter 31 of the Agenda specifically sought to enable the scientific community “to make a more open and effective contribution to the decision-making processes concerning environment and development”. [1] And it called for greater use of science and independent research.

Since then, international conferences and sustainable policy-oriented research have mushroomed. Scientists are regular authors of policy papers, are members of scientific committees and engage in expert dialogues with policymakers.

This new stage of science-policy mechanisms is here to stay. But, in the meantime, sustainability problems have also expanded and deepened. How are we to make sense of this paradox?

Evidence sidelined 

The outcome document to last year’s Rio+20 conference reiterated the need to “strengthen the science-policy interface”, emphasising “inclusive, evidence-based and transparent scientific assessments”. [2]

This is, perhaps, a polite way of recognising the limited influence that ‘interface outputs’ such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have had on the outcomes of global policy debates.

Despite constant calls for evidence-based analysis, it is not the lack of evidence or transparent assessments that is behind the indecision of global sustainability politics.

Thoroughly researched reports speak in plain language, yet are often present by name only in final decisions. Technical reports and scientific reviews — from World Heritage evaluations and Red Book data on species loss to climate change scenarios — may cause a stir, but are frequently rejected or simply ignored.

Some might ask what the point is of producing more and better science and technical assessments if they remain stuck in the policy pipelines. It matters, of course — but the path from knowledge to policy action is treacherous.

Constraints on debate 

To get past this problem, researchers need to show, and question, more explicitly the politics of knowledge that frame the interface between science and policy. 

While often presented as neutral platforms for initiating debate, science-policy interfaces are commonly constrained in many ways. They are fundamentally social fields framed by intergovernmental politics.

Consider, for example, the first report from the recently established Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services. [3] Readers will perhaps be surprised to find little substantial text on sustainability science, biodiversity and ecosystem services. They will instead encounter agreements about rules of procedure and working methods along with bracketed text where agreement was not reached. 

Up for negotiation are nominations of experts to join the platform, a decision on who may observe proceedings and the next steps for the initial work programme. State membership and agreed-upon working processes secure political buy-in, but they also reflect a process of ‘intergovernmentalisation’ that enables and constrains the future nature of the debate.

Consider, too, climate sceptics’ virulent attacks against the validity of IPCC reports. One effect of these assaults may have been a tendency, in the public debate, to pigeonhole the science-policy interface as only relating to questions of procedure and data quality.

Questioning methods or the validity of conclusions is, of course, at the heart of scientific debate. But there is much more to the politics of knowledge, ranging from what disciplines and paradigms are considered ‘policy relevant’ to the types and forms of knowledge considered valid inputs.

Changing tactics

Given the string of failures of intergovernmental forums to take science on board, how do we ensure that new interfaces succeed where existing ones have failed?

There is a need to broaden what is considered relevant research, as well as levelling the playing field in terms of who contributes their knowledge. Given the sheer diversity of sustainability challenges, we need to recognise that much relevant knowledge production is found among organisations and communities in forms that may never translate into high-impact peer-reviewed articles.

Transdisciplinary knowledge production, hybrid knowledge products resulting from partnerships between scientists and indigenous knowledge holders, and hands-on research by NGOs are just three examples of thinking outside the box to address contemporary challenges.

Given the scale and complexity of sustainability problems, the development community needs to think creatively and expand the boundaries of the science-policy interface. Inter-governmental platforms are starting points, not ends in themselves.

It is perhaps time to stop merely seeing global sustainability policy negotiations as a string of failures in need of yet another conventional knowledge fix. Bridging the knowledge gap is not merely about debating peer-reviewed science, but also about mobilising research and science more broadly to engage with the deepening challenges of our times.


[1] United Nations Agenda 21 (United Nations, 1992)
[2] United Nations The future we want (United Nations, 2012)
[3] UNEP Report of the first session of the Plenary of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (UNEP, 2013)

Source: SciVx


Global Average Temperatures Are Close to 11,000-Year Peak.


Global average temperatures are now higher than they have been for about 75% of the past 11,300 years, a study suggests. And if climate models are any indication, by the end of this century they will be the highest ever since the end of the most recent ice age.

Instrumental records of climate extend back to only the late nineteenth century. Beyond that, scientists depend on analyses of natural chronicles such as tree rings and isotope ratios in cave formations.

But even these archives have their limits: many detailed reconstructions of climate, particularly of temperature, apply to only limited regions or extend back at most a couple of millennia, says Shaun Marcott, a climate scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Marcott and his colleagues set about reconstructing global climate trends all the way back to 11,300 years ago, when the Northern Hemisphere was emerging from the most recent ice age. To do so, they collected and analyzed data gathered by other teams. The 73 overlapping climate records that they considered included sediment cores drilled from lake bottoms and sea floors around the world, along with a handful of ice cores collected in Antarctica and Greenland.

Each of these chronicles spanned at least 6,500 years, and each included a millennium-long baseline period beginning in the middle of the post-ice-age period at 3550 BC.

For some records, the researchers inferred past temperatures from the ratio of magnesium and calcium ions in the shells of microscopic creatures that had died and dropped to the ocean floor; for others, they measured the lengths of long-chain organic molecules called alkenones that were trapped in the sediments.

After the ice age, they found, global average temperatures rose until they reached a plateau between 7550 and 3550 BC. Then a long-term cooling trend set in, reaching its lowest temperature extreme between ad 1450 and 1850.

Since then, temperatures have been increasing at a dramatic clip: from the first decade of the twentieth century to now, global average temperatures rose from near their coldest point since the ice age to nearly their warmest, Marcott and his team report today in Science.

Climate context
The temperature trends that the team identified for the past 2,000 years are statistically indistinguishable from results obtained by other researchers in a previous study, says Marcott. “That gives us confidence that the rest of our record is right too,” he adds.

Marcott and his colleagues “have put together a pretty impressive set of climate proxies”, says Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “The overall climate picture has been clear for a long time, mostly from the Northern Hemisphere, but this compilation really puts the rest of the world in context,” he adds.

“Prior to this study, researchers could only guess whether global temperatures had exceeded the warmest part of the present interglacial period,” says Darrell Kaufman, a geologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The latest findings show that the recent high temperatures are not necessarily the warmest, but they are unusually high, he notes.

The temperature trends during most of the post-ice-age period match those expected from natural factors such as the long-term variation in the tilt of Earth’s axis, says Marcott. But in the past century and a half, industrial emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have increased — which helps to explain why global temperatures have risen so quickly in recent decades, he suggests.

Climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that by the end of this century, regardless of future carbon dioxide emissions, temperatures will be at their highest since the end of the most recent ice age, the researchers say.

Source: Scientific American.

IPCC critical of climate change report leak.

The UN climate science panel has criticised a blogger who has published a draft version of its next report.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is preparing what is known as its Fifth Assessment Report for publication next year.

The work looks to draw together research to provide a statement on global warming and its future effects.

The drafting of the reports is open to reviewers but on the condition that no details are published.

In a statement, the IPCC says it “regrets this unauthorized posting which interferes with the process of assessment and review”.

The draft posted online is of what’s called Working Group 1 (WGI), the first stage of the next report.

This covers the physical aspects of climate science, including observations of temperature and computer models of possible scenarios for future warming.

The IPCC statement read: “The unauthorized and premature posting of the drafts of the WGI AR5, which are works in progress, may lead to confusion because the text will necessarily change in some respects once all the review comments have been addressed.

“It is regrettable that one out of many hundreds of reviewers broke the terms of the review.”

The draft was posted by US climate sceptic Alec Rawls, who runs a blog called Stop Green Suicide.

It is reported that he highlighted one particular sentence in the draft – about the possible effect of cosmic rays on the climate – claiming it undermined the case that most recent warming has been driven by man-made greenhouse gases.

However, when the BBC attempted to access the blogger’s site it was not available but a number of other sites were providing links to places where the report could be viewed or downloaded online.

‘Cherry picking’

Climate scientists, reacting to the leak, have condemned the “cherry picking” of this one point in a long report and have said that other sections reinforce the central argument about the cause of climate change.

In any event, the text faces several further stages of possible revision before publication late next year.

A meeting of lead authors in Tasmania next month will be the next chance to review all the latest comments.

One lead author, Richard Betts of the Met Office, tweeted that further alterations were likely.

“Worth pointing out that the wording in the leaked IPCC WG1 draft chapters may still change in the final versions, following review comments,” he wrote.

The leak highlights a fundamental question about the way the IPCC is managed in the age of the internet.

While it aims to be open to all contributions, the system of conducting the drafting and discussions in private has long been under pressure.

Prof Piers Forster of Leeds University, UK, said the rationale behind the IPCC process was “to iron out all the errors and inconsistencies which might be inadvertently included.

“Personally, I would be happy if the IPCC process were even more open and public, and I think we as scientists need to explore how we can best match the development of measured critical arguments with those of the Twitter generation.”

This comes as the IPCC is under intense pressure following the discovery of errors in its last assessment, released in 2007.

An inquiry by the Inter Academy Council concluded in 2010 that the IPCC needed better management to handle the growing complexity of climate science and the scrutiny of the outside world.

The panel’s reports are designed to provide a consensus statement on the latest climate science to help governments decide how to respond.





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