Our planet’s climate is still capable of surprising its best scientists. A new study brings us a positive climate change development, for once, showing that the waters surrounding Antarctica are capable of storing a lot more carbon dioxide than previously thought. The Guardian reports:
The oceans absorb around a quarter of emissions caused by human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, reducing the speed of climate change. About 40% of this occurs in the Southern Ocean, which surrounds the Antarctic, making it the planet’s strongest ocean carbon sink. […]
Earlier studies had suggested that rising emissions caused by humans had brought about the saturation of the Southern Ocean in the 1980s. Researchers estimated that the efficiency of the Southern Ocean to absorb CO2 had dropped by about 30% which they put down to higher wind speeds across the area which brought carbon-rich waters to the surface. This was itself a consequence of climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer, they said, creating a feedback loop that would only get worse over time.
But the new report published in the journal Science shows that this downward trend in capacity reversed around 2002 and regained its former strength in line with rising emissions by 2012. The scientists put the change down to a combination of dropping water surface temperatures in the Pacific sector and a change in ocean circulation keeping carbon rich waters below those at the surface.
Good climate news is so hard to come by that even the researchers closest to the discovery are having trouble overcoming their inclination towards pessimism. The report’s lead author, Professor Nicolas Gruber, warned that “we cannot conclude that this will continue for ever. One has to recognise that despite this remarkable increase in the Southern Ocean carbon sink, emissions have gone up even more.” Professor Toby Tyrell of the University of Southampton echoed that caution, noting that while this new research is “good news,” it isn’t “any reason to be complacent, however, because we still understand rather little about the internal workings of the Southern Ocean carbon cycle. For this reason we cannot be sure how resilient the Southern Ocean carbon sink will be in the future.”
And, yes, just because we know that the Southern Ocean is storing heat now doesn’t mean we know what it will do in the coming years. It’s actually refreshing to see scientists being candid about the limits of our current models, even if it is only to discount the importance of a positive bit of climate news. We really know precious little about our planet’s climate, and that’s not for want of effort, funding, or ingenuity. Since the system we’re trying to model and predict is one of the most complex we have at hand to study, it’s no wonder that our best efforts time and again fall short. Over and over again we fail to account for some new feedback loop or deviation from expected warming patterns or, in this case, to anticipate a shift in the ability of a massive natural carbon sink to store heat.
Pointing out the flaws in climate science doesn’t mean we should junk the idea that the world is warming, and that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions bear responsibility. That much seems readily evident to the skeptical eyes here at AI. But to go beyond that—to try and predict specific levels of warming or say with certainty that at 2 degrees Celsius the world is doomed—is tempting fate, and not in a good way. Al Gore was predicting an ice-free Arctic Ocean by now, but you still need husky dogs rather than a life preserver to get to the North Pole. Yes, ice is melting at the Pole, and yes, that’s concerning, but the breathless exaggerations and overconfident doomsaying espoused by Gore and panicky greens make a mockery of scientific research and undercut the credibility of serious scientists doing serious work. Moreover, the green Chicken Littles have created a nasty little feedback loop of their own: the grim future they’ve predicted is so horrifying and apocalyptic on the one hand, and so frequently wrong on the other (no more snow in the winter, Katrina as the first in an endless wave of mega-hurricanes, drowned polar bears, melted Himalayan glaciers), that the public tunes them out. To regain lost attention, they ramp up the scare propaganda and double down on the overstated predictions.
Climate change may, as even sober greens say, be the largest single problem humanity has yet faced, and it’s one that operates on larger scales—both spatial and temporal—than those the average person or politician is accustomed to. It stands to reason that, while we can see the general outline of the threat faced, we don’t yet grasp the guts of the thing, so to speak. We’d be better served approaching climate change with a measure of humility, rather than bold, brash righteous finger-wagging swagger. Poor green strategic choices, as well as policy recommendations grounded more in Malthusian panic and science phobia (no to nuclear power, no to GMOs) than in sober analysis and sensible prescription keep greens perpetually frustrated, and get in the way of practical and sensible steps that would make a real difference. So while on the one hand we’re as encouraged as anyone by this new report’s positive climate news, we remain concerned at the enormous gap between the capacities of the climate change movement and the needs of the planet on which all of us depend.