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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lonnie Thompson' new paper: humanity is in deep trouble

The Ice Man Warneth

CANCÚN, Mexico –- As the main plenary session at climate talks here was getting under way on Tuesday, I received word that Lonnie Thompson, a longtime student of ice and climate at Ohio State University, has a paper coming out in a behavior journal, The Behavior Analyst, concluding with unusual bluntness that humanity is in deep trouble. Thompson is an extraordinary scientist focused for decades (along with his equally remarkable wife,  Ellen Moseley Thompson) on direct observations of climate as well as evidence derived from ice cores extracted from glaciers around the world. He appears to have spent more time on ice fields above 18,000 feet than any human being in history. (The connection between glaciology and behavior will become clear below.)
He echoes the conclusion of John P. Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, that  humans can choose a mix of mitigation, adaptation and suffering. The paper summarizes Thompson’s decades of work retrieving and analyzing ice cores from mountaintop ice in the Andes, Himalayas, Africa and elsewhere and relates those findings to the broader body of research on a growing human-amplified greenhouse effect. Here’s the opening section and a link to the rest:
Glaciers serve as early indicators of climate change. Over the last 35 years, our research team has recovered ice-core records of climatic and environmental variations from the polar regions and from low-latitude high-elevation ice fields from 16 countries. The ongoing widespread melting of high-elevation glaciers and ice caps, particularly in low to middle latitudes, provides some of the strongest evidence to date that a large-scale, pervasive, and, in some cases, rapid change in Earth’s climate system is underway. This paper highlights observations of 20th and 21st century glacier shrinkage in the Andes, the Himalayas, and on Mount Kilimanjaro. Ice cores retrieved from shrinking glaciers around the world confirm their continuous existence for periods ranging from hundreds of years to multiple millennia, suggesting that climatological conditions that dominate those regions today are different from those under which these ice fields originally accumulated and have been sustained.
The current warming is therefore unusual when viewed from the millennial perspective provided by multiple lines of proxy evidence and the 160-year record of direct temperature measurements. Despite all this evidence, plus the well-documented continual increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, societies have taken little action to address this global-scale problem. Hence, the rate of global carbon dioxide emissions continues to accelerate. As a result of our inaction, we have three options: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.
Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization (‘‘Climate Change,’’ 2010).
That bold statement may seem like hyperbole, but there is now a very clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible. This pattern emerges not, as is so often suggested, simply from computer simulations, but from the weight and balance of the empirical evidence as well. [Read the rest.]
The paper is most noteworthy as a capstone, and personal, statement of science and risk from another in a long line of  veteran climate scientists foreseeing calamity in “business as usual.”
I’d love to hear from members of the Association for Behavioral Analysis International, which invited Thompson to give the lecture that’s the basis for the paper, on why they see such a disconnect between information and response. 

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