Have Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal Finally Embraced Strong Climate Action And 2°C Warming Target?

Could it be that Matt Ridley and his fellow confusionists at the Wall Street Journal have finally embraced serious climate action? Have they actually endorsed the warming target of 2°C (3.6°F), long embraced by scientists and global leaders who want to avert the worst impacts of climate change?

Or have they published another epic blunder-fest of disinformation? Have they actually gone so far as to (mis)cite the work of a scientist who explained a year ago that Mr. Ridley is misusing his research and is “just plain wrong about future global warming!”? You be the judge.

Projected warming on our current emissions path from Michael Schlesinger et al 2012. This devastating warming occurs even with (an unlikely) low climate sensitivity of between 1.5°C and 2.0°C — and assuming there are no major unmodeled feedbacks (like the thawing permafrost). A WSJ op-ed that cites this work claims it shows total warming will stay below 2°C (3.6°F) this century! That could happen only with a far different emissions path, one requiring the kind of aggressive reduction in carbon pollution the Wall Street Journal has fought against for years.

To recap, every major projection of future warming makes clear that if we keep listening to the falsehoods of the anti-science crowd at the Wall Street Journal and keep taking no serious action to reduce carbon pollution we face catastrophic 9°F to 11°F [5°C to 6°C] warming over most of the U.S. (see literature review here).

Last year, Matt Ridley wrote one of the most error-riddled pieces ever to appear in the Wall Street Journal. For those who didn’t know Ridley, the WSJ noted his “family leases land for coal mining in northern England, on a project that will cease in five years” (a point that is strangely absent from the current piece).

Media Matters gathered quotes from leading climate scientists debunking the piece at the time. Here’s one:

[A]s John Abraham, an IPCC reviewer and the director of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, put it to Media Matters: the column “has such elementary errors in it that [it] casts doubt on the author’s understanding of any aspects of climate change.”

One of the many egregious blunders Ridley made was to confuse the feedback effect of water vapor with that of clouds. Another was to confuse equilibrium climate sensitivity with future warming. Since he makes a nearly identical blunder in his new piece, it bears repeating that the amount of warming we are going to subject our children and countless future generations to depends primarily on three factors:

  1. The so-called “equilibrium climate sensitivity” – the sensitivity of the climate to fast feedbacks like sea ice and water vapor — or how much warming you get if we only double CO2 emissions (from preindustrial levels) to 550 ppm and there are no major “slow” feedbacks.  We know the fast feedbacks, like water vapor, are strong by themselves. A major 2012 study of actual observations of relative humidity finds “that warming is likely to be on the high side of current projections … projecting a global temperature rise for doubled carbon dioxide of more than 7 degrees F.”
  2. The real-world slower (decade-scale) feedbacks. The carbon feedback from thawing permafrost alone is projected to add as much as 1.5°F (!) to total global warming by 2100. Ocean acidification may speed up total warming this century as much as 0.9°F.
  3. The actual CO2 concentration level we are likely to hit absent aggressive climate action, which is far beyond 550 ppm and now projected to exceed 800 ppm.

Last year, Ridley cited a University of Illinois study coauthored by Michael Schlesinger that found a relatively low ECS to justify his claims, but Dr. Schlesinger wrote a letter to the WSJ explaining:

In his article, Mr. Ridley is just plain wrong about future global warming. In our paper “A Fair Plan to Safeguard Earth’s Climate” (http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?paperID=20038), we show that by the middle of this century the warming will exceed the 2°C (3.6°F) maximum allowed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

Schlesinger sent an email around to some journalists and scientists that included a figure from his work, which I posted at the top.

You would think that after being informed just how wrong they were, Ridley and team WSJ would at least stop citing his work to defend claims that we are headed towards low levels of warming this century absent strong climate action. You would be wrong. But at least now Ridley is attempting to confuse the public in a slightly different way:

A more immediately relevant measure of likely warming has also come down: “transient climate response” (TCR)—the actual temperature change expected from a doubling of carbon dioxide about 70 years from now, without the delayed effects that come in the next century. The new report will say that this change is “likely” to be 1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius and “extremely unlikely” to be greater than 3 degrees….

Most experts believe that warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels will result in no net economic and ecological damage. Therefore, the new report is effectively saying (based on the middle of the range of the IPCC’s emissions scenarios) that there is a better than 50-50 chance that by 2083, the benefits of climate change will still outweigh the harm….

Yet these latest IPCC estimates of climate sensitivity may still be too high…. This was already apparent last year with two papers—by scientists at the University of Illinois and Oslo University in Norway—finding a lower ECS than assumed by the models.

Yes, Ridley and the WSJ cite the University of Illinois paper to supposedly prove that warming this century will be under 2°C — when the author has already explained to them that his research shows the exact opposite!

And Ridley is as bewildered about the transient climate response as he was about the climate sensitivity. He seems to think that CO2 levels won’t hit a doubling (550 ppm) for 70 years. But that would be true only with a very aggressive effort to reduce carbon pollution starting now. We are on track to blow well past 550 in 2083 — and that’s not even counting the extra carbon in the air we are expected to see because of thawing permafrost and ocean acidification.

The bombshell is that Ridley and the WSJ appear to be embracing the 2°C target (though they are mistaken that this is the level below which there is no net harm). Ridley’s whole (confused) point is that we can all breathe a sigh of relief because ECR and TCR are (supposedly) on the low side and thus we will not exceed the 2°C target this century.

So either Ridley and the Wall Street Journal have chosen to willfully ignore the facts presented to them by Schlesinger and others OR they have embraced Schlesinger’s plans to keep global warming below the allowable maximum of 2°C. As Schlesinger explains, his plans “phase out the emission of greenhouse gases this century such that the cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions by the Developing and Developed Countries are equal.”

Who knew Ridley and team WSJ were so progressive that they endorsed an equitable strategy for phasing out all the missions of greenhouse gases the century?

Since Ridley seems so enamored of Schlesinger to keep citing him, it seems only fair to note that Schlesinger himself says it would be unwise to plan on a low sensitivity given the very real risks that it is not so low. I queried Schlesinger last year about whether his analysis included the feedback from the permafrost. He wrote me back:

What will most likely happen is … permanent outgassing of carbon dioxide from permafrost and methane from clathrates/hydrates.  As you know, methane is a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide. If we hedge not against this outgassing, it’s game over.

… In the scheme of things, we human beings are not a very intelligent species. All species have a finite lifetime. Most species do not self exterminate.

While this is a bit hyperbolic, it may not be far from the truth.

Either Ridley and the WSJ agree with Schlesinger and his aggressive plan to mitigate carbon pollution or it would seem that they are perfect exemplars of his vision of homo “sapiens.”

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