Prof Botkin gives us good news about our changing climate

Summary: Is the climate growing hostile? Daniel B. Botkin, professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at University of California Santa Barbara, doesn’t believe so. Here he gives a fact-rich rebuttal to the conclusions reached by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their recent report. It’s long, but gets rolling in the middle. Read and learn things in the major climate datasets seldom mentioned by journalists. See his bio at the end.

Good news!

Climate Is Changing, And Some Parks Are
Endangered, But Humans Aren’t The Cause

By Daniel B. Botkin
National Parks Traveler, 26 October 2014
Posted with their generous permission

For those of us who love our national parks and are confronted daily with media, politicians, and pundits warning us of a coming global-warming disaster, it’s only natural to ask what that warming will mean for our national parks. This is exactly what the well-known Union of Concerned Scientists discuss in their recent report, National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.

I’ve done research since 1968 on the possibility of human-caused global warming and its possible ecological effects, and have published widely on this topic, discussing possible effects on biodiversity and on specific endangered species as well as on forests, cities, and historical evidence of Arctic sea ice change. I’ve also been involved in the development of some aspects of some climate models, and having developed a computer model of forests that is one of the principal methods used to forecast global warming effects on vegetation, I sought out the UCS report with great interest.

Powering the Future

The approach the Union has taken is to have the report written by four staff members: Debra Holtz, a journalist; Kate Cell, a fund-raiser for the organization; Adam Markham, with a B.S. in zoology, who was the founder of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit organization “to promote innovative community-based solutions to climate change in the Northeast”; and Brenda Ekwurzel, the Union’s Senior Climate Scientist. She is the only author with research experience on the subject, has a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from the Department of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and has been on the faculty of the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources.

These four authors took the standard reports from such organizations as the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, treating them as accurate and true, and then discussed the implications for 16 American historic sites. As shown in the accompanying table, they write that 11 of the sites are threatened by rising sea levels and their consequences (coastal erosion and flooding); two by inland flooding; two by wildfires; and one by “extreme heat and drought” (table 1).

The report opens with a bold assertion: “Many of the United States’ iconic landmarks and heritage sites are at risk as never before. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent large wildfires are damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation.” The report later goes on to add, “All of the case studies in this report draw on observations of impacts that are either consistent with, or attributable to, human-induced climate change based on multiple lines of scientific evidence.” To which the authors add, “This report sounds a wake-up call: as the impacts of climate change continue, we must protect these sites and reduce the risks.”

The point of the report, its opening theme and its major conclusion, is that these historic places are in trouble and it’s our fault, we have been the bad guys interfering with nature and therefore damaging places we value. This is consistent with the IPCC 2014 report and the 2014 White House Climate Change Assessment, for both of which I acted as an expert reviewer and testified before the House and Senate about.

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TABLE 1. HISTORIC SITES AND CLAIMED THREATS TO THEM

(A)  Threatened by Sea Level Rise and Accompanying Flooding

  1. Boston’s Faneuil Hall and surroundings
  2. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
  3. Harriet Tubman National Monument Monument
  4. Historic Jamestown, VA
  5. NASA’s coastal facilities
  6. Annapolis, MD
  7. Fort Monroe National Monument
  8. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
  9. Bering Land Bridge National Monument & Shishmaref; Cape Krusenstern National Monument, including Kivalina Native Villages and Ancestral Lands
  10. Pu’uhonua O Honaunau & Kaloko-Honokhau National Historical Parks
  11. Prehistoric Florida shell structures

(B)  Threatened by Future Floods

  1. Charleston, SC; Historic St. Augustine, Fl and Castillo De San Marcos

(C)  Threatened by Wildfires (and perhaps also flooding)

  1. Mesa Verde National Park and Bandelier National Monument & Santa Clara Pueblo
  2. Groveland, CA and other California Gold Rush era towns

(D)  Threatened by Extreme Heat and Drought

  1. Cesar Chavez National Monument, California

Back Bay Fens Park and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Reading the dire forecasts of the UCS report, I thought immediately about two seaside places familiar to me: Back Bay Fens Park in Boston and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New York City. Back Bay Fens park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect known especially for designing New York City’s Central Park. Back Bay was a problem because it was a landfill on Boston’s shore that flooded frequently, which caused various problems.

The Moon in the Nautilus Shell

To understand what Olmsted did in designing Back Bay, one has to step back and consider Boston’s original site, which had certain advantages for a major city: a narrow peninsula with several hills that could be easily defended, a good harbor, and a good water supply. But as the city grew, demand increased for more land for buildings, a larger area for docking ships, and a better water supply. The need to control ocean floods and to dispose of solid and liquid wastes grew as well. Much of the original tidal flats area, which had been too wet to build on and too shallow to navigate, had been converted, before Olmsted got involved, to flat land — hills cut away and the marshes filled with their soil. The filling of Back Bay began in 1858 and continued for decades.

Olmsted’s solution to the flooding and sewage pollution was a water-control project he called the “fens.” His goal was to “abate existing nuisances” by keeping sewage out of the streams and ponds and building artificial banks for the streams to prevent flooding — and to do this in a natural-looking way. His solution included creating artificial watercourses by digging shallow depressions in the tidal flats, following meandering patterns like natural streams; setting aside other artificial depressions as holding ponds for tidal flooding; restoring a natural salt marsh planted with vegetation tolerant of brackish water; and planting the entire area to serve as a recreational park when not in flood. He put a tidal gate on the Charles River — Boston’s major river — and had two major streams diverted directly through culverts into the Charles so that they flooded the fens only during flood periods. He reconstructed the Muddy River primarily to create new, accessible landscape.

The result of Olmsted’s vision was that control of water became an aesthetic addition to the city. The blending of several goals made the development of the fens a landmark in city planning. Although to the casual stroller it appears to be simply a park for recreation, the area serves an important environmental function in flood and sewage control. Confronted with the combined problems of ocean surges and flooding from river runoff inland, Olmsted did not waste his time complaining about whether or not people have caused the problem. He just set out and solved it.

Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, although not directly planned to solve flooding problems, does so in much the same way that the Boston Back Bay Fens does. The Refuge has become one of my favorite places in New York City. It is the largest migratory bird sanctuary in the northeastern United States. It is the only wildlife sanctuary that is part of the National Park System, and it lies within the city of New York, in view of the Empire State Building, as my accompanying photograph shows. New York City residents wanting contact with nature can get there by public transportation.

The Refuge faces the Atlantic Ocean and New York’s outer harbor and includes inlets and wetlands directly connected to the Sound. The refuge was damaged during tropical storm Sandy, but it served the same multiple functions that Back Bay does in Boston — it acted as a buffer between that major ocean storm and city structures inland.

As I read the UCS report, Back Bay Fens and Jamaica Bay Refuge were in mind as what to do about coastal flooding along cities. Then I went to the scientific evidence that should be forming the basis for the UCS report, and which I will turn to now.

The Scientific Evidence

What is the evidence that sea level is rising, that wildfires, drought, and episodes of very high temperatures are increasing, and what is the evidence that such changes are our fault? Let’s take them one by one.

As is well-known, we are blamed for causing a global warming mainly because our burning of fossil fuels is increasing the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere. Since this is a greenhouse gas, we must be warming the climate.

Yes, carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that gets so much attention, has increased greatly and rapidly, from 280 parts per million to 400, and as this graph shows, it is continuing that rapid rise.

NOAA: CO2 at Mauna Loa
Source: NOAA. Click to enlarge.

Has Earth been warming?

Climate has always changed and is always changing. The last Ice Age, which covered places like what is now New York City with ice two miles deep, ended between 17,000 and 12,500 years ago, with overall but highly variable warming since then. Among the variations during the last thousand or so years, there was a warming period lasting approximately 300 years, from A.D. 950 to 1250, known as the Medieval Warm Period (warming compared to what climatologists today call “normal,” taken in general by today’s climatologists to mean the average surface temperature during the past century between 1960-1980 or between 1960–1990). This is the time when Vikings settled Greenland and reached North America, and when in the southern Pacific the Polynesians did a lot of their expansion among far-flung Pacific islands.

The Medieval Warming was followed by the “Little Ice Age,” which lasted from approximately mid-1400 to 1700 A.D and somewhat later. Crop failures occurred in western Europe, and some mountain glaciers in the Swiss Alps advanced to the extent that they filled valleys and destroyed villages. Areas to the north that had enjoyed abundant crop production were under ice. This was the time when the human population was devastated by the Black Plague, whose effects may have been exacerbated by poor nutrition as a result of crop failures, and by the damp and cold that reached out across Europe and even to Iceland by about 1400. It was also the time of the early European settlement of the United States. As I have written elsewhere, when the Pilgrims said it was a cold winter, it was a very cold winter.

A warming trend started in the mid-nineteenth century. This was interrupted from about 1940 to 1960 by a cooling, and then the temperature rose until about 20 years ago. An important scientific paper published September 1 this year states that Earth’s surface temperature has not changed for the past 19 years, and 16-26 years for the lower atmosphere. That’s the conclusion of University of Guelph statistician and Professor of Economics Ross R. McKitrick, who used a novel kind of statistical analysis. He points out that this lack of warming is of “particular note because climate models project continuing warming over the period. Since 1990, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose from 354 ppm to just under 400 ppm, a 13% increase.”

Carbon dioxide is definitely continuing to increase in the atmosphere, but Earth’s surface and atmospheric temperatures aren’t tracking it. Even though our activities are adding carbon dioxide rapidly to the atmosphere, it seems to be having no effect right now on Earth’s average surface and lower atmosphere temperature.

However, the UCS report blithely comments, “Climate models show that if our emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases remain high, Bakersfield could have almost 50 days of extreme heat, with temperatures reaching 104°F or more, by 2050 — up from four days a year on average between 1961 and 1990.”

But if the temperature has not changed in 19 to 26 years, then how much credence can we give to this assertion? We must ask whether the climate models have been accurate predictors of recent climate change.

John Christy, the climatologist who is said to be the primary person responsible for the development of satellites that measure Earth’s temperature, compared the combined forecasts of major global climate models with observed temperature change since 1980. As you can see in his graph, there is no correspondence. The climate models do not even come close to forecasting actual temperature change; they forecast a huge, steady increase. In contrast, as you can see in the graph, the temperature has varied a little, as it always does, but as the new paper that I mentioned earlier asserts, it has not changed.

John Christy’s Comparison of Global Warming Model Forecasts

Actual Temperature Change since 1980 (Courtesy of John Christy, Alabama State Climatologist)

Warming Predictions vs the Real World
From John Christy, University of Alabama.

Thus the climate models cannot be considered reliable bases for forecasting the future. Indeed, other experts on model validation say that the climate models have never been sufficiently validated in any other ways as well, and therefore are not an accurate representation of the real world we live in. Conclusion: our addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere does not appear to be increasing Earth’s temperature.

Whatever is happening to Earth’s climate does not seem to be our fault.

Sea Level Rise

What about the claim that sea level rise is another factor “damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation? Well, the sea level has been rising since the end of the last Ice Age, starting about 14,000 years ago as the continental and mountain glaciers have melted and sea water has expanded with the overall warming. The average rate has been about a foot or two a century (about 23-46 cm per century). Data suggest that the rate was much greater until about 8,000 years ago.

EPA: Trends in global average absolute sea level
Source: EPA.Click to enlarge.

Yes, sea-level rise is definitely a problem, but it is not a problem simply because it is our fault. It is a problem that we just haven’t bothered to face up to in any serious way until the global warming issue captured our attention. Whether or not we are adding to the rate of sea level rise, this is causing problems and will continue to cause problems. It would be a mistake to focus on it only if we were convinced it was our fault. For many years past, we should have been planning for sea level rise, and we need to make this an important environmental priority.

Frequency of Severe Storms

The main concern often expressed about sea levels is that severe ocean storms do greater damage than indicated by the simple rise in the water level. Therefore, it is necessary for us to look at how the frequency of severe storms has changed over time. Underlying the claim by the UCS report that 12 of the 16 sites are in danger of flooding is the assumption that the frequency of severe storms has increased, as have their landfalls. But the graphs below of severe storm frequency, show variation over time but no overall increase. Therefore, during the recent past the claim by the UCS report is contradicted. And since the climate models don’t even come close to forecasting temperature change, we cannot trust them to forecast changes in storm frequency.

Number of Severe Storms affecting the United States since 1970

Global Hurricane Frequency in 12-month running sums. The top time series is the number of global tropical cyclones that reached at least hurricane-force (maximum lifetime wind speed exceeds 64-knots). The bottom time series is the number of global tropical cyclones that reached major hurricane strength (96-knots+). Adapted from Maue (2011) GRL. Posted at WeatherBell Analytics.

Global tropical cyclone energy
Source: Weatherbell Analytics. Click to enlarge.

Frequency of Extremely Hot Days

This is controversial, because it is difficult to get information that summarizes these trends for the entire United States, and there are a variety of opinions and discussions about these data, so I put this into the article with some caution to the reader. But several graphs indicate that there has not been an increase in the average number of very hot days. For example, this graph shows days with temperatures above 95° F. This graph is based on the summary from all United States Historical Climatology Network weather stations that have been in operation since 1930.

Number of 95 degree temperature days
Source: Steve Goddard. Click to enlarge.

Wildfire Frequency in the U.S. Has Not Increased

The UCS report claims that two historic sites within the National Park System are being, and will be, damaged by increases in wildfire frequency. But once again, a graph from the U.S. government agencies involved, of number of wildfires, shows no increase.

Furthermore, it is well-established that most major wildfires that occur these days are from the failure to allow much more frequent, and therefore light fires, to burn. The 20th century policy dominated by Smokey Bear — “only you can prevent forest fires” — and the belief, ill-founded, that all forest and grassland fires are bad and must be prevented — have had a damaging effect. {Also see data on fires per year at the National Interagency Fire Center}

EPA: wildfires
Source: EPA.

As I wrote in my latest book, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, this Smokey Bear policy also caused the extinction of Kirtland’s warbler, which nests in young jack pine, a tree species that regenerates only after fire. It was only when ornithologists realized the population had dropped in half in a decade and that fire suppression was the cause that the Audubon Society, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state of Michigan began prescribed burning programs.

As I also discuss in that book, excellent work by Professor Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University, involving careful historical analysis of the pre-European ponderosa pine forests of that state, followed by careful removal of excess fuel and trees, followed by prescribed burns every 3 to 5 years, as was the natural rate—restored some of these forests to their beautiful and natural condition: large pines widely spaced with grasses filling the land between. In contrast, next door to his experimental forests is one of The Nature Conservancy ponderosa pine protected, no-touch areas, which does not resemble the pre-European ponderosa pine forests at all, but instead forms a very dense stand of young, small trees and a lot of fuel on the ground, just waiting for a wildfire.

Carefully managed Ponderosa Pine Forest, with excess fuel built up over more than a century removed and light fires every 3 to 5 years. (Photo by the author)

Covington Ponderosa Pine Forest

Next to the strongly managed forest is a Nature Conservancy no-touch Ponderosa Pine Preserve. (Photo by the author)

Nature Conservatory Forest.xxxxx

What Should be Done About Sea Level Rise and Wildfires and Our National Parks?

As I have shown, observations do not support the claim that our activities are currently warming the globe. Does this mean that we should stop worrying about climate change? Of course not. Because sea level has been rising for thousands of years, the encroachment of ocean waters and damage from ocean storms have been problems for coastal structures, which we have just ignored. We have to face up to these. But arguing about whether this is our fault or not is beside the point and detracts us away from doing anything useful, as we focus instead of what can best be called a fairy-tale debate. The same must be said about wildfires. For decades, experts on wildfires have been calling for improved management of America’s forests, and the need remains important. We must remember Frederick Law Olmsted’s approach to designing the Back Bay Fens — solve the problem, do not waste your time arguing if we are to blame.

However, global warming has become the sole focus of so much environmental discussion that it risks eclipsing much more pressing and demonstrable environmental problems. The major damage that we as a species are doing here and now to the environment is not getting the attention it deserves.

We need to keep in mind the reality of Nature, which I have portrayed in a replacement for Smokey Bear: Morph the Moose (Copyright and trademarked by the author).

Morph the Moose poster
© and ™ Daniel Botkin.

About Daniel B. Botkin

Daniel Botkin is a biologist who has helped solve major environmental issues, and a writer about nature. Known for his scientific contributions in ecology and environment, he has also worked as a professional journalist and has degrees in physics, biology, and literature. His books and lectures show how our cultural legacy often dominates what we believe to be scientific solutions. He discusses the roles of scientists, businessmen, stakeholders, and government agencies in new approaches to environmental issues.  {From his website.}

Daniel B. Botkin
Daniel B. Botkin

Faculty Positions

  1. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
  2. Chairman, Environmental Studies Program, UC-Santa Barbara
  3. Director of Program on Global Change., George Mason U
  4. Research scientist, Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory

Publications

  1. Widely used, prizewinning college science text.
  2. 13 books, most recently The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, and Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence. Best known for Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century.
  3. Several hundred articles in professional journals, popular magazines and newspaper op-eds.

Research

  1. More than 45 years of research on possible effects of climate change on biodiversity.
  2. Developed the first successful computer ecosystem model, still in worldwide use in more than 50 versions.
  3. Extensive field research in wilderness areas, in forests from Alaska to Michigan to Siberia and in African plains.
  4. Was one of the first ecologists to investigate possible ecological effects of climate change.
  5. Conducted extensive scientific studies of endangered species.
  6. Used historical information to recover wildlife population sizes and sea ice changes.

See here for his bio, honors, and publications. Other posts by Dan Botkin: “Climate Change: The Need to Act Now”, 19 June 2014

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

Hat tip for this article to WUWT.

(a)  Reference Pages about climate on the FM website:

  1. The important things to know about global warming
  2. My posts
  3. Studies & reports, by subject
  4. The history of climate fears

(b)  More good news:

  1. Some good news about our changing climate. Enjoy it, for it might not last long., 12 September 2014
  2. More good news about climate change: no sign yet of the methane apocalypse, 14 September 2014

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15 thoughts on “Prof Botkin gives us good news about our changing climate

  1. What does Prof Botkin recommend that we do in response to our changing climate? His recommendations are similar to mine (section F, here). From the conclusion to “Carbon Dioxide and Temperature: Who Has Led Whom?“, posted at his website, 13 March 2013:

    What, then, should an ordinary citizen who doesn’t have the training to evaluate these complex methods do? As I said in The Moon in the Nautilus Shell, the key is to take actions that help solve here-and-now environmental problems and are at the same time either also beneficial to reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere or neutral. Examples include:

    • continuing to move away from fossil fuels — such as shale gas, so popular now — and moving to alternative energy;
    • stopping deforestation, which is happening widely around the world, and improving forest management, not just abroad but in the United States;
    • helping to conserve biological diversity by direct actions, such as halting the illegal killing of African elephants for their ivory;
    • reducing the release of toxic chemicals into our air and waters;
    • conserving the world’s supply of fresh water.

    Then stay tuned as the scientists doing excellent research continue, and let them do so independent of the blame game fashioned by the climate-change morality play.

  2. End the enormous subsidies and tax breaks for animal agriculture!

    With 60+ BILLION food animals on the planet our best chance to mitigate climate change is to severely reduce consumption of animal foods. More than 1/3 of human induced warming is attributable to animal agriculture. Methane is 24 times more potent than CO2 but takes only 7 years to cycle out of the atmosphere. CO2 takes around 100 years to come out. Human pursuit of animal protein is the leading cause of methane release and a primary cause of CO2 concentrating in the atmosphere. Check the facts and act!

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it… http://cowspiracy.com

    Step by Step Guide: How to Transition to a Vegan Diet http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/step-by-step-guide-how-to-transition-to-vegan-diet/

    1. Okay, what about the vast herds of Mega-fauna that roamed the planet during all of the ice ages Earth has experienced? Didn’t they produce methane? Was there a vast reduction in meat production during the medieval warm period that lead to the Little Ice Age?

  3. Remaining “believers”; Your climate blame exaggeration is a CO2 death threat to billions of innocent children so be careful what you “believe” in. History is watching this war crime.
    Eager “believers”;
    Deny this:
    If science can’t say “proven” for a “global climate crisis” …..

    If science can’t abandon the “scientific method” enough to say “proven” for their own 32 year old; ” possible threat to the planet” then why are you eager “believers” telling children they are saying it?
    If you hate conservatives enough to exaggerate a deadly crisis to your own children then who’s the neocon?
    This climate blame reefer madness was a lazy copy and paste news editor’s dream come true, vague theory for lab coat consultants, a politicians election promise of better weather and and a neocon-peace-loving-hating liberal’s excuse to hissy fit hate conservatives at their children’s expense.

  4. Thanks to Professor Botkin and the Editor, I don’t have to have to concern myself with whether the climate change is man made. Whatever the reason the climate is changing, we have to build seawalls, rethink structures on barrier islands, etc. Since we won’t be expending energy on this moot point, possibly we can move forward.

    I assume the continuing burning of carbon based fuel is the sticking point between the two poles of believers and non-believers of man made climate change. One side wanting to switch as quickly as possible to carbon free energy and/or conservation. The other side considering this nonsense or a governmental power grab. In my opinion it is an assault on the political power base and an attack on the basis of their wealth.

    I would like to propose that we leave some carbon in the ground for future generations. We use these useful deposits for other useful things other than pushing us around in autos and jetliners and heating our homes. These feed-stocks are used for many manufacturing processes and for fertilizing the farms of the world. We can probably synthesize and replace these components but for now they rise relatively cheaply from the earth. In the future we may regret just burning these gifts.

    1. Gilsr,

      Please read Professor’s Botkin’s recommendations — posted in the first quote. He starts with the need to move away from fossil fuels. His point is that we should take a more holistic approach, addressing other environmental changes as well. Some we are causing — such as pollution and over-fishing, destroying vital ocean ecosystems. Some are largely natural, such as rising sea levels.

  5. My mind is stuck in the past. The biggest climate change was the Ice Age. Was it singular? If not, do we know how many have happened? How many causation theories are there? It would certainly appear humans had little or nothing to do with such incredible event(s) At present we seem to be stuck on the failure of computer models to conform with actual. Explain the Ice Age(s) first, then you will have credibility.

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