Alternative futures of a warming world

Feb 10, 2010

An international team of climate scientists will take a new approach to modeling the Earth's climate future, according to a paper in 11 February Nature. The next set of models will include, for the first time, tightly linked analyses of greenhouse gas emissions, projections of the Earth's climate, impacts of climate change, and human decision-making.

This approach will influence the next international scientific assessment undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on (IPCC). It will provide the framework for thousands of individual scientific studies on climate impacts and adaptation, climate modeling, and changes in the way societies generate and use energy.

"This is an open-ended approach that enables us to compare the environmental and socio-economic effects of different potential responses to climate change," said lead author Richard Moss, a scientist with the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who performs climate change impacts research at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. Moss has been a long-time contributor to the IPCC, previously directed the office of the US Global Change Research Program, and served as vice president for climate programs at the World Wildlife Fund.

"This comparative evaluation is extremely important to determine the technical, policy and economic requirements for reaching whatever society decides is a safe level of climate change. We hope to provide decision-makers with better tools to help people deal with a shifting climate," he said.

Vulnerability and adaptation: going beyond the gases

Previous scenarios used by the IPCC usually assumed that no one would try to reduce climate change. Today, policymakers and researchers are interested in exploring ways to limit changes. Understanding the impacts and interactions of activities such as increasing and conservation, developing new to replace fossil-based fuels, and regulating how land is used are crucial to better decision-making.

In the new process, researchers will use scenarios to evaluate human contributions to climate change, the response of the Earth system, the impacts of a wide range of future climates, and the effects of different response options and policies to reduce net emissions and adapt to new climate conditions.

To do so, the scientists wanted a more comprehensive endpoint than greenhouse gas accumulation and a more comprehensive view of the world as the climate changes.

"We wanted to explore how environmental and social vulnerability would evolve. In addition to considering how much, when and where climate changes, we also need to consider how different human futures will influence the impacts of climate change," said Moss.

The scientists defined four possible climate futures by how much of the sun's energy the atmosphere retains. Multiple factors affect this, including greenhouse gas accumulation, the presence of atmospheric particles, land use and other features.

The scientists called each of these futures a "representative concentration pathway," or RCP. Many independent groups of scientists will use the RCPs in climate models to project changes in a range of climate conditions including temperature, precipitation and extreme events. In addition to focusing on the usual century-long time scales typical for climate studies, one set of experiments will focus intensively on the next few decades to provide better information on regional changes and extreme events, thus aiding decision-makers in planning adaptations to new, imminent conditions.

Many paths to the future

Another key innovation relies on the concept that many different human futures could produce any particular climate future or RCP. Integrated assessment modelers, such as those at PNNL's JGCRI, will research how different human futures increase or decrease emissions of pollutants and activities that cause climate change.

This type of modeling will focus on population and economic growth, the evolution of technologies, and other factors such as governmental policies and societal institutions. Analyses will include not only human activities that contribute to climate change but also the extent of vulnerability of different populations and what resources will be available to adapt to new conditions.

Following this initial modeling, other teams of researchers will then use the results of these climate and socio-economic studies in a wide range of research on the potential effects of climate change on natural resources, human health, coastal infrastructure, ecosystems and other sectors. This work will employ models of water resources, crop yields, disease vectors, ecosystems and other resources to assess how different levels of climate change will affect the things of greatest value to humankind.

International and interdisciplinary collaboration

An essential aspect of the new climate analysis process is the integration of different types of computer models and studies. This is possible because of the open-ended nature of the process and a new sequence for research: rather than treat each problem one at a time, researchers will work to integrate the models at certain points in the process, using the RCPs as a framework.

Teams of scientists developed the process over a three-year period and through a series of interdisciplinary and international meetings. More than 150 researchers met in one meeting in the Netherlands in 2007 under the auspices of the IPCC to consider many different aspects of the problem - energy and the economy, the earth sciences, and the responses of people and communities - and to develop recommendations for the approach.

Explore further: MEPs back plans to slash use of plastic shopping bags

More information: Richard H. Moss, Jae A. Edmonds, Kathy Hibbard, Martin Manning, Steven K. Rose, Detlef P. van Vuuren, Timothy R. Carter, Seita Emori, Mikiko Kainuma, Tom Kram, Gerald Meehl, John Mitchell, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Keywan Riahi, Steven J. Smith, Ronald J. Stouffer, Allison Thomson, John Weyant, and Tom Wilbanks, The Next Generation of Scenarios for Climate Change Research and Assessment, Nature, Feb. 11, 2010, (www.nature.com/nature/index.html).

Related Stories

A new dawn for climate prediction

Jul 18, 2007

Scientists must develop new, more adaptive approaches to predicting and monitoring climate, say climate modellers from the University of Exeter. In a 'perspectives' article published in leading journal Science, Professor Peter ...

EPA releases report on climate change and health

Jul 17, 2008

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a report that discusses the potential impacts of climate change on human health, human welfare, and communities in the U.S. The report, entitled "Analyses of the Effects ...

Models look good when predicting climate change

Apr 02, 2008

The accuracy of computer models that predict climate change over the coming decades has been the subject of debate among politicians, environmentalists and even scientists. A new study by meteorologists at the University ...

A changing climate for protected areas

Apr 02, 2007

On April 6, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release a report entitled Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability that focuses on how climate change is affecting the planet.

Recommended for you

Researchers question emergency water treatment guidelines

15 hours ago

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) recommendations for treating water after a natural disaster or other emergencies call for more chlorine bleach than is necessary to kill disease-causing pathogens ...

European climate at the +2 C global warming threshold

17 hours ago

A global warming of 2 C relative to pre-industrial climate has been considered as a threshold which society should endeavor to remain below, in order to limit the dangerous effects of anthropogenic climate change.

User comments : 19

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

lewando
4 / 5 (8) Feb 10, 2010
Given that our existing climate models are woeful, any attempt at improvement is good news. Unfortunately, the article did not state how this new model would be independently validated and verified, with the goal of providing decision makers with reliable predictions.
vanderMerwe
3.8 / 5 (10) Feb 10, 2010
ROTFLMAO! You take a dubious climate model and marry it to an even MORE dubious social dynamics model and then try to get idiots in government to make policy on the basis of the predictions. What fun! :-D
Loodt
3.4 / 5 (9) Feb 10, 2010
Unless the models incorporate the effects of Terrestrial Gamma-Ray Flashes (see report on FireFly on this website), Solar Wind Impacts, Plate Techtonics and continental drift, Precission, and Sun Spots, the results will be equally useless as the present day models!
seneca
2.8 / 5 (6) Feb 10, 2010
There is an evidence of correlation of climatic cycles and periods of solar activity. http://tinyurl.com/yhhff54

In my opinion it's generated by Coriolis force, which is switching circulation beneath surface of Sun. The direction of this force is driven by location of center of mass of whole solar system, although the eleven years long period of Jupiter planet is most important there.

Maybe ancient astrologers were quite right, while deriving the changes of climate and human psychics just from conjunctions of planets (wars for sources in particular).
JayK
2.7 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2010
@seneca

If you're correct than recent solar events indicate that previous solar forcing will be back starting this year after taking the last 7 years + off.

Increased radiation from the sun coupled with an increased greenhouse effect will just be peachy!
lewando
3.9 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2010
@JayK

Might be just the thing to stave off the next (overdue) ice age. Unfortunately, we don't have the tools to verify the reliability of that assertion.
JayK
2.1 / 5 (7) Feb 10, 2010
So where did you hear that from? Anthony Watts and his scientific Siesta Trio? Good CD, though.
lewando
3 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2010
What, next ice age? It's a pretty common meme. Google Woods Hole + ice age for starters.
freethinking
2.2 / 5 (10) Feb 10, 2010
If its the same bunch of clown that made the first set of modesl, why would we think they could make another one that does. BTW why have models, just pick some numbers out of the air place them on a hockey stick diagram and call it science. Woops they did that already.
JayK
2.5 / 5 (8) Feb 10, 2010
See, that shows how much you know about the actual science and history of climatology, "freethinking". The hockey stick diagram is called a graph. It isn't a model. If you had even the barest minimum of education, maybe you would recognize the difference, but I won't hold out much hope.

Why don't you go rant and rave about homosexuality and leave the real science to educated people?
RJB26
3 / 5 (6) Feb 10, 2010
we're ok with your lifestyle choice jayk, what we're not ok with are manipulated models with layer after layer of fudge factors and false assumptions. the lead author of this paper is vice president for climate programs at wwf. thats where all the worst "mistakes" came from in the ipcc report. these people are a joke. they are activists not objective scientists. they have lost all credibility.
StillWind
2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 11, 2010
@JayK - Educated people don't support AGW or the "Greenhouse Myth". Why are you so touchy about being a homosexual?
freethinking
3 / 5 (6) Feb 11, 2010
Why do AGW proponents think earth is warming? Well if you remove temperature measurement stations in cool areas your temperature averages go up.

http://www.foxnew...-hansen/

AGW is a fraud. JayK your belief is based on a fraud. If you were as picky with your prophets of AGW as you are with me for using the words diagram instead of graph, you would realize how bad AGW science is.
NameIsNotNick
2 / 5 (4) Feb 11, 2010
Freethinking... you are quoting Fox News as a reliable source for scientific information? Those are the same guys saying Global Warming can't be true because it's snowing in Washington.
Skeptic_Heretic
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2010
Freethinking... you are quoting Fox News as a reliable source for scientific information? Those are the same guys saying Global Warming can't be true because it's snowing in Washington.

The American media of any political stripe cannot be relied upon to educate the masses as to the state of kindergarden classes, let alone scientific topics like climatology.
Gammakozy
2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 11, 2010
Sounds like the IPCC is trying to hedge their bets so as to be able to take credit for saving the planet when their previous predictions of disasters do not come about. Weren't we told that AGW is "settled science". These people have corrupted science to the point that only a fool would even listen to them. Fortunately for them, however, there will be many fools rushing in to take their research cash and sing their tune. Please IPCC, just pack up and go away. You are a joke.
lewando
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2010
The American media has always been better with political issues like AGW. If Fox is having fun (editorializing) with a little temporary irony, they will score points. I think the marginalization of science on this issue is the real issue. Scientists must step up to the plate and clearly communicate what we know and don't know or can't know to regain some of the lost credibility.
lewando
1 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2010
After "Considering the connection" between the prior post and the subject article, I would add that scientists should stop consuming psilocybin as a way to improve their communications with the general population, and thereby restoring credibility.
toyo
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2010
GREAT!
Models on top of models! None of which have a hope in hell of being proved or disproved!
Thus we multiply the uncertainties so the conclusions become meaningless!
The New Religion of Science has well and truly begun!

If it wasn't so deadly serious, because of the billions of weak-minded people out there that are just going to take whatever comes out of this house of Babel as pure Gospel, it would actually be a great joke!

I think it is time for REAL scientists to stand up for their discipline, the one process that can actually distinguish truth from wishful thinking.
It is time to show the limitations of the MODELS that are being used, irrespective of private gain or loss. Those with BSc or PHd after their name will only be scientists by education, not in practice, if they don't do so.

More news stories

Melting during cooling period

(Phys.org) —A University of Maine research team says stratification of the North Atlantic Ocean contributed to summer warming and glacial melting in Scotland during the period recognized for abrupt cooling ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...