Weatherman to the World
Nature's Edge Notebook - Durban Diary:
DURBAN, South Africa - Among the thousands of people from around the world streaming each morning into this huge convention center near the southern tip of Africa are a few scientists with an especially acute sense of both the good news and the bad news about man-made global warming.
"We live with it," says Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
Graced with a contagious delight in the details of weather, he has been watching it since he was 9 when his parents gave him a small weather station. His small town in central France now knows the precise local temperature, wind direction and cloud conditions for the years 1961-1963, thanks to his continuous record (he still has it). He made sure it didn't miss a day by employing his grandmother to take readings when he had to go away on vacation.
Now, he watches the world's weather.
Jarraud oversees standards of measurement, scientific probity and coordination among all nations for meteorological readings of the planet's borderless air, and some of the news from WMO is bad.
"One point five is no longer possible," Jarraud says matter of factly, sitting on a terrace looking south across the Indian Ocean toward Antarctica.
A rise of 1.5 degrees Centigrade above the global temperature at the start of the industrial age (when humanity began to inject large amounts of the invisible heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon doxide into the air by burning coal) is a number of extreme importance for hundreds of ancient cultures whose land is barely above sea level.
Scientists are telling them that if global warming rises more than 1.5C above the pre-industrial temperature, many "small island nations" such as Micronesia in the South Pacific will soon disappear beneath the waves as sea level rise accelerates. Already, Micronesian farmers find salt water seeping up into fields in the center of many islands, and many beaches eroding.
"The world has written us off," Micronesia's ambassador to the U.N., Masao Nakayama, told ABC News in 2009, citing the 2.0-Centigrade upper limit the world's countries were about to agree on at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.
They were accepting scientific evidence that 2.0 C was the boundary above which the "dangerous" consequences could not be avoided, although the fate of small islands seemed somehow not to count.
Two years later, the world's climate scientists warn that staying below even 2.0C will take extraordinarily dramatic combined action by all the world's major greenhouse emitters.
"There would have to be drastic cuts in carbon emissions - soon - to reach two point o," Jarraud says, reiterating the impossibility of any hope for a 1.5 C limit.
But he does add one surprising note of pragmatic optimism: "Unless they succeed in developing air capture - that's one hope."
In fact, the daring notion that humans can learn to capture heat-trapping CO2 straight out of the swirling air anywhere on the planet, regardless of its source, is being tried out by some imaginative engineers in several engineering labs around the planet.
One of them is run by Columbia University's Klaus Lackner. On the telephone from New York, he responded to news of Jarraud's statement of cautious hope in air capture with news that he is he is making good technical progress and believes that he has a reasonable chance of creating a system that would eventually capture CO2 at a competitive rate.
Scientists like the notion of the air capture of CO2 not only because it does not try to manipulate the climate (instead, it's basically a clean-up operation) but also because it helps attack the "other evil twin" of excess CO2 emissions, the accelerating acidification of the ocean caused by the same excess CO2 that is warming the atmosphere. (CO2 is naturally absorbed by water to form carbonic acid.)
Here are two brief videos about these extremes of bad and possibly good news:
One of the most poignant interviews this reporter has ever experienced: Micronesia Ambassador Nakayama explains how the world's negotiators are focusing on the wrong thing in accepting an upper limit for temperature that means the imminent and total obliteration of many small islands and their cultures.
And one of the most irrepressibly hopeful: Professor Lackner explains how and why he believes the "synthetic trees" he and others are building could be a significant part of the solution to the greenhouse emissions.
Jarraud, like most climate scientists, warns that other "geoengineering" ideas that are increasingly suggested for curbing global warming (aside from air-capture of CO2) such as spewing sunlight-reflecting dust high in the air, or making clouds more reflective by whitening them with sea-water mist generated by special wind-driven ships, must be handled with extreme caution, given unintended consequences.
As rising heat brings new suffering, he says, "the pressures on some governments may be great" … to do something - anything - to lower the temperature.
He applauds a recent preliminary study in the U.K. that explored the qualities any such efforts must have: for one, reversibility. "If some geoengineering effort begins to have bad local effects, will it be possible to stop it right away" he asks.
Such studies, he notes, might at least increase awareness of the dangers in such experiments with the world's borderless air. "We don't want a 'Sorcerer's Apprentice," Jarraud says, evoking the image from the Disney film classic "Fantasia" in which a curious and naive Mickey Mouse starts experimenting with his master's magic only to unleash uncontrollable floods.
Amid all the persistently bad news about global warming, the WMO chief sees a few signs of hope in how the humans who have caused it are beginning to act.
"There's very little discussion anymore about the basic facts, about the science," Jarraud says, contrasting the negotiations and debates here in Durban to the previous annual "COP" global climate summits of more than a decade.
("COP" is U.N. acronym-speak for Conference of Parties, to the UNFCCC, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Held every year, the one in Copenhagen in 2009 was "COP-15." This one in Durban is "COP-17.")
Now, he reports, delegates from around the world, having agreed on the basic science and specifics of the daunting problem, are finally spending almost all their time on what to do about it, on how to apportion responsibility for cutting emissions and on providing assistance to poor countries who did little to create the problem, yet suffer the most.
He also notes a rapid increase in the number of weather science professionals being trained in China.
China is now the world's largest annual emitter of greenhouse gas when it is measured in absolute amounts; on a per capita basis, Chinese emissions are a fraction of those put out by the United States.
"Personally, I think there will be serious consequences on the way to dealing with climate change," he says, adding that he simply cannot predict to what extent humanity will adapt to this unprecedented crisis.
"I would like to see more young people go into climate science," he says, looking out across the ocean, which, he adds, will keep warming for the next two or three centuries at least. There's an enormous lag time, he explains, as the oceans with their many deep currents try to equalize their temperature with that of the atmosphere.
Although the frightening basics of manmade global warming are settled science among the world's professionals - virtually assuring more frequent drought, downpours and flash floods, and sea-level rise - there are still intriguing puzzles Jarraud says he would love to see solved.
For example, referring to a well-known, multi-year pattern in the Pacific Ocean, he tells us that, "We still don't know if El Nino will increase in frequency" because of global warming. Solving this puzzle might help him and WMO meteorologists do an even better job predicting effects of the warming on local regions.
One advantage the WMO has over the political delegates gathered here from different countries, he says, is that the world's weather observers have long been non-politicized, of necessity.
With the swirling air never stopping at national borders to have a passport checked, when it comes to accurate weather prediction, Jarraud says, "no nation can do it alone."