20 October 2010

Cool It--Movie Review

Cool It is a documentary about Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg and his views on how the world should, and should not, address climate change.

He insists that the approaches taken so far to mitigate the threat of climate change just haven't worked, are unlikely to work, and cost far too much for the limited benefits they may provide. He says we need a different approach, and has used cost-benefit analysis to prioritize and recommend actions.

For a mere $250 billion a year, he calculates, we could deal with climate change, and eliminate disease and poverty too.

He objects strongly to the scare approach of An Inconvenient Truth (this film is not kind to Al Gore) and says, "We need to scale back the fear."

This may be perceived as dismissing the seriousness of global warming threats. And in fact he does minimize some threats. For instance he repeatedly talks about "one foot" of sea level rise in this century, which he says is about the same as we experienced in the 20th century and we handled that OK. (He likes The Netherlands' local geoengineering approach.) Most observers are projecting higher rises than that.

Lomborg downplays the risk of passing tipping points such as collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The film includes interviews with scientists saying how that is just not going to happen. Minimizing the risk of such catastrophic consequences is essential to his argument, since these consequences couldn't be reversed by geoengineering, which is his "insurance policy".

He has made a point of his (possibly revised) belief that global warming "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and "a challenge humanity must confront". Indeed it was a Guardian article playing up his "apparent U-turn" that has put Lomborg back in the headlines recently (just in time for his film and book promotion tour).

His views do seem to have changed significantly from those put forward in 1998 in Verdens sande tilstand ("The Real State of the World", published later in English as The Skeptical Environmentalist). He would now invest significantly in dealing with global warming, rather than relegating it to much lower priority than fighting disease, poverty and other public policy issues. He now insists that for the amount the EU alone is proposing to spend trying to cut carbon emissions, with little probability of actually affecting warming very much, the world could deal with the climate change problem and other major social problems too if policy approaches were revised.   

He recommends investing a lot more in R&D (ten times as much--$100 billion a year) with the expectation that new technology can drive down the cost of alternative energy sources. Those sources will then replace fossil fuels and carbon emissions will be reduced at much less cost than the current heavy subsidization of low-carbon technologies and efforts to impose a price on carbon. He is very enthusiastic about whiz-bang technology and the film features interviews with numerous scientists which interesting ideas, including geoengineering schemes. Geoengineering, to "buy time" and to adapt, is an important element of his technology fix.

He repeatedly says the current approach to dealing with global warming is "broken" and "dumb". He throws a lot of numbers around which may or may not be adequately supported by research and sources. Some of his data is a bit out of date, which is inevitable in this fast-moving field.

I haven't read his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist of 2001, Global Crises, Global Solutions of 2004 (editor), Solutions for the World's Biggest Problems (editor) and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming both of 2007, nor of course his latest book that is expected to be published in November of this year, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits. But I have heard him speak, and his message seems to still be pretty much in line with what is in the film. (The film is due to be released in the U.S. on 12th November 2010. It has been shown at the Toronto Film Festival and in teaser screenings around the country.)

Cool It starts out as a bit of a hagiography, which may be inevitable in films of this sort (An Inconvenient Truth has a lot of crusading Al Gore in it, after all.) Lomborg is shown to love his mother, to respect nature, to feed impoverished Kenyan kids, and to ride a bicycle. But eventually it gets into the argument and becomes more interesting.

The interviews with scientists supporting to some of his points are inevitably selective. But overall the film gives a good look at Lomborg's views and recommendations, which are not as loony or extreme as some of his detractors might suggest. He may be imprecise, even selective, about many points of climate science, but his basic argument that we are throwing a lot of money at the problem in ways that are unlikely to actually mitigate its effect has some weight.

Lomborg is a political scientist interested in the economics of action to deal with social problems like malnutrition, disease and poverty, not a climate scientist. His welfare economics approach is actually pretty far from the traditional environmentalist/green main stream. To some extent he is speaking a different language. But his arguments do add to the overall debate on what to do about climate change, when to do it, how to pay for it, and whether it is worth doing at all.

The film probably won't win any Academy Awards, but anyone concerned with climate change, who can watch it with something of an open mind, may find it interesting.

Photo by Emil Jupin from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bj%C3%B8rn_Lomborg_1.jpg

Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

The film was Produced by Ralph Winter (a producer of the X-Men movies), among others, and co-written and directed by Ondi Timoner. Lomborg receives a "written by" credit.

A trailer for Cool It is here. The movie's official website is here.

15 October 2010

Green Business Blog Carnival #19

Another selection of the best of the green business blogs! They guess your weight and tell your fortune in carnival midway style.

(Check Ecolocalizer to see last week's show if you missed it. The sidebar to the right has links to past Carnivals.)

The Greatest Posts on Earth

  • Jaime Nack of Three Squares Inc. posts A Small Green Business Take on Prop 23 at TriplePundit. As a small business owner she sees how "Proposition 23 would undermine the laws that support the rapidly expanding green technology and business sector." Follow TriplePundit's ongoing series about California’s Proposition 23.
  • Dan Yurman posts about Spain's erratic energy policy at Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes. Once the darling of Europe for solar energy, the country now dithers over future choices without the capital to execute its plans.
  • Green Prophet notes Israeli Companies Make "Global Cleantech 100" Guardian List in a post by Karin Kloosterman. "It’s no secret that Israeli cleantech companies and their products are hot commodities. Now in: the Cleantech Group just announced their global list, the Global Cleantech 100 for the second year running, and it’s no surprise that Israeli companies earned 8 of the 100 spots. Five of the companies are listed as being based in Israel; two of them, though founded by Israelis are based in the United States." Karen has interviewed and written feature stories on all of them, except CellEra.
  • At CalFinder Jeanne posts a Quiz: 7 Signs Your Company is a Treehugger (Or Greenwashing Machine!) Is your office on the track to sustainability or is it a green mirage? A simple test to determine which direction your company is headed and how you can change the attitude around the water cooler.
  • Marta Iglesias posts on the CleanTechies blog: LG Electronics Unveils Plans to Enter US Solar Market. Korean giant "LG plans to capitalize on its existing footprint outside of the US, but it will have to battle hard with well-established American players like First Solar, a thin film leader in the US, or Sunpower, a US leader in monocrystalline, as well as big Chinese competitors such as Suntech or Trina Solar".
  • At Eco-Libris Raz Godelnik considers Saving trees or softer touch for the butt? It seems that this is the question consumers have to ask themselves if they're considering using toilet paper made of 100% recycled paper. "Right now, according to NRDC, just 10% of the paper products for home contain recycled content." [This Carnival post is almost entirely recycled content!--Ed.]
  • Editor's Choice--Doris de Guzman has a good post about Stonyfield Farm's adoption of bioplastic packaging at the ICIS Green Chemicals blog:  Stonyfield yogurt cups from PLA. In addition to her writeup there is video from Stonyfield and a link to its life cycle analysis of PLA cups vs. polystyrene ones. Doris consistently has interesting information in a blog well worth following. Polymers are in everybody's supply chain.
  • Here at Doc's Green Blog we analyzed Google's investments and projects in cleantech and green. What have they been up to? Where are they going? See if you can spot trends in the 26 items listed. Are they becoming more focused? "A company this creative, and with this much money, will keep trying new things."

Thanks to all who submitted their favorite posts for this week's Carnival!

The Traveling Carnival

Green Business Bloggers take note! You can submit items for future editions of the Green Business Blog Carnival here. Why not publicize your blog, share your insights, and get some links and traffic? Test your strength!

See the schedule for upcoming hosts of the Carnival. If you would like to host an upcoming edition on your very own blog, tha page also tells you how to volunteer. Thanks to Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit for keeping this Carnival on the road.

14 October 2010

What Is Google Doing In Cleantech?

Google Inc. has invested a lot in cleantech and green ventures. Is there any pattern? Here is a summary of Google's investments and projects to date, and thoughts about where it is going.

The Arms of Google

Google has several "arms" where cleantech activities reside.

What Google Has Been Up To

Project or Investment Date Arm Comments
Makani Power
$10 million series A funding for company developing Airborne Wind Turbines
on-site solar
Google Initiatives
1.6 megawatt solar power system on Mountain View campus buildings from EI Solutions (now Suntech Power)
"effort within Google.org that aims to reduce CO2 emissions, cut oil use, and stabilize the electrical grid by accelerating the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles"; includes a demonstration fleet of plug-ins at corporate headquarters in Mountain View.
plug-in hybrids
worked with Hymotion/A123Systems to create fleet of plug-in hybrids for research
Innovate or Die Pedal-Powered Machine Challenge 2007-09-24
collaborated with Specialized and Goodby Silverstein & Partners on YouTube video contest on harnessing pedal power in innovative ways, with prizes of $5,000 in cash and Specialized Globe bikes
"joint Google.org+Google.com climate team created RE<C"; "RE<C will work to develop one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity – enough to power a city the size of San Francisco – at a price cheaper than coal in years, not decades. As part of this effort, Google.org is making strategic investments and grants, advancing key public policies, and using Google products to unlock critical information." Includes EGS project and investments. [Update 2011 11 23: program terminated. See last item this official Google blog post.]
Clean Energy 2030

Google's Proposal for reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Text here.
$10 million invested in utility-scale concentrating solar power; also participated in later round
BrightSource Energy
$10 million equity investment as part of RE<C initiative
lithium ion battery start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Aptera Motors
electric vehicle start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Enhanced Geothermal Systems
an effort to advance EGS through R&D, investment, policy and information. Investments in Potter Drilling, AltaRock Energy, Inc., Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab and Stanford University
Potter Drilling
$4 million investment to develop breakthrough hard rock drilling technologies for EGS
AltaRoc Energy, Inc.
$6.25 million investment to develop EGS technologies and projects
Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab
$489,521 grant to improve geothermal resource assessment techniques and update the Geothermal Map of North America; recent update here
Stanford University

$135,000 award to research advanced well concepts (part of EGS)
Silver Spring Networks
Google Ventures
Smart grid technology company
V-Vehicle Company
Google Ventures
Energy-efficient vehicle company
Google PowerMeter
free home energy monitor software; collaborating with energy monitor hardware partners and utilities
Google Earth Engine
computational platform for global-scale analysis of satellite imagery to monitor changes in key environmental indicators like forest coverage
mirror technology

developed prototype new mirror technology for concentrating solar power applications
NextEra Energy Resources investment
Google Initiatives
$38.8 million direct investment in a two NextEra Energy Resources wind farms that generate 169.5 megawatts of power in North Dakota
NextEra Energy Resources PPA
Google Initiatives
bulk power purchase of clean energy from 114 megawatts of wind generation at the NextEra Energy Resources Story County II facility in Iowa; 20-year PPA and also buying RECs in bulk
Google Initiatives
as part of its Project 10^100 Google awarded $1 million to this human-powered transit project
self-driving cars
Google Initiatives
Google hired leading developers and has built and tested cars that can drive themselves, logging 140,000 miles so far
Atlantic Wind Connection
Google Initiatives (?)
Google to provide 37.5% of the equity for initial development stage of project to build offshore high-capacity transmission line off Eastern Seaboard

The company also has a lot of internal energy-efficiency and emission-offset activities, and other green stuff like bike-sharing and goats as lawnmowers.

Where are they going?

At a recent event Bill Weihl, head of Google's renewable energy team, admitted that the RE<C initiative hasn't found as many attractive investment opportunities lately. "It's a little bit bleak," Reuters quotes him as saying. "There aren't that many people working on home runs" to cheap energy, he continued, adding, "We have not seen things that we felt were big enough potential breakthrough and low enough risk."

Greentech Media asked "Has Google’s Green Strategy Begun to Make Sense?" It concludes that the investments have been "a mixed bag" and in some cases "downright wacky", but notes that now it "wants to apply its core competence -- artificial intelligence -- in the realm of efficiency". "Overall, the navigation system fits in much better with Google's strengths than VC investing or solar thermal. Presumably, you can expect more of this sort of thing."

I find it interesting that Google was the sponsor of the "Transportation" category in the California region of the Cleantech Open competition this year. Back in 2007 they sponsored the "Green Building" category. 

There is an apparent shift from pure venture investing and spaghetti-to-wall projects toward three areas of emphasis:
  • Energy efficiency in computing, which is crucial to Google's bottom line,
  • Acquiring supplies of clean energy, which will also reduce the carbon footprint of its data centers, and
  • Application of its core decision-making tools and web resources to clean technology, as in its Google Earth projects, PowerMeter and self-driving vehicles.
Certainly all of Google's public sustainability activities also function to buff the "green" image of the company. The primary benefit of this may be to help attract and retain the best talent. Google has always emphasized the psychic benefits of working there, and green issues are easy to communicate and have a strong "feel good" component.

A company this creative, and with this much money, will keep trying new things.

[Update 2011 11 23: RE<C project closed]

11 October 2010

Cleantech Open: $180,000 to California Finalists

The Cleantech Open, the world’s largest cleantech business competition, announced the finalists in its California competition for 2010 last Friday.
The mission of the Cleantech Open is to find, fund, and foster the big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental, and economic challenges.
Finalists were selected in each of six categories by teams of judges at an all-day event at the San Ramon campus of Cleantech Open Global Partner Chevron. Each category winner received a prize package worth $30,000 in cash/investment and services (and a handsome framed certificate). A listing of the categories and the 36 semi-finalists is here.

One of the six California finalists will be named the California Regional Winner and receive an additional $20,000 in cash/investment and services, and go on to compete with the other regional winners.

On November 17th in San José one of the five regional winners will be crowned National Winner at a National Award and Expo event and will get a $250,000 prize package of investment and additional services.

And The Winners Are . . .

In the Air, Water and Waste category: FogBusters, who have developed an oil/water separator to help food processors and similar companies remove fats, oils and grease from their wastwater streams. The extracted oil can be sold as biodiesel feedstock, and the cost of wastewater treatment can be significantly reduced.

For Energy Efficiency: Suntulit, developers of advanced technologies to affordably improve energy efficiency. Their first product is SMART HVAC, which provides homeowners with the comfort of an expensive multi-zone system and greater efficiency than existing energy management solutions.

In Green Building: Stramit Strawboard, makers of green strawboard building panels with better insulation and higher strength properties to replace gypsum based sheet rock.

In the Renewables category: Pure Solar. They are developing a laser processing technology targeting <15 cents per watt manufacture of c-Si wafers for solar cell production.

The Smart Power winner was SmartSense, which is working to commercialize the first wireless sensor that can both predict and detect faults in underground utility distribution systems.

The Transportation award went to Pressure Sentinel, makers of a $25 device that keeps tires at optimum pressure automatically. Using the Automatic Tire Inflation System, trucking companies could save $1000 per truck per year on gas, tires, and tire-related expenses caused by routine maintenance and emergency road calls.

Finally, Bellweather Materials was selected as the most sustainable of all the California entries. They are a triple bottom line company that transforms sustainable agricultural waste into green building insulation. Using wool that has no market in the U.S., they have developed a simple, easy-to-use and install insulation batt for buildings.

Congratulations to these California finalists, and to all the other regional finalists from the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain, North Central and Northeast regions. See you at the National Awards and Expo event on 17th November!

05 October 2010

Is "Dangerous Interference" Inevitable?

[Shared from sister blog A Very Different Earth.]

Should We Just Throw In The Towel?

The Stern Review warned that adapting to climate change would be significantly more expensive than avoiding it in the first place (see this earlier post). But the opportunity to slow or reduce ("mitigate") climate change may have been lost.

It may already be too late. Now we have to start facing the costs of adaptation to inevitable changes.

At least that is the gist of a recent report by a British expert committee, and accompanying comments by the UK's new environment secretary.

And other evidence, from scientific research and from China's continued rapid economic growth, with corresponding increases in energy consumption, suggests that we will substantially overshoot the proposed target of 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Yet more research suggests that the 2°C target was in the danger zone anyway.

So here is the information summarized in this post:
  • China's growth takes us past targets
  • 2°C target was too low
  • We can't stay below 2°C anyway
  • UK Environment Minister: Change inevitable

Soaring Chinese Growth

A recent article in Reuters noted that the International Energy Agency suggested that China's greenhouse gas emissions could rise to a peak of about 8.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by around 2020 and then begin to decline. Such a scenario would still allow global warming to be kept below about 2°C above pre-industrial levels--a supposedly "safe" level.

But the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in their report "No growth in total global CO2 emissions in 2009" estimate that China's emissions from fuel burning reached 8.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2009, and India's reached 1.7 billion tonnes. (Press release here, PDF of report here.) China's emissions rose at 9% and India's at 6%. At that rate China will easily exceed 8.4 billion tonnes of emissions by 2010 or 2011.

The almost-global recession caused emissions to drop in developed economies, but increases in developing economies largely canceled out such reductions.

(Note that "The assessment excludes CO2 emissions from deforestation and logging, forest and peat fires, from post-burn decay of remaining above-ground biomass, and from decomposition of organic carbon in drained peat soils. The latter mostly affects developing countries. These sources could add as much as a further 20% to global CO2 emissions." Source)

Even with proposed "efficiency gains, China's expected rapid economic growth will push its absolute volume of emissions to between 9.6 and 10.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2020, compared with 5.2 billion tonnes in 2005, according to a study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences," said Reuters.

Keeping Warming Below 2°C Won't Save Us

A lot of international discussion, and the Copenhagen Accord, mention the idea that if we can keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels we will avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". This target now seems dubious. Maybe it should be 1.5°C or even lower.

Chris S.M. Turney and Richard T. Jones of the University of Exeter have published "Does the Agulhas Current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials?" in the Journal of Quaternary Science (full text here). They looked at climate during the Last Interglacial, spanning the period from about 130 to 116 thousand years ago, when sea level was 6.6–9.4 meters higher than today. The question was, what was the global temperature then? And, what were the mechanisms of regional distribution of that warming?

With the usual caveats, "Our results suggest the world was 1.5 ± 0.1°C warmer than the period AD 1961–1990". (The underlying drivers of warming at that time were changes in the amount of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun, due to variations in the Earth's orbit, and resulting changes in the carbon cycle.) They believe that warming in the southern hemisphere altered prevailing winds and thus ocean currents, allowing more upwelling of carbon-rich deep waters thus amplifying warming in the northern hemisphere.

The authors note that similar changes in southern-hemisphere winds and ocean currents seem to be happening today, and that similar feedbacks driving more warming may occur.

They go on to say, "if our estimate of global temperatures during the LIG is broadly correct and was higher than pre-industrial levels by ∼1.9°C, this leads us to question whether a 2°C target for stabilising global temperatures should be considered ‘safe’", since sea levels were so much higher back then at those temperatures.

Many others have raised similar concerns. See this review of James Hansen's book.

We're Going to Overshoot 2°C Anyway

A recent paper by Rogelj et al. in Environmental Research Letters, "Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord pledges and its global climatic impacts—a snapshot of dissonant ambitions", points out that if you total up the emission-reduction "pledges" made in the Copenhagen Accord the resulting rates of continuing emissions are very likely to take us past 2°C of warming. They find, regarding the developed countries:
Ultimately, even the optimistic interpretation of the Accord's pledges results in effective reductions by 2020 far outside the 25–40% range of aggregated emission reductions for developed countries specified in Box 13.7 of IPCC AR4. That box provided data for the lowest category of analysed mitigation scenarios which stabilize atmospheric CO2eq concentrations between 445 and 490 ppm CO2eq and have a best estimate global temperature increase of 2.0–2.4 °C at equilibrium.
Taking the countries at their word, the authors estimate global annual emissions of around 50 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent in 2020, up from about 39 GtCO2eq in 1990 and 49 GtCO2eq in 2004. They estimate that global emissions would reach 55 GtCO2eq by 2050. To keep us under 2°C warming the estimated emissions in 2050 would have to be closer to 17 GtCO2eq. They figure that "Case 1 with reference growth after 2020 results in a likely global temperature increase of 2.5–4.2 °C above pre-industrial in 2100 and is still increasing afterwards."

Thus even if the various countries deliver on their pledges to decrease (or, in some cases, increase) their emissions those emissions are likely going to take us above 490 ppm and above 2°C. (The conclusion of the paper is too depressing to quote, but I include it in a footnote.)

The UK Climate Change Committee Report

The Adaptation Subcommittee of the UK Committee on Climate Change has issued a report "How well prepared is the UK for climate change?". The report says that because of current and projected future climate change, the UK should be thinking about what its inhabitants, companies and institutions should be doing to deal with the impacts of that change.
Preparing for climate change today will reduce the costs and damages of a changing climate and allow UK businesses, the public sector, the third sector and individuals to take advantage of potential opportunities. Early action will help make the UK better prepared for today’s climate and ensure that decisions made today that have long-lasting consequences do not close off options and make it harder to adapt in the future.
They go on to make various specific recommendations. Access the Adaptation Subcommittee's report here. (About the committee.)

But the really interesting development was a speech given by new UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman on the occasion of the report's launch. She said:
Today’s report provides a wake-up call. It recognises that there is no part of our society which is immune from the effects of climate change. Which means that every part of our society must think about its resilience. ... This Government will not give up the battle to tackle the causes of climate change. ... But while it is vital that we continue the task of drastically cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, we know that we are already facing levels of unavoidable climate change. ... And UK climate change projections suggest even higher temperatures and more severe weather in the coming years. ... If more than 75% of our businesses remain unprotected we are in danger of ending up with a two-tier commercial sector - those that have adapted successfully and those who didn’t see it coming. ... What Government can do is provide them with information and models to help them calculate the risks. ... And the transition to a low carbon, well-adapted global economy could create hundreds of thousands of sustainable ‘green’ jobs.
(PDF of the speech here. Article about the speech in The Telegraph here.)

That sounds to me like a change in emphasis. "Low carbon" efforts will not be enough. Everybody has to start thinking, and acting, to protect themselves from the negative impacts of inevitable climate change. There is particular emphasis on getting companies and local authorities to analyze their risks and address them, using tools (but not necessarily money) provided by the government.

Get ready for a very different Earth.

Graph from Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, June 2010, No growth in total global CO2 emissions in 2009 (pdf here) by permission.

The Chris S.M. Turney and Richard T. Jones paper is Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Quotations used under fair use standards.

The Rogelj et al. is © IOP Publishing 2010. Quoted under fair use standards.

Conclusion of Rogelj et al. paper:
If the average national ambition level for 2020 is not substantially improved and loopholes closed in the continued negotiations, only low probability options remain for reaching the 2 °C (and possible 1.5 °C) ambition of the Accord. Most developed country submissions to the Accord indicate that only with a global and comprehensive agreement countries are inclined to commit to more, and likewise for developing countries the required level of support through financing, technology and capacity building is needed. With the negotiation mandates having been extended to the end of 2010, committing to higher ambitions and agreement by all Parties still remains possible. It is clear from this analysis that higher ambitions for 2020 are necessary to keep the options for 2 and 1.5 °C open without relying on potentially infeasible reduction rates after 2020. In addition, the absence of a mid-century emission goal—towards which Parties as a whole can work and which can serve as a yardstick of whether interim reductions by 2020 and 2030 are on the right track—is a critical deficit in the overall ambition level of the Copenhagen Accord.

01 October 2010

Climate Change--What We Know and What's Uncertain

[Crossposted from Science In Action]

The Royal Society has published Climate change: A summary of the science. It has the aim "to summarise the current scientific evidence on climate change and its drivers." It is focused on how Earth's climate is changing and what is making it change. "The impacts of climate change, as distinct from the causes," are not considered.

Although the summary tries to be as non-technical as possible, it is after all a summary of the science, so it incorporates some scientific terminology necessary to convey the facts. It also includes some numbers, such as "240" and "3.6".

The report attempts to clarify which aspects of climate change science are widely agreed, which others have achieved consensus but where further research is expected to give more clarity, and which are not yet well understood.

It begins with a dozen paragraphs of "some background science", explaining very broadly what the greenhouse effect is, what is meant by "climate forcing" and "climate change", and why what may seem like small forcings of a few Watts per square meter can create the profound climate changes seen over past millennia.

At the risk of offering a précis of a summary, here are some of the key points of the report.

Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement

  • "Averaged over the globe, the surface has warmed by about 0.8°C (with an uncertainty of about ±0.2°C) since 1850."
  • "Each decade since the 1970s has been clearly warmer (given known uncertainties) than the one immediately preceding it. The decade 2000-2009 was, globally, around 0.15°C warmer than the decade 1990-1999."
  • Other changes include "increases in the average temperature of both the upper 700m of the ocean and the troposphere (the atmosphere up to 10-18km), widespread (though not universal) decreases in the length of mountain glaciers and increases in average sea level."
  • "Global-average CO2 concentrations have been observed to increase from levels of around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the mid-19th century to around 388 ppm by the end of 2009."
  • "Present-day concentrations are higher than any that have been observed in the past 800,000 years, when CO2 varied between about 180 and 300 ppm."
  • "Various lines of evidence point strongly to human activity being the main reason for the recent increase, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) with smaller contributions from land-use changes and cement manufacture."
  • "About half of the CO2 emitted by human activity since the industrial revolution has remained in the atmosphere."
  • "The concentration of methane has more than doubled in the past 150 years; this recent and rapid increase is unprecedented in the 800,000 year record and evidence strongly suggests that it arises mainly as a result of human activity."
  • "These additional gases have caused a climate forcing during the industrial era of around 2.9 Wm-2 [Watt per square meter], with an uncertainty of about ±0.2 Wm-2."
  • "The net effect of all human activity has caused a positive climate forcing of around 1.6 Wm-2 with an estimated uncertainty of about ±0.8 Wm-2."
  • "Changes in CO2 can lead to climate change and climate change can also alter the concentrations of CO2."

Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion

  • "Current understanding indicates that even if there was a complete cessation of emissions of CO2 today from human activity, it would take several millennia for CO2 concentrations to return to preindustrial concentrations."
  • "Natural forcing due to sustained variations in the energy emitted by the Sun over the past 150 years is estimated to be small (about 0.12 Wm-2)" but this remains an active area of research.
  • "Particles have caused a negative climate forcing of around 0.5 Wm-2 with an uncertainty of ±0.2 Wm-2."
  • "Climate models indicate that the overall climate sensitivity (for a hypothetical doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) is likely to lie in the range 2°C to 4.5°C," with this wide range due to "uncertainties in how much water vapour amounts will change, and how these changes will be distributed in the atmosphere, in response to a warming."
  • "Unless [internal climate variability] has been grossly underestimated,
    the observed climate change must result from natural and/or human-induced climate forcing."
  • "When only natural climate forcings are put into climate models, the models are incapable of reproducing the size of the observed increase in global-average surface temperatures over the past 50 years. However, when the models include estimates of forcings resulting from human activity, they can reproduce the increase."
  • "The observed vertical and latitudinal variations of temperature change are also broadly consistent with those expected from a dominant role for human activity. There is an ongoing controversy concerning whether or not the increased warming with height in the tropical regions given by climate models is supported by satellite measurements."
  • "The IPCC’s best estimate was that globally averaged surface temperatures would be between 2.5 - 4.7°C higher by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The full range of projected temperature increases by 2100 was found to be 1.8 - 7.1°C based on the various scenarios and uncertainties in climate sensitivity."
  • "Climate models tend to predict that precipitation will generally increase in areas with already high amounts of precipitation and generally decrease in areas with low amounts of precipitation."
  • "Because of the thermal expansion of the ocean, it is very likely that for many centuries the rate of global sea-level rise will be at least as large as the rate of 20 cm per century that has been observed over the past century."

Aspects that are not well understood

  • "Projections of climate change are sensitive to the details of the representation of clouds in models. Particles originating from both human activities and natural sources have the potential to strongly influence the properties of clouds, with consequences for estimates of climate forcing. Current scientific understanding of this effect is poor." [Or, as Joni Mitchell wrote in 1967, "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, From up and down and still somehow, It's cloud's illusions I recall; I really don't know clouds at all."] 
  • "The future strength of the uptake of CO2 by the land and oceans (which together are currently responsible for taking up about half of the emissions from human activity…) is very poorly understood, particularly because of gaps in our understanding of the response of biological processes to changes in both CO2 concentrations and climate."
  • "There is currently insufficient understanding of the enhanced melting and retreat of the ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica to predict exactly how much the rate of sea level rise will increase above that observed in the past century ... for a given temperature increase."
  • "There is little confidence in specific projections of future regional climate change, except at continental scales."

The authors conclude

  • "There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that has taken place over the last half century. This warming trend is expected to continue as are changes in precipitation over the long term in many regions. Further and more rapid increases in sea level are likely which will have profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems."
  • "Like many important decisions, policy choices about climate change have to be made in the absence of perfect knowledge. Even if the remaining uncertainties were substantially resolved, the wide variety of interests, cultures and beliefs in society would make consensus about such choices difficult to achieve. However, the potential impacts of climate change are sufficiently serious that important decisions will need to be made. Climate science – including the substantial body of knowledge that is already well established, and the results of future research – is the essential basis for future climate projections and planning, and must be a vital component of public reasoning in this complex and challenging area."
A nice effort by the Royal Society. What we know is sobering. What we don't know is scary. The fact that we don't know everything is unsurprising. That we know so much is among the great achievements of science over the past few decades. That we are unable to deal with the problem, or that some even deny that it is a problem, is just human nature.

The report is available in PDF here.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, better known as just the "Royal Society", is one of the world's premiere national scientific organizations. It acts as the United Kingdom's "academy of sciences".