02 Jul 2014: Interview

Where Will Earth Head
After Its ‘Climate Departure’?

Will the planet reach a point where its climate is significantly different from what has existed throughout human history, and if so, when? In an interview with Yale Environment 360, biogeographer Camilo Mora talks about recent research on this disquieting issue and what it means for the coming decades.

by diane toomey

The term “climate departure” has an odd ring, but its meaning is relatively straightforward. It marks the point at which the earth’s climate begins to cease resembling what has come before and moves into a new state, one where heat records are routinely shattered and what once was considered extreme will become the norm.

Camilo Mora — a University of Hawaii biogeographer, ecologist, and specialist in marshaling big data for climate modeling — has calculated a
Camilo Mora
Camilo Mora
rough idea for the time of the earth’s climate departure: 2047. That date varies depending on region, he says. But in a widely publicized paper published in the journal Nature last year, Mora and 13 colleagues explored the concept of climate departure and what it will mean for our planet.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, Mora explains why tropical regions will be most profoundly affected by climate change, why controlling population growth is at the core of the challenge posed by global warming, and the frustrations he and other scientists feel as their warnings about rising temperatures are repeatedly ignored.

Yale Environment 360: You and your team made headlines when you published a paper in Nature that examined the timing of climate departure. Please define that term.

Camilo Mora: The timing of climate departure is an index that calculated the year after which the climate will become like something that we’ve never seen. We calculated the minimum and maximum values for the historic variability in the last 150 years. And we analyzed when climate change is going to move the climate beyond those thresholds. At the broadest scale, we calculate that year, under a business as usual scenario, is going to be 2047. Basically, by the year 2047 the climate is going to move beyond something we’ve never seen in the last 150 years.

e360: The results of your analysis were startling, I think, even to you and your team. Under the scenario that assumes current emissions trends, part of Jamaica and Indonesia are just a few years away from climate departure; you predict Mexico City will experience this in 2031. To carry out your analysis, you used 39 climate models. Talk a bit about how big your big data was.

Mora: We analyzed all the earth system models that are available. Regarding climate, we analyzed 39 earth system models. Every model

Journal Article Challenges
Mora on Climate Departure

Thirteen climate scientists and meteorologists have published a sharp criticism of the paper in Nature by biogeographer Camilo Mora, which calculated dates when the earth’s climate will move into a new state caused by global warming. In a comment published in Nature on July 3, the 13 scientists say Mora and his colleagues used faulty methodology that produced artificially early dates when specific regions would reach “climate departure.”
READ MORE
covered about 200 years, and every year had data from 60,000 locations around the world and all of that for each of 12 variables. We’re talking on the order of 5 billion points of data just on climate. We also analyzed how that is going to influence biodiversity and people. The paper is unique in how it integrates data from climate, biological, and socio-economic systems. Of course, there was some variability in the models but the general trend really was very remarkable in how similar it was.

e360: Your results regarding the tropics were particularly disturbing.

Mora: When you think about climate change, people usually think about the poles, the reason being that the largest changes in temperature are going to occur at the poles. However, what we found is that the timing of climate departure will actually occur sooner in the tropics. The reason for that is that the tropics have a very small variability. So it’s very easy for climate change to move the climate in the tropics beyond anything that the tropics have seen. And of course the biological implications for these things are massive, because in the poles the species are already adapted to variability in the climate. Think about the winter and the summer and the changes in temperature. All of the species that live there are already adapted to that variability. In the tropics, the species are adapted to a very stable climate. So as soon as you move the climate beyond the variability, all the species in the tropics are going to suffer quite dramatically. And we already have evidence of that. Coral reefs are a good example of that. If you increase the temperature by just one or two degrees, there is massive bleaching and coral mortality.

e360: You and your team used the years from 1860 to 2005 to establish the historical range of five climate variables. But since the later part of that time period contains a human climate change signal, climate departure may happen much sooner than the years you and your team calculated.

Mora: Indeed. One [key] variable was pH, which is completely off the charts already, completely outside the historical variability. The reason being is that the oceans are taking up a huge chunk of the CO2 that we are producing and that is acidifying the oceans beyond anything that those animals have seen for millennia.
As scientists, we are struggling to figure out how we can increase public awareness on this issue.”

e360: The publication of the paper was widely covered in the general press. What were your hopes for the paper in terms of climate policy debate?

Mora: From a scientific point of view, climate change is something that is very certain. When you go and do the analysis on this data and you look at temporal trends, you realize that for us there is no doubt that we are changing the climate of our planet. And of course, I think my motivation and everybody’s motivation whenever we produce these papers is trying to increase the level of awareness of people and politicians to take action on these things.

e360: Have you seen any evidence of that?

Mora: Not really. You don’t see any action on these things. And the problem is that these things die away pretty quickly. The press coverage of this paper lasted two days. We were in the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN. And next week, people were talking about something else. So as scientists, we are struggling to figure out how we can increase public awareness on this issue.

e360: You prepared for months on how to communicate the results of this work. How did you prepare, and what was the goal of that training?

Mora: The analysis that went into the paper took us six months altogether, from the time that we came up with the idea to the time when we sent the paper out. However, the actual writing of the paper took us about two months. It’s 40 pages altogether. But it’s amazing that the press release on this paper took us two months to prepare. It was a massive investment of time for just two pages of paper. So another limitation for us as scientists is that it’s very hard for us to commit that kind of time to prepare for that press release.

e360: I imagine it’s highly unusual to train on how to communicate the results of one’s work.

Mora: I have a Ph.D. I’ve taken hundreds of courses for my undergraduate degree and my Ph.D., but I never took a class in how to communicate science to the general public. Even now, if you look around at the curriculum in universities, you don’t see any training in the sciences in how to communicate to the public. And sometimes we miss opportunities. Sometimes I see scientists being interviewed on television and there’s a scientist being hammered by politicians and interest groups, people who are better trained and know better how to talk to the public. We miss these
When we start damaging the capacity of physical systems to produce food, people will react in a terrible way.”
opportunities to communicate science to the public just because we don’t have the training for it.

e360: You specialize in using big data to analyze environmental issues. What drew you to large-scale analysis?

Mora: What drives me is actually globalization. If you look at economic metrics, those metrics are collected globally. What is remarkable is they are even collected daily. But we don’t have that kind of monitoring for any environmental variable.

And the problem is changes are happening in places and people can’t appreciate the magnitude of these changes until it is too late. There are multiple cases of species that have gone extinct and the laws to protect those species come years after the species went extinct. And that’s what drives me to do these large-scale analyses, to be able to deliver these broad-scale results that allow you to see the magnitude of the changes we are causing.

It’s one thing if you are cutting a tree. It’s completely different if you are cutting trees everywhere around the world. Six million hectares of forest are cut every year. You cannot get those numbers without doing it globally.

e360: You’re speaking to me now from your home country of Colombia. How does the fact that you’re from a developing country inform or inspire your research?

Mora: I grew up in a country where there has been a long history of violence. We have been in war for 50 years, and one thing people don’t realize is what it means to be in a place where anyone can get shot at any moment, where people are starved to death, where there is not enough food to feed people. In the first world, people don’t know how rich they are,
We’re on our way to some very disturbing scenarios if we go down this pathway of damaging physical systems.”
and they don’t realize what is happening in the rest of the world. And for me that’s a driving force. It’s scary to think about climate change because when we start damaging physical systems and the carrying capacity of physical systems to produce food, people will react to this in a terrible way. I’m telling you, I have seen it in my own country. It’s very negative the way in which people react to hunger. And that’s one of the things that’s most frightening to me with this large-scale analysis — the fact that I know we’re on our way to some very disturbing scenarios if we go down this pathway of damaging physical systems in the ways that we are today.

e360: You’ve been outspoken on the issue of overpopulation. In a paper you published earlier this year in the journal Ecology and Society, you referred to the issue as fundamental, but fading from public consciousness. Why, in your estimation, is this issue so paramount?

Mora: Well, it’s paramount because people need food. And the planet is limited in the amount of resources that it can produce. We already have calculated that the planet has on the order of 11 billion hectares that can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Of course we can increase the number by increasing technology, but that’s been happening for the last three decades. The worldwide population is 7 billion people, and we know that to sustain a human being you need on the order of two hectares per person. That means that the world human population every year consumes on the order of 14 billion hectares. The planet only has eleven to give to us. Every year, we consume in excess of three billion hectares. What I’m suggesting is to inform people about the environmental and social costs of

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having a child. And for governments to allow people those choices. Today we have on the order of 200 million women who want access to family planning that don’t have it. So for me the solution is right there.

e360: In a paper in Ecology and Society, you were quite critical of the conservation biology community and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for not talking about the issue of overpopulation. Why, in your estimation, don’t they talk about this issue? What is holding them back?

Mora: It’s pure fear. It seems amazing, but friends of mine recommended to me not to publish that paper. They said, “This paper is going to be damaging to you. You don’t get it. You don’t need it.” What is remarkable, though, is that after the paper got published, I had multiple people calling me to endorse it.

e360: Did they endorse it publicly?

Mora: No, just to me. This is really the problem. But why we don’t take it on? I have no clue. Because the data are very clear. I guess the problem is that it can backfire. We have seen, historically, situations in which a scientist has taken on an issue and there are people who have been fired, or attacked by interest groups. So I guess the problem is fear of retaliation.



POSTED ON 02 Jul 2014 IN Climate Climate Oceans Oceans Science & Technology Science & Technology 

COMMENTS


Action items are needed now. Actions to be explained and executed at all levels — for media, policy initiatives, programs and projects, school/university curricula, and political courage and action.

Mora is right, I say, having seen this change coming on in the 40+ countries I have had the privilege of working in, mainly in resource management and environmental impact assessment.
Posted by Patrick Duffy on 02 Jul 2014


"And of course, I think my motivation and everybody’s motivation whenever we produce these papers is trying to increase the level of awareness of people and politicians to take action on these things."

Funny, I thought it was about the science, not about advocating for your preferred policy on an issue. This type of thinking is one of the reasons people correctly say that climate science has become politicized.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a scientist becoming a policy advocate, as long as they are open about it, as Hansen is. Don't expect people to trust your science as much, however. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are real problems when activism is thrown into the mix.

As for this paper, it is trivial to state that every time a record low or high is reached locally, the climate has departed from its previous levels. The ineffectiveness of this message is because of the lack of useful information the term "climate departure" conveys. There is no actionable intelligence here.

Posted by Tom Scharf on 02 Jul 2014


Coincidentally, today the journal Nature published a Comment which criticizes Mora's study:

http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2014/07/overconfident-predictions-risk-damaging-trust-in-climate-science,-prominent-scientists-warn/

Ed Hawkins
Posted by Ed Hawkins on 02 Jul 2014


So climate departure is when "earth’s climate begins to cease resembling what has come before and moves into a new state, one where heat records are routinely shattered and what once was considered extreme will become the norm."

Have y'all been looking out the windows lately? The situation you have defined is happening right now and has been happening for some time. Someone from 1750, let alone someone from 2,000 BCE would recognize neither the weather, nor the planetary biosphere. We are utterly adrift.
Posted by Heidi Sulzdorf on 02 Jul 2014


Yeah I noticed that too Ed, even before I saw your comment.

They're interviewing Mora and publicizing his paper, well after it was published, but on the very day that your critical comment is published, with no mention of the latter whatsoever.
Posted by Jim Bouldin on 02 Jul 2014


The rich nations have negative birth rates and have had for decades so you can forget about blaming them. Take out immigration and the USA would be fading away like Europe and Japan.
Get rid of corruption in the non democs and your imagined problem of overpopulation will be solved because population is directly linked to poverty and poverty is caused by corruption. Corruption can only be removed with democracy.
Posted by AJ Virgo on 03 Jul 2014


This paper is advocacy, not science. It should be viewed in the same light as any paper from Greenpeace or WWF — i.e., with a huge grain of salt.

Since it is based on climate models it will have the same degree of accuracy which is very precious little. "Science" like this is what has given the climate science community such a bad reputation.

Posted by Gary on 03 Jul 2014


"Have y'all been looking out the windows lately? The situation you have defined is happening right now and has been happening for some time. Someone from 1750, let alone someone from 2,000 BCE would recognize neither the weather, nor the planetary biosphere. We are utterly adrift.

Posted by Heidi Sulzdorf on 02 Jul 2014"

1750 was the peak of the "Little Ice Age" and 2000 BCE? Ancient Gaelic and Chinese records speak of great floods and snows that occurred 2000 BCE to 1000 CE. Most world temperature records, high and low, were set before 1950. Your comment is ridiculous, lacking in scientific substance, and an embarrassing exercise in hyperbole.
Posted by Chuck L on 03 Jul 2014


"I think my motivation and everybody’s motivation whenever we produce these papers is trying to increase the level of awareness of people and politicians to take action on these things."

...as opposed to, you know, actually trying to figure out how the world works.

The concept of "emergence" is important, folks should follow the link Ed Hawkins provided and get a better understanding of it.
Posted by Matt Skaggs on 03 Jul 2014


"Did you ever hear of Chicken Little, how she disturbed a whole neighborhood by her foolish alarm?

"Well, Chicken Little was running about in a gentleman's garden, where she had no business to be: she ran under a rose-bush, and a leaf fell on her tail so she was dreadfully frightened, and ran away to Hen Pen."

Camilo "Chicken Little" Mora, you and your fellow foolish alarmists are disturbing the neighborhood.

Sit down and hush.

Posted by Kent Clizbe on 03 Jul 2014


I would recommend Dr. Mora study nature rather than models. It is infinitely more educational and encouraging.
Posted by Alan Poirier on 03 Jul 2014


I wonder what Sigmund would say about his summarization of "climate departure?"

"Basically, by the year 2047 the climate is going to move beyond something we’ve never seen in the last 150 years."

I assume he means ever rather than never. If it wasn't paradoxical, moving beyond something you have never seen means returning to something you have seen. While this may have been a typo by the interviewer, I suspect, because of my harsh opinion of his paper, that there is a repressed part of his brain that has a different opinion than his paper's assertions. Clarification of his word choice or my understanding of the English language would be appreciated.


Posted by John Vonderlin on 03 Jul 2014


The facts are very simple:

CO2 is a “trace gas” in air, insignificant by definition. It absorbs 1/7th as much IR, heat energy, from sunlight as water vapor which has 188 times as many molecules capturing 1200 times as much heat making 99.9\% of all "global warming." CO2 does only 0.1\% of it. For this we should destroy our economy?

The Medieval Warming from 800 AD to 1300 AD that Micheal Mann erased to make his "hockey stick" was several degrees warmer than anything "global warmers" fear. It was the longest recorded time, 500 years, of peace with great abundance for all.

The Vostock Ice Core data analysis show CO2 increases follow temperature increases by 800 years 19 times in 450,000 years. That makes temperature change cause and CO2 change effect not the other way around. This alone refutes the anthropogenic global warming concept.

Carbon combustion generates 80\% of our energy. Control and taxing of carbon would give the elected ruling class more power and money than anything since the Magna Carta of 1215 AD.

Most scientists and science educators work for tax supported institutions eager to help government raise more money for them. And, they love being seen as "saving the planet."

Google "Two Minute Conservative," http://adrianvance.blogspot.com and you will be applauded at your next dinner party, barbecue or church picnic.


Posted by Adrian Vance on 03 Jul 2014


Nothing currently happening in our climate is outside the range of natural variability. Trying to base future climate based on computer models is a losing and pointless proposition due to the endless complexity of climate dynamics and unknowns — we don't know what we don't know.
Posted by Sam Pyeatte on 03 Jul 2014


There is a departure but it's going the wrong way. They call it "The Pause" in global warming and 97% of models are wrong. Remember the entire notion is built on model projections. Is that science?

Could it be just a coincidence that at about the same time as reality was dropping out the ass of the model projections a dodgy study announced that 97% of scientific papers on CO2 warming had reached a consensus? Goering rolled over in his grave ... of indignation !

Posted by AJ Virgo on 04 Jul 2014


It never ceases to amaze me how so much confidence is placed in climate models.

Yet the reality indicates models have failed terribly, to get even the most basic prediction or projection correct, i.e. the future global average temperature trend based on various scenarios of rising carbon dioxide emissions.

I would not believe any scientist predicting what is or isn't going to happen in future.

Humans will never ever be able to write computer software that can simulate the unpredictable, overly complex, highly chaotic, and little known climate system.
Posted by Mervyn on 05 Jul 2014


Mora sounds like Harold Camping. "Doom," I say, "Doom," repent now!
Posted by Chris on 05 Jul 2014


It is time that neo-malthusian like Mora speak out.

Malthus has never been wrong in its main assertion, namely that the growth of available food will never lower poverty, because the numbers always adjust to a "sustainable" level of hardship and poverty. Never on planet earth has the number of human starving been so high.

Population growth is catching up with the oil revolution and the situation is getting worse, starting with the densely populated Middle East.

Population growth is the bed of slavery, hands are plentiful, competition is fierce and those who posses can get slave by the thousands. This is another point that Malthus stressed and that is accurate.

I recommend the reading of "too smart for our own good" by Craig Dilworth (Cambridge Press) about the vicious circle that links technology and population growth. Globalization is the last step, as is mentioning Mora. Now we are touching the limit of earth and that is going to be very painful.

The least is to speak openly about it and not to be afraid of retaliation: What is awaiting us is far worse anyway.
Posted by kervennic on 06 Jul 2014


I recommend this nice guy to read "The population bomb." And to compare its forecasts with actual world.
Posted by Mario Giardini on 08 Jul 2014


The Mora paper failed to cite several previously published papers about the earlier time of emergence in the tropics and the reasons for that. This oversight has been pointed out to Professor Mora, who initially apologized but subsequently went on acting as if his work is new and surprising to scholars, as we see here. Why?

For a list of papers that presented this earlier, and with more appropriate statistics, please follow the link to the Hawkins paper.
Posted by Susan Solomon on 09 Jul 2014


Excellent.

A new study published in the journal Nature predicts that within a few generations humans will live in an “entirely new climate” unless greenhouse gas emissions are held to current levels.

After the year 2047, the average temperatures in each year will be hotter across most parts of the planet than they had been at those locations in any year between 1860 and 2005, say the researchers from the University of Hawaii. In a given geographic area, “the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past,” Dr. Camilo Mora, a University of Hawaii professor and the study’s lead author, told the New York Times.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
Posted by DR.A.Jagadeesh on 14 Jul 2014


Dr. Camilo Mora: When humans are no longer capable of maintaining infrastructure for whatever reason, the planet is doomed to be void of life.

The toxic contamination of everything everywhere due to containment failures from no electricity for cooling and age and corrosion and extreme weather incidents. The potential combination of toxic substances creating even deadlier toxins and poisons.

The earth needs us now as much as we need the earth. Mutually assured destruction.

Posted by dennis baker on 17 Jul 2014


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She also has reported on science, medicine and the environment for WUNC, the public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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