CAT | Science basis
Here’s the latest example of why communicating climate science is so important. From a petition filed by Texas asking the EPA to reconsider its Endangerment Finding that “the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)–in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” Note the central roles played by CRU “Climategate” and recent errors identified in IPCC 2007:
“Despite the Endangerment Finding’s remarkably broad impact, EPA’s Administrator relied on a fundamentally flawed and legally unsupported methodology to reach her decision. And although the Administrator is legally required to undertake a scientific
assessment before reaching a decision that is supposed to be based on scientific conclusions, the Administrator outsourced the actual scientific study, as well as her required review of the scientific literature necessary to make that assessment. In doing so, EPA relied primarily on the conclusions of outside organizations, particularly the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”).
EPA’s reliance on the IPCC’s assessment to make a decision of this magnitude is not legally supported. Since the Endangerment Finding’s public comment period ended in June, 2009, troubling revelations about the conduct, objectivity, reliability, and propriety of the IPCC’s processes, assessments, and contributors have become public. Previously private email exchanges among top IPCC climatologists reveal an entrenched group of activists focused less on reaching an objective scientific conclusion than on achieving their desired outcome. These scientists worked to prevent contravening studies from being published, colluded to hide research flaws, and collaborated to obstruct the public’s legal right to public information under open records laws.
In addition to the improper collusion and cover-ups revealed by the release of these emails, since the public comment period ended, some of the IPCC’s methodologies and conclusions have been discredited. Not surprisingly, respected scientists and
climatologists from around the globe have roundly criticized and correctly questioned the IPCC’s process, while calling for programmatic reforms.
Indeed, there has been worldwide fallout from scandals enveloping the IPCC. In Britain, four separate investigations have been launched, and the British Broadcasting Corporation has convened an inquiry into the journalistic appropriateness of its IPCC coverage. India has announced that it will create its own climate change institute rather than rely exclusively on the IPCC. And the United States Department of Commerce has created a new Climate Science Institute—though it has remained noticeably silent on the scandals plaguing the IPCC.”
As COP15 comes to a close without a clear path forward forward from Kyoto, it is difficult not to become dismayed at the growing gulf between the urgency of climate science and the pace of international negotiations. While it provides little solace, there is little doubt that the economic calamities of the past two years played a significant role in the ultimate fate of the conference. Out of fear that we were on the precipice of another Great Depression, economic and social concerns have been the primary focus of many of the world’s legislatures, particularly countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. Considering that the swift response to the failure of the banks last fall seems to have averted the worst of these fears from being realized, it is hard to argue with this approach.
At the same time, when historians reflect upon the three year process which culminated in COP 15, I feel many may see another connection between these two events: a similar inability to understand complexity, a propensity to discount the future, and an failure to properly value risk. One can only hope that we don’t need to have the ecological equivalent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers to drive us to act.
Our world is complex, and we better get used to it.
The roots of the economic meltdown can be found in the increasingly complex instruments created to diversify risk. While these instruments succeeded in diversifying risk, they also created numerous negative feedback loops. These unintended consequences weren’t seen by these best and brightness in the financial industry, let alone those whose jobs it was to regulate them.
The complexity of the challenges posed by climate change makes the financial crisis look like child’s play in comparison. For example, the underlying science requires modeling on some of the most sophisticated machines ever developed by man, and laying the ground work for a low carbon economy will require the most coordinated global political interaction humanity has ever attempted. These political decisions will impact nearly every aspect of our daily lives as individuals and the global economy as a whole.
I feel that it is this degree of complexity and challenge that makes the issue so difficult for the majority of people to truly appreciate. As a species, we have spent the vast majority of our evolutionary history evolving to address the threats which were most immediately pressing: those posed by the our local surroundings in the immediate future. Contemplating, appreciating, responding, and yes, sacrificing, to avoid a global threat which will play out over decades is unfortunately not something we have the coding for.
While the United States and other developed countries have come a long way in protecting our planet since the birth of the environmental a half century ago, it is nearly impossible to cite an example of legislation which was passed prior to a major catastrophe such as Love Canal, Bhopal, or the discovery of a giant hole in the ozone. In each case, the complex chemicals we created caused unforeseen consequences which had to be redressed after serious harm was done.Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, we don’t have a chance to “fix it after breaking it” like we have in these other cases.
I’m in a Bellona Foundation session with the authors of three new climate books
- Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, by Stephen Schneider, my friend and former Stanford colleague, about his decades of work to move climate change onto the political agenda and keep it there, against skeptics and spin doctors. Steve: Talk about climate change in metaphors that convey both urgency and uncertainty, like “loaded dice” and “insurance.”
- Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth, by Larry Schweiger.
- Clean Energy, Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change, by Frances Beinecke of Natural Resources Defense Council, one of my favorite NGOs. Tries to change the story from a battle between partisans and skeptics to a consensus on “putting Americans back to work, reducing our reliance on foreign oil, and creating a healthier planet, for ourselves and for our children.” Nice.
Michigan people should also know about UM geology prof. Henry Pollack’s new book A World Without Ice.
Al Gore has a new one.
Bellona, by the way, has a really nice, really useful website on climate solutions, 101-solutions.org.
I managed to get into the press briefing. RK Pachauri, the IPCC chair, led off, pointing out that the IPCC has 21 years of experience now and its process has stood the test of time. IPCC reports peer reviewed twice, and chapter authors are required to respond to all comments, and to justify their responses. (AR4 received over 90,000 comments, so that is quite a load.) After this peer review, the most widely circulated element of each IPCC report, the Summary for Policy Makers, must be approved word by word by all the world’s governments.
T. Stocker, co-chair of Working Group I (physical science basis), made a brief presentation of the evidence. Many different, largely independent data sets (he showed global temperature (+0.75°C since 1850), sea level rise (17 cm since 1900), and declining snow cover. He pointed to the AR4 statement that “warming is unequivocal,” but reminded the audience that natural variability will always be present, resulting in occasional colder and hotter than “normal” years.
Stocker emphasized that in the past century the climate system has exhibited changes that are unprecedented not only in amplitude, but also in rate, compared with what we know of the prior hundreds to many thousands of years. Widespread melting of ice margins has been observed in Greenland and the Antarctic. Emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000s of years, causing irreversible changes in the climate and in ocean chemistry.
Chris Field, co-chair of WGII (human impacts), followed Stocker. Among other things, he mentioned that crop reductions are likely and increasing, producing substantial food insecurity, esp. in southern Africa and southern Asia. Infrastructure damage is likely and increasing, esp. in coastal areas (100s of billions of dollars). Biodiversity losses of a few percent up to as much as 30 or more percent in some key areas are likely. Field emphasized that vulnerability is not uniformly distributed: it will be concentrated on the world’s poor.
The level of impact scales with the level of emissions. At 2-3 degrees centigrade (a very real possibility by 2100), we are looking at a long term commitment to several metres of sea level rise, and impacts on the fresh water supplies for 2 billion or more people.
The briefing was only 30 minutes, so they took only about 5 questions. Inevitably, the last one regarded the stolen CRU emails: did Pachauri think the conference was being distracted by this issue? Pachauri’s reply: “I’ve been talking to all the negotiators; they don’t seem distracted. One or t countries [PNE: that would be the USA...] might like to seize on this and exaggerate the threat. This has had no impact on the findings of AR4.”
It’s a “recreational distraction,” he said. Cornered outside the briefing room, he was asked by a very insistent reporter (?) whether the IPCC would support an independent investigation into the CRU emails to see whether scientific fraud had been committed. Otherwise, the “reporter” said, your credibility is in question. “Our credibility is not in question,” Pachauri replied. I think he’s right.
I am sitting in a presentation from the Group on Earth Observations. The presenter has just described a carbon cycle monitoring system that would reach a 1 km resolution by 2025 — which would allow direct detection of violations of an eventual carbon treaty. I find this a bit difficult to imagine, but I’m willing to be convinced…