30 May 2008, 10:02am
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Global warming, an unsettled science

The thesis of man-made global warming has been portrayed as a scientific consensus, but is this more a policymaker and media phenomenon than a settled matter?

By Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch (30/05/08) [here]

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group One, a panel of experts established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, issued its Fourth Assessment Report. This included predictions of dramatic increases in average world temperatures over the next 92 years and serious harm resulting from the predicted temperature rise.

Founding director of the UN Environment Programme Maurice Strong once analyzed global environmental challenges as follows:

“We may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrial civilization to collapse.”

“Industrial civilization” has been pumping additional carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse effect, whereby carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor combine to trap sunrays bouncing off the earth’s surface, keeping the earth at a temperature conducive to supporting life.

What ultimate benefit the collapse of industrial civilization could bring at a time when - as Oxford University economist Paul Collier put it in his award-winning book The Bottom Billion - around four billion people are being lifted out of poverty, remains unclear.

However, the IPCC outlines that “deep cuts in global emission will be required,” while the European Commission supports emissions cuts of 25-40 percent by 2020. The US, however, considers such cuts beyond reach, at least before 2050, while Japan says it is premature to commit to 2020 limits.

On 26 May, G8 environment ministers endorsed slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half by mid-century, but failed to agree on much more contentious near-term targets.

Environmentalists were disappointed, according to AP reports: They missed the “opportunity to accelerate the slow progress of G8 climate negotiations, but they failed to send a signal of hope for a breakthrough,” said Naoyuki Yamagishi, head of the Climate Change Program at WWF Japan.

Whether or not such emissions cuts, and the industrial and economic turmoil that could ensue, are necessary, depends precisely on whether global warming or climate change is man-made, or whether the anthropogenic aspect outweighs natural factors.

On 10 May 2007, UN special climate envoy Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland declared the climate debate “over,” adding that “it’s completely immoral, even, to question” the UN’s scientific “consensus.”

Questions about the “consensus” are mounting, however, as are apparently growing numbers of scientists who dispute the notion that “the science is settled.”

Unraveling consensus

All four agencies that track Earth’s temperature - the Hadley Climate Research Unit in Britain, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the Christy group at the University of Alabama, and Remote Sensing Systems Inc in California - report a 0.7C cooling in 2007 - a reversal of the warming that has taken place over the 20th Century.

A recent study in the journal Nature by scientists from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University, postulates that global temperatures are unlikely to rise again until around 2015-2020, after a decade-long leveling-off since the 1998 recorded high. In other words, it is possible that by 2020, the world will not have warmed for over 20 years.

Dr Vicky Pope of the Hadley Centre at the UK Met Office told ISN Security Watch that natural climate variations linked to the Pacific cooling system known as La Niña, as well as a cooling phase of a system of Atlantic currents, contributed to the 2007 cooling and what the Leibniz/Nature study predicts for the coming decade.

The climate prediction modeling system used by the IPCC postulates that global temperatures will rise in tandem with carbon dioxide emissions, and at an unprecedented and dangerous rate, hence the need for, if not the collapse of industrial civilization, then reductions in carbon emissions as outlined since the Kyoto agreements in 1998.

Another study published in Nature in mid-May postulated that “Changes in natural systems since at least 1970 are occurring in regions of observed temperature increases, and these temperature increases at continental scales cannot be explained by natural climate variations alone,” and that man-made climate change is having “a significant impact on physical and biological systems globally.”

Speaking about this study to the Financial Times, Barry Brook, director of climate change research at the University of Adelaide, said: “[We should] consider that there has been only 0.75ºC of temperature change so far, yet the expectation for this century is four to nine times that amount.”

However, Richard Lindzen (Alfred P Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology), told ISN Security Watch that predictions such as the IPCCs were based on flawed modeling:

“The text of the IPCC [as opposed to the spin-oriented summary] makes clear that a major assumption of attribution studies is that the models were used properly and adequately account for natural internal variability. This study acknowledges that they did not. Under the circumstances, it is absurd to depend on these same models to predict the end of phenomena that they could not predict in the first place.”

Dr Pope conceded that “climate science is an evolving subject,” but in reference to the second Nature study, said that “they looked at secondary impacts of climate change, and made a stronger link back to core causes, along the lines of the latest research being done on this issue.”

Arguments over the reliability of climate models have emerged at various times, in recent years. Most notoriously, the “hockey stick” graph used by the IPPC showing a rapid temperature rise over the industrial era was revised after allegations that it glossed over previously occurring natural cycles, including the Little Ice Age, running to around 1850, and the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures may have been higher than now.

A warm Middle Ages saw vineyards in England, while Greenland got its name due to the relatively lush coastal regions encountered by contemporary exploring Vikings, whose villages there lasted until around the 17th Century, until a cooling climate reduced the snow-free land available to the settlers and indigenous people alike, leaving Greenland as we know it today. Needless to say, such temperature levels occurred well before any “industrial civilization” was in place to emit copious amounts of carbon dioxide.

But in response to counter-arguments to the man-made global warming thesis, the UK Royal Society has drawn up another point-by-point counter-argument, which states “our scientific understanding of climate change is sufficiently sound to make us highly confident that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming.”

The Royal Society, however, goes on to outline: “While climate models are now able to reproduce past and present changes in the global climate rather well, they are not, as yet, sufficiently well-developed to project accurately all the detail of the impacts we might see at regional or local levels. They do, however, give us a reliable guide to the direction of future climate change. The reliability also continues to be improved through the use of new techniques and technologies.”

In turn, Director of the Science & Environmental Policy Project S Fred Singer has responded to the Royal Society’s position in a paper authored for the Centre for Policy Studies in London. And referring to the Leibniz Institute Nature study, he told ISN Security Watch that “natural climate fluctuations can be greater than manmade forcing,” and that it is feasible that “the modeled manmade forcing has been greatly exaggerated.”

The 4th IPCC report was released 10 months before it shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore, and that publication made it clear that there was a consensus of 2,500 scientists across the globe who believed that mankind was responsible for greenhouse gas concentrations, which in turn were very likely responsible for an increase in global temperatures.

However, just two weeks ago, Dr Arthur Robinson of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine told the National Press Club in Washington DC that more than 31,000 scientists had signed the so-called Oregon Petition rejecting the IPCC line.

Moreover, some of those included on the IPCC’s list have also raised objections. On 12 December 2007, the US Senate released a report from more than 400 scientists, many of whose names were attached to the IPCC report without - they claim - their permission. In the report, the scientists expressed a range of views from skepticism to outright rejection of the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

While the US remains outside the Kyoto system, along with developing-country high carbon emitters such as China and India, US President George Bush has made conciliatory noises on climate issues in recent months, while all three remaining presidential candidates have been vocal about their commitment to offsetting.

Less commented-upon is the data on emissions reduction: The US has cut the rate of increase of its carbon emissions more than any party to Kyoto, according to the Index of Leading Economic Indicators’ figures for 1997-2004, the last year for universal emission data.

The US Senate will convene next week to discuss a climate bill, which aims, through a mandatory cap-and-trade scheme, to reduce emissions 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, even though countries such as China, Russia and India have no such plans.

Alarmism misplaced?

Prior to the December Bali climate summit, some of the scientists who signed the Senate and Oregon letters penned an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, outlining their view that climate alarmism was misplaced, and the policy options discussed were futile:

“The UN climate conference in Bali has been planned to take the world along a path of severe CO2 restrictions, ignoring the lessons apparent from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, the chaotic nature of the European CO2 trading market, and the ineffectiveness of other costly initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. […] Furthermore, it is irrational to apply the ‘precautionary principle’ because many scientists recognize that both climatic coolings and warmings are realistic possibilities over the medium-term future. […] The current UN focus on “fighting climate change” […] is distracting governments from adapting to the threat of inevitable natural climate changes, whatever forms they may take.”

Whether this distraction results in the destruction of industrialized civilization or not, some analysts, such as Bjorn Lomborg, author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, believes that an inappropriate reaction to global warming will cause more problems than contribute solutions.

Carbon trading has been pitched as part-panacea to man-made global warming. Stanford University academics believe that the system does little to prevent emissions, while cynics believe that proponents of the schemes can benefit financially - a sort-of counter-argument to the “big oil funds climate dissent” view held by green activists.

Problems aside, Dr Terry Barker, director of the Cambridge Centre for Climate Research, tells ISN Security Watch that the ongoing climate negotiations need to “establish a global carbon price through a global cap-and-trade scheme for international transport, not adequately covered by national jurisdiction.”

He adds: “Governments need to agree to quantified targets [...] with a reasonable chance of achieving the EU’s 2 degree target.”

It seems that policymakers are in a bind: EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas reacted to the Bali summit as follows: “Now the real hard work must begin. It is essential that the agreement to be worked out over the next two years is ambitious enough to prevent global warming from reaching dangerous levels.”

And more incongruently, only last week, Slovenia’s UN ambassador Sanja Stiglic, speaking on behalf of the EU, whose rotating Presidency Ljubljana holds, said that “the present [food] situation highlights the urgent need to reach ambitious, global and comprehensive targets for reductions in CO2 emissions.”

The massive rise in world food prices in the past two years came to a head recently, with widespread food riots in numerous countries, and many analysts point to the diversion of cropland to the subsidized biofuels industry - aimed to curb carbon emissions - as a contributory factor to the food crisis.

Global warming, therefore, is causing the food crisis, but most directly through human efforts to prevent warming. In any case, the IPCC itself concedes that for a warming of anything up to 3 percent, “globally, the potential for food production is projected to increase.”



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