Thursday, February 08, 2007

What the UN IPCC Report Really Said

To read news coverage of the UN Climate Change report released recently, you would not know that the UN has lowered their estimation of climate change and significantly downgraded the risk of impacts. So hysterical has the discussion become, that mere facts are not allowed to get in the way of hyperbole and malfeasance.

So, first, some facts. The differences between the 2001 and 2007 UN climate change reports are stark. The UN has lowered its estimation of the impact of humans on the climate since the industrial revolution by one third. It has reduced its estimate of the impact of global warming on sea levels from a rise of 3 feet to a rise of 17 inches by the end of the current century. While carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising, global atmospheric temperatures are not. Ground temperature rises due to CO2 emissions have also been scaled down significantly. Almost all of the available data reported in the 2007 summary report indicates that the climate is changing at the lower end of the scale of estimates – it is less of a change than many of the UN’s computer models had previously anticipated.

The UN scientific report has not yet been released, though drafts are circulating. What is clear is that there remains major areas of doubt. First, there is a repeated failure on the part of the UN to take full account of known previous periods of warming – notably the middle ages. Second, the language of the release on 2nd February is purely political. By emphasising the extreme ends of predictions and downplaying the fact that most of the current data shows the earth responding at the low end of the spectrum, the UN is helping to feed the hysteria that now surrounds climate change discussion.

Let us look specifically at the artic. We have been repeatedly told that the artic is getting warmer, that the sea ice is melting at an alarming rate and that polar bears may become extinct. Some facts may help. Artic temperatures undergo periodic fluctuation. During the last 30 years both the artic and Greenland ice sheets have gained thickness – in Greenland at 2 inches per year. In the period 1924-1945 artic temperatures were warmer than they are now by 1 degree Celsius – Polar bears seemed to thrive then as now.

What are we to make of all this? I suggest that there are four things we can make of this. First, it is now impossible to have a serious fact based conversation about these issues. Science and politics have become inextricably mixed to the point at which it is difficult to separate fact from motive. It is a sad day when it is difficult to separate a scientific contribution from a piece of propaganda. The UN’s past exaggeration of the problem – clearly accepted in the 2007 report – and its negligence in presenting very poor data (e.g. the temperature “hockey stick” now universally regarded as inaccurate) are part of this problem.

Second, the convenient “truths” which politicians and public servants are now campaigning on are in fact questionable, yet questioning them is politically difficult to do. There is no doubt that pushing CO2 into the atmosphere is a bad thing and that we ought to reduce it significantly – this is not what is being debated. What is being debated are the impacts of such activity and the consequences of reducing or stopping it. Tony Blair rightly points out that if Britain shut down its economy completely and stopped cars from being driven on its roads, emissions from China would replace Britain’s green house gas emissions within twenty four months. But being a “sceptic” is the modern equivalent of being accused of being a witch.

As a psychologist, a third thing is clear to me. Pushing the “fear and ignorance” button for the general public with the intention of shaping an agenda for change is always a sign of some kind of deceit in play. Ask any Canadian “do you think we should transfer $8billion a year for the next five years to India to help it reduce green house gas emissions?” and the answer will be no. If you point out that this is one way we could meet the Kyoto targets, they are surprised. If you ask “do you think you should pay tax on the car you buy based on its emissions and then pay tax on fuelling your car based on emissions” they will say no. Yet this is a key ingredient of any sound public policy on reducing personal emissions. The environment and climate change may be the current number one political issue in Canada, but the likely solutions and their impact will be vastly unpopular. Only fear and ignorance will make their implementation possible.

The last observation is this. We are about to see a raft of climate change initiatives’ from the Federal and Provincial governments. They will not satisfy the environmentalist and will have only modest effects on green house gas emissions. Part of the reason for this is that the public will not accept the truly radical things that might be needed – tolls on the QEII highway, city tolls for coming downtown in Edmonton and Calgary, added tax on gasoline, carbon taxes of $4 on every barrel of oil produced in the oil sands, new tougher building codes. More significantly, there will be a public backlash against the scientists and environmental lobby (as well as the politicians).

We can’t debate these matters. We have lost the art of listening. We have given up on truth seeking. We are in the hands of the lobbyists.

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