Monday, February 01, 2010

The Changed Climate of Climate Change

The unravelling of the claims with respect to global climate change has begun in earnest during the first month of 2010. So much so, in fact, that those who protest that the science is settled are now being ridiculed by the mainstream press.

It began at Copenhagen, with the sidelining of the United Nations process by Obama and others and the duly noted “Copenhagen accord”. This signalled the end of the UN process, which had been taking place since 1998 as the primary process for the development of an internationally binding treaty curtailing certain emissions, notably CO2. To all intents and purposes, this process is now dead – there are no realistic prospects of a treaty being agreed during 2010 at the Mexico summit in December.

The focus quickly then moved to three issues. The first is the credibility of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a body offering serious scientific analysis of the known science. The second is the analysis of other scientific claims, notably the evidence base for the global temperature. Finally, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the antics of the Chairman of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

The IPCC reports have been seen by many as a summative and authoritative statement of our knowledge of the climate, its behaviour and the future of the climate. The assumption was that over two and a half thousand scientists participated in a highly structured process of reviewing peer reviewed scientific literature, offering an analysis of this literature and providing an authoritative review of the science. It now appears that many of the scientists were in fact environmental activitists, that some of its findings were based not on peer review but on magazines, comments and environmental literature and that some of the data was manipulated to produce the “expected” results – such as the hockey stick graph showing temperature changes over time. The IPCC itself has admitted that its findings with respect to the Himalayas being ice free by 2035 is a nonsense. Some fifteen other such claims are under review – all of them based not on peer review science but “other materials”.

So discredited is the process, especially the process by which the summary for policymakers is developed, that some inside the IPCC are calling for major revisions in how the work gets done and are also calling for more disclosure of the limits to the science, the cautions with respect to interpretations and the caveats with respect to the quality of the evidence.

Then there are other scientific issues now receiving a lot of attention. The most significant of these relates to the way in which global temperatures are measured, analyzed and reported. The basic problem is simple. The number of temperature gauges used to calculate the temperature of the lower atmosphere is now so reduced and selective as to be problematic. Canada, for example, has just six sites that get used in the analysis– all of them near the US border – and not a single site in the colder parts of the country. This despite the fact that Canada has several hundred gauges placed appropriately for use. By being selective about which sites are analysed and which are excluded, warming trends can be “created”. It gets worse. Many of the sites used do not confirm to agreed standards for their location – they are located near heat sinks or in locations likely to inflate temperature. That’s not all. The data is highly adjusted to take into account a variety of issues, but such an adjustment process is poorly documented, inconsistent and appears always to increase temperature, not reduce them. A great many of the Climategate emails demonstrate that this is problematic. This issue has reached the point where several scientists are concerned that we do not have a stable, reliable and thoroughly documented and accessible system for temperature measure by land and sea instruments.

We do have satellite data – which clearly shows that there has been no warming for many years and that many of the assumptions about the current warming cycle are problematic – but this is not yet seen as the “gold standard” of measurement by many. We have a problem.

Finally, there is the sexy Dr Pachauri, the railway engineer turned climate change expert who Chairs the IPCC. It is now “OK” to think of him as sexy – he has written a novel featuring a sixty year old Indian climatologist which has been described by many as, if not soft porn, “titillating”. But launching a sexy novel is the least of Dr Pachauri’s problems. He has been accused of conflict of interest in that he is actively promoting a view of the climate which leads countries to want to invest in products and services which match his own business interests. He has denied these claims, but not convincingly. The UK Government, it is reported, has declined to fully support the renewal of his IPCC appointment and many others, including some US officials, are calling for a new Chair to signal a new approach to the work of the IPCC.

As the US backs down from any commitment to cap and trade and sets very modest climate change goals for the next decade and Canada follows suit so as to create a level playing field for North America, the world’s ambitions for emissions cuts are reduced to a modest and appropriate level. The heat appears to have gone out of the climate change agenda, at least for now. This is seen by some as a victory for the sceptics, but it is in fact a victory for science.

There is no consensus on climate change within the scientific community and, while most of the sceptics accept that climate change is happening and that CO2 is a component of that process, what is now possible is a serious and much more rational look at how we can adapt to a more variable climate than we have been used to. Rather than having a single solution – massive cuts in C02 and a focus on renewable energy – we now have to find creative and imaginative responses to what will likely be a significantly colder period followed by a substantially warmer one.

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