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Thursday November 23, 2006

Faced with overwhelming evidence that climate is changing at an accelerating rate, the naysayers seem to be regrouping around a new meme: yes earth is warming, but humanity is not the cause. One champion of this position is Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, current chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. The logic of this strategic retrenchment seems to be that if changing climate is not our fault, then we needn’t worry about it. Whew! Hmm, on second thought, just one question: if we are already seeing alarming changes in climate, wouldn’t it be better if we knew that human-sourced emissions were the cause? If we started this round of climate change, then presumably we can stop it. If Inhofe is correct, however, we can’t do anything about it because we don’t know what is causing the changes. Either the effects greenhouse gas emissions have yet to be felt (a terrifying prospect given the startling shifts we are already seeing) or that the entire scientific community has been wrong about the role of carbon dioxide emissions. Imagine six billion people on a raft entering rapids without paddles or a rudder and with no knowledge of what waterfalls might lie ahead. This is supposed to be a comforting thought? Fortunately, (if that’s the word), there is almost no doubt that Inhofe is wrong. There is plenty to debate about climate change, both in policy and the science, but the consensus among scientists is that humans have contributed to the current warming. I suspect that the right loses all perspective on the issue in part because the proposed solutions involve a house of horrors of libertarian nightmares, including international treaties, regulations, new taxes, and, worst of all, admitting that those insufferable environmentalists are right. If that’s the case, fine, let’s talk about alternative approaches and likely impacts. That conversation, however, hasn’t gotten off the ground. Instead, Inhofe, who for the past six years has had the most important position in the Senate with regard to climate, calls the threat of global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Those in Congress have the flimsy but credible excuse of scientific stupidity (credible since they are members of one of the few remaining forums where evolution remains a subject of debate), but the few scientists in the skeptic camp have no cover for debating in bad faith. Bad faith? Yes, serious climate scientists have become so frustrated by the misinterpretation of their data that they have taken to tacking on public disclaimers that their findings should not be used to contradict the consensus on global warming. Peter Doran, a scientist whose study about cooling in the interior of Antarctica, was cited by so many naysayers as evidence that the world isn’t warming that he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times publicly aligning himself with the global warming consensus. Climate skeptics also trumpet that Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers started shrinking before industrial era greenhouse gas emissions really began in earnest. Here again, Douglas Hardy, one of the authors of the cited paper complained that “Using these preliminary findings to refute or even question global warming borders on the absurd”. What frustrates Doran, Hardy and many others is the skeptics’ tendency to cherry-pick data, and take findings out of context. To win, the skeptics don’t have to disprove global warming, they just have to convey the notion that it’s still under debate so that the public says, “I’ll wait until the scientists sort it out before I start worrying.” But the scientists have sorted it out, and they’ve done so despite being natural contrarians. That’s why the consensus that humans are affecting climate is so extraordinary. If the public realized the breadth and depth of this consensus, climate change would get the consideration it deserves. The naysayers know this, and they jump on any report that underscores the rare scientific unanimity on the issue. Naomi Oreskes of the University of San Diego felt this heat when she published a study in Science. Her simple thought was that if rank and file scientists did not share the consensus of the leaders of major scientific organizations, dissents would have shown up in the peer-reviewed literature. Critics castigated her on the internet, on television and on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, but there has been no credible challenge to what she actually said in her article. Just recently, the sports psychologist who’s unpublished study was the basis for the naysayer attack on Oreskes, backed off from his assertions. There has always been an easy way to get past the naysayers disinformation campaign because their arguments always fall apart upon close examination. The climate skeptics’ strategy rests on the assumption that most Americans are too lazy or too ignorant to look past the headline. So far they have been right, but ultimately spin collides with reality. Just such a collision seems to have taken place in the case of American attitudes towards the war in Iraq, and it cost the GOP control of Congress. Among those swept out of power will be Inhofe, and the incoming chair, Barbara Boxer of California, has stated that she will make global warming a priority. That alone gives cause for hope that a real discussion of the threat of climate change can get started. Let’s hope that it’s not too late.

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Short Take



An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.


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