04 January 2012

Climate Skeptics on Thin Ice

Nepal-based Icimod calls for greater observations of ice loss rates in the Himalayas Nepal-based Icimod calls for greater observations of ice loss rates in the Himalayas http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16022585

With this I begin a series of four blogs on climate change and the response of the Christian and Muslim communities (“Earth Warming – Faith Rising?”). This one refers to some of the latest studies on global warming, which, if taken seriously, leave no room for doubting the reality of a warming planet and its mostly human-induced causes.

The most comprehensive international climate agreement was the Kyoto protocol signed in 1997 that entered into force in 2005. Yet it was hobbled from the start, mostly due to the United States’ refusal to sign it. The US Senate voted 95-0 against ratification, ostensibly fearing that China (today’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases) would be let off the hook and thereby enjoy an unfair economic advantage.

As a result, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the organization responsible for launching the Kyoto protocol in the first place, looked for new strategies for securing a binding global agreement. Sadly, the UN climate talks in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) produced no tangible progress. Again, the issue at stake was whether developing countries would be bound by any new treaty, just as much as the developed nations would be. Countries in the G-7 reason: “never mind the poorest countries of the world, mostly in Africa, but what about the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China)?” They are not only great carbon dioxide emitters; they are the ones who forced open the circle of economic powerhouses, and hence, led to the formation of the G-20.

But just when it seemed that the latest round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa, this month would suffer the same fate, a modest breakthrough took place. Thanks mostly to the skillful pressure exerted by the host country, when it seemed like China was easing its resistance to the idea, the conference was extended 36 hours.

It paid off. According to the official declaration, the outcome was an agreement launching a “process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” In essence, signatories morally committed themselves to work toward a binding agreement by 2015. Let’s hope and pray that the next round of negotiations (in Qatar, Dec. 2012) keeps building on this momentum. As I see it, the force of international law, though mostly relying on shame as a deterrent, remains the only reasonable chance of curbing the emission of greenhouse gases on a global scale.

Marshaling civil society worldwide is another important tool, but considering 2011 was all about protesting despotic rule, and given that the next item on the agenda after democracy is poverty reduction, environmental concerns might take a back seat for a while. Yet all these concerns are related. Meanwhile, the planet is warming faster than anticipated, with menacing clouds gathering on the horizon.

What’s the rush, you say? First, we’ll look at how the carpet has been pulled from under the feet of the “climate skeptics”; then we’ll examine some of the alarming results of inaction on the climate front. Finally, I’ll make a few comments on climate change and faith.


A losing battle for climate skeptics

A couple of months ago, Richard Muller, a noted physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a long-time opponent of strident climate research “polluted by political and activist frenzy,” made public the results of his own study on the issue. “Global warming is real,” he concluded in his Wall Street Journal article. The goal of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project was to rigorously test the objections of the climate skeptics. He did, and to his surprise, what he found was very similar to previous studies.

Here’s Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s summary of Muller’s findings:

Muller and his fellow researchers examined an enormous data set of observed temperatures from monitoring stations around the world and concluded that the average land temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius — or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit — since the mid-1950s.

This agrees with the increase estimated by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Muller’s figures also conform with the estimates of those British and American researchers whose catty e-mails were the basis for the alleged “Climategate” scandal, which was never a scandal in the first place.

The Berkeley group’s research even confirms the infamous “hockey stick” graph — showing a sharp recent temperature rise — that Muller once snarkily called “the poster child of the global warming community.” Muller’s new graph isn’t just similar, it’s identical.

What made his evidence incontrovertible was the sheer number of sites monitoring the earth’s temperature – five times more than any previous study, with a total reading of 1.6 billion records going back to the 1800s. It dismisses the objection about urbanization and temperature rise (rural areas show similar readings); the objection about cherry-picking the data (much omitted data shows the same results, but with less reliable controls); and finally the objection about some places signaling a cooling (that turned out to be negligible).

Granted, going public with a study before it has been peer-reviewed is not common practice. Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter University, told The Guardian that since the results are basically in agreement with previous studies of the kind, Muller should have waited until the project was actually published. But Muller responded to this objection in his own interview with The Guardian, pointing out that discussion between colleagues was always the way science progresses: “We will get much more feedback from making these papers public before publication.”

The Guardian article also included the comments of Jim Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has great respect for Richard Muller. Hansen, having waded long and hard through the treacherous political headwaters on this issue was hopeful that Muller’s study would be a game-changer:

“It should help inform those who have honest scepticism about global warming. Of course, presuming that he basically confirms what we have been reporting, the deniers will then decide that he is a crook or has some ulterior motive. As I have discussed in the past, the deniers, or contrarians, if you will, do not act as scientists, but rather as lawyers. As soon as they see evidence against their client (the fossil fuel industry and those people making money off business-as-usual), they trash that evidence and bring forth whatever tidbits they can find to confuse the judge and jury.”

The Berkeley Earth project promises solid and transparent data on climate change, but there is more. In a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich determined how the earth has warmed since the 1950s by examining earth’s “energy balance” – or the difference between the energy it receives from the Sun and the energy it beams back into space. They concluded that human factors such as greenhouse gas emissions and the like account for at least 74% of this heating they observed.

The BBC’s Environment correspondent Richard Black, writing on this issue, reported the opinion of a leading British climate scientist:

“It's pretty convincing stuff,” commented Piers Forster, professor of climate change at the UK’s University of Leeds and a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment of factors driving global warming.

“Observations and the physical law of energy conservation have been used to show greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming and that alternative scenarios violate this law of nature.

“Previous proofs have relied on complex climate models, but this proof doesn’t need such models - just careful observations of the land, ocean and atmospheric gases.”

Finally, a team of international scientists collaborated on the Global Carbon Project and published their results in the journal Nature Climate Change. They found that global carbon emissions went down by 1.4% in 2009 – certainly due to the dramatic slowdown in economic activity that year. Yet in 2010 emissions climbed up again by 5.9%, and if one looks at the overall level of carbon emissions for the first decade of this century, the rise is much faster than in any other decade since the 1950s.

The study’s co-author Prof. Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor at the University of East Anglia, had this to say in an interview:

“Global CO2 emissions since 2000 are tracking the high end of the projections used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which far exceed two degrees warming by 2100. Yet governments have pledged to keep warming below two degrees to avoid the most dangerous aspects of climate change such as widespread water stress and sea level rise, and increases in extreme climatic events. Taking action to reverse current trends is urgent.”

Whether governments rise to the challenge will be largely determined by the will and courage of citizens to speak up – and especially for those in wealthier states to take up the cause of those most vulnerable to climate change, that is, those living closest to the equator. This is a challenge on two fronts: mitigating climate change and helping the poor, both individuals and states, adapt to this climate change. And it is first and foremost a moral issue which people of faith, if rightly mobilized, could push forward in a powerful way. Christians and Muslims, representing as they do over half of the world’s population, could make a huge difference in pooling world resources to help the weakest weather the hard changes ahead. If anything, they should embody a responsible and compassionate trusteeship of God’s good creation.

In my next blog I single out three of the toughest consequences of a warming world and introduce the theological discussion.