Posted by: shipbright | November 16, 2009

Climate change epilogue…making sense of it all

COP15_LOGO_B_MFrom December 7th through December 18th, 2009 world leaders will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark for the global Conference of the Parties [COP] on climate change known as COP 15.  It is our opportunity to finally come together and begin to address this global issue with one voice, as one people, as one species.  It is an important meeting that all of us should be paying attention to:

The United Nations has established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC].  “The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences“.  They have been at the global forefront of this issue and the IPCC is an excellent reference.

Addressing climate change is critical to our freshwater resources for the future.  US President Barak Obama, conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former Vice-President Al Gore, and conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly all agree that there is climate change and it’s a problem.  This is a human issue that doesn’t easily fit into any one political agenda.

For taking on the skeptics of climate change I defer to a business sector leader:  Allianz, the multinational financial services company has posted on their website a whole section devoted to climate change.  One particular section is devoted to “Taking on Climate Change Myths and Skeptics”.  These guys pull no punches, they don’t have to, they don’t have a general electorate to answer to, just their shareholders and every conservationist ought to send them a note of thanks for their involvement, commitment and vigor on the issue of climate change [ and tell them I sent you!]  and every skeptic ought to reflect on the cost of denial and inaction.  It is, after all is said and done, in our own rational self-interest to take action even in the absence of 100% of scientific information.

Taking on Climate Change Myths and Skeptics

Rahmstorf_Eismeer_2008_low_zStefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Lead Author of the 4th IPCC Report is one of the world’s best known climate scientists and one of the most outspoken critics of climate change skeptics. Here he tackles the most common and pervasive climate change myths promoted by climate change deniers.

“I must say that from some quarters, the reaction against the idea of human-caused warming is very emotional, resulting in wild conspiracy theories and ad-hominem attacks against climate scientists.”

The scientific facts seem clear, climate change is happening and it is man-made. Still some people disagree. Why?

“In my experience, these people primarily do not like the consequences of the scientific findings: that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Are there any scientists left that deny that climate change is happening or man-made?

“Scientists yes, but they are almost never climate scientists. A very interesting survey of earth scientists by the University of Illinois recently found that 97 percent of those who publish original research in climate science agree that humans have caused significant global warming.  But the more you move away from climate science, going for example to meteorologists (who study weather rather than climate) or geologists, the more people are still skeptical.”

There are different degrees of denial and skepticism. Which is the most common and which is the most dangerous?

“One must make a distinction: many scientists from neighboring fields are skeptical in the sense that they are not sure, since they are not very familiar with the evidence. In fact, most climate scientists, including myself, were skeptical in this sense perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, and were gradually convinced by the overwhelming evidence. That’s healthy skepticism.

Quite something else are those individuals that actively go out to deny human-caused global warming in the media. This activity usually has a political background, and the arguments they present are generally aimed at uninformed lay people who are not familiar with the data. To knowledgeable people they are thoroughly unconvincing, often deceitful.”

 What are the most common positions taken by climate change deniers?

“We distinguish three main types. First, the “trend skeptics” who deny that there is any climate change. Second, the “attribution skeptics”, who accept that there is global warming but deny that humans cause it. Third, the “impact skeptics” who accept there is human-caused global warming but claim it is harmless.

Amongst the trend skeptics, the most popular argument last year was that there was no global warming over the past ten years. That happened to be the case because the last ten years then started with 1998, which was an exceptionally warm year due to an El Niño event (a natural climate oscillation in the tropical Pacific) in that year.

This argument is less popular this year, since the past ten years are now 1999 to 2008, and that period shows a strong warming trend simply because 1999 happened to be a relatively cold year.

For good reason, the shortest time span for which the IPCC report gives a trend is 25 years – in that way you don’t mix-up climate trends with short-term natural fluctuations. It is a standard, unscientific skeptic-argument to confuse people about the trend by pointing to short-term variations. This faulty argument is also made about the sea level trend.

The most popular “attribution skeptic” argument is that solar variations have caused global warming. That is clearly wrong since most of the global warming happened since the late 1970s, yet solar activity has gone down over this period. In fact, in the past two years solar output has been the weakest since the beginning of the satellite-based measurements that started in the 1970s. Hence, global warming has occurred despite the sun getting a little fainter, not because it got brighter.”

 How do people react when you challenge their beliefs?

“All we can do as scientists is to explain the scientific evidence soberly to the public. From some quarters, the reaction against the idea of human-caused warming is very emotional, resulting in wild conspiracy theories and personal attacks against climate scientists.

In fact, the very weakness of the skeptics’ arguments is a very good indication of how strong the evidence for human-caused warming is. If there were any valid counter-arguments, I am sure these people would have found them.”

 You have been very vocal in the debate with climate skeptics. What is your motivation?

“The reason is simple. I get a lot of queries from the public and the policy world about specific skeptics’ claims. And the doubts promoted by skeptics have a disproportionate influence on climate policy, delaying the required measures. This was especially clear for U.S. government policy during the Bush-era, but it is also true elsewhere.

These delays have meant that we are now running out of time. We need to turn the tide of rising emissions within the next ten years, and we need to reduce emissions globally at a very stiff rate until 2050: at about 2 percent a year if we start now, but already at about 6 percent a year if we wait another ten years.

After that, it becomes almost impossible to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the stated goal of over 100 countries. Had we started acting right after the Rio environment summit of 1992, when the Framework Convention on Climate Change was passed, we could have solved the problem at a leisurely pace of about a half percent reduction each year.”

 What can be done about the large majority that is aware of climate change, but not acting accordingly?

“People need to be better educated not just about what the problem is, but more importantly about what the solutions are, so they feel empowered to act. Many people are not well aware of where the biggest potential for emissions reductions is in their own household and lifestyle.

Take the case of a Hollywood celebrity turning back her car on the way to the airport, because she forgot to unplug her mobile phone charger. The extra car miles of course swamped those emissions from the idle charger, and don’t even mention the plane trip.

There is huge potential for savings by insulating your house and by using only the most efficient appliances on the market. And in terms of lifestyle, cutting down on air and car travel will be the biggest contribution many people can make.

Apart from these personal actions, many people are not well aware of the political solutions: for example that we could build an energy supply system over the next decades based primarily on renewable resources.  We can still contain the climate crisis, but we need to act decisively now. It is a race against time. As U.S. president Obama has rightly put it: “Delay is no longer an option.”

climate-change burning globe

Commentary:  For those that remain skeptical I ask that we at least take out an insurance policy on this issue and use our amazing intelligence to innovate solutions to the “possibility” that there is something to all of this climate change controversy.  We have far more to lose by inaction than by creating new renewable clean energy sources. 

The United States has lost its place as a world leader on this issue and we are behind in being a leader in green technologies that is the economy of the future.  One of my all time favorite authors is Thomas L. Friedman and in his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded” he leads off the first chapter with a billboard sign in South Africa that Daimler put up to promote its Smart “forfour” compact car:

“German engineering, Swiss innovation, American nothing”

We’re the country that put a man on the moon.  Our LCROSS probe just discovered water on the moon.  I am a product of the Kennedy era where I hold firm in my belief that there is no problem we cannot solve if we have the collective political will to address.  I am an American patriot in my heart and I am pained that we have lost our leadership role in addressing global environmental issues.  I want America to re-earn her seat at the head of the global table and be a leader and partner in addressing climate change.  


It’s our duty as a leader and it’s our honor as a global partner.



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