The IPCC and the Melting Glaciers Story

This is a big post in two parts. The first is our take on the current story about the Himalayan glaciers. The second is a similar case of non-scientific research being passed off as ‘science’.

A story in the Sunday Times demonstrates the murky nature of the process by which ‘scientific facts’ become established in the climate debate.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.

The No Scientist has, in recent years, become something of an organ of the environmental movement, abandoning cool, rational, empirical scientific detachment for high moral tones, shrill alarmist stories, and a rather one-sided treatment of both the politics and science of the climate debate. No surprises here – we’ve covered the NS’s appalling commentary in many previous posts. What is interesting is how the partiality of science journalists exists as part of its own positive-feedback mechanism, such that oversight turns into ‘scientific fact’. So how does a journalist’s credulousness actually produce ‘consensus science’?

The original article by the celebrated New Scientist environmental correspondent, Fred Pearce was published in 1999. It reported that,

“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”

In 2005, the WWF, published its report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. It cited Pearce’s article.

The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.

In 2007, the IPCC cites the WWF

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

This process is what we have called, ‘Chinese Whispers’, after the party game of the same name. Ambiguity, caveats, and uncertainty get removed from scientific research through citation, especially across discipline areas, and when passed between the social and material sciences. Certainty is amplified; the context of scientific research is lost, rendering it meaningless. Why is the IPCC citing the WWF as a source of scientific data, when first, the WWF is neither a scientific, nor a research organisation, but has a specific agenda, and second, when it has the work of an entire working group (WGI) dedicated to providing the ‘scientific basis’, to call upon?

The Times quotes Pearce,

The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.”

So Pearce apparently found the claims sufficiently interesting, even though they appeared to have no basis in science. Pearce continues:

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”

It is not clear when, since 1999, Pearce found a copy of Hasnain’s report. We haven’t found any attempt to address his mistake. Reflecting on the error in a recent edition of the New Scientist, Pearce says,

Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.

Writing on the BBC’s website, Indian Journalist, Pallava Bagla, points out that the IPCC reproduced the error,

The IPCC relied on three documents to arrive at 2035 as the “outer year” for shrinkage of glaciers.

They are: a 2005 World Wide Fund for Nature report on glaciers; a 1996 Unesco document on hydrology; and a 1999 news report in New Scientist.

Incidentally, none of these documents have been reviewed by peer professionals, which is what the IPCC is mandated to be doing.

Since Pearce’s mistake in 1999, he has written many books on the climate issue.

  • Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
  • When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?
  • Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
  • The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future
  • With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
  • The Big Green Book
  • Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World
  • Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World
  • Deep Jungle: Journey to the Heart of the Rainforest
  • Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization
  • Regis: Regional Climate Change Impact and Response Studies in East Anglia and North West England
  • Turning Up the Heat

Before his 1999 article, he penned,

  • Ian and Fred’s Big Green Book
  • Green Warriors: The People and the Politics behind the Environmental Revolution.
  • ADVENTURES AT THE ZOO
  • Turning Up The Heat – Our Perilous Future In The Global Greenhouse
  • Dammed, the:Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis
  • Acid Rain (Penguin Special)
  • Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse
  • Global Warming
  • Watershed: Collapse of Britain’s Water Supply
  • Greenprint for Action
  • Climate and Man: From the Ice Ages to the Global Greenhouse
  • Climate change impacts in the UK

It is inconceivable that as prolific a writer on the climate as Pearce can be unaware of the influence of his error. It is more than obvious that Pearce has a political agenda that exists prior to ‘the science’ he reports. This prior-ness is something we have emphasised here on Climate Resistance as fundamental to understanding the phenomenon of environmentalism: the disaster scenario is the premise of environmental politics, not the conclusion of environmental science. Once this premise is accepted, so to speak, a priori, the conclusion becomes a given; the ‘science’ is almost immaterial, it merely gives numbers to what is already given.

It does not stretch the imagination, then, to suggest that Pearce was happy to overlook the lack of scientific foundations in Hasnain’s 1999 report, and happy for the error to be amplified, and reproduced firstly by the WWF, and then by the IPCC.

Happy that is, until now. The 11 January New Scientist article, which carries his name, speaks about himself as “a journalist”, as though he had nothing to do with it.

However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”

But Hasnain rejects that. He blames the IPCC for misusing a remark he made to a journalist. “The magic number of 2035 has not [been] mentioned in any research papers written by me, as no peer-reviewed journal will accept speculative figures,” he told New Scientist.

It might have been more appropriate for Pearce to use the word “me”, and accept his role in this brouhaha.

But for the moment, at least he seems to be thinking about the process he is a small part of. His latest article demonstrates the rifts that are emerging in the wake of the affair.

Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Glaciologists, it seems, are now at odds with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as “voodoo science” lacking peer review.

Yet, clearly, following the words of Lal, about using non-peer-reviewed literature, Pachauri, on behalf of the IPCC has some serious questions to answer that are not answered by hand waving with statements about ‘voodoo science’.

One of the most frequent criticisms of climate sceptics is that their arguments lack foundation in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Yet here we see that in fact, one of the central claims made in the case for political action to mitigate climate change, had only a speculative basis in science.

Part 2

This all reminds us of a story we were working on a while ago. In Septmber 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. We were unconvinced already. Humans are by definition not at the heart of any eco-centric view of the world. Moreover, the climate issue has been adopted by one-time development agencies to instead emphasise not developing as the most ‘progressive’ course of action for the world’s poorest people.

In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.

In our view, Oxfam had given up on the very concept of industrial and economic development as fundamental conditions of political development. Thus poorly conceived ideas about “human rights” had been married with climate change alarmism, to produce a chimera that expressed even greater intellectual poverty than its parents. We began looking at the claims made in the report, and tried to establish where they had come from. For a part-time, unfunded project such as Climate Resistance, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill was being put (shoved) through Parliament.

We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them to show what their basis for them was. For instance, in the quote above, Oxfam say that scientific certainty exists about the relationship between the carbon emissions of industrialised countries and floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability that they have, allegedly, produced. We didn’t think that this was an appropriate emphasis of “scientific certainty”. Where had it come from?

What attracted our attention most, however, was this claim

According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. [Pg. 2]

We looked to see if it was true. All we could find was this.

In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]

Oxfam cite the IPCC, but the citation belongs to Agoumi. The IPCC reference the paper properly:

Agoumi, A., 2003: Vulnerability of North African countries to climatic changes: adaptation and implementation strategies for climatic change. Developing Perspectives on Climate Change: Issues and Analysis from Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition. IISD/Climate Change Knowledge Network, 14 pp. http://www.cckn.net//pdf/north_africa.pdf.

There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,

Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:

  • greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
  • deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
  • reduced crop growth period;

Most interestingly, the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). According to the report itself,

The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change, measurement and indicators, and natural resource management. By using Internet communications, we report on international negotiations and broker knowledge gained through collaborative projects with global partners, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries and better dialogue between North and South.

Oxfam takes its authority from the IPCC. The IPCC report seemingly takes its authority from a bullet point in a paper published by an organisation with a declared political interest in the sustainability agenda that was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. (Take note: Conservatives are often behind the advance of the sustainability agenda, in spite of claims that it’s a left-wing phenomenon).

That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific  research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.

The situation is simply insane. The IPCC are cited as producers of official science, yet they appear often to take as many liberties with the sources they cite, as those who cite the IPCC – such as Oxfam – go on to do. To ask questions about this process is to stand against ‘the consensus’, to be a ‘denier’, and to be willingly jeopardising the future of millions of people, and inviting the end of the world.

The popular view of the climate debate and politics is that the IPCC and scientists produce the science, which politicians and policymakers respond to, encouraged by NGOs, all reported on by journalists. But as the case of the glacier and North African water studies show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influence the interpretation and substance of the next iteration of their own product. The distinction between science and politics breaks down in the miasma.

If this process could be mapped, it would be no surprise to us if it was discovered that the IPCC was be found citing itself through citing NGOs and Quasi-NGOs, and other non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature. This is the real climate feedback mechanism. Sadly, we have no time and no resources for such a survey, as much as we’d like to.

But would it be necessary to ‘debunk’ the IPCC in this way? Maybe not. We can deal with the arguments on their own terms, after all. We have argued here on Climate Resistance that whatever the evidence or strength of the science with respect to the claim that “climate change is happening”, the political argument about how to respond to climate change depends too heavily on the notion that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.

To re-iterate our fundamental point, the problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp – as the report cited by the IPCC who are cited by Oxfam surely is – is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say again than the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the study focussed on faces increased droughts, and that, historically, agricultural output in those regions vary as rainfall varies, and that rainfall is declining. But this is not the whole story.

If indeed, they are at all true, the claims made in the report, the IPCC and Oxfam, are only significant if we assume that mankind is impotent to address the water problems they describe. But the North African region covered by the study has a coast, lots of sunshine, and a lot of land. Indeed, the area is being considered for a huge solar-energy project that could power much of Europe and the region, and so its water problems could be answered by the development of large-scale desalination infrastructure. The only problem is capital. So it is somewhat ironic that the lack of capital available to provide such a project with momentum is not the subject of Oxfam’s report.

Rekindling the Climate Embers

Goodbye Hockey Stick, hello Burning Embers? A paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences resurrects and updates a fancy graphic published in the IPCC’s TAR in 2001, but which was omitted from AR4 in 2007, and finds – guess what – that global warming is more serious than previously thought.

Gosh, yes, that does look much worse, doesn’t it? The dangers are much more red than they were eight years ago. As Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin puts it:

It vividly shows how, in many areas of concern, the transition to big problems is much closer than research implied eight years ago.

‘Vividly’ is the word. You certainly couldn’t describe it as scientifically informative. For all of the faults of the hockeystick graph, at least it doesn’t substitute numbers with colours of the rainbow.

The study re-assesses vulnerabilities to small rises in Global Mean Temperature (GMT). From the abstract:

Here, we describe revisions of the sensitivities of the RFCs to increases in GMT and a more thorough understanding of the concept of vulnerability that has evolved over the past 7 years. This is based on our expert judgment about new findings in the growing literature since the publication of the TAR in 2001, including literature that was assessed in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), as well as additional research published since AR4. Compared with results reported in the TAR, smaller increases in GMT are now estimated to lead to significant or substantial consequences in the framework of the 5 “reasons for concern.”

Expert judgement is a Good Thing, of course. (Although it’s interesting that in fobbing us off with a fancy colour chart, it asks that we suspend ours.) And here we have the judgement of fifteen experts, including some authors of AR4. But we would suggest that it is perhaps a tad early for co-author Hans-Martin Füssel to claim that it follows from this one study – or consensus within a consensus, if you prefer – that

Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago

Revkin provides some interesting background on why the Burning Embers diagram didn’t make it into AR4:

An updated version of the diagram was created for the panel’s momentous 2007 report on climate, but it met resistance from some scientists who thought the color bars were too vague or subjective and from some governments, which thought the artwork was too unnerving, according to interviews with the lead authors.

In a follow-up post yesterday, Revkin publishes an email from co-lead-author of the paper, Stanford University climatologist and activist Stephen Schneider, which sets out his take on why it was omitted:

We first presented the revised figure at the WG 2 Plenary and it attracted great interest and many calls to include it. Unfortunately governments of 5 fossil fuel dependent and producing nations opposed it. It was never debated in the Plenary since Chapter 19 materials didn’t get into Plenary debate until 9AM the last day after an all night session and a press conference due in one hour and still the Report hadn’t been finished — nothing controversial was possible as there was no time for a contact group. SO in essence it was a casualty of time.

At the Synthesis Plenary there was no time issue, as many countries in writing in advance asked to have it brought back since it was synthetic, and thus even if not appearing in the WG 2 Report, it was still appropriate for the Synthesis, and in addition it was the author’s judgments for graphing what was already approved text — the “reasons for concern” update in words. That did get a floor fight to my memory, and this time if my memory serves, 4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”. But in the TAR it also was a judgment and this was just an update using some of the same authors and the same logic, so their logic was faulty–but their filibuster successful. Hope that helps.

It’s always funny to hear complaints from climate activists that IPCC documents are too conservative as a result of political influence. Because politics is precisely what they are very quick to say the IPCC is not influenced by should anyone suggest that it overstates evidence, or that ‘the consensus’ is rather less scientific than they would have us believe.

Revkin also quotes the IPCC chair:

In an email, Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said he was glad the diagram has been resurrected. “Some of the scientists (including some senior functionaries) involved” in the report “were dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram, and I just could not push it through,” he said. “I am glad that there is a revival of this characterization, which I hope will lead to some discussion and debate.”

‘Push it through’? So that’s what the IPCC chair is there for.

It is entirely appropriate that it is Schneider who should be resurrecting a diagram that was considered by scientists as ‘too vague or subjective’ for AR4, but which nevertheless ‘vividly shows’ how close to disaster we are. After all, in a notorious unguarded moment, he did once make this telling comment to a reporter:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both. [Quoted in: Schell, J., “Our fragile earth,” Discover, 10(10):44-50, October 1989.]

If Schneider was thinking that the burning embers diagram might achieve the sort of influence enjoyed by the hockeystick, he’ll be disappointed with its impact so far. Apart from Revkin’s coverage, the paper has received scant attention in the press. Even the BBC didn’t cover it! Which is doubly surprising given the press release:

Risks of global warming have been underestimated

“Today, we have to assume that the risks of negative impacts of climate change on humans and nature are larger than just a few years ago,” says Hans-Martin Füssel from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK)

etc

It’s just the sort of presser that can be pasted directly into a new document and called a news report. And since when has the BBC been able to resist that sort of thing?

So what’s going on when the media turn their noses up at good old-fashioned climate catastrophe when it’s handed to them on a plate? Perhaps journalists spotted the following line of small print under the authors’ names and affiliations on the paper:

Contributed by Stephen H. Schneider, December 9, 2008

This indicates that Schneider himself has administrated the peer review process including selection of reviewers. (A privilege that PNAS grants to members of the US National Academy of Sciences.) It’s probably fairly safe to assume that he didn’t pick any of those IPCC scientists who were ‘dubious about the scientific validity of the burning embers diagram’.

But we doubt that is the reason somehow. It might be explained in part by the fact that PNAS for some reason did not include the embers paper in its weekly publicity material. But there has to be more to it than that.

Could it be that, following a barage of criticism from the likes of the MET office about catastrophe-mongering by scientists and the media, and following a bout of outlandish claims of the worse-than-previously-thought variety from the likes of Chris Field, James Hansen and James Lovelock, journalists are counting to ten before regurgitating such empty rhetoric? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Then again, now that the UK has its Climate Change Act and the USA’s is well on its way, and with the climate Satan out of the Whitehouse, perhaps there is just less demand or need for salacious news items about our imminent doom.

Who is Pachauri Calling 'Flat Earthers'?

A hat-tip to Anthony Watts, who points to an interview in the Chicago Tribune with head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri.

Q: What do you think about the small but vocal group of doubters still out there?

A: There is, even today, a Flat Earth Society that meets every year to say the Earth is flat. The science about climate change is very clear. There really is no room for doubt at this point.

Of course, no room for doubt = no room for science. But leaving aside Pachauri’s errors such as this, there is a bigger question about the way in which ‘science’ is used to make statements about the future of society.

We are creating conditions for the social structure to break down. If that happens, clearly there will be more conflicts. With coastal flooding, there could be hundreds of millions of environmental refugees.

The argument that Pachauri uses here is nothing more than environmental determinism; the idea that human history is shaped by its environmental circumstances.

There is no doubt that there is a degree to which the circumstances people find themselves in determine the outcome of their lives. We can take it as read that the human race evolved in circumstances which were beyond its control. But in today’s world, people’s lives are no longer dictated by their environments, not by virtue of environmental stasis, but because of our own abilities.

Society now thrives in a wide range of conditions, from the frozen arctic to the harsh deserts. Entire rivers have been diverted in order to irrigate fields, and serve new cities with water. Marshes have been drained, and low-lying areas raised. Cities have been constructed below sea level. Valleys have had dams built across them. But now, Pachauri claims that a mere few degrees change in temperature over the course of a century – the time it took us to develop the internal combustion engine, atomic energy, powered flight, cures for many diseases, to land men on the moon, the Internet… – will cause society to collapse.

Pachauri is simply wrong. Social structure has very little – and as we develop, less and less – to do with environmental conditions. Furthermore, social conditions are our defence against environmental conditions. For example, where there is industrial development, there is less vulnerability to the environment. Tsunamis, earthquakes and storms in the developing world kill thousands. Deaths from similar conditions in the developed world kill far, far fewer. This is a cold, hard, measurable, scientific fact.

That Pachauri gets things arse-about-face wouldn’t be so tragic if it didn’t threaten to undermine the very social structures he claims to wish to protect. In emphasising climate stability over industrial society’s influence over outcomes for people’s standard of living, he prioritises, wrongly, an anti-development agenda. This will leave more people more vulnerable to climate.

Pachauri is the flat earther. It is time he was exposed as such.

It's All About Ethanol

Poor old Gordon Brown:

More than 80 Labour MPs have signed an amendment to the Climate Change Bill, which would force ministers to promise greater cuts in carbon emissions.

The Climate Change Bill commits the government to make at least a 60% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050. The MPs want that figure to rise to 80%.

The rebels say the 60% goal will not do enough to control global warming.

This is the latest installment not only in Brown’s Prime Ministerial nightmare, but also in the razor wars that masquerade as environmental politics in the UK. Looking on the bright side, we’re right on course to collect on our prediction that somebody, sometime soon, is going to pledge that the country will be carbon negative by 2050.

Even more predictable is the excuse that the backbenchers offer for their rebellion:

[The rebels] also claim it is based on out-of-date science.

These figures aren’t based on science at all. They are plucked from the thin air of our ailing stratosphere and given authority merely by the use of the word ‘science’ in close proximity.

It all makes the negotiators at the G8 summit seem so last week:

World leaders say they will aim to set a global target of cutting carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2050 in an effort to tackle global warming.

Only 50%! Ach, they’ll get the hang of it. Especially with the G5 developing nations snapping at their heels:

Mexico, Brazil, China, India and South Africa challenged the Group of Eight countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by 2050.

Not to mention that bastion of objective, detached scientific investigation, the IPCC’s chairman Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who complains that the developed countries should be showing leadership on such matters:

“They should get off the backs of India and China,” he told reporters in the Indian capital, Delhi.

“They should say: ‘We’ll assist you to move to a pattern of development which is sustainable, low in terms of emissions intensity. But we as the richest nations are willing to take the lead and we affirm our commitment to do so.'”

But the G8 statements on carbon emissions have been eclipsed by discussions of the global food crisis and biofuels, and the supposed causal connection between the two. The G8 pledge to ensure that biofuel policies are compatible with food security comes in the wake of the leaked World Bank report that the push for biofuels accounts for 75% of the food crisis by competing with food crops for agricultural land. Suddenly, it seems, all the world’s problems are less about oil than they are about ethanol.

But, in Food price rises: are biofuels to blame?, James Heartfield provides such anaemic thinking with a healthy dose of red-blooded realism:

For more than 20 years now, both the US and the European Union have pursued policies designed to reduce food output. They have introduced policies that reward farmers for retiring land from production (such as the EU’s set-aside and wilderness schemes). At the same time, the United Nations has used its aid programmes to penalise African farmers who try to increase yields with modern fertilisers or mechanisation […]

The programmes of land retirement and reservation have been so successful worldwide that between 1982 and 2003, national parks grew from nine million square kilometres to 19million, 12.5 per cent of the earth’s surface – or more than the combined land of China and South-East Asia. In the US more than one billion acres of agricultural land is lying fallow. So the idea that land has been lost from ordinary crops to biofuels is not really true; rather, it has been lost from agricultural production altogether.

For the environmentalist critics, blaming biofuels is a desperate act of scapegoating. For years now, they have been propagandising against mass food production, favouring a return to less efficient farming methods, and for the return of farmland to its natural state. It was environmentalists who lobbied for the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, that biased UN programmes against modern farming techniques in Africa (in favour of ‘appropriate’, which is to say poor ‘technologies’). Just when it suited large-scale agriculture to wind down output to protect prices, the environmentalists were on hand to support land retirement schemes. Farmers, according to Britain’s Countryside Agency, would no longer farm, but become stewards of the countryside.

It’s interesting, then, that the G8 summit has also committed to fulfil a pledge to raise annual foreign aid levels by $50bn by 2010, of which $25bn is intended for Africa. Not that that is a Bad Thing in and of itself, of course; it just depends how it is used. If it’s spent on more of the same, and if similar strings are attached, we can expect more land to be taken out of agricultural production in the name of the saving the planet, more food shortages, more scapegoating, and more tin-pot explanations for why the world is screwed and we’re all going to die. As we keep saying, Environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A major question remains regarding the green U-turn on biofuels. Why did Environmentalists ever push the bloody things in the first place? OK, so they are, theoretically, a carbon-neutral source of energy. So far, so green. But the fact remains that it was hardly rocket science to work out that they would necessarily jostle for space with agricultural land and wilderness areas.

So please indulge us while we speculate wildly, and quite possibly wrongly… Could it be that those who were pushing biofuels at the start of the century were figuring that, come 2008, primed by the Green Great-and-Good, the world would have moved on to debating how best to go about reducing the human population to more ‘sustainable’ levels? And let’s face it, if there’s one thing that Environmentalism doesn’t like it’s humans – especially lots of them. And you can bet that, while Environmentalism is not the conspiracy that many of its critics accuse it of being, its adherents do have some sort of long-term strategy. While Gordon Brown, his backbenchers, Tory leader David Cameron and pretty much everybody else in parliamentary politics grasp desperately and opportunistically at Green policies in the absence of any other, better ideas, we at least know where we stand with environmental idealogues such as Jonathon Porritt and Paul Ehrlich (who are both, as it happens, trustees of the Optimum Population Trust, a group for whom ‘optimum’ means – in case you hadn’t guessed – ‘much smaller’).

The trouble is that they underestimated the humanity of, well, humanity. The fact is that in 2008, and despite the efforts of Porritt, Ehrlich et al, the vast majority of us remain repulsed – and may we remain so for ever more – at the thought of population control, just as we remain repulsed by the notion a moral equivalence between nature and civilisation. The result is that they have had to think again.

That said, we are keen not to fall into the trap of painting a simplistic, one-dimensional picture of Environmentalism. There has always been a significant element of the movement that is against the dealings of big-business – especially big agri-business – as a matter of principle. But at the same time, other greens have appealed to market forces in the fight against ecological meltdown. (To repeat ourselves again, Environmentalism transcends traditional Left-Right distinctions.) In which case, the whole messy business might be the product of the push-and-pull between these various Green factions. A bit like the Labour Party, perhaps.

Dessler's Grist to the Sceptics' Mill

On Gristmill, Andrew Dessler provides us with an excuse for a self-indulgent recap:

I was at a meeting earlier this week and was talking to one of the coordinating lead authors of the recent IPCC working group 1 report on the physical science of climate change. He remarked that he was quite surprised that how little substantive criticism the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had received since its release just about one year ago. 

Reflecting on why this might be the case, he says:

the scientists writing the report knew that the denial machine would go over the report with a fine tooth comb looking for any “gotcha” mistakes to use to discredit the IPCC. Because of that, the IPCC report was extremely carefully worded so as to make virtually every statement in the report bulletproof. 

That may be so. But as we’ve reported before, the ‘denial machine’ is way behind the warmers – media, politicians and the IPCC itself – when it comes to misrepresenting what the IPCC reports have to say. Writing about AR4, for example, the BBC’s Richard Black claimed that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is “unequivocal” and may bring “abrupt and irreversible’ impacts”‘. When we looked at the report, however, it was clear that Black had simply taken words from the report and reassembled them to mean something entirely different. The report itself only used the word ‘abrupt’ once: ‘The MOC is very unlikely to undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century’. ‘Very unlikely’ becomes ‘may’.

The ‘irreversible impacts’ part is just as tenuous. According to the report:

Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts. There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5oC (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5oC, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. 

But as we said at the time:

likely… some… medium confidence… approximately… 20-30% of species assessed so far… likely… increased risk… if… Of how many ‘assessed species’, exactly? 

But such caveats and unknowns don’t stop the BBC hack using the word ‘irreversible’ to sex up an article that would have otherwise been “IPCC report marginally less alarmist than last time, yet doesn’t say anything all that new”.

Likewise, IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri can’t resist the temptation to extravagate the IPCC’s findings beyond recognition, for dramatic (comic?) effect.

We picked up on Andrew Dessler’s argument last year that the earth was like a sick child, which needed the attention of the equivalent of specialist pediatric doctors – the IPCC – rather than engage with any of the ideas put forward by sceptics. ‘So given the critical nature of the climate change problem, who should we listen to?’ he wondered.

My opinion, and the opinion of all the governments of the world, is that we should listen to people who specialize in climate science. That’s the IPCC. 

Following that, our survey of the contributing authors to the IPCC AR4 reports showed that most weren’t climate scientists, as he had argued. Many, in fact, were precisely the social scientists, computer scientists, and economists he believed should be excluded from the debate.

In his latest contribution, Dessler goes on to say:

In fact, it is quite amazing to me that essentially none of the IPCC documents produced over the last 18 years has been found to contain any substantive errors. 

He obviously has not been listening to climate catastrophist and IPPC author James Hansen, who said in New Scientist last year:

I find it almost inconceivable that “business as usual” climate change will not result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century. Am I the only scientist who thinks so? 

And has he forgotten the controversy caused by the use of the “Hockey Stick” graph, invented by Micheal Mann, who also happened to be lead author on the IPCC working group which made it famous? (Roughly equivalent to a researcher “peer-reviewing” his own work).

With all this in mind, Dessler goes on to say:

The trolls, of course, will come out with their litany of “errors” that the IPCC contains (I suspect a few will appear in the comments to this post), but when you look closely, the trolls are almost always misrepresenting the IPCC’s statements. 

In fact, that’s the most common attack on the IPCC: make the claim that the IPCC said something ridiculous (which it didn’t actually say), then disprove that ridiculous statement, and then use that as evidence that the IPCC’s reports cannot be trusted. “The IPCC says that 2 + 2 = 5, but that’s just hogwash. We know that 2 + 2 = 4. Thus, climate change is a hoax.” Yeah, right.

But Dessler is doing the trolls’ work for them. It’s just that he is only sensitive to the misrepresentation of the IPCC in one direction. It is even funnier that he himself misrepresents the IPCC. One of the people doing the best job of discrediting the IPCC in the world right now is Andrew Dessler himself. May he keep up the good work.

Climate Change Rhetoric Worse Than Previously Thought

In case you hadn’t noticed, the IPCC released its AR4 Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers on Saturday.

‘Today the world’s scientists have spoken clearly and with one voice,’ said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The BBC reported the event on Friday (R4 news 18:00), before the report was published…

HARRABIN: They’re haggard with lack of sleep, but beaming that they’ve reached an agreement on an unequivocal message to politicians that climate change is real, dangerous, but manageable if steps are taken now. The results are compromised as usual, some wanted the final wording softer, others more strident still, but I’m told the final document when it’s published tomorrow will be impossible to ignore. It’ll say that we can see climate change happening already, sometimes, like in the Arctic, much faster than scientists predicted previously. We’re likely to have more droughts, floods, oppressive heatwaves and species extinctions, it’ll say, and some changes will be irreversible. That last phrase is so strong that some countries wanted it left out, but according to Steffan Zinger of WWF, they were voted down. 

ZINGER: The word irreversible for instance was strongly debated and strongly questioned by certain governments which are on the other side of the Atlantic. But they in the end gave in and accepted that climate change will have irreversible consequences.

So that’s how the ‘science’ that is supposed to inform the political process is achieved… Everybody stays up late, and argues until somebody ‘gives in’, or is ‘voted down’. Some kind of ‘speaking clearly and with one voice’.

Despite the headlines and column inches, there is virtually nothing new in this report. It’s a rehash of the three reports published earlier this year by the IPCC. All that is new in the report itself (and which most news outlets chose to lead with) is the word ‘irreversible’. Writing on the BBC website, for example, environment correspondent Richard Black tells us that ‘The IPCC states that climate change is ‘unequivocal’ and may bring ‘abrupt and irreversible’ impacts’. But the only mention of these words in the IPCC report are in the section ‘Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change’, which reveals a far less frightening and urgent picture than such accounts suggests:

Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands. Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales, but more rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded. {3.4} 

Does that mean immediate sea-level rise can’t be ruled in? ‘We don’t know’ would have sufficed. Similarly…

Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts. There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5oC (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5oC, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that extinction is an irreversible process. The clue is in the word “extinct”. And anyway: likely… some… medium confidence… approximately… 20-30% of species assessed so far… likely… increased risk… if… Of how many ‘assessed species’, exactly?

As for the ‘abrupt’ bit (which isn’t new, in that it was in the Working Group II report published back in April), all we get is

Based on current model simulations, the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the Atlantic Ocean will very likely slow down during the 21st century; nevertheless temperatures over the Atlantic and Europe are projected to increase. The MOC is very unlikely to undergo a large abrupt transition during the 21st century. Longer-term MOC changes cannot be assessed with confidence. Impacts of large-scale and persistent changes in the MOC are likely to include changes in marine ecosystem productivity, fisheries, ocean CO2 uptake, oceanic oxygen concentrations and terrestrial vegetation. Changes in terrestrial and ocean CO2 uptake may feed back on the climate system. 

Contrasting the report with statements in the press reveals very different pictures. Over the weekend, BBC Radio 4 was ending its news items on the report with: ‘The mainstream message from the IPCC is that it’s not too late – if we act now.’ According to Black’s article on BBC online: ‘The panel’s scientists say the reversal needs to come within a decade or so if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided.’ Trouble is, the report doesn’t actually say that. Anywhere. At all. Whatsoever.

So what is going on here? It is true that Dr Pachauri said in the press conference that CO2 emissions need to peak and start declining by 2015. But Pachauri is not the IPCC. And as we’ve pointed out recently, his statements on this issue do not reflect the IPCC position. Meanwhile, journalists are happy to confound ‘the consensus’ with ‘what Pachauri reckons’ because that way they can say that ‘things are worse than ever before’.

The only differences between this report (and the press coverage of it) and previous ones concern the language, not the science. That language is getting more abrupt, and the problem is becoming irreversible. And our models predict it to get worse than previously expected.

Lucas and the Majority of Some Scientists

In a conversation about EU policy on restricting CO2 emissions from aircraft, on BBC Radio 4’s Today program, this morning, Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for the Southeast region said

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

More often than not, what green politicians mean by “what scientists say” is actually “what green politicians say”. So this morning, we rang Caroline Lucas’s office to ask her which scientists are telling her that we’ve only got eight years left. We’ve never heard them say it, and we listen out for them saying it. They said they’d get back to us…

Meanwhile… this is not Lucas’s first comment of this nature. Back in July, we picked up on her comments on climate change scepticism being the equivalent of holocaust denial.

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Dr Lucas’s comments this morning seem equally confused. On the one hand, she appears to be claiming that people are terrified into demanding action because they’ve heard scientists say we’ve only got eight years left to save the world. On the other, she’s demanding that air travel is restricted. But if people really are as concerned about what Lucas says scientists say as Lucas says they are, then there would be no need to respond to their fear with new EU legislation, people simply wouldn’t fly. But, as she points out, aviation is a growing industry.

So if Lucas isn’t talking on behalf of the frightened public, (the ones who manage to find their way to the airport in spite of their fear) is Lucas speaking for science at least?

It turns out not, because in answer to our question, Lucas’s press office emailed us back with a bunch of links, saying,

The quote in question – that which contains the estimated ‘deadline’ of 8 years for the world’s government to act seriously on climate change – has been used generically for some time now, and is taken from a consensus view among a number of scientists.

“The consensus of a number of scientists”. Would that be the same as “the majority of some of the population”? We read the links to find out. They consisted of:

* Guardian Environment Correspondent David Adam’s interpretation of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – “Governments are running out of time to address climate change and to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures, an influential UN panel warned yesterday”. (The influencial UN panel don’t actually seem to say that).

* A BBC Online article claiming that “The world may have little more than a decade to avert catastrophic climate change, politicians and scientists say“. But what they mean is a scientist, not scientists, because, all that “The taskforce’s scientific adviser is Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” says is “I think in the last few years the increase in emissions does cause concern. It gives you the feeling we might end up in the middle of that temperature range [1.5 and 5.5C], and if we do that wouldn’t make very good news.” Note that Pachauri isn’t a climate scientist, but has doctorates in industrial engineering and economics. Also note that Pachauri isn’t exactly what you’d call “balanced” about the politics of climate change, previously asking “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s?… If you were to accept Lomborgs way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing”.

* An article from the Socialist Workers Website. Enough said.

* A link to the IPCC’s website.

We pointed out to Lucas’s press officer that these links leave a bit to be desired. We’ve been reading the IPCC website for years, and hadn’t noticed a statement about 8 year windows, and the articles she linked to were subject to the interpretations and prejudices of their authors. And asking David Adam for an objective view of climate science is like asking Bin Laden for a balanced view of the USA. Who were these scientists? Where do they say “we’ve only got 8 years left”?

The press office again pointed us to the IPCC, emphasising that Pachauri is the “highly respected chair of the IPCC and is quoted as a spokesperson on climate change across all levels of the media”. (But does he speak ‘for scientists’?) They then referred us to the IPCC’s Working Group III Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers which, according to the press offcier “focused on economic changes that need to be made, pointing out that emissions must start declining by the year 2015 to prevent the world’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrialized temperatures”.

So we were now faced with an economic argument, rather than a scientific one. Even so, we read it. There is indeed a reference to 2015. But only one. It is the “peaking year” for CO2 emissions in one of several categories of scenarios, where CO2 is stabilised at various concentrations or less, thereby stabilising average global temperature at an amount above the “preindustrial average”. But all that is said in the report about the six categories of 177 scenarios assessed by the 33 authors is

In order to stabilize the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere, emissions would need to peak and decline thereafter. The lower the stabilization level, the more quickly this peak and decline would need to occur. Mitigation efforts over the next two to three decades will have a large impact on opportunities to achieve lower stabilization levels (see Table SPM.5, and Figure SPM. 8)

There is no mention of impending catastrophe. There is no mention of deadlines. There is no mention of this being a consensus amongst scientists that we have to meet the 2015 deadline, nor any deadline over another. In spite of the fact that neither Lucas nor her press officer can produce anything which supports her claim that “scientists say we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change”, they continue to make it. The press officer finally told us that,

Both the UN and the IPCC subscribe to the figure of eight years, and many in the scientific community have also supported the need to drastically reduce emissions by 2015. Caroline has primarily relied upon both the UN conclusions and the IPCC report, and as a busy MEP without the scientific resources to physically perform independent large-scale research on climate change, working across a vast range of issues in her South East constituency and in the European Parliament on a daily basis, Caroline trusts that the IPCC and the UN provide accurate and well-researched reports.

Lucas’s press office don’t seem to want to continue the conversation, so we have had to look for statements by IPCC scientists for ourselves. You don’t need your own pocket-sized IPCC to evaluate claims made about climate science… We found two pertinent quotes on this very site.

Prof Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre tells us that

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[Note: AR4]. To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. Is any amount of climate change catastrophic? Catastrophic for whom, for where, and by when? What index is being used to measure the catastrophe? The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

And of the projections in WGII, which Lucas’s press office seem to think amount to a “scientific consensus”, Kevin Trenberth tells us that,

In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers “what if” projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios. There are a number of assumptions that go into these emissions scenarios. They are intended to cover a range of possible self consistent “story lines” that then provide decision makers with information about which paths might be more desirable. But they do not consider many things like the recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or observed trends in forcing agents. There is no estimate, even probabilistically, as to the likelihood of any emissions scenario and no best guess.Even if there were, the projections are based on model results that provide differences of the future climate relative to that today. None of the models used by IPCC are initialized to the observed state and none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate.

There is no escaping the fact that Caroline Lucas has made up what “the scientists” are telling us. However busy she is, given that ‘climate science’ is the basis of her entire political agenda, there is no excuse for not knowing what she’s talking about. Lucas neither accurately nor honestly reflects scientific opinion, yet attempts to use it to win moral arguments. Worse still is the fact that whilst she claims to be representing people who are frightened by scientific reports and reflecting the views of scientists, she is in fact doing the frightening by misrepresenting the scientists.

Just how deep does Lucas’s love of science really run? That depends on whether the science in question promises to make life better, or legitimises her alarmism. In the case of science making our lives better, ban it. “Nanotechnology will revolutionise our lives – it should be regulated” she writes in a 2003 Guardian article called “We must not be blinded by science”. Oh, sweet, sweet irony.