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Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

31 March 2014

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

If you want to go on eating regularly in a rapidly warming world, then live in a place that’s either high in latitude or high in altitude. Alternatively, be rich, because the rich never starve. But otherwise, prepare to be hungry.

That’s the real message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impact of warming on human beings, released this week: the main impact is on the food supply. Of course, everybody who was paying attention has already known that for years, including the scientists. It’s just that scientists are professionally cautious, and will not say anything that they cannot prove beyond any shadow of a doubt.

An ordinary person will look out the back window and say that it’s raining. A scientist will feel obliged to look out the front window and make sure that it’s raining on the other side of the house too. (Cats do the same, although they are not scientists.)

Then he must consider the possibility that the drops that are falling on the window-pane are some other clear liquid, like vodka, and he must check that it’s not simply a back-projection onto the windows. Only then can he state with 95 percent confidence that it’s raining. (The other 5 percent allows for the possibility that he might just be hallucinating.)

The standards for evidence in science are much higher than they are in ordinary life, which is why it has taken the scientists on the IPCC so long to announce the same conclusion that any ordinary mortal who looked into the question would have reached five or ten years ago. (The scientists really knew it, too, of course, but they couldn’t yet prove it to the required standard.)

But the World Bank, for example, has long known approximately how much food production every major country will lose when the average global temperature is 2 degrees C higher. At least seven years ago it gave contracts to think tanks in every major capital to answer precisely that question.

What the think tanks told the World Bank was that India will lose 25 percent of its food production. China, I have been told by somebody who saw the report from the Beijing think tank, will lose a catastrophic 38 percent. But these results have never been published, because the governments concerned did not want such alarming numbers out in public and were able to restrain the World Bank from releasing them.

So, too, for example, the armed forces of many countries have been incorporating predictions of this sort into their scenarios of the future for at least five years. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States and the British armed forces have been doing it openly, and I have seen strong indications that the Russian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Japanese armed forces are also doing so.

When you look at the scenarios in detail, they do not just predict serious food shortages in most tropical and sub-tropical countries (which account for about 70 percent of the world’s population). They predict waves of refugees fleeing from these countries, a proliferation of failed states in the sub-tropics, and even inter-state wars between countries that must share the same river system when there’s not enough water to go around.

That’s still farther than the IPCC is prepared to go, but to the military it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. As for what will happen to crop yields by 2050, assuming an average global temperature 3 degrees C higher by then, you have to go elsewhere for information. The military don’t plan that far ahead.

But the World Resources Institute published a map recently that estimated the losses country by country by 2050, and according to the WRI’s calculations they are really bad by then. Crop yields are down everywhere in the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries. In Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they are down by 50 percent.

All of Africa is down except Lesotho, Rwanda and Kenya, which are all or mostly above 1,000 metres in altitude. Food production is down in almost all of South America except Chile, also very high, where it is up. Crop yields in North America are down too, except in Canada and a few US states right along the Canadian border. High latitude is even better than high altitude.

In Europe and Asia, latitude is decisive. Countries far away from the equator will still be doing well; countries even a bit closer to the equator get hammered.

Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland will be producing more food than ever, but southern Europe including the Balkans and even France and Ukraine will have lost production. India, China, and all of South-East Asia will be sharply down, as will Australia – but Japan will be only a bit down and New Zealand will be sharply up. It pays to be an island, too.

But this is not a “mixed” result, in the sense that it all works out about even. The total population of all the countries where food production will be stable or higher in 2050 will be less than half a billion. At least eight-and-a-half or nine billion will live in countries where food production has fallen, sometimes very steeply. It will be a very hungry world.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.  (“An ordinary…standard”)

Risky Territory

16 June 2011

Risky Territory

by Gwynne Dyer

“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.

She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.

Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.

The topic is now on the table because sixty scientific experts are meeting in Peru on 20 June to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement, and 125 organisations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.

“The IPCC…must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”

Then came a sly suggestion that scientists in this field are a bunch of greedy frauds: “Asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done on the topic is like asking a group of hungry bears if they would like honey.” This is clearly a subject that inspires passionate opposition on the left, although the geo-engineers themselves spread right across the political spectrum.

The overwhelming majority of the open letter’s signatories are organisations you have never heard of – Terra-1530 Moldova, the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for example – but they include a few well-known organisations like Friends of the Earth International. Their goal is not just to ban large-scale geo-engineering. It is to ban even small-scale experiments in geo-engineering. Why so angry?

Part of the problem is that there has indeed been “ no real progress on mitigation and adaptation” in recent years, and the enemies of geo-engineering are afraid that efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be abandoned in favour of just trying to hold the temperature down artificially. I have never met a geo-engineer who thought that would work, but there is profound suspicion of them among the Greens.

There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticises peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.

They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrialising world of seven billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.

Ending greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing population, and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.

That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature down below the tipping point at 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F) higher after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilised. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.

On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research eighteen months ago, the average global temperature will be 4 degrees C (7 degrees F) higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 2 degrees C hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.

So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus two degrees C and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to DO SOMETHING NOW to halt the warming.

At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Then…angry”)

An updated version of Gwynne Dyer’s book “Climate Wars” is distributed worldwide by Oneworld.

“Climategate” and Disbelief

24 January 2010

“Climategate” and Disbelief

By Gwynne Dyer

Last November we had “Climategate,” in which somebody hacked into the e-mails at the University of East Anglia and discovered that Professor Phil Jones, head of the university’s Climate Research Unit, had been trying to exclude scientific papers he regarded as flawed from being considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“I can’t see either (paper)…being in the next (IPCC) report,” Phil Jones wrote in 2004. “Kevin (one of Jones’s colleagues) and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what peer-review literature is!” Bad Phil! Slap wristies!

Scientists can be rather unworldly, but within their own little world they are highly competitive and capable of considerable nastiness towards their competitors. (Q: Why are scientific politics so nasty? A: Because the stakes are so small.) It is not clear whether Phil Jones was being serious or only mock-serious in his e-mail, but he certainly could have been planning to do exactly what he said.

Jones was forced to step down as head of the CRU, the hacker (probably a Russian) walked away counting his money – and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree with claims that this incident proved that climate change was a fraud.

Now we have “Glaciergate,” in which it is revealed that a prediction in the last IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers could all disappear by 2035 was wildly exaggerated, Some of the biggest glaciers in the Himalayas are so massive and so high that it would actually take them 300 years to melt.

It was a grievous error, and the way it got into the IPCC’s 2007 report only compounded the offence. It was based on a casual remark by a single Indian scientist, Syed Hasnain, that found its way into a World Wildlife Fund study (which gave it the respectability of appearing in print), and thence into the IPCC’s 2007 report.

Very unprofessional, and particularly so on the part of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who initially dismissed the work of the geologists who challenged the IPCC’s assertion about glaciers as “voodoo science.” The blogosphere went wild – and a recent opinion survey in the United States showed that only 57 percent of adult Americans accept the scientific evidence for global warming, down from 77 percent two years ago. Worse yet, only 36 percent of Americans believe that human activity is the primary cause of the warming.

People who know science and scientists will be disappointed both by the behaviour of Phil Jones and by the glacier incident, but they will not be surprised. This sort of thing happens from time to time, because we are dealing with human beings. But it does not (as the denial brigade insists) discredit the whole enterprise in which they are engaged.

Not all the Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035, but a lot of the ones at lower altitudes will – including some of the ones that keep the great rivers of Asia full in the summertime. That is important, because when they are gone, people start to starve. And we have all met people who are clever in theory but stupid in practice, like Foolish Phil.

The weight of the evidence rests overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that climate change is real and dangerous. Ninety-seven or ninety-eight percent of scientists active in the relevant fields are convinced of it; all but a couple of the world’s two hundred governments have been persuaded of it; public opinion accepts it almost everywhere except in parts of the “Anglosphere.” The United States, and to a lesser extent Australia, Britain and Canada, are the last bastions of denial.

From being the least ideological countries fifty years ago, when much of the rest of the planet was drunk on Marxist theories, these countries have become the most ideological today. Disbelief in climate change has been turned into an ideological badge worn by the right, and evidence is no longer relevant,

This wouldn’t matter much if the countries in question were Bolivia, Belgium and Burma, but one of them is really important. Without the United States, we are not going to get a worthwhile global agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is starting to look like we won’t have the United States on board.

President Obama will do what he can, but his chance of getting even a very modest bill on emissions cuts through the Senate this year has just dwindled to near zero. The American public, worried about its jobs and its healthcare, doesn’t want to hear about it – and if it does hear, it doesn’t believe.

If the United States is out of the game, then China is out too. Without the participation of the world’s two biggest polluters, jointly accounting for almost half of the human race’s CO2 emissions, there’s not much point in trying for another Kyoto-style deal, even a much better one. If you have any money lying around, put it on geoengineering techniques for keeping the heat down. We’re going to need them.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Not all…Phil”; and “President…believe”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

1 February 2008

Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s an old joke: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. The same, unfortunately, is true for the climate.

They ARE talking about it. They were at it again in Honolulu last week, discussing mandatory, internationally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (although Russia and India refused to allow any mention of that subject in the final statement). At the Bali meeting in December, China even hinted that it might consider something like binding emission caps in the long run. But there is no sense of urgency.

Not, at least, the sense of urgency that would be required to take actions that would invalidate the prediction, in the latest issue of the journal “Science”, that climate change may cost southern Africa more than 30 percent of its main crop, maize (corn, mealies), by 2030. No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence.

Even some parts of the developed world would be in deep trouble at that point. One part of the developed world, Australia, is already in trouble, with its farmers facing what may be a permanent decline in the country’s ability to grow food, although Australia’s overall wealth is great enough to cushion the blow. But elsewhere, the mentality of “It can’t happen here” persists.

Over the past couple of years, due to a major shift in public opinion, we have arrived at something close to a global consensus that climate change is a major problem. Even George W. Bush now says that he is concerned about it. But there is no consensus on the best measures to deal with the problem, even among the experts, and the general public still does not grasp the urgency of the situation.

The two Democratic candidates for the presidency in the United States promise 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, and John McCain for the Republicans promises 50 percent cuts by the same date, and nobody points out that such a leisurely approach, applied in every country, condemns the world to a global temperature regime at least three or four degrees Celsius (5.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Nobody points out that those are average global temperatures which take into account the relatively cool air over the oceans, and that temperatures over land would be a good deal higher than that. Few people are aware that these higher temperatures will prevent pollination in many major food crops in parts of the world that are already so hot that they are near the threshold, and that this, combined with shifting rainfall patterns, will cause catastrophic losses in food production.

And hardly anybody says that it is going to get really bad as early as 2030 unless we get global emissions down by 80 percent by 2020, because “everybody knows” that that is politically impossible, and nobody wants to look like a fool. So we must just hope that physics and chemistry will wait until we are ready to respond.

But here is a bulletin from the front. Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists, government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.

The IPCC’s predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted “best estimate” rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the “high scenario”. But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.

It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it’s 2013.

Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the “feedback” phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the “carbon sinks” are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.

Maybe the experts are all wrong. Here in the present, out ahead of the mounds of data that pile up in the rear-view mirror and the studies that will eventually get published in the scientific journals, there are only hunches to go on. But while the high-level climate talks pursue their stately progress towards some ill-defined destination, down in the trenches there is an undercurrent of suppressed panic in the conversations. The tipping points seem to be racing towards us a lot faster than people thought.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (Over…situation”; and “And hardly…respond”)

Re “maize (corn, mealies)” in paragraph 3: the crop has different names in different parts of the English-speaking world. Choose the one familiar to you. Translators may disregard these details.