05 February 2007

IPCC Report--Sweet Apocalypse to the Church of the Holy Environment

Who said Christians were the only Millenarians?

Climate of Opinion
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Last week's headlines about the United Nation's latest report on global warming were typically breathless, predicting doom and human damnation like the most fervent religious evangelical. Yet the real news in the fourth assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be how far it is backpedaling on some key issues. Beware claims that the science of global warming is settled.

The document that caused such a stir was only a short policy report, a summary of the full scientific report due in May. Written mainly by policymakers (not scientists) who have a stake in the issue, the summary was long on dire predictions. The press reported the bullet points, noting that this latest summary pronounced with more than "90% confidence" that humans have been the main drivers of warming since the 1950s, and that higher temperatures and rising sea levels would result.

More pertinent is the underlying scientific report. And according to people who have seen that draft, it contains startling revisions of previous U.N. predictions. For example, the Center for Science and Public Policy has just released an illuminating analysis written by Lord Christopher Monckton, a one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher who has become a voice of sanity on global warming.

Take rising sea levels. In its 2001 report, the U.N.'s best high-end estimate of the rise in sea levels by 2100 was three feet. Lord Monckton notes that the upcoming report's high-end best estimate is 17 inches, or half the previous prediction. Similarly, the new report shows that the 2001 assessment had overestimated the human influence on climate change since the Industrial Revolution by at least one-third.

Such reversals (and there are more) are remarkable, given that the IPCC's previous reports, in 1990, 1995 and 2001, have been steadily more urgent in their scientific claims and political tone. It's worth noting that many of the policymakers who tinker with the IPCC reports work for governments that have promoted climate fears as a way of justifying carbon-restriction policies. More skeptical scientists are routinely vetoed from contributing to the panel's work. The Pasteur Institute's Paul Reiter, a malaria expert who thinks global warming would have little impact on the spread of that disease, is one example.

U.N. scientists have relied heavily on computer models to predict future climate change, and these crystal balls are notoriously inaccurate. According to the models, for instance, global temperatures were supposed to have risen in recent years. Yet according to the U.S. National Climate Data Center, the world in 2006 was only 0.03 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in 2001 -- in the range of measurement error and thus not statistically significant.

The models also predicted that sea levels would rise much faster than they actually have. The models didn't predict the significant cooling the oceans have undergone since 2003 -- which is the opposite of what you'd expect with global warming. Cooler oceans have also put a damper on claims that global warming is the cause of more frequent or intense hurricanes. The models also failed to predict falling concentrations of methane in the atmosphere, another surprise.

Meanwhile, new scientific evidence keeps challenging previous assumptions. The latest report, for instance, takes greater note of the role of pollutant particles, which are thought to reflect sunlight back to space, supplying a cooling effect. More scientists are also studying the effect of solar activity on climate, and some believe it alone is responsible for recent warming.

All this appears to be resulting in a more cautious scientific approach, which is largely good news. We're told that the upcoming report is also missing any reference to the infamous "hockey stick," a study by Michael Mann that purported to show 900 years of minor fluctuations in temperature, followed by a dramatic spike over the past century. The IPCC featured the graph in 2001, but it has since been widely rebutted.

While everyone concedes that the Earth is about a degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago, the debate continues over the cause and consequences. We don't deny that carbon emissions may play a role, but we don't believe that the case is sufficiently proven to justify a revolution in global energy use. The economic dislocations of such an abrupt policy change could be far more severe than warming itself, especially if it reduces the growth and innovation that would help the world cope with, say, rising sea levels. There are also other problems -- AIDS, malaria and clean drinking water, for example -- whose claims on scarce resources are at least as urgent as climate change.

The IPCC report should be understood as one more contribution to the warming debate, not some definitive last word that justifies radical policy change. It can be hard to keep one's head when everyone else is predicting the Apocalypse, but that's all the more reason to keep cool and focus on the actual science.


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4 comments:

Justin said...

The article fails to mention that many of the actual scientists behind the report feel the lawmakers softened the language too much and didn't adequately express the true dangers of warming. The author also totally ignores the economic disadvantages of energy dependence on Middle Eastern countries and the opportunity cost of not developing the next generation of power sources. So even though the science and predictions behind global warming will need to be tweeked as more data comes in, it is extremely irresponsible and naive to dismiss these findings simply because we don't yet have a crystal ball that unveils the future.

This author (writing for the WSJ) probably understands that most financial forecasts or valuations are so dependent on assumptions that no one expects them to be accurate; however, we trust that within a range of analysis we can make a semi-reliable estimate. (For example, 17 inches to 3 feet. I laughed when the author characterized that as a reversal. Ha!) This is not unlike the global warming scientists who virtually all agree that warming is happening and humans are partly to blame, but are unable to come to consensus on the end results and consequences. We take a look at the best and worst case scenarios, then include the global political disadvantages of oil dependence, and must conclude that our responsible government will take these threats seriously and encourage an appropriate course of action. We're not even talking about a radical policy change here, and even Bush has announced new measures to curb emissions. What are you really afraid of here Jake and why have you staked a position against global warming? It must be an idealogical position because the science (although admittedly imperfect) seems to erode your footing. I'm not surprised- in fact, I've never heard you admit to being wrong about anything in spite of reality- just disappointed that someone who claims to love American interests can be so off base on this one. May I point out the irony and absurdity of you opposing any action based on global warming science, while eagerly embracing a war-hungry political movement that was based on faulty intelligence. Maybe in your experience Jake, reality and science have consistently contradicted your own idealogical world view (religious, political, economic) to the point that you instinctively attack and dismiss science that threatens your position.

Matt said...

Justin

The fact that you are so quick to call Jake out as someone who holds to an ideological world view at the expense of "reality and science" reveals more about your belief system and assumptions than his. In your little world, global warming, and especially the human influence on it, are foregone conclusions. Heaven forbid there be evidence against it--since so many have provided supposed evidence in support of it, it must be true. What you forget is the conflict of interest that exists in the debate--the fact that many scientists' and policymakers' livelihood depends on its existence. Seems to me like a particularly dangerous set of bedfellows.

What is Jake (and conservatives) afraid of? Well, Justin, you seem to somewhat understand the principle of opportunity cost. Let's go back to another simple principle--scarcity. We don't have unlimited resources, so before we start throwing them at unproven theories, perhaps we should prioritize. On the laundry list of problems to solve, global warming, even under the most extreme predictions, falls a long way down the list--it's just not as imminent a threat as those mentioned later in the article.

M. Friedman said...

Difference in ideology aside, Matt's point is spot on: spend limited resources on the most imminent threat; global warming is not it.

Justin said...

Hey Matt,

Just out of curiosity, have you ever applied the same skepticism to the military industrial complex or the mega energy companies? As a good brother you rushed to Jake's defense, but in your haste you essentially validated my criticism of Jake. That is, you are skeptical of the things you want to be skeptical of, and embrace (likely) the causes for which evidence is extremely suspect. As a side note, most of the refutations of commonly accepted global warming predictions come from other scientists and if the data is compelling, it is admitted to the general body of knowledge. Must be those rogue scientists who don't give a damn about their job security who would have the balls to say that sea levels will rise only 17 inches instead of 3 feet. Good point. (Dripping with sarcasm.)

Funny that you could be so accommodating to your own pre-conceived skepticism of global warming- the scientists and lawmakers- when I've never heard a peep out of you or Jake to question the relationship of arms manufacturers, defense contractors, lobbyists, oil companies and governments. In that case, we're dealing with a conspiracy theory, right? Ha ha! There is the idealism of the Lybbert brothers! (Imagine Southpark's Hardly Brothers saying, "I've got a raging clue! Ooh, that gives me a clue! Let's follow your clue!") Let me give you both a clue- the possibility of global warming existing deserves more than a quick dismissal based on supposed biases in the scientific community.

Okay, so let's move on to your economics 101 lesson about opportunity costs and scarcity. First of all, thank you for answering the question about what conservatives are afraid of- the misuse of limited resources on non-priority endeavors. You claim that global warming falls way down the list of things our government should spend its resources on and then fail to identify any of those things except those listed in the article- malaria, AIDs, and clean drinking water. (I think we have the resources to take a stab at all those things as well as warming, don't you?) The way the Bush administration has driven our country into debt and squandered our resources I almost want to attack your premise that conservatives fear the misuse of resources, but I will let that misconception slide for the sake of the argument. It seems to me that if you were the leader you would base your priorities on severity and imminence. The severity of the three priorities you already acknowledged is much less than the "most extreme predictions" of global warming, so I would conclude that your criteria would favor imminence strongly over severity. In other words, you are short-sighted. Maybe Christ will return to save us in these latter days, but I want leadership that acts as if He won't. So as you and the rest of your fellow conservatives rally to stop the "imminent" threat of abortion, liberalism, gay marriage, and clean drinking water (ha ha), I will eagerly await a candidate who presents a plan that values the long-term success of our country and species while also directly acknowledging the imminent threats of uncontrolled immigration, failing public schools, growing wealth disparity, religious extremism, etc. Looks like resources are scarce, but we disagree on priorities. We should at least be able to agree that our tremendous Iraq war cost could have been spent on better priorities- both imminent and severe. But it's not really about scarcity to you guys is it?

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