Saturday, November 07, 2009

Experts say that fears surrounding climate change are overblown

Alarming predictions that climate change will lead to the extinction of hundreds of species may be exaggerated, according to Oxford scientists. They say that many biodiversity forecasts have not taken into account the complexities of the landscape and frequently underestimate the ability of plants and animals to adapt to changes in their environment. “The evidence of climate change-driven extinctions have really been overplayed. We’re going to lose five or six species due to climate change, not hundreds,” said Professor Kathy Willis, a long-term ecologist at the University of Oxford and lead author of the article.

Professor Willis warned that alarmist reports were leading to ill-founded biodiversity policies in government and some major conservation groups. She said that climate change has become a “buzz word” that is taking priority while, in practice, changes in human use of land have a greater impact on the survival of species. “I’m certainly not a climate change denier, far from it, but we have to have sound policies for managing our ecosystems,” she said.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature backed the article, saying that climate change is “far from the number-one threat” to the survival of most species. “There are so many other immediate threats that, by the time climate change really kicks in, many species will not exist any more,” said Jean Christophe Vie, deputy head of the IUCN species program, which is responsible for compiling the international Redlist of endangered species. He listed hunting, overfishing, and destruction of habitat by humans as more critical for the majority of species.

However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds disagreed, saying that climate change was the single biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet. “There’s an absolutely undeniable affect that’s happening now,” said John Clare, an RSPB spokesman. “There have been huge declines in British sea birds.”

The article, published today in the journal Science, reviews recent research on climate change and biodiversity, arguing that many simulations are not sufficiently detailed to give accurate predictions. In particular, the landscape is often described at very low resolution, not taking into account finer variations in vegetation and altitude that are vital predictors for biodiversity.

In one analysis of the likelihood of survival of alpine plant species in the Swiss Alps, the landscape was depicted with a 16km by 16km (10 miles by 10 miles) grid scale. This model predicted that all suitable habitats for alpine plants would have disappeared by the end of the century. When the simulation was repeated with a 25m by 25m (82ft by 82ft) scale, the model predicted that areas of suitable habitat would remain for all plant species.

The article suggests that migration to new regions and changes in living patterns of species would take place but that actual extinction would be rare.

Other studies comparing predictions of extinction rates with actual extinction rates have come to similar conclusions. According to a high-profile paper published in the journal Nature in 2004, up to 35 per cent of bird species would be extinct by 2050 due to changes in climate. To be on track to meet this figure, Professor Keith Bennett, head of geography at Queen’s University Belfast, calculated that about 36 species would have to have become extinct each year between 2004 and 2008. In reality, three species of bird became extinct.

He said that many species are far more versatile than some prediction models give them credit for. “If it gets a couple of degrees warmer than they’re comfortable with, they don’t just die, they move,” he said.


All hope is lost for Copenhagen climate treaty, British officials say

A world treaty on climate change will be delayed by up to a year and is likely to be watered down because countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are refusing to commit to legally binding reductions.

British officials preparing for next month’s UN summit in Copenhagen said the best that could be hoped for was that national leaders would make “political agreements” on emission cuts and payments to help poor countries to adapt to climate change. These agreements would be non-binding, however, and could later be revised or rescinded by national parliaments.

At pre-summit talks in Barcelona, the officials said the final agreement would not emerge until at least six months after the Copenhagen summit, which ends on December 17. They said they hoped another meeting would be convened by next December to allow leaders to sign the treaty.

The admission that no treaty will be signed at Copenhagen marks the failure of the process agreed at a UN meeting in Bali in December 2007, when industrialised countries agreed to deliver a binding climate-change agreement within two years. The delay has angered developing countries, which say they are already suffering from man-made climate change. The Global Humanitarian Forum, based in Geneva, has estimated that more than 300,000 people are killed each year by climate change, nearly all of them in poor countries.

Delegates from 190 countries are now trying to agree a new timetable for signing a treaty but it is likely to be vague and contain no clear deadline. Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, told the House of Commons yesterday that little progress was being made in Barcelona, where delegates are discussing more than the 1,000 remaining disagreements over wording. He said: “The UN negotiations are moving too slowly and not going well. We would have preferred a full legal treaty, it has to be said. I think the important thing about the agreement we now seek in December is that while it may be a political agreement it must lead, on a very clear timetable, to a legally binding treaty.”

Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission’s negotiator on climate change, said in Barcelona that the absence of commitment from the United States on emission cuts was a key factor contributing to the delay, although other countries were also to blame. He said that without a treaty the EU would agree to cut its 1990 emissions by only 20 per cent by 2020, whereas with a treaty it would agree to a 30 per cent cut. Cuts of 25-40 per cent are needed by developed countries if a dangerous rise in global temperatures is to be avoided, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN-appointed group of more than 2,000 scientists.

China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has also failed to announce targets. It has promised to cut carbon dioxide emisissions per unit of GDP but has not said by how much.

Benedict Dempsey, Save the Children’s humanitarian policy officer, said: “The cost of any delay to a climate deal will be counted in children’s lives. Save the Children estimates that 250,000 children could be killed by climate change next year. “Negotiators must realise that the world’s poorest communities can’t afford to wait.”

Joss Garman, of Greenpeace UK, said the EU should put more pressure on the US to agree targets. Copenhagen was the best chance to slash emissions, he said, but added “politicians seem determined to blow it”. He said that the US, influenced by “Big Carbon special interests”, was “a dead weight” on the talks.


The Quiet Death of the Kyoto Protocol

Reading the climate-change news in recent weeks, one might wonder who won the last election. The Obama administration has rejected the Kyoto Protocol (ensuring it will expire), adopted some of former President George W. Bush’s key positions in international climate negotiations, and demurred when asked about reports that the president has decided to skip the December climate summit in Copenhagen. United Nations climate negotiator Yvo de Boer has concluded that it is “unrealistic” to expect the conference to produce a new, comprehensive climate treaty—which also describes the once-fond hopes for passage of domestic climate legislation this year—or even in Obama’s first term.

This is not how it was supposed to be. Among all the things that President Bush did to infuriate environmentalists, none was more inexcusable than his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, and it was assumed that Obama’s election meant a triumphant American return to the Kyoto fold—symbolically, at least, if not literally. Backed by large majorities in both houses of Congress, Obama was widely expected to quickly pass a Kyoto-style domestic cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, positioning America to take the moral high ground in Copenhagen, thus luring (or compelling) China and India to accept emissions targets.

The story, at least on the international side, is complicated by our actual history with Kyoto, which is not as simple as some greens would portray it today. Rejection of Kyoto—in 1997, three years before Bush’s election—was a rare moment of bipartisan consensus on climate policy; the Senate voted unanimously (95-0) against its basic tenets, and the Clinton-Gore administration never submitted it for ratification. (Even a little-known state legislator from Illinois named Barack Obama voted to condemn Kyoto and prohibit the state from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.)

The treaty’s fundamental flaws were well understood: It set very ambitious—and costly—targets for the United States while allowing emissions from the developing world to continue to rise unchecked. (And indeed today, despite Kyoto’s ratification, China has become the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases.) Americans don’t mind contributing to a solution, but Kyoto asked a lot of sacrifice for little reward.

Despite that moment of bipartisan consensus on Kyoto, the election of George W. Bush quickly made opposition to Kyoto indefensible among all right-thinking environmentalists; Kyoto’s genuine structural flaws were excused, if not forgotten, by all but a few. And instead of it being Al Gore’s fault for agreeing a pie-in-the-sky treaty in defiance of a unanimous vote of the Senate, Kyoto’s demise was blamed on Bush for his more forthright refusal in 2001 to seek ratification. This is natural in politics, of course, but the cost was a loss of focus on the need for effective alternatives to Kyoto.

While Barack Obama did not explicitly campaign on a pledge to ratify Kyoto, his hope-and-change message was clear: Elect me and America will no longer be an outcast on climate policy; I will lead the charge for a new, Kyoto-style agreement in Copenhagen. And President-elect Obama’s first statement on climate change was a bold pledge: “Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change.” In retrospect, the commitment seems a bit vague, but his audience has no doubt what he meant. As one British newspaper breathlessly reported:

Prospects for success in the world's struggle to combat global warming have been transformed at a stroke after U.S. President-elect Barack Obama made it clear that America would play its full part in renewing the Kyoto Protocol climate-change treaty. His words, in effect, brought an end to eight years of willful climate obstructionism by the administration of George Bush, who withdrew the U.S. from Kyoto in March 2001, thus doing incalculable damage to the efforts of the international community to construct a unified response to the threat.

Eleven months later, the dream of a successful global climate policy seems as far out of reach as ever, and America continues to have profound disagreements over climate policy with much of the world. In the good old days of the bad old Bush administration, it was easy to paper over the profoundly complicated and difficult obstacles to effective national and international climate agreements; “Blame Bush!” was a cry greens could all rally around. Today, the inconvenient truth of the matter is harder to hide, and to a surprising degree, the rallying cry for the rest of the world remains “Blame America!”

How did we reach this point, less than a year into the Obama administration? There are different dynamics at work: undue deference to Congress on domestic legislation, and insufficient leverage in international negotiations to overcome vastly dissimilar national interests and abilities.

As he has with a number of key issues, President Obama has let Congress largely take the lead in crafting domestic climate legislation—to his regret, one must imagine, seeing the results. The bill that passed the House by the narrowest of margins was a monstrosity by any measure, hailed even by its most fervent supporters as a detestable mess. Progress in the Senate has been far slower, and it is increasingly clear that no bill will pass this year. Hopes for action on climate will have carry over to 2010—a contentious election year, at a time when unemployment may well top 10 percent and polling suggests that public concern about climate change is falling dramatically. The prospects for a bill in 2010 are not good—and Democrats are likely to lose seats in those elections, leaving them poorly positioned to pass legislation in 2011–12 as the next presidential election approaches.

Less than a year into Obama’s first term, it seems plausible that no climate bill will pass before 2013 at the earliest, and that the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012 without a comprehensive successor agreement to take its place.

Having promised to lead the Copenhagen negotiations to a successful conclusion, Obama now finds himself in a bind: Unable to get a bill through Congress, he doesn’t want to repeat Gore’s mistake of letting Europeans pressure him into signing a treaty the Senate won’t ratify while sanctioning unrestricted emissions from the developing world. Since treaties require the support of two-thirds of the Senate, ratification will be more difficult than passage of domestic legislation. So the administration’s draft implementing agreement submitted to the UN in May specified that emissions reductions would be subject to “conformity with domestic law.” In other words, whatever is agreed to here doesn’t mean a thing if the Senate doesn’t agree. As Jonathan Pershing, a top State Department negotiator, remarked at the recent climate negotiators’ meeting in Bangkok. “We are not going to be part of an agreement we cannot meet.”

This position protects Obama from the danger of getting ahead of the Senate—while infuriating Europe and developing nations that consider strong American action on climate long overdue. As an anonymous European Commission official remarked in September, climate negotiations are “not going well”:

European Union officials have grown increasingly frustrated at the U.S. stance, saying it has fallen short on both its level of ambition to reduce emissions and on offering aid to developing nations. “So far, we thought the basic problem was the Chinese and the Indians. But now I think the problem appears to lie most clearly with the U.S.”

The China-India problem remains unsolved as well, and Obama clearly is not blind to the serious political, economic, and environmental problems with any treaty that reaffirms Kyoto’s sanction of unrestricted emissions from developing countries. Climate advocates have long argued that the key to overcoming developing world resistance to emissions limits is American leadership; if we go first, China and India will follow. Skeptics note that what we gain in credibility we may lose in leverage needed to force a deal in Copenhagen. In any case, Congress’s inaction—and its continued concern about trade competitiveness questions—has forced Obama, in effect, to take the Bush position: No new treaty without developing world participation. As NPR recently reported, Kyoto will be allowed to expire after 2012. “The United States never ratified the agreement because it doesn't require any action from the developing world, including China, the world’s largest emitter. The Bush administration considered that a fatal flaw. And so does the Obama White House.”

This is the crux of the argument: The crucial feature of the deal that Gore struck in Kyoto was its exemption of the developing world from emissions reduction obligations. Without that concession, the developing world would never have accepted the treaty—but with it, the treaty was almost worthless (particularly since, as a political matter, that provision precluded American participation). This was the fatal flaw of Kyoto—and, having established that exemption, it will be doubly hard to persuade developing nations to undo it.

Obama apparently hopes to finesse these issues by reaching bilateral agreements with China and India, although critics complain that doing so would potentially undermine the multilateral architecture of the prospective Copenhagen treaty. But recent reports that no bilateral agreement will be announced during Obama’s visit to China in November suggest that a deal by Copenhagen is unlikely. China and India are both under enormous international pressure to accept emissions limits—and even greater domestic pressure to maintain a strong rate of economic growth. Both countries have so far firmly resisted calls for binding emissions caps, although President Hu Jintao has said that China will cut its emissions relative to economic growth—that is, the greenhouse-gas “intensity” of the Chinese economy, not total emissions—by a “notable” margin by 2020.

Meanwhile, to its credit, the administration is taking a surprisingly hard line with developing countries. State Department envoy Todd Stern recently called on developing nations to make significant, binding commitments to emissions reductions, remarking: "We don’t in the U.S. deny that we have real historical responsibility but the IEA [International Energy Agency] in Paris will tell you that 97 percent of the growth in emissions between now and 2050 will come from the developing world. The U.S. has to act and the EU and Japan but also the developing countries. It’s the only way to solve this problem."

This is strong stuff—and it runs contrary to much conventional liberal wisdom in the United States, Europe, and particularly in the developing world, which holds that the nations most responsible for past emissions should be primarily responsible for mitigation. If climate change is a moral issue (as most liberals insist), then the polluter responsible for past emissions should be on the hook for their consequences today; if we see the issue purely in pragmatic terms, then responsibility must be shared significantly with the major developing economies. The insistence that developing nations make credible commitments to emissions reductions has been a core conservative principle on climate; seeing Obama pick up that torch is encouraging—it is vital to crafting any true, effective global agreement—but it remains to be seen whether any combination of pressure and persuasion will be sufficient to strike a deal on those terms.

What should we make of the surprising Bushification of these aspects of Obama’s climate policy? It is too soon to say. It is easy to see these events as a series of failures, yet they may still prove to be the first steps to success if the president is committed to crafting real alternatives. Certainly the first step to success lies in rejecting the failed approaches of the past—and inadvertently or not, Obama has moved further in that direction than might have been expected a year ago. On the international side, he has taken a surprisingly reformist stance. But building a new architecture for domestic and international climate policy would be an enormous undertaking.

Doing so would require a willingness to challenge the cherished assumptions of many environmental advocates, a risky proposition for a president who has been increasingly forced to rely on his base for support. Yet the potential rewards are also great: if ever an issue cried out for a sensible, centrist approach, it is climate change.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the President Bush’s climate policy was not its substantive flaws (although there were many), but rather that the president was such an inarticulate advocate for it. The president’s greatest power is the bully pulpit, and if he uses it wisely, he can change the way America, and even the world, thinks about a complex issue like climate change. President Bush had that opportunity and squandered it; President Obama is better positioned to tackle the task, but healthcare and other matters have, so far, come first. The question is whether, as the president retrenches following a disappointing first year in office, he will be willing to take a gamble on a new approach to climate.

The odds against that scenario are tall; the smart—or at least, natural—political move for Obama would be to simply blame Republicans for blocking the climate bill, an easy charge to make, and both parties appear willing to take their positions to the voters. Yet a new approach to climate policy will require a willingness to somehow rise above politics to challenge conventional liberal wisdom on key aspects of climate policy. Doing so would not be easy for Obama in this intensely partisan time. But with polls indicating dwindling support for him from independents and Republicans, a creative, centrist approach to climate could be the key to turning that trend around.

There is a credible body of serious, creative work exploring different approaches to both domestic and international climate change issues; if, in the face of gridlock in Congress and the collapse of the Kyoto system, Obama chooses to make this issue a top priority, a fresh start on climate policy could still earn bipartisan support. Alas, what we have heard so far from President Obama is merely a pledge to “redouble” his efforts to strike a deal in Copenhagen—or, at least, to create a “framework for progress”—without acknowledging the genuinely thorny issues that have precluded agreement to date. Admitting failure is the first step to success—yet it violates the first rule of politics. Obama campaigned on a promise to change politics as usual in Washington and around the world. Can he do it on climate? Some commentators argue that the only problem with the legislation being considered by Congress is that it lacks sufficient votes for passage; in fact, its political problems are rooted in its structural flaws, not vice versa. An acknowledgment from President Obama that a new approach is needed would start a fresh conversation on climate that is long overdue.


Red-faced Times abandons fishy eco ad

The Times newspaper says it won't be repeating an advertisement that contained a false and misleading piece of environmental alarmism. The advert, part of a series boasting its eco-credentials, claimed that the world's oceans would be free of fish by 2048. But the prediction was debunked when it was made three years ago, and the academic responsible has since joined forces with his critics to disown his earlier claim.

The paper has told fishing industry journal Intrafish that it wouldn't be repeating the advert, which was created to show that The Times was the only national paper with an Ocean correspondent. Last month we reported how The Times had claimed in advertisements that the North East Passage - a commercial trade route open since 1934 - had just been "opened" for the first time by global warming. Again, it used an assertion to justify its, er... brilliant environmental reporting credentials.

Maritime conservation researcher Boris Worm had made the claim in a 2006 paper in Science, which despite its reputation as a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, has a weakness for publishing shoddy junk science on environmental subjects. In a note accidentally sent to the press, Worm had said the attention grabbing claim could be an effective "news hook to get people's attention."

The Worm has since turned: revising his earlier view. According to Intrafish, Times correspondent Frank Pope contacted the paper's marketing department.

But if there's one thing dumber than environment reporters, it's environmentally "aware" celebrities. This summer Greta Scacchi was one of several celebrities to pose nude with a cod, to draw attention to the cause. Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam and Lenny Henry also stripped off. A documentary called The End Of The Line also makes the "No Fish by 2048" claim. The film has been described as the equivalent of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth for fishing. Which says it all, really.


A Rational Look at Sea Level Rise

The one thing that is the most certain about climate change, is that no matter what happens, we’ll have to adapt. In fact, even if the climate doesn’t change a lick, adaptations will take place, aimed at improving our overall health and welfare by either better protecting us from, or taking better advantage of, the prevailing climate conditions. Such has always been the case, and such always will be.

This is something that global warming alarmists either fail to understand, or fail to acknowledge.

Consider the dire warning that anthropogenic climate change is going to lead to a global food crisis. This scenario is predicated upon the “dumb farmer scenario” in which agriculturists around the fail to respond to changing climate conditions, and instead hold on to old, failing ways, as the climate changes around them. The “dumb farmer” scenario, should more aptly be termed the “dumb forecaster” scenario, because such an assumption illustrates a glaring disconnect between theory and reality. People adapt to change.

Another grossly inaccurate claim which totally ignores our adaptive response involves sea level rise. Al Gore likes to show maps of what coastal areas look like presently, and what they would look like assuming a multi-meter sea level rise. A dramatic section of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth showed some before and afters of coastal locations under Gore’s scenario of a 20 foot sea level rise that would happen “[i]f Greenland melted or broke up and slipped into the sea—or half of Greenland and half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea.” For a dose of reality, a recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters pegged the current rate of sea level rise contributed by Antarctica and Greenland combined at 6 inches/century. How inconvenient.

No matter what, is that Gore’s pictures will never represent reality for the simple reason that we won’t let them. Do you really think that the powers that be will let a large portions of Manhattan Island sink beneath the waves like Gore depicts? Of course not. Instead, appropriate responses will take place to protect the high-priced development there. This will happen not only in Manhattan, but in most places where we have already invested a lot of time, effort, and money.

This was the conclusion recently reached by a team led by EPA sea level rise researcher Jim Titus, who has been working with land-use planners up and down the eastern seaboard to determine how various areas along the coast will be impacted by sea level rise—whatever the magnitude.

Titus’s team categorized all the dry land along the East Coast that is within 1 meter of sea level into four categories—developed, intermediate (likely to be developed), undeveloped, and protected from development. The first two categories were considered land-use types that would be largely protected from sea level rise by human intervention—raising of the land, or holding back the sea. These categories make up about 60% of the low-lying coastal land area between Florida and Massachusetts.

The remaining 40% of the low-lying land area is potentially flooded by rising oceans at some point in time. This is considered good by Titus et al. because it allows for natural processes to respond to rising sea levels (i.e., letting ecosystems migrate inland). But only about one-quarter of it is currently protected by conservation requirements. The other 3/4th (or 30% of the total land area within 1 meter of sea level) is currently unprotected. Titus et al. would like to see as much of this unprotected land as possible left alone (or moved into conservation).

The major point Titus et al. are trying to make is that now is the time to be thinking about the how to designate land use for the future in light of rising ocean levels. This sounds like a pretty rational approach because, it is virtually certain that sea levels will continue to rise into the future. Starting to talk about how to best prepare for this eventuality is a good thing.

Contrast this with the irrational approach that shows urban areas under 20 feet of water and demands that human greenhouse gas emissions need to be immediately curtailed to prevent this.

Here is what Titus et al. have to say about that favorite technique of the Al Gores on the world: "We hope that [our work] can help to change the way people think about rising sea level. Researchers and the media need to stop suggesting that Manhattan or even Miami will be lost to a rising sea. That’s not realistic; it promotes denial and panic, not a reasoned consideration of the future. Our maps show some of the choices coastal residents face, but losing Manhattan is not one of them."


Australia: Sea rise much slower than predicted

SEA levels on Australia's eastern seaboard are rising at less than a third of the rate that the New South Wales Government is predicting as it overhauls the state's planning laws and bans thousands of landowners from developing coastal sites. The Rees Government this week warned that coastal waters would rise 40cm on 1990 levels by 2050, with potentially disastrous effects. Even yesterday Kevin Rudd warned in a speech to the Lowy Institute that 700,000 homes and businesses, valued at up to $150 billion, were at risk from the surging tide.

However, if current sea-level rises continue, it would not be until about 2200 - another 191 years - before the east coast experienced the kind of increases that have been flagged. According to the most recent report by the Bureau of Meteorology's National Tidal Centre, issued in June, there has been an average yearly increase of 1.9mm in the combined net rate of relative sea level at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, since the station was installed in 1991. This is consistent with historical analysis showing that, throughout the 20th century, there was a modest rise in global sea levels of about 20cm, or 1.7mm per year on average.

By comparison, the NSW Government's projections - based on global modelling by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as CSIRO regional analysis - equate to a future rise of about 6.6mm a year. Such a projection has caused widespread concern for landowners and developers, derision from "climate sceptics" within the scientific community and even some head-scratching from Wollongong locals such as Kevin Court, 80.

"I have swum at this beach every day for the past 50 years, and nothing much changes here," Mr Court said yesterday as he emerged from the surf at Wollongong's North Beach, just a short paddle from the Port Kembla gauging station. "All this talk about rising sea levels - most of us old-timers haven't seen any change and we've been coming down here for decades. "A few years ago part of the bank at the back of the beach was eroded. But you look at it now, and all the grass has grown back over it. The water hasn't washed back there for years. "And that's nature. It's up and down, it comes and goes in cycles - nothing dramatic."



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