Friday, July 02, 2010

No science please. We're alarmists (IPCC Promises Next Report Will Be More Alarmist)

The review process for the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) has not even started yet - but the IPCC's vice-chairman Jean-Pascal van Ypersele has already announced its likely outcome. No wonder people around the world have lost trust in it

THE world's peak scientific body on climate change will "almost inevitably" make a big increase in its predictions of sea-level rises due to global warming in its next landmark report in 2014, the vice-chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele told The Age recent satellite observations showed extensive melting in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

That new data will be considered in the IPCC's next assessment report - regarded by governments and scientific groups as the world's pre-eminent scientific document on climate change - and should lead to an increase in predictions of sea-level rises, Professor van Ypersele said.

The sea-level rises estimated in the IPCC's last assessment report, released in 2007, were now on the low side. That report put sea-level rises at 18 to 59 centimetres above 1990 levels by 2100.

Members of the IPCC met in Kuala Lumpur last week to discuss the consideration of the Greenland and Antarctic data for the IPCC's next report - its fifth. Analysis of the extent of reduction in mass of the two major ice sheets will be the report's main focus.

"The reason there was a workshop in KL is that the IPCC knows very well this is an area that needs particular attention and where a lot of progress has been made," Professor van Ypersele said.

New satellite data "are starting to show - but are quite convincing, I must say - that both the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet are losing net mass, not on the margins but as an ice sheet, he said.

"These are new data, these are new developments and new methods, which will allow the IPCC in its developments around sea-level rises to provide numbers that will almost inevitably be higher than the last assessment."


British Coastal Temperature Anomalies of the Last Millennium

(Data from Scotland show that Modern Warming has been no Different from Warming 500 Years Ago)

Discussing: Cage, A.G. and Austin, W.E.N. 2010. Marine climate variability during the last millennium: The Loch Sunart record, Scotland, UK. Quaternary Science Reviews: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.01.014.

What was done

From a broad sediment shelf at a water depth of 56 meters in the main basin of Loch Sunart -- a fjord on the northwest coast of Scotland (56°40.20'N, 05°52.22'W) -- the authors extracted several sediment cores from which they developed a continuous record of various physical and chemical properties of the sediment that spanned the last millennium and extended all the way up to AD 2006. Of most interest to us, in this regard, are the δ18O measurements made on the shells of the benthic foraminifer Ammonia beccarii, because prior such data -- when operated upon by the palaeotemperature equation of O'Neil et al. (1969) -- yielded bottom-water temperatures that had been judged by Cage and Austin (2008) to be "the most realistic water temperature values for infaunal benthic foraminifera from Loch Sunart."

What was learned

The results of the two researchers' most recent efforts revealed that the most distinctive feature of the Loch Sunart temperature record was an abrupt warming at AD 1540 that led to a temperature anomaly of 1.1°C above the long-term mean from AD 1540-1600, which period was preceded within the interval AD 1445-1495 by some of the coldest temperatures of the past 1000 years.

What it means

Noting that "the rate and magnitude of the inferred warming at AD 1540 ... is similar to the rate of change and magnitude observed during the late twentieth century," Cage and Austin concluded that "changes in twentieth century marine climate cannot yet be resolved from a background of natural variability over the last millennium," which is another way of saying that late 20th-century warming -- which has not further manifested itself over the first decade of the 21st century -- was not unusual enough to validly ascribe it to the concomitant increase in the air's CO2 content.


Is the climate around global warming changing?

Monday’s "Panorama" was the BBC’s most balanced look yet at the real ambiguities of climate science and policy

It didn’t start well. Monday night’s edition of Panorama, entitled ‘What’s Up With the Weather?’ aimed to examine British attitudes to climate change and the state of the science in the wake of both ‘Climategate’ and the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last December. And that seemed to mean presenter Tom Heap sticking a carbon dioxide detector into a car exhaust to prove it was helping to warm the planet.

The programme did, however, get better. What was striking about it was that the BBC, which has tended to be gung-ho in its presentation of the dangers of global warming, actually presented those who are sceptical of the orthodoxy in a reasonably fair way. In doing so, it accepted that there is a genuine debate – and not some Big Oil-funded attempt to pervert the course of environmental justice, as some earlier BBC programmes have suggested. That debate is about what has caused the moderate rise in temperature over the past 150 years, how much warmer things will get, and what the best policy is to deal with a changing world. In turn, this reflects (hopefully) a more rational turn in the politics of climate change.

One thing that became very clear was how much agreement there is between ‘sceptics’ (also known as ‘deniers’ in too much of the discussion about climate in recent years) and those holding a mainstream view. Well-known US climate scientist John Christy from the University of Alabama and Danish ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg broadly agreed with Bob Watson, former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change (both of whom have been vitriolic in their attacks on sceptics in the past) on the basic science of global warming:

* the world has got warmer over the past 150 years

* carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas

* human activity has emitted a lot of additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere

* this human activity is to some extent responsible for global warming

The differences of opinion come when we get to the issue of how much influence all those cars, planes, factories and farms have on the temperature and what it means for the future. Christy believes that the human influence is fairly small – about ‘a quarter’ of the current warming, he guesses. Watson and Ward believe that most of the recent warming has been due to humans and that this means markedly increased temperatures, with potentially disastrous consequences, if we do not decarbonise the economy. Lomborg is far from being a sceptic on climate science; he is really critical of the policy response rather than the IPCC’s estimates for future temperature. He believes that cutting carbon emissions drastically and quickly would be far too expensive and that what we need is a mix of research into low-carbon energy sources and a degree of adaptation to a warmer world.

What seems to have slowly dawned on those banging the drum for radical action on climate change is that the attempt to panic the population into accepting drastic cuts in living standards to counter rising temperatures has failed. Instead, this approach has merely confirmed for many people that the whole thing is a green conspiracy. In the programme, Heap talked to one ordinary couple about their attitudes to climate change. While the wife was convinced it was a major problem, the husband thought it was just a scare story. But this sharp difference of opinion soon collapsed when it came to the costs of switching to a low-carbon economy. While the orthodox approach to climate change would involve increasing the cost of energy (and therefore, pretty much everything else), this couple – like most others, one suspects – was concerned that energy prices were already too high.

Former IPCC boss Bob Watson suggested to Heap that we should be prepared to pay to insure against future warming, just as we insure against a fire in our homes. That sounds fair enough. But the price of the insurance is important here. Insurance only makes sense if the cost is small, yet some of the proposals for cutting emissions sound positively ruinous.

Another side to the programme was the discussion of what Climategate – the release of previously private emails and data last year from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia – really told us about the science. The importance of the material contained in this disclosure has sometimes been overstated by many critics of the climate orthodoxy, alleging a conspiracy between researchers to massage data and suppress dissent. While some of what is discussed in the CRU emails sails close to that, it ignores the real problem: the wider environment in which the climate debate has taken place.

The real driver of the climate change scare has been the political demand for certainty, a Great Moral Truth that society can be organised around. The genuine ambiguities of the science and the policy options have been obliterated – something that the BBC itself has been serially guilty of. If critics of the orthodoxy push the idea of a ‘conspiracy’ too much, this may divert attention from the real lesson of Climategate: that this climate change business is all just a lot more complicated than many have been prepared to admit and pressing the panic button right now would be a very stupid idea.

This became all too apparent at the Copenhagen summit. For all the talk about huge emissions cuts, there was an enormous degree of bad faith at work. No credible politician was really going to commit to the policies that might produce rapid decarbonisation of the economy, least of all leaders of rapidly developing countries who need all the energy – ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ – they can get. (The fact that the UK parliament passed a law last year committing the country to such drastic emissions cuts says much about the state of political life here.) The Kyoto-style, targets-driven policy for international cuts in greenhouse gas emissions has been an expensive failure.

A new approach is required that takes a more grown-up approach to climate change, one that is based on dealing with a potential practical problem of rising temperatures rather than an existential crisis that demands the wholesale impoverishment of society in the name of ‘the planet’. Let’s keep working on the science, without any preconceptions of what the outcome will be. Let’s work on new energy technologies because we’ll need lots more power in the future. Let’s see what rising temperatures might mean and how we can best adapt to them, or even use them to our advantage. Let’s cut out the moralism and the name-calling.

A good place to start will be in the public debate about climate change. While Monday’s Panorama was by no means perfect, let’s hope it is a small milestone on the road to a more mature discussion of global warming.


Heh! Beware the deadly toxins in your eco-friendly shopping bag

Reusable shopping bags harbour potentially deadly bugs and could threaten public health, say scientists.

Tests on shoppers' bags revealed that half contained traces of the lethal toxin E.coli, which killed 26 people in Scotland in 1996 in one of the world's worst food-poisoning outbreaks. The scientists also found many bags were contaminated with salmonella. They say reusable bags must be washed regularly at high temperature to kill bugs left by the packaging from raw meat.

The level of bacteria they found was high enough to 'cause a wide range of serious health problems and even death', particularly to children. The tests were carried out by experts at the University of Arizona, who stopped 84 shoppers to check the state of their bags.

The popularity of reusable 'eco-friendly' bags has soared in Britain as the growth in recycling means fewer consumers use disposable plastic bags.

But experts fear unwashed bags could pose a health threat. Professor Charles Gerba, who led the study, said: 'Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from bacteria such as E.coli. 'Consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitise their bags weekly.'


Prices rise as New Zealand passes emissions trading scheme

Petrol [gasoline] and power prices have risen sharply in New Zealand after the government introduced a controversial emissions trading scheme.

The government has pressed ahead with plans to slash the nation's carbon output, despite widespread opposition and New Zealand's larger neighbour Australia shelving its own scheme.

Motorists were hit by a 3c (1.4p) rise in the price of a litre of petrol overnight, while householders face a 5 per cent increase in gas and electricity prices. It was the first step in a complex scheme, universally referred to as "the ETS", to slash carbon emissions back to 1990 levels.

Some disgruntled consumers marked the launch by wearing T-shirts with the meaning of the letters changed to read "Extra Tax Sucks".

Businesses facing cost increases have warned they will be forced to raise prices of everyday items, such as the bread on supermarket shelves.

Under the scheme, to be fully phased in over several years, companies trade carbon credits known as New Zealand Units (NZUs). Industries that are net creators of carbon must buy the units from the government or from sellers whose businesses absorb carbon, such as those that plant trees. The units can be traded internationally with other countries implementing a similar scheme under the Kyoto Protocol.


Ecobulbs to cost more in Britain

Energy-saving lightbulbs could treble in price as ministers order energy suppliers to stop subsidising them. At the moment, power companies discount compact fluorescent bulbs as part of measures to meet greenhouse gas targets. But Chris Huhne, minister for climate change, has told electricity and gas firms to stop the promotions in supermarkets and DIY chains - and invest more money in home insulation instead.

Some industry experts have welcomed the change. But others warn that these rules will lead to price rises.

Energy-saving bulbs are sold for as little as 33p each in supermarkets. The end of subsidises means they could cost £1 or more.

Under the Government's Carbon Emissions Reduction Target, the biggest energy supplies must help customers cut their fuel bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The companies have met their targets by promoting energy-saving bulbs - and have given away around 230 million in the last few years.

At the start of last year, ministers banned light bulb mail-outs. But power companies have continued subsidise the cost of bulbs in supermarkets and DIY stores.

In the last three months alone, eight million of the bulbs were sold by chain stores under the subsidy scheme. But these subsidises will be scrapped when the CERT scheme is extended from March 2011 to the end of 2012, Mr Huhne explained.

Suppliers will be forced to spend the money promoting loft, cavity wall and solid wall insulation instead. Most householders could save around £550 a year by insulating their homes, the minister added. 'This is the beginning of a massive and urgent increase in home energy insulation for the nation. 'We are demanding that energy companies work harder to make homes warmer, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to run, especially for those who need it most.'

The Government says 3.5million more homes will benefit from insulation under the scheme.

Under the CERT scheme, cheaper compact fluorescent bulbs were only available from large retailers.

James Shortridge, owner of the independent lighting store Ryness, said: 'There will be a rise in price for the bulbs in the supermarkets, unless they decide to carry on subsidising them anyway.'

Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith said: 'We're pleased that energy suppliers will no-longer be able to treat CERT as a box-ticking exercise by sending out millions of light bulbs. 'This proposal should ensure that more households can access effective energy- saving measures like loft insulation.'



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