Science sidelined at Durban

An image that has lingered with me from all the reports of the Durban conference was the Democracy Now interview with a somewhat disconsolate Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chair. He was at Durban to represent the science, a rather thankless task since he detected very little interest in what the science has to say.

“I’d like to see the science driving some of the discussions and the decisions that are taken. I’m sorry I don’t see much evidence of that right now.”

He pictured the delegations being confronted with the scientific reality every day and how that might affect the progress of their negotiations.

“[There’s a] complete absence of discussion on the scientific evidence that we have available   I would like to see each day of the discussions starting with a very clear presentation on where we are going, what it’s going to mean to different parts of the world and what are the options available to us by which at very little cost and in some cases negative cost we can bring about a reduction in emissions   I would like to see an hour, hour and a half, every day being devoted to this particular subject   I think then the movement towards a decision would be far more vigorous, it would be based on reality and not focusing on narrow and short-term political issues.”

Nothing remotely like that happened of course, and Pachauri vented his exasperation:

“Actually, to be honest, nobody over here is listening to the science.”

One can understand his verdict. It won’t have been true of everyone present, but the negotiations hardly displayed a widespread awareness of the scientific reality.

Pachauri was robust in his defence of the trustworthiness of the IPCC reports and asserted the need for emissions to peak no later than 2015 if we hope to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees or thereabouts. Delaying that peak to 2020 means a much larger cost to the reduction process.

This is certainly no time to be soft-pedalling the scientific message, or allowing the policy makers and negotiators to escape exposure to its full force. In which context I thought I’d draw attention to a recent release by NASA’s earth science news team on James Hansen’s new research into Earth’s paleoclimate history. He warned at a press briefing at the American Geophysical Union last week that a warming of 2 degrees would be sufficient to lead to drastic changes, such as significant ice sheet loss in Greenland and Antarctica.

Hot Topic readers will be familiar with Hansen’s concerns, but the new NASA statement is a particularly good summary for the lay person of the paleoclimate evidence underlying what he has to say about sea level rise. It’s well worth reading in full, but I’ll pull out a few of its major points here.

In studying cores drilled from both ice sheets and deep ocean sediments, Hansen found that global mean temperatures during the Eemian period, which began about 130,000 years ago and lasted about 15,000 years, were less than 1 degree Celsius warmer than today. If temperatures were to rise 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, global mean temperature would far exceed that of the Eemian, when sea level was four to six metres higher than today.

“The paleoclimate record reveals a more sensitive climate than thought, even as of a few years ago. Limiting human-caused warming to 2 degrees is not sufficient,” Hansen said. “It would be a prescription for disaster.”

Two degrees Celsius of warming would make Earth much warmer than during the Eemian, and would move Earth closer to Pliocene-like conditions, when sea level was in the range of 25 meters higher than today, Hansen said. In using Earth’s climate history to learn more about the level of sensitivity that governs our planet’s response to warming today, Hansen said the paleoclimate record suggests that every degree Celsius of global temperature rise will ultimately equate to 20 meters of sea level rise. However, that sea level increase due to ice sheet loss would be expected to occur over centuries, and large uncertainties remain in predicting how that ice loss would unfold.

It won’t be a linear process. GRACE satellite data relating to Greenland and West Antarctica has not been accumulating long enough to confirm the rate of acceleration of ice loss possibly occurring, but it is not inconsistent with multiple metres of sea level rise by 2100.

“We don’t have a substantial cushion between today’s climate and dangerous warming,” Hansen said. “Earth is poised to experience strong amplifying feedbacks in response to moderate additional global warming.”

Hansen acknowledges that using paleoclimate evidence to predict precisely how climate might change over much shorter periods than natural timescales is difficult, but he notes that the Earth system is already showing signs of responding, even in the case of slow feedbacks such as ice sheet changes.

Also, the vastly more rapid rate at which carbon dioxide is being released today by comparison with the slow increases from natural causes in the past adds to the difficulty of predicting how quickly the Earth will respond.

“Humans have overwhelmed the natural, slow changes that occur on geologic timescales,” Hansen said.

These warnings from Hansen relate to sea level rise, one of the most ominous prospects. There is equal reason to be concerned over a range of likely impacts which the science has detected, some of which are kicking in already. But it’s not apparent that the world’s political leadership is jointly capable of taking on board the enormity of what climate change means for humanity. The determination to press on with the continued exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels seems virtually unquestioned in the corridors of power of most countries.

While some governments are pushing the development of renewable energy it is not at a pitch to be compared with a wartime mobilisation. To suggest that coal, oil and gas should be left where they are just as soon as we can urgently organise to do without them is to appear foolish in New Zealand and presumably in most other countries endowed with the resources. Canada’s commitment to the tar sands development, to the extent of leaving the Kyoto agreement, is a case in point.

Pachauri’s concern that the politics is not being measured against the science is fully justified. The hopes for realism may prove incapable of fulfilment. But we must continue to demand unwaveringly that politicians look up and take notice of the desperate seriousness of the scientific warnings, and condemn them when they don’t.

25 thoughts on “Science sidelined at Durban”

  1. Meanwhile

    Tim Grosser gives an interesting interview on Radio NZ which would repay careful listening. Asked about NZ current obligations he mentions where NZ payments will go, into Kyoto or into ‘this new space’. I would assume there is serious talk of pulling out of Kyoto and talking about making necessary payments later into the post 2020 regime.

    Asked about how we are doing against our current commitments, he fudged. Hadnt seen the long term numbers he said but (despite that!) thought they were okay.

    Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the feared methane bomb is exploding:

    So, our government, like others, is simply not going to act in our interests and deal with this threat. What now?

    1. We need to be a bit cautious about the current state of the ESAS methane (i.e. I don’t like the Independent/Herald headline – I’ll probably do a post on that later), but otherwise your question stands.

    2. I’ve just listened to the Groser interview. I concede that he sounded reasonable, showed no wish to dissent from the science, and appears to be putting a genuine effort into the “real world” of international negotiation for emissions reduction. But he goes back to a cabinet which is committed to enhancing New Zealand’s wealth by mining fossil fuels wherever they can be found, headed by a Prime Minister who studiously avoids saying anything that might portray climate change as a serious threat to humanity’s future. There’s a disconnection somewhere.

  2. What I find frustrating is that governments including ours have made no comment regarding safety in a warming climate. What do they believe that the threats are or do they believe that a warming climate has no significantly adverse consequences? If the latter I would like to know the science behind that conclusion. Even the tobacco industry for years claimed that smoking does not cause cancer and so had a position on tobacco/cancer. Governments should be forced to have a position on climate change and what they believe the solution to the problem is rather than be allowed to adopt a position of reticence, and they should be held liable for getting it wrong. At the moment the issue is a–e about face: this is what our economy/voters will allow, fingers crossed that it will be enough to fix the problem, rather than this is what is required to fix the problem, how can we get the economy to adapt as quickly as possible.

  3. That ‘methane bomb’ thing really gets some all riled up. I’ve seen links to it all over the web. Not that it isn’t eventually going to be a major problem, but there are more immediate concerns methinks.

    “There’s a disconnection somewhere"

    Yeah, somewhere between the top of John Key’s vertebrae and his brain stem. We’re going to see a lot of dog-ate-my-homework type excuses from the deniers, if a major El Nino develops next year – mass coral bleaching, Amazon drought, etc.

    I wonder whether this will shift public opinion, or cause them to retreat into fantasyland along with the deniers? Mind you, I expect the Murdoch press and co. to make strenuous efforts not to report it, should it occur.

    1. It could be a pressing problem — it has the potential to be the positive feedback that makes any of our emissions reductions futile — but we don’t yet know if what’s being seen up there is, to use a medical distinction, chronic or acute. However, it looks like the patient’s heading in the wrong direction…

      1. Yup, wrong direction alright: From Stuff: Flooding Crisis in Nelson

        “Takaka township recorded 423mm of rain in a 24 hours period, making it “well in excess of a one in 100 year event,” Civil Defence said. The previous 24 hour rainfall high was 256mm in August 1990.”

        The old record got blitzed. That’s global warming and increase in extreme events for ya!

        1. That’s busting the old record by a huge margin, but it’s in line with the sort of record breakers we’ve been seeing overseas.

          I hope Johnmacmot’s OK. The mot stands for Motueka.

  4. Well, with regard to Mr Pachauri, it’s a bit rich to say that no one’s listening to the science, when distorted opinions re Himalyan glaciers were accepted by him and the IPCC at face value and are now seen as plainly unscientific.

    Look, the urgency to act is now historical. The panic is over.

    Mitigation/adaptation rules.

    It’s a different ball game now, and Tim Groser is a very capable man to deal with it on our behalf.

  5. Well yes Thomas, but the fact is the IPCC accepted at face value a very worst case Himalyan glacier scenario based on shonky science – and published it. A great blow to IPCC and Pachauri’s credibility.

    And RW – it’s not bollocks. It’s 3 more years of a moderate, ie non hysterical response to our ever changing climate.

        1. So then Benny, if your heart surgeon makes a proof reading error in a 1000 pages report on heart transplantations, this will prompt you to ditch conventional medicine and try some voodoo administered by a medicine man from a Vanuatuan cargo cult tribe to “cure” your triple-bypass ready heart condition??

          1. Very good Thomas, but you are talking about a hypothesis. I’m talking about Mr P’s credibility, and his persistent defence of the Himalyan misrepresentation.

            Mr P will have to go, and the IPCC will have to acknowledge its failure to date to produce meaningful dialogue and regroup and reassess its priorities and strategy.

            1. What are you talking about bennydale? Pachauri has acknowledged the 2035 date as an unfortunate and regrettable human error. However he has rightly said recently that there is no doubt that the Himalayan glaciers are melting and retreating. Are you suggesting that is a misrepresentation?

            2. Let me rephrase the analogy Benny in a different setting:
              You are prepared to call for the resignation of your brain surgeon (to rest some crossed wires up there) because he overlooked the transposition of two numbers in 1000 page report and instead opt for open brain surgery ala Aztec, stone drill and all…
              Perhaps then your condition is worse than I thought….

  6. More on the actual science, rather than uninformed opinions about a proofreading error (that was first identified by an IPCC author anyway, fer Chrissakes!) – Hansen, Caldeira, Rohling presenting at the AGU: Paleoclimate record points toward potential rapid climate changes.

    (Wouldn’t it be funny* if it turned out that 2035 was waaay closer to the mark than 2350 anyway? Lonnie Thompson’s Keeling Lecture comes to mind.)

    WARNING: The video presentations that are linked to may be unsuitable for Deniers. There is some danger of learning something.

    *in an Aaaaaaarggghhhhh sort of way…

  7. All good, Gareth. Not too bad where we are. Real problems in Golden Bay, as seen on the TV News, and some issues in Nelson. I see one area in Golden Bay – can’t recollect the place – had just on 600 mls of rain.

    We seem to be entering a world where it never rains but it pours.

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