First things first: A new U.S. senator and a blip in the post-Copenhagen U.N. negotiations may cause comprehensive global climate policy to melt away faster than the Himalayas-or will they?
Surgeon General’s warning: Many points in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report have been revealed to be wrong as scientists observe global changes occurring faster than predicted just three years ago. Yet these accelerated changes are little remarked on in the mainstream press in the way a dumb mistake has been remarked on this week. Please keep this general observation in mind through the next section.
The IPCC regrets the error: Readers of this space are likely to posit certain things about the world, that global temperature increases are “unequivocal,” that industrial emissions and unchecked land-use change are the major causes, and that we understand these things because the method that scientists don’t call the “scientific method” has historically been terrific at weeding out and incinerating errors in our understanding of nature.
And so it is again. The IPCC this week sort of apologized for an error embedded in the 938-page second volume of its 2007 report, one frequently repeated as an alarming glaciological observation: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”
What the scientific method has revealed here is that this statement is not true. The Himalayan glaciers are receding plenty fast — around the world glaciers are melting more and more quickly — but the projection of 2035 is an error, as explained cogently and thoroughly by the AP’s Seth Borenstein (“The year 2350 apparently was transposed as 2035.”).
What we have here is a failure to communicate: Unlike the University of East Anglia climate e-mails revealed in November, this Himalayan hiccup is an embarrassing error, rather than just embarrassing, full stop. But this is the way science works: Un-replicable results or, in this case, a plain-old mistake, are weeded out to make our understanding of nature ever more precise. There’s always plenty we don’t know. Remember Mencken: “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”
However, like the University of East Anglia climate e-mails, this Himalaya hiccup is another case study in poor handling of scientific communication to the public. The IPCC addressed the matter in a statement Wednesday, saying that the Himalaya error “refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.” The group adds that “IPCC procedures” “were not applied properly.” The statement isn’t “poorly substantiated.” As far as anyone knows, it’s false. Scientific communicators might best take a lesson from newspapers, don’t be such a scientist, and just say, “IPCC regrets the error.”
Changing political climate: The election of Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat is the first great political story of the new decade, with likely consequences on climate-and-energy legislation. Brown’s campaign website states, “I oppose a national cap and trade program because of the higher costs that families and businesses would incur.” (Massachusetts already participates in a regional cap-and-trade program.) The Congressional Budget Office and EPA estimates of the House climate bill put the cost of transforming the national energy system at about the same price as a pizza a month.
Some of Brown’s new colleagues addressed climate policy this week. Retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said that the Senate is unlikely to take up climate policy this year, suggesting an energy bill without economic mechanisms to close the market’s loophole that allows unfettered pollution of heat-trapping gases. Dorgan’s comments contradict Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who last week said legislation may come to the floor this spring.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today introduced a bill that would restrict the White House from regulating greenhouse gas pollution. With climate politics (and regular politics) halting action on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has moved aggressively to impose restrictions through the Environmental Protection Agency. Attacks on the White House’s policy are coming from outside offcialdom, too. Leading business groups and firms met last week to decide on a course of action. The Hill reports that not everyone in attendance opposes the new regulations.
Polling superpower Frank Luntz, who for a long time was a top GOP adviser, has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to argue that most Americans think climate legislation would help solve a real problem with benefits that reach far beyond it. Among the findings [pdf]: Poll respondents are uninspired by the phrase “carbon neutral.”
The Yvo Empire: The Copenhagen Accord set Jan. 31 as a deadline for developed countries to define 2020 emissions reductions targets and for developing nations to announce mitigation actions. That date is fast approaching but fewer than two-dozen nations have signed off on the Accord itself, which make it a “soft” deadline. A tentative agreement that rich countries disseminate $30 billion in adaptation funds by 2012 still faces challenges, such as “who will donate how much, where the money will go and who will oversee the spending.” U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer says that congressional inaction will not relieve the White House of Obama’s commitment in Copenhagen to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern opened up to Grist about his concerns.
The Himalayan error is not the only item weighing on the IPCC’s public reputation, and by extension public appetite for climate policy. Scrutiny of IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri’s business relations is also taking attention away from the robust findings of climate science. With the next big report, the group’s fifth edition, due in 2013-2014, some are wondering if there are alternative avenues to codify climate science for policymakers and the public. Economist Richard Tol has written, “For many policy makers, the IPCC reports are the only source of scientific information on climate change. Monopolies are easily seduced into abusing their power. A duopoly may work better, but given the scale of the effort, this may not be feasible” [pdf].
Prasad Kasibhatla, associate professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has suggested that national academies might work together to issue climate science synthesis reports.
Climate Post book club: Every now and then it seems worthwhile to share a recent read. This week’s news coincides with some of the themes in Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen, an adventure-filled biography of rugged, globe-trekking Lonnie Thompson and a sweep through climate science and history.
Applicants must make very few numerical typos: When looking for the Himalaya statement on the IPCC website the first thing you see is this confidence-building item: “The IPCC has started work on the preparation of its Fifth Assessment Report. We are currently looking for experts who can act as authors.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
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