Tuesday, February 16, 2010

SCEPTICS NOW WELCOME

Over the last few months there has been a remarkable change of tone among the climate science community. Until recently sceptics were treated as barely worth the consideration of ‘real’ climate scientists. The CRU emails showed clearly how attempts were made to prevent the publication of any paper questioning climate orthodoxy or, should such a paper have been published, to prevent it appearing in any IPCC publication. That has now changed; or at least the rhetoric has changed; only time will tell if the underlying philosophy has changed.

One sign of this was a recent article in a national newspaper by the UK government’s Chief Scientist, John Beddington. In the article he says “The impact of global warming has been exaggerated by some scientists and there is an urgent need for more honest disclosure of the uncertainty of predictions about the rate of climate change.” Not to be outdone his predecessor, David King, has weighed in with an article which makes a similar point.

This is in marked contrast to a statement by the same David King in 2004, who was still at the time in post, that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism. Not much sign of scientific openness there.

The discussion of the CRU emails, when they got through to the main stream media, was probably the first time many of the public were aware of any dissention regarding the inevitability and magnitude of climate change. In this atmosphere of heightened awareness we have had ‘Glaciergate’, ‘Amazongate’ and now “Africagate”.

The first of these, Glaciergate, related to claims in an official IPCC report that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by the year 2035. The claim was based on speculation by an Indian scientist in an interview with the New Scientist, a British popular science magazine. This claim was included in a report by the WWF which was quoted by the IPCC as a reference. Although a number of comments were made during the draft stage of the IPCC report it was not removed. Initially the IPCC tried to defend the claim. Dr Pachauri the chairman of the IPCC said criticism was based on ‘voodoo science’. However the IPCC has now accepted that the claim was without justification.

Amazongate refers to a claim in another IPCC report that “up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation". As a source the IPCC again referred to a WWF/IUCN publication on forest fires. This time the WWF publication did give a reference – to a publication in the highly respected science journal “Nature.” That article was titled “Large-scale Impoverishment of Amazonian Forests by Logging and Fire”. In it there is a reference to 40% but it is to selective logging which leaves the remaining forest vulnerable to fire. There is a separate reference to sensitivity to drought during El Nino events. So again, the IPCC claim is not substantiated.

The third of these claims relates to African agriculture. IPCC has claimed that in some African countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent by 2020. Whereas the other two claims in were in specific sections of the main body of the report, this claim appears in the synthesis report which highlights the most important issues. Dr Pachauri was himself a contributor to this report and has quoted the claim on many occasions. As with the other claims a report from an advocacy group is given as source and tracing the references back reveals a different picture to that presented in the IPCC report. The report was based on submissions to the IPCC from three countries: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Only one of these uses the figure of 50% relating it specifically to grain yields in drought years with a lesser reduction in other years. So from a statement relating to one country and one crop under specific conditions the IPCC has produced a statement which appears to have implications for all rain-fed crops for the whole of Africa. 

These three specious claims were revealed by sceptics not by the IPCCS internal review system. No wonder sceptics were not welcome in the past.

The defence of the IPCC to these errors has been to say that in a series of reports totalling 1,000s of pages a few errors are not unsurprising, true, and that they do not call into question the underlying science of climate change, also true. That misses the main point. At the highest level the IPCC was using unsubstantiated claims regarding the impact of climate change to further its case and scientists who were aware of the fallacies in these claims felt cowed and failed to speak out.

The IPCC is part of the United Nations system which has the delicate task of according equal status to all its members whilst also acting as a conduit for development aid to some of them. In Africa, Asia and South America (regions where these problems occurred) there are UN member countries in receipt of development assistance. Some of these do not have adequate budgets for their national meteorological services let alone the super computers, free access to the scientific literature and funds for conference attendance that ‘western’ climate scientists expect. One telling comment from one of the IPCC draft report reviewers was that he could not assess a comment as he was not able to access a copy of the Nature article which someone had mentioned in that comment.

So what for the future?

There have been suggestions that the IPCC has outlived its usefulness and should be replaced. This won’t happen. As Copenhagen showed, future action will depend on interaction between high carbon and low carbon emitting countries and this is only possible within the context of the UN. There have also been calls for the replacement of Dr Pachauri as Chairman of the IPCC. If this happens it will done following UN established procedures. Dr Pachauri was appointed to replace the previous chairman who was seen by the US to be too ‘warmist’; it was political move and political considerations will predominate in any replacement. The only debate will be whether he should be replaced by someone from another Asian country or whether it is now the turn of South America or Africa.

It is significant that the most articulate scepticism has come from a class which could be described as ‘technical non-academic professionals’. This describes people like Steve McIntyre (minerals exploitation), Anthony Watts (meteorologist) and David Holland (engineer). The leading sceptical blogs often have article-length postings from people, probably from a similar background, who have examined climate records in detail and raised serious questions about the way they have been processed. The scrutiny these people provide is more intensive and searching than that provided by peer review (aptly renamed ‘pal review’ by one blogger).

This suggests a way forward. There is a large group of technically qualified people who, whilst not climate scientists in the strict sense of the term, have spent their lives working with climate data: in areas such as water resources, urban drainage, irrigation, dam spillway design, etc. It is such people who have identified the weakness of the academic approach; they should be given a chance to see if they can do better.

Monday, February 8, 2010

NICHOLAS STERN - "'A BLUEPRINT FOR A SAFER PLANET"

This book could have equally have been called “A Blueprint for Copenhagen 2010”. Now, it might seem a bit unfair to comment on a book written before December 2010 in relation to what happened in that month. In Nicholas Stern’s case it is fully justified. As a former Chief Economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and of the World Bank and as the author of the UK government’s, globally influential, review of the Economics of Climate Change the author has been deeply involved in shaping policy.

The book is well written and the author has the ability to clarify complex issues. One of these is the relative merits and disadvantages of controlling CO2 emissions by a Carbon Tax or by Carbon Trading. With a Carbon Tax you know what it will cost but not how much it will reduce emissions; with Carbon Trading (Cap-and-Trade in the US) you know by how much it will reduce emissions but not what the financial implications are.

He also deals with one of the main criticisms of the Stern Review. Some economists argued that his conclusions were, in part, an outcome of his choice of discount rate. This is an important issue and it is worth looking briefly at what the “discount rate” is. The discount rate is used by economists for comparing alternative investments. For example when building a bridge how do you decide whether to build a 4-lane or a 6-lane bridge? If you build the 6-lane bridge part of the capacity will be unused for many years; if you build the 4-lane bridge you will have to face the cost and complication of widening it at some date in the future. The answer is to work out how much money you would have to invest now to pay for the bridge to be widened in the future. The rate of interest used for this calculation is called the discount rate and is typically around 6%. If the amount you have to invest now more than than the cost difference between a 6-lane and a 4-lane bridge you build a 4-lane bridge; if it is the other way around you build a 6-lane bridge now.

In his review Nicholas Stern used a much lower discount rate than the 6% mentioned above. He justifies his choice on two grounds. The first is that conventional economics assumes that whatever is being considered will not alter the ground rules; the type of bridge you build will not alter the economic assumptions underlying the comparison. With climate change, which could have major impacts globally, the assumptions of conventional economic are no longer valid. The second justification is that the real rate of return on safe long-term investments, such as government bonds, is also much lower, around 1.5%.

The crux of his argument is that mitigation, reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, makes more economic sense than adaptation, waiting for it happen and adjusting our life styles as a consequence.

No one can question Stern’s economic credentials and, wisely, he simply accepts the science. In a paragraph on adaption he shows a lack of understanding of why people quote the fact that the Romans made wine in Northern England. He suggests this is used as an example of adaptation. It is not. It used to demonstrate that at the time when Roman civilisations was spreading over Europe and North Africa temperatures were higher than they are today.

I started by saying the title of this book could have included “Copenhagen”. There is actually a chapter in the book called “The structure of a global deal.” The key elements identified are: a 50% cut in world emissions by 2050, developing countries to start reductions from 2020, carbon trading to be introduced world-wide, funding to reduce deforestation, investment in current and new low carbon energy and financial help to reduce the impact of climate change in developing countries. None of this was agreed.

The impasse at Copenhagen could be considered as a failure of the world’s governments to accept the arguments of this book. Despite that it is well worth reading as whatever the outcome economics will play a large part in decision that have to be taken.

Publisher: The Bodley Head, 2009
ISBN 9781847920386