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CLIMATE CHANGE: “No Politics in the Melting of the Ice Sheet”

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - As climate scientists defend their work from sceptics in the aftermath of researchers’ emails being stolen over the weekend, a new report hopes to provide an update on science’s latest climate-related findings.

“The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science” is intended to fill the gap between the last assessment of climate research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in 2007, and the climate summit in Copenhagen less than two weeks away.

The report comes as climate change sceptics are crying foul in the U.S. Congress, editorial pages and elsewhere over recently hacked and publicised emails that they say reveal a manipulation of the science to paint climate change as more human-caused than they believe it is.

Unfazed by this uproar, the report’s authors released their findings Tuesday after combing academic journals for the hundreds of papers that have been written on climate change-related topics since the IPCC’s last cut-off, in 2006.

What they uncovered was a climate changing at a rate that outstrips what the IPCC projected based on the best available data of just three years ago.

“We’re not the IPCC, we’re not criticising the IPCC. We’re just saying the science has not stopped since the last IPCC report,” said Richard Somerville, a coordinating lead author of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report from 2007 and one of the 26 authors of Tuesday’s report. “There’s new science and there’s also three more years of data.”


The authors are quick to point out the assessments are simply science, meant for the edification of those who craft policy responses to climate change, not a prescription of what those policies should be.

“As we’ve repeatedly said, we’re climate scientists, not policymakers, so we’re saying what the science says, not what policy action should be taken,” said Somerville Tuesday. “There’s no such thing as liberal or conservative ocean circulation theory, for instance.”

“There are no politics involved in the melting of the ice sheet; it is what it is,” said co-author Michael Mann, a lead author of 2001’s IPCC Third Assessment Report.

The most significant findings of this latest report – which is not officially connected with the work of the IPCC – include the fact that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were nearly 40 percent higher in 2008 than they were in 1990.

This means if present emissions levels remain the same for just the next 20 years, the planet may warm beyond the two degrees Celsius threshold set as a target by world leaders, Mann said Tuesday.

The inference from this is that “if we continue to burn at our current rate…we’ve only got 20 years and then we need to stop right then. That’s obviously unrealistic,” said co-author Eric Steig, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. The only solution, he says, is to reduce emissions.

Some findings agreed with past reports, like the steady of increase of temperatures at a rate of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 25 years – a fact, the authors say, that, looked at in the light of increases in greenhouse gas emissions over that same time span, illustrates the human-made origins of warming.

“Natural, short- term fluctuations are occurring as usual but there have been no significant changes in the underlying warming trend,” notes the report, in order to explain how cool weather patterns caused by phenomena like El Niño or La Niña do not mean climate change is no longer a threat, as some have suggested.

More striking, though, are recent findings that far outstrip what was foreseen by the 2007 IPCC assessment. The summer melting of Arctic ice over the three years since then, for instance, has been about 40 percent greater than the average prediction of the models in that earlier report.

Due to melting like this, satellites have shown sea levels rising about 3.4 millimetres a year over the past 15 years, about 80 percent more than IPCC predictions, the report finds. This rate means seas would rise three feet or more by the end of the century, according to Mann.

Despite their non-prescriptive approach, the authors do offer several recommendations for policymakers based on the science the report surveyed.

“Average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under one metric ton CO2 by 2050,” the report concludes. “This is 80-95 percent below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.”

A bill in the U.S. Senate hopes to mandate an 83 percent cut in domestic emissions by 2050, based on 2005 levels. The EU has committed to a 60 to 80 percent cut over that time, based on 1990 levels.

The report comes in the face of an unfolding controversy in which emails and documents from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia were stolen by hackers and have been posted online. The content of these documents have caused climate change sceptics to levy accusation that climate researchers manipulated the data to strengthen evidence that climate change is human-made.

The authors of Tuesday’s report rushed to their colleagues’ defence.

“It is, of course, a criminal activity…and it really has nothing to do with the science,” said Somerville. “The science is not going to be changed by a smear campaign.”

“When all these personal emails are subject to cherry picking…it’s easy to take something that is actually quite innocent and make it somehow nefarious,” explained Mann, whose own work had been the subject of attacks by climate science sceptics in 2003.

“If the critics had succeeded in discrediting Mike [Mann], it wouldn’t have changed anything because there would have been others with the same conclusions,” said Steig. “The science precedes us.”

 
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