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Science sidelined at Durban Bryan Walker Dec 14

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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.

Hard Talk on the wrong track Bryan Walker Jul 27

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I wondered what Stephen Sackur might want to put to Rajendra Pachauri when he interviewed the IPCC chair on BBC’s Hardtalk this week. His agenda turned out to be depressingly predictable for the most part. The opening was not encouraging. Sackur referred to other options than a global climate deal in view of the stalled international negotiations, mentioning the abandonment of the Kyoto approach  proposed by David King recently. ’Has Pachauri got the energy and the ideas to reframe the climate change debate?’ he asked.

Well of course it’s not within Pachauri’s brief to try to frame the debate, as he pointed out when declining Sackur’s urging to express his opinion on the matter. His job is to bring the science to the attention of the negotiating governments, not to advance his opinions on how they might formulate their response. He leaves no doubt as to the necessity driving a response, and is clear that emissions reduction needs to be under way within the near future, but he can hardly go beyond that into the details of negotiation.

Sackur adopted an incredulous tone in relation to the recent weighty IPCC report on renewable energy sources to the effect that renewables could supply nearly 80 percent of the world’s energy by mid-century. The lack of realism, he claimed, was compounded by the report’s positing that world energy consumption would go down. Pachauri could do little more than refer to the surprising speed with which energy transformations can take place and to stress the remarkable gains available in energy efficiency. To Sackur’s reiterated incredulity he replied mildly that no one says the task will be easy, but pointed out that if it is not undertaken the impacts of climate change will create enormous problems for a large part of the world’s population.

Sackur was hot on the credibility trail, and moved immediately to the accusation that the inclusion of a Greenpeace advisor among the writers of the renewable energy report was a serious mistake.  Pachauri came back strongly.

’Not at all. Not a bit. We have had authors from Exxon Mobil…We take in individuals on the strength of their qualifications…It would be totally wrong and unfair to dismiss a good individual just because he’s working for Greenpeace.’

Next on the credibility list was the hoary old chestnut of the mistaken statement about the melting of Himalayan glaciers in the fourth assessment report. A regrettable mistake, said Pachauri immediately, adding that it was one error in 2000 pages of valuable material and pointing out that there was now a protocol in place by which correction of errors can be better achieved.  Sackur at this point even tossed in the climategate emails as somehow contributing to the credibility issue.

He then raised the issue of claims of a link between extreme weather events and global warming, suggesting with considerable vigour that it was stretching the science to make the connection. He quoted a recent statement from Pauchari, ’We know (Sackur’s emphasis) there will be more floods, more droughts, more heatwaves and extreme precipitation events’, and claimed this meant that people would assume that specific events could be assigned to global warming. Pachauri had already made clear that it was events in the aggregate, the trend, that he speaks of, and could only repeat that he was not talking about a single event, a fact that he said he clarified and always does.

Then came the accusation in which Sackur wondered whether there had been a decision to become more vocal about the link to extreme weather events because the long-term message is not producing the action wanted from politicians, as if the IPCC is involved in manoeuvring its science to achieve a desired objective. To which Pachauri replied that the forthcoming report on the subject later in the year was being carried out at the behest of the governments of the world.

Geoengineering was introduced, with the suggestion that the IPCC was close to despair in pursuing the subject. It didn’t seem to matter how often Pachauri explained that the geoengineering survey was being undertaken because the governments have asked for it and that the IPCC was taking no position on the subject.

The interview finally moved to the question of Pachauri stepping down as chair. He said he had been appointed to see the 5th assessment through and would do that.

’I really cannot walk away. I’m in the middle of something that’s an ongoing activity.’

Pachauri handled the interview with dignity, making it quite clear that the function of the IPCC was to report on the published science and that it had a duty to inform the public of what the impacts of climate change are likely to be. But the aggressive attacking nature of the questioning made it difficult for him to do much more than defend IPCC procedures.

I know Hardtalk is meant to be hard hitting, but as I watched this interview I thought of Steve Jones’ remarks in his recent report on the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science reporting.

’…again and again news and current affairs return to the sub‐text that the correct way to treat a scientist on air is as if he or she were a politician: someone whose devotion to the truth is determined by a pre‐existing agenda.’

Pachauri is not a climate scientist, but as IPCC chair he represents their work, and the assessment reports are put together by scientists. The line of questioning Sackur adopted was suggestive that something less than scientific openness is at work in the IPCC, that manipulations are going on to fit an agenda. It didn’t correspond with the way the IPCC actually works, preparing reports as directed by UN bodies, following transparent procedures in doing so.

It’s a little dispiriting to see the IPCC treated by a BBC programme as if it is engaged in dodgy political tactics

I often appreciate Hardtalk interviews, including many conducted by Sackur. Maybe he was just playing devil’s advocate in this interview, but even if that were the case it’s a little dispiriting to see the IPCC treated by a BBC programme as if it is engaged in dodgy political tactics (’a shady pastime awaiting exposure by the bright beam of reportorial truth’, in Jones’ words), especially in view of the utter seriousness of the message its reports convey. Politics will no doubt play a part in the formulations of our response to climate change, but the IPCC reports themselves are hardly the product of political contriving. One hopes that the ’new training programme for journalists on impartiality as it applies to science’ promised by the BBC in response to Jones’ report might produce interviews aimed at eliciting scientific information before confidently challenging it.

Note: A short clip from the Hardtalk interview is available on the BBC website.

IPCC report: done well, could do better Gareth Renowden Aug 31

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The InterAcademy Council report on the IPCC — Climate Change Assessments: Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCCreleased yesterday, calls for “fundamental reforms” to the IPCC’s management structure and review processes. Climate Central provides a useful summary of the key findings:

  • The IPCC should create an Executive Committee to run the organization in between major conferences.
  • Rather than have the IPCC director serve for two six-year terms, a new director should be appointed for each major assessment report (there have been four so far). Since the IPCC is well into the fifth assessment, it isn’t clear whether Dr. Pachauri will step down (he’s evidently said that any decision will have to wait for the next IPCC meeting, in Korea in October).
  • The reviewers who decide what makes it into the final report and what doesn’t should work harder to address comments from authors, and to let dissenting views be reflected more fully in the finished product.
  • Statements about certainties and uncertainties about climate science need to be more explicit, need to be based on a more uniform set of criteria, and need to be clearer about how they were calculated.
  • The IPCC in general needs to be more open and transparent about how it goes about its business.
  • The IPCC needs to improve the way it deals with so-called “grey literature”– that is, non-peer-reviewed reports that contain valuable information, but which haven’t already been subjected to strict scientific scrutiny.

Professor Martin Manning, Director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington told the Science Media Centre that he welcomed the report:

The IAC has run a detailed review of the process used by the IPCC for assessing scientific understanding and this has produced a number of useful comments that I think most climate scientists will agree with. Their report accepts that scientific understanding of climate change is developing rapidly and this means that the process for assessing it for policymakers needs to become more dynamic.

More reaction: Roger Harrabin at the BBC, Guardian, New Scientist, plus the UN webcast of the press conference is here.

My take? It would be a miracle if a 22 year old organisation with minimal full-time staff that has seen its raison d’être move up to the top of the list of global priorities couldn’t be improved. The suggestions look sensible, and if they help to defuse the continuing attacks from the usual suspects, so much the better.

Report clears IPCC head Pachauri, UK paper apologises Bryan Walker Aug 27

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Back in March I posted on IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri’s stout defence of the IPCC report against the attacks to which it was being subjected by hysterical denialism.  But he has also had to defend himself against accusations in an article by Christopher Booker and Richard North in the Sunday Telegraph in December which claimed that the UN climate chief was “making a fortune from his links with ‘carbon trading’ companies” and that payments from his work for other organisations “must run into millions of dollars”.

KPMG was engaged by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the non-profit organisation Pachauri heads, to conduct an independent review of personal financial records of Dr Pachauri and other records of TERI to confirm if there is any evidence that suggests that Dr Pachauri misused his position for personal benefit as alleged.

The KPMG report has now been made public.  The Guardian reports:

’The KPMG audit, completed in March, showed the allegation that Pachauri had made millions of dollars could not be further from the truth. In addition to his annual salary of £45,000, the auditors found that in the period 1 April 2008 – 31 December 2009, Pachauri received 20,000 rupees (£278) from two national power commissions in India, on which he serves as director; 35,880 rupees (£498) for articles and lectures; and a maximum of 100,000 rupees (£1,389) in the form of royalties from his books and awards.

’Any money paid as a result of work that Pachauri had done for other organisations went to TERI. The accounts also show that Pachauri also donated to the institute a lifetime achievement award from the Environment Partnership Summit – a 200,000 rupee prize he would have been entitled to keep.’

The Sunday Telegraph has removed the article from its website and apologised, hardly handsomely but apparently to avoid libel proceedings:

“[The article] was not intended to suggest that Dr Pachauri was corrupt or abusing his position as head of the IPCC and we accept KPMG found Dr Pachauri had not made ‘millions of dollars’ in recent years. We apologise to Dr Pachauri for any embarrassment caused.”

George Monbiot has made trenchant comment.

’Has anyone been as badly maligned as Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ?

’…The story immediately travelled around the world. It was reproduced on hundreds of blogs. The allegations it contained were widely aired in the media and generally believed. For a while, no discussion of climate change or the IPCC appeared complete without reference to Pachauri’s ‘dodgy’ business dealings and alleged conflicts of interest.

’There was just one problem: the story was untrue.

 ’It’s not just that Pachauri hadn’t been profiting from the help he has given to charities, businesses and institutions, his accounts show that he is scrupulous to the point of self-denial.’

The Sunday Telegraph article also complained that we don’t know “how much we all pay him” as chairman of the IPCC. The answer, as Monbiot reports, is nothing.  This was information that the journalists could easily have obtained but driven by their intention to malign preferred not to.

This won’t be the end of the matter for denialists of course. North on his blog puts the apology down to the paper’s need to avoid libel proceedings from an ’unethical law firm’ and continues undaunted:

’If you wish to believe that means Pachauri didn’t make millions of dollars, that is your affair. But the crucial thing is that the paper has not apologised for accusing Pachauri of making millions of dollars. That accusation stands uncorrected. The paper simply accepts that KPMG has a claim in this respect.’

Monbiot expects that the smear campaign will continue, and become ever more lurid as new charges are invented.

’The best we can do is to set out the facts and appeal to whatever decency the people spreading these lies might have, and ask them to consider the impact of what they have done to an innocent man. Will it work? I wouldn’t bet on it. As we have seen in the United States, where some people (often the same people) continue to insist that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born abroad, certain views are impervious to evidence.’

If we need reminding, denialism will stop at nothing in its campaign to denigrate the science of climate change. That is what the attacks on Pachauri are about. He is chairman of the IPCC. Portray him as dishonest and hope thereby to spread doubt about the IPCC reports. It is determination to suppress the science which informs the attacks on him and on the scientists who have been falsely accused of various malpractices.

IPCC’s Pachauri fights back Bryan Walker Mar 28

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’We have a very apt saying in Hindi, which essentially translates as: ‘When a jackal is threatened, he starts moving toward the city.’ In other words, he becomes more visible. I think some of these guys are speaking out volubly because they read the writing on the wall.’

That was IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri in an interview nearly a year ago, speaking of the increase in the decibel level of contrarians.  Even so he was probably not prepared for the strength of the attack they mounted as the year proceeded.

But he is more than ready to defend the IPCC against the attacks it has been receiving.  The Guardian has just published a forthright article written by him.

’To dismiss the implications of climate change based on an error about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting is an act of astonishing intellectual legerdemain. Yet this is what some doubters of climate change are claiming. But the reality is that our understanding of climate change is based on a vast and remarkably sound body of science — and is something we distort and trivialise at our peril.’

He reminds readers of the scale of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). The IPCC mobilised 450 scientists from all over the world to write it. An additional 800 contributing authors gave specialised inputs and about 2,500 expert reviewers provided 90,000 comments.

’In this mammoth task, which yielded a finished product of nearly 3,000 pages, there was a regrettable error indicating the Himalayan glaciers were likely to melt by the year 2035. This mistake has been acknowledged by the IPCC.’

He reaffirms that the major thrust of the report’s findings provides overwhelming evidence that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and draws attention to our responsibility to ensure that future generations do not suffer the consequences.

’We cannot ignore the fact that the impacts of climate change, which are based on actual observations, are leading to ‘increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global sea levels’…

’Altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather, together with sea level rise, are expected to have mostly adverse effects on natural and human systems. Even more serious is the finding that human-induced warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible. For instance, partial loss of ice sheets on polar land could imply metres of sea level rise, major changes in coastlines and inundation of low-lying areas, with the greatest effects in river deltas and low-lying islands.’

He acknowledges that the choices for stakeholders and the economy are difficult, but they should not ignore the IPCC’s findings, which are the work of thousands of scientists from across the world who ’have worked diligently and in an objective and transparent manner to provide scientific evidence for action to meet the growing challenge of climate change.’ Ignoring those findings ’would lead to impacts that impose larger costs than those required today to stabilise the Earth’s climate.’

Pachauri moves on and presumably refers to Senator James Inhofe when he speaks of

’… the effort of some in positions of power and responsibility to indict dedicated scientists as “climate criminals”. I sincerely hope the world is not witnessing a new form of persecution of those who defy conventional ignorance and pay a terrible price for their scientifically valid beliefs.’

Inhofe is a long-standing climate sceptic, who last month called for a criminal investigation of climate scientists. He published a minority report from the Senate committee on environment and public works that claimed climate scientists involved with the controversy over emails from the University of East Anglia “violated fundamental ethical principles governing taxpayer-funded research and, in some cases, may have violated federal laws”. He named the scientists, who included Phil Jones and Keith Briffa from the University of Esast Anglia and Peter Stott of the UK Met Office.  Michael Mann was, of course, among the US scientists named. 

Mann, in response, as reported in the Guardian, has quoted President Harry Truman way back in 1948 in the dark age of McCarthyism:   ’Continuous research by our best scientists … may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumours, gossip, and vilification.’

Mann added:

“I fear that is precisely the sort of atmosphere that is being created, and sure, it impacts research. The more time scientists have to spend fending off these sorts of attacks and dealing with this sort of nonsense, the less time is available to them to actually do science, and to push the forefront of our knowledge forward. Perhaps that is the intent?”

But to return to Pachauri.  He has not had an easy time himself in the wake of the acknowledgement of the error in the report. I have no interest in the personal accusations made against him, but it’s worth setting the record straight about his ’voodoo science’ comment.  It was not made in relation to the discovery of the error in the IPCC report, but in relation to a discussion paper authored last year by a retired official of the Geological Survey of India which said it would be premature to state the glaciers were retreating as a result of periodic climate variation until many centuries of observation were available. It concluded by raising the possibility that the retreat of Himalayan glaciers today was a delayed reaction to the Medieval Warm Period rather than a response to current warming. 

However almost anything that Pachauri has ever said or done will become grist to the denialist mill. It is good to see him seemingly not dismayed and steadily persisting in conveying the message that there is every reason to trust the IPCC reports and it would be a dereliction of responsibility not to heed their warning.