Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Climate change update

The classy science policy guys at the Prometheus blog ask what does "policy neutral" mean to the IPCC? They've got an interesting point of view on the slant that the IPCC's latest report will take, especially as the IPCC claims to be policy neutral:
“The past reaction to my comments on political advocacy by IPCC leadership has been mixed. Some who share the IPCC's advocated agenda see no problem in the IPCC leadership engaging in such advocacy. Who wouldn’t want such a group perceived as authoritative and legitimate on their side? (Similarly, I am sure neo-cons would welcome a CIA Director advocating action on Iran!) By contrast some opposed to the advocated agenda have seized upon the obvious inconsistency in the IPCC’s views on "neutrality" to try to impinge the credibility of the organization. From my perspective, while both of these perspectives are to be expected (and I am sure will make their views known in response), there is a third view that matters most -- and that is the question of the appropriate role of organized expertise in decision making, whether it is the CIA or IPCC. This last view is quite independent of (or it should be) what one thinks about the issues of climate policy.”

Margaret Wente at the Globe and Mail has written a great article that condenses much of the current climate change debate into a manageable summary; Climate change a 'questionable truth' is fantastically quotable due to the number of respected scientists she talks to, and the depth of their responses about climate change issues. Here are a few of the more interesting ones (emphasis mine):
“The very great uncertainty of long-term climate impacts is a point that often gets lost in the debate. The scenarios range from mild to severe, but it's the extreme ones that get the ink.”
“The climate debate focuses almost entirely on mitigation (how we can slow down global warming). But climate scientists and policy experts say that in the short term — our lifetimes — our most important insurance policy is adaptation. Nothing we do to cut emissions will reduce the risk from hurricanes or rising seas in the short term. But there are other ways to reduce the risk. We can build storm-surge defences, stop building in coastal areas and make sure we protect our fresh-water supplies from salination. We also can develop crops that will do well in hotter climates.

“Adaptation” is not a word that figures much in climate-change debates. Activists (and much of the general public) think it sounds lazy and defeatist. But the experts talk about adaptation all the time.

“Climate-change policy requires that both of these issues — adaptation and carbon reduction — be addressed simultaneously,” Yale's Prof. Mendelsohn says.”

Environmental campaigner Tim Flannery (and 2007 Australian of the Year) laments that scientists need more freedom to research Australian-specific climate change factors and to spend less time helping make industries such as coal 'clean'. The reality is that both are required, but he does bring up some interesting research:
“Over the past 50 years, forest clearing and industrialisation in Asia have produced a haze of tiny particles called aerosols that hang perpetually over the south Asian landmass. This haze cools the region, and in doing so alters the temperature and air pressure gradients across the Indian Ocean.

It is most likely these changes that have increased the tendency of monsoonal winds, and the rain they bring, to flow across Australia. So important is their impact that without these aerosols, some models show that global warming would cause northern Australia to become even drier and sunnier than it was in 1950.

Studies such as these underline the need for government policy to be underpinned by fundamental science. Unfortunately, this is not what we have seen in Australia over the past decade. Instead, scientists have been told to become more relevant to industry, and increasingly organisations such as the CSIRO have been reorganised to work with partners such as the coal industry. This has left us in a dangerous position, flying partially blind into a rapidly changing future.

Australians need to be sure we are making the right decisions on climate change. Aerosols last only weeks or days in the atmosphere, and if Asia cleans up its industry and air (there are signs that this is already happening), northern Australia's rainfall may decline precipitously.”
Great. So now we don't want our neighbours to stop polluting their air ... clearly whether the world addresses climate change (or not) adaptation will be required.

Neville Nichols from Monash University, an IPCC contributor, is brought in on Australia's current dry spell (emphasis added):
“Nicholls says while the consensus of most climate scientists is that it is possible that man-made climate change may be at least contributing to the present dry period, it is certainly not its root cause. He sees a real danger in the public being swept up in the belief that the drought has been caused by climate change.

"I think there is this feeling in the community linking this drought to climate change, and the great worry with that is that when it does rain they will think all that stuff about climate change is rubbish," he says. "We are experiencing this really intense one-year drought which probably has almost nothing to do with climate change, it just seems like it's a natural thing, and there is the possibility that the longer-term drought that we've had might just be natural variability, but the problem is (that) as far as anything in science is certain, we're definitely getting warmer temperatures because of the enhanced greenhouse effect."

Nicholls's dollar-each-way observations are typical of those closest to the debate and most qualified to comment.

They have left a vacuum in the public debate that has been filled by commentators less constrained by the science.


High-profile environmental commentators such as Tim Flannery have done plenty to fuel this populist thinking. His engaging blend of genuine science with hand-picked factoids and a dose of fear has long since blamed the drought on climate change, warning of rising food prices and referring to the erroneous claim at the water summit last year by South Australian Premier Mike Rann that this is a one-in-1000-year drought.”

The Australia Institute have presented a report about possible nuclear reactor sites, which they point out is “one of the most politically contentious aspects of the nuclear debate.” Unsurprisingly, given their left-wing position, they chose to focus on this aspect in their report, emphasising people's fears:
“Report author Andrew Macintosh said the fact that nuclear energy attracted moderate levels of support at a general level but fierce opposition from local communities when concrete proposals were put forward suggested the presence of the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon.


Greens senator Kerry Nettle said the report unsurprisingly showed that populations close to the suggested sites did not want nuclear power plants.

"Instead of talking about 25 possible nuclear power plants, the prime minister should be looking for another 25 sites for major wind power stations and another 25 solar power stations," she said.”
Unfortunately we are unlikely to get anyone to want wind stations or solar power sites next door to them either ... so why does this study invalidate the pursuit of nuclear energy as a viable alternate energy source? I wonder how long it takes before some enterprising local council works out that the impact on jobs, industry and local living conditions of a nuclear power plant far outweighs the potential and theoretical downsides? All I know is that if I move up to the Central Coast I would far rather have the local coal power plant shutdown and a smaller footprint (physical and environmental) nuclear plant take its place.

The NSW State Government has asked the CSIRO to reflect on the potential impacts to Sydney of global warming, and it appears that devastation is expected unless we adapt:
“The CSIRO report warned that the city must work out how to adapt quickly, with the impacts of human-caused global warming now apparently inevitable.”
It's a shame that Narrabeen is one of the suburbs they say will be most damaged - but in reality much of it is built on sandbar anyway, and in 'normal' years you can expect big storms to wash over much of it.

In summary, climate change alarmists are getting shriller, Australian State and Federal governments are still using 'independent' reports to fight their political battles, and real policy approaches to adapt to and minimise the effects of climate change are still nowhere in sight. The next Federal and NSW State elections will be very interesting - if things continue as they are we can expect more gradual policy changes, if either government changes then we might see a much faster move in either direction.