Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A climate of controversy?

This week's guest post comes from Laurie Michaelis, giving us some expert comment on the recent media controversy about climate science. Laurie is co-ordinator of Living Witness Project, a charity supporting Quakers in developing a witness to sustainable living. He has worked on energy, climate change and other environmental policy issues since 1983.

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For most of us who try to keep up with climate science, the evidence seems overwhelming. Every week brings new additions to the list of changes in the earth’s systems. Some are quite scary – for instance there has been a sharp rise in atmospheric concentrations of methane in recent years, and there are new observations of the gas being released on a huge scale from melting permafrost. This is one of the feedback loops that could result in a rapid switch to a much warmer world.

A recent (February 2010) poll for the BBC found that only a quarter of the British public accepted that human activity is causing climate change. In November 2009 over 40% of the public had accepted this view. The causes of the shift in public opinion are evident. Recent months have seen continuing controversy about the integrity of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  It appears that scientists cannot be trusted. And despite rising global temperatures (2009 was the second hottest year on record), we in Britain have just had an exceptionally cold winter which the Met Office did not forecast.

The credibility of the IPCC has been damaged by two recent incidents. The first, in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, was the publication of e-mails written by scientists at the University of East Anglia compiling evidence for global temperature changes. It is alleged that they sought to block publication of views dissenting from their own, that they tried to frustrate Freedom of Information requests, and that their analysis of global temperature data is flawed. In particular they seem to have failed to correct for biases in the location of weather stations providing surface temperature data, which tend to be located in urban regions that have warmed for reasons other than climate change.

The second incident, in January 2010, was the revelation that one statement in the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report – that the Himalayan glaciers were on track to disappear within 30 years – was not true and was not based on peer reviewed scientific literature. Subsequently, additional questionable statements have been found in the report. Perhaps most significantly, there was insufficient basis for its statement that ‘by 2020, in some countries [in Africa], yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%’.

So is climate science now up in the air? The world’s major academies of science have reaffirmed their confidence in the IPCC’s main findings – that climate change is almost certainly happening and that human activity is the cause. The IPCC represents probably the most thorough and careful effort there has ever been to evaluate and test the state of the scientific knowledge and uncertainty about an issue. Its reports amount to about 3000 pages at 900 words per page, dense with citations. Each IPCC assessment is authored by a large group of experts over a couple of years. Every effort is made to include dissenting voices, and to ensure that the findings are robust, by opening successive drafts up to expert and government review. Each chapter has a review editor who works with the authors to ensure they take every review comment seriously and record their response. The final versions of the reports have to be accepted by the governments, some of which - including the United States and Saudi Arabia - have sought to downplay climate risks. The main findings have repeatedly been supported by other independent scientific bodies, perhaps most significantly when George W Bush asked the US National Academy of Sciences to come up with its own review of climate change.

However, the IPCC is flawed. My impressions derive largely from having been a Lead Author and Convening Lead Author for several IPCC reports from 1993 to 2001. I think there is a particular challenge in trying to be ‘scientific’ about a huge, complex, interconnected set of issues that relate to climate change. You could perhaps see the statements made by the reports in three categories:
1) observations: statements about what has been observed to happen – such as changes in greenhouse gas emissions, concentrations of gases in the atmosphere, temperatures, sea level, ice cover, extent of species and habitats.
2) interpretations: statements about the causes of the observations – e.g. what is the relative contribution of greenhouse gas emissions and solar variation to the changes in the Earth’s surface temperatures.
3) projections, predictions and scenarios: statements about what might happen and what is expected to happen.

Mostly, the scientific method is good at delivering well-corroborated observations. Scientists are also well-trained in the interpretation of their observations, in attributing cause, and in being careful not to jump to conclusions because of a spurious correlation.

However, projecting what might happen in the future cannot be subject to scientific method in the same way. There are no observations. The IPCC reports make use of ‘scenarios’ – descriptions of alternative possible futures. I was a member of the team that developed the scenarios in current use. Considerable effort was involved, including people with a range of expertise, using a large number of different computer models to explore how the world economy might develop, and subjecting the whole process to the usual IPCC scrutiny and review. However, the scenarios are just stories about what might happen; they are not predictions or forecasts.

Despite the IPCC’s efforts to include as wide a range of voices and perspectives as possible, some views inevitably come to dominate. In my own areas of work – evaluating the policies and measures that might reduce greenhouse gas emissions – the writing teams are dominated by technical and economic specialists with very few social scientists. Perhaps this is partly because the IPCC answers to governments, and governments tend to be preoccupied with economic growth and competitiveness rather than human well-being. Sociologists and anthropologists, who have a tendency to challenge assumptions about the way society is run, are rarely nominated by their governments as potential contributors.

So the policies and measures considered in IPCC reports are generally marginal changes to the current ways of doing things. Economic growth is assumed to be good. On the whole society is expected to continue as normal. We as Quakers should challenge this on several grounds:
a) There is plenty of research (popularised by Richard Layard) to show that the western high-consuming lifestyle does not result in happiness and that people can be just as satisfied with less money and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
b) There are many other environmental and social problems with the western lifestyle – it is unsustainable in its excessive use of finite resources of energy, land and water; it inequitable, involving consumption levels that could not be achieved by all the world’s population and relying on low-cost manufacturing and waste disposal in other parts of the world.
c) Our dependence on minerals and fossil fuels, most obviously oil, is a major cause of international conflict and violence.

Meanwhile the IPCC seems more likely to be underestimating than overestimating the potential severity of climate change, because of the stringency of its review processes and government controls. Many scientists have warned that warming and sea level rise may be faster than implied by the 2007 assessment, and that we may be close to a tipping point for a much warmer climate. Even if you doubt climate science, the case against is certainly not proven and the risk of huge, irreversible ecological damage must be substantial. It would be rational to take action to avoid that risk, if only to ensure our own survival.

Perhaps a large part of public doubt about climate change comes down to the need people have to justify their current choices and way of life. Addressing climate change will require a shift in behaviour. 75-80% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the supply chains for the consumption of food, transport and housing. Within these three areas the most significant emission causes are the consumption of meat and dairy products, personal travel by car and air, and use of gas and electricity in the home.

Whereas it is normally assumed that we need to change attitudes in order to change behaviour, the truth is often the other way around. There’s plenty of research in specific circumstances that shows how people develop attitudes and beliefs that support their current habitual behaviour. In fact, people tend to adopt the behaviours of the people around them.

So for me the central challenge in responding to climate change is not to persuade people that it’s happening, but to develop groups or communities that can make self-conscious, collective choices about living sustainably, and act as patterns and examples to the people around them. Several organisations and networks are working with this end in mind, including the Global Action Plan EcoTeams programme and the Transition Town movement. In Living Witness Project we are working to support Quaker meetings in finding their own collective approaches to sustainability. There is a particular Quaker contribution in our experience of developing shared understandings and collective choices as groups. I believe we should be doing more to share that experience.

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Thanks to Laurie for this post.

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