Thursday, 18 December 2008

Australia’s shameful response to climate change

When Kevin Rudd announced a 5% target for emissions reductions for 2020, you could almost hear John Howard laughing from the political grave. It's small comfort to me that in discussing climate matters since then, a Labor supporter called Rudd “Howard” by mistake. Freudian?

The science the government has in front of it says you have to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 to save the Great Barrier Reef. Of course Australia cannot achieve this on its own because it accounts for a relatively small fraction of worldwide emissions – even if you account for its role as the world’s biggest exporter of coal (about a third of worldwide exports).

Another thing not widely talked about is that carbon emissions accumulate. Around half are absorbed by the environment; the rest dissipates very slowly over centuries. That means that if we have not achieved a target by 2020 that stops CO2 accumulating to 550 parts per million or more, we can’t just turn off the tap and expect the atmospheric CO2 level to drop.

How soon will the rest of the world regard carbon emissions as a serious, urgent problem? That Europe has committed to a 20% cut by 2020 is some indication.

Why should Europe care more? Partially, it’s because Europe has a stronger tradition than English-speaking countries of taking science seriously. But another factor is Europe’s proximity to the Arctic. A growing number of scientists is predicting an ice-free Arctic summer by 2015. It was a big enough shock when it was reported in 2007 that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2030.

So in a sense the self-styled sceptics are right. The science has enough uncertainties that we have to be cautious about accepting predictions without a wide allowance for error. The problem is, the majority of cases that are breaking out of the modelled predictions are on the worse rather than the better side. How is this possible? With the vast bulk of “sceptics” accusing scientists who predict anything remotely bad of being “alarmist”, the natural tendency of scientists to avoid alarming claims without overwhelming evidence is accentuated. So work predicting rapid ice cap loss for example is not getting the attention it should. Another example: concerns about the possibility of the urban heat island effect (UHI) skewing the temperature trend has resulted in NASA compensating for this effect. While it is true that a temperature sensor put next to an isolated hot spot would be bad for once-off measurement, if that hot spot is not constantly being hotter, it would not add a trend to the stats.

NASA eliminates local anomalies by a process called homogenizing, where temperatures of each station are in effect corrected for excessive variation beyond others in similar terrain.

Let’s look at how over-estimating the effect of UHI could have on the temperature trend. If NASA weights down temperatures from urban area, they could be underestimating the general increase in temperatures, because some of these areas could naturally be heating faster than their surroundings.

In conclusion, here’s an ad GetUp is running.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

When Old Men Kill their Children

Robert Mugabe is doing it.

The leadership of the old powers of Europe did it in the First World War.

The climate change denial movement wants it too.

When conditions change so that the old logic no longer applies, leaders whose time is past are wont to cling to the old ways, no matter how inapplicable. One of the sorriest outcomes of this sort of stubbornness is the damage to those not responsible, the younger members of society who must live and sometimes die with the consequences.

In Zimbabwe, the economy has collapsed. Schools, once the best in Africa, have mostly stopped functioning. Health services and clean water are all but gone, resulting in an unprecedented cholera epidemic. Life expectancy has plunged to the mid 30s. In the midst of this, Robert Mugabe stands defiant, the liberation leader who is killing his children.

George Monbiot in The Guardian has accused the old men of Europe of killing their children in World War I. He didn’t mean this in quite the sense that I do. The way I see it, the old men of Europe, faced with an unravelling political situation, resorted to the Old Way of calling in treaty obligations to settle matters in a war. What they failed to take into account was that the industrialisation of warfare meant death on an industrial scale. When the horror of their approach started to become clear, instead of pulling back, they poured more young soldiers into an increasingly efficient death machine.

In World War I, as in Zimbabwe, the old men in charge could not put their heads in the new space that had developed since they formed their world view. They insisted they were right despite clear and obvious evidence to the contrary.

How does this relate to climate change?

A surprisingly high fraction of scientists who’ve lined up against climate change are relatively elderly, people who are no longer actively researching. These are people who did their science in a world where environmentalists were bunny huggers, and the science in the environmental movement was often vague or ill-informed. They cannot conceptualise a world in which environmentalism is based on sound science, and the opposing position is junk. They therefore stick with positions that are easily debunked, take common cause with non-scientists whose views are obvious drivel and obstruct moves to mitigate climate change.

The climate change inactivist movement, like the old men of Europe in 1914 and Robert Mugabe, do not care about their children – at least not as much as they care about their pride. They will not admit they are wrong even when the ocean is lapping around their ears.

The sorry thing is that if previous examples of this kind are anything to go on, they may well succeed.

Finally, here's a picture (from NASA; if you’re prejudiced against NASA, the Belgian Solar Influences Data Analysis Centre, SIDC, has consistent data) showing where we are in the 11-year sunspot cycle, which is a good indicator for solar output.
What's important to note about this picture is that two record years for temperature, 1998 and 2005, were both close to minima. The next minimum is expected to be in 2009. Despite the fact that we have been on a downward trend in sunspots since 2000, most years since then would have set temperature records as compared with years before 1998. What this means is that the “it’s only the sun” crew have some explaining to do. And we can look forward to even more record years once we pass through the solar minimum in 2009.

So this is just one more pointer to the fact that we have little option but to take on the old men – otherwise we too will be responsible for killing our society's children.