Does IPCC Report “Sugarcoat” Climate Truth?

By David L. Brown

Someone must have formulated a “law of nature,” perhaps as a corollary of Murphy’s famous dictum, concerning the relationship between the size of a committee and the quality of its work product. That law might read something like this: “The quality, objectivity, and value of any report produced by a committee is inversely proportional to the number of participants.” Unless it has already been claimed, let’s call it Brown’s Law.

If that dictum holds true, the value of the recent report “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis,” a summary of which was issued last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, must be extraordinarily low, perhaps describable only in terms most often applied in the world of microbial research and nanotechnology. That is because, according to the IPCC’s web site:

“The report was produced by some 600 authors from 40 countries. Over 620 expert reviewers and a large number of government reviewers [Author’s note: read politicians and bureaucrats here] also participated. Representatives from 113 governments reviewed and revised the Summary line-by-line during the course of this week before adopting it and accepting the underlying report.”

Apparently, every participating nation had the chance to edit, delete, challenge, revise, and suppress the content of the report from the point of view of their own self-interest. For example, it was reported that China caused the report to gloss over the contribution of fossil fuel burning to CO2 emissions in the interests of that nation’s continuing surge of coal-fired power plants. How could such a report have any value whatsoever?

AND YET … Here are a few tantalizing quotes from the “Summary for Policymakers,” a kind of executive summary of the full report (a downloadable 18 page PDF is available on the IPCC web site):

  • Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values…. The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are due primarily to agriculture.
  • The understanding of anthropogenic warming and cooling influences on climate has improved since [the IPCC’s last report in 2001] leading to very high confidence [IPCC’s emphasis] that the globally averaged net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming….
  • Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.
  • At continental, regional, and ocean basin scales, numerous long-term changes in climate have been observed. These include changes in Arctic temperatures and ice, widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of tropical cyclones.
  • The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.
  • Most of the observed increase in [global temperatures] since the mid-20th century is very likely [IPCC’s emphasis] due to the observed increase in [human produced greenhouse gas]. [This is an escalation of the assessment of the previous report, which termed the correlation “likely.”]
  • Continued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely [IPCC’s emphasis] be larger than those observed during the 20th century.
  • Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized.

Taking into account Brown’s Law and considering that this report was produced by what is perhaps the largest and most biased and self-interested committee in history, these are powerful (if carefully couched) statements. Truly, when viewed through the proper lens of skepticism about the process, the latest report provides firm grounds upon which to at last put an end to any doubt about whether global warming and the resulting climate change are real, and that they are the result of human actions. Apparently lacking in the report, or at least in the summary, are the more serious predictions concerning global climate change, many of which are based on recent observations. It appears that the statements in general refer to the bottom range of possibilities, a result that could be expected due to the committee approach to the subject.

And in fact even before the report was released, an Associated Press article (here) warned that the IPCC report “may be the sugarcoated version.” According to the article, “many top U.S. scientists reject those rosier numbers. Those calculations don’t include the recent, and dramatic, melt-off of big ice sheets in two crucial locations.” The AP story went on to say:

They “don’t take into account the gorillas — Greenland and Antarctica,” said Ohio State University earth sciences professor Lonnie Thompson, a polar ice specialist. “I think there are unpleasant surprises as we move into the 21st century.”

Michael MacCracken, who until 2001 coordinated the official U.S. government reviews of the international climate report on global warming, has fired off a letter of protest over the omission.

The melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are a fairly recent development that has taken scientists by surprise. They don’t know how to predict its effects in their computer models. But many fear it will mean the world’s coastlines are swamped much earlier than most predict.

Others believe the ice melt is temporary and won’t play such a dramatic role.

The early versions of the [IAPP] report predict that by 2100 the sea level will rise anywhere between 5 and 23 inches. That’s far lower than the 20 to 55 inches forecast by 2100 in a study published in the peer-review journal Science this month.

Other climate experts, including NASA’s James Hansen, predict sea level rise that can be measured by feet more than inches.

The report is also expected to include some kind of proviso that says things could be much worse if ice sheets continue to melt.

[Author’s note: my reading of the IPCC Summary is that the panel basically ducked the question of sea level rise. Although admitting that should the Greenland ice sheet virtually disappear it would result in a 7 meter sea level increase, the report suggests that the process could take thousands of years to occur. Recent evidence indicates that feedback effects could cause the Greenland ice to melt far more quickly than on a millenial timescale, and perhaps even in an almost catastrophic manner.]

The prediction being considered this week by the IPCC is “obviously not the full story because ice sheet decay is something we cannot model right now, but we know it’s happening,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate panel lead author from Germany who made the larger prediction of up to 55 inches of sea level rise. “A document like that tends to underestimate the risk,” he said.

“This will dominate their discussion because there’s so much contentiousness about it,” said Bob Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (find their website here), a multinational research effort. “If the IPCC comes out with significantly less than one meter (about 39 inches of sea level rise), there will be people in the science community saying we don’t think that’s a fair reflection of what we know.”

In the past, the climate change panel didn’t figure there would be large melt of ice in west Antarctica and Greenland this century and didn’t factor it into the predictions.

Those forecasts were based only on the sea level rise from melting glaciers (which are different from ice sheets) and the physical expansion of water as it warms.

But in 2002, Antarctica’s 1,255-square-mile Larsen B ice shelf broke off and disappeared in just 35 days. And recent NASA data shows that Greenland is losing 53 cubic miles of ice each year — twice the rate it was losing in 1996.

Even if the outlook for climate change is gloomier than outlined in the latest IPCC report, it is clear that there is no longer any basis upon which to doubt the looming problem. Even most Americans now believe that global warming is real, according to a poll conducted by Fox News in the week prior to the release of the IPCC report and reported today on FoxNews.com (read it here). The poll found that “fully 82 percent of Americans say they believe in global warming, up from 77 percent in October 2005, while 10 percent disagree and 8 percent are unsure.” The report on FoxNews.com continued:

When those who believe in global warming are asked what they think is the main cause of the situation, there is widespread belief that human behavior — such as driving and burning too much fossil fuel like coal and oil — is a contributor to the problem. Four in ten Americans say people are to blame outright (41 percent) and another 38 percent think it is a combination of human action and normal climate patterns. Few believe that global warming is an entirely natural occurrence (14 percent).

Overall, most Americans feel they understand the issue of global warming, including a third that says they understand it very well (32 percent), and another 47 percent somewhat well, with 18 percent saying they don’t understand the issue.

It is encouraging to think that Americans are becoming aware of the reality of global warming, but I suspect that while they acknowledge the fact of it they do not have a significant grasp of the potential threat. I base that statement on another FoxNews poll just before the latest State of the Union Address which asked readers to rate the top issue they would like to see President Bush discuss. Only a very small number, two percent as I recall, chose global warming over other issues. (The main hot button on that poll was border security and illegal immigration. Of course, according to common wisdom the readers of FoxNews.com are rightwingers who would be expected to respond in exactly that way, and a similar poll on CNN.com might have had a completely different result.)

The growing evidence of human-caused climate change is building the case day-by-day for an overwhelming call for action. The issue ties nicely into that other great problem facing the First World, dependence upon Mideast oil, as a reason to pull out all the stops to advance non-polluting alternative energy resources.

Despite the desire of national leaders, economists, legislators, and particularly major corporations such as ExxonMobil to deny the real threat of climate change, the facts are becoming much harder to ignore. Action may be agonizingly slow to come, but it is surely going to be forced upon humanity by environmental trends and events that cannot be denied. The sooner we act, the greater the chance that humanity can escape a devastating environmental, economic and social disaster.

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