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Science Hostage

The Climate Change Imbroglio

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Australia is burning, China is freezing, Pakistan received an unexpected flooding in September, and Britain witnessed a see-saw weather pattern for 2012 that had drought and flood rolled into one mean package. That assortment of weather patterns is getting the climate change commentators excited. We told you so, and we keep telling you so.

The science on environmental change might be solid, but how that change is used in the public relations battle over what to do is something else. Certainly, a bit of balance is in order here. One does not have to ignore the concerns of climate change to speak about such phenomena as having pre-dated the debate on climate change. Australia is one of the earth’s most hostile continents, an asocial land indifferent to its invasive populace. The bush fires there are legend, a scorching phenomenon that kills indiscriminately those who are incapable of escaping it. That has not stopped suggestions that these occurrences are novel, the result of human intervention.

The politicians and scientists are confused, though the former have been noisier in response to the recent round of environmental disturbances. “Whilst you would not put any one event down to climate change,” claimed Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard, “we don’t know over time that as a result of climate change we are going to see more extreme weather events and conditions.”

The Australian political opposition have been happy to argue that heatwaves afflicting the continent, with their resulting fires, do not necessarily have a link to climate change. The one-dimensional acting opposition leader Warren Truss claimed it was “too simplistic to link one hot spell to climate change”.

Scientists, on the other hand, have not been quite as open (BBC News, Jan 9). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is certainly keeping matters close at hand, refusing to forecast what will be in its report due at the end of the year. It has received criticism that it is too secretive (Responding to Climate Change, Jan 9). A blogger Alex Rawls has been busy publishing excerpts of that review, a reaction that has received a severe ticking off from the IPCC. “Comments in blogs or other communications will not contribute to the review process.” Damn democracy when it comes to scientific discussion – the managers know better.

As for the leaks from Rawls, they reveal the usual speculation and suggestion that makes scientific explanation monstrously difficult. A number of individuals suggested that cosmic rays were responsible for climate change, a suggestion laughed off as “completely ridiculous” by the lead author of the chapter in question, Steve Sherwood.

IPCC author Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute has suggested that the leaks are a good deal of bollocks, an unnecessary distraction. He suggests that expert reviewers from a broad range are being included in the study. Feel free to apply, if you dare. “Anybody who considers themselves to be an expert, and that includes sceptics, can sign up to be a reviewer of the draft chapters.” We hope that this is the case, given that history is littered by attempts by the orthodox to curtail the radicals.

Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado is aware of the risk of linking events to the premise that these were induced by human agency. Drawing clear lines can be dangerous and propagandistic. The environment, in other words, is vastly complex, availing all sides of the climate change debate to harvest arguments for and against. “Such claims simply invite the reaction we see from the sceptical side about the slowdown in global temperatures over an extended period” (BBC News, Jan 9).

This was well illustrated last year when 16 scientists signed a petition that appeared in the Wall Street Journal noting “the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now.” Carbon controls provided an unnecessary stifling effect – most notably on developing economies. There was no need for “drastic action to decarbonize the world’s economy”.

But even such an incident was explosive for those who participated in the signing suggesting the diversity amongst various members of the scientific community. One of the authors cited in the Journal claimed he was “completely misrepresented” (New York Times, Jan 30, 2012). Critics of the stance were also quick to react – Peter Gleick, analyst of matters concerning water and climate, took issue with the decision by the Journal to not publish a letter signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences concerned by human-driven climate change. Everyone seemed pretty miffed.

The latest chapter on the climate change debate has come from the UK Meteorological Office on the rise of temperatures till 2017. “The latest decadal prediction suggests that global temperatures over the next five years are likely to be a little lower than predicted from the previous prediction issued in December 2011” (Jan 8). How thrilled this was to the populist, and occasionally deranged Daily Mail, which claimed that the Met Office had suggested that climate change was not happening at all.

The statement continues to suggest that this “slowing” does not mean that new records will not be set in terms of the rise of global temperatures. The revision took place, explains Doug Smith of the Met Office’s research, because of improved modelling techniques. And here, we have a perfect distillation of the climate change debate – change without great change; cause without clear, verifiable cause. Climate change science, as with any other grand discussion, will always be the hostage of political camps.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com