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Climate Change Science: Due Diligence for Future Generations?

By Bill Henderson

06 March, 2010

Have we shown due diligence and proper consideration for the welfare of future generations by doing our best to scientifically evaluate the spectrum of climate change dangers and responsible mitigation management of our emissions?

Or are we in carbon addict denial refusing to do due diligence in evaluating what look to be serious, possibly even humanity threatening dangers to future generations because we don't want to accept the need to curtail our emissions? Are we turning a blind eye to the damage we are potentially causing to our kids and grandchildren because we are afraid that quantifying the dangers will force us to confront our present socio-economy and lifestyles?

What would constitute a due diligence process for quantifying climate change dangers, local and global, immediate and for the future? Is our present way of doing climate change science the best way of quantifying the climate change dangers?

We have known for more than a century the greenhouse gas (GHG) cause and effect and how burning fossil fuels should increase global temperatures, and that for several decades at least we have gathered evidence indicating GHG increase and global temperature rise. We now know from scientific examination of ice-cores and other long term climate records that small forcings can whipsaw large climate swings and that the 10,000 year Holocene period containing man's civilized history has been a begnine, stable climate that is now threatened. Yet our GHG emissions continue to rise. If we have not taken appropriate precautionary steps to limit our increasing GHG production, is it that our scientific foresight is incapable of quantifying the impacts and scale of dangers for future generations?

Or we just haven't tried hard enough to understand our culpability in our continuing GHG production because we don't want to know? Because we fear that hard answers about the consequences of our actions would be profoundly inconvenient.

Is the IPPC a proper due diligence process? The IPCC has been a very productive and informing ad hoc, volunteer approach for scientifically investigating climate change. Several thousand scientists globally have hypothesized, experimented, collected data and organized our understanding of climate change in the best quantification of cause and effect and probabilities of risk and danger that we have.

But is the IPCC due diligence in protecting future generations? The present Climategate furor has been orchestrated to cast doubt on both the IPCC process and the present state of climate change knowledge that this process has produced over nearly two decades. This MSM trial of the IPCC does not in any way undermine the body of scientific information published and is really about continuing to manufacture denial.

There are flaws in the IPCC process though: volunteer and underfunded, unwieldy and out of date, the offspring of a very weak organization with declining powers, and an inherently conservative process dependent upon consensus between not only scientists but with national political actors involved too.

This conservative consensus building is not due diligence in acting in a precautionary way to safeguard future generations. Presently emerging science and areas of science and policy that are bound to be controversial are marginalized, ignored or downplayed:

"(T)he 2007 IPCC Report worked within projections of a 90 percent confidence level which comes close to requiring full scientific certainty; this practice was in violation of the precautionary principle which affirms that where there is a threat of climate change the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent the threat. If the IPCC had explicitly considered the risks of higher temperatures outside the boundary of a 90 percent confidence level, dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and non–linear responses to drivers of climate change this would have enabled States to have far more clarity in regards to the dire urgency of the climate crisis emergency."

The IPCC has been invaluable as a stimulus for and gatherer of climate change science but innovation is needed. The IPCC process must be better supported financially and politically; innovation is required to speed up publication and focus the emerging science. The IPCC should consider quickly documenting a 'worse case scenario' with probabilities and precautionary mitigation steps that might be necessary.

The UN is not the strong multilateral organization needed in confronting emerging global-scale problems. There is widespread agreement that the US as leading global economic and political power and developer of the present dominant socio-economy has to be world leader on climate change.

But America cannot lead because government is paralyzed, captured by business interests, and the American public is deeply mis-educated and divided about climate change.

Those in the science community and those in positions of responsibility in government who do know the science and recognize the seriousness of the climate change danger must innovate to try and get the majority of at least informed Americans onside, on the same page about climate change dangers and mitigation steps necessary.

A Presidential Commission organized at the highest cabinet levels and facilitated by either the AAAS or NAS with the process and resulting quantification of dangers posted transparently on the web in something like a controlled access wiki could potentially put most Americans on the same page about what American leadership should be on climate change.

Innovating science process and communication in this way may overcome mis-education and denial and force Americans to recognize how their present use of fossil fuels will probably effect their kids and grandchildren in the future. Quantifying climate change in this way may force Americans and the rest of the world's major emitters to recognize their ethical duty to future generations.

There is also a strong argument that there is no problem with how the science community has quantified climate change - the problem is that climate science is input to government decision making completely pre-occupied with economic management. We need governance innovation too.

"If nations or individuals have ethical obligations, they are likely to have duties, responsibilities, and obligations that require them to go beyond consideration of self-interest alone in making decisions. And so, if climate change raises ethical considerations, governments may not base policy decisions on self-interest alone." http://climateethics.org/?p=408