The Case For Climate Action Must Be
Remade From The Ground Upwards
By Ian Katz
11 February 2010
What a difference three months makes. Back in November, the world broadly agreed that emissions of carbon dioxide were heating up the planet and that we needed to do something about it, even if we couldn't agree exactly what. And though we'd had the usual pre-summit rollercoaster ride of dire predictions and naive exhortations (yes, I plead guilty to some of those), even hardheaded types dared to hope that Copenhagen might produce the basis of a global climate treaty.
As late as 7 December, 56 newspapers around the world could declare in a common, Guardian-led editorial: "The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it."
Now, with climate science under siege and climate politics in disarray, that sounds like the rhetoric of another age. The American commentator Walter Russell Mead recently captured the mood: "The global warming movement as we have known it is dead … basically, Sarah Palin 1, Al Gore zip." A senior British diplomat compares those trying to secure global action on climate change post-Copenhagen to "small groups wandering in different directions around the battlefield like a beaten army". A leading scientist offers an equally pithy assessment: "Everybody is completely clueless."
Not depressed yet? This weekend a BBC poll showed a dramatic fall in the number of people who believe warming is happening; carbon markets have tumbled; a Guardian survey of over 30 leading figures involved in climate negotiations found almost none who believed a global deal was possible this year; in Australia a man who described climate change as "absolute crap" could soon be prime minister.
What went wrong? How long have you got: the leak of the "climategate" emails that showed scientists behaving just as tribally as their detractors, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's great glacier meltdown (enough "gates" for now), the abject failure of Copenhagen, Obama's Massachusetts disaster and a bitterly cold winter in much of Europe and the US. If you doubt the effect of the last of these, take a look at stories like "The mini-ice age starts here" in the Daily Mail, or the website entitled If Global Warming Is Real Then Why Is It Cold?. Add to that lot a mildly hysterical binary culture in which the case for action on climate change is either unanswerable or in tatters, and the perfect storm is complete.
It's worth considering a few of these setbacks in a bit more detail. What Fred Pearce's brilliant investigation of the East Anglia emails, published last week in the Guardian, showed was embattled scientists doing some pretty shabby things: conspiring to keep sceptics out of journals, using every trick they could to avoid handing over data to their critics and, in at least one case, apparently trying to hide weaknesses in a major piece of research.
The apparent abuse of the peer review process is perhaps the most worrying aspect because it is meant to be the gold standard that allows us to distinguish credible science from pseudoscience.
It is hard to see how Phil Jones, the director of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and some of his colleagues will escape censure for the behaviour Pearce exposed. But it is also worth pointing out what neither he nor any other journalist has so far found: any evidence of scientists fiddling their results, or indeed anything that calls into question the scientific case that man is causing dangerous climate change.
Given that, some, particularly in the climate science community, have wondered why the Guardian devoted so much energy and space to excavating the affair. Myles Allen, a distinguished Oxford physicist, suggested on these pages that the Guardian was "hoping against hope to turn up a genuine error which fundamentally alters conclusions". The truth couldn't be further away, but only by looking thoroughly under every rock can those of us pressing for action on climate change maintain with confidence that the scientific case remains sound.
Which brings us to the dismal case of the IPCC and the Himalayan glaciers. Many scientists are still bemused at how the expert panel could have made quite such an eye-watering howler: the prediction that the glaciers would melt by 2035 was not just wrong but wrong by a factor of 10. One scientist tells me that glaciologists had spotted the error and notified the IPCC about it as early as last September, but no effort was made to correct it.
One-off mistakes happen, of course, even in the most scrupulous organisations, but the glaciers affair seems to point to some wider problems. The first is that not all IPCC-cited science is quite what the public imagined it to be. Landing with a thud every five years or so, the panel's vast "assessment reports" have been treated as scientific tablets of stone: Here is What We Know About Climate Change Now.
But many of us have been shocked to discover that some claims are based on research conducted by pressure groups, or even journalists. Whereas so-called Working Group I, which deals with the pure science, is based almost exclusively on peer-reviewed work, Working Group II, on the impact of warming, leans heavily on "grey literature". Researchers argue that is necessary because peer review studies simply aren't available for many of the remote areas the report seeks to cover, but the result is a fat target for critics: In recent weeks there have been a string of stories about apparently flaky assertions in the report. The IPCC's problems have been compounded by an approach to crisis management best characterised as "aim at foot, fire". Having failed for months to correct the glacier error, the panel's chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, then managed to come across as haughty and unapologetic. The posse of journalists and bloggers now hounding him with (unfair, I think) allegations of venality and hypocrisy, will not stop till he has been cast into the rising sea.
The consequences (and causes) of the Copenhagen lash-up may take a little longer to divine. Certainly it showed that China was not ready to accept the constraints on its growth that a legally binding carbon settlement would entail. And that Europe was not prepared to lead the way to a low carbon world by cutting deeper in the hope that others would follow.
But whatever the full postmortem reveals, it is clear that the energy has drained from the push for a global deal. Before Copenhagen a senior British negotiator told me it was crucial that the politicians at least agreed a clear timetable to a legal deal: "We can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay." In his analogy the crowd have left the stadium and there is no scheduled replay.
Back then Gordon Brown warned that the world needed to seal a deal within the first six months of 2010. In the runup to a dangerous mid-term election, President Obama would not risk trying to push a controversial cap and trade bill through the US Congress.
And that was before the Democrats' shock defeat in Massachussets. Since then only the most relentless optimists – climate change secretary Ed Miliband among them – suggest this year might see the US climate bill many regard as the necessary prerequisite for a global deal.
So far, so grim, but what can be done? First, climate scientists must make a public commitment to greater openness. They should acknowledge that the huge implications and importance of what they do mean the public expect and are entitled to a greater degree of scrutiny of their work. They should repudiate the laager mentality and evasions of the East Anglia researchers. Instead of grudgingly yielding to Freedom of Information requests, they should publish their data and workings online wherever possible.
In the longer term more open ways of reviewing science should be explored. Royal Society president Martin Rees talks about an Amazon-style system where reviewers can openly rate papers online. It is in this spirit that the Guardian will today publish Pearce's full 28,000 word account of the East Anglia emails affair online and invite anyone involved to tell us if we've got it right.
Then, the case for action must be remade from the ground up. It's no good politicians and scientists going on TV and insisting that the overwhelming body of climate science has not been touched by the scandals. They need to go back to first principles and explain how we know that CO2 causes warming, how we know CO2 levels are rising, how we know it's our fault, and how we can predict what is likely to happen if we don't act.
Next, the credibility of the IPCC – or some form of scientific high court – must be restored. In the short term that means appointing independent experts to review any alleged errors in the panel's reports. At the same time the IPCC should renounce, or at least severely restrict the use of, grey literature. "If that means you can't be comprehensive then don't be," says a senior scientist advocating this course. There is a strong case for more radical reforms: the panel should arguably be replaced by a body controlled by national scientific academies rather than governments.
Those who want action on climate change will meanwhile have to accept a more incremental approach. Mead describes the effort to secure a global deal as "like asking a jellyfish to climb a flight of stairs; you can poke and prod all you want, you can cajole and you can threaten. But you are asking for something that you just can't get". Even the head of an NGO who has argued passionately for a binding, comprehensive deal tells me: "Maybe you've got to unpick the uber-deal and work out which bits are possible to do now, and build confidence."
Finally, anyone who cares about this issue must fight to keep it alive. With Barack Obama embroiled in a domestic political battle, powerful advocates like Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown likely soon to exit the stage and European leaders notably reticent in Copenhagen, it is hard to see where the political leadership for a global deal will come from. So it may fall to civil society – to individuals, organisations and businesses – to pick up the baton. The choice remains the one described in that global editorial, only now the answer is likely to be decided by us.
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