Tuesday, 5 November 2013

by Chua Zi, Class of 2014, Form 4 Science 1

“IPCC 2013, similar forecasts, better certainty.”

On 27 September 2013, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body and Nobel Peace laureate, released a summary of their fifth report on climate change. Titled Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Summary for Policymakers, it is a synthesis of around 9000 peer-reviewed papers. The IPCC is commissioned by 195 countries to provide a well-examined view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Their reports are regarded as crucial in providing information to these governments for the adoption of climate policies.

The summary is nothing radical, if only a confirmation of all that we’ve known for decades now. Ted Scambos, head scientist of the Boulder National Snow and Ice Data Center aptly phrases it so: “IPCC 2013, similar forecasts, better certainty.”

I’ve been taught from a young age that we play an important role in maintaining this Earth that we all share. Deforestation, air-polluting factories, greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, that long-forgotten hole in the ozone layer — all these things we do that so obviously affect our planet. So to say that climate change is caused by humans seems a truism to me.

It may not seem immediately clear why climate change is still being debated but this isn’t just between laymen and experts, it’s between high pedigree scientists as well. Skeptics argue that global temperatures correlate with solar activity, and that human emissions aren't as consequential as we have continually been led to think. Yet, scientific consensus tells us that while the sun plays a significant role in global temperature, evidence of it being the primary cause of warming since 1970 is quite limited. Critics also doubt the accuracy of the computer climate models used by experts to simulate long-term temperature patterns and trends — these simulations being their key resource.

The summary opens with, “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

The report also states that “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” 

All of these were attributed to the increased global surface temperature as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide concentrations have increased to the highest levels recorded in 800,000 years at a rate unprecedented in the last 22,000 years. We've also casually contributed to a 40% increase in carbon dioxide concentrations since pre-industrial times by our enthusiastic burning of fossil fuels and regular changes in land use.

That being said, we have all had a fair share of global warming news like this and this summary isn't any more convincing. 

Climate change deniers have previously used the global warming pause from 1998 to 2013 (which was addressed in the summary) and past slip-ups as ammunition against the IPCC. They haven't stopped. They warn that the UN body’s claims are 'alarmist' rumours similar to the claims of former U.S. Vice president Al Gore, who has attracted attention in the past for rebuffing climate change deniers using remarks like, “There is no longer shared reality on an issue like climate, even though the very existence of our civilization is threatened."

Mixed opinions have been raised about the use of terms in the summary such as 'virtually certain' and 'unlikely' to represent the outcome of a result and low, medium and high to represent the level in confidence. They undermine the credibility of the IPCC's findings, eg.:-
Likelihood of an outcome or a result: virtually certain (99–100%) 
It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010.

Laypersons are skeptical of these alarmist assertions as well. Public skepticism dropped after Hurricane Sandy but it is increasing. “Established facts about the global environment exist less often in science than laymen usually think,” says Daniel B. Botkin, Professor of Biology at the University of Miami.

So, it is advisable to take everything with a pinch of salt.

As Hank Green of the vlogbrothers puts it, “Scientists aren’t stupid.” Yes, but neither are the people who look to a summary like the IPCC’s to clarify the facts. They are looking to gain some fast, reliable knowledge on the current climate change situation. A write-up like the AR5 summary, done by researchers for policymakers, should be able to successfully persuade them to make decisions regarding these issues, like increasing efforts to reduce our reliability on fossil fuels and managing our energy budget more effectively. Has AR5 succeeded?

This science needs to be conveyed to the public so that climate policies can be implemented without hindrance from well-meaning but unfortunately, misinformed people. However, this has to be done without driving away the masses by presenting esoteric statistics or worse, oversimplifying and replacing fact with scientific-sounding rhetoric — as skeptics believe is the case with the report’s summary.

It should be prerequisite to present straightforward information to differing parties while also exercising transparency in research methods. A negligence of that has already led to a politicization of science, which obviously defeats its purpose.

For now, it is the policymakers’ decisions based on this information that is crucial. The Earth is warming and that, in itself has consequences. So it would do us well to stop arguing right about now.
by Chua Zi 12:41 No comments | in , , , ,


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