TCS Daily

Climate Political Science

By Sallie Baliunas - April 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Residents in the New York metropolitan region now can consult Climate Change Information Resources. This new web page sews together climate science and public advice through an advisory committee that includes government agencies and environmental organizations. The fabric may be chic; the science woven into it is a minor thread.

That thread can be summarized thusly: The air's concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases has increased over the past 200 years, as the gases have been released by energy production and land-use changes. As a result, the enhanced greenhouse effect has surely affected climate.

Even scientific climate skeptics agree on those points. But the question skeptics persist in asking is: How much of recent climate change is caused by that enhanced greenhouse effect?

To find the answer, more accurate knowledge is needed on the roles of other human effects on climate, for example, the emission of soot, or black carbon, and sulfate aerosols, plus landscape modification itself, and natural climate factors.

At present, dividing the recent surface warming trend among natural and human contributions is an art yielding uncertain results. Nonetheless, CCIR displays temperature and precipitation projections decades in the future based on work from the United Kingdom's Hadley Centre and Canadian Climate Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis that is similar to projections in the 2001 report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Of the various model results from the 2001 IPCC report that could have been exhibited, the UK and Canadian models produced among the most extreme projections for the United States -- the Hadley Centre's for precipitation; the Canadian Centre's for temperature. In other words, the projections shown are not middle-values but high-end, unlikely results.

The web resource thus lost an opportunity to detail and quantify uncertainties in the projections. And it did so again in referencing but not quoting the 2001 National Academy of Sciences report, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions. That report noted: "A causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established." It also said: "The fact that the magnitude of observed [surface] warming [trend] is large compared to natural variability as simulated in climate models ... does not constitute proof of a linkage [to the increased atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases] because the model simulations could be deficient."

Another missed opportunity opens when CCIR shows examples of past large and rapid climate change of uncertain or unknown origin. Such change occurs well before the recent period of industrialization, and emphasizes the need for better understanding of natural climate change.

Another absence is discussion about a key, unresolved contradiction of the climate models that estimate a significant warming trend for the last 25 years resulting from the enhanced greenhouse effect. During that period, satellite-based observations and good measurements have been made independently from instruments carried aloft in weather balloons. The measurements contradict the projections that the layer of air from the surface to about five miles in altitude should have shown an accelerated warming compared with the observed surface temperature, not the other way around. The disagreement suggests that better theoretical understanding of clouds and water vapor is needed, model deficiencies that were described in the scientific portion of the 2001 IPCC report.

Even though scientific questions concerning natural and human-made climate effects are unsettled, CCIR solicits public participation in mitigation -- that is, cuts in emission, mainly of carbon dioxide -- at governmental, corporate and personal scales. This presumably is driven by a sense of precaution, but by nothing practical.

Indeed, CCIR writes: "There is often little that individuals can do in response to these projected impacts. ..." Yet, of course, people "can demand that urban policy makers take a long term view. ..." And even though projections of future climate change, especially on a regional basis, are scientifically uncertain, individuals "can inform others ... through conversations, letter writing, attending Community board meetings, and voting." Shall we expect an upcoming town meeting where uncertainties of climate simulations are argued?

Reaching for advice, CCIR does link to action items from, for instance, World Resources Institute, which also suggests political activism, augmented by such concrete ideas as "keep[ing] your family small" or expanding wind and solar power.

Solar and wind power can't be expanded to cut a significant amount of New York's carbon dioxide emission from electricity generation, which rests largely on fossil fuels, as in nearly every other state. Their very nature makes them unsuited to be a major source of electricity. They are dilute energy sources so require large collecting areas; they are intermittent and rely on traditional fossil fuel facilities spinning in reserve to match the timing of energy demand and balance the electrical grid.

CCIR might start to give substance to those ghostly pickets if it told New York residents that to decrease carbon dioxide emissions meaningfully they would need to drive 60-80% fewer miles, turn off their air conditioners and turn down their winter thermostats to 55 degrees F (as I do in New England winter).

Or it might encourage greatly expanding nuclear power capacity. First, though, New Yorkers would need to revisit their costly decision to close the nearly completed Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant before it supplied electricity, thereby increasing New York's reliance on electricity supplied by fossil fuels.

CCIR adroitly avoids making such real, concrete policy recommendations. As such it exhibits similar "signs of schizoid behavior" to those a technology policy researcher recently suggested about the IPCC (Nature, vol. 434 10 March 2005, pp. 139-140). The researcher wrote that the IPCC "has the temerity to claim that it is 'policy neutral', yet its website trumpets its success in advocating the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. ..."

Such "signs of schizoid behavior," the writer noted, are rooted in "a time of fundamental change in science policy." According to Helga Nowotny, chair of the European Research Advisory Board of the European Commission, as quoted in the Nature piece, the shift is toward "a new paradigm [of science that] is 'socially distributed, application-oriented, trans-disciplinary and subject to multiple accountabilities.'"

CCIR's "goal of advancing scientific research and public policy by improving the communication of climate change data and information to urban policy- and decision-makers and residents" fits with that new paradigm.

Residents might be better off if they were to urge policymakers to fund better scientific understanding of clouds, natural variability, landscape modification, aerosols, precipitation, sea-ice interaction and many other climate factors. At least, though, CCIR has provided an example of how social demands deeply politicize the practice of climate science.


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