Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The IPCC is taking too long

In 2006, Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth was met with broad critical acclaim from the movie industry, environmentalists, and the scientific community. Less happy were religious and corporate actors who think that Climate Change is in contradiction with either their beliefs or their financial interests. While I'm not going to debate denialism, its tactics or its dangers, I will mention the conclusions of the court litigations.

In this article from The Guardian, we are told of 9 criticisms of the movie in the judge's conclusions. Before mentioning them and opposing some ideas to these conclusions, let's however mention the important part of the ruling: the film's claims are widely supported by scientific evidence, research published in peer-review journals, and the latest conclusions of the IPCC.

  1. The film claimed that low-lying inhabited Pacific atolls "are being inundated because of anthropogenic global warming" but there was no evidence of any evacuation occurring. While the conclusion had merits in 2007, evacuations have now started due to sea level rising.
  2. It spoke of global warming "shutting down the ocean conveyor". It was considered "unlikely" according to the IPCC. Sadly, I do not have the movie at hand and giving my opinion would not be quite as good as giving facts. So let's grant this one to the judge.
  3. Mr Gore had also claimed - by ridiculing the opposite view - that two graphs, one plotting a rise in C02 and the other the rise in temperature over a period of 650,000 years, showed "an exact fit". I am disturbed by the wording here and I feel the insistence on "exact" doesn't do justice to Gore's claim and focuses on an irrelevant phrasing inaccuracy rather than the relevant scientific implications. Here's what the graph really looked like: 
  4. Gore said the disappearance of snow on Mt Kilimanjaro was expressly attributable to human-induced climate change. The judge said the consensus was that that could not be established. The judge is right. In fact, no single event can ever be connected to Climate Change. Trends alone can be connected to CC. Even Katrina and more recently hurricane Sandy (a hurricane of unprecedented size) cannot be demonstrated to have resulted from CC. We can only consider the connection as "likely" due to the trends of increased frequency and violence of hurricanes.
  5. The drying up of Lake Chad was used as an example of global warming. On this one, Gore has been callous indeed, as other causes explain more convincingly the drying of lake Chad.
  6.  Mr Gore ascribed Hurricane Katrina to global warming, but there was "insufficient evidence to show that". As explained in the 4th point, it is simply not scientific to consider "definite" something that is only "likely". Gore should have been more careful in the wording.
  7. Mr Gore also referred to a study showing that polar bears were being found that had drowned "swimming long distances to find the ice". The judge said: "The only scientific study that either side before me can find is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned because of a storm". I guess Gore fell in the trap of playing the emotion card. It may still have been a smart strategic move to appeal to viewers, but scientifically it is bogus.
  8. The film said that coral reefs all over the world were bleaching because of global warming and other factors. The judge said separating the impacts of stresses due to climate change from other stresses, such as over-fishing, and pollution, was difficult. Even though the judge is right about not knowing the exact weight of each factor, there is a common acceptance among professionals that CC does play an important part.
  9. The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was "distinctly alarmist". Here, I have to disagree even though I do not have the film at hand. Gore's movie clearly mentioned that ice does not only melt but that ice shelves can break in very little time. And as is evidenced when dropping ice cubes in a drink, you don't need to wait for the cube to melt for the level to rise in your glass. If the Western ice shelf of Antarctica did break, the effects on sea level would be a matter of days.

But if you remember, I was saying that the judge mostly accepted the film's content as accurate, and the title of this article is about the IPCC taking too long. A mere few months after Gore's movie was released, the IPCC published it's 4th assessment report (AR4) in 2007. It led to much media attention and played a role in the political process for a handful of years in many countries.

The next report, AR5, is expected in 2014. But climate matters have been completely absent from the Romney-Obama showdown of 2012 and we hardly ever hear about Climate Change in the media anymore. In the meantime, the Arctic continues melting and last summer it has reached a frightening new record low. Specialists now consider plausible the hypothesis of the Arctic Ice Cap being completely melted during summer in as little time as 2016. The following video shows the evolution of sea ice (in volume) year by year since 1979. As you can see, the bottom (and yes: bottom is zero) is getting nearer at a fast pace.

That's why I think there is too much time between each IPCC's Assessment Report and that we need more communication on the subject to keep it in the priority list of politicians.

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