Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The climate debate shifts - a little

Rajenda Pachauri, Chair of IPCC
Another fascinating seven days.  I have four items to report.  What they show is how the ground of the debate is shifting.  In short the public debate is no longer quite so one sided.

First, there was a debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival last Tuesday entitled Powering the Planet.  Panelists were Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth, Susan Deacon, former politician and Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.  Whilst many of the contributions assumed imminent 'dangerous climate change'  (a presupposition which particularly underpinned Duncan McLaren's arguments), the subtle change was the very presence of Benny Peiser.   I very much doubt that a year or two back a sceptic would have been included at an event of this nature.

Secondly, well known Scottish former politician Jim Sillars weighed into the debate with a charge of 'self-righteous zealotry' against those who elevate doubtful science to the level of a religious belief - see here for details.

Third, the first of a two part series titled Uncertain Climate was aired on Radio 4 last night.  It was in part a personal journey of Roger Harrabin, BBC science correspondent who has been reporting on climate for the last 20 years.  Much was depressingly familiar with partisans such as Sir Crispin Tickell and Dr Robert Watson given considerable prominence.  But it does seem to represent a repositioning of Roger Harrabin (and the BBC?) who emphasises he always had some doubts (they have certainly not been very obvious).  It seems he now accepts there is a debate and the science is not settled and the second programme may develop that theme.  Again we have discussion which is not as one sided as it would have been from an organ like the BBC a year or two back.

Finally, yesterday also brought the publication of the sixth* enquiry into climate science in as many months.  It is the review of the processes and procedures of the IPCC published by the Inter Academy Council (IAC).  The first paragraph of the conclusions reads like a eulogy with a small caveat at the end:

“The Committee concludes that the IPCC assessment process has been successful overall and has served society well. The commitment of many thousands of the world’s leading scientists and other experts to the assessment process and to the communication of the nature of our understanding of the changing climate, its impacts, and possible adaptation and mitigation strategies is a considerable achievement in its own right. Similarly, the sustained commitment of governments to the process and their buy-in to the results is a mark of a successful assessment. Through its unique partnership between scientists and governments, the IPCC has heightened public awareness of climate change, raised the level of scientific debate, and influenced the science agendas of many nations. However, despite these successes, some fundamental changes to the process and the management structure are essential, as discussed in this report and summarized below.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Aussie election - tide turning?

Three Tuesdays ago I considered cap and trade - both in relation to Edinburgh and international governments. 

In particular, it was noted that in Australia, both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition had been replaced with unusual speed within the space of 9 months. 

What happened is worth a closer look. 

Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the oppostition coalition having been a minister in the Howard government which was defeated in 2007.  He was closely associated with the introduction of proposals for an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

On 1st December 2009 he was challenged for the leadership by Tony Abbot and defeated by 42-41.  Abbot is a sceptic and opposed to the ETS.  A fuller account can be found here.

With disarray in the Coalition camp, at that time is was considered the Labor government would be a safe bet for the next election - with the country almost always going for two or more terms of the same government.

But Abbot seemed to be striking a chord with the Australian people and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pulled back from implementing ETS in its original form.  In doing so he took criticism from within his party and this was one of a number of reasons behind his deposition on June 24th 2010.  He was replaced by his deputy, Julia Gilliard, herself in favour of taking strong action on climate change.

Even at that time, the Labor Party looked almost certain to win an early election which was duly set for 21st August.  

In the event, Australia now has a hung parliament with both Tony Abbot and Julia Gilliard failing to get a majority in the 150 seat House of Representatives.

Of course there were other issues in the election - the proposed mining tax and immigration being the major ones.  But the results, when taken with the stalling of ETS in Japan and the US, seem to represent the beginnings of the reversal of the Gadarene rush in the developed world to do something in response to global warming.  

Whether right or wrong, the electors in the free world do have influence.  I wonder if the issue will be a factor in the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011.

More cartoons by Josh here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Defending fairy dust

'Hypothetical thing thought to have special powers'
Last week this blog briefly described the involvement of local scientists in support of evidence for human influence on global warming.  Paleoclimate studies have played a key role in persuading policymakers that global warming is a serious threat.  There are many other arguments which have been used but none has been quite so emblematic as the hockey stick, a product of the paleoclimate community.

Launched by Michael Mann and two co-authors in papers in 1998 and 1999, the work purported to show that temperature had been more or less flat for the past 1,000 years until the second half of the twentieth century when there was an alarming spike - the (ice) hockey stick.

Criticisms of the quality of the work centred on two issues.  Some of the data, it was alleged, had been cherry picked to create a hockey stick, and the statistical methods used in analysing the data were flawed.

The response of Michael Mann and the paleoclimate community was to defend the 1998 (MBH98) and 1999 (MBH99) papers with a plethora of further peer reviewed papers which endorsed the original claims usually claiming to be independent.

I have been looking the Wegman Report, a five year old publication for a US Congressional Committee. Compiled by Edward Wegman, a respected academic expert in statistics. The report was devastating:

"In general we found MBH98 and MBH99 to be somewhat obscure and incomplete and the criticisms of MM03/05a/05b (the critics) to be valid and compelling. . . Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus 'independent studies' may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface.. . . In this case we judge that there was too much reliance on peer review, which was not necessarily independent. . . Overall, our committee believes that Mann's assessments that the decade of the 1990's was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium, cannot be supported by his analysis."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Climate wars: the Edinburgh connection

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies substantially on three areas of evidence to show that humans are having a significant influence on climate (global warming).
Professor Gabi Hegerl
  1. Models.  These simulations, or illustrations, based on what we know, show a possible trend of global warming.  As time passes, there is the potential to check these illustrations against what actually happens to the global temperature - though it is necessary to bear in mind that the background climate is liable to fluctuate from causes quite unrelated to human activity.  It should also be said that the climate system is incredibly complex and many scientists consider climate science in its infancy.  The reliability of models in such a complex environment requires rigorously validation.
  2. Eliminating natural processes. Climatologists seek to show that the increases in temperature cannot be accounted for by any other known natural process.  The complexity referred to above, and the unknowns to which it gives rise, to are also relevant in this line of argument.
  3. Prof Geoffrey Boulton
  4. Paleoclimate studies.  Studies of tree rings and other 'proxies', indicators of temperatures have been used to show that the current warming is unprecedented.  The implication is that current warming is not only more likely to be largely human in origin, but that the consequences, taking us into unprecedented territory, are potentially dangerous to the planet and humanity and requiring drastic changes in public policy.
This last argument has been one feature of recent controversies, including 'Climategate'.  Scientists in Edinburgh have featured in the debate which has raged in peer reviewed papers, the blogs and in the enquiries into 'Climategate'.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

World cap and trade - and Edinburgh

PM Gilliard's fate on 21st Aug will
be key to emissions legislation
We are going to hear a lot more about cap and trade in the coming weeks and months both worldwide and in Edinburgh.

The Edinburgh version is a new mandatory carbon trading scheme designed to encourage organisations to become more energy efficient.  Whilst the complexities of the scheme are still being finalised by the UK Government, Edinburgh Council is already participating in a pilot carbon trading scheme.

Here is how the scheme is planned to work.  All organisations with an energy bill above the equivalent of around £0.5m pa will  participate (mandatory). Edinburgh Council's current energy spend is around