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Let Science Be Science


(Photo by Dan Crosbie/Canadian Ice Service via Will Bunch at Attytood.)

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a long-awaited report this past week, pulling together the scientific consensus on global climate change from a wide variety of sources. To great fanfare, they put out a Summary for Policymakers [PDF], and the full report will be available in May. That title is important – it's not a report filled with research hypotheses, a review of the scientific literature, arcane data, conclusions, and areas for further study. It is what is says it is: a summary of scientific research, presented for the policymakers of the world.

Here's how it got reported.

Jane Kay, in this morning's SF Chronicle:

Global warming has already led to rising sea levels and dramatic increases in temperature in the Arctic, and scientists warned Friday that its effects will hit closer to home, creating heat waves, droughts and hurricanes.

How bad it gets, say international scientists in the latest release of findings on climate change, depends on what actions people and nations take to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forests and everyday activities that emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air.

In the United States, the West will be hardest hit, scientists say. Heat waves, droughts and intense hurricanes are likely to increase in the coming decades. Air temperatures in the Southwest, particularly from California to Texas, are projected to rise in the summer about 10 degrees by the end of the century, assuming there is a moderate increase in greenhouse gas emissions. A reduction in emissions might keep the temperature rise to 5 degrees.

The findings were released in Paris as part of the fourth assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, formed by the United Nations. It is the result of six years of work and is built on a previous dozen years of study by hundreds of researchers from more than 100 nations.

In the NY Times, the lead was just as stark:

In a grim and powerful assessment of the future of the planet, the leading international network of climate scientists has concluded for the first time that global warming is “unequivocal” and that human activity is the main driver, “very likely” causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950.

In the UK, the liberal Guardian gave their piece the headline "Worse than We Thought."

The world's scientists yesterday gave their starkest warning yet that a failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions will bring devastating climate change within a few decades.

Average temperatures could increase by as much as 6.4C by the end of the century if emissions continue to rise, with a rise of 4C most likely, according to the final report of an expert panel set up by the UN to study the problem. The forecast is higher than previous estimates, because scientists have discovered that Earth's land and oceans are becoming less able to absorb carbon dioxide.

On the other side of the publishing spectrum, London's Financial Times was equally blunt under the heading "Scientists Dispel Global Warming Doubts":

The world’s leading climate scientists on Friday swept away the last doubts surrounding global warming, saying they were certain human activities were altering the climate and warning severe effects were inevitable unless greenhouse gas emissions were curbed.

The evidence for climate change caused by fossil fuel combustion was “unequivocal”, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body comprising 2,500 climate experts convened by the UN.

Their report predicted severe heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods resulting from an expected rise of 3 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures by 2100. It will be difficult for governments to ignore because it was agreed by all UN members, including the US and China.

In a follow up article, the FT lays out the the challenge from the scientific community to the community of political leaders quite clearly:

Only urgent international action to cut emissions can prevent climate-related catastrophe, scientists warned on Friday.

Achim Steiner, director-general of the United Nations Environment Programme, said: “The word unequivocal [applied to the evidence that human activity was causing climate change] is the key message in this report. We’re looking for an unequivocal commitment [to emissions reduction] from policymakers, business leaders and civic society leaders.” For businesses or governments to continue to resist taking action on emissions was “irresponsible”.

Irresponsible? Who could they possibly be talking about?

Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has one answer. They described the IPCC as a powerful UN environmental organization whose report expresses the will of 46 nations to put themselves on record in support of an initiative of French president Jacques Chirac to strengthen the UN's environmental work. They note, however, that there are still some issues:

Resistance came from major CO2-emitting nations like the United States, India, China and Russia. They are afraid that a strengthened UN environmental organization could specify sharp rules to environmental protection and force their observance.

Yes, I think it's safe to say that there could be some resistance from the White House to anything that smacks of standards, rules, and accountability, especially if it threatens short term financial costs to themselves or their well-connected friends. Why should the environment be any different?

Enter Henry Waxman.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Waxman chairs, held hearings this week, and received a troubling report on political pressure being applied to governmental scientists. According to the Washington Post (with emphasis added),

In the House hearing, lawmakers questioned whether the White House had altered reports by government scientists over the past several years to mask the problems posed by climate change. They highlighted a survey published yesterday by two advocacy groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project, which found that 46 percent of the federal scientists they polled reported they personally had experienced or perceived pressure to eliminate the words "global warming" or "climate change" from their writings, and roughly the same percentage had experienced edits that changed the meaning of their findings.

"All of us have a right to our own opinions as to the seriousness of global warming," Waxman said. "We don't have the right to our own science."

Waxman and the panel's top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), sent a letter to the White House yesterday demanding that the administration hand over documents that could shed light on whether political appointees had altered climate reports. Davis said he was "disappointed at the [administration's] lukewarm response" to the panel's requests for information.

The Guardian notes that the pushback is under way in the private sector, too:

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

After watching the spin on this IPCC report, I look back on the election of Blue America candidate Jerry McNerney over Dick Pombo as the most important victory of the last election when it comes to support for sanity in our governmental scientific community. McNerney, an expert in wind and alternative energy, beat one of the most reactionary, anti-environmental members of the Republican caucus.

My thanks to the people of the 11th Congressional District in California for doing the nation – and the world – a huge favor. Now we need to step up and help McNerney, Waxman, and others in DC keep the pressure on the Bush Administration and the AEI's backers at ExxonMobil that the scientific community applied in Paris.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.