” Climate change isn’t something to be believed or disbelieved”

The Guardian, September 4th 2008 (by Martin Parry, lead author of the 2007 assessment of impacts and adaptation by the IPCC)

"The media love a good argument, and what better than to pitch polemicists against each other from opposite ends of the spectrum? Thus we are given Björn Lomborg v Oliver Tickell in a so-called "climate debate" (Tickell’s apocalyptic view obscures the solutions; Lomborg’s stats won’t mean much underwater, August 21). Regrettably, we learned from this only that sensible solutions are unlikely to flow from entrenched and extreme positions. Most scientists are amazed and alarmed that the issue of climate change should be treated as an article of faith – something either to be believed or disbelieved – rather than a problem surrounded by a lot of uncertainty. What we got from these two was very misleading.

Lomborg claimed: "A lead economist of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] did a survey of all the problems and all the benefits accruing from a temperature rise over this century of about approximately 4C. The bottom line is that benefits right now outweigh the costs." There have been a few studies of the current effects of climate change (for example, on ice shelf and glacier retreat, and on plants and animals) and the IPCC has concluded these are happening faster than had been expected. But despite what Lomborg says there has been no useful assessment of whether these are beneficial or not, because aggregation of effects involves meaningless trade-offs such as comparing the destruction of Inuit communities with the benefits of ice-freed shipping lanes.

Lomborg believes that 4C of global warming "will not be a challenge to our civilisation" and derides Tickell, whom he quotes as stating that warming of this amount would bring "the beginning of the extinction of the human race". Both of these are heroic conclusions, since there has been no study of the limits to our adaptive capacity. The climate change issue has never been about whether we can survive or not, but keeping damages and costs to a tolerable level. The IPCC concluded in 2007 that we risk billions more people being short of water due to climate change, and hundreds of millions at risk of flooding and hunger. That is a lot of suffering, but not the end of civilisation.

There is a strong emerging view, proposed by the IPCC in its latest assessment in 2007, that a careful mixture of mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation will be necessary to meet the challenge of climate change. And this is broadly accepted by governments now striving for agreement by the end of next year. The polarised views of both Tickell and Lomborg miss this completely. We know we cannot avoid some serious climate change (our vacillation over the past 10 years has put paid to that), but we can avoid the worst of it. At a minimum we will have to adapt to about 2C of warming. The choice still available to us is whether we should try to avoid more than this amount of warming. Common sense suggests we should, since we do not really know what impacts the future holds, and we risk repeating the mistake of the movie producer Lew Grade who, looking back on the mounting losses of his film Raise the Titanic, concluded: "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic."

2 thoughts on “” Climate change isn’t something to be believed or disbelieved”

  1. This article gets one thing wrong. At minimum we have to adapt to 2C of warming? Such an assumption is rubbish. Temperature hasn’t changed in the past 10 years, and indications are that it is more likely to go down than up.

  2. I appreciate the lack of name calling and a more civil tone than many sites, but it does seem that there are many reputable scientists that disagree with the warming analysis. I do not believe that all sceintists are objective in their data analysis; there are many instances throughout recent history of creative data collection and analysis. It is my understanding that Harrison and Carson state that below-surface ocean temperature data are sparse, and the existing data sets involve substantial “interpolation, extrapolation, and averaging” that may compromise the integrity of results from such data sets. Harrison and Carson “present results that involve very little manipulation of the data and do not depend upon an analyzed field.” Their results show that data collection on ocean temps is far fom conclusive on the issue and that temps may actually be cooling globally. The term climate change is a little redundant since climate is always fluxuating. And the variables are so numerous and poorly understood that it is quite shocking to me that objective scientists would jump on the global warming bandwagon so quickly. I am very disappointed with the lack of open and honest debate over various climate change issues. The Al Gore promoted view that the debate is over is nonsense and anyone who repeats that can not be taken seriously as being objective, regardless of credentials. Debate is almost never over in science.

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