MUST READ | Taking the temperature of our climate scientists, part 1

Taking the temperature of our climate scientists, part 1

Have you heard the one about the international climate scientist buying land in New Zealand? An isolated, cold and elevated hideaway could be become de rigeur in family wills to try to protect future generations against rising sea levels, drought and heatwaves. Actually there’s no punchline here. It’s just a rumour. But it’s also an uncomfortable realisation that some experts studying the data may have already decided what the future looks like.

Australian climate scientists argue about how vividly they should describe in public their global warming projections. I listened over lunch one day as a group of well-known scientists shared darkening, urgent observations while referring anxiously to their children’s future. Publicly they’ve been more cautious. One of the older scientists counselled they should never cross over into rhetorical advocacy but always speak precisely to the science with all its attendant qualifications. That’s how science works. The system of research, peer review and publication has spawned remarkable and reliable leaps in understanding and invention from medicine to technology.

But a younger, passionate scientist argued that such niceties were not observed by climate change deniers and corporate opponents of greenhouse gas mitigation who regularly launched sweeping statements with no facts at all. Those campaigns were holding back vital, stronger political measures, he said. Wasn’t it time scientists spoke out more?

Many of them have. NASA scientist James Hansen is probably the best known. He’s even been arrested during an anti-coal mining protest. Less than a year ago I interviewed some of the world’s other leading climate scientists who live in Australia. Even then they were willing to describe how the pace of global warming had left them gobsmacked: "… many, many scientists now … are frantically, hysterically worried," said Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers, the former head of the UN’s World Climate Research Program, now at Macquarie University.

Professor Dave Griggs, at Monash University, is the former head of the British Government’s world-renowned Hadley Institute: "Another one of these facts comes in that catches even you unawares and you think, ‘Oh shit! Not another one! I wasn’t expecting that’. When we made predictions a couple of years ago that the Arctic sea ice might disappear by the end of the century, people were sceptical. Now people think, ‘Well, it actually might be gone by mid-century.’ Only a few years ago that was a really dramatic and controversial finding because it was something that was so far beyond our concept. Inherently scientists are very conservative, and they won’t come out and make a statement in public unless they are very confident about it. But the sort of things that are going around in private, you know, (are) ‘oh, the Barrier Reef’s gone, the Murray Darling’s gone’."

From melting polar caps to acidifying oceans to increased frequency of drought, floods and bushfires, climate scientists have worked harder than ever this year to bridge the communication gap between what they know, what the rest of us think and what the politicians are doing. There are so many science updates lately that I’ve decided to provide a summary of some of the most significant in this blog each week.

Here’s one recent example from The New Scientist: "BY 2055, climate change is likely to have warmed the world by a dangerous 4 deg C unless we stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere the way we do now. This is the startling conclusion of a study by the UK Met Office, unveiled at a conference in Oxford.

Why so soon? Because temperature rises caused by greenhouse gas emissions are expected to trigger dangerous feedback loops, which will release ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases. The nature and scale of these feedback loops is a subject of vigorous debate among climate scientists, but warmer oceans, for instance, may liberate more dissolved CO2, and plants may decay faster in a warmer climate. The Met Office ran 17 different models with these feedbacks. All concluded a 4 deg C world by 2055 was likely if emissions continue to rise. Even if we are lucky, we are still likely to hit 4 deg C by 2070.

What could this mean for Australia? The scientists found that "… a study of the probability of forest fires suggests that the number of ‘extreme fire danger days’ per year – when uncontrollable fires are likely to break out as a result of low humidity, strong winds and high temperature – will double to quadruple by 2050 under a high warming scenario. Even under a low warming scenario, the frequency rises by 10 to 50 per cent," says David Karoly of the University of Melbourne, who reviewed a range of wildfire projections.

"We are unleashing hell on Australia," said Neville Nicholls, Monash University’s Professor Neville Nicholls, a world expert and lead author for the IPCC.

Interactive feature: Explore the 4 deg C world in Google Earth (.kmz file download)

I’m contacting many of Australia’s most prominent climate scientists to hear directly how they’re feeling about their research, public advocacy and the likelihood of political success at Copenhagen in December. Already one of the most common themes in some early replies is the yawning gap between the science and proposed political responses. I’ll bring you their comments in greater detail next week.

Let me leave you with a taste from just one, Neville Nicholls: "We feel like Cassandra (able to see catastrophe but doomed to be disbelieved). I think this is especially the case with Australian scientists, where certain sections of the media would prefer to have an article about climate change written by the drover’s dog rather than by a real climate scientist. Earlier this week I was contacted by a climate scientist friend at Columbia University in New York. He was being asked to participate in a briefing on climate change science for Australian Parliament members and senators, in New York on 6 October and wanted me to brief him on the scientific knowledge and political leanings of the politicians in the delegation. I am happy that Australian politicians are seeking briefings from real scientists. But I am bemused that they thought they needed to travel to New York to get a briefing from a climate scientist."

More next week.

Posted by Margot O’Neill on October 6, 2009 in Copenhagen Climate Change Conference | Permalink


~ by Cory Morningstar on October 10, 2009.

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