A year of climatic disasters is now persuading politicians to accept the warnings of 20 years ago, writes Geoff Strong.
IF WAR is said to be a means of teaching Americans geography, what then is needed to teach them and fossil-fuel profligate sidekicks like ourselves about global warming? After the US has faced death and massive economic loss from two large hurricanes, and after Wilma gave the area another kicking last week, it seems the message is starting to register.
In one of the greatest of shocks, in Australia federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell has conceded the debate is over: humans have to accept their actions are warming the planet and the consequences will probably be disastrous.
But why have we taken so long to take the problem seriously and do something about it? Scientists who know about the greenhouse effect have been, by any reasonable standard, certain for two decades.
One of the problems appears to be that the scientific definition of certainty sounds like equivocation to the ordinary public, particularly to their elected and often scientifically ignorant representatives.
It is nearly 20 years since I wrote my first report about greenhouse gas global warming for the now defunct National Times. I remember asking scientists how certain they were of their predictions and I got an answer often repeated over the subsequent years: "Well, we are not 100 per cent certain, but we think the consequences will be ..."
In science-speak, that means they could have been 95 to 99 per cent certain but were leaving the 1 per cent margin for error in case somebody ripped them apart in a scientific paper.
The world's greatest gamblers, the insurance industry, didn't need that level
of certainty. It had been banking on scenarios being right since at least 1995.
In March that year, the world's biggest re-insurer, Munich Re of Germany, stunned the industry by saying manmade warming was increasing natural disasters. The head of the company's geoscientific research group, Dr Gerhard Berz, said: "Today there can be no doubt the growing number and intensity of windstorms, thunderstorms and floods all over the world are attributable to the rapid increase of air and sea temperatures."
Despite many years of research using supercomputers to model climate, the list
of consequences climate change scientists rattled off in 1986 have turned out to be pretty well on target: temperature changes, extreme events and predictions on hydrology, snow cover and ecology are holding up and some changes are now being observed.
The boffins [chiefly British slang for scientist engaged in research http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/boffin ] at our own CSIRO division of atmospheric research at Aspendale even got the timing right of when the impact would first be showing against background noise. They said it would appear after 2000 and it has.
I have gone back to some of the scientists interviewed then, such as the former head of the division, Dr Graeme Pearman, and scientific adviser Dr Willem Bouma. Pearman said the present level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had not been higher in 20 million years. "What we didn't know 20 years ago was how long CO2 lasts when it is in the atmosphere. We now know the residence time is 80 years."
What's more, we have a world of more than 6 billion people, population pressure the planet has never before had to endure.
Bouma says that, in hindsight, perhaps scientists should have worded their predictions differently and conveyed more certainty to the public because two decades have been lost. By appearing uncertain, they might have protected their backsides, but allowed a whole army of vested interest groups such as the fossil-fuel lobby and right-wing think tanks to attempt to lever apart the argument and create 20 years of delay.
The think tank apparatchiks who hate government involvement in anything except deregulation [and, we might add, government subsidy, and government guaranteed-market for their products e.g. via armament spending, we might also add -ED] paint climate scientists as creating fear to carve out well-paid government-funded careers.
The flaws in this argument: first, no one really wanted to see it happen and, second, anyone who could disprove it would win the Nobel prize [and the cover of Time on top of their Nobel Prize, we might add -ED]
Journalists who wrote what scientists believed were pilloried too. I was taken to the press council in 1999 by a reader for writing about global warming a decade on. My alleged crime was I hadn't given oxygen to those who didn't believe.
The complaint was dismissed.
A problem is global warming's complexity. This makes it a blessing that someone who is able to simplify science, such as Tim Flannery, has become a convert.
We can make a difference. One of the simplest and least painful ways would be to make it mandatory for all new houses to have solar hot-water systems. Hot water is 25per cent of household energy use and solar systems reduce this by 80 per cent. Any extra capital cost is paid back by reduced energy bills.
The value of such measures is emphasised with the National Climate Centre saying Victoria is likely to be hotter than average causing a blow-out in greenhouse unfriendly air-conditioner use this summer [remember that November-February is around summertime for Australia, where The Age is based -ED]
As the hurricanes demonstrated, the earth's atmosphere is capable of destroying the structures and institutions humans have so carefully crafted into civilisation. The rapid initial breakdown of law and order in New Orleans after Katrina should be proof of its fragility. I think the battle with the weather in future will make our war against jihadist terrorism pale into insignificance.
When I wrote that first report, one of the primary concerns was about sea levels rising and the National Times editors ran a cartoon of the Opera House being swamped. Now climatologists concede sea level rises were one area they initially over-estimated and are likely to be at the lower end of predictions. [until the greenland ice melts adding 6-7 meters to ocean levels, that is.. something that scientists believe may already be an inevitable 'locked into place' outcome once we reach 450 or 500 ppm in CO2, some 30-60 years away assuming our present rates of increases do not even accelerate from the current 2ppm per year -ED]
The Opera House will probably be safe*. Pity about Bangladesh, Tuvalu and Kiribati.
*Until the lock-in causes the Greenland melt and then the opera house isn't so safe. Pity also 1/3 of humanity as Monbiot's short letter to the editor reminds us about the already melting Himalayan glaciers:
Costing the Earth
Bjorn Lomborg's climate change calculus is profoundly flawed. Letter to The Times from George Monbiot, 18th May 2004
Bjorn Lomborg challenges me to respond to his contention that the cost of curbing carbon emissions is comparable to the cost of global warming itself, and that the money would be better spent elsewhere. He hardly makes it difficult. His methodology and his presentation of the figures are both profoundly flawed.
Lomborg begins by deliberately choosing the most optimistic assessment of the likely damage caused by climate change, and the most pessimistic estimate of the expense of minimising it. This latter figure appears to count the costs but not the economic benefits of investment in new energy sources and energy-efficient technology. Some estimates suggest that the transition to energy efficiency could result in a net gain rather than a net loss to the global economy.
But Lomborg's more important mistake is to assume that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred by global warming. If there is one thing we know about climate change, it's that it is a non-linear process, whose likely impacts simply cannot be totted up like the expenses for a works outing to the seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are almost impossible to cost. We now know, for example, that the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Bramaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 30 or 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity ceases to be viable, and the world goes into net food deficit. If Lomborg believes he can put a price on that, he has plainly spent too much of his life with his calculator, and not enough with human beings.
Reading Lomborg's work, it is hard to reach any conclusion other than that he is telling the powerful what they want to hear, irrespective of the real costs to everyone else.
Overview and local actions you can take: http://www.PostCarbon.org =============
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2005-11-01 21:42:11 EST
email@example.com wrote: > Date: Mon, 31 Oct 2005 12:03:29 -0800 > It's climate change, as forecast > By Geoff Strong> October 31, 2005 > > A year of climatic disasters is now persuading politicians > to accept the warnings of 20 years ago, writes Geoff Strong.
Solar power is not the solution. We need to build nukes, and plenty of them. There isn't any other energy source that gets there.
And the US could "carbon bank" using trees and switchgrass.
2005-11-01 22:33:12 EST
"beebs" <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote in message news:email@example.com... > firstname.lastname@example.org wrote: >> Date: Mon, 31 Oct 2005 12:03:29 -0800 >> It's climate change, as forecast >> By Geoff Strong> October 31, 2005 >> >> A year of climatic disasters is now persuading politicians >> to accept the warnings of 20 years ago, writes Geoff Strong. > > Solar power is not the solution. > We need to build nukes, and plenty > of them. There isn't any other > energy source that gets there. > > And the US could "carbon bank" using > trees and switchgrass. > > beebs
Why in the world does it have to just be one energy source?
2005-11-02 01:07:41 EST
Could be many, you are right.
But we need dense sources of energy for transport and living.
2005-11-02 01:37:32 EST
beebs wrote: > Could be many, you are right. > > But we need dense sources of energy for transport and living. > > beebs
Only some. Why can't lots of your home electricity and heat come from solar panels on your roof, for instance? And a big chunk of a farm's energy come from a windmill? Etc.? Of course it won't replace fossil fuel, but it will sure as hell make a big dent in it.
2005-11-02 09:28:18 EST
If global warming is the problem.
Nuclear power and electrification is the answer.
Wind and Solar will not power the grid because. A.) There are too many fluctuations.
2.) The voltage levels required for High Tension Transmission are to high, 115KV minimum not to lose most of what is generated to transformation and transmission.
C.) You can not start and stop commercial power plants at the whim of the wind and the sun.
Nukes produce no Co2. If we store it in the 1 million year facility in Yucca Mountain and begin reprocessing it as the French do, we have a 300 year supply without mining another ounce.
Support the earth, Support Nuclear power.
Unfounded fear is not a source of alternate energy.