Author: Keith Baker

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Saturday, February 20th, 2010 at 4:06 pm
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Homes and Gardens

The Problem with Climate Change

When it comes to climate change I don’t pull my punches so I thought I’d start as I mean to go on. Whilst some of these articles will hopefully dispel the myths around ‘eco-friendly’ products, I’ll also be discussing bigger problems that we all contribute to, knowingly or otherwise. These will be sprinkled with greenwash pet-hates such as carbon capture and storage, the media’s coverage of climate change and other scientific matters, and the lack of real progress to improve the energy efficiency of housing. I’d really appreciate hearing from you if you think there’s an interesting case of greenwash that I’m missing, particularly a local one. If so please get in touch by e-mail.

The Scottish Climate Change Act has been called the strongest climate bill in the world, but personally I’m hedging my bets. Without a clear roadmap for how it will achieve its goals, and political leadership that is not only committed to it but willing to take the odd risk to see it through, it seriously risks failing to live up to its aspirations.

At the beginning of this month a poll of 1,001 adults conducted for the  BBC showed us what we are up against. 25% of those surveyed do not think global warming is happening. The last time the poll was conducted was in November 2009, just before the now infamous leaking of a large volume of information from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the retraction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assertion that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. The November poll found this figure to be just 15%.

The same poll also found that the proportion of adults who agreed that climate change is happening and is “now established as largely man-made” also fell from 83% to 75%; and of those 75%, one third thought that the consequences of living in a warming world have been exaggerated, compared to one fifth in November.

This change is significant, statistically as well as for what it tells us about how sensitive people are to accepting not just climate change, but anything that means they need to change their lifestyles. The scale of the changes we need to be making have been likened by some to the need to adopt a ‘Blitz mentality’. The phrase makes a good soundbite, but it ignores the key difference – during the Blitz peoples’ motivation came from the need to defend the nation against the immediate threat of the enemy at the door, the (almost) unanimous agreement over the evil nature of that enemy, the need to help protect their homes, their lives, the lives of their families and communities, and the lives of those serving abroad. And should anyone have found a sceptic hiding out in the hills it would not have been impossible for them to be marched down to London for a few nights in an air raid shelter.

The reality of climate change is a world apart. Our most selfish motivations come down to the protection of the lives of descendents that we will never live to meet, and perhaps the future habitability of this incredible little rock floating around a star at the edge of an otherwise unassuming galaxy, and maybe also the future of the species we share it with.

Following the release, other far more accomplished authors have already written pages and pages of detailed responses to each of the claims made by the deniers, so I won’t even try to cover them all here. For a detailed response to these claims I’d recommend starting with the RealClimate website at , but the reality remains the same. Our little rock is in a very big hole, and many of us aren’t willing to do even the simplest things to help get out of it. This is why that leak has been so devastating.

To give you a flavour of just how devastating, let’s look at two of the key issues around the leak. First of all, ‘the trick’. This devious little word comes from an e-mail sent in 1999 by Prof Phil Jones, Head of the CRU to Prof Mike Mann of the University of Virginia. The date is important as the deniers claim that it refers to hiding the apparent decline in global temperature rises that has been observed since the turn of the century in calculations based on tree-ring data. So when it was quoted by Sarah Palin and Senator James Inhofe at Copenhagen they would’ve needed to believe that some secret cabal of scientists had been hiding a working time travel machine for it to be true.

Not only that, but it refers to a method for merging tree ring data with thermometer data to produce a single temperature data series. This is because thermometer data, which at the time showed that the Earth had recently experienced some of the warmest years on record, was not matching accurately with the tree ring data. The reason for this is still uncertain. Historically, temperature measurements based on tree ring data have correlated very well with real temperature data but in the last half century they have been found to be diverging from thermometer measurements – this is the apparent ‘decline’ mentioned in the e-mails and jumped on by the deniers. Obviously the scientists would have preferred to have thermometer data, but tree ring data has the distinct advantage that trees have been around for millions of years. The ‘trick’ itself is an adjustment explained by Mann in a paper published in Nature in 1998, and therefore subject to the highest possible level of scientific peer-review.

Secondly, why didn’t the CRU release the information under the Freedom of Information Act? What was being requested, and has now been leaked, include everything from the raw data, the computer code used to process it, and what many of those subject to the requests would consider to be private e-mails. The volume itself would pose a huge, but not insurmountable, administrative burden – but this is not in itself a justifiable reason for rejecting an FoI request.

Many people would argue that no raw scientific data should be withheld from the public domain, but this could easily lead to other scientists using that data to publish ahead of those who first generated it. Indeed this has been happening for so long that the 60’s satirist (and accomplished mathematician) Tom Lehrer mentions it in his song ‘The Great Lobechevsky’.

Next there’s the all-important computer code developed to process the data. In commercial cases this would simply be governed by IPR, but the CRU is not generating it for commercial use so arguably it should have been released. But if the deniers are as knowledgeable as they claim, then why not just request the raw data, write their own code, and submit that for peer-review?

Finally, there’s the requesting of ‘private’ e-mails. Technically, any information generated by an organisation or company is ultimately owned by it, and technically this includes personal e-mails sent or received from or to a staff e-mail account. The leaked e-mails themselves contain evidence that other e-mails were deleted with the deliberate intention of making them unavailable to those requesting them, and ultimately it is this that will damage climate science and ruin careers, and not the claims made about the science itself.

Before I conclude, there is the matter of how the CRU and UEA responded to the leak, and how it was covered by the media. Prof Jones took two days to issue a response and have it approved, but since the arrival of the internet, two days might as well be two years. The more right wing news networks took this as an admission of guilt, and the rest were left to resort to commentators with very little to comment on.

Hence many people thought they had reason not to accept something they didn’t really want to accept in the first place, the many who still don’t accept it felt a huge sense of justification, and a huge amount of damage was done to the public credibility of climate science in a matter of hours.

Ultimately this is the root of the problem we’re facing. It’s very difficult to persuade people who perceive they have little or no stake in a problem to help do something about it, and it’s incredibly easy to persuade them that the problem doesn’t exist in the first place. But if we don’t solve that problem then our descendents will find that this incredible little rock is a much less wondrous place to live than it is today, and question why those of us alive today failed to do anything about it.

What this means is that the most important acts will continue to be those of individuals, communities and campaign groups – and that includes every single one of you reading this.

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