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Implications of recent climate science controversies

This article was posted on Reuters The Great Debate by Sir Julian Hunt on February 18th 2010

– Julian Hunt is visiting professor at Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) and formerly director general of the UK Meteorological Office. The opinions expressed are his own.-

In the past few weeks, there has been a steady stream of stories highlighting major concerns over scientific evidence relating to climate change.  One example has been the world-wide furore relating to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) assertion that all Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035.

Going forwards, as the UK Government Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington has stated strongly, standards of openness about sources, verification and presentation must be at the highest level.

The most regrettable implication of recent events is that further confusion has been sown amongst global publics about climate change.  What I believe most people want now is enlightenment, not further argument, about what might be the gravest issue confronting humanity in the twenty first century.

One of the key challenges for scientists and indeed politicians is communicating the reality of climate change to global publics in an accurate and intelligible way.  Contrary to belief in some quarters, the leading models that forecast global climate temperature in decades ahead are reliable and this is strongly supported by satellite data.

Dismissive views expressed about climate predictions are often based on the uncertainty of long range weather forecasts.  However, this is false because even sceptics know how long it takes to heat water in a sauce pan and that it does not depend on understanding the eddy movements in the pan (which are analogous to weather patterns and are only approximately described by models).

What is needed is more openness and clarity about the huge complexity of the climate change phenomenon.  For instance, over the last decade, while the earth’s land surface has been warming overall, trends of weather and climate records reveal larger and more unusual regional and local variations — some unprecedented since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

Among such warning signs are the disappearing ice fields around the poles and on all mountain ranges, more frequent droughts in Africa and now in wet regions (such as the 2006 drought in Assam India, previously one of the wettest places in the world), floods in dry regions (as recently, the worst floods in 50 years in northwest India), and ice storms in sub-tropical China in 2008 (for the first time in 150 years).

What these data patterns underline is that, while climate change is a reality, it is impacting regions and indeed sub-regions of the world in very different ways.

Although such variations are approximately predicted by global climate models such as the IPCC’s, these data-sets need buttressing with more local measurements and studies for sub-national governments, industry and agriculture to better understand their climatic situation and develop reliable and effective strategies to deal with all the ways that climate change affects their activities and well being.

Post-Copenhagen, adopting this approach is especially crucial as we may be heading towards a future in which no long-term, comprehensive successor to the Kyoto regime is even politically possible at the international level.  One of the chief flaws in the Copenhagen negotiations was the fact that the negotiations were aimed at an ambitious top level deal that did not account for political imperatives in developed and developing countries.

Experience shows that an ‘bottom-up’ approach works very effectively.  Publics and businesses are far more likely to believe local monitoring reports on climate change.  Moreover, it is only when sub-national areas learn how they will be specifically affected that grassroots action can often be aroused.

This latter lesson was one I learned as a City Councillor in Cambridge in the 1970s when I helped introduce air pollution measurements to show the effects of traffic in the city’s town centre.  Once the high air pollution was measured and better understood by local people, traffic control measures were quickly introduced.
I am therefore delighted at the increasing numbers of regional monitoring centres across the world which, by communicating and interpreting climate change predictions and uncertainties, are contributing towards local adaptation plans:
•    In China, where provinces require targets for power station construction, regional environmental and climate change centres are now well developed.
•    In the United States, a recent report has highlighted the value of non-official centres, such as a severe storm centre in Oklahoma, which gives independent advice to communities and businesses, while relying on government programmes for much of the data.
•    In Brazil, a regional data centre is providing data and predictions about agriculture and deforestation and informs legislation about policy options.

What this activity points to is the need for a broader global network of such centres to support national climate initiatives, and to facilitate international funding and technical cooperation in delivering the right information to the right place, at the right time.

Local actions can only be effective if measurements of climate and environment are made regularly and are publicised as well as information about targets, and projections of emissions.  Experience shows that full exposure is needed about what is happening, what is planned, and how every individual can be involved (as the Danes show by their community investment in wind power).

Moreover, as legislators in Globe (Global legislators for a balanced environment) and city governments across the world are already putting into practice, adaptation to climate change also needs to build on existing knowledge and infrastructures in local settings.

Forming loose collaborative networks will enable regional facilitation centres, their experts and decision makers to learn from one another and also draw upon the resources of existing national and international databases and programmes, such as the growing number of consortia linking major cities, local governments, and the private sector.

The overall message is clear.  ‘Localisation of action and data’ must be the post-Copenhagen priority if we are to facilitate public understanding of climate change and truly tackle the menace it poses.

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