Governments still ignoring global warming

by Sylvain Comeau

Despite mounting evidence and a growing chorus of warnings about global warming, many scientists complain that policymakers are still dragging their feet on initiatives to reduce the use of fossil fuels and CFCs. Four speakers tackled the issue at an afternoon conference on global warming on February 23, organized by the Centre for Climate and Global Change Research.

Dr. Syukuro Manabe, of Princeton's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, presented a graph demonstrating a clear warming trend in the past 1000 years, and suggested that CO2 gasses could double or even quadruple in the next 150-500 years, "and people would have to keep moving their beachfront property up as sea levels continue to rise."

Yet, during a panel discussion on the challenge of convincing policy makers which followed the individual presentations, Manabe complained that scientists warning about global warming "are like the prosecution in the O.J. trial; the burden of proof is always on us, and we can't predict without some shadow of a doubt."

Manabe noted that funding for global warming research has endured severe cuts in the U.S., and compared the progress on the greenhouse effect to initiatives to repair the hole in the ozone layer.

"When politicians and decision makers realized the hole in the ozone layer was really happening very quickly, we had the Montreal Protocol. But I can show a chart with temperatures going up, and they say 'It could be because of natural variabilities, or effects of solar irradiance increases,' --all kinds of arguments. The bottom line is to monitor some key variables, such as summer climates, very selectively, rather than try to monitor everything, all the time. Then we don't have to request enormous amounts of funding."

In response to an audience member's suggestion that scientists press policymakers on the latest global warming scare--the increasing frequency and severity of tropical storms--Manabe pointed out the dilemma he and his colleagues face of sustaining a sense of urgency in the face of often confusing and contradictory results.

"There has been a recent increase in Atlantic storms, but there has also been a reduction in Pacific Ocean storms. It is highly premature to bring the recent storms into the greenhouse warming debate, even though it may have something to do with it.

"If we cry wolf prematurely, we lose our credibility. When we say something, we have to be able to stand by it. If we get confusing and varied results, we can't tell decision makers to react to our results, only to eat our words later on," said Manabe.

Dr. André Berger, head of the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics George Lemaître at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, presented an atmosphere-ocean-ice climate model demonstrating that global warming may have an effect on the world's next glacial cycle. During the panel, he offered one way of dealing with the persistent uncertainty of global warming research.

"As scientists, we will have to speak more and more in terms of probability, instead of saying that our results are right or wrong. It is up to the policymakers to start to accept that kind of probability statement, and use it to decide whether or not to implement policy. If not, nothing will get done, because we will never be sure."

Dr. Samuel Fankhauser of the World Bank presented estimates that a doubling of greenhouse gasses could cause a yearly reduction of 1.4%-1.9% of world GNP, and 2%-9% of the GNP of developing nations, mostly due to crop failures caused by floods and droughts. He suggested that one economic solution would be to encourage private sector alternate energy research already under way.

"The private sector has quite a few renewable energy technologies in the pipeline," said Fankhauser. "Giving these companies the right tax incentives to set up power stations would be much more affordable than big, public sector research projects."

During the panel discussion, Berger echoed the sentiment, complaining that the pressure for new research obscures developments which already exist.

"We already have at our disposal some of these (alternative, efficient) technologies. For example, we have cars which consume no more than three litres for every 100 kilometres. Why are they not on the market? It's up to the decision makers to implement these new technologies, so I refuse to accept that scientists should be blamed because we do not have final solutions to these problems."

In his presentation, Dr. David Schimel of Boulder, Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research outlined two strategies for reducing greenhouse gasses, one a short-term plan, the other long-term, with each eventually producing similar results. "Thus we have a fair amount of economic flexibility in how we choose to deal with implementing emission reductions," said Schimer. There's no need for immediate draconian measures, which has been a big concern of industry."

Last October, after a plenary session in Montreal, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international think tank, released a written Summary for Policymakers, which was approved by representatives of more than 70 countries. While the summary was the first acknowledgement by the IPCC that there is a discernable human influence on global climate, action on a global level is stalemated, according to Schimel, by divergent interests among nations.

"It would be nice if there was a political consensus. But nations are more concerned by the issue of winners and losers. The first nation to take action on climate change, when there is the least development of alternative technologies and the least information on economic consequences, is most likely to suffer adverse economic and competitive effects."

Schimel outlined the stark divisions among nations participating in the IPCC. "There is a polarization between the OPEC countries and what is known as the association of small island states. The OPEC countries see nothing but economic ruin in restricting fossil fuel consumption, while the small island states literally see their territory being swallowed by the ocean. Between these two extremes, there is no agreement on what constitutes dangerous (human) interference in the earth's climate."

Western countries, meanwhile, "don't see the economic damage as being very serious, or see it as easily accommodated." Compounding the problem is a lack of hard evidence on the specific effects of global warming on particular areas of the world, said Schimer.

"We have enough information and ammunition to argue for adequate investment in the development of alternative and more efficient technologies. But I don't think we have sufficient regional information on how climate changes might play out, or on their consequences on agriculture, forestry and the incidence of infectious diseases, in order to persuade all countries to agree on a common definition of dangerous interference."

Convincing all parties involved depends on how much focussed information can be collected, Schimer concluded.

"The focus of research needs to be on assessing the patterns of climatic change arising from the large, broad scale global pattern. It's those details which will determine the willingness of a spectrum of nations, with different economies and different climatic zones, to collaborate in an international effort."