ISIS Report 18/07/06
Global Warming Is Happening
Climate change scepticism is politically motivated, the evidence is all
around us. Good science is about dispelling common prejudice, not taking
leave of common sense. Dr.
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Climate change controversy is entirely political
There is little doubt that global warming is happening and happening fast (Abrupt
climate change happening, SiS 20) . But the public may have been
distracted by the disproportionate attention the mainstream press has been giving
to ‘sceptics’ of climate change. Their most recent effort in April 2006 was
billed as an open letter signed by “more than 60 leading international climate
change experts”  and addressed to Canada’s new Conservative Prime Minister
praising his commitment to review the Kyoto protocol on reducing emissions.
sceptics are having a field day in the United States where a
powerful anti-science lobby has effectively taken over science policy on a
whole range of issues including climate change.
The US Congress asked
the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to report on the controversy surrounding
the papers published in the late 1990s by climate scientists Michael Mann
and colleagues  who concluded that the warming in the Northern Hemisphere
in the last decades of the 20th century was unprecedented in the
past thousand years.
June 2006, the NAS released a report on the new study , concluding that the “recent warmth is unprecedented
for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia”,
and “supports the conclusion that human activities are responsible for much
of the recent warming.”
I don’t really think
they could have concluded otherwise.
Latest evidence – warming at the poles
We don’t have to accept
the authority of the NAS. Just look at the latest evidence, which has been
making headlines in the popular media over the past months. Not only is the
land surface of the earth getting warmer, the seas are getting warmer especially
at the poles, which is why the polar ice caps are melting rapidly.
Scientists from the
British Antarctic Survey (BAS) report that over the past 50 years more than 13 000
sq km of sea ice in the Antarctic Peninsula has been lost.
Melting in the Antarctic Peninsula removes sea ice that held back the
movement of glaciers. As a result, glaciers flow into the ocean up to 6 times
faster than before . West Antarctica is also affected where the warmer
seawater appears to be eroding the ice from below.
In 2001, the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change predicted that the average global sea level would
rise by between 11 cm and 77 cm by 2100, but forecast that Antarctic’s contribution
would be small. Within the past five years, however, studies found that melting
Antarctic ice caps contribute at least 15 percent to the current global sea
level rise of 2 mm a year. Several major sections of Antarctic ice have broken
off in the past decade. The Larsen A ice shelf of 1 600 sq km broke off in
1995. The Wilkins ice shelf of 1 100 sq km fell off in 1998, and the 13 500
sq km Larsen B dropped away in 2002.
The major contributions
to sea level rise from melting icecaps come from the Arctic,
where the evidence is even grimmer. Two studies that combine computer modelling
with paleoclimate records show that by 2100,
the Arctic may increase in temperature 3-5C and become as warm as 130 000
years ago when sea levels eventually rose up to 6 m higher than today
. Bette Otto-Bliesnes at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
and Jonathan Overpeck at University of Arizona in the United States reported
their results in the March 24 issue of Science.
The studies are based on data from ancient coral reefs, ice cores and other
natural climate records as well as output from NCAR-based Community Climate
System Model for simulating past, present and future climates.
What causes global warming?
What causes global warming
is known as the greenhouse effect, a well-understood phenomenon in physics
and chemistry . The greenhouse effect is actually very important for making
Earth just the right temperature for life, as opposed to Venus, which is too
hot (450 C), and Mars (-53 C), too cold; the distance from the sun doesn’t
quite explain that.
Instead, it is the
earth’s atmosphere, which turns out to be the right thickness to act like
cosy duvet, trapping sufficient solar energy to keep it warm and pleasant.
The duvet is really a collection of gases in the atmosphere called greenhouse
gases, because that’s what the glass wall of a greenhouse does. The major
greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
of electromagnetic radiation of wavelengths from 20 microns at the far infrared
end to 200 nanometres at the far ultraviolet end. Various gases absorb light
in the ultraviolet and infrared regions, but are transparent to visible light
between 400 – 700 nm. Some of light is reflected from clouds and the land
surface, the rest is absorbed by land, water, and vegetation, transformed
into heat, and re-radiated in the form of invisible infrared radiation. The
greenhouse gases absorb the infrared radiation from the earth’s surface, and
send heat in all directions, including back to the earth, like the glass of
the greenhouse. But too much greenhouse effect and the earth will heat up.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming
Of the greenhouse gases
in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is the most abundant, and there is good
evidence linking the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to
the earth’s temperature [8, 9].
As recorded in ice
cores from Vostok, Antarctica, the temperature near the South Pole has varied
by more than 20 F (9.4 C) during the last 350 000 years. There have been peaks
of warmth approximately every 100 000 years. The temperature and the carbon
dioxide concentration closely track each other. The same close correlation
occurs between temperature and methane concentration. Note that the temperatures
at any one location, especially at the poles, will tend to go up and down
much more than the average temperature of the earth.
Since the 1900s, the global
average temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration have increased
dramatically, and the two curves again closely coincide. The rapid rise in
both surface temperature and carbon dioxide is one of the indications that
humans are responsible for at least some of this unusual warming: the excessive
use of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, chopping down forests, intensive
agriculture, industrialisation and massive species extinctions.
Global warming is not just an increase in temperature; it is a conglomerate
of correlated physical, ecological and social changes caused by decades of unsustainable
use of the earth’s resources. This is fuelled by the dominant neo-liberal economic
model of unrestrained growth, exacerbated by globalisation, which has resulted
in the over exploitation of both environmental resources and people, impoverishing
billions in historically the most resource-rich countries of the Third World
world – a global initiative; Agriculture
without farmers; Sustainable
food system for sustainable development; Global
food trade & the new slave labour) [10-13]. There are increasingly vocal
demands for corporate responsibility and accountability. But those who wish
to really make poverty history must address the causes at the very source: the
dominant model that is responsible for both climate change and poverty.
To see if the effects
on climate change due to human activities can be distinguished from those
naturally occurring before humans beings had substantial impact, one of the
best available computer models was rerun with inputs from both natural causes
such as the change in luminosity of the sun, volcanic eruptions that send
lots of dust and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and slight changes in
the earth’s orbit. The model with combined natural and human activities does
track the warming trend in the past 100 years rather closely  (Fig. 1).
However, when human
activities are left out, the model failed to capture the trend in actual data
showing an increase in temperature especially since the 1950s. It clearly
demonstrates that human activities have contributed significantly to global
warming. It also suggests, by the same token, that our species can make a
difference by changing our activities.
Figure 1. Climate model fit observations only when human
activities are included. Upper graph emissions from human activities included,
lower graph, emissions from human activities excluded
Nature of scientific evidence
There is really nothing
special about scientific evidence as opposed to any other evidence. One has
to use critical judgement and good common sense to find coherence in the observations.
It is like solving a murder mystery; we can piece the evidence together to
get at what really happened.
Good science, in my book, is reliable knowledge of nature that enables us to
live sustainably with her; it is not contrary to good common sense. The dominant
science that glorifies competition, in contrast, has failed to satisfy the criteria
of good science, and has failed the reality test in the word, as it has in science,
as I argued in my books, Genetic
Engineering Dream or Nightmare  and Living
with the Fluid Genome .
Science dispels common prejudice not common sense
Prof. Lewis Wolpert at University
College London has done great damage to science by claiming science is against
common sense. Science is not against common sense; it is against common prejudice.
Science is systematic investigation and analysis that enables people to dispel
common prejudice and restore good common sense. A lot of scepticism on climate
change is linked to vested economic interests in business as usual, so we
should be immediately sceptical about what the climate change sceptics say.
At a deeper level, however, it is a mistaken belief in Darwinian competition,
in the ‘fittest’ growing ever bigger at the expense of all others. Richard Dawkins
at Oxford University and other apologists of neo-Darwinism are flourishing at
the London School of Economics, together with the mainstream neo-liberal economists,
who too, believe in unsustainable growth by unfettered competition in the so-called
free-market. That’s common prejudice for you. The real natural world, including
most human societies, does not operate on the survival of the fittest as much
as mutualism and reciprocity, and when we put that into practice, we may just
be able to beat climate change (Dream
Farm II, How to beat climate change and post fossil-fuel economy, SiS 29)