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Runaway climate concerns

Runaway climate concerns
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First Published: Tue, Jan 27 2009. 08 53 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Tue, Jan 27 2009. 08 53 PM IST
For evidence of the inertia of bureaucracy, look no further than the UN climate conference in Poznan that concluded recently. Like a meeting in Bali last year and another in Copenhagen in December, the aim is to go beyond the Kyoto Protocol to try to halt global warming. This is serious stuff, since implementing the Kyoto Protocol could possibly cost up to $180 billion annually.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
These meetings and Kyoto reflect an underlying premise promoted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For its part, IPCC lives and dies by the hypothesis that human contributions to greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change.
Man-made global warming has become what scientists call an ex cathedra doctrine that, like a superstition, can be challenged at great risk to reputation or financial support.
The authority of the IPCC report comes from the scientific aspects of its studies, but its policy conclusions are less reliable. This is because the “Summary for Policymakers”, the most commonly-cited aspect of the report, presents a consensus of government representatives and not scientists. It supports granting more power and revenues to governments, a view welcomed by eager plutocrats and spendthrift politicians.
Widespread public acceptance, conventional wisdom and dogmatic belief about climate change have made alarmists and government officials play down contrarian views on the subject. Data from the Global Carbon Project show the global growth rate of carbon emissions was 3.2% in the five years to 2005 compared with 0.8% from 1990-1999. It is likely that the high average global economic growth rates after that period pushed the trend up.
Even though greenhouse gas emissions increased four times as fast as in the 1990s, average global temperatures moderated or fell from the beginning of this millennium. So, despite higher atmospheric CO2 levels, average global temperatures stopped rising in 1998 and the planetary average in 2008 was the lowest for a decade.
Indeed, some scientists find evidence of a cooling episode, possibly a mini ice age. As it is, there have been many, very long climate cycles with global cooling the most recurrent and most dangerous problem.
In other words, IPCC models are not comporting with reality. This should not be surprising, since in striving for simplicity to set policy objectives, IPCC overlooked its own admonition. In its own wording, climate is “a complex, non-linear, chaotic object” whereby predictions about long-term evolution are unreliable.
IPCC models neglect to consider the impact of the variability in solar activity on climate sensitivity. Nor do they consider aerosol effects or how reported solar dimming and brightening over the past 30 years impact absorption and reflection.
With so much gloom expressed about the future conditions of the environment based upon computer modelling, it is worthwhile to ponder what such models involve. First, scientific inferences behind the construction of any model, whether of an economy or the climate, reflect the inclinations and biases of the person constructing the model.
Second, they inevitably leave out imponderables that simply cannot be modelled, such as unpredictable acts of nature.
For its part, the insistence of IPCC in focusing blame for climate change on human actions that affect CO2 levels weakens the motivation to find natural explanations. For example, current data suggest that anomalies in global temperature over the long term arise from natural forces such as solar activity and sea surface temperatures. Surely this merits further study, especially since CO2 abatement is so costly.
It would be worthwhile to consider how atmospheric warming can affect the carrying capacity of that portion of the atmosphere that contains water vapour. All these forces combine to have greater impact than the greenhouse gases emitted by all of mankind’s productive activities.
Being wedded to the notion that human contributions to greenhouse gases primarily cause climate change may lead to costly policies that are unnecessary and ineffective. Indeed, current economic problems may be made worse if costly eco-inspired burdens are imposed on industries. The vast amounts of resources proposed for CO2 abatement could be better used to solve immediate survival problems for people, such as providing clean water or malaria control.
All the talk about “balanced” ecosystems or “environmental tipping points” implies that current or recent conditions are optimal or preferred arrangements for the earth. Consider the complaint that global warming will lead to higher sea levels and shrinking coastlines. Sea levels have risen or fallen at varying rates since the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago.
Attempting to alter human behaviour to avert climate change reflects a primitive mindset whereby a vast, misunderstood force is appeased through contrition or sacrifices. It ignores the simple fact that the global climate has changed and will change independent of what humans do.
Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and a visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jan 27 2009. 08 53 PM IST