Dead birds on the floor – the building of the climate consensus

Published in the Guardian May 12, 2014

Climate scientists are canaries in the global coalmine – highly attuned proxies, who sense danger before we blunder into it. For decades, various researchers have issued calamitous warnings about climate change. But was there a moment when science collectively, definitively, dropped off the perch? And why do we keep ignoring the litter of dead birds on the floor?

During the 1990s, scientists were still debating the most basic assertions of climate change science. Was the world indeed warming? Consensus was growing, but slowly and many scientists remained undecided.

Two bold scientific statements bookended the decade – James Hansen’s statement to the US senate in 1988 and the 1999 hockey stick graph. Maligned and celebrated, the two were influential in bringing climate change into the public consciousness. Yet both were accused of using unproven methods to reach their conclusions, damaging the credibility of climate science and paving an easy road for denialism.

Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told the energy and natural resources committee of the United States Senate in 1988 that his research on human-induced global warming was unequivocal. “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

The next day, the New York Times ran the headline “Global Warming Has Begun”. It was a galvanising moment for public opinion and Hansen became a poster boy for the environment movement, but not all were convinced.

“Hansen was a scientist that bumped right up against the edge of activism and a lot of scientists have been very uncomfortable going over into that. And rightly so … if you’re seen too much as an activist then people won’t trust your science,” said Marshall Shepherd, 2013 president of American Meteorological Society.

The US National Climate Assessment (NCA), released last week, echoed Hansen’s words 26 years later: “Climate change is already affecting the American people”.

But even the NCA, built as it was on the work of 800 scientists, has beencriticised for a lack of nuance.To maintain credibility, climate science must walk the narrow ledge between conservatism and activism.

Some scientists feel the hockey stick graph, published in 1999, dangled both feet over this edge. Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes used data gathered from tree rings, lake sediments, ice cores and corals to recreate the global temperature over the past 1,000 years. The image they produced was a startling visual communiqué of the world’s post-industrial warming trend. It was featured prominently in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2001 report.

But Mann et al’s willingness to use unproven methodology irked some scientists, including Hulme: “I don’t think it was seminal for scientists. To me that was never a decisive interventional piece of evidence. The data was absolutely scanty.”

Shepherd disagrees. “I think it would be characterised as a watershed moment in climate science,” he says, although he recognises it as “one of the singular most polarising graphs or scientific pieces of data that exist”. He says the paleo-climate data used to create the graph has since been showed to be “pretty good”.

The problem for Mann and Hansen is the world wants to see all the canaries keeling over together, a clear public moment of unequivocal proof. Shepherd says the public wrongly see science like a court case, in which reasonable doubt can outweigh a larger body of evidence. But science has a natural indifference to the desire for certainty. Each time a scientist gets too far ahead of the curve it makes the scientific community deeply uncomfortable. Disagreements of this kind can be latched onto as evidence that the scientific process is flawed, fuelling the denial movement.

Consensus on climate change built incrementally through the 1990s until, by the time the 2001 IPCC report came out (with the hockey stick graph in it), there were very few scientists who felt uncomfortable attributing some climate change to human activity.

But Hulme says there was no collective eureka moment and there will always be doubt and questions. “Science doesn’t really do that. It is always an unending process of confirmation, correction, refutation … It is the collective social practice of science that in the end gives science its particular credibility and status. But it’s a rather harder thing to get to the bottom of because you can’t just focus on one charismatic individual.”

Notably absent from the consensus building of the 1990s were the voices of climate scientists from developing countries, says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. For the most part, this was because the research was simply not happening. But increased interest from political leaders during this time led some countries (mainly in the Indian subcontinent, China and southeast Asia) to implement climate science programmes. Even so, the imbalance perpetuates today.

Bhushan says climate scientists from the south “still play a very little role in developing consensus on climate change negotiations.” The latest IPCC report drew more than 90% of its research material from developed countries.

Scientists participate in the compiling of IPCC reports with funding from their governments, meaning wealthy countries can afford to participate more in the process. This has the effect, Bushan argues, of politicising the reports, which he says have focussed unduly on the impacts of climate change on the developed world.

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Will Tory plans kill onshore wind in the UK?

Eco audit verdict from 24th April, 2014 – Full story here

There seems to be little doubt that this policy will eventually sink the onshore wind industry in this country. The potential for the technology to compete without subsidies is poor and the handing over of power to local authorities will likely be the final nail in the industry’s coffin.

Tories and many industry leaders are loath to admit that this will put an end to onshore wind, saying that current capacity will be maintained and even grow for a time as projects granted permission before 2015 come online. But what industry survives without long-term growth? For onshore wind to continue to generate investment in research and development (and therefore to stay competitive) it will need to have the potential for new growth and projects. As Jennifer Webber, from RenewableUK says, this policy “will kill the industry dead”.

That is their prerogative, especially if the EU fails to introduce a 2030 renewable energy target as some observers are suggesting they will. But the Committee on Climate Change says the level of onshore wind will need to more than triple by 2030 if the UK is to meet its own emissions reduction commitments.

David Cameron said the policy was a removal of unnecessary subsidies. But this argument washes away quickly when you consider that onshore wind is less expensive than other renewable alternatives, which will continue to attract public funding.

What this is really about is votes in rural areas and an appeal to the NIMBYism that sways the Tory right towards Ukip. In the end, windfarms, like migrant workers and the EU, are seen as alien edifices being imposed on the British way of life. Renewable energy creates jobs, but it fails to create them in the areas where it changes the skyline. Thus locals feel the costs outweigh the benefits. The majority of Brits are for windfarms, but the Tories have decided that the votes they need are not only opposed, but they are so strongly opposed they will decide their vote on it.

February’s Guardian eco audits

The French today join the US and China as the latest country to crush its stockpile of seized ivory. But is it an empty gesture? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

As experts line up to draw links to climate change, Karl Mathiesen, with your help, looks at what is causing the series of storms and floods hitting the UK.

In the wake of a sodden winter, a series of sinkholes have opened up across Britain. But are they a natural phenomenon or induced by human activity. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

More than 1 in 20 badgers took more than five minutes to die after being shot by government contracted marksmen. After the badger cull also failed to meet its target number of kills, can the policy proceed? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates.

UN body calls Tasmania forest U-turn ‘exceptional’

Australia‘s move to strip part of Tasmania’s forest of its world heritage status one year after it was added is “very exceptional”, the UN has told the Guardian, adding its experts could not recall such a case in recent years.

Unesco spokeswoman said changes to world heritage sites were not uncommon. But, to the agency’s knowledge, the appeal to remove an area so soon after a national government had asked for its addition was unprecedented.

“It is highly unusual that a boundary change entail removing an extension requested just one year earlier,” she said. “Our experts in the world heritage centre have no memory of any similar cases in recent years.”

Shifting political agendas within the deeply polarised community of foresters and environmentalists who live on its fringes have caused the Tasmanian world heritage area to be changed more often than any other Unesco site.

“This site’s boundaries have already been modified four times, mainly for extensions. It’s the only site on the world heritage list to have undergone so many revisions,” the spokeswoman said.

The coalition government described the requested annexation of 74,000 hectares of forest as a “minor boundary modification”, saying the forests were “degraded” – a claim quickly disputed by the Wilderness Society. The area is part of a 172,500-hectare addition to the world heritage area requested by Australia and approved by Unesco last year.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will consider the amendment in June. It will decide whether the changes are classed as minor or major according to how they affect the overall value of the site. Minor boundary changes are significantly simpler to affect.

“The number of hectares is not what counts. Rather, changes are defined by their impact on what we call the “outstanding universal value” of the site; in other words, those characteristics that led to it being listed in the first place,” the Unesco spokeswoman said.

Peter Valentine, associate professor at James Cook University, said the committee was unlikely to consider any revocation to be minor and raised concerns about the precedent it could set.

“Because Australia did make a claim that the extension was a valuable addition, supported by both IUCN and the world heritage centre, it is unlikely that the committee would agree to just excising part of the world heritage area at the wish of the new government. Such an action would be a serious problem for future world heritage protection everywhere.

“It is my view that what the Australian government is asking cannot be seen as a minor boundary change. If the area is now so badly damaged perhaps the committee would seek an explanation of how this happened and what steps would be taken to ensure rehabilitation (which is an obligation under the world heritage convention).”

Is biodiversity offsetting a ‘license to trash nature’?

Guardian Eco Audit

12 November, 2013

Plans to replace habitat destroyed by development has been described as too simplistic by the Environmental Audit Committee. With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates if biodiversity offsetting can deliver on its promise to benefit the environment and the economy.

Click here to see how the debate unfolded.

Eco Audit: How many species are there on earth?

Guardian Eco Audit

30 October, 2013

The discovery of new species in relatively well-explored Australia leads Karl Mathiesen to investigate how many other natural wonders may exist unknown to science. Read more here.

Are new nuclear reactors an ‘excellent’ deal for consumers?

The Guardian Eco Audit

21 October, 2013

The UK government has hailed its nuclear power agreement with French and Chinese companies as a big win for Britain. But with a strike price at almost twice the current energy costs, is it really a good deal for consumers? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates. Read more here.

GM crops: is opposition to golden rice wicked?

The Guardian Eco Audit

14 October, 2013

UK environment secretary Owen Paterson has questioned the morality of delaying the production of genetically modified crops designed to alleviate suffering in the developing world. Is he right? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates. Read more here.

Can we fly more and meet carbon targets?

The Guardian Eco Audit

8 October, 2013

Can aviation industry expansion be compatible with the need to reduce emissions? With your help, Karl Mathiesen investigates. Read more here.