Softened climate report riles some scientists

Seattle Times news services

Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press

A new global-warming report issued Friday by the United Nations paints a near-apocalyptic vision of Earth’s future: more than 1 billion people in need of water, extreme food shortages in Africa, a planetary landscape ravaged by floods and millions of species sentenced to extinction.

Yet that grim future is a toned-down prediction, a compromise brokered in a fierce, around-the-clock debate among scientists and bureaucrats. Officials from some governments, including China, the United States and Saudi Arabia, won some weakened wording.

Even so, the final report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “will send a very, very clear signal” to governments, said Yvo de Boer, the top climate official for the United Nations, which in 1988 created the climate-change panel that issued the document.

Despite the harshness of its vision and the fact that scientists signed off on the changes, the report quickly was criticized by some scientists who said its findings were watered down at the last minute by government bureaucrats seeking to deflect calls for action.

“The science got hijacked by the political bureaucrats at the late stage of the game,” said John Walsh, a climate expert at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who helped write a chapter on the polar regions.

Other scientists praised the report as the strongest warning ever that nations must reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, even though U.S. negotiators managed to eliminate language in one section that called for cuts in such emissions, said Patricia Romero Lankao, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., one of the report’s lead authors.

More than 2,500 scientists worldwide contributed to the report, relying on peer-reviewed studies to make their findings and subjecting them to rounds of outside review.

The findings had to be approved unanimously by 120-plus governments, and changes had to pass a panel of scientists. In addition, every change of wording had to be approved by scientists who wrote the affected section.

The impact here

The U.N. report projects that snowpacks in the West will decline, causing more floods in winter and reduced river flows in summer, increasing competition for water for agriculture and municipal use. Closer to home, precipitation will remain the same, but more will fall as rain, and the snowpack will melt earlier. Shrinking snowpacks in the Columbia River basin will cause difficulties for farmers, fish and power generation. More wildfires are possible.

Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times staff
That edict made for a four-day, deadline-busting contentious final editing session. The gathering in Brussels, Belgium, was closed to the public.

This week’s wrangling was just over a 21-page summary for policymakers. The technical report — 20 chapters, supplements, two summaries and 1,572 pages in all — will be released later this spring.

The approved summary outlined a range of devastating effects that will strike all regions and all levels of society. Those without resources to adapt will suffer the greatest impact, according to the report.

“It’s the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst-hit,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC.

Earlier drafts were published March 11 and Sunday in The Seattle Times. The report is the second of four coming this year from the IPCC.

The first report, released in February, characterized global warming as a runaway train that is irreversible but that can be moderated by societal changes. That report said, with more than 90 percent confidence, that warming is caused by humans, and its conclusions were widely accepted because of years of accumulated scientific data.

U.N. report findings

By midcentury, temperatures rise and drying soil will replace tropical forests with savannas in Brazil’s eastern Amazonia.

In North America, snowpack in the West will decline, causing more floods in winter and reduced flows in summer, increasing competition for water for agriculture and municipal use.

Water will come more often around the world in its least welcome forms: storms and floods.

Rising temperatures will reconfigure coastlines, as oceans rise and seawater surges over land. Tiny islands of the South Pacific and Asian deltas will be overwhelmed by storm surges as sea levels rise.

In the Andes and Himalayas, melting glaciers will unleash floods and rock avalanches. But within a few decades, as glaciers and snowpack decline, streams will dwindle, cutting off the main water supply to more than one-sixth of the world’s population.

Africa will suffer the most extreme effects, with 250 million people losing most of their water supplies. Food production will fall by half in many countries, and governments will have to spend 10 percent of their budgets or more to adapt to climate changes.

At least 30 percent of the world’s species will disappear if temperatures rise 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the average levels of the 1980s and ’90s.

The report notes that the early signs of warming are here:

Spring is arriving earlier, with plants blooming weeks ahead of schedule.

In the mountains, runoff begins earlier, shrinking glaciers in the Alps, Himalayas and Andes.

Habitats for plants and animals, both on land and in the oceans, are shifting toward the poles.

Nineteen of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980, according to previous studies. The report said more frequent and more intense heat waves are “very likely.”

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Los Angeles Times

The human factor

In contrast, the second report was more controversial because it tackled more uncertain issues of warming’s precise effects and the ability of humans to adapt.

“When you put people into the equation … it adds another layer of complication,” said Gary Yohe, a Wesleyan University economist and co-author.

Last-minute negotiations led to deleting timelines for future events and scaling back the degree of confidence in some projections. Both actions will ease pressure on industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are warming the planet gradually.

U.S. officials challenged the wording of a section that suggested policymakers need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because countries will be unable to respond to climate change simply by using adaptive measures such as levees and dikes.

In that instance, the original draft read: “However, adaptation alone is not expected to cope with all the projected effects of climate change, and especially not over the long run as most impacts increase in magnitude. Mitigation measures will therefore also be required.” That second sentence does not appear in the final version.

Other governments, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, also demanded changes, some seemingly minor.

Panel member Yohe said China and Saudi Arabia, for example, objected to a sentence that stated with “very high confidence” that many natural systems already are being affected by regional climate changes, arguing “very” should be removed.

After a long deadlock, U.S. delegates brokered a compromise that removed the reference to confidence levels.

The U.S. delegation also opposed a section that said parts of North America could suffer “severe” economic damage from climate change.

There were other disputes where scientists lost out:

• Instead of saying “hundreds of millions” would be vulnerable to flooding under certain scenarios, the final document says “many millions.”

• Instead of suggesting up to 120 million people are at risk of hunger because of global warming, the revised report refers to negative effects on subsistence farmers and fishermen.

Several scientists vowed afterward that they never would participate in the process again because of the political interference.

“Once is enough,” said Walsh, who was not present during negotiations but kept abreast of developments with e-mails from colleagues. “I was receiving hourly reports that grew increasingly frustrated.”

Chart altered

British scientist Neil Adger said he and others were disappointed that government officials deleted parts of a chart that highlights the devastating effects of every rise of 1.8 degrees in temperature. Still, Adger and other scientists and even environmental groups hailed the final report as the strongest ever.

“This is a glimpse into an apocalyptic future,” the Greenpeace environmental group said.

Much of the report focuses on how particular regions will fare in a warming world, concluding that less-developed countries will experience more upheaval.

The Bush administration made it clear it would not be stampeded by the report into taking part in the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to limit emissions of carbon dioxide. The United States withdrew from the protocol in 2001, saying it was too expensive and did not impose enough controls on developing nations.

“Each nation sort of defines their regulatory objectives in different ways to achieve the greenhouse-reduction outcome that they seek,” Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said during a teleconference from Brussels.

Sharon Hays, associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, said during the same teleconference that “not all projected impacts are negative.” Initially, the warming will increase agricultural output in the midlatitudes and in northern regions.

The report also examines how infectious disease might spread in a warmer climate. Jonathan Patz, an associate professor of environmental studies and population-health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an author of the North America chapter, said projected warming alone will likely mean that, by 2050, the Northeast will experience 68 percent more “red-ozone alert” days when the air is unhealthful to breathe.

The U.S. strain of the West Nile virus is especially responsive to warmer temperatures, Patz added, and Africa is expected to experience an uptick in malaria, a disease that accounts for 1 million to 2 million deaths a year worldwide.

“Climate change presents one of the most challenging environmental and public-health threats of this millennium,” he said.

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