Sat, Feb 10, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New climate report is nothing new

The UN's recent report on the effects of climate change has been accompanied by calls for quick action ─ but carful consideration of the facts its needed first

By Bjorn Lomborg

You would have had to be stuck in deepest Mongolia to avoid hearing that the UN climate panel, the IPCC, issued a new report last week. Perhaps even in the depths of Mongolia, you would have heard the dire warnings emitted by journalists. You would have distilled from these agonized noises that the report concluded that global warming is worse than we had imagined, and that we need to take swift and strong action right now. You would have been misinformed.

The IPCC has produced a good report -- an attempt to summarize what the world's scientists know about global warming. Unlike the Bush administration, caught downplaying the science, the IPCC squarely tells us that mankind is largely responsible for the planet's recent warming. And, unlike former US vice president Al Gore, who has traveled the world warning that our cities might soon be under the oceans, it refrains from scaremongering.

But lost among the hype is the unexciting fact that this report is actually no more dire than the IPCC's last report, issued in 2001. In two important ways, this year's effort was actually less dire.

The report reflected the fact that since 2001, scientists have become more certain that humans are responsible for a large part of global warming. Otherwise, though, this report had a definite sense of deja vu. Estimates of temperature increases, heat waves and cold waves are all nearly identical to those produced six years ago.

The report did, however, contain two surprising facts. Both went unmentioned in most reports. First, the world's scientists have rejigged their estimates about how much sea levels will rise. In the 1980s, the US' Environmental Protection Agency expected oceans to rise by several meters by 2100. By the 1990s, the IPCC was expecting a 67cm rise. Six years ago, it anticipated ocean levels would be 48.5cm higher than they are currently.

In this year's report, the estimated rise is 38.5cm on average.

This is especially interesting since it fundamentally rejects one of the most harrowing scenes from Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth.

In graphic detail, Gore demonstrated how a 6m rise in the sea level would inundate much of Florida, Shanghai and Holland.

The IPCC report makes it clear that exaggerations of this magnitude have no basis in science -- though clearly they frightened people and perhaps will win Gore an Academy Award.

The report also revealed the improbability of another Gore scenario: that global warming could make the Gulf Stream shut down, turning Europe into a new Siberia.

The IPCC simply and tersely tells us that this scenario -- also vividly depicted in the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow -- is considered "very unlikely." Moreover, even if the Gulf Stream were to weaken over the century, this would be good, as there would be less net warming over land areas.

So why have we been left with a very different impression of the climate panel's report? The IPCC is by statute "politically neutral" -- it is supposed to tell us just the facts and leave the rest to politicians and the people who elect them. This is why the report is a careful and sensible document.

But scientists and journalists -- acting as intermediaries between the report and the public -- have engaged in greenhouse activism. Elsewhere calling for immediate and substantial cuts in carbon emissions, the IPCC's director even declared that he hoped the IPCC report would "shock people, governments into taking more serious action."

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