Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 3rd, 2010

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate scientists representing almost all of the world’s nations, was set up by the United Nations in 1988 to study the changing planetary climate and to advise the UN and its member nations on how to prevent human-induced, life-threatening changes to the climate system. The IPCC has observed that the rate of temperature rise of the earth’s surface witnessed in the past 50 years is unprecedented in the last 650,000 years of planetary history.

The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, published in Bangkok in May 2007, argued that once the temperature increase rises above 2°C, up to 4 billion people could be experiencing severe water shortages, agriculture will become non-viable in many parts of the tropics, and millions will be at risk from hunger. If the earth system is not to be driven into an irreversible warming trend, radical action must be taken now so that by 2050 the level of greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced to 70% of the levels at 2000. Keeping temperature rises below 2°C requires “developed” countries to reduce their present emission levels by 80%.

Climate-change sceptics- those who deny either that climate change is happening or that human use of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change- have challenged the credibility of the IPCC Reports. Their strident charges of a “climate conspiracy” by the UN body were given a fillip in November last year when e-mails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, UK, were posted on the Internet. Critics said the e-mail exchanges between CRU scientists and their colleagues around the world showed that data unfavourable to the IPCC assessments was being suppressed. On top of that, the IPCC admitted it made a mistake in its 2007 report in asserting that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.

In February, the UN set up an independent review of the IPCC overseen by the Inter-Academy Council (IAC), an international umbrella body for science academies. Its terms of reference included analysing the IPCC’s links with other UN agencies, its use of controversial data and handling of the full range of scientific opinion, and how the body communicates with the general public and the media.

Last Monday the IAC announced the results of its review of the IPCC’s workings at a news conference in New York. It identified several shortcomings in the governance of the IPCC,  criticised it slowness to respond to revelation of errors, and recommended far-reaching changes in the way it issues reports and communicates with the general public. The “glacier error” was due to reliance on so-called “gray literature” – that which has not been peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.

However, while the IAC urged IPCC authors to make future projections only when there is sufficient support for them, it praised the “remarkable international conversation” among scientists and policymakers that the IPCC has initiated and represents. It stressed-along with other independent reviews- that the mistakes made should not be used to question the overall climate science assessments of IPCC Reports.

Why does Climate Change generate so much heat (forgive the pun)? Climate Change (upper case) has become a global metanarrative, more significant than the underlying physical phenomena associated with climate change (lower case). It thus raises questions about human life and destiny, about our relationship to the planet and to each other, about how we do economics, about our personal lifestyles and the common good, about the dangers of a technological mind-set in our attitude to the world, about our values, hopes and goals, and about our obligations for the present and the future. These are mostly moral and philosophical/religious questions. The science is only one part of the story; and how we regard the science is itself shaped by our world-views.

Interestingly, many atheists seem to care more about global warming than many so-called “Biblical Christians”. I suggest that the latter need to re-read their Bibles and the former need to re-think their worldview. If Nature is all that is, and human beings are as significant as slime moulds where nature is concerned, why care about what happens to future human beings? If Homo Sapiens ends up destroying itself, the earth will simply throw up new life forms that will survive at higher temperatures. In other words, the question I am posing is whether either “deep ecology” or the militant atheism that insists on telling us that humans are nothing more than accidental products of an evolutionary process – can these worldviews coherently sustain our fundamental moral intuitions in the face of global warming and climate change?



September 2010