Climate Catastrophe: A Superstorm for Global Warming Research

By Marco Evers, Olaf Stampf and

Part 2: Politically Charged Science

Photo Gallery: Climate of Fear Photos
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No other branch of science is as politically charged. A religious war is raging between alarmists and skeptics, and it threatens to consume levelheaded climatologists. But it is a critical conflict, because it revolves around something as massive as the total restructuring of industrial society, a venture that will cost trillions of euros. Powerful economic interests and unshakeable fundamental beliefs come into play.

The credibility crisis in climatology comes at an extremely unfavorable time. Since the failed December 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, environment policy has been in a state of shock. US President Barack Obama, for example, has put his initiative for new climate legislation on hold. And last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy reversed his plans to introduce a climate tax, saying: "We will not impose any constraints on our industry yet."

On the other hand, Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, an island nation threatened with extinction as a result of rising sea levels, accuses the Americans of engaging in intrigue to make climatology seem ridiculous. During a recent speech in Berlin, Nasheed characterized efforts to discredit climate research as "a diabolical plan."

Unwilling to Pay

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns in Berlin that German citizens could become less willing to pay for costly efforts to protect the climate. A poll conducted on behalf of SPIEGEL already signals a dramatic shift in public opinion and suggests that Germans are losing their fear of climate change. The strong majority of 58 percent who said they feared global warming about three years ago has declined to a minority of 42 percent.

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is urging the IPCC to deal with its own errors more proactively. "The IPCC should openly admit its mistakes and correct them," he told SPIEGEL. "It is imperative that trust in the work of the IPCC be restored as quickly as possible."

There are also growing concerns at Germany's Ministry of Education and Research, which is spending €250 million ($338 million) to support climate science this year. Research Minister Annette Schavan has already summoned German IPCC scientists to attend a "meeting to clarify the situation and improve quality assurance." Officials at the ministry are horrified over how unprofessionally the IPCC is organized. "The IPCC's results must be above suspicion, because their impact can cost trillions and have serious political consequences," says Wilfried Kraus, a senior ministry official.

Scientists Who Want to be Politicians

Reinhard Hüttl, head of the German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam near Berlin and the president of the German Academy of Science and Engineering, believes that basic values are now under threat. "Scientists should never be as wedded to their theories that they are no longer capable of refuting them in the light of new findings," he says. Scientific research, Hüttl adds, is all about results, not beliefs. Unfortunately, he says, there are more and more scientists who want to be politicians.

"If the revelations about the affair in England turn out to be true, it will be a catastrophe for climatology as a whole," says Hüttl. "We can only monitor ourselves, and if we fail in that endeavor, who can be expected to believe us anymore?"

The British climate research center the Met Office has decided that the only way to regain lost trust is to make all climate data available online immediately, in a system that is accessible to anyone, offers maximum transparency and includes critical assessments on how reliable each piece of information is. The Met Office estimates that this major international project will take at least three years.

Despite the controversy, most climatologists agree that in the end the general view of climate change will not have changed significantly. Almost all share the basic conviction that we are headed for warmer times.

Open Questions

Scientists fear that without an open, honest process, they will no longer find a sympathetic ear. This process could mean that much of what has long been considered established knowledge will come under review once again, specifically, five elementary questions on the future of the climate:

  • By how many degrees has the Earth's temperature already increased, and how much further will temperatures rise?
  • How high will sea levels rise in a greenhouse climate?
  • Can we expect to see storms of unprecedented strength in the future?
  • Which parts of the world will experience more droughts, and where will there be more flooding?
  • Will the situation on the planet truly spin out of control if the average global temperature increases by more than two degrees Celsius?

Anyone who speaks with leading climatologists today will discover how many questions remain open. The media, politicians and even scientists often talk about changes to the weather with a certainty that does not in fact exist.

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1. Will humans, for once, be sensible?
plotinus 04/01/2010
I constantly point out, and people constantly ignore, that, in the absence of countervailing forces, if you pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the atmosphere _*must*_ warm up. This is just basic physics, and is as certain as the Law of Gravity. Of course there are possible mitigating factors, such as changes in cloud cover and the injection of certain types of dust into the atmosphere; but these factors are, as yet, far more problematical than the raw fact of global warming. The Earth has already become warmer and sea levels have already risen. These facts are clearly visible in what is happening to low island nations and to the arctic regions. The Spiegel article is calmer and more reasonable than those in many other popular journals, but I would fault it for not mentioning that changes in the arctic must necessarily increase heat absorption in those regions, and for not mentioning the release of greenhouse gases as polar permafrost melts. Also, it is important to point out that it is not relevant that humans and other life forms survived even greater changes in climate in the past. Those changes almost always were very slow, occurring over many hundreds and thousands of years. There was time to adjust. The global warming which we are creating will, from the point of view of Earth history, occur in the blink of an eye. The effects on life on the planet will be incalculable and much more serious than those that occurred in the past. We must tune out the noise created by zealots, self-interested moneyed interests, and political and religious ideologies. For once in the life of the human species, let us be careful and rational.
2. Climate catastrophe?
StSwithin 04/01/2010
An excellent article which presented a balanced view of the current situation. One fact, which is often ignored, is that sceptics like McIntyre actually believe that global warming is taking place. They just do not believe all the forecasts of tipping points and imminent catastrophe. One of the weaknesses of the IPCC stance is that they only present selected data. When you look at longer term data it is clear that claims such as "the rate of temperature rise is accelerating" are just not true. Temperature rose just as fast from 1910 to 1945 as they did at the end of the last century. For a balanced review of the data see: www.climatedata.info
3.
vespasian678 04/03/2010
Zitat von plotinusI constantly point out, and people constantly ignore, that, in the absence of countervailing forces, if you pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the atmosphere _*must*_ warm up. This is just basic physics, and is as certain as the Law of Gravity. Of course there are possible mitigating factors, such as changes in cloud cover and the injection of certain types of dust into the atmosphere; but these factors are, as yet, far more problematical than the raw fact of global warming. The Earth has already become warmer and sea levels have already risen. These facts are clearly visible in what is happening to low island nations and to the arctic regions. The Spiegel article is calmer and more reasonable than those in many other popular journals, but I would fault it for not mentioning that changes in the arctic must necessarily increase heat absorption in those regions, and for not mentioning the release of greenhouse gases as polar permafrost melts. Also, it is important to point out that it is not relevant that humans and other life forms survived even greater changes in climate in the past. Those changes almost always were very slow, occurring over many hundreds and thousands of years. There was time to adjust. The global warming which we are creating will, from the point of view of Earth history, occur in the blink of an eye. The effects on life on the planet will be incalculable and much more serious than those that occurred in the past. We must tune out the noise created by zealots, self-interested moneyed interests, and political and religious ideologies. For once in the life of the human species, let us be careful and rational.
I am an archaeologist who works with Holocene climate records on a regular basis (part of our project involves the palaeoecology of our region). The statement above is incorrect. The Younger Dryas, for instance, saw abrupt changes of perhaps 5 degrees Celsius in the mid-latitudes and 10 degrees in high latitudes over the course of a few decades (at most; cf. http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/pi/arch/examples.shtml). Mid-latitude precipitation also changed rapidly and dramatically, at least in Europe (contrary to popular belief, as temperatures warm it tends to get wetter, at least on a large scale - there may of course be regions of decreasing precipitation). Although I think energy policy should be managed as if global warming was imminent (more nuclear and other non-CO2 emitting generation, incentives for conservation, internalising the externality of CO2 emissions through taxation, etc. - call it the "Pascal's Wager" approach to AGW) It seems to me that the "skeptics" in this debate hardly have a monopoly on "zealots, self-interested moneyed interests, and political and religious ideologies".
4. An excellent article which presented a balanced view?
jensmacha 04/03/2010
Obviously,there are other opinions out there! First of all: Jones was rehabilitated. Secondly there seems to be a certain climate bashing around. I recommend: http://www.wissenslogs.de/wblogs/blog/klimalounge/medien-check/2010-04-01/klimaforscher-bashing-beim-spiegel http://blogs.ajc.com/kyle-wingfield/2010/04/02/climate-er-change-a-papers-sober-look-at-the-science/
5. CO2 GH effect is logarithmic, no linear
tomfp 04/03/2010
Zitat von plotinusI constantly point out, and people constantly ignore, that, in the absence of countervailing forces, if you pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the atmosphere _*must*_ warm up. This is just basic physics, and is as certain as the Law of Gravity. Of course there are possible mitigating factors, such as changes in cloud cover and the injection of certain types of dust into the atmosphere; but these factors are, as yet, far more problematical than the raw fact of global warming. The Earth has already become warmer and sea levels have already risen. These facts are clearly visible in what is happening to low island nations and to the arctic regions. The Spiegel article is calmer and more reasonable than those in many other popular journals, but I would fault it for not mentioning that changes in the arctic must necessarily increase heat absorption in those regions, and for not mentioning the release of greenhouse gases as polar permafrost melts. Also, it is important to point out that it is not relevant that humans and other life forms survived even greater changes in climate in the past. Those changes almost always were very slow, occurring over many hundreds and thousands of years. There was time to adjust. The global warming which we are creating will, from the point of view of Earth history, occur in the blink of an eye. The effects on life on the planet will be incalculable and much more serious than those that occurred in the past. We must tune out the noise created by zealots, self-interested moneyed interests, and political and religious ideologies. For once in the life of the human species, let us be careful and rational.
[quote=plotinus;108476]...if you pour carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the atmosphere _*must*_ warm up. False. The GH effect of CO2 is logarithmic, not linear. At some point, therefore, rises in concentration MUST cease to produce a significant rise in GH effect. Much reputable opinion holds that at present concentrations it is already at that stage. You can find a good discussion of this flaw in the "basic science" of AGW alarmism here: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/03/08/the-logarithmic-effect-of-carbon-dioxide/
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