The IPCC’s 5th assessment and ‘Ten Billion’: Right thoughts, right words, no action

September 26th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

I was in Barnes & Noble at Westfield Palm Desert last weekend supposedly getting a birthday card for my niece when this little black book, with its title — “Ten Billion” — in huge orange letters jumped off the shelf and practically jammed itself into my hands. (Image below from; don’t try to look inside.)

The author, Stephen Emmott, is head of computational science at a Microsoft research lab in Cambridge, England, where a multidisciplinary team of scientists are looking new approaches to fundamental scientific problems, including climate change.

“Ten Billion” is his brief, graphically powerful presentation of what he sees as the key driver behind climate change and the potential future of a largely unliveable Earth — the planet’s ever-increasing population. Since 1800, the earth’s population has mushroomed from 1 billion to more than 7 billion today, with 10 billion looming on the horizon. Finding the resources to feed, house and provide a sustainable quality of life, by Western standards, for that many people is the underlying cause of the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change.

“Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact we’re having a profound  impact on it,” Emmott writes in the book’s opening pages. “Indeed our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities are now the drivers of every global problem we face.

“And every one of these problems is accelerating as we continue to grow toward a population of 10 billion.”

The book and Emmott’s public presentations on it — he did a series of ”Inconvenient Truth”-style public performances of the material at London’s Royal Court Theatre in July 2012 and has since taken it on the road — have raised a fair amount of criticism on both the left for being too pessimistic and on the right for being too alarmist.

The book itself has been criticised for its high-impact if wasteful visual presentation — 216 quickly read pages on thick, high quality paper with large type and short sentences, sometimes only one or two on a page.

Another flashpoint is where Emmott got some of his figures, such as a statement that it takes four liters of water to produce a one liter plastic bottle of water or 7,000 gallons of water to produce a kilogram — 2.2 pounds — of chocolate.

The book has no footnotes and he doesn’t explain where such figures come from or how they were calculated, resulting in other charges of sloppy science.

It’s easy to pick at such details, but as we wait for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to release its 5th assessment on the causes and impacts of global warming, produced by a small army of scientists, Emmott’s basic premise and some of his conclusions are harder to dismiss.

On Friday the IPCC will issue its first big document from the 5th assessement, called the Summary for Policy Makers. Leaks and sniping from climate change skeptics have been building in recent days.

The report is expected state that scientists now have 95 percent confidence that human activity is mostly to blame for climate change — which the skeptics have again jumped on as indicating lack of certainty.

An Associated Press article by Seth Borenstein tackles that issue, noting that in science, a 95 percent level of certainty is considered the gold standard — the same level of confidence many scientists have that cigarette smoking causes cancer.  He quotes George Gray, director of the Center for Risk Science and Public Health at George Washington University, on why expecting 100 percent certainty on anything makes no sense.

“There’s a group of people who seem to think that when scientists say  they are uncertain, we shouldn’t do anything,” said Gray, who was chief scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration. “That’s crazy. We’re uncertain and we buy insurance.”

An article on the New Scientist website also notes the report is expected to say that global warming is irreversible without major atmospheric geoengineering. Quoting from a draft of the report, the article says:

“CO2-induced warming is projected to remain approximately constant for many centuries following a complete cessation of emissions. A large fraction of climate change is thus irreversible on a human timescale, except if net anthropogenic CO2 emissions were strongly negative over a sustained period.”

Word has it representatives from the IPCC’s 194 member countries who have been meeting in Stockholm this week to finalize the report are still thrashing out final wording and may be at it all night before the report is released 10 a.m. Stockholm time on Friday (1 a.m. here for those who follow this sort of thing).

Another question is how the report will deal with a perceived slowing in temperature increases over the past decade or so that climate change skeptics have also been focusing on. The issue here is the time frame – short-term weather versus long-term climate trends.  The skeptics say since 1998, there’s been a slow down, but others counter that 1998 was the hottest year on record and therefore a cherry-picked starting point, and the overall trend in temperature over the longer time frame needed to gauge climate change is ever upward.

But the bigger question some articles are raising is whether the report and the mounting scientific evidence on climate change and its impacts will spur international policy and actions to immediately curb carbon emissions.

Not likely, says Adam Corner in another New Scientist article

“This is for the simple reason that the argument is not really about the science; it is about politics and values,” he writes.

“Consider, for example, the finding that people with politically conservative beliefs are more likely to doubt the reality or seriousness of climate change. Accurate information about climate change is no less readily available to these people than anybody else. But climate policies such as the regulation of industrial emissions often seem to clash with conservative political views. And people work backwards from their values, filtering the facts according to their pre-existing beliefs.”

Emmott also thinks it unlikely that meaningful action will be taken on climate change. In his view, a technological fix for population-driven global warming may not exist. A radical change in human behavior will be needed, which again  he sees as unlikely.

His conclusion on the prospects for long-term human survival is unprintable here, but his analysis of the underlying cause is succinct.

“The problem is us.”

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