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Acclimatising to the climate

Syed Iqbal Hasnain
Filed on September 16, 2010

The Inter-Academy Council, a consortium of national scientific academies, released its report on the investigation into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), working under the leadership of its chair Dr. Rajenda Pachauri, on August 30 at the UN headquarters in New York City.

The mandate given to the committee under the chairmanship of Professor H.T. Shapiro, former President of Princeton University and economics Professor, was to review existing processes and procedures that form the architecture of the IPCC assessment of climate change and climate science. The public trust in the IPCC assessment was heavily shaken when reports published in the British press stated that Dr. Pachauri was advising many Indian and Western companies trading in carbon credit with a direct conflict-of-interest.

The IPCC 2007 report also incorporated many sloppy narratives, such as a projection that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. The “2035 quote” was picked up by the lead authors from a popular science magazine report and not from a peer–reviewed scientific paper. Similarly, another quote from a newspaper article written by an advocacy group was picked up stating that “climate change could halve the output of rain-fed agriculture in Africa by 2020.”

The Inter-Academy Committee (IAC) investigation has now revealed that even comments by the reviewers invited by the IPCC to review the report before it was published questioned the claim written in half a page narrative on Himalayan glaciers. The IAC was also surprised how reviewer comments were at times ignored by top decision makers within the IPCC, and how the final report deliberately carried alarmist projections. This is a direct indictment on the IPCC chair. The IPCC chairman, after receiving Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, was using the credibility of the IPCC to talk about the “destruction” of the world, even though this was based on faulty news reports.

The recommendations by IAC would certainly improve the quality of future reports and remove trust deficit in the climate change debate created by the current leadership of IPCC. The IAC, in its forward looking report, has covered all aspects for developing a creditable IPCC assessment in the future on climate change. A few of the noteworthy suggestions include: new policies so review editors have to fully exercise their authority to ensure that reviewers comments are adequately considered by authors, clear guidelines to be framed on communications on behalf of IPCC, making the process and criteria for selecting participants for scoping meetings transparent, establishing a formal set of criteria and processes for selecting coordinating lead authors and lead authors, for regional chapters of the working groups, local experts, and experts working outside the region should be given priority, strict guidelines for the selection of non-peer reviewed literature and the condition that it be flagged in the report, and that the tenure of the Chairman of the IPCC be limited to the time it takes to produce one assessment, or six years.

The leaders of 193 nations at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit emphasised that “climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time” without agreeing to substantial binding targets for carbon dioxide reductions. Indeed, the looming crisis stems from the fact that the temperature barrier of 20 C which translate to radiant energy of 2.5 w m2, which has already been exceeded by 20 per cent. Growing global and regional emission levels are adversely affecting various ecosystems including the Hindu Kush-Himalayan glaciers, and the Arctic and western Antarctica ice-sheets. In addition, the massive flooding in the Indus River and its tributaries, the melting of summer sea ice at a record pace, and the ongoing collapse of a big portion of western Antarctic ice sheet are examples of the adverse affects that will begin occurring.

In 2010, the US experienced its warmest year on record, China experienced devastating mudslides, and Russia experienced searing heat and devastating forest fires. There is a very high probability that climate change could trigger many more such regional catastrophes in immediate future. Gridlocked global policy negotiations on climate change no longer remain an option for global policy makers.

The role of the United States will be central in the climate issue and enforcing transparency and recommendations of the Inter-Academy Review Committee on IPCC. Nonetheless, as a global leader, it has failed to pass legislation through its Senate on “cap and trade.” As a result, developing countries, primarily China and India, the world’s largest and third largest carbon dioxide and black carbon emitters respectively, have no obligation to cut emissions, and in the processes jeopardise the global food and water security. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is following a low-key path, both domestically and internationally, and has given no indication that it intends to advance the issue of climate change more than the minimum required.

Recent polling data in developed and many developing countries show that public concern of global warming has declined precipitously since the revelations about the IPCC report earlier this year. If IAC recommendations are implemented in word and spirit, then logic suggests that it would be better for Pachauri to stand down now, rather than 2014. It will do lot good in restoring the confidence of the public and help build up a global consensus in controlling global and regional emissions.

Syed Iqbal Hasnain is a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center


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