Global warming update

If I were able — in this digital space — I would stamp this Blog entry “IMPORTANT” in big red letters. This is more of an article than a Blog post — and is meant to update readers on man-made climate change, how I have covered it in the past, and why that approach is about to change.
What I’m about to write is going to surprise some of my regular readers, because in the past I’ve written a lot about the “skeptic” point of view on man-made global warming, and the sometimes fierce debates that have occurred between adherents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, and those who doubt the theory and dispute the data. I have on occasion adopted the skeptic position as my own, and even argued it one public debate in Sarnia years ago.
However, I have slowly come around to believing that the theory of man-made global warming deserves a more complete airing and vetting on this website. I don’t know the extent of potential changes (no one does), but sifting through recent evidence, the computer simulations now say that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will double sometime this century, to about 710 parts per million. They could possibly rise to 1000 ppm. Temperatures will likely rise a bit above 3 degrees Celsius and possibly more, according to the models. The distribution of the heat will not be even — in some parts of the world the temperatures will rise more, some less.
I don’t know if this is true or not, but a vibrant debate of the issue is required, as much government policy nowadays is founded on belief in man-made climate change.
The concerns are that coming changes could be devastating to the world’s ecosystems. We are seeing the retreat of glaciers worldwide, the disappearance of frogs, changes in alpine environments, and some anecdotal changes at the Earth’s Arctic and Antarctic poles. We’re seeing changes in ocean surface temperatures, increased hurricane activity and other developments that could be the result of natural cycles and fluctuations, but could be augmented by CO2 emissions. I’m particularly concerned about reports of extensive coral bleaching. (See the Reuters article at the end of this post.)
In light of this evidence, it’s difficult for a skeptic like me not to appreciate that the Kyoto Accord on climate change may be a small and much-needed downpayment on an insurance policy for the protection of the Earth’s ecosystems and carbon cycle. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is working on a new report, and I look forward to reading it with great anticipation, though I expect I’ll take no joy in its findings. I have recently read an interesting new book that has helped convince me further that there are issues worthy of further investigation, which I describe later on. (Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers.”) I plan to offer readers coverage from time to time of climate change issues on our magazine website, and publish articles about how the waste management system can contribute to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
My readers know I have tended to be a global warming skeptic in the past, and a skeptic about most things. Partly it’s my personality, partly it’s the nature of my profession. I probably gravitated towards journalism because of my skeptical personality. Anyway, I think journalists owe it to themselves and to their readers to adopt a “show me the evidence” approach to their stories. Don’t you hate reading drivel written by a “true believer” (for any cause)? I do. And skepticism is appropriate when writing about environmental and scientific matters, because the scientific method is inherently skeptical, with one hypothesis eventually replacing another when it offers a more elegant explanation for observed phenomena. It’s not so much that the old idea is proven wrong, as much as that the new idea is better. Think of how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity replaced Sir Isaac Newton’s mechanical laws of the universe. Newton’s laws are perfectly valid (apples still fall from trees, after all), but Einstein’s theory offers a more elegant explanation of time and space as a continuum. Over time, empirical measurements have supported Einstein’s theories, which will no doubt be replaced by other theories in the future.
But skepticism can also lead one down a dangerous path of not believing anything, and can do a disservice when it ignores or denies accumulating evidence. I have walked that edge myself. I’m a writer, not a scientist (and especially not a climatologist) and (let’s face it), writers are taught that a “reversal of expectation” makes for a better story. In newspaper journalism this is sometimes called the “man bites dog” story, which every reporter loves.
The first time I wrote seriously about climate change, it was for the weekend edition of the Globe & Mail on November 22, 1997. The article was entitled “Science Fiction: The day the Earth warmed up” and it occupied two full pages of the Saturday paper’s Focus & Books section. I’d been asked by editor Cecily Ross to report on the climate change debate. Re-reading the article, I still think it’s pretty good, in the context of its time. (You can Google it up for yourself, I believe.) My research revealed that in 1997 there was not quite the “consensus” among scientists that global warming was real and upon us as we’d been led to think. Doubters and critics were not just geographers and other non-climate professionals. They included some eminent climatologists, such as Dr. Patrick Michaels, Dr. Fred S. Singer, Dr. Robert Balling, and Dr. Richard Lindzen (Alfred P. Loan professor of meteorology at the Massacheussetts Institute of Technology), among others. They pointed out problems with the theory and evidence. Why had the Earth cooled from 1940 to 1970, just when CO2 was supposed to be warming things? (There’s an explanation now relating to particulate matter from coal-fired power plants that were retrofitted with scrubbers in about 1970, but this wasn’t understood in 1997.) Why did the satellite data show no warming, in conflict with ground-based thermometers that showed only a slight warming (which could be from urban “heat island” effects)? (There’s a new explanation of that, too. But it’s a complicated story and there’s still great uncertainty.) The list of objections was quite lengthy, and gave me the sort of “man bites dog” story any journalist would jump at. (As an aside, I’m thinking of writing a new article that will include calling up all the old sckeptics I interviewed in 1997 and asking them what they think now.)
Better information and explanations have developed in the almost ten years since I wrote that article, but these were reasonable questions at the time. In fact, they were “the” questions that the global warming proponents had to answer, to satisfy themselves, let alone their critics. The general circulation computer models were very faulty at that time, and couldn’t properly account for such things as the vapor in clouds. The computer models are better now, and are generating more accurate (and more alarming) scenarios. But in 1997 they needed to be challenged, and were.
Science is not really about “consensus,” either. Many of the best ideas, the greatest innovations, in science have come from outsiders, people who were initially outcasts from the marble halls of academe and the received wisdom of their era. Newton on his farm and Einstein in his patent office started out as outsiders. (For a wonderful history of that, read one of my favorite books, E=MC2.)
The U.N. IPCC issued a report a few years ago that claimed there was a “consensus” among scientists that a “discernable” human fingerprint was evident in recent climate change. This claim was made in the executive summary for policymakers and was written by non-scientists, and it was quoted famously by Al Gore when he said that “climate change is real” (or words to that effect).
It turned out that some of the people whose work was included in the body of the large document were angry about the executive summary, and felt that it painted more of a “consensus” view than was supported by their work. There was (at the time) a vibrant debate over the science, which was anything but “settled.” (The debate, in fact, continues, and that’s a good thing, as long as the debaters are sincere. There are plenty of dissenters and skeptics to this day.) They accused the IPCC writers of outright fiddling for political purposes. My Globe & Mail article quoted Dr. Fred Seitz saying, “In my more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of both the National Academy of Science and the American Physical Society, I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process.” Those were his words, not mine.
That was in 1997 and, as I say, made for quite an interesting story. But I wasn’t trying to “sensationalize” the global warming topic. I was reporting the thoughts of important people, engaged in a real debate that wasn’t widely reported in the mainstream press. And it was a topic I cared about. There were credible non-CO2-related ideas out there to possibly explain what we were seeing. One such idea was the close correlation between temperature fluctuations and the varying energy output of the sun (as observed by the regular sunspot cycle). Some of those ideas are still being investigated, and astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas believes that variations in solar output explain a lot of what is happening.
New perspectives
In the intervening years I started to become more worried that global warming could be happening. For the record, I never claimed to know for a fact that it wasn’t. I kept checking back with the information, and I continued clipping news stories and filing them away. I knew that this was an unfolding story, and I was interested which direction things would turn.
There were several reasons I continued to report the “skeptics” viewpoint, the first being that there were already plenty of environmental reporters shouting from the hilltops that climate change was underway. But there were more serious reasons. I have a deep love of nature (you’ll just have to take my word on that) and I didn’t want to believe this was happening to the Earth without more proof than was available, even just a few years ago. I don’t talk about it much, but there is an ecological dimension to most of my holidays and travels, which have included riding among herds of giraffes in Kenya, swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos islands, visiting Beluga whale sanctuaries in Florida, and a great deal of hiking in woods and snorkeling and scuba diving on coral reefs. I made two dives just this January amid the hurricane-devastated reefs of Cozumel. (And yes, I did think about the possibility that global warming had added to the devastation. Cozumel’s deep-water pier was utterly destroyed by the hurricane, the cruise ships can’t tie up, and the local economy is completely ruined and will remain that way for years. On top of that, the island’s soil and vegetation were killed completely by saltwater, and the reefs are buried in sand.) I’m keenly aware of the delicacy of these environments and feel passionately about the need to protect them, in addition to the larger worry about total environmental system collapse with the breakdown of the carbon cycle, if that were to happen. So if man-made global warming is really under way, that’s very upsetting to me; I know very well the implications. (It may interest you to know, also, that I am something of a “weather freak” who loves storms and has been known to go out chasing them in my car. TV programs about tornadoes are just about my favorite shows.)
Another reason I’ve taken a skeptical approach has to do with ongoing “monkey business” with the data. This includes a really big spat over Thomas Mann’s research and data that generated the famous “hockey stick” chart. (See my archived Blog entry “Global warming’s discredited ‘hockey stick’ chart” from Feb. 20, 2006.) This chart, which shows a range of likely increased temperatures that will occur sometime this century, was sort of the “poster child” for the global warming cause, and was used by the IPCC to illustrate why we needed such things as the Kyoto Accord on climate change. I won’t go over the details of Mann’s chart and the spat; suffice it to say that a couple of Canadian professors revealed some serious problems with how the “bristle cone” statistics were used to generate a misleading result. Mann’s calculations made it look like historical temperatures were cooler and more uniform than the coming “spike. (If you want to appreciate more of this kind of discussion, read Taken by Storm: The troubled science, policy and politics of global warming by Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick [Key Porter Books]. And, by the way, if you don’t agree with those guys, argue against their points, please, instead of making ad hominem attacks against them as people. It’s as wrong to do that against the skeptics as it is against the proponents, right?)
I’m a writer and not a climatologist or “expert” (obviously) but I was very disappointed with Mann’s refusal to share his data with his critics, for independent testing. The much-respected journal Science — in which Mann and his associates originally published their findings — has an established policy and process for resolving these disputes, and Mann refused to cooperate, which made it look like he had (indeed) something to hide. The episode became a large and widely-publicized scandal, full of rancor and bitterness among the parties involved.
This kind of “monkey business” is something that really angers me, precisely because I take the global warming subject seriously. Let me cite an analogy. There are no end (trust me) of people in the environmental services business in which I toil who have a visceral hatred of George Bush and his associates. They are infuriated that it appears Dick Cheney selected what he needed from the intelligence community and “sexed up” (to use the British term) the WMD evidence to justify invading Iraq. The revelation that there were no WMD and that Bush and crew ignored warnings to that effect has damaged American credibility, which is sorely needed now as the world faces a greater threat: a nuclear-armed Ayatollah. Yet some of those same people didn’t mind at all when environmentalists a few years ago “sexed up” the information in support of man-made climate change. Sadly, the manipulation of the data — the “spin” — provided an entry point for critics to question the credibility of the theory and some serious science. If it was wrong for Cheney to distort facts because he and Bush were predisposed to invade Iraq, it was wrong for environmentalists to distort facts because they were predisposed to believe in global warming.
Even if you believe the evidence is mounting that temperatures are rising (which is disputed by some), you can’t refer to things like Thomas Mann’s “hockey stick” chart nowadays without at least acknowledging that it has been criticized, that there have been problems with the data. For heaven’s sake, even as a rhetorical debating trick, anticipate your adversary’s argument and incorporate it into your own presentation, and thereby disarm him (or her)!
As a aside, in my recent blog entry on the hockey stick chart I chided my friend Maria Kelleher about her use of the chart in a presentation to the Association of Municipal Recycling Coordinators (AMRC), and in the process elbowed her colleague Ralph Torrie, who had kindly loaned her PowerPoint slides. That was ungracious of me and I apologize to both of them. It’s always my goal to maintain a collegial tone and debate the issues, not the person. I anticipate that Mr. Torrie has some pithy rejoinders to my critique of the Thomas Mann graph, and will afford him the opportunity to make his points (on that or something else) wherever and whenever he likes.
In the end, free thinking and skepticism provide a journalist a wonderful vantage point from which to view the great problems and arguments of his or her time. Sampling the ideas is like being up a tree above feuding animals, spotting a piece of meat, scurrying down and then back up again to taste the morsel, which is then either consumed or discarded. (Though sometimes the scavenged food gives indigestion, or, if you’ll me a bad pun in respect to climate change: gas.)
It’s wonderful to allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, as have done from time to time about global warming. It’s more of an evolution than a revolution, in fact.
I am going to maintain my skeptical attitude toward all subjects, including the unfolding and potentially ecosystem destroying, civilization killing climate change topic, not out of cynicism, but out of respect for the truth, which is something one can only ever approach on bended knee, groping. And I can’t promise that I won’t change my mind yet again, in future, in light of new evidence. (Now wouldn’t that be maddening?)
I just finished reading an interesting new book that I hope everyone will read. It’s entitled The Weather Makers: How we are changing the climate and what it means for life on earth by Tim Flannery (Harper Collins). Of course, I haven’t read every book on this subject, but my intuition tells me that this may be the very best book written on climate change (for the lay person) that advocates the global warming viewpoint. It’s well researched, logical, compelling, entertaining and makes complicated science accessible for us non-scientists. It was sent to me by the writer of our “Final Analysis” column, lawyer Adam Chamberlain, who I expect was a bit pained by some of my latest skeptical rants. I am very grateful for his gift, because it’s precisely the sort of engagement my Blog and other writings is intended to stimulate. (Too often people just get annoyed when they disagree and don’t bother to call, or send me a letter or an email, which is too bad. I really want to get the dialogue going.)
This is a book I’ve been waiting for, a sort of one-stop shopping to up-level everyone’s basic understanding of the issues and science of climate change, mine especially. So please read it, and buy a highlighter pen before you do, because there will be lots of things you’ll want to turn back to as a reference. But I also offer a caution: let’s not treat even this book as gospel. Let’s instead treat it as a base, a point of departure for further reading and further investigation. Let’s argue with one another and debate. Let’s not get “too comfortable” with any of the “settled” facts. Let’s educate one another, and let’s yell and scream when we have to, but still be able to go for a pint of ale together afterwards.
Postscript: My friends and colleagues in the recycling and waste disposal world will have to think long and hard about the climate change and energy implications of everything they do, if they’re not already. The lifecycle analysis of diversion schemes, composting, waste-to-energy plants and landfills (especially, because of the methane) will become an increasingly important justification for why we do the things we do, or change them.
Now, here’s that Reuters article:

Ghostly coral bleachings haunt the world’s reefs
By Michael Perry
When marine scientist Ray Berkelmans went diving at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef earlier this year, what he discovered shocked him — a graveyard of coral stretching as far as he could see.
“It’s a white desert out there,” Berkelmans told Reuters in early March after returning from a dive to survey bleaching — signs of a mass death of corals caused by a sudden rise in ocean temperatures — around the Keppel Islands.
Australia has just experienced its warmest year on record and abnormally high sea temperatures during summer have caused massive coral bleaching in the Keppels. Sea temperatures touched 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit), the upper limit for coral.
High temperatures are also a condition for the formation of hurricanes, such as Katrina which hit New Orleans in 2005.
“My estimate is in the vicinity of 95 to 98 percent of the coral is bleached in the Keppels,” said Berkelmans from the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
Marine scientists say another global bleaching episode cannot be ruled out, citing major bleaching in the Caribbean in the 2005 northern hemisphere summer, which coincided with one of the 20 warmest years on record in the United States.
“In 2002, it would appear the Great Barrier Reef went first and then the global bleaching followed six to 12 months later. Is it the same this time around? No,” said Berkelmans.
“The Caribbean beat us to it. We seem to be riding on the back of that event. We don’t know what is ahead in six months for the Indian Ocean reefs as they head into their summer.”
“This might be part of a global pattern where the warm waters continue to get warmer.”
Other threats to coral reefs — vast ecosystems often called the nurseries of the seas — include pollution, over-fishing, coastal development and diseases.
Corals are vital as spawning grounds for many species of fish, help prevent coastal erosion and also draw tourists.
Bleaching is due to higher than average water temperatures, triggered mainly by global warming, scientists say. Higher temperatures force corals to expel algae living in coral polyps which provide food and color, leaving white calcium skeletons. Coral dies in about a month if the waters do not cool.
Berkelmans said the Keppels had previously bounced back from bleaching once the waters had cooled. But if temperatures remained abnormally high then that would be much more difficult.
Many scientists say global temperatures are rising because fossil fuel emissions from cars, industry and other sources are trapping the earth’s heat. Experts worry some coral reefs could be wiped out by the end of the century.
Global warming could also damage corals by raising world sea levels by up to a meter by 2100. That could result in less light reaching deeper corals, threatening the important algae.
The Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest living reef formation stretching 2,000 km (1,250 miles) north to south along Australia’s northeast coast — was the first to experience what turned out to be global coral bleaching in 1998 and 2002.
The Keppels bleaching is as severe as those two events and scientists say the threat of widespread bleaching is moderate.
“Sea temperatures in all regions of the Great Barrier Reef are at levels capable of causing thermal stress to corals,” said the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s February report.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch said the 2005 Caribbean bleaching centered on the U.S. Virgin Islands, but stretched from the Florida Keys to Tobago and Barbados in the south and Panama and Costa Rica.
Reef Watch said sea temperature stress levels in the Caribbean in 2005 were more than treble the levels that normally cause bleaching and almost double the levels that kill coral.
“Time will tell whether there was large-scale mortality or not,” said Professor Robert Van Woesik from the Florida Institute of Technology in a statement issued by Australia’s Queensland University. He said corals did have some ability to bounce back but that this was an unusually warm event.
Queensland University’s Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, head of a group of 100 scientists monitoring bleaching, said scientists were concerned about how close in time the two severe bleaching episodes were.
“The 2006 Great Barrier Reef event comes soon after the worst incidence of coral bleaching in the Caribbean in October 2005,” said Hoegh-Guldberg who also went diving on the Keppels where he said damage was extensive.
“The traces suggest we are tracking the temperature profile of 2001-2002, which led to the worst incidence of coral bleaching … for the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
In 2002, between 60 and 95 percent of the reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef were bleached. Most corals survived but in some locations up to 90 percent were killed.
Hoegh-Guldberg said projections from 40 climate models suggested that oceans would warm by as much as three to four degrees Celsius in the next 100 years.
“We’re starting to get into very dangerous territory where what we see perhaps this year will become the norm and of course extreme events will become more likely,” he said.
“The climate is changing so quickly that coral reefs don’t keep up … the loss of that ecosystem would be tremendous.”