The more scientists know about global warming, the less able they are to predict the outcomesby Fred Pearce / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Mexican standoff: climate talks in Cancun have been undermined by the global recession and a loss of confidence in scientists’ forecasts
Cancun in Mexico is one of the least environmentally friendly places on Earth—built out of sandy nothing to attract tourists. Yet it is here, from 29th November to 10th December, that governments will attempt to repair the damage from last year’s failed climate talks in Copenhagen.
In truth, hopes are not high for reaching agreement on a replacement for the Kyoto protocol. After the scale of Copenhagen, Cancun will be a downbeat affair. Heads of state will be largely absent. Even optimists only hope Cancun might be a stepping stone to a deal at the end of 2011.
Three things have gone wrong. First, the global recession has given politicians other priorities. Second, in international diplomacy, failure breeds failure. Having not delivered last year, few leaders want to invest political capital in another try. And finally, there is the cataclysm that has overtaken climate science in the meantime. “Climategate”—the release of damaging emails from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Climatic Research Unit—raised questions about the way climate scientists work; as did revelations about flaws in the 2007 assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The most notorious was “glaciergate”: a claim that the Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035 was probably wrong by about three centuries.
All this has badly drained public confidence in climate forecasts. It may never fully recover and it may not deserve to. Although the basic science behind the argument that we are warming the world is sound, scientists have sometimes skated over the uncertainties about how it will play out. And some have resorted to dubious tricks to simplify their message.
Nobody seriously denies that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trap heat, and that this will warm the globe. Nor does anyone doubt that these gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of our activities. But the detail is much less clear. And the climategate emails show how, when challenged, mainstream climate researchers have on occasion preferred infighting to making a scientific case.
This happened when sceptics questioned whether the world today is warmer than 1,000 years ago. The ensuing row about the “hockey stick” graph gave the issue an importance it did not deserve, since natural variability in climate is normal and the precise history of…