Are the IPCC Reports Red Herrings?

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to set the stage for the much-anticipated “Fifth Assessment Report” (aka: AR5) from the illustrious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Recently, the WSJ published an article about AR5 by none other than Viscount Matt Ridley, libertarian extraordinaire, who distinguished himself as the first chairman of a UK bank, since 1878, to suffer a ‘major run’ on his bank- Northern Rock’s total failure led to the bank falling into the ‘arms’; i.e., nationalization, of the government. Ridley’s article in the Wall Street Journal (September 13, 2013) is, as follows: Dialing Back the Alarm on Climate Change.

Viscount Ridley, who is a member of the House of Lords, explains the upcoming AR5 thusly:

… thanks to a senior climate scientist, I have had a glimpse of the key prediction at the heart of the document. The big news is that, for the first time since these reports started coming out in 1990, the new one dials back the alarm. It states that the temperature rise we can expect as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide is lower than the IPCC thought in 2007.

And, he continues:

Admittedly, the change is small… It is significant because it points to the very real possibility that, over the next several generations, the overall effect of climate change will be positive for humankind and the planet.

There you have it: A proclamation from a Viscount of how AR5 will impact our children, grandchildren, and beyond. And, repeating his ultra positive pronouncement once more for good feeling: “… the overall effect of climate change will be positive for humankind and the planet.”

Ergo, salvation is at hand! We need not be concerned about global warming and the attendant residual problems, like an extinction event. As a result, everybody should celebrate with a good night’s sleep… for the first time in years.  Oh, yeah, almost forgot… since the climate has now proven it can handle whatever is thrown at it, don’t forget to vote ‘yes’ for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

But, seriously, Ridley’s preview of the upcoming AR5 (which is due soon) really got me to thinking, and egads, I’m totally confused. Here’s why:  According to his article everything’s going to be hunky dory. So, we should probably stop teasing (making fun of) the Republicans and the fossil fuel industry (Republican pals) about their witless pursuit of burning fossil fuels like it’s the only game in town. And, don’t forget, a lot of Democrats like it too.

As it is, here’s a preamble to the confusing situation: Ridley’s article uses some pretty fancy terminology, like “ECS,” which is “equilibrium climate sensitivity,” and “transient climate response” (TCR), which is where his article started losing me a little bit with a lot of calculations, but then he explains (an enlightenment) how the slight warming (yes, slight) the next 70 years would extend the range of farming further north, improve crop yields, slightly increase rainfall, especially in arid areas, enhance forest growth and cut winter deaths. At this point, I stood up, fisting into mid-air, singing Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen style.)

Several minutes later, breathless, I sat down to finish Ridley’s article, but serendipitously, this was the moment when I heard the crashing of waves from the nearby Pacific Ocean, which reminded me of the peer-review scientific articles of 2012 and 2013 I read only recently about ocean acidification; e.g., how pteropods, which are at the base of the marine food chain, are experiencing severe shell dissolution as a result of ocean acidity because of excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

As well, Phillipe Cousteau’s statement in March 2013 immediately came to mind: “The situation is now so severe that we are altering the chemistry of the ocean…” a phrase I could not get out of my head, over and over again like a recurring migraine, we are altering the chemistry – we are altering the chemistry- we are altering the chemistry… over and over again.

And, with no forethought, I recalled the haunting words of Professor Alex Rogers (Cambridge) Scientific Director, International Programme on the State of the Ocean, in a 2013 interview:

We’re seeing levels of pH in the ocean that probably haven’t been experienced for 55 million years… I find if very difficult to tell people what a scary situation we’re in at the moment… The changes we thought would happen in the future… We’re actually seeing them now.

Again, similar to a recurring migraine headache, over and over again his words rang in my head: what a scary situation we’re in – what a scary situation we’re in- what a scary situation we’re in… endlessly, one scary situation after another after another.

And, reinforcing Rogers’ chilling statement, my eyes froze in place for a moment, remembering Ken Caldeira’s, Ph.D. (Carnegie Institution-Department of Ecology), statement in 2012: “Already, we’re seeing water showing up off the coast of Northern California that’s acidic enough to start actually dissolving sea shells.

How could this be happening with global warming “dialing back” the way Viscount Ridley explained? Isn’t it the excessive warming and excessive CO2 (mostly) in the ocean that’s causing these problems?  And, I couldn’t help thinking about Dr. Caldeira’s statement about the coral reefs: “We are in the last decades of coral reefs on this planet unless we do something very soon to reduce CO2 emissions.”

But, the Viscount mentioned nothing about any of this.

Bewildered, I wondered if I’d lost my mind because it was only recently I read scientific peer-review abstracts (2012) and articles (2012-13) about the horrendous travesty of ocean acidification. Was it all just a horrible dream? How could the climate situation be as acquiescently calm as Ridley says AR5 will state, especially if the ocean is ‘going to pot’ because of human-induced excessive carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow?

Not only that, and even more confounding, how is it that the Arctic Ocean ice mass is melting away (over 40% so far) at an increasingly rapid rate? As for this huge predicament, I recently read reports, as of August/September 2013, from the National Snow & Ice Data Center, including readings of ice measurements from Ice Mass Balance Buoys conducted by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory put into place before the ice melt season of 2012-13 began. The final ice thickness readings I saw, measured in September 2013, showed an ice loss of six feet (6’) and four feet (4’) at random locations in the Arctic, which is ice loss, not ice gain.

How could it be that, as stated by Viscount Ridley, one study “… found that models have overestimated warming by 100% over the past 20 years,” but, then, why does the Arctic sea ice increasingly melt away year-by-year, and why is the ocean acidifying so drastically that the start of the food chain is at risk of extinction? These far-reaching questions in the face of Viscount Ridley’s revelations threw me back into a state of sleeplessness.

That evening, I suddenly sat up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, awakened by a horrible nightmare: standing alone on the deck of a ship in the Arctic Ocean seeing one enormous fountain of methane erupting into the atmosphere after another after another after another as a result of the ice-free Arctic… huge plumes of methane spewing upwards like a fourth of July fireworks display. It was a horrific sight because the words, “runaway global warming” were electrified in red in the skyline, like a gigantic neon sign, repeatedly flashing, “runaway global warming.”

Coming back to reality, I remembered the genesis of this nightmare. It was a scientific article I read entitled, “Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf,” by Natalia Shakhova (International Arctic Research Centre, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK), Igor Semiletov (Russian Academy of Sciences, Far Eastern Branch, Pacific Oceanological Institute, Vladivostok, Russia), et al.1

And, I recalled a fascination with the Russian research vessel, Academician Lavrentiev, which surveyed 10,000 square miles off the coast of Siberia, discovering hundreds of enormous fountains of methane up to one-half mile across, erupting from the Arctic sea. The scientists (with up to 40 years experience) had never before seen anything like it, and they expressed deep concern about the risk of methane outbreak and consequent runaway global warming.

I know, I know, the Viscount was only referring to above-water temperatures, or was he? Therefore, as follows, traveling above water.

The following morning I ignored breakfast as my bowl of yogurt reminded me of the grave problem of glaciers melting around the world. Withal, this did not compute based upon the upcoming milquetoast AR5 report, unless glaciers melt very, very easily.

To that point, a World Bank report claims that one-half of the glaciers in the Andes have disappeared, threatening the water resource for millions in South America. And, the great Columbia Glacier in Alaska has retreated 13 miles up the fjord over the past 30 years, and its current rate of melt, as of 2012, is eight (8) times faster than it was 30 years ago.  For a lot of people, this is a major signal that the climate is out of whack… really, really out of whack.

Pushing aside my bowl of Cheerios, I stared off into empty space, wondering: What’s up with all of these glaciers melting?  And, what does it take for the IPCC to report some alarm about climatic conditions, assuming Viscount Ridley is correct about the moderation the IPCC report will delineate, and being that he is a Viscount, one cannot imagine he would have it wrong. You can count on that.

I felt a compelling desire to ask the Viscount the question: How do you account for the melting of the glaciers and the tremendous loss of Arctic sea ice and 97% of Greenland’s surface turning to slush for the first time, but his phone number is not published.

While pondering the best way to connect with the Viscount, I remembered another question for him about an article in Nature magazine, July 2012, which interviewed Yao Tandong, a glaciologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Tibetan Research/Beijing. Yao Tandong, in reference to the Tibetan plateau, was quoted, as follows: “The majority of the glaciers have been shrinking rapidly across the studied area in the past 30 years.”

That’s thirty years of glacial shrinking, I whispered to myself while blankly staring at the bowl of Cheerios.

And, I recalled another Chinese scientist, Cheng Haining, who is Senior Engineer at Qinghai Province’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau, quoted as saying 70% of the glaciers at the headwaters of the Lancang River (the “Danube of the East”) are gone.

This, then, shifted my focus to: Two billion people dependent upon the Tibetan plateau glaciers; i.e., the Third Pole, as a water resource for commercial rivers, for drinking water, and for crop irrigation… but the glaciers are melting. How could all of this melting be happening in the face of the relatively positive upcoming AR5? This state of confusion overwhelmed me so much that, once again, I could not sleep.

The next day, following another rough sleepless night, and after watching a TV program about the Sahara Desert, my thoughts drifted off to the extraordinary numbers of worldwide droughts caused by the warming Arctic’s interference with the jet streams over the Northern Hemisphere, which causes weather patterns to prolong, like I read about in scientific articles.

The reality of these extraordinary droughts is so convincing… Russia shocked the world by announcing a ban on exports of grain in 2010 when the jet streams over Russia and surrounding areas were locked with the trough of the wave over Pakistan, and the crest over Russia. The jet stream did not budge for 35 days (just like science predicts.) The trough was low pressure with lots of rain, and as a result, Pakistan flooded, beyond one month. At the time, worldwide television networks sent broadcasts of groups of Pakistanis huddled together on small landmasses surrounded by water. Simultaneously, Moscow was under a high-pressure ridge, experiencing a powerful 35-day heat wave. An estimated 50,000 Russians, over and above the normal mortality rate, died (not mentioned on TV), and the country lost 40% of its wheat crop.

These climatic occurrences seem to get more outrageous over time. For example, in China, according to China’s State Forestry Administration, 25% of the country suffers from desertification. The country has had four years of droughts and water shortages affecting the lives of 400 million people, according to Li Xia.2 The desertification problem in China is the most severe in the world.

But, how does this square with the upcoming IPCC report, which, according to Viscount Ridley, discusses a moderation in climate change?

Come on now – isn’t there somebody out there who can explain all of the melting ice?

Anyhow, and refreshingly, as I recall, Viscount Ridley implied the world is about to commence a Disneyland type environment for generations to come.

Confused and horribly discomforted by the contrast between recently read scientific research papers and Viscount Matt Ridley’s article, and suffering from renewed sleeplessness, fortunately, a deep sleep did ensue, and a vivid dream in full color came to life, like dreams often times do: Flying like an airplane over vast stretches of endless water, a small object was spotted on the horizon, bobbing along on the water. Upon closer inspection, the small object was seen to be a man in a rowboat, the Viscount, wearing his lordly wig, rowing like crazy with nowhere to go. Asking him: What’s up? The Viscount replied, yelling at the top of his voice: “THE IPCC NEVER GETS IT RIGHT!”

  1. Science, Vol. 327(5970) March 5, 2010. []
  2. “Drought in China Turns Vast Tracts of Land to Desert”, Epoch Times, March 19, 2013. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.