"Climate change is a reality; the debate is over," Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary of Interior, recently told reporters before releasing a plan intended to mitigate warming's effect on natural resources.1
Well the fat lady's not singing yet. Debate on the science of climate change is heating up as scientists forecast the climate is now cooling down.
Mojib Latif, an internationally acclaimed climate modeler and an author of the IPCC report, told a gathering of climate scientists at the U.N. World Climate Conference in Geneva last month that we are entering a period of cooling which could last twenty years.2 He and his colleagues at Germany's Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences have been studying short-term—decadal and multi-decadal—variations in the climate and ocean temperatures. They hold that the oceans' natural currents and cycles are having a greater impact on global temperatures than has been reported. They predict North America and Europe are entering—and likely already have been in—a period of cooling caused largely by the naturally occurring drop in ocean surface temperatures in the North Atlantic and tropical Pacific Oceans.
The findings throw buckets of cold water on current climate models that predict apocalyptic warming. Says Noel Keenlyside, also from the Leibniz Institute: "One message from our study is that in the short term, you can see changes in the global mean temperature that you might not expect given the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."3
It also raises significant questions about how much global climate is affected by natural climate variations and cycles and how much is man-made, questions "the skeptics" have been asking for a long time. Latif—not known to be in the "skeptic" camp himself—says while warming may be "anthropogenic in nature," you nonetheless see a lot of fluctuations in the warming trend that are heavily influenced by natural changes. This raises a lot of "the nasty questions," he says.
Here are some of them:
Nasty Question #1: What about drought in the Sahel?
Like doctrine, we've been told that the drought of the 1970s and 1980s in the African region is a tell-tale sign of anthropogenic global warming. But Mojib Latif, showing wide fluctuations in precipitation levels in the Sahel throughout the past century—including a probable reversal now from regional drought to rainfall—argues these "anomalies" can be traced to natural swings in the Atlantic's surface temperatures. Called the North Atlantic Oscillation, it periodically brings warm currents from the tropics to the North Atlantic region. Latif and other scientists studying decadal climate patterns believe this, along with the similar oscillation pattern in the Pacific, play a dominant role in driving ocean and global surface temperatures.
Nasty Question #2: What about hurricanes that, according to Al Gore and other global warming hype artists, are growing more intense and numerous because of climate change?
Latif and his colleagues, studying data over the past century, find that hurricanes have not been increasing in strength; to the contrary, the record is "dominated by variability," particularly 10-year swings. They have found that hurricane activity, like the Sahel drought, is driven largely by the North Atlantic Oscillation.
Nasty Question #3: If so many climate-related occurrences are driven by ocean cycles rather than carbon dioxide emissions as we've been told, how do we know that warming in past decades wasn't primarily the effect of natural ocean variations rather than greenhouse gas emissions?
"That's the $64,000 question," says Latif. "The jury is still out."
Nasty Question #4: What does all this mean for the longer term?
According to Latif, over the next 100 years, natural variability presents large "uncertainties" that currently are not considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC report, Latif says, looks at greenhouse gas emissions and does not factor in natural occurrences such as ocean oscillations, solar radiation, volcanic eruptions—all of which scientists know play some significant role in the Earth's climate change. Furthermore, the report uses global surface temperature readings rather than data on ocean surface temperatures that, he holds, provides for a more accurate reading of climate changes. In some cases, he says, the IPCC's "model biases [using surface air temperatures] are large" and contain regional "errors of up to 10 degrees Celcius." Latif's advice to the IPCC: "no predictions without observations!"
Nasty Question #5: You mean the science on global warming is not settled?
Daily, the public is deluged with dire warnings from the media, government officials—and most recently, from corporate America—that the science is complete, the Earth won't wait, there will be deadly consequences for humanity. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes that "the most widely respected climate models" show "we're hurtling toward catastrophe."4 The source of almost all of these factoids is the U.N.'s 2007 IPCC report which, along with Al Gore, won that year's Nobel Peace Prize.
But most scientists are the first to tell us the science is far from settled. John Mitchell, Director of Climate Science at the UK's national weather service and the World Climate Conference's moderator for Advancing Climate Predictions: "There's a need to educate our politicians. I was appalled to hear a senior government official…say that the science of climate change is 'done and dusted.' In fact, far from that, the science of climate change is…entering a new and critical phase where we're trying to produce reliable predictions that can be used for people to take action on."5
This is nothing new. Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, wrote on Nature's website back in 2007:
[T]here are no predictions by IPCC at all. And there never have been. The IPCC instead proffers "what if?" projections of future climate that correspond to certain emissions scenarios... None of the climate states in the [IPCC] models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate. In particular, the state of the oceans, sea ice, and soil moisture has no relationship to the observed state at any recent time in any of the IPCC models...[T]he science is not done because we do not have reliable or regional predictions of climate. But we need them. Indeed it is an imperative! So the science is just beginning.6
When even lead authors of the Teflon-coated IPCC report deplore the notion of scientific consensus and urge politicians and policymakers to get it right, the world should take note. At the very least, let's be sure we're asking all the nasty questions.
Dana Joel Gattuso is a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Public Policy Research.
1 Janet Zimmerman, "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Plan Factors in Climate Change," The Press-Enterprise, September 27, 2009, at http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/PE_News_Local_S_climate28.3955030.html.
2 World Climate Conference 3, Geneva, Switzerland, PS-3, "Advancing Climate Prediction Science," September 1, 2009. Audio and Powerpoint Presentation at http://www.wcc3.org/sessions.php?session_list=PS-3#doc. Also, see N.S. Keenlyside, et. al., "Advancing Decadal-scale Climate Prediction in the North Atlantic Sector," Nature 453, 84-88, May 1, 2008, at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7191/full/nature06921.html.
3 Richard Black, "Next Decade 'May See No Warming,'" BBC News, May 1, 2008, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7376301.stm.
4 Paul Krugman, "Cassandras of Climate," The New York Times, September 28, 2009, at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/28/opinion/28krugman.html.
5 World Climate Conference 3, op. cit.
6 "Predictions of Climate," Climate Feedback: The Climate Change Blog, June 4, 2007, at http://blogs.nature.com/climatefeedback/2007/06/predictions_of_climate.html.
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