Friday, February 02, 2007

Climate Report

[posted by Callimachus]

AP apparently has got a copy of the big climate change report and it wants to tell me "The world's leading climate scientists said global warming has begun, is 'very likely' caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries ...."

But I'm frustrated that it doesn't seem to know enough climate to answer my main question. I already know all that. What I want to know -- and still don't -- is how much of the warming is caused by human industrial activity and how much by other forces and factors.

The world's climate has fluctuated all through its history. In Roman times, the Alpine glaciers disappeared entirely. A few thousand years earlier, the ice sheets had rolled over what is now Connecticut. Yet the AP seems to misunderstand the climate to be a steady, continuous, balanced thing that only the arrival of modern human activity has upset.

The scientist says:

"The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice-mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that is not due to known natural causes alone," said the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a group of hundreds of scientists and representatives of 113 governments.

Emphasis added. But the AP writes as though it's an either-or situation:

The phrase "very likely" translates to a more than 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused by man's burning of fossil fuels. That was the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.

It should say "a more than 90 percent certainty that global warming is caused at least in part by man's burning of fossil fuels." The bigger number I want to know is, "in what part?" And I still suspect that's unanswerable in scientific terms. I don't believe scientists know enough about the complex mix of natural forces that drive the climate even to say whether human agency is the primary cause of the current climate change.

To head off the inevitable charge of being a denialist, I think it is real, and I think it's a dire problem for everyone, no matter the cause. And that's why I'm concerned about the message fuzzing out amid bad reporting and sloppy political agendas.

An analogy: You know water is flooding your basement, and you know you're running your faucets upstairs with leaky pipes. So "very likely" there's a connection. But you can't see outside to know whether it's been raining for 40 days and nights, too.

[I notice, too, that the media is not averse to using the old, damned, sexist term mankind when it comes to things like pollution and industry, even though the AP's own style guide recommends "a substitute such as humanity ...."]

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