Make haste for IPCC Fifth Assessment

A bad year for environmentalists ended appropriately last Saturday deep in the Channel Tunnel.

Rather like climate negotiators entering their Copenhagen meeting rooms, one Eurostar train after another plunged into the Tunnel from which there was no hope of exit, at least not for interminable hours.

The subsequent 3-day closure throws 75,000 unhappy passengers into the arms of easyJet and Ryanair for next Christmas. In a final twist of the knife, the train failure was apparently caused by exceptionally low temperatures in northern France.

A few days earlier I had read a rather different prediction for the European climate in 2030 in James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning:

….just across the Channel, summer heat will have grown unbearable….

The railway engineers have been warned. On second thoughts, the book’s dire prognosis that we are already past the tipping point for a 5 degree leap in temperature suggests that the Tunnel will be lucky to survive at all, given the risk that the Channel will rise up and flood its entrances.

I hope that I will be able to write half as fluently as Mr.Lovelock when I’m 89. However this is not a book suitable for young green idealists of sensitive disposition.

It asserts that nuclear power is our salvation, that renewable energy and low carbon lifestyles are a waste of time, and that human beings will become expendable. And the vision of Greenpeace is doomed to end as badly as that of the appeasement movement of the 1930s.

The best way to approach this book is to ignore all of it except the chapter entitled “The Climate Forecast” where the author mercifully sticks to science. He criticizes the IPCC reports for presenting politicians with temperature projections which reassuringly follow a smooth progression to 2050 and beyond.

Lovelock believes that the IPCC models should be ruled invalid because they fail to reproduce those periods of rapid transition between hotter and colder steady states which the planet regularly undergoes, on geological timescales.

The most likely cause is the omission of important variables from the models, a shortcoming which the IPCC openly concedes. Lovelock feels that the reaction of plants, animals and humans to changes in carbon dioxide and temperature is too significant to discount.

He presents his own simplified equation “based on Gaia theory” which incorporates plant life on land and in the oceans. The result coincides with the views of James Hansen and the campaigners that an atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases equivalent to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide was the safety threshold.

Anything past 400ppm takes us into territory where things begin to become unstable. Current concentration is around 430ppm. Hence Lovelock’s conclusion that we should invest more effort into preparing for cataclysmic change than tinkering with emissions reductions.

I can’t comment on the science and a book carries no peer review. However, one simple interpretation stands out. The disdain for long term projections in favour of assuming the worst is a straightforward example of the precautionary principle. As any health and safety manager will tell you, the precautionary principle governs much of our daily lives. Somehow when it comes to climate change, we choose to forget about it.

The precautions advocated by Lovelock are beyond the scope of consensual politics. Before he’s proved right, or the climate change sceptics make advances on the opposite front, we desperately need better science.

Climate models are surely gaining ground on all those awkward feedback variables. Can we wait until 2014 for the next assessment of the IPCC to be published?


this article was first published by OneWorld UK