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El difícil oficio de profeta

December 9, 2009 1 comment

Ayer el Panel Intergubernamental de Expertos en cambio climático (en inglés IPCC) tuvo una presentación que generó mucha expectación porque los informes de este grupo de expertos son los que están detrás (o delante, según se mire) de todo este movimiento social y político. Sus conclusiones son las que están permitiendo tomar conciencia de la magnitud del problema y la necesidad de que la respuesta sea proporcional y suficientemente rápida. La sesión tuvo la expectación añadida por las noticias aparecidas de los correos electrónicos robados del ordenador de uno de los científicos participantes en el Panel, en concreto del director de la Unidad de Investigación del Cambio Climático de la Universidad de East Anglia.

La presentación fue muy buena, bien preparada, rápida y eficaz, teniendo en cuenta todos los que participaron: el indio Rajendra Pachuri como presidente del Panel y los responsables de los tres grupos de trabajo en los que está organizado el Panel además de una presentación de un Informe Especial de Gestión de Riesgos para Catástrofes y Desastres Naturales.

Se trataba de presentar el estado de la cuestión, es decir un breve repaso a los principales hallazgos del informe nº 4 y alguna perspectiva para el nº 5 que ya están preparando. Resumiendo mucho las presentaciones creo que el punto crítico es que la única forma de explicar de una manera convincente lo que está sucediendo con el clima, es decir la única explicación que satisface suficientemente los modelos empleados, es la acción combinada que se produce por el cambio climático natural y el efecto de la acción humana. En palabras del 4º Informe: La mayor parte del aumento observado del promedio mundial de temperatura desde mediados del siglo XX se debe muy probablemente al aumento observado de las concentraciones de gases de efecto invernadero antropógenos (de origen humano). Pero la actividad humana no se refiere sólo al aumento de las temperaturas: es probable que se haya experimentado un calentamiento antropógeno apreciable en los últimos cincuenta años, en promedio para cada continente (exceptuada la región antártica). Muy probablemente ha contribuido al aumento del nivel del mar durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX; probablemente ha contribuido a alterar las pautas eólicas, afectando el recorrido de las tempestades extratropicales y las pautas de temperatura; probablemente ha elevado la temperatura de las noches extremadamente cálidas, de las noches frías y de los días fríos; y más probable que improbable, ha intensificado el riesgo de olas de calor y ha incrementado la superficie afectada por la sequía desde los años 70 y la frecuencia de las precipitaciones intensas. La acción combinada de naturaleza y la acción humana es la que explica mejor los cambios producidos en el clima.

Entre las tareas pendientes para los próximos informes está el de la valoración conveniente de los efectos de acidificación de los océanos, clave para muchos países del Pacífico formados por miles  de islas; y una valoración más ajustada de los efectos del manejo de los bosques. Éste último punto es muy importante porque algunos países desarrollados (escandinavos, por ejemplo) están encontrando ahí una forma para suavizar sus compromisos. Para algunos países en vías de desarrollo es una buena oportunidad pues permitiría compensar con recursos naturales sus esfuerzos de desarrollo industrial (la India o Brasil, por ejemplo); aunque habría que entrar en cuestiones sobre gobernanza de estos recursos: qué tipo de reforestaciones, quién las gestiona… pero sin duda una cuestión muy interesante.

El tema de los e-mails robados apareció con insistencia. La defensa de la objetividad de los informes del Panel fue contundente, y el reconocimiento a la labor del científico que ha sufrido el robo de mensajes privados también fue claro. El método de trabajo, revisión continua de unos por otros, impide que nada de lo publicado venga solo de un grupo de investigación. Todos los datos se obtienen a partir de varias fuentes, así es también con el único dato –de todos los mencionados en el correo- que sí ha sido recogido en el informe. Nadie pone en duda que el dato es correcto –fue verificado en su momento- y por eso el informe no necesita ser revisado. De hecho nadie ha podido refutar ese dato, sólo que aparece en un tono amistoso cuestionando el trabajo de otros. Escribir correos electrónicos entre compañeros criticando a otros tal vez no esté bien, pero no invalida el contenido de una investigación.

Durante la presentación del Panel me acordé del profeta Jeremías, el hombre no lo tuvo nada fácil en su trabajo. Rechazado, amenazado, ridiculizado (Ananias le quitó el yugo del cuello y le invitó a que se dedicara a otra cosa); llegó a lamentar haber nacido. La sesión de la tarde no ha sido tan dramática pero ha puesto en evidencia que es complicado proponer a la sociedad, con tantos intereses, mensajes que en el fondo son una amenaza a nuestros estilos de vida (los de los países desarrollados), y una amenaza a tantos intereses económicos como están en juego. El problema de Jeremías es que a nadie le gusta escuchar malas noticias, todos preferimos profetas de lo bueno que los que anuncian calamidades.

Un último comentario sobre el profetismo, el Señor dice que se les reconocerá por sus frutos (Mt 7,16). Estos científicos tranquilos, apasionados y muy rigurosos, están provocando frutos muy interesantes: tomar conciencia de los límites de nuestro planeta, recordarnos la desigualdad hiriente de nuestro mundo y que la solidaridad o es efectiva o no es.

Categories: Climate Change, IPCC

COP15 – Dec 8, 2009 – IPCC: Truly Our Best Available Science

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Today, the IPCC organized a side event on “IPCC Findings and Activities and their Relevance for the UNFCCC Process,” summarizing its AR4 findings (AR = Assessment Report) and offering a forward look on AR5.

In his introduction, the IPCC Chair R.K. Pachauri offered an overview of the IPCC process to reach at that what I would call our “best available science” (BAS) today. To build up AR4, 450 scientists participated as lead authors, working in teams, the work of which has been subject to peer (more than 2.500 scientists collaborated) and governmental expert reviews. The IPCC uses reliable data sets gathered from many sources that corroborate one another. Its procedures are very reliable, robust and transparent. Recently, the reliability of the IPCC has been questioned because of the publication of private e-mail correspondence obtained by malicious hacking into the servers of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit. Climate skeptics and even countries such as Saudi Arabia have made use of the exasperation of scientists with those who contest anthropogenic global warming to spread doubt about the seriousness of IPCC reports. I felt somewhat of that anger, when it became clear that all the questions addressed to R.K. Pachauri – mostly by anglo-saxon journalists – concerned these e-mails. But, of course, if I say that these journalists should know better and focus on the real issues at stake, that in press conferences their questions should be ignored when they have been asked over and over again, then I run the risk of being considered intolerant and in danger of obscuring issues. I admire the patience with which R.K. Pachauri answered these questions and observations – that in itself is worth a Nobel Prize.

Thanks to God, the rest of the side event was devoted to the real issues at stake. Scientists presented the issues at stake in the three Work Groups (WG) of AR4, and their outlook on AR5.

Thomas Stocker, co-chair of WG1 (the physical science basis of climate change), emphasized and illustrated three important results of AR4 WG1: (a) warming in the climate system is unequivocal; (b) most of the observed increase in temperature is very likely due to an increase in GHG (greenhouse gas) concentrations in the atmosphere; (c) continued GHG emissions will lead to changes that would very likely be larger than those observed today. For AR5, Stocker points to three observations and three projections: (O1) CO2 presence in the atmosphere reaches higher levels and its increase is more rapid than ever over the past 1000 years; (O2) the extensive thinning of ice surface on the margins of Greenland and Antarctica; (03) the persistent sea-level rise consistent with earlier estimates; (P1) the rapid loss of arctic sea ice (depending on the models used, the arctic sea will be ice free sometime between 2030 and 2060); (P2) the long-term commitment and irreversibility of the CO2 perturbation (it will take hundreds of years before CO2 levels in the atmosphere will diminish); (P3) geo-engineering could cause abrupt climate changes, but there is a “termination problem” inherent to all geo-engineering (if we stop the geo-engineering process, global climate quickly returns to an equilibrium near to what would have been the case without the geo-engineering). Stocker concludes that there is good reason to stand behind the scientific results presented in AR4, that we experience unprecedented changes in the climate system, that there is widespread melting of the ice margins, that CO2 remains in the atmosphere for very long periods and leads to changes in climate and in ocean chemistry, and that geo-engineering is inherently problematic. These issues will be addressed in AR5 WG1.

Charles Field presented the activities of WG2 (impacts, adaptation and vulnerability), stressing that AR4 presented a vast range of observed changes and impacts as well as of projected future impacts (the magnitude of which depends on the models used; extreme events are possible as well). He observed that many stressors are important as far as impacts are concerned. Mitigation can help to delay, avoid or reduce impacts, while adaptation can address vulnerabilities. AR5 will concentrate on common frameworks for mitigation, adaptation and impacts; it will broaden the range of impacts and study the connections between climate change and development, as well as between climate science and climate impacts; it will take into account a new generation of models and pay due attention to regional aspects and to ocean impacts. Climate change is occurring: what information is needed for good policy decisions?

Vicente Barros, also speaking in the area of AR5 WG2, introduced a special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation, a report that will be published in 2011 and that will focus on the intersection of three concerns: (a) vulnerabilities; (b) the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme events; (c) the tools available for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptability.

As to WG3 (climate change mitigation), Youba Sokona pointed out that global anthropogenic GHG emissions, especially CO2 emissions, are still growing. Contributing factors to this continuing increase are population growth, income increase per capita, carbon intensity and energy intensity. The stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere is, from a scientific point of view, urgent, and technological advances and transfers will be important to attain this. All sectors and regions will have to contribute.

The question session afterwards highlighted the need to take into account ocean factors, e.g. acidification, as well as time and regional scales, whereby a distinction will be made between near-time predictability and long-term climate change.

It is clear that the work for AR5 is well under way and that it will produce a wider array of models and frameworks to unfold a reality that comes forward in ever increasing complexity. The methods will also allow for improved regional focus, which will allow improved adaptation planning. Although a lot of mist was created by continuing questions on the hacking of personal e-mails, it is clear that the IPCC aims at maintaining its focus on essential matters and with increasing scientific sharpness. One can only applaud that. I feel the deep commitment of these scientists to provide reliable and clear material for good and crucial policy decision making. This was a very refreshing session.

Categories: Climate Change, COP 15, IPCC, UNFCCC

Back to Basics 1

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

While we ourselves are learning a lot here, we also want to offer some of this material learned to readers of this blog. So, at times, we will go back to “basics”.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an alliance of 192 countries set up in 1994. Its point of departure is the conviction that human activity affects climate, mainly through CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. The member governments to the Convention committed themselves to gather and share information about greenhouse gas emission, to launch strategies aiming at reducing the impact of such emissions, and to promote adaptation measures with regard to the new conditions brought about by climate change. They also commit to support developing countries through financial means and technology transfer. To monitor and keep this Convention a body was created in the United Nations: the UNFCCC.

To accomplish the objective of “gathering information,” the UNFCCC called into existence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: it started working in 1988. The Panel is composed of hundreds of scientists all over the world. Its latest report is built on the work of 500 scientists who wrote articles, and on another 2.500 scientists who reviewed these articles. Further review is also done at governmental level. The Panel is not directly involved in research, but uses already published peer reviewed scientific work. As a consequence, we are facing, in the work of the Panel, the best available science (BAS) today. Obviously, science evolves and grows by testing hypotheses and models: the Panel will produce a new assessment, AR5, around 2013. The results offered by the Panel leave us in little doubt: human induced global warming and climate change are a fact, that has to be taken into account in global policy making. If we accept science to diagnose our diseases, we have no reason not to accept the same science when it describes the situation of our planet.

The Panel divides its work into three main areas or working groups. Group I deals with the results of the physical sciences; Group II looks at impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; Group III investigates ways to mitigate Climate Change. The latest assessment report, AR4, was published in 2007 is very clear in distinguishing evidence, confidence and medium confidence. It also points out the issues on which there is no full agreement.

As a result of such scientific assessment, the Convention promoted in 1997 the so-called Kyoto Protocol that became legally binding in 2005. It sets concrete ad legally binding emission targets for those countries that subscribe. In Kyoto, the countries with the biggest  greenhouse gas emissions (the most developed countries) committed themselves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 5% under 1990 levels, and this in the period between 2008 and 2012. Greenhouse gas emission cuts would be achieved by national plans and through the “carbon market,” a mechanism of emissions trade. One of the most important debates at stake here in Copenhagen is precisely the continuity of that Kyoto commitment of the most industrialized countries.

 Since the Kyoto agreement, a lot has happened on the global scale: the targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have not been held (with some exceptions) and overall worldwide emissions have grown; new countries have emerged as very important greenhouse gase producers, countries that had not committed to the targets of the Protocol; we have become more conscious about the necessity for action in the long term actions on both counts of mitigation and adaptation … To sum up: there are many more actors in the game and the complexity and magnitude of the issues at stake have grown. This provides a new background that determines the negotiations in Copenhagen.