No, this is not another energy industry-funded claim that climate change isn’t happening. On the contrary, this is the claim by two eminent climate scientists that the climate science community has routinely toned down its message in order to make it palatable to political and economic elites in the developed world.
What the science is telling us is that even the worst case scenario set out by the International Panel on Climate Change may underestimate the speed and seriousness of an unfolding climate crisis that is already causing severe hardship in the global south, and that will ultimately impact on the wealthy north.
Professor Peter Wadhams, former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, and the UK’s leading expert in sea ice, observes that while Western leaders sit on their hands, China is already preparing for the emergency to come by buying up millions of acres of food growing land in Africa and South America. Having witnessed the social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of food shortages in 2011, the Chinese government is determined to control sufficient food supplies to prevent similar problems in China.
Wadhams told Climate Change News that the IPCC had seriously underestimated the trend in sea ice melt because of the failure to include accelerated melting in Antarctica and the Greenland ice sheet:
“They know it is happening, but they do not want to frighten the horses. It is bordering on the dishonest.”
According to Wadhams, the Arctic will be ice free in summer by 2020; 30 years earlier than projected by the IPCC. This, in turn, will mean much more rapid sea level rise, and is also likely to result in massive methane release from the Arctic tundra and the seas north of Siberia.
Wadhams argues that it is way too late to talk about reducing or even ceasing CO2 emissions:
“What is needed is something that has not been invented yet − a large-scale method of passing air through a machine and taking out the carbon dioxide. In the long run, only by taking carbon out of the air can we hope to get the concentrations down enough to save us from dangerous climate change.”
This may well be true. But as Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre points out, this is another area where the scientific community has pulled its punches in order to fit in with the prevailing political and economic orthodoxy:
“Whilst the endeavours of the IPCC, since its inception in 1988, are to be welcomed, I have grave reservations as to how the implications of their analysis are being reported. This is not solely the failure of incisive journalism, but is also the outcome of repeated and questionable commentary from some experts engaged in the IPCC process.”
Anderson argues that the figures behind the headlines point to a more worrying conclusion:
“In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of 2°C assume either an ability to travel back in time or the successful and large-scale uptake of speculative negative emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both ‘time travel and geo-engineering’.”
Anderson is not entirely pessimistic. Because most of our greenhouse gas emissions are produced by, or on behalf of the wealthiest ten percent of the global population, it is possible to target climate change policy primarily at this minority, with a view to dramatically changing their (i.e. our) lifestyles. However, to have any chance of doing so, scientists must be honest about the numbers:
“Explicit and quantitative carbon budgets provide a firm foundation on which policy makers and civil society can build a genuinely low-carbon society. But the job of scientists remains pivotal. It is incumbent on our community to be vigilant in guiding the policy process within the climate goals established by civil society; to draw attention to inconsistencies, misunderstandings and deliberate abuse of the scientific research. It is not our job to be politically expedient with our analysis or to curry favour with our funders. Whether our conclusions are liked or not is irrelevant. As we massage the assumptions of our analysis to fit within today’s political and economic hegemony, so we do society a grave disservice – one for which the repercussions will be irreversible.”
At a time when at least one of the potential future US Presidents denies the very existence of climate change (while the other is unlikely to do much to change it), humanity simply cannot afford the luxury of scientists allowing personal ambition to stand in the way of truth. While it is not for scientists to lead the movement for political change, it is essential that they provide the people who do lead with reliable evidence on which to base policy… for all our sakes.