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Climate Scientists Lament a Nation Stuck on the Wrong Debate

While the national climate debate is fixed on whether Earth is warming, climate scientists are focused on understanding how bad it will be.

Jun 4, 2012
NASA scientists study changing conditions in the Arctic as part of the agency's

The global warming debate in Congress, the states and on the campaign trail centers on two issues: Is Earth warming, and if so are humans to blame?

But ask most climate scientists, and they'll tell you that these are the only questions not in dispute. Climate change is a matter of how bad and by when, they'll say—not whether.

"Scientists are inherently skeptical," says Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist at Ohio State University, who has led studies of glaciers and ice sheets in 16 countries. "After enough evidence and observation, though, you have to start to accept findings. That is what happened with climate change. This wasn't a rash conclusion."

"There is not any serious debate about whether anthropogenic climate change is happening," says Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor of science and society. "Scientists are certain about that, and it is unfortunate that the national debate is lagging so far behind."

The public and political discourse on global warming was framed by the 2007 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which concluded that climate change is occurring and human activity is the cause. That seminal report, and the subsequent coverage and debate, split the country into two partisan camps, with Democrats generally accepting the scientific consensus and Republicans questioning or flat-out denying it.

Missing from the discussion is the perhaps the surprising, and rising, view of many scientists—that the UN climate panel gravely underestimated the immediacy and danger of global warming.

The IPCC process itself is partly, though not entirely, to blame. "It takes seven years to produce an IPCC report," says Thompson, who is also an IPCC author. "By the time it is published, the science is already dated ... and the models being used aren't accurately assessing how rapidly these changes are taking place."

There are real-world implications at stake, Thompson says. "We are in for tougher scenarios than what are being relayed in the reports."

A Flawed IPCC Assumption

The IPCC, the world's leading scientific body on global warming, is charged by the UN with assessing research and releasing periodic reviews of climate risks, which governments often use to set targets for cutting carbon emissions. In 2007, the panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore.

At the core of its assessments are IPCC "scenarios"—summaries of coming climatic conditions like global temperature and sea-level rise, which are based on a number of assumptions about future greenhouse gas emissions. One of those assumptions is that the world will make good on its carbon-cutting pledges.

Therein lies a key flaw, says John Reilly, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and an expert on climate economic models. Many nations have failed to take promised steps to slash global warming emissions, particularly China and the United States, the world's biggest polluters. Even in the European Union greenhouse gases are on the rise. Yet the IPCC doesn't account for this.

The result, says Reilly, is that emissions today are higher than what the IPCC predicted in 2007. The panel's middle-of-the-road scenarios, for example, estimate that the world would emit between 27 and 28 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010. In reality, 30.6 billion metric tons of CO2 were released that year, the latest figures available, says data from the International Energy Agency. While that may seem like a small difference to a lay person, climate experts say that small increases can steamroll into something much bigger.

What Newer Climate Models Show

In 2009, Reilly and his colleagues at MIT, along with researchers from Penn State, the Marine Biological Institute in Massachusetts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, decided to model forecasts for climate that assumed the world would continue with business as usual.

Their results, published in the June 2012 issue of Climatic Change and online last year, found that without major greenhouse gas cuts the median global temperature would increase by 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, compared to the IPCC's worst-case prediction of a 3.5 degree Celsius rise (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit). 

The study found that the Arctic would warm up to three times as much as was foreseen by the IPCC. There would also be more severe extreme weather events and greater ocean warming, sea-level rise and ocean acidification.

"The IPCC suite of scenarios provide ... a bit too rosy of a picture," says Reilly. "Our study shows that without action, there is virtually no chance that we won't enter very dangerous territory."

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