17 March 2009

Climate crisis: how do scientists cope?

What haunts scientists most is the feeling that despite an overwhelming consensus on the science, they are not able to convey to a wider public just how close Earth is to climate catastrophe.

But even if it is urgent to let the world know just how bad it could be, there is also a danger of frightening people into inaction, said other scientists.

"I do worry that people just can't deal, psychologically, with the enormity of the problem, and that they may revert to doing nothing," said William Howard, a researcher at the University of Tasmania.

Climate change blues: how scientists cope
Marlowe Hood Yahoo News 16 Mar 09;
COPENHAGEN, (AFP) – Being a climate scientist these days is not for the faint of heart, as arguably no other area of research yields a sharper contrast between "eureka!" moments, and the sometimes terrifying implications of those discoveries for the future of the planet.

"Science is exciting when you make such findings," said Konrad Steffen, who heads the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado.

"But if you stop and look at the implications of what is coming down the road for humanity, it is rather scary. I have kids in college -- what do they have to look forward to in 50 years?"

And that's not the worst of it, said top researchers gathered here last week for a climate change conference which heard, among other bits of bad news, that global sea levels are set to rise at least twice as fast over the next century as previously thought, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk.

What haunts scientists most, many said, is the feeling that -- despite an overwhelming consensus on the science -- they are not able to convey to a wider public just how close Earth is to climate catastrophe.

That audience includes world leaders who have pledged to craft, by year's end, a global climate treaty to slash the world's output of dangerous greenhouse gases.

It's as if scientists know a bomb will go off, but can't find the right words to warn the people who might be able to defuse it.

French glaciologist Claude Lorius, one of the first scientists to publish, in 1987, evidence that global warming was real, has despaired of getting the message across.

"At first, I thought that we could convince people. But there is a terrible inertia," he told AFP. "I fear that society is not up to the challenge of a crisis like this. Today, as a human being I am pessimistic."

John Church, an expert on sea levels at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart, Tasmania, takes an equally dim view of our collective capacity for denial.

"Perhaps society has realised the seriousness, but it certainly hasn't realised the urgency," he said.

"But even if you are pessimistic -- and sometimes I am -- it does not help. What are you going to do? Chop off your hands and give up? That's not a solution either," he said.

Most scientists, while no less alarmed by snowballing evidence of a planet out of kilter, still think there is time to act.

"We are actually going to have to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere if we want to stabilise climate and avoid some highly undesirable effects," said James Hansen, director since 1981 of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "It is still possible to do that."

Some of those undesirable effects include massive droughts, more intense hurricanes and a panoply of human misery including expanded disease and tens of millions of climate refugees.

Even gloomier scenarios see a world map redrawn by sea levels rising tens of metres and a planet able to sustain only a fraction of the nine billion people projected to become, as of 2050, Earth's stable population.

But even if it is urgent to let the world know just how bad it could be, there is also a danger of frightening people into inaction, said other scientists.

"I do worry that people just can't deal, psychologically, with the enormity of the problem, and that they may revert to doing nothing," said William Howard, a researcher at the University of Tasmania.

"As a scientist, I deal with climate change on a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years, and even I have a hard time dealing with it," added Howard, who reported last week that tiny marine animals called forams are losing their capacity to absorb huge amounts of carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

"The risk is that when science pumps out more and more evidence that we are facing dangerous tipping points" -- triggers that would make climate change irreversible -- "that you put your head in the sand and move from denial to despair," said Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Hanging over the conference proceedings like an invisible cloud were the apocalyptic predictions of the monstre sacre of Earth sciences, 90-year-old British scientist James Lovelock.

A true iconoclast, Lovelock commands respect because he understood decades before his peers that Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating system composed of physical, chemical and biological components, a concept he dubbed the Gaia principle.

In his just-released book "The Vanishing Face of Gaia", he basically says we have already passed a point of no return, and that it is now impossible "to save the planet as we know it."

"Efforts to stabilise carbon dioxide and temperature are no better than planetary alternative medicine," he wrote.

It is perhaps telling that more than a dozen scientists interviewed could only say that they hoped Lovelock was wrong.

None could say -- based on the science -- that they knew he was wrong.

Connecting Science and Policy to Combat Climate Change
The scientific infrastructure erected to identify global warming may find itself impotent to ensure that emissions will be cut and civilization will adapt
Todd Neff, Scientific American 17 Mar 09
Tricky diagnoses abound, whether the field is medicine, auto repair or high finance. For climate change the problem is magnified: Those who have spent decades diagnosing the problem have no power to write the prescription.

Scientists have the knowledge, but politicians and social institutions hold the power. Channels between them are rudimentary at best, many analysts say. Without a fundamental shift in emphasis, they caution, the scientific infrastructure so painstakingly erected to identify the problem will find itself impotent to ensure that global warming will be mitigated and civilization will adapt to its inevitable impacts.

"It's not clear to me that climate science has ever been well-aligned with social institutions that will have to respond to climate change," said Daniel Sarewitz, director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. "What we're beginning to see now, as the debate over the first-order conclusions of climate change science wanes, is that the two actually have nothing to do with each other."

Take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: The world authority on climate change synthesizes disparate scientific findings on climate from around the globe. Those summaries by mandate must remain "policy neutral."

And so the IPCC and other scientific bodies offer little guidance to policy makers confronting the daunting pressures and details of a disrupted climate, whether it be fortifying levees, shifting energy policy, capping emissions or moving low-lying villages.

The solution, many experts agree, is a new level of cooperation on all political levels, from county commissions on up through the United Nations.

Where to start?

At the top is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. Created at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the convention is more famous for its 1997 addendum known as the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto established concrete targets for reducing heat-trapping gases, with industrialized nations pledging to cut emissions to an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States did not sign it.

Kyoto has plenty of controversy: Only a third of global emissions are subject to the protocol; Greenhouse-gas emissions actually rose 24 percent from 1990 to 2004; China, now the world's leading producer of heat-trapping gases, faces no limits. But it also provided leadership and binding international targets. In countries that signed the treaty, Kyoto has helped spur renewable-energy subsidies, tougher energy-efficiency standards and the European Climate Exchange, a cap-and-trade market for emissions credits.

Diplomats have been ramping up for a post-Kyoto climate treaty for years. Talks in Poznan, Poland in December 2008 yielded little more than pledges to keep talking.

All hopes on a Kyoto successor now rest on this December's UN conference in Copenhagen. But American politics will probably get in the way, said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

"If the U.S isn't ready to take a position, others won't, either," he said.

Domestic legislation would have to be passed first, Diringer said. But a key senator, Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, has said Congress is not likely to tackle the issue before 2010, given the financial crisis and other priorities. Still, Diringer said, he thinks Copenhagen could yield a concrete path forward with specific agreements to be negotiated.

"You could legitimately argue that the UNFCCC should be – and is likely to be – the place where things come together," he said. "But it won't all come from there."

Given the disarray at the top, some are looking to drive change from the grassroots, starting with education.

"The real answer is to not let anybody grow up anywhere in the world without realizing that their lives depend on ecosystem services, and that the availability of ecosystems services is tied quite tightly to how many people there are, how much one consumes and what kind of technologies are used to service that consumption," said Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford University professor of population studies.

"We've got to figure out how to change people's attitudes more rapidly, or, to use a technical term, we're screwed." Then there is the vast middle, in which global and national leadership meets corporate, local and consumer choice. Looking at the United States in particular, much is afoot, but with little coherence.

A few examples:

• Buildings consume 40 percent of our energy, yet building codes for energy efficiency, established locally, are all over the map.
• Two regional efforts hope to trim emissions, with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 northeastern states launching last September and the Western Climate Initiative of seven western states and four Canadian provinces expected in 2012.
• Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have their own renewable portfolio standards requiring varying portion of their electricity to be derived by renewable sources by different dates.
• A hodge-podge of state efforts seek to decouple electricity consumption from utility profits, encouraging utilities to promote energy-saving efforts rather than sell more power.
• A coordinated federal effort on energy policy, as outlined by President Barack Obama, is a good place to start, said Stanford climatologist Steve Schneider. Aggressive federal financial incentives and loan guarantees could prop up emerging renewable-energy industries.

"That doesn't require new institutions; it requires political will," Schneider said. "The institution called Congress can do it with the institution called the West Wing."

But the states must stay involved, says Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor of energy policy. "They're the only ones who really understand the unique aspects of their situations," she said.

At the same time, Brown said, a federal body – perhaps a better-empowered version of the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program – could serve as a sort of clearing house to disseminate the best models and approaches.
Finally, there's the need to think big.

Federal enticements and state networks are good, but history hints at more far-reaching efforts. During the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War America made the decision to out-compete the Soviet Union along many fronts, said Sarewitz, the director of Arizona State's science and policy consortium.

"It wasn't a matter of having the biggest weapons – it was a matter of having the most vibrant and diverse innovation system."

The United States made huge strides in computer and material science, developing both the modern telecommunication and semiconductor industries through formal and informal alliances among government, academia and the private sector, Sarewitz said. But whether history can repeat itself – or what regimes will take shape in efforts to solve the problems global warming presents – is anybody's guess.

"I guess I'd be suspicious of anybody who knows the answer," Sarewitz said. "There are going to be many answers, and also many dead ends."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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