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No consensus among climate scientists after all

article published in The Australian October 14 2010

by Des Moore

Royal Society's report coincides with dissidence at the American Physical Society.

THE Royal Society's September report, Climate Change: A Summary of the Science, has brought into the open the widening difference of views about how the science of climate change should be assessed. It comes after a prominent resignation from the American Physical Society (the top body of US physicists) for the refusal of the society's executive to undertake a similar review despite requests from a large number of members.

In Australia, too, an examination of the Inter-Academy Council's review of the processes and procedures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that, although the council's chairman claims the IPCC's findings stand, the review itself exposes serious flaws in the panel's information and analysis. The examination by this group, which is a follow-up to its recent publication in the British journal Energy & Environment, is now being widely distributed in Australia.

All three assessments reflect the revelations provided by the exchanges between scientists actively involved in climate research - now known as Climategate - that some research results appear to have been falsified. These reports have spread widely in science circles in Australia. However, apart from The Australian, there has been almost no reference to these revelations in the Australian media. The Age, which had not bothered to cover the Royal Society's report, was quick to report that the Royal Society's vice-president John Pethica (who chaired the report committee) had rejected suggestions that the society had changed its position on climate change.

What Pethica said in responding to coverage in The Australian was: "There is no greater uncertainty about future temperature increases now than . . . previously indicated [and] the science remains the same, as do the uncertainties". He also refers to the report's conclusion that "There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the main cause of the global warming that has taken place over the past half-century".

What Pethica did not mention, however, is the report's statement that climate change "continues to be the subject of intensive scientific research and public debate" and that it divides the existing state of knowledge into three parts: science that is well established, where there is wide consensus but continuing debate, and where there remains substantial uncertainty. In fact it also states that "some uncertainties are unlikely ever to be significantly reduced". Beyond this, the report acknowledges "it is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future".

Other important attitudinal changes reflected in the report include the absence of any explanations of why, despite CO2 concentrations increasing over the course of the century, temperatures increased during only two periods: from 1910 to 1940 and from 1975 to about 2000; of why the report suggests projected increases in sea levels by 2100 that are lower than the upper estimate of the IPCC, 20cm compared with 59cm; and of why the report accords greater uncertainty to the causes of warming than does the IPCC in its 2007 report, where it is claimed as "very likely" due to human activity (which suggests a 90 per cent certainty). In fact, the Royal Society report offers no temperature ranges, no tipping point beyond which temperature increases are (supposedly) irreversible and (as noted) is uncertain about the possible extent of increases in temperatures.

Any careful reader of the report will acknowledge that it reflects the views of both sides of the debate on the science of climate change. Indeed, within the Royal Society a group of scientists during the past two years or so has been complaining to the executive that the society's claim of a consensus was untenable and contrary to science itself. The executive was eventually persuaded to undertake a review of the Royal Society's public position and representatives of the dissenting group were involved in the review.

Those representatives drew on exchanges with scientists in Australia and other parts of the world, and these are reflected in various parts of the report.

The challenge to the executive of the American Physical Society is to rescind its 2007 declaration that global warming represents "a dire international emergency". The large dissenting group there circulated a letter saying Climategate has revealed "an international fraud, the worst any of us have seen" and asking for the society's position to be put on ice until the extent of concern expressed at the Climategate revelations is clarified.

This dispute displays every sign of being ongoing.

With the increased problems with interpreting the science, it is not surprising that reports indicate the slow progress of climate change discussions in China and a dismal outlook for next month's international leaders' meeting at Cancun. This poses a serious risk that essential electricity investment here will not occur in time to prevent further precautionary price rises (on top of the already very large recent increases) and possible blackouts. In these circumstances, Australian governments need to provide a guarantee that investors in electricity generation will be compensated if generators or retailers are forced in the future to increase their prices because of carbon pricing policies. This is a matter that requires a decision at the Council of Australian Governments before the Gillard committee reports at the end of next year.

Des Moore, director of the Institute for Private Enterprise, is a former Treasury deputy secretary.

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