by Zoe Kenny
Global warming has “very likely” been caused by humanity’s actions. This is one of the main conclusions of the fourth assessment report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released on February 2.
The IPCC’s assessment is that it is at least 90% sure that humanity has caused global warming, up from 66% certainty in 2001 when it released its last report. However, despite the media fanfare accompanying this announcement, the IPCC’s conclusions are nothing new.
A 2004 survey by Dr Naomi Oreskes published in Science magazine and made famous by Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, illustrates the level of scientific consensus on the human origins of global warming. The survey examined 928 peer-reviewed articles on global warming between 1993 and 2003 and found that none of them questioned the consensus among scientists that human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming.
The fact that it took the IPCC until 2007 to acknowledge this, when an increasing number of the world’s leading climate scientists believe there is a window of only 10 years to take decisive action on global warming, shows that the IPCC is lagging behind, rather than leading, on the fight against global warming.
The IPCC’s long delay on acknowledging the scientific consensus has also given credibility to the views of corporate-funded climate-change sceptics. In a report released on January 3, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) claimed that ExxonMobil (the most profitable fossil-fuel producing company in the world), channelled US$16 million between 1998 and 2005 to groups that seek to confuse the public on the science of global warming in a bid to delay action.
The UCS also released a survey on January 30 that revealed that 150 US government-employed climate scientists have experienced, or felt pressure, to remove the words “climate change” or “global warming” from their reports.
The IPCC report underlines many of the now-familiar, yet still horrifying, facts about global warming — more heat waves, increasingly severe tropical storms, water scarcity, desertification and the continued melting of the world’s ice will devastate the environment and will impact most on the poorest, and therefore most vulnerable, nations.
The report also notes the risks associated with “positive feedback loops”, one being atmospheric concentrations of water vapour, due to warming of the oceans, which intensifies the greenhouse effect. The report also acknowledged that global temperature rises will probably be higher than previously expected, with rises of between 2°C and 4°C almost inevitable, while anywhere up to 6°C cannot be ruled out.
However, despite this grim picture, some scientists have criticised the report for being “too rosy” for seriously underestimating possible sea level rises. The report states that sea level rises could be as little as 60cm by the end of the century rather than the 90cm predicted in previous reports.
Lonnie Thompson, an Earth sciences professor at Ohio State University, was quoted in the January 29 Chicago Tribune as saying the IPCC’s low sea level rise estimates are the result of the report not taking “into account [the melting of] the gorillas — Greenland and Antarctica”.
According to NASA data, Greenland has been losing 85 square kilometres of ice each year to melting. The Antarctic ice sheet is the world’s greatest mass of ice and is vitally important to the Earth’s weather patterns. If all its ice were to melt, this would raise sea levels by up to 70 metres.
The report’s assessment of potential melting in Antarctica is that, “Current global studies project the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and is expected to gain in mass due to increased snowfall”.
However, this assessment contradicts the findings of a group of scientists led by Dr John Turner from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), whose studies of Antarctic weather patterns were published in Science in 2006. Turner studied weather patterns between 1971 and 2003 and found that winter air temperatures above the continent had risen by more than 2°C over that period. This was “the largest regional warming on Earth at this level”, according to Turner.
In 2002, the 2000 square kilometre Larsen B ice shelf (weighing 500 billion tonnes) broke off and melted in just over a month. The BAS researchers also reported that in October 2006 another huge ice shelf collapsed into the sea in just over a month. The BAS study also expects that the Antarctic ozone hole, which had had a cooling effect on the continent, will disappear over the next 20 years, leading to further temperature rises of 5°-6°C.
The IPCC’s excuse is that Turner’s study was published after the cut-off date for consideration. However, as the world’s most comprehensive review of the current knowledge of global warming, in which 2500 experts examined thousands of scientific articles, the report’s conclusions will underpin the negotiations for phase two of the Kyoto Protocol process, due to take effect in 2012. The omission of the Antarctic findings could have serious ramifications for how the world deals with global warming.
Meanwhile, the annual $60 million World Economic Forum (WEF) gathering of top corporate executives, Western political leaders, and selected intellectuals and journalists, held in Davos, Switzerland, wound up on January 28. While much of the corporate media praised the forum for finally putting global warming at the “front and centre” of its discussions, “solutions” promoted at the WEF were more concerned with greenwashing corporate capitalism than rapidly cutting greenhouse emissions.
Nuclear power and “clean coal” technology were touted as the way forward, despite the fact that there is still no solution to safely storing nuclear power’s radioactive wastes, and ‘clean coal” is an undeveloped technology that even its promoters admit will not be ready to be used for at least another decade.
These two “solutions”, however, guarantee profits for key sections of the corporate elite, providing new contracts for the previously floundering nuclear power companies and continuing investment in coal-powered electricity generation.
The creation of a global carbon trading market was also one of the key goals of WEF. However, this certainly isn’t because of carbon trading’s effectiveness at curbing CO2 emissions, which it has so far failed to do, but rather the growing realisation that carbon trading is highly profitable.
On January 22, Reuters reported that a Citigroup study released that day noted that “even ‘dirty’ power companies can profit from carbon markets, citing the example of [Germany’s] RWE AG, one of Europe’s biggest power-producing companies.
“Under the EU carbon trading program — the bloc’s main climate change strategy — power companies get a certain quota of greenhouse gas emission permits for free, but still pass on the price at which they trade to consumers, bagging a profit.”
“Despite emitting about 90 million tons of carbon dioxide (in 2005), or about 10 percent of Germany’s total, this ’dirty’ utility has been enjoying windfall profits.”
Even business leaders in the US, who were previously dead-set against carbon trading, have begun to formally lobby the Bush administration to adopt this approach for fear that they will lose out on securing their slice of profits from the global carbon market. Duke Energy, the third largest US coal-fuelled power generator and fourth largest US nuclear-power generator, will be a part of the WEF initiative to speed up the creation of a global carbon trading regime.
Blair covers for Bush
At the WEF, British PM Tony Blair emphasised the need for a “more radical” post-2012 Kyoto agreement that commits the US, China and India to binding emission-reduction targets.
However, the almost equal pressure being applied to these countries obscures the vastly unequal contribution that have made to the global warming problem or their capacities to fund solutions to it.
The US is the world’s largest single CO2 emitter, accounting for a quarter of world-wide emissions. It also shares a far greater proportion of responsibility for past emissions. The US’s unmitigated use of fossil fuels has allowed it to develop into the wealthiest nation on Earth.
Blair also spoke of a “quantum shift” in the mood in the US, referring to President George Bush’s January 23 State of the Union speech in which he called for a 20% cut in US petroleum usage over the next 10 years. However, the US has been attempting to steer the IPCC away from advocating binding emission-reduction targets and to include comments in its report about the “benefits” of voluntary reductions as well as other criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol.
Washington has also lobbied for alternatives to cutting emissions to be included in the IPCC’s report, arguing for Bush’s smoke-and-mirrors scheme of “modifying solar radiance” as an alternative solution “if mitigation of emissions fails”. The January 27 Johannesburg Mail & Guardian reported that US representatives on the IPCC proposed “putting a giant screen into orbit, thousands of tiny, shiny balloons, or microscopic sulphate droplets pumped into the high atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption.”