Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Strange Climate Debate in Times

Last week came the news that scientists are predicting a decadal-scale plateau in temperatures or even a slight cooling of Europe and N. America probably related to shifting currents in the oceans. The long term forecast that mean global temperature will increase over the next century remains, but the research reminded us that global warming does not mean that temperatures on every square inch of the earth will increase in step, monotonously and uniformly. Dot Earth has a thoughtful post on whether we can use evidence of long-term risk of temperature increase and put in motion meaningful practical policy to reduce emissions of CO2 or will predictions about the short term variability of climate systems such as the coming cooling of Europe and N. America put the brakes on efforts to limit emissions. All current projections about India point to continued warming in the Indian subcontinent without any decadal-scale breathers.

Given this background the Times of India had a debate on climate change in its view and counter view format. The Times view was the consensus view that argued for continued action no matter how climate systems behave in the short term. I agree with this but was surprised to read the counter view. This was no subtle nuanced argument about complexities of climate systems and the economics of different policy options of combating global warming, but a full sucker punch in the face against the very notion of human-induced global warming. On second thoughts that such a polarized view was tabled should not have surprised me since the very format of the debate forces the counter viewer to take a completely opposite position no matter how ludicrous it might be. And ludicrous it was.

The argument was made not by a climate scientist- when will our media ever learn to engage experts- but by columnist Jug Suraiya! Now Mr. Suraiya is a well respected columnist but he is not a climate scientist and his lack of science training shows. He opens his argument not by referring to real science contradicting warming but by pointing out that the writer Michael Crichton has written a science fiction book that questions the human influence on global warming. I kid you not! Mr. Suraiya raises the bogey of a vast conspiracy involving tens of thousands of scientists, media, lawyers and NGO's all bent on getting their piece of the global warming funding pie. He then goes on to make some very strange remarks about the composition of the atmosphere essentially saying that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere compared with other gases is minuscule and that adding a little more presumable won't make a difference. He ignores the fact that while the relative proportion of CO2 compared with other gases is minuscule, CO2 along with water vapor are the major greenhouse gases and that calculations indicate that adding that "little more" CO2 is precisely what will overload the natural CO2 mass balance of the earth and cause warming. He then proceeds to dismiss the rise in surface temperatures of the earth as a sign of urban heat island effect. I frankly felt very irritated with the man. Does he really think that climate scientists are stupid and have not understood the heat island effect and not corrected for it and validated that correction? The terrestrial temperature measurements are also complimented by measurements of ocean temperatures which also have increased and those of the troposphere which satellite measurements show to have steadily increased too. Read too much Michael Crichton and you tend to forget the real data.

Mr. Suraiya finally regards the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps as natural inter-glacial phenomenon but then points out that the Greenland ice sheet has been growing for the last 6 thousand years. We are in an inter-glacial period and most of the glacial melting related to it took place in the first few thousand years of warming at the beginning of the Holocene period starting about 12 thousand years ago. Greenland ice sheet volume would have fluctuated as a response to the natural climate variability over the past few millennium and may even have grown a little over the last 6 thousand years, but what is important is the increased rates of glacial melting, both alpine glaciers and those in the Arctic and Antarctica that we observe today. For example current studies of the Greenland ice sheet indicate that net loss in ice volume of several glaciers has accelerated in the last few years. Climate scientists are afraid that there is a danger of continued decay of the Greenland ice sheet with attendant sea-level rise over the coming decades as Greenland and the Arctic ocean warms up. This is the point I think a lot of climate skeptics miss out on. It doesn't matter what natural trend existed over the last few thousand years, it is changes over the last 50 years and the next 100 years or so that are of importance and these changes in global temperatures and consequently sea-levels, the overwhelming evidence tells us are being caused by human activity.

I am all for debate on complex topics like climate change, global warming and societal response to it. But the debate should now move away from whether there is going to warming over the next century to how best to minimize it and adapt to it. And it's time that our media brings in climate and policy experts to talk about it.


  1. How do you feel the idea of polar cities would be accepted in India? would the media report it?

    see my blog and google the term

    {polar cities}



    danbloom GMAIL com

  2. Hi Dan-

    thanks for the link. You have developed an interesting concept. I am skeptical of extreme disaster scenarios such as these, but
    I think the Indian media would be interested if you give your story a migration angle wherein large Indian populations, perhaps farmers dislocated from their coastal lands or a water scarce Gangetic plains, move north to inhabit say the Russian arctic and start farming there. With a declining Russian population they will need people to work the land. You might need to re-engineer your buildings to suit Indian tastes :-)

  3. I totally agree with You that scientific debates should be written by experts on science. The amount of research that is going on in the field is awesome and i personally think that "Eminent" newspapers should take a serious stand on the issue of Global Warming rather than superficialising it.

  4. I defly see where you are coming from and believe me the first time i heard the counter argument I would have none of it !

    But please read the book "State of Fear". its not science fiction. Its a very well researched book and quotes innumerable sources. of course its got a dramatic story built in but the facts quoted are reliable in my opinion. You can confirm them on the net as well.

    The gist is that we humans donot have the knowledge or the ability to control the atmosphere. And most of the predictions made are based on mathematical models. But you can make your own conclusions after you read the book.

    the only thing I think we can do is to reduce the usage of fossil fuels which is a resource we are running out of.

  5. Like all science fiction books, Crichton's novel has a scientific theme and he refers to genuine science issues raised by climate change denialists. But that does not make his case believable. All the issues he has raised have been refuted by climate scientists.

    Referring to a fiction novel which cherry picks data and presents outlandish claims of a global conspiracy is in my opinion no way to present a scientific argument.