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What I’ve been reading

July 8th, 2008

Climate Code Red by David Spratt and Philip Sutton (more details here). This is a book that will doubtless be welcomed by those with a sceptical attitude towards the mainstream discussion represented by the IPCC, and makes many points that will be familiar from debates here – there’s more uncertainty in the IPCC models than is commonly recognised, important factors have been omitted, the intergovernmental process is subject to political constraints, emissions projections are problematic and so on. On a first reading, Spratt and Sutton make a pretty convincing case that the apparent scientific consensus position is well off the mark.

Of course, as the title suggests, Spratt and Sutton are arguing that both the likely rate and the likely consequences of global warming have been underestimated and that the measures being proposed by Stern, Garnaut and others are not nearly radical enough.

You don’t need to be fully convinced by Spratt and Sutton to realise an obvious point, particularly relevant for sceptics. Uncertainty about the IPCC position implies that the mainstream best estimate might be either too high or too low. This doesn’t support a case for inaction. In any reasonable estimate of expected costs and benefits, the risk that the IPCC estimates are too low and that we will experience catastrophic damage far outweighs the risk that we are too high and that money spent on mitigation will be wasted.

So, in another round of the great terminological debate, I’m willing to use the term “sceptic” to describe anyone who thinks that the IPCC has underestimated the range of uncertainty, and therefore advocates more radical action than is currently being proposed.

Coming back to the book, here are some quick points.

Exhibit #1 in the case for underestimation has been the rapid decline in ice cover in the Arctic. Spratt and Sutton, drawing on recent work by James Hansen and others suggest that the point at which the ice cap melts completely in summer (meaning, obviously that no ice more than a year old will remain) is only five years away. They propose a set of emergency measures aimed at stopping this happening.

Sad to say, while I’m a moderate optimist about action on climate change, I can’t see any possibility of an emergency response being adopted in time to prevent the melting of the Arctic ice cap, assuming that recent trends continue. A more reasonable hope is that the sight of open water at the North Pole will finally convince policymakers and the large section of the public who are still doubtful that we need urgent action.
(We can safely predict that some commentators will remain deluded even faced with such stark evidence. The UK Telegraph has already run the line that “[In the Middle Ages] There was little ice at the North Pole: a Chinese naval squadron sailed right round the Arctic in 1421 and found none.”)

And while Spratt and Sutton make good use of the rhetoric of emergency, their proposals are, in large measure, a beefed-up version of the standard. They suggest individual allowances for carbon. This would certainly dramatise the issue but, since the proposed allowances are tradeable, the practical implications would be the same as those of auctioning permits and return all the proceeds to the public through a universal fixed payment or demogrant. A rather more radical proposal is the suggestion of geo-engineering for aerosols, aimed at removing those (black soot) that enhance the greenhouse effect, while leaving alone, or even increasing concentrations of those that work the other way.

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  1. September 23rd, 2008 at 14:21 | #1

    “A more reasonable hope is that the sight of open water at the North Pole will finally convince policymakers and the large section of the public who are still doubtful that we need urgent action.”

    The sight of open water has caused urgent action but in the form of commercialisation. Oil, gas, shipping lanes, I suspect for some interests global warming can’t come fast enough.

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