One story helping to fill the quiet news days over Christmas was the unfortunate fate that befell the 2013 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, aboard the research ship Akademik Shokalskiy. The ship became trapped in the Antarctic ice on Christmas Day. Attempts by three different icebreakers to get through to the expedition ship have now failed, and the crew may need to be rescued by helicopter when weather conditions permit.
The trip was made to mark the centenary of the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1913. According to the website of the expedition leader, Professor Chris Turney, the aim is ‘to discover and communicate the environmental changes taking place in the south’. Helpfully, the ship has journalists from the Guardian, BBC and ABC Australia on board to transmit the expedition’s message, plus 22 volunteer science assistants who paid their own fare to be part of the trip along with 18 professional scientists. In other words, the expedition seems as much a piece of climate-change propaganda and activism as a research endeavour. Given how much has been said about disappearing ice at the poles, getting helplessly stuck in the ice may not be doing much for the expedition’s intended message.
Then again, it has not been a great year for climate-change activists. In the north, the long-term trend of Arctic ice reduction has been interrupted this year, with 50 per cent more ice there than last year. Given that some overheated commentators – including former US vice president Al Gore – had predicted the Arctic would lose all of its ice by 2013, that was a bit embarrassing. Global temperatures have remained stubbornly flat, with little sign of the apocalyptic planetary fever that rampant carbon-dioxide emissions should have been generating by now. In Warsaw, the latest round of global climate-change talks failed to make any progress on a new deal for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Still, that didn’t stop the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from issuing its Fifth Assessment Report with the statement that it is ‘extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-twentieth century’. Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the IPCC group that examines the physical basis to climate change, described climate change as ‘the greatest challenge of our time’.
The message from the IPCC, delivered, it seems, with brass balls, is that the science is settled, the debate is over, and everything must come second to tackling global warming. Except, science is never settled – it must remain open to new evidence and fresh challenges to accepted thinking, or else it collapses into dogma. More specifically, the fact that we don’t fully understand the climate system is illustrated by the fact that scientists can’t agree on why atmospheric temperatures are not rising. Some researchers even believe temperatures are still rising, just not where the thermometers are.