‘The IPCC goes looking for bad news’

An Australian academic who worked on the latest IPCC report says it overstates scary weather scenarios and understates man’s ability to adapt.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Aynsley Kellow, the head of the School of Government at the University of Tasmania who was recently involved in contributing to the latest IPCC report, is checking into a hotel in Melbourne when I call. ‘Can you give me 10 minutes?’ he asks. A few minutes later, a more settled Kellow has established camp in his room. ‘I’m checked in and room service is on the way. We have a window of opportunity’, he chuckles. I’d better make this quick. As an interviewer, you need to be adaptable.

‘Adaptability’ is a quality underappreciated by others, however. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the latest section of its fourth assessment report in early April. After the release of the summary for policymakers (SPM) in February, which covered the scientific basis of climate change, April’s report looked at the possible impacts of warming. It was resolutely gloomy stuff.

Among the highlights, there were claims of: increased risk of flooding and drought; the retreat of glaciers, causing areas supplied by meltwater to struggle for water; damaged ecosystems with increased risk of extinctions; increasing food output at higher latitudes offset by lower output nearer to the equator – meaning increased risk of hunger; adverse effects for aquaculture and fisheries; increased coastal erosion and coastal flooding; and an overall negative effect on industry and society.

Then we get on to the health effects: increasing malnutrition and stunted child growth; increased death and disease through heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and drought; greater diarrhoeal disease; more cardio-respiratory disease due to increased ground-level ozone; altered distribution of infectious disease vectors. In passing, we are told that there will be fewer deaths due to cold in temperate areas, but even this piece of good news will, apparently, be outweighed by the rising number of deaths in warmer areas.

Kellow, who before heading up government studies in Tasmania was Professor of Social Sciences in the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University, is less than impressed. ‘They really do emphasise the bad news. They’re looking for bad news in all of this. This will be a warmer and wetter world according to the models. But if you look at this report, which is still to be finalised, it would seem that no rain will fall in any form that’s at all useful. You’ll have droughts, torrential rain, storms.’

According to the scenarios on which the climate models are based, the developing world will go through an enormous economic leap forward over the next century – and apparently this will have many deadly consequences. Kellow is not convinced by such claims: ‘The IPCC is assuming rates of economic growth that dwarf the nineteenth-century success of the USA, the twentieth century in Japan and so on. The USA experienced, I think, a ninefold increase in GDP per capita; these are making assumptions about 30-fold increases. So you can question their credibility. But if you do that, you’re questioning the emissions scenarios that are driving the climate models.’

There seems to be a contradiction in the IPCC’s thinking. It believes developing countries will experience potentially enormous growth rates over the next 100 years – yet it treats these countries as being just as vulnerable to droughts, floods and so on as if they were trying to tackle the symptoms of climate change in their present poverty-stricken condition. Either the IPCC has overestimated the growth, in which case climate change is likely to be less severe – or it has got the growth rates right (and certainly a 30-fold increase in output in the Third World would be welcome) and these countries will therefore be more likely to have the resources to cope with climatic change.

Even if the growth rates are overstated, the countries worst-affected, according to this latest report, will still be in a very different position from today. As the policy analyst Indur Goklany notes in a wide-ranging critique of the IPCC’s April report, not only will these countries be richer than today; they will also benefit from the cheapening of current technologies and the creation of new ones (1).

There is something almost Malthusian in the IPCC’s line that growth-induced climate change will cause more and more problems in the developing world yet the people who live there will be unable to deal with it. Population-panickers have long taken the approach of assuming that while population rises rapidly, development crawls along, so that the ability to provide the growing population with the things it needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare etc) rises much more slowly. This simplistic scare scenario allows them to come up with all sorts of horror stores about starvation, destitution, war and so on. Now, some around the IPCC claim that while economic growth will cause deadly variations in weather, it apparently will not improve societies’ ability to deal with change in any meaningful way. Again we have a scary variable (climate) and an inexplicable constant (our inability to come up with solutions); and again this is used to warn of terrible events in the future.

To illustrate how even quite small material differences can be more important than physical conditions, Kellow tells me about research led by Paul Reiter, a tropical disease expert currently working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Reiter’s team compared rates of dengue infection in two towns, Laredo in Texas and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico, which are separated by a river that marks the US-Mexico border. Climate and the presence of mosquitoes were very similar in both towns, yet rates of dengue in the Mexican town were higher. The differences were caused by different levels of adaptation to heat in the two towns. In the American town, air conditioning was more common and flyscreens were in better repair. Consequently, inhabitants of Laredo, Texas, were more likely to seek cooler conditions indoors and thus avoid exposure to mosquitoes that might carry disease.

Even though he has participated in the IPCC process (he was a referee for Chapter 19 in the IPCC’s report, which covers ‘Key Vulnerabilities and Risk Assessment’), Kellow is exasperated by the way in which critical responses to chapters are dealt with. He has noted elsewhere the criticisms he made to the IPCC about the way in which negative effects are overstated and the ability to adapt is understated. Yet he says: ‘I’m not holding my breath for this criticism to be taken on board, which underscores a fault in the whole peer review process for the IPCC: there is no chance of a chapter [of the IPCC report] ever being rejected for publication, no matter how flawed it might be.’

Now, even though Kellow has expressed public disagreement with the summary for policymakers, and the chapters that it flows from, he will still be listed as having taken part in the process – with the implication that he agrees with the final reports and is one of those thousands of experts who have apparently shown beyond all doubt that climate change will wreak havoc on the world.

For Kellow, the IPCC process is hopelessly politicised. ‘The scientists are in there but it is, after all, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The scientists are there at the nomination of governments. Governments fund the exercise and sign-off on it ultimately’, he tells me. Kellow sees more mileage in the Asia-Pacific Partnership or AP6 (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States), which takes the approach of developing new technologies rather than adopting the Kyoto approach of emissions reductions.

He says: ‘The emphasis on CO2 suits largely post-1990 decarbonised European economies worried about justifying high levels of taxation, energy security policies and so on. It doesn’t suit those with ample coal supplies at a quarter of the cost of producing coal in Europe – which includes India and China. There’s a very European slant to Kyoto.’

There’s a knock on his hotel door. His room service has arrived. The ‘window of opportunity’ for our interview has closed. While wishing Kellow ‘bon appetit’ I wonder how much longer the window of opportunity will remain open for a critical approach to the IPCC and its alarmist interpretation of climate change.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Woudhuysen and Kaplinsky explored ‘how the IPCC’s fairly sober summary of climate science has been spun to tell a story of Fate, Doom and human folly’ in A man made morality tale. Brendan O’Neill interviewed Martin Durkin, director ofThe Great Global Warming Swindle in Apocalypse my arse. Frank Furedi examined how climate change politics is Corrupting the curriculum and Lee Jones looked at how the government is turning children Green with fear. Rob Lyons looked at how climate change is seen as a warlike emergency in ‘Your planet needs you!’ Or see spiked-issue: Environment.

(1) Accentuating the Negatives: the IPCC Working Group II summary for policymakers, Indur Goklany [pdf]

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