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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fossil fuels are to blame, world scientists conclude

Fossil fuels are to blame, world scientists conclude
A major international analysis of climate change due Friday will conclude that humankind's reliance on fossil fuels — coal, fuel oil and natural gas — is to blame for global warming, according to three scientists familiar with the research on which it is based.The gold-standard Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report represents "a real convergence happening here, a consensus that this is a total global no-brainer," says U.S. climate scientist Jerry Mahlman, former director of the federal government's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in New Jersey.
"The big message that will come out is the strength of the attribution of the warming to human activities," says researcher Claudia Tebaldi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.
Mahlman, who crafted the IPCC language used to define levels of scientific certainty, says the new report will lay the blame at the feet of fossil fuels with "virtual certainty," meaning 99% sure. That's a significant jump from "likely," or 66% sure, in the group's last report in 2001, Mahlman says. His role in this year's effort involved spending two months reviewing the more than 1,600 pages of research that went into the new assessment.
Among the findings, Tebaldi says, is that even if people stopped burning the fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas blamed most for the warm-up, the effects of higher temperatures, including deadlier heat waves, coastal floods, longer droughts, worse wildfires and higher energy bills, would not go away in our lifetime.
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"Most of the carbon dioxide still would just be sitting there, staring at us for the next century," Mahlman says.
"The projections also make clear how much we are already committed" to climate change, Tebaldi says, echoing the comments of more than a dozen IPCC scientists contacted by USA TODAY. Even if every smokestack and tailpipe stops emissions right now, the remaining heat makes further warming inevitable, she says.
The report will resonate worldwide because the current debate over global warming has been more about what is responsible — people or nature? — than about whether it is happening.
President Bush only recently has acknowledged the link, mentioning global warming in last week's State of the Union address. It was the first time he has included climate change in the annual speech before Congress. Bush called for developing renewable and alternative fuels.
The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. This will be its fourth climate assessment since 1990. The last one, in 2001, predicted average global temperatures would rise 2.5 to 10.4 degrees by the end of this century. The rise from 1901 to 2005 was just 1.2 degrees.
The report is the work of more than 2,000 scientists, whose drafts were reviewed by scores of governments, industry and environmental groups. The document is based on research published in the six years since the last report.
The analysis comes at a time when awareness of global warming in the USA and efforts to combat it are more intense than ever. Former vice president Al Gore's climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth scored two Oscar nominations last week. Meanwhile, some states and hundreds of American cities are taking steps to curb emissions that intensify the heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere.
Leaks about droughts, floods
Officially, the panel's 2007 findings are still under wraps, but details have been leaking out for a year, particularly in recent weeks.
News accounts have featured projections of more droughts, floods, shrinking glaciers and rising sea levels.
There is so much media attention now, "I almost think there won't be any surprises compared to six years ago," says Steve Running, a University of Montana ecologist. "When the report came out (in 2001) it was all 'new' news. This time, I think everybody will say, 'Well, yeah, that's already what we've been hearing about.'
"Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for the Climate Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says the studies underlying the report make the broad conclusions clear anyway. A 2005 Nature magazine study, for example, narrowed the 2001 estimate of warmer temperatures to an increase from 2.7 to 8.1 degrees by the year 2100.
Similarly, two Science magazine studies in 2005 of satellite and balloon measurements of temperature confirmed the Earth's atmosphere is warming exactly as predicted from human-caused increases in carbon dioxide.
Wave of new initiatives
What will be released this week is the first of three parts of the report: a scientific synthesis of global warming's physical manifestations that includes measurements and projections of temperature, precipitation, storms, wind, polar melting and sea levels. New this time is a chapter on paleoclimatology, the study of climate change from fossils and the reconstruction of data and clues going back hundreds of thousands of years.
In addition to the extensive scientific conclusions, which MacCracken says have been settled, a short "summary for policymakers" is still being hammered out and will be released Friday in Paris.
The second phase of the report is on the effects of those measured and projected changes and is due in April. A third group's work on ways to try to lessen those impacts is to be released in May.
The IPCC report lands amid a rush of climate-change developments. Sharing the spotlight:
•Congress. After winning a majority in the House and Senate in November's election, Democrats have climate-change bills in the works. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is creating a special committee on climate change. Next week, the House Science and Technology Committee will discuss the IPCC report.
•States. More than 12 states are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gases. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month ordered the world's first low-carbon limits on passenger-car fuels in the most populous state. The new standard would reduce the carbon content of transportation fuels at least 10% by the year 2020.
•Cities. More than 375 mayors who have signed pledges since 2005 to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in their communities launched a drive last week for major climate legislation in Congress this year. They represent 56 million people in all 50 states. The day after the State of the Union address, the U.S. Conference of Mayors announced global warming is No. 1 on its top-10 list of priorities.
•Industry. Ten major companies, including industrial giants General Electric, Alcoa and DuPont, joined four environmental and climate groups last week to demand swift passage of federal legislation to cut emissions that worsen warming. Their U.S. Climate Action Partnership says further delay only "increases the risk of unavoidable consequences … at potentially greater economic cost and social disruption."
In their own studies, Tebaldi and her colleagues at NCAR found broad agreement in climate projections for North America by 2100, including a rise in average temperatures from 3 to 9 degrees.
That could lead to more frequent heat waves and more warm nights when daytime temperatures linger longer after sundown, especially in the South and West, Tebaldi's group concluded. NCAR also says increasing rain would soak northern states but bypass the already dry Southwest, where drought would be more common except when torrential rains bring flash floods.
The IPCC report is likely to reflect climate uncertainties and disagreements, too. Scientists have strongly debated the last two years, without resolution, whether global warming intensifies hurricanes.
Rising sea levels are a huge concern for the USA because more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the coastlines, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 2001 report contained a wide estimate of the rise this century — from 3.5 inches to 34. MacCracken says that projection has fallen to about 20 inches or less.
Such a drop in the top estimate alarms glacier experts such as John Turner of the British Antarctic Survey, who was quoted in the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper as saying the low projection is "misleading." He says the low number accounts only for the heat-related rise of sea level and slow trickles from ebbing glaciers, and it ignores potential ice-sheet collapses in Antarctica or Greenland.
"Greenland is just a relic of the last Ice Age, after all, just jutting out into the Atlantic, frozen at latitudes further south than anything else," MacCracken says. "What might happen when it gets warmer?"
Are reports too cautious?
MacCracken contends past IPCC reports have been too conservative, partly by design, in warning about the dangers of climate change, especially sea level rise.
"Scientists don't like to be wrong, so they tend to discount the most uncertain things," MacCracken says. "And that's good, but policymakers and risk managers usually want to know the worst case, as well as the middle one, when they plan for things."
Every IPCC report has been controversial. When the 1995 report's economic analysis estimated that the worth of a human life in a developing nation is less than in developed ones, it triggered protests and sit-ins.
In 2005, federal hurricane researcher Chris Landsea resigned from the IPCC, suggesting its hurricane warnings were too overblown and "politicized."
Climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder has suggested that development and deforestation, rather than the burning of fossil fuels, are the main drivers behind global warming. He says on his climate-science website that the IPCC should recognize the importance of these other factors.
In contrast, Australian scientist Tim Flannery has complained in his 2005 book The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth that IPCC estimates downplay the impact of warming.
In Paris this week, the process of negotiating and revising the short summary is painstaking and "line by line," says Kevin Trenberth, one of the lead authors and climate analysis chief at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. More than 100 of the panel's 193 member nations are taking part in the negotiations on the summary, he says.
"They'll do a lot of rewriting. It's all going to change to cover the concerns of each nation," whether it's monsoons in India or polar bears in Canada, says MacCracken, who helped lead the USA's involvement in the IPCC in 1995 and 2001. The summary also must be translated in six official U.N. languages.
In 1995, MacCracken says, negotiations at the meeting in Madrid stretched from 8 a.m. to an hour past midnight.
"But luckily, it was Madrid," he adds, "so the restaurants were still open at 1 a.m."
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