Entries tagged with “Climate Science Watch”.

I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over 13 months, and on twitter for maybe nine months.  I’ve found both venues tremendously productive – I feel like I have a whole new community to which I belong that has helped to expand my horizons and change some of my perspectives on development and aid.  Nearly every day I learn something from the folks I am connected to via these social media – and that is the highest praise I can offer anyone or anything.  I get bored easily, and when I am bored I get cranky.  My wife thanks you for keeping me interested and amused.

So, after 13 months I think I have a sense of the landscape around these here development/aid parts . . . and I am stunned to realize there is something missing.  How is this blog the only one I know of that engages both development and global environmental change at roughly equal depths?  Well, this one and Global Dashboard, sort of . . . I do like Global Dashboard, though.

Now, I can see why the aid/relief (as opposed to aid/development focused – see my parsing below) blogs really don’t spend a ton of time on climate change – mostly, they are coming from the front lines of work, the sharp end of the implementation spear, as it were.  Folks are caught in the immediacy of response to disaster, or buried in the myriad small tasks that can completely overwhelm staff at the implementation end of a recovery project.  There is an existential quality to these blogs, because there is an existential quality to that existence.  I can understand this.

Then there are the aid/development blogs – those that are focused on thinking about the long-term transition from poverty to something better for the global poor.  Yes, aid is part of how we address this challenge, but really development is about long-term social, economic and political transformation.  It does not unfold in rapid manner, and therefore lends itself to more protracted musings.  Further, because aid/relief is focused on an acute situation, there is a short time horizon for planning and thinking – ideally with some sort of handover to long-term development programs, though we all know this does not happen as often or as smoothly as anyone would like.  Aid/development, on the other hand, has a much longer time horizon – the intervention, ideally, should be producing results on a generational timescale (project reporting requirements aside, of course).  Yet even on these blogs, I see very little attention being paid to climate change or environmental change – though these are processes that are likely transforming the very future worlds we are planning toward with our development projects and policies.

Here’s the thing: both the relief and development communities need to be thinking about global environmental change. Period.

Today, my thoughts for the aid/relief blogs and thinkers – and I offer this with genuine sympathy for their situations as acute responders who are overburdened by various administrative requirements: climate/environmental change is not somebody else’s problem.  Nobody wants to hear this when they are on the front lines, as it were, but how we do relief and recovery has tremendous implications for global environmental change . . . and of course these changes will shape a lot of relief and recovery going forward.  I know that most relief agencies start from the mandate of saving lives – everything else is secondary to that.  I respect this . . . but it does not exclude the idea of thinking about and addressing environmental issues in their work.  If we are serious about saving lives, lots of lives, we’d better get ahead of the curve in thinking about future response needs – what is going to happen, and where.  For example, we expect to see ever-greater climate variability over the next several decades, which means that we are going to see less predictable weather, and perhaps more extreme weather events, in many places.  While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing of these events and the ranges of variability we might see, we are already coming to understand where some of the most acute changes are taking place (a lot of them in Africa, sadly) – and we can plan our resources for those areas.  At the same time, we see fisheries collapsing around the world, with huge impacts on the diets and well-being of onshore communities – we know exactly where these events are happening, and we know exactly why, so we certainly can plan for this slow onset emergency.

As we think about recovery programs, we will have to do more than put it back as it was (the common mandate) . . . we will have to help build something that has the flexibility and resilience to adapt to a changing future.  Neither of these efforts requires a fundamental rethinking of relief and recovery work, just some will to spend a few minutes BEFORE a disaster happens to think through how to address these challenges.

More difficult is thinking through the impact of our relief and recovery efforts on the global environment.  What we use for temporary shelters, how we move and dispose of rubble, where we procure food aid, all of these things and much more result in varying levels and types of environmental impact.  When we are busy saving lives in the here and now, I understand it can be hard to think about these issues – but many times we botch this part of the relief work, creating long-term environment and health issues that end up costing lives.  Our recovery work often recommends new land uses and agricultural strategies, which have ecological and greenhouse emissions ramifications.  We often suggest new livelihoods practices, which involve the use of new natural resources, and therefore introduce new environmental impacts with uncertain long-term ramifications. Someone needs to do an accounting of how many lives are saved in the immediate post-disaster setting by ignoring these issues, and how many are lost over the longer term by the impacts of ignoring these issues.  I am willing to wager that there are many cases were the long-term losses exceed the short-term saved . . . mostly because I am not all that convinced that considering such issues will really slow things down that much if we have decent forward planning.  This holds true even for the greenhouse emissions – I wonder how many extra tons of carbon we put out unnecessarily each year because we don’t consider the greenhouse implications of our relief/recovery work?  Further, I wonder if those emissions are contributing in a meaningful way to the climate change trends that we see globally, or if they are just tiny noise in a giant ocean of emissions.  If these emissions are the latter, then I think we are free to ignore them . . . but I don’t see anyone presenting that data.

So, to summarize for my aid/relief colleagues, despite your completely overtaxed, over-mandated and over-paperworked lives, you need to be reading blogs like Global Dashboard, Climate Science Watch, and RealClimate (OK, RealClimate is probably too technical).  You need to become aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and familiarize yourself with the Working Group 2 report (human impacts) – it gives you the scientific community’s best assessment of what the coming challenges are, and where they will occur.  When the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation goes public, that will be a crucial tool.  All the IPCC stuff is free for download, and written in relatively clear language (well, clear compared to the journals).  The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment might be useful, too – check the Current States and Trends report.  And, failing that, keep reading this blog – even the posts on climate change.  You’ll find them useful, I swear.

Next up:  the aid/development argument: seriously, I need to go over this? Fine, fine . . .

I recently had an e-mail exchange with Rick Piltz over at Climate Science Watch (I link to them regularly, and if you are not familiar with the site, you should check it out – it is an activist site that does very good work) about the whole Cucinelli circus.  At the end of that exchange, Rick mentioned that with the upcoming IPCC plenary the question of Patchauri’s leadership was once again on the table.  This got me thinking . . . and I shorthanded an answer to him that I think I can expand on here.

For those not neck-deep in the world of climate change, Rajendra Pachauri is the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The IPCC is the authoritative scientific body working on the issue of climate change – it is empowered to review the existing literature and evidence (it does not do its own research) and present what amounts to a summary of our best understanding of what is happening to the global climate and why it is happening.  (full disclosure: I have been appointed to the IPCC for this round as a review editor – basically, I will manage the peer-review process for one of the chapters).

The IPCC has come under fire quite a bit – in my opinion, mostly because the scientific story of climate change is getting clearer and clearer, and it is not a happy story.  However, there have also been screwups – for example, some of you may have heard how a completely unrealistic assessment of glacier melt in the Himalayas somehow got through review into the last IPCC report (this melt is important, as it tells us how much flooding to expect downstream (i.e. northern India and Bangladesh, among other areas) in the near term, and how much the river flows of the region will decrease once the glaciers have largely melted (potentially creating significant food crises in the same areas).  I wasn’t completely freaked out by this error – it is large document that is hard to manage, but the review process is very comprehensive.  It’s just not realistic to expect a review, compiled by hundreds of scientists and reviewed by hundreds more as well as representatives from the participating governments (including the US), to come together flawlessly in a reasonable timeframe.  However, when this popped up, the handling of it was botched – it was more or less the classic error: instead of identifying, acknowledging and fixing the error, at first the IPCC was seen to be stonewalling and trying to defend an undefendable statement. At one point, Pachauri issued a remarkably tone-deaf statement in which he effectively called India’s Environment Minister “arrogant” and dismissed the Indian Government’s report which seemed to contract the IPCC findings.  Even if the IPCC report had been correct in its claims, this could have been handled better.  However, the IPCC claims were wrong, and the Indian report was closer to the truth . . . which makes this a disaster.  The whole event badly damaged the legitimacy of the IPCC in some people’s eyes, and was fodder for those who would deny the role of human beings in climate change.  It was a PR disaster, really – the overall science of the report is, in my opinion (and it is an informed opinion) quite solid.  If nothing else, note that as the models of climate get more sophisticated, their results are mapping ever closer to observed reality . . . and the models are predicated on widely accepted understandings of the causes of climate change brought forth through exercises like the IPCC assessments.  Still, it was bad.

Add this to the fiasco from this summer (in which I’m afraid I was a visible participant), where the IPCC secretariat, in Pachauri’s name, issued guidance to members of the IPCC on how to interact with the press. The letter was astonishingly poorly worded to sound like those of us on the IPCC were not to speak to the press at all, when what was meant was that we were not to represent the entire IPCC report by ourselves to the press (in other words, we can speak to the press and say “in my opinion . . .” and be fine, but we cannot say “The IPCC says/believes/thinks . . .” because we do not speak for everyone on the IPCC).  The meaning of the message was completely innocuous, but the initial wording was very unclear, and set off something of a firestorm.

So, does tone-deafness qualify as a reason to throw the chairman under the bus?  Well, if you think that the chairman’s job is to be a media spokesperson, maybe it is.  But if the chair is to run the larger IPCC process, I don’t think replacing Pachauri changes anything – it’s just finding a scapegoat to make it look like the panel has been reformed or something – which I strongly object to, as I don’t think the IPCC needs reform.  The process is sound, the author selection is sound, the data is sound (yes, I know some people have issues with the data, but the vast majority of the scientific community does not – so I am going with them until such time as I see new evidence – though I remain open to new evidence, as our understanding of the climate as a complex system is incomplete, at best).  So replacing Pachauri might actually be read as an admission of guilt or problems with previous IPCC reports that I do not think exist – there is no systematic rot here.

Besides, this round of the IPCC has already started – the authors are selected, and the first plenary will meet soon.  So changing the chair now will do nothing but create administrative confusion.  And the importance of replacing Pachauri rests on the assumption that the chair has a lot of power – and the post does not, in the grand scheme of things.  In the end, the IPCC is an intergovernmental process, which means that the diplomatic process in large, key countries like the US greatly constrain and shape what the IPCC can do – probably more than the chair can.  You’ll notice an absence of calls for replacement from the diplomatic community, which tells you what they think.  More to the point, Pachauri still has his job – if any major country had an issue, he would be out.  For an illustration, take a look at what the Bush administration did to Bob Watson, the previous chair of the IPCC.  The Administration withdrew support for him (and there is documentary evidence to suggest that they did so because ExxonMobil really wanted him gone) and that was that.

So, in the end I vote to keep Pachauri in place.  I think he is sincere in his efforts to get outreach right, both in terms of his own statements and in terms of the dissemination of the IPCC reports.  He knows the process.  And the governments are, for now, backing him, so all of the demands for removal are going nowhere right now.  That said, I fear he may be one more public gaffe away from someone in the diplomatic world getting fed up and demanding a replacement . . . and that would not be good for the IPCC process during this assessment report.