Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

Putting some perspective on ‘Climategate’

April 13, 2010

This post is a reply to Claudio Ruiz-Spohn’s Facebook comment on my United Youth Development Organization article Climate Change Information Mismanagement. I felt it warranted a reply.

First of all, here is Claudio’s comment:

Of course it is. Misinformation on purpose. Read the leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia – therein you will will read, first hand, about the key scientists, working on behalf of the IPCC, and the exact communications which state how the climate change data has been and is being manipulated to arrive at the conclusion that global warming is made-made.

The result of this prefabricated data is: global tax on anything (ranging from the production of your plastic pencil sharpener to how many kids you can have), tax = control over any person and their actions, complete management of any economy, definite stunting to growth of 3rd world countries and reduction in poverty/hunger. Any some of the richest people on the Earth will become even more incredibly vastly richer.

Just Google it, there’s tonnes of information out there:…
e.g. just one:

Thanks Claudio for that post. Not quite the intention of the initial shout, but better some tangental reaction than no reaction.

My initial shout aside, which was about how environmental and development practitioners do not make adequate use of available information about climate change, and incidently needs an urgent update, which I will endeavour to post soon, here’s my reaction to your post:

The emails emerging from University of East Anglia (UEA) are shocking and regrettable.

It is shocking to see the level of misdirection some scientists deem necessary to protect what they see as truth about climate change and its anthropogenic cause (a theory confirmed by overwhelming evidence). It is shocking that they resort to hiding data that conflicts with the consensus from the media and the non-scientific public, for fear that they will misinterpret it.

And it is regrettable because their actions have damaged the climate change expert community in ways that the raw data never would have. It has damaged the reputation of organisations reaching far beyond UEA itself, including the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I don’t have faith in the IPCC, because faith has nothing to do with it. I do have a strong confidence in its work.

The IPCC brings together the work of thousands of scientists, geographers, and social scientists from around the world to provide a state-of-the-science collation of the best global understanding of climate change and its impacts. No-one gets paid to provide research for the IPCC’s reports. Researchers get paid through their ‘day-job’ positions at universities and research centres around the world to conduct studies. The studies are often published in peer-reviewed journals years before appearing in IPCC material (see bottom of post for explanation of the peer review process). The IPCC then picks from the existing research papers with the greatest methodological merit, through further peer-review, to appear substantively unchanged in its collation reports (the Assessment Reports). The final stage of the IPCC report-writing process is to produce synthesis presentations that summarise the thousands of pages of research. These syntheses are what most people who are not professionally involved with climate change turn to.

Given these existing checks and balances, it is important not to get carried away by the UEA emails. What the emails show is that some scientists worry so much that data that conflicts with the consensus conclusions of the IPCC will be misconstrued by the general public and media, that they are willing to abandon the proper way of dealing with such data in favour of subversion. The irony is that in doing so, and by being found out, they have undermined the IPCC evidence in a way that the raw data never could have. They have fed the ‘climate-deniers’ with ammunition to put into disrepute the entire system. Scientists tend to be their own worst enemies.

Although these scientists were by all standards foolish and weak, it is not hard to see why they may have thought their actions were a good idea. Look at how the media deals with data! The details of science is boring for most people. Non-scientists might like the big scientific stories, but they are not interested in the details.

When scientists find data conflicting with a hypothesis they consider probably true, they know that the data might be due to a methodological weakness, or revealing a special case, or at its strongest warrants a reformulation of the hypothesis that is being put into question. They know how rare it is for one set of data to overthrow an entire theory that has been confirmed by thousand of other methodologically sound studies. But most non-scientists don’t necessarily (care to) understand that, and might prefer the adventure of a huge theory being overthrown, especially if it supports them not having to make a change in their lifestyles, as is the case with climate change. So in the hands of non-scientists, the kind of data that UEA had has potent destructive effect, not scientifically destructive, but politically destructive – which in the case of climate change is just as important. And the media acts as a multiplier for the popular, non-scientific opinion and data distortion.

So in fear of the data being misunderstood, a few foolish scientists at UEA tried to hide it to avoid harming the conclusions of the IPCC. Only it backfired. Monumentally. Let’s note that atmospheric and oceanic scientists and climatologists have had fairly firm confirmation of global, anthropogenic climate change for over 20 years (IPCC was founded in 1989 to compile existing research). So for what has been pretty well understood for a long time by natural scientists to be finally accepted in the mainstream is not something that they want to abandon lightly.

What would have been the appropriate way of dealing with this conflicting data? It would have been to submit it for publishing, have the wider expert community consider it through peer-review, and then either have it rejected if methodological weaknesses were found or if the findings were statistically insignificant, or if the methodology was sound, publish them to counter-weigh the consensus evidence.

Such counter-weight evidence does exist and is presented in the full IPCC reports, and is certainly not omitted (as UEA behaviour, if generalised, suggests). This is not however always apparent from the synthesis reports because the counter evidence is limited and offset with the overwhelming evidence in favour of anthropogenic climate change, and the synthesis reports reflect this net balance.

In conclusion, I am, like you shocked and appalled by the UEA scientists’ actions. But by avoiding the media spin and by considering the IPCC’s process, I continue to have strong confidence in the IPCC and their findings that we are experiencing unprecedented, anthropogenic, global climate change. My original post suggests nothing on the contrary.

Climate change is not a conspiracy to deny us a libertarian ideal by creating some bogus sense of responsibility to our children to ensure our growth is sustainable. Rather, climate change reveals that we do have such a responsibility, no matter how difficult that might be to swallow.

With regard to the right for poor countries to develop, climate change poses immense challenges to this. Unfortunately, wishing climate change away is not going to make these challenges disappear. The sooner ‘climate deniers’ spend time to understand the process that has brought about the overwhelming, global, scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, and realise that the UEA scandal is not representative of the evidence, the sooner we can have constructive conversations about how we can navigate the political minefield of political climate change negotiations to help poor countries lift themselves into prosperity despite climate change.

On peer reviewing: Peer-reviewing is the process where a researcher’s output is reviewed critically by other global experts in the same field. Given the relatively small size of expert communities in a given field, peer reviewers are not uncommonly past colleagues, collaborators and academic rivals of the researcher under review. However, strict guidelines regarding conflict of interest and anonymity limit review bias. Only if the panel of peer reviewers clear the research output, does it get published.


Climate Change Information Mismanagement

December 6, 2009

Momentum is building in the development and environmental management sectors to integrate climate change considerations into programme design and implementation. In Nepal, the focus is firmly on building adaptation capacity, across sectors and at all administrative levels.

The Nepal government, in consultation with the United Nations and other stakeholders, is working on their National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA), which promises to be a much more capacity-building exercise than the process in other Less Developed Countries. International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) with their local partners are also mainstreaming climate change adaptation into their high-profile programmes, and some are considering new adaptation-specific interventions. These INGOs include WWF, Practical Action, Oxfam, Concern International and Care International, and local partners include Resource Identification and Management Society Nepal (RIMS-Nepal) and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD).

Knowledge generation in the form of information gathering and management is playing a central role in these early days of climate change action in Nepal. Most of the current INGO projects are impact assessments. The NAPA process is similarly oriented, although also puts a strong emphasis on building institutional capacity for future intervention.

Most impact assessments take a participatory approach, stressing the importance of identifying socio-economic vulnerability to possible climate change impacts. Little time or effort is expended on considering the physical hazard context. There are many valid, practical reasons for this. In the case of localised scientific studies, such as regional hydrological and atmospheric simulation experiments and local ecological field assessments, these require technical expertise and financial resources often not available in Nepal.

However, there is substantial scope and feasibility for synthesis research of available information. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an obvious starting point for information on past climatic trends and future projects, and can be complemented by the wealth of disaster risk reduction and natural resource management knowledge available. Some such synthesis research is being carried out, by the NAPA team in particular, but it is not widespread enough. Synthesis of climate change-specific information such as that which is available from the IPCC is especially lacking, as the evidence of currently available impact assessments, and published presentations from important stakeholders, reveals. Reports often only begin with a short section on climate change in the context of Nepal, making unsupported statements about present and future hazard context changes, with only general reference to the IPCC, if any citation is included at all.

This exposes serious methodological weaknesses. Firstly, the onset of climate change is generally assumed as a starting point of impact assessments rather than confirmed as part of the assessment. This leads assessment teams to begin their participatory socio-economic assessments without a firm grasp of data-confirmable historical trends. The result is that trends in physical hazard context are assessed using inappropriate approaches such as participatory tools.

Secondly, consideration of downscaled simulation models is omitted, their assumed limitations at the local level used as a convenient excuse to avoid exploring what value they might have despite weaknesses. This is no doubt driven by a lack of confidence on the part of assessment teams to invest into understanding the complex and diverse uncertainties of numerical modelling.

Lastly, because of the two issues above, reports find themselves with precious little to report in the introductory sections that are meant to provide a concrete basis for their assessments. The IPCC is broadly referenced as a stop-gap, leading to the mystification of the Panel, and only adding to the confusion that shapes the climate change debate in the public and political spheres.

Private Capital to Finance Climate Change

November 3, 2009

The latest World Bank calculations of the cost of climate change mitigation and adaptation confirm previous studies by the UN, and the recent IIED report, that there is a crisis in climate change funding. Even if the global economy were in a healthier shape, the challenge of covering the costs of weaning it off greenhouse gas emitting technologies and adapting to the already changing climate would be enormous.

Developing countries are facing the most acute difficulties. More socio-economically vulnerable to climate change than industrialised countries, and with less financial and technical capacity to adapt, developing countries also face the greatest barriers to changing their carbon-dependence to a more sustainable, yet still developmental, course. Again, lack of financial and technical capacity play a fundamental role.

Diverse stakeholders in the development and environment sectors have made their opinions heard in the lead up to Copenhagen. Governments must make unprecedented commitments to increase climate change funding to developing countries. But given the figures – WB estimates mitigation costs in developing countries at $140 – $675 billion and adaptation costs at $75 billion (an underestimate according to IIED’s report), while presently available funding stands at $8 billion and $1 billion respectively – it seems futile to expect public finance to be able to cover these costs.

The potential for private capital to play a leading role is not only seemingly necessary but, maybe surprisingly, it looks feasible. Given the right incentives by inter-governmental policy, private investment in clean technology development (for mitigation) and alternative economic activities (for adaptation) could make for an attractive profit-making proposition. A strong commitment to tax dirty businesses and possibly also dirty investment across borders, multi-laterally guaranteed bonds hedging otherwise risky clean investment (in otherwise risky countries), and the widespread adoption of a ‘green rating’ akin to credit ratings to help with signaling are all instruments that governments could agree on in December to push their limited public coffers to stimulate private capital not only to foot the bill, but also turn a profit.

In any case, a desperately needed first step to stimulate privately financed climate change mitigation and adaptation is a firm commitment signal from leaders in December. Policy over-shooting is probably a good way of sending that signal, though it must avoid regulation that might constrict the formation of mainstream green markets.

What is Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change?

June 2, 2009

Addressing climate change: Mitigation and adaptation

In developed countries much of the climate change discourse has focused on mitigation. Primary concerns have revolved around how to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions down to appropriate levels in order to halt climate change.

However the earth’s climate is responsive to greenhouse gases that have built up over time, and there is a delay between the time of emission and the experience of the effects of climate change.

The effects of climate change caused by a build up of greenhouse gases over the last century are already being felt presently in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world, and even if we cut greenhouse gas levels to appropriate levels today, the effects of the emissions of the recent past will be felt for some time in the future. Climate change has started to happen.

We must therefore adapt to cope with these changes. In particular areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as coastal areas, dry and arid locations, and river and glacier effected areas must adapt their patterns of behaviour to become more resilient to increasing climate variability, prevalence of extreme weather events, flooding, droughts, spreading of salinity in water sources and the ground, changing patterns of endemic and epidemic diseases and other effects of climate change.

The most vulnerable parts of the world are also some of the poorest. Mega-delta regions such as parts of Bangladesh and India, small island states in the Pacific and elsewhere, the Sahel region and other dry parts of Africa, rural natural resource dependent people, and slum-dwellers are and will all be acutely affected by climate change.

Community-based adaptation

Past experience of developing country adaptation to climate variability and change shows that community knowledge of their specific phenomenal experiences, their particular vulnerabilities to them, and the resources at their disposal for making changes to increase resilience has often been central to successful adaptation.

For example, in southern Bangladesh floating gardens, or Bairas, have been devised to withstand increasingly frequent flooding and water-logging. Using water hyacinth (Baira), a local invasive weed, which floats in water, floating mats have been developed on which soil, manure and rotting baira can be spread and a number of crops can be cultivated. These mats simply ride out water-logging and flooding. They are easy to build using local resources and know-how, are recyclable and sustainable, and are ideally suited to the particular problem faced. Local knowledge is central to every part of the success of Bairas.

Community-based adaptation (CBA) makes explicit the worth of community knowledge and management in small scale adaptation to climate change in developing countries.

For other examples of CBA check out the mini film festival which took place at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali (COP13).

The role of ‘outside’ organisations

Just as a particular adaptation project varies considerably depending on the community it is intended to help, the risk it is addressing and so on, and just as the level of community-basis similarly varies widely, so does the role of ‘outside’ organizations such as higher-level government, NGOs and foreign and international institutions.

However, broadly, the role of ‘outside’ organizations is four fold. Firstly they often play a very important role in education of the risks of climate change. Scientific understanding of the expectations of climate change is almost exclusively formed in developed countries and is generally technical in nature. Where awareness of the threats of climate change is absent, as it often is in vulnerable areas, accessible and appropriate dissemination of understanding is essential. This education plays a crucial role in mobilizing community effort to address local vulnerability.

Secondly, ‘outside’ organizations have much better information about other adaptation projects elsewhere in the world that may provide guidance on a particular new project. Though CBA stresses the importance of local knowledge and highly-contextualized solutions, much insight can be gained from the understanding of the successes and failures of other projects around the world. A number of databases and knowledge exchange forums have been set up internationally for this purpose (e.g. Community Based Adaptation Exchange;

Thirdly, ‘outside’ organizations can provide technical expertise where it is deficient in the community. This can take the form of bringing an expert in to help, or to bring in a technical teacher to pass on expertise.

Finally, ‘outside’ organizations nearly always provide much needed funding.

For more information on CBA, see the International Institute for Environment and Development

The Importance of Climate Change Considerations in Development Issues

May 23, 2009

I have been fairly surprised by the reaction of fellow development students when I mention my interest in climate change. The underlying feeling might be well characterised by something Anthony Costello, head of the Centre for International Health and Development at University College London, said recently (May 14, 2009): “[Climate change is] not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation”. But as his unit’s report on global health identifies climate change as the biggest threat to world health today, and other international commissions* similarly emphasise the centrality of the climate change issues in 21st century development, the view of climate change as a ‘green’ environmental cause separate and secondary to ‘red’ development is still prevalent, at least in my academic circles.

I like polar bears, and I love a nice walk in the woods, but my interest in climate change has little to do with ‘hippy’ environmentality. Rather, I realise that my, and thousands of others’, ‘red’ commitment to improving livelihoods and empowerment of the poor and marginalized around the world is at risk of being in vain if the changing environment is not taken into account.

There are three conceptually distinct climate change policy agendas. Mitigation policy concerns itself with reduction of the future extent of climate change, and in particular greenhouse gas reduction schemes. Closely related is the question of future energy sustainability. Thirdly, in view that the effect of past greenhouse gas emissions are already being felt today and effects of present emissions will be felt into the future, climate change adaptation is of fundamental importance. The interaction of all three of these arenas with development goals needs to be addressed by all in the development industry.

Of particular interest to me, and to the work of UYDO and micro-level projects in general, is the need to consider climate change coping and adaptive capacity within one’s conception of livelihoods. For example, the medium to long term criteria of success of microcredit for income generating purposes must consider to what extent fledgling businesses can cope and adapt to climate shocks. With this consideration in mind maybe hardy goats are a better farming investment than chickens (which are more weather affected), or buying salinity-resistant seeds is worth it despite extra costs (where sea level rises cause increasing salinity of nearby soils).

Furthermore where NGOs are already on the ground providing business and other technical advice, education on the local threats of climate change should be included in the ‘curriculum’. Where understanding about the potential effects of climate change is slight, simply explaining that a ‘bad year’ may not be an exception any longer can be the most powerful capacity enhancing mechanism. Information is key to good business decisions.

* Commission on Climate change and Development presents its final report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Statement to the 17th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development