Global warming skeptics see a couple of trees, miss forest

Those who would like to see humanity take action to reduce the harmful effects of global warming have had a frustrating couple of months, due in part to over-reaching by those urging action.

Skeptics and deniers had a field day when, for instance, Al Gore claimed the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer in as soon as five years, based on the work of a scientist who quickly insisted he had said no such thing. 

It's frustrating not just because Al Gore should know better, but because although his mistake looks bad to the uninformed, in the broader picture it's a trivial error. 

That's right — trivial. 

The Arctic probably won't be ice-free in the summer by 2015…but ice-free in the summer by 2023 is a real possibility, or so I was told at the 2008 American Geophysical Union by J.C. Comiso, an expert on ice-sheet dynamics at GISS. No one raised an eyebrow over this estimate: it's middle of the road. 

Similarly, the deniers are crowing because the 2007 IPCC report included a projection that the Himalayan glaciers that support five major rivers, on which one billion people in Asia depend for water, were estimated to be likely to melt away by 2035. 

The actual date in which these glaciers are estimated to disappear? 

2050. 

That's according to a tiny story on page A6 in the Los Angeles Times published today, too small, unfortunately, to be included in the on-line version. Here's the full gist of the detail:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been under fire after it was found that one of its 2007 reports wrongly included a prediction that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035. The figure should have been 2050. 

So, by the apparent logic of the skeptics, because those who worry about global warming over-reached slightly, we can safely ignore the effects of an ice-free Arctic nor a Tibetan plateau without glaciers. 

All that will still happen — but not as soon as some feared. 

Excuse me for asking, but why is reassuring? 

Nonetheless, apparently it is…as veteran science journalist Charlie Petite puts it, in his mild way: 

One thousand parts per million CO2, here we come?

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  1. Rob Dawg

    It wasn’t the 2035 which was invented by the WWF and not peer reviewed. It was that so many non-peer reviewed assertions made it into AR4.

    Oh, and it isn’t 2050 either. The entire claim has been withdrawn.

    All these politically motivated scare tactics do not serve those of us concerned with human impacts on natural ecosystems. Th Los Angeles channelization of the Santa Clara River for instance.

    March 1, 2010
  2. Kit Stolz

    Very interesting point, that the climate change discussion is distracting us from more immediate issues, such as the channelization of the Santa Clara River, or, perhaps, habitat destruction generally. Is that a fair restatement of the point?

    I kind of wish this were true, but in my experience, the people who are concerned about ecological issues are concerned about climate issues, and those who aren’t much concerned about what is happening on our lands and in our waters aren’t much concerned about climate change either.

    Interestingly, in my experience people can be extremely concerned about conservation of money and completely uninterested in climate change, which can lead an individual to drive a Prius but not for any environmental reasons whatsoever.

    Humans are complicated, methinks.

    March 1, 2010