February 08, 2007

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Freedom of information, SCMP edition

I wonder if the SCMP will get around to reporting on the SCMP?

Today's (unlinkable as ever) SCMP prints a good piece by Bjorn Lomborg on climate change titled "Hysteria clouds the global warming debate", reproduced below the jump, which points out the odd priorities of those concerned about climate change. Segueing nicely, Tim Blair catches out another common China journo cliche...the "per capita comparison".

You would have had to be stuck in deepest Mongolia to avoid hearing that the UN's climate panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued a new report last week. From the dire stories penned about it by journalists, you would have thought global warming was worse than we had imagined. You would have been misinformed. The IPCC has produced a good report - an attempt to summarise what the world's scientists know about global warming. The IPCC squarely tells us that mankind is largely responsible for the planet's recent warming. It refrains from scaremongering, unlike former US vice-president Al Gore, who has travelled the world warning that our cities might soon be under the oceans.

Lost among the hype is the unexciting fact that this report is actually no more dire than the IPCC's previous one, issued in 2001. The new report reflected the fact that, since 2001, scientists have become more certain that humans are responsible for a large part of global warming. Otherwise, its estimates of temperature increases, heat waves and cold waves are all nearly identical to those produced six years ago.

The report did, however, contain two surprising facts. First, the world's scientists have rejigged their estimates about how much sea levels will rise. In the 1980s, the US Environmental Protection Agency expected oceans to rise by several metres by 2100. In the 1990s, the IPCC was expecting a 67-centimetre rise, and it dropped the estimate to 48.5 centimetres six years ago. This year, the estimated rise is 38.5 centimetres on average.

This is especially interesting since it fundamentally rejects one of the most harrowing scenes from Mr Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. The movie demonstrates how a 7-metre rise in the sea level would inundate much of Florida, Shanghai and the Netherlands. The IPCC report makes it clear that exaggerations of this magnitude have no basis in science.

The report also revealed the improbability of another Gore scenario: that global warming could make the Gulf Stream shut down, turning Europe into a new Siberia. The IPCC simply and tersely says this scenario is considered "very unlikely".

So why have we been left with a very different impression of the climate panel's report? The IPCC is by statute "politically neutral": it is supposed to tell us just the facts and leave the rest to politicians and the people who elect them.

But scientists and journalists - acting as intermediaries between the report and the public - have engaged in greenhouse activism. The IPCC's director has called elsewhere for immediate and substantial cuts in carbon emissions, and even declared that he hoped the report would "shock people, governments into taking more serious action". It is inappropriate for somebody in such an important and apolitical role to engage in blatant activism.

Climate change is a real and serious issue. But the problem with the recent media frenzy is that some seem to believe no new report or development is enough if it doesn't reveal more serious consequences and more terrifying calamities than before.

This media frenzy has little or no scientific backing. One of Britain's foremost climatologists, Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, points out that green militancy and megaphone journalism use "catastrophe and chaos as unguided weapons with which forlornly to threaten society into behavioural change". In his words, "we need to take a deep breath and pause". A 38.5-centimetre rise in the ocean's levels is a problem, but it won't bring down civilisation. Last century, sea levels rose by half that amount without most of us even noticing.

The UN tells us that there is virtually nothing we can do that would affect climate change before 2030. So we have to ask the hard question of whether we could do better by focusing on other issues first.

In a recent project called the Copenhagen Consensus, Nobel laureate economists weighed up how to achieve the most good for the world. They found that focusing on HIV/Aids, malaria, malnutrition and trade barriers should all be tackled long before we commit to any dramatic action on climate change.

With the world in a fury about cutting greenhouse gases, it is easy to forget that there are other and better ways to do some good for the planet. Good decisions come from careful consideration: the IPCC report provides that. But the cacophony of screaming that has accompanied it does not help.

posted by Simon on 02.08.07 at 02:15 PM in the SCMP category.


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It's about time someone said it.

posted by: GZ Expat on 02.08.07 at 03:42 PM [permalink]

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posted by: fkcxbny on 03.07.07 at 01:23 PM [permalink]

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