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Updating the Science of Global Warming: A Q&A with Marine Biologist Katherine Richardson

An international climate change congress aims to gather the world's top scientists to update the book on global warming
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©Kutay Tanir/istockphoto.com

When the world's governments gather in December 2009 in Copenhagen to negotiate a treaty to restrain global greenhouse gas emissions, the science on which they base their decision could be as much as four years out of date. The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered its synthesis of existing research in February 2007 and it was based on studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals only through 2005.

Stepping into that gap—at the request of the Danish government—will be the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change, a collection of the world's top scientists and economists set to meet in Copenhagen in March 2009 to deliver an updated state of the science on global warming. The prognosis is grim: Emissions throughout the world, both in countries pledged to restrain such pollution and those that have ignored or sidestepped the issue, continue to grow, and impacts can be felt from the Arctic and Antarctic to the Amazon.

ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello spoke with Katherine Richardson, a marine biologist at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the climate congress, to discuss the event and what it hopes to achieve.

Tell me about the climate change congress and where the idea came from.
The idea for doing this came from the Danish prime minister's office. [Denmark is] the local host of the meeting in December 2009 and [it is] worried about two things: One, people argue that it is economically problematic to invest in climate. [To deal with that] business people are arranging a conference in May next year on how, in some cases, it can pay to invest in climate. For example, Denmark, despite the fact that we're at 20 percent renewables [in our energy supply], is experiencing tremendous growth.

Two, this meeting is coming in the middle of an IPCC period. The IPCC report is absolutely crucial for starting negotiations. That has been accepted by everyone so you don't need to argue whether it's right or wrong. It's based on consensus.

But that is both a strength and a weakness. It takes a long time to get consensus. There were no scientific results in the 2007 [IPCC] report that came after 2005. By the time you sit down at the table in December 2009, you are missing the last four years of what we now understand about climate, adaptation, mitigation, security and about all sorts of interactions with our society.

So with an international alliance of universities, we will try to carry out a scientific meeting where we simply synthesize all this new information. We will try to put it all together into something understandable for the people coming to this meeting in Copenhagen. That's my goal.

So how is it working?

What we are trying to do now is to reach out to the scientific community at large. We have contacted every scientific meeting that we could find. This is our chance as scientists. We've been asked to put this together in real-people language: What do we really know?

There will be 57 different sessions and none of them will be on whether there will be a four-inch glacier melt or a two-inch. So your ice is melting, what does this mean for sea level rise? Is there a technical fix? What's the cost of not fixing it? We will bring the scientists out and get them to answer questions.

So far, there has been tremendous interest in this. We have received more than 1,000 abstracts from 70 different countries. It's going to be great and it's going to be big.

And what we're hoping to do with it, most of us, as scientists, were taught: Don't get your hands dirty with policy once you get your results. Let politicians figure it out. But these challenges are so big that we have to get out there and help the politicians understand what's happening. This is science's chance to describe the urgency of what's happening.

Will it be a consensus document?
The scientific community is notoriously divided. But we will speak with one voice. And there will be a review process by outside researchers of this synthesis document to make sure that it is the best science. There will be mechanisms to make sure that this is not just one researcher's opinion.

But the strength of the IPCC is that it's not just the scientists, it's also the governments.
Probably the value of this in terms of the negotiations themselves is to keep the sense of urgency. It will keep that right in front of the policymakers. It doesn't matter if everybody agrees with everything in there.

Scientists should see this as a possibility to communicate to a much wider audience than even this meeting. We show these pictures of the ice in the Arctic melting. We think when we've showed these pictures, we've communicated the problem. But people just say, "Oh, let's put a shipping traffic route in there." Or "There must be some oil in there we can exploit." The implications for what this means for the planet maintaining itself, people just don't have the faintest idea about. We are missing the boat in communicating this story to the wider world.

Who will be involved?
It reads like a who's who of climate science. One of the first people we asked was [economist] Lord Nicholas Stern. He said, "no thank you." But then he called back later to ask whether he could still come and talk.

We also have [Rajendra] Pachauri from the IPCC to indicate that this is a compatible exercise with IPCC; [José Manuel] Barroso, president of the European Commission; [energy expert] Dan Kammen from [the University of California,] Berkeley; and [economist] William Nordhaus from Yale is a speaker.

Famously, Stern and Nordhaus really disagree on what should be done about climate change.
I recognize those conflicts. It wouldn't be a real scientific conference, I wouldn't be being honest, if I chose one or the other. We also have [economist] Terry Barker, an IPCC author from [the University of] Cambridge, who has invited Nordhaus to debate with him at this meeting. We are trying to make sure that we have well-balanced economic presentations and conclusions as well as scientific ones.

What will be the outcome?
Politicians' biggest challenge is getting the balance right between mitigation and adaptation. The core of this meeting is entirely devoted to mitigation and adaptation.

There are six themes: The first one is the natural science part of it— What do we understand about this climate system, tipping points, how bad could this go? There is also a theme about ethics, or equity, between nations, generations [as well as] humans and nature or animals.

Then there is mitigation and adaptation. How far can renewables take us? What are the potentials and limits of biofuels? And then there is the theme of managing the planet as a whole.

A lot of the current debate seems to center around cost. So what will it cost?
A lot of people go around saying this isn't going to cost us anything. This is cheap. It's not.

We just are going to have to stop thinking of investment in the environment and climate change as being opposed to economic growth. [For] economic growth in the future, a prerequisite is that we stop treating the planet like a subprime loan. In that sense, the economic crisis we have at the moment is useful in terms of analyzing what's going on with the planet.

We don't take into account the resources that we are moving around. One of the things that will be argued is that solar is more important as a long-term fix than many have argued. I think the figure is the sun bathes the Earth in 120,000 terawatt-hours of energy and the global community only uses 12 to 15 terawatt-hours. And all the renewable energies are derived from the sun in some way. [A terawatt equals one trillion watts.]

The plants [collect] energy from the sun [that] is the equivalent of 32,000 hydrogen bombs. It's amazing the amount of energy they suck out of the sun.

So what more do we know now?

This 2-degree [Celsius, or 3.6-degree Fahrenheit] change that everybody talks about [as a limit on warming], which is probably unattainable, has some serious ramifications for oceans. It's not just two degrees and we all take off a sweater. Changes that are occurring may accelerate [carbon dioxide] coming out of the ocean.

I have two abstracts myself: One of them is that we know a lot about the ocean as a sink. It takes up half the extra CO2 that we put out. It takes it up by biological and physical processes, like the material gets caught in plants and then sinks to the bottom when they die. Bacteria break this material down much more quickly when it is warmer and less of it falls. We are measuring the effect of temperature on this breakdown and it's quite substantial. So this much of a temperature increase will mean that the oceans will take up this much less and that provokes the problem even more. You can make much better models out of this of what's going to happen than you've gotten out of the IPCC.

Is it too late?
I'm not at all depressed. This is an exciting time in Earth's history. Twelve thousand years ago our ancestors discovered agriculture. When they did that they broke the rules about the number of people the Earth could hold. And now that there are even more people, there have to be some rules.

Over the last 50 years, we've thought the oceans and atmosphere are big enough that we don't need any rules. But we're smarter now, we do need some rules.

We've been regulating on the basis of the different subcomponents of Earth: land, air, water. But the doctor doesn't give you medicine for your head if he knows it will hurt your feet. You need to treat the body as a body and we need to treat the Earth as an Earth. We have to manage not by segment but by the planet as a whole.

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