Op-Ed Contributors

Let's not lose focus in climate fight

By Khalid Malik (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-23 07:51
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Lately, the international media has printed reports critical of the scientific basis of climate change, and, in particular have raised questions about the credibility of scientific data compiled by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. It was discovered that the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had mistakenly reported that Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 due to melting. In addition, it stated that 55 percent of the Netherlands lies below sea level, while the correct figure is 26 percent. Next, at the end of last year, internal e-mails exchanged by climate scientists of East Anglia University were leaked, allegedly showing an intention to manipulate climatic data in order to corroborate an alarmist vision of climate change and global warming.

Discussions in the media have followed suit, the wave of skepticism providing small groups of climate skeptics with new lifeblood. This is a severe injury to the good faith of public audiences that could be shaken by this criticism, and is maybe the most serious threat that historic detractors of global warming could inflict on the prestigious community of scientists devoted to climate change studies.

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The very detailed and extensive work done so far by thousands of experts in providing sound scientific bases for the fight against climate change could be compromised by an unprecedented and sudden media campaign at the very time when public awareness has reached unexpected levels. Whereas media coverage of the Copenhagen conference brought the issues of climate change into the homes of most people in the world, recent surveys indicate a loss of public confidence in climate science, in particular the scientific basis behind the position that global warming is happening as a result of human activity.

In Copenhagen, at the end of the two week negotiations, an agreement was reached. It is probably true - to use the words from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - that "the agreement may not satisfy all", but it is also true that "the Copenhagen Accord marks a significant step forward". Despite this, public confidence in both climate science and a successful agreement at this year's summit in Mexico must be achieved.

Undoubtedly, as in all human endeavors, mistakes were made. The IPCC released public statements admitting that in some instances the proper procedures may not have been applied. The UN has now more recently announced that it will finance an independent review of the IPCC, to be conducted by a reputable scientific organization, the InterAcademy Council. The council is currently led by twochairs, Robert Dijkgraaf of the Netherlands and Lu Yongxiang of China.

However, it is also unacceptable that the moment some figures are challenged, hundreds of studies undertaken by thousands of scientists suddenly become questionable as well. Furthermore, the work by the IPCC is unique and it appears that those raising critique may not be fully informed on the way it works. Therefore a full clarification is needed.

The IPCC is the leading global body in the assessment of climate change, providing evidence driven recommendations to policymakers. The main purpose of the panel is to make conclusions based on existing climate change research carried out by experts all over the world, and to reflect their scientific conclusions in their assessment reports. This work has led the panel to conclude that there is consensus among a large majority of the world's researchers and experts that climate change is indeed caused by human activity.

As an intergovernmental body it is open to all member countries of the UN and the World Meteorological Organization. Governments are directly involved through participation in the review process and in the IPCC plenary sessions, and endorse the IPCC reports. In February 2010, world environmental ministers attended the UNEP Global Ministerial Environment Forum met in Bali. In their "Nusa Dua Declaration", they reiterated their support for the conclusions reached by the IPCC on climate change as a man-made threat.

This attempt to vilify the IPCC, and the calls fo Chairman Pachauri to resign, illustrate the inconsistency of the criticism, as the debate must continue to be on the scientific bases of climate change, and not the hard-working people involved in trying to face the challenge and solve the problem.

In China, one of the priorities of the UN system is to assist the country in tackling climate change. China's own National Assessment Report concluded in 2005 that climate change is taking place, and that it is most likely due to human activity.

China's leaders have initiated a transition to a low carbon economy and society. China's goal of having 15 percent renewable energy, in combination with the goal to cut carbon intensity by 40-45 percent by 2020 over 2005 levels are clear signs of this shift. Also, China sees the value of the work of the IPCC: 28 Chinese experts were selected for the write-up of the Fourth Assessment Report.

Although four reports have been published by the IPCC, a great deal of research remains to be done to assess the complexities of climate change. The work for the Fifth Assessment Report has been initiated, and for instance, one of the key areas stressed are urban areas.

Cities and other human settlements are at the forefront of climate change. As large emitters of greenhouse gases, they significantly contribute to climate change. Simultaneously, due to their concentration of population and infrastructure assets, cities are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Despite the substantial role played by cities, after four reports a comprehensive evaluation on urban climate change effects is still missing. Therefore, the UN system in China stands with the IPCC and its precious work. The IPCC is a legitimate body entrusted with the responsibility of doing research for the sake of all of humanity and to respond to the challenges that climate change is raising for each of us.

The author is the United Nations resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative in China.

(China Daily 03/23/2010 page9)