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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Climate Change Projections

Air Date: Week of January 26, 2007

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The Observer's Science Editor, Robin McKie.

The most authoritative word on global warming comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the IPCC will release its new report on the subject on February 2nd. Host Steve Curwood talks with Robin McKie, the science editor of The Observer in London. about what’s in a draft of the report. McKie says the language used by the scientists this time around is much stronger than in the last edition.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The basic principles of global warming have been known for decades. But predicting exactly how humans are changing the climate has been one of the biggest scientific challenges of our times---and the source of much political debate.

Since 1988 a scientific arm of the U.N. known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been synthesizing the knowledge of thousands of climate scientists from over 130 countries. Every five years or so the panel issues a consensus forecast of climate change. The first part of their latest report is due out on February second. And a number of journalists have gotten a sneak preview of it. Among them is Robin McKie, the science editor of The Observer in the U.K. He’s on the line with us from London.
Robin, thanks for joining us.

McKIE: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, first tell me what is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Tell us about how this body produces these reports.

McKIE: Well, it’s an enormously conservative body really. It gets a reputation among skeptics as die hard climate change fanatics. But really it’s very far from that. It’s in the end thousands of scientists involved in producing its various draft documents. And each point is argued very carefully and comes to conclusions that are careful in the extreme. They last pronounced in 2001 and it’s taken them since that time to reassess that data to see how carbon dioxide levels have gone up, temperatures have gone up etcetera.

CURWOOD: Now some people say that, in fact, the make up of this body is such that it is maybe too conservative. That because it is a consensus process people who are opposed to exploring this are really able to obstruct a lot of the work there.

McKIE: I think that’s a fair criticism of it. Many people do think that. On the other hand when it does make a pronouncement, I mean, we really listen.


The Observer's Science Editor, Robin McKie

CURWOOD: So what’s different about this projection from the one that was made in 2001?

McKIE: In a sense, the actual projections that they’re making, the temperature changes that we’re liable to see, they’re not that much different. It’s the language they use. It was the confidence with which they made pronouncements of alarming consequence. In the past they have tended to talk in terms of likely, and possibly very likely. They’re now in the virtually certain, extremely likely types of language. Now, if something is likely they say there’s a more than 66 percent chance of it happening. If something is very likely it’s more than 90 percent. Extremely likely, more than 95 percent. And anything more than 99 percent is considered to be virtually certain. So it’s the change in language, it’s the confidence with which these scientists are making their predictions of the future passage of climate change on this planet that is the real remarkable point.

CURWOOD: Now as I understand it the projections have actually narrowed in the range of what they’re talking about. They say that it’s ah, not as dire as it might have been predicted in the past but also we’re not as likely to get off as easily according to the wider range of earlier projections.

McKIE: They have the kind of slightly more alarming, perhaps fanciful depending on your language, predictions that have been sort of clipped off the top but at the same time a temperature rise around three degrees is looking, by the middle of the century, very much more confident for them.

CURWOOD: Three degrees Fahrenheit or three degrees Centigrade?

McKIE: Three degrees Centigrade.

CURWOOD: And what would that mean?

McKIE: Well, that is of course perhaps the part that is still mostly clouded is some kind of conjecture. But again the mist is clearing. It’s snow cover across the world disappearing. Sea ice shrinking in both the Antarctic and arctic. Very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue. A couple of slightly good bits of good news. The Antarctic doesn’t melt with quite the ferocity that was predicted.

CURWOOD: So, how fast is the warming going to be happening according to this latest assessment and compared to the earlier one?

McKIE: There was a range in the previous ones of all between 0.05 degrees Centigrade and 0.3 degrees Centigrade per decade. It’s now settling down at the .2 degrees per decade. So, that’s slightly towards the upper level of that. That’s certainly what has been seen over the past decade and it looks as if that will continue for another, there’s nothing much we can do about it, for the next 50 years.

CURWOOD: How likely is this report to change the debate about climate change; what people, governments, businesses should do?

McKIE: I think it is another important incremental point. From my point of view I find it incredible that people haven’t listened to what has been said before. Um, so yes, I think it will play a small crucial part, another nail in the coffin as it were, of the skeptic’s case.

CURWOOD: How long have you been a science editor and a science reporter?

McKIE: I’ve been science editor of the Observer for almost 25 years.

CURWOOD: What stories rival this in importance?

McKIE: None. Not a single one. This is it. This is the biggest story I’ve ever known and I can’t really think of, I can’t even think of what would be a bigger one. I suppose some nuclear war or something, or an asteroid plunging toward earth. But this is telling us that our planet is going to changes. It’s irreversible and we don’t really know exactly how much it will change. And it will touch everyone’s lives. You don’t get stories bigger than that really.

CURWOOD: Robin McKie is science editor for the Observer in London. Thank you so much sir.

McKIE: Thank you.

CURWOOD: The first part of the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be officially released on Feb second.

 

Links

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Working Group 1: The Physical Basis of Climate Change

Robin McKie's "Global warming: the final verdict" in The Observer

 

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