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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Dangerous Assumptions

Air Date: Week of April 4, 2008

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An article in the latest issue of the journal “Nature” asserts that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has seriously underestimated the technological solutions necessary for the stabilization of the climate. The commentary is titled “Dangerous Assmptions” and it’s co-authored by Senior Scientist Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Dr. Wigley talks with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: “Dangerous Assumptions” is the ominous-sounding title of a commentary in the latest edition of the British journal Nature. The authors of the commentary charge that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization, the IPCC, has been using incorrect assumptions about climate change and seriously underestimates what it will take to save the Earth from catastrophe. Tom Wigley is one of the authors of “Dangerous Assumptions.” He’s a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado. Professor, thanks for joining me.

WIGLEY: Thanks for having me. Good to talk to you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: This is a pretty serious charge. What specifically are the dangerous assumptions the IPCC has been making?

WIGLEY: The assumptions are more in the presentation of information regarding what we might have to do to reduce the magnitude of global warming in the future. What IPCC has done is they haven’t given the full picture of what those assumptions might be.

GELLERMAN: I was surprised to read in your article that the assumption that the IPCC makes is that about three-quarters of the carbon in the atmosphere is just going to simply, spontaneously, automatically disappear.

WIGLEY: Yes, that’s right. In the absence of climate policy, they're expecting large changes in progression towards using what are called carbon neutral sources of energy. IPCC essentially assumes that a lot of those things are going to happen just spontaneously. That’s the key word.

GELLERMAN: Well, how does carbon just spontaneously, automatically disappear, anyhow?

WIGLEY: Well, in the past, energy efficiency has improved. If you look at the records over the last number of decades, even over the last century, in terms of the emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of energy, we’re improving the way we produce energy. But what is a little alarming is that if you look at just the last five to ten years, those changes have gone in the other direction. Now, if you make assumptions that the changes that occurred up to say the year 2000 are going to continue in the future, and you look at what’s happened over the last five years or so, that change towards greater efficiency has not continued.

Scientist Tom Wigley co-authored a commentary criticizing the IPCC in the journal "Nature."(Photo: Carlye Calvin, Courtesy of UCAR)

GELLERMAN: China and India, you know, their economies have been going gangbusters. They’re using lots of resources and lots of energy. How does that factor into this?

WIGLEY: Essentially, China and India are using twentieth-century technology in the twenty-first century. Now, you can’t blame China and India for doing this because that is the cost-effective way of doing things. But if you just project ahead what’s going on now in China and India then the emissions from those countries are going to continue to increase for many decades.

GELLERMAN: Well, what about targeting limits on carbon dioxide for example? That’s what governments have been doing. That’s what the Kyoto Protocol calls for. Will that clear up the problem?

WIGLEY: Well, the Kyoto Protocol assumes that there will be a succession of protocols that become increasingly stringent as the decades go by. Well, we’re having trouble even abiding by the Kyoto Protocol. So the prospects for further and stronger protocols in the future look rather bleak at the moment. Now, part of the problem is that the Kyoto Protocol deals with a concept called targets and timetables. It essentially says, we want to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide by a certain amount globally by a certain time. Now, that’s all very well, except that it doesn’t really tell us how we’re going to do it. What we suggest is that there needs to be more emphasis on developing the appropriate technology, the appropriate carbon-neutral technology to reduce emissions. So, don’t just tell us where to go, tell us how to get there and legislate how to get there.

GELLERMAN: What form of legislation would you suggest?

WIGLEY: What we need is policies that put a large amount of money into developing appropriate, carbon-neutral technologies, be it renewable energy, methods for storing carbon dioxide in the ground and so on. There is money being used and put towards developing those sorts of technologies, but it’s too small by orders of magnitude. We need to be putting, you know, ten to 100 times more money into developing appropriate technologies to reduce the magnitude of global warming.

GELLERMAN: So, you’re talking about something the size and scale of the Manhattan Project?

WIGLEY: Yes, indeed. That’s exactly the term that’s been used in a number of papers in the past.

GELLERMAN: Well, why not just leave it up to industry? I mean, if there’s gold or money to be made in them thar hills, you know, let them go out and develop the technology.

WIGLEY: Yes, industry is very good at developing the technology, but if you look at the major innovations that have occurred over the twentieth century, the initiation, the innovation in almost all cases comes from government research spending. Once the concepts are out there, then industry comes in and makes a buck out of it. But they’re not good at starting the ball rolling.

GELLERMAN: But government money doesn’t grow on trees -- it comes out of my pocket.

WIGLEY: Yes indeed, but then, in the long run, you, your children, your grandchildren, will benefit by having a planet that’s not upset by what could be catastrophic changes in the climate or very large increases in sea level and so on.

GELLERMAN: Tom Wigley is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and co-author of the article now appearing in the British journal Nature: “Dangerous Assumptions.” Thank you very much.

WIGLEY: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.



National Center for Atmospheric Research

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Click here to read the article "Dangerous Assumptions" in the journal Nature


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