The Sunday Times: Don’t Panic
Global warming has shrunk. The Arctic ice cap has grown. Scientists gathering this week face a struggle to persuade sceptics about the scale of climate change to come, writes Jonathan Leake
As professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, Peter Wadhams is as familiar as anyone with the Arctic ice cap. He has skimmed across it on sledges, flown over it in planes and even sailed under it in a submarine, using instruments to measure the ice’s thickness.
Wadhams, 65, has predicted for years that a long-term shrinking of the ice cap will culminate in disaster. He believes the ice will melt entirely, accelerating a change in climate, and stranding the region’s most famous inhabitant, the polar bear.
Last year, it seemed the prediction might be coming true. A huge late-summer storm ripped across the 2m square miles of ice. By the time it was over, a quarter of the ice cap had disappeared.
This year, Wadhams wondered if the same thing might happen again, leaving the Arctic partly free of ice. It would have provided a powerful symbol of the threat from climate change — but it was not to be.
Instead, as Wadhams and his colleagues monitored their satellite images and other data, there was another surprise in store. They saw that the ice cap had grown back during the winter. Not only that, but it then held its own during the summer. Last week, when it was probably at its smallest size for the year, it had been restored to its 2m square mile expanse.
The climate sceptics — those who see global warming as a myth or an exaggeration — claimed vindication. “Now it’s global cooling” screamed one headline.
Wadhams said the picture was a little more complex than that. “It is true that the ice has grown in extent compared to last year,” he said. “But what was not reported is that it is also much thinner. If you look at the total volume there may be a little more ice there than last year, but not much. What’s more, it is still far below the long-term average and the overall trend is downwards.”
Benny Peiser, the director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based think tank that challenges many aspects of climate science, saw it differently. He seized on reports of the Arctic ice cap’s recovery, circulating them to ministers, MPs and other policymakers.
“The science is going nowhere,” he said. “Even if you accept the idea that CO2 [carbon dioxide] and other greenhouse gases will warm the world, science cannot tell us by how much or what the effects are. The climate models have failed.”
Doubters like Peiser believe the phenomenon of the refrozen north has exposed another flaw in the calculations of climate scientists — especially those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose latest assessment is due out this week. [...]
Today about 500 scientists and civil servants from all over the world are flying into Stockholm to put the final touches to the “fifth assessment report”, an account of how greenhouse gases are affecting the Earth.
The meeting, in a former brewery, will also generate a sober 30-page document advising politicians on how to respond.
A leaked draft says climate change has been having significant impacts since 1950. “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed; the extent and volume of snow and ice have diminished; and sea level has risen,” says the draft.
On temperature, it points out that “each of the last three decades has been warmer than all preceding decades since 1850, and the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest”.
What is more, it warns that warming is likely to accelerate. Since 1951 global temperatures have increased by 0.13C a decade. If CO2 emissions keep going up, it says, temperatures could eventually rise around twice as fast. [...]
Claims of this kind are greeted more and more warily by policymakers and the public, however. Some are put off because climate change has been exploited to further the agenda of anti-capitalist greens opposed to economic growth.
In America that perception has seen opposition to climate science crystallising in the Republican party.
In Australia, the recent election propelled Tony Abbott’s Liberal party to power after a campaign in which he expressed scepticism about climate change and opposition to Labor taxes on carbon emissions.
In Britain, by contrast, climate change policies have had cross-party support so far. But there are many who want that to change, especially among Conservatives, where senior figures such as Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, have questioned climate science. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, and George Osborne, the chancellor, have expressed scepticism about measures to counter warming.
Such tensions mean an interesting time ahead for Sir Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientist, who, over the coming weeks and months, will be briefing David Cameron and his ministers on the IPCC’s findings and how to respond.
“There are some uncertainties about the future, but what’s clear is that if we continue to emit greenhouse gases then we are heading for trouble,” Walport said.