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Media hype on climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report in November 2014 (AR5 in IPCC jargon). This is a summary of the various scientific reports released over the past couple of years, last mentioned in the column a year ago. IPCC studies the literature on climate change continuously, and issues overall assessment reports about every 5 years.

The current AR5 has been heralded in the media for some time, but its release has resulted in surprisingly little media attention, relative to previous IPCC reports. NPR recently reduced coverage of climate change to one part-time reporter, and I have noticed relatively little attention to the recent IPCC pronouncements on those few Canadian and US TV stations that I watch. This may be partly due to the extreme complexity of the issues, or it may also be due to declining credibility of the IPCC.

Despite being an engineer who has worked with numbers and computer simulations even more than the average engineer has, I find the IPCC reports very heavy reading, with masses of data, often qualified as being imprecise. I cannot imagine any of the politicians that I have met personally having either the time, inclination or capacity to read and understand these reports. The schoolyard behavior of many politicians of all parties in the Canadian Parliament and the US Congress discourages any hopes that most of our politicians are any more inclined to pore over statistics than the ones I know personally, so the chances of rational action by government seem slim.

As expected, the report recommends aggressive reduction in green-house gas emissions, and the long term elimination of fossil fuels combustion. Alternative energy sources suggested are nuclear, biomass, solar and wind, with the possibility of carbon capture and storage. I saw little support for converting from coal, oil and gasoline to natural gas, despite the associated reduction in CO2 emissions. Relative to previous reports there is more emphasis on social changes, such as encouraging higher density living in cities and improvements in public transportation.

IPCC recommends increased forestation along with improvements in forest management to maximize benefits and minimize negative effects. AG5 will be of some help to marketing paper products but due to the reduction of media hype this may be a declining opportunity.

To add to the complexity of assessing the importance of the climate change issue, there are an increasing number of scientists who question the IPCC conclusions. There is lots to read on this at http://green-agenda.com/science.html and many other web sites. Although the authors of the Green Agenda web site are sometimes rather extreme, and some are obviously politically driven, there is a lot of rational argument presented to the effect that current climate change is mostly natural, and expensive mitigation measures are unnecessary.

IPCC does no original research, but has set up an extensive network of committees to review studies by thousands of scientists around the world. Because the system is gigantic, final reports are inherently outdated by a few years due to the time lag between scientific work and its publication, followed by multiple committee meetings to analyze the publications and develop the IPCC reports. For example, I was unable to find any reference to the dramatic reduction in natural gas prices that have resulted from fracking technology. This is causing some replacement of oil and coal by gas, which results in significant reduction of greenhouse gas emission per unit of energy.

The time lag between climate changes and reporting has also led to AG5 omitting notice of the recent growth of Arctic ice. This is demonstrated by satellite data, and by the recent increase in difficulties vessels have had in trying to traverse the North West Passage over Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We observed the advance of the ice ourselves when sailing in Arctic Norway this summer. The advance of the ice may be a short-term phenomenon, but raises one more question on just how much effort we should be expending to combat climate change.

Industry managers have to consider the drive to greenhouse gas emission control to some extent, despite its complexities. This will probably be more an issue of assessing public and customer opinion than of trying to evaluate the complex science involved.

Recent experience in my consulting practice has shown at least two examples where excessive attention to greenhouse gas control has cost companies money by diverting resources and management time away from other environmental issues.

In both cases, the companies were boasting (justifiably) about their green activities in the form of energy conservation, fossil fuel replacement and recycling of fiber, while brushing off their neighbors' complaints about local environmental issues. In one mill, the result was a couple of avoidable lawsuits, which cost dearly in legal fees and management time, plus undisclosed sums in out-of-court settlements. The other led to customer difficulties, and probably some loss of business.


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