9 april 2010

What’s happening to the climate is unprecedented

Financial Times April 9 2010

From Prof Martin Rees and Dr Ralph J. Cicerone.

Sir, We were stimulated by your editorial “Cooler on warming” (April 5). There has undoubtedly been a shift in public and media perceptions of climate change – a consequence of, at least in part, leaked e-mails from some climate scientists and the publication of errors in the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

However, as your editorial acknowledges, neither recent controversies, nor the recent cold weather, negate the consensus among scientists: something unprecedented is now happening. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising and climate change is occurring, both due to human actions. If we continue to depend heavily on fossil fuels, by mid-century CO 2 concentrations will reach double pre-industrial levels. Straightforward physics tells us that this rise is warming the planet. Calculations demonstrate that this effect is very likely responsible for the gradual warming observed over the past 30 years and that global temperatures will continue to rise – superimposing a warming on all the other effects that make climate fluctuate. Uncertainties in the future rate of this rise, stemming largely from the “feedback” effects on water vapour and clouds, are topics of current research.

It is the responsibility of scientific organisations like ours to present the public and politicians with a balanced assessment of the evidence – and, importantly, to indicate the level of confidence and the range of uncertainties attached to them.

Our two science academies have long contributed critical, objective and open reports on climate change. We intend to draw upon the efforts of leading scientists everywhere to make our future reports more accessible and valuable and, by fostering scientific research, we hope to do a better job of reducing inherent uncertainties. We must also promote best scientific practice, especially with regard to the sharing of data. But policymakers and the public must realise that, even if scientific uncertainties could be reduced to zero, formulating effective political responses would still be controversial and challenging. Our academies will provide the scientific backdrop for the political and business leaders who must create effective policies to steer the world toward a low-carbon economy.

Martin Rees,
President of the Royal Society

Ralph J Cicerone,
President of the US National Academy of Sciences

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