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The real debate on climate is happening in San Francisco

Want to know what’s going on with the atmosphere? Ask the American Geophysical Union. Jim Nix

The latest climate talks in Doha are unlikely to yield a breakthrough. Instead, the can will most likely be kicked further down the road, at considerable future cost.

The Doha negotiations coincide with the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, a five-day conference attended by 20,000 scientists, myself included, which provides a glimpse at the leading edge of climate research around the world. This is the research that helps us understand the reality of climate change.

The Doha meetings are also accompanied by signals from the fantasy world of climate denial, as usual expressed not in the peer-reviewed literature but as an “open letter” by purported climate experts to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. The letter claims that current scientific knowledge requires no action on climate change.

To understand why climate denial inhabits a fantasy world we need to look no further than a few of the purported luminaries who sign such letters.

For example, there is retiree Nils-Axel Mörner whose psychedelic intuitions include the claim that sea levels are not rising. Never mind that the horrendous damage caused by Hurricane Sandy was undoubtedly made worse by the fact that sea levels in New York are now 20 cm higher than they were a century ago. Mörner probably missed out on that because he was distracted by his famed paranormal abilities to find water by dowsing. Or perhaps he was distracted by his earlier “research” which located the Hong Kong of the Greeks in Sweden?

Then there is retiree and former scientist (among other things) Oliver Manuel, who believes that climate science is the result of “secret, fear-driven agreements by the winners of the Second World War in 1945.” Those agreements also somehow involve “Kissinger, Zhou En-Lai, Chairman Mao, Brezhnev and Nixon in 1971” — oh yes, and 9/11 was also part of the climate conspiracy.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Those are the characters who tell the UN and the public not to worry about climate change.

No point in wasting time on the other signatories — suffice it to say that most of them belong to the same troupe of cranks straight out of central casting.

So what is the real state of the science being presented at the AGU meeting in San Francisco? What do the geophysicists tell us about the state of the climate and of our planet?

The program for a single day of this meeting consists of a 50-page broadsheet that lists literally thousands of events: you can follow along online here. Talks, workshops, scientific posters, keynote addresses, all running in multiple parallel sessions in three buildings. Even with the help of the daily program booklet and the AGU iPad app it takes an hour every morning simply to navigate the smorgasbord of science and to select interesting sessions to attend.

There was the session on The Climate of the Common Era, or the presentations of the New Atmospheric Sciences Fellows. Then there was the particularly interesting session on Construing Uncertainty in Climate Science (maybe that one was particularly interesting because I chaired it).

There was the keynote address by Sir Robert Watson, who explored the implications of our current emissions path, and the fact that we are likely heading for a world that is 4 or 5 degrees warmer by 2100 than it was before industrialisation, with consequences that are alarming rather than alarmist.

There are thousands and thousands of talks, posters, discussions, and workshops.

Science is debate, and the AGU meeting is the biggest annual debate of climate scientists in the world. It is a debate that extends over five days, each filled with 12 hours or more of non-stop science.

There is, however, one issue that is not being debated: Nowhere is there a debate about the fundamental facts that the globe is rapidly warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for that warming.

That scientific debate ceased decades ago.

It is only in the fantasy world of climate denial that ignorant chatter about those physical fundamentals continues, to the detriment of the public which would be better served without such distracting noise.

Among the 20,000 geophysicists and scientists from other disciplines in attendance at the AGU meeting, there is no mention of the denialist troupe of cranks who do “science” by writing letters to the editor.

With one exception.

Dr. Jim Hansen, one of the world’s foremost climate scientists, who first alerted the world to the risks from climate change decades ago, gave a presentation on Tuesday night. A patrician figure, he was greeted with a standing ovation even though the message he had to deliver, based on the latest available science, was far from encouraging. Decades ago, Dr. Hansen predicted events such as Hurricane Sandy, and he has been warning about the implications of climate change ever since.

Dr. Hansen expressed the view that the professional dis-informers who facilitate and encourage climate denial, and who obstruct and delay a solution to the problem at great cost in dollars and human lives in support of their own short-term greed or ideological agenda, ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.

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