INSIDE Chico State
0 April 29, 2004
Volume 34 Number 11
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico





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Global Forecast: 10 percent Chance of Catastrophe

Atmospheric expert calls for informed
decisions about global climate change

Accurately predicting the direction of international debate on global climate change can be as problematic as promising fine weather in April. Though stopping well short of unequivocal assertions, atmospheric expert Stephen H. Schneider, who lectured on campus April 8 and 9 as part of the Rawlins Environmental Lecture Series, noted that the dialogue has moved forward. Policy decisions, much less behavioral change in how humans interact with our environment, are yet to come.

“It’s going to take a generation for this to happen, so I’m not personally discouraged,” Schneider told a packed lecture room in Holt Hall during his second presentation. “We have time to do it, but we should have started a generation ago.”

Schneider, who serves as co-chairman of Stanford University’s Center for Environmental Science and Policy as well as its Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 1995, the IPCC was instrumental in bringing the subject of global climate change to the attention of the public, politicians, and the media when it published its Second Assessment Report in which the panel stated, “The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.”

That discernible evidence includes a worldwide average rise in temperature of one degree Fahrenheit, Schneider told his April 8 audience in the Bell Memorial Union Auditorium.

In 2001, the IPCC published a third report estimating that in another hundred years, the planet will have warmed a further 1.4 to 5.8 degrees centigrade.

“While warming at the low end of this range, of say 1.5 degrees centigrade, would likely be relatively adaptable for most human activity, it would still be significant for some ‘unique and valuable systems,’” Schneider elaborates on his Web site. “Warming of 6 degrees centigrade could have widespread catastrophic consequences, as a temperature change of 5 degrees to
7 degrees centigrade on a globally averaged basis is about the difference between an ice age and an interglacial period.”

Schneider stressed during both lectures the need for special interest groups, politicians, and particularly the media to resist portraying this complex issue in a simplistic, all good/all bad perspective. Partial debate and misinformation, he said, has slowed the development of an informed, practical solution to what’s now at least an acknowledged inevitability.

“Society asks us what will happen,” Schneider told his Holt audience. “They ask us to alert them to where the holes in the road are. What’s dangerous, and how will we weigh the importance of these problems versus other social problems?

“That’s how the game is played. You try to get all the processes you think that matter; you use as much history as you can to construct the theory and to get the relationships between variables; you admit you don’t really know; and you pick a high value and a low value. But I argue that you have to do even better than that: You should state probability distribution.”

Based on hypothetical scenarios posited by the IPCC, Schneider displayed graphs of possible climate outcomes based on a tightly woven skein of scientific and sociopolitical factors, including population estimates, technological advances, and economic policy.

“We can argue that we have a 10 percent chance of a catastrophic outcome, and a 10 percent chance of very little change,” he said. “Most everything else is in the middle. So there will be a distribution of damages. There will be some benefits in that, the lower the warming, the lower the damages. No surprise there. We can’t prevent at least a degree, maybe a degree and a half, of warming. I want to make sure that it doesn’t go to three and four and seven.”

This possibility, graphed for the audience in ominous red, could occur if we continue to stall on climate decisions and policy change, and steer the discussion in terms of aggregated cost-benefit analysis, Schneider said.

“When you go to these international meetings, you have 80 percent of the world who don’t even think it’s a proper metric, and then you have the other 20 percent who can’t see past it,” he observed. “What we’re looking at half the time is ideology, not science, and people selecting out of context partial facts in order to bamboozle you. You have to be very careful with personal values versus probabilities and consequences. We can’t forget that there’s a trade-off between the combination of uncertainty, risk, costs, and fairness. And that’s where environmental literacy comes in.”

Taran March

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