Kyoto, Scripps Study, Put Greenhouse Gases in Global Warming Spotlight

By | March 7, 2005

The week of Feb. 14-20, 2005 may have been a turning point in the debate over global warming. Either from incisive planning or pure serendipity, the “Kyoto Protocol” or Treaty, a global agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gases, came into force, and scientists at the University of California of San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and their colleagues produced the first clear scientific evidence that human activity–and very little else–is warming the world's oceans.

While Kyoto had long been anticipated, the Scripps' report was something of a bombshell. “From what I've seen of the press release it's really quite impressive that they could show this,” said Eberharde Faust, a member of Munich Re's Geo Risk Research Unit who heads its work on climate change. The authors contend their results clearly indicate that ocean warming is being produced “anthropogenically,” i.e., by human activities.

While these discussions seem remote from the concerns of the insurance industry, they are vitally important. Consider this statement from the Munich Re Web site: “The earth's climate influences our living conditions considerably. The man-made greenhouse effect is currently in the process of changing those conditions in the long term, without our being able to control the consequences, one of which is likely to be the continued steep increase in extreme weather events.”

Both Munich Re and Swiss Re, the world's two largest reinsurers, have long recognized the potential impact of global warming. They've noted that natural weather related catastrophes (hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, floods, and other phenomena) are increasing in frequency and severity.

The Scripps study, conducted by Tim Barnett and David Pierce, along with colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison, used a combination of computer models and real-world “observed” data to capture signals of the penetration of greenhouse gas-influenced warming in the oceans.

The findings were reported at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Washington, D.C. Barnett, a research marine physicist in the Climate Research Division at Scripps, stated: “This is perhaps the most compelling evidence yet that global warming is happening right now and it shows that we can successfully simulate its past and likely future evolution.” He admitted to being “stunned” by the results because the computer models accurately reproduced the penetration of the warming signal in all the oceans. “The statistical significance of these results is far too strong to be merely dismissed and should wipe out much of the uncertainty about the reality of global warming,” he continued.

Although he pointed out that only press reports have so far been widely disseminated concerning the Scripps study, Faust said it was important for two reasons: 1) “The capability of conducting climate experiments with technology–to use both computers combined with actual measurements–gives support to the use of climate modeling. The indications are quite strong that we can now accurately reproduce observations made in the oceans;” and 2) “This study came from the heart of the U.S., and it shows that there are active scientific voices in the U.S., who are very much concerned with climate change. This is a really important message.”

In an interview with the BBC, Barnett noted that the world's oceans cover around 71 percent of the earth's surface, and what happens in them therefore significantly influences the world's weather and climate. The study used advanced computer models “to calculate human-produced warming over the last 40 years in the world's oceans,” said Scripps' bulletin. “In all of the ocean basins, the warming signal found in the upper 700 meters predicted by the models corresponded to the measurements obtained at sea with confidence exceeding 95 percent. The correspondence was especially strong in the upper 500 meters of the water column.”

This high degree of visual agreement and statistical significance led Barnett to conclude that the warming is the product of human influence. “Efforts to explain the ocean changes through naturally occurring variations in the climate or external forces–such as solar or volcanic factors–did not come close to reproducing the observed warming,” he stated.

While the scientists may have given the world an answer to the long debated question on man's role in raising global temperatures, their own role in doing anything about it is limited. That task falls into the far more complicated political realm, and, as most politicians don't like telling the public what it doesn't want to hear, it may take some time for any meaningful action to emerge from their debates.

The one step so far has been the creation of the Kyoto Agreement that came into force on Feb.16, seven years after it was agreed upon. The Treaty aims to reduce the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012. So far 141 countries, accounting for 55 percent of the harmful emissions, have ratified the treaty. The United States, which emits more greenhouse gases than any other country, is, however, notably absent, as are India, China and Brazil. The Bush Administration withdrew consideration of the treaty in 2000 on the grounds that the agreement is flawed and its implementation would prove too costly.

“This is a first step,” Faust said, “and it's a small one compared to what's needed.” Most experts agree that the world is getting warmer. The link to greenhouse gas emissions is, however, a subject of fierce debate.

Discussing the hurricanes that struck the Southeastern U.S. last fall, Faust pointed out that the Atlantic Ocean between 10° and 20° North, where tropical cyclones develop, is now in a “warm phase.” The last such period ended in the 1970s. He described them as “circular modes,” which aren't related to global warming, but, he added that warmer global temperatures could make the warm phases warmer and longer, and the cold phases shorter and less cold. That would increase the number of storms.

“We're beginning to see the picture more and more clearly,” Faust said. “Extreme weather is the [insurance] industry's business, and what we're seeing is an increase in weather related natural catastrophes. There's something on the way, and we know we have to improve our data to get a more specific focus on it.”

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Insurance Journal West March 7, 2005
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