science 2008-2009: 7: climate change
By Jon E Agar, on 26 September 2009
Polar science, with its measurements of ice melt and of the critical movements of the great Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, provides some of the essential clues to predicting future climate change. The political response in the 2000s was both slow and complex, with, for example, American states such as California moving in a different direction and speed to the national government. Climate change was a key in issue in the election of a new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in Australia in 2007. In Britain, climate change and energy security were used (not least by the then chief scientific advisor to the government, David King) to justify the start of a new wave of nuclear power station construction. The strange amalgam of science and politics that marks climate change action was honoured by the award of the 2007 Nobel prize for peace jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, the ex-vice president who had turned his powerpoint presentation into a 2006 feature film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Nevertheless, both the political will to act on climate change, as well as the large-scale technological solutions touted, were not yet strong enough in the 2000s. Carbon capture and storage (CC&S), the plan to bury carbon dioxide, a leading canidate technology, even struggled to receive funding, as the case of FutureGen illustrates. The fourth IPCC assessment report, released in 2007, was incrementally more forthright in its insistence on the reality of anthropogenic climate change than its predecessor, but probably fell short of what a mainstream scientific consensus might be. The international meeting at Copenhagen, expected to consider a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, was regarded as crunch time.
Attempts to use the IPCC as a model for other areas where global-scale problems needed guidance from complex and disputed scientific advice ran into trouble, too, in 2008. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technolog, described by a Nature editorial as ‘an ambitious 4-year US$10-million project to do for hunger and poverty what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for another global challenge’, was threatened by the withdrawal of Monsanto and Syngenta. At issue was the contribution biotechnology – genetically-modified organisms, specifically – could make to the mission.