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An iceberg melts off Ammassalik Island in Eastern Greenland. (John Mcconnico/AP)
An iceberg melts off Ammassalik Island in Eastern Greenland. (John Mcconnico/AP)

Bob Sandford

Five climate reports, five similar conclusions. It’s time to listen Add to ...

We have now been told five times. The world is warming and we are warming it. The first time we were told this was in 1990 when a report published by the newly formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that climate change was real and that it could have huge impact on future generations. This report spawned interest on both sides of the question. Science turned its attention to the problem and an entire industry was created of experts and others who wanted to prove science wrong with respect to the causes of climate change.

The second time we were told was in 1995, when the Second Assessment Report was published. In addition to presenting the science behind claims that climate change was indeed a fact, this report calmly illuminated the economic and social dimensions of the problem.

The Third Assessment Report in 2001 told us again that there was a sound physical science basis for concerns over climate change and that the world was vulnerable to a wide range of impacts if it did not mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases on the composition and behaviour of our planet’s atmosphere.

In 2007, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report further responded to questions posed by science concerning the validity of the claim that humans were indeed the cause of the warming and added further depth to analyses of impacts and the need for adaptation as a consequence of our failure to adequately mitigate the problem through the reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Now, in 2013, we have been told again. Perhaps the most interesting thing about IPCC’s Assessment Report 5 is its calm rigor. It is not that the previous IPCC reports weren’t the object of rigorous research and wordsmithing. They were. It is a hallmark of the scientific method that IPCC reports bear the stamp of the highest possible standards of research rigor and objectivity. As a result of three full years of carefully examining the research outcomes funded by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science, I appreciate the scientific method more than ever and confidently trust the outcomes of this report.

What I have observed in my work is that every time another scientist challenges any aspect of contemporary climate science – and this happens continually – researchers are forced by the long established conventions of the scientific method to take that challenge seriously. To determine if such challenges should be considered, researchers must re-examine all the knowledge that has been collected and validated with respect to climate to date so as to test the legitimacy of any given counter claim. This means testing that counter claim against all the data that has been collected relative to that claim to determine if what is known currently still stands up in the face of new questions, new perspectives and new information.

Even when known deniers and cranks challenge any aspect of the growing body of climate science, researchers are bound by the scientific method to invert the entire established knowledge infrastructure on this planet to see to if any given challenge deserves consideration. This is how science advances over time. On matters related to climate we have been doing this for forty years.

The Fifth Assessment Report will provide the clearest view yet of the state of scientific knowledge with respect to climate change. A total of 209 lead authors and 50 review editors from 39 countries and more than 600 Contributing Authors from 32 countries contributed to the preparation of the Working Group I report alone in Assessment Report 5. That group sorted through and addressed 54,677 critical comments in preparation of the report. Two other working groups will have done the same.

Once again, every critical objection to the supposition that the burning of fossil fuels is warming our global climate has been subjected to analysis and fierce scientific debate. What has happened once more is that after running objections again and again through the entire knowledge system we keep arriving back at the same conclusions.

The global thermometer, it appears, is as indifferent to the psychological tricks of advertising and unrelenting public relations as it is to economic theory. The temperature readings keep coming in, but no matter how many times we check them, the picture that is forming of our circumstances and our future doesn’t change. Our world is warming up and, at the moment at least, it looks like it is going to warm up a lot more with consequences for everything that matters about where and how we live today. Five times we have been told. Maybe it is time to listen.

Bob Sandford is the EPCOR chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade and a member of the Forum for Leadership on Water.

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