Updating the Science of Global Warming: A Q&A with Marine Biologist Katherine Richardson

When the world's governments gather in December 2009 in Copenhagen to negotiate a treaty to restrain global greenhouse gas emissions, the science on which they base their decision could be as much as four years out of date. The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered its synthesis of existing research in February 2007 and it was based on studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals only through 2005.

Stepping into that gap—at the request of the Danish government—will be the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change, a collection of the world's top scientists and economists set to meet in Copenhagen in March 2009 to deliver an updated state of the science on global warming. The prognosis is grim: Emissions throughout the world, both in countries pledged to restrain such pollution and those that have ignored or sidestepped the issue, continue to grow, and impacts can be felt from the Arctic and Antarctic to the Amazon.

ScientificAmerican.com's David Biello spoke with Katherine Richardson, a marine biologist at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the climate congress, to discuss the event and what it hopes to achieve.

Tell me about the climate change congress and where the idea came from.

The idea for doing this came from the Danish prime minister's office. [Denmark is] the local host of the meeting in December 2009 and [it is] worried about two things: One, people argue that it is economically problematic to invest in climate. [To deal with that] business people are arranging a conference in May next year on how, in some cases, it can pay to invest in climate. For example, Denmark, despite the fact that we're at 20 percent renewables [in our energy supply], is experiencing tremendous growth.

Two, this meeting is coming in the middle of an IPCC period. The IPCC report is absolutely crucial for starting negotiations. That has been accepted by everyone so you don't need to argue whether it's right or wrong. It's based on consensus.

But that is both a strength and a weakness. It takes a long time to get consensus. There were no scientific results in the 2007 [IPCC] report that came after 2005. By the time you sit down at the table in December 2009, you are missing the last four years of what we now understand about climate, adaptation, mitigation, security and about all sorts of interactions with our society.

So with an international alliance of universities, we will try to carry out a scientific meeting where we simply synthesize all this new information. We will try to put it all together into something understandable for the people coming to this meeting in Copenhagen. That's my goal.

So how is it working?

What we are trying to do now is to reach out to the scientific community at large. We have contacted every scientific meeting that we could find. This is our chance as scientists. We've been asked to put this together in real-people language: What do we really know?

There will be 57 different sessions and none of them will be on whether there will be a four-inch glacier melt or a two-inch. So your ice is melting, what does this mean for sea level rise? Is there a technical fix? What's the cost of not fixing it? We will bring the scientists out and get them to answer questions.

So far, there has been tremendous interest in this. We have received more than 1,000 abstracts from 70 different countries. It's going to be great and it's going to be big.

And what we're hoping to do with it, most of us, as scientists, were taught: Don't get your hands dirty with policy once you get your results. Let politicians figure it out. But these challenges are so big that we have to get out there and help the politicians understand what's happening. This is science's chance to describe the urgency of what's happening.

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