Sunday, January 24, 2010

The elephant of global warming - A CLIMATE COMMENTARY By NATIONAL TAIWAN UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR Hsu Huang-hsiung 許晃雄

The elephant of global warming

By Hsu Huang-hsiung 許晃雄
May 8, 2008 PUBLISHED

The rumored invitation to and possible upcoming arrival of former US vice president Al Gore is certain to set off a new wave of discussion about global warming in Taiwan. [Editor's Note: Mr Gore was not able to visit Taiwan that year due to his busy schedule.] The topic is like an elephant with a fever being cared for by a group of blind people.

Some say the elephant doesn't have a fever and that only the room temperature has increased, while some touch the elephant's tusks and say the temperature hasn't risen at all. Global warming is a multi-faceted issue. Each person has his own observations and attitude, and sometimes it's like the famous Indian legend of the the blind men and the elephant -- each man touches the elephant and all three come to different conclusions as to what it is.

Some people passionately call for humans to protect the earth. Some have a more conservative attitude, saying that the sun is getting stronger and that global warming isn't necessarily related to what humans do. They believe that global warming will actually make the earth's climate milder.

Then there are some people who quote biased reports to refute global warming theories. Some people question why weather bureau data differs from that in media reports. I am a climatology researcher who has also come to feel the elephant and report my observations.

Over the past 100 years, temperatures in Taiwan have risen twice as fast as the global average. Taiwan, northeast Asia, Siberia and the northern Asian and European continents are all experiencing this kind of phenomenon. Other areas in the 20th century experienced a decline in temperature, making temperature increases over the last 100 years less significant. This climatic diversity is clearly influenced by different factors.

Over the last 30 years, the rate of global temperature increase has suddenly escalated to about three times its pace over the last 100 years, or about two degrees per 100 years. Temperatures in Taiwan have increased at about the same rate, with winter temperatures rising more than summer temperatures.

The documented changes over the past three decades reflect global warming in its most obvious form, with almost all regions of the globe becoming hotter.

Climatic diversity seems to be gradually disappearing. Biological diversity is beneficial to ecological and environmental sustainability, while climatic diversity helps to maintain a stable climate.

More importantly, over the past 30 years land temperatures have clearly increased faster than ocean air temperatures -- whereas during the previous 100 years, they warmed at about the same rate. Climatic modeling for future global warming shows a similar trend. By the end of the 1980s, climatologists had predicted that greenhouse gas emissions couldn't be checked and global temperatures would continue to rise.

Greenhouse gas emissions have steadily risen over the last 30 years, while the global warming trend has become more evident. These phenomenons have deeply worried many climatologists.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued its fourth report, stating that it's very possible that the global warming experienced over the past 50 years could have been influenced by humans.

It said that the average global temperature will rise by 1.1oC to 6.4oC by the end of the 21st century, possibly intensifying storms and droughts in some areas.

Some people doubt the reliability of these results because climate modeling has many flaws and climate predictions tend to be inaccurate. These skeptics believe there is much uncertainty about global warming. There is some basis for all of these theories, but modern science doesn't provide firmer predictions, instead emphasizing probabilities and possibilities.

Global warming is very complicated. It isn't a purely scientific question, but a matter of risk assessment and management. Moreover, it is a question of human choice.

The IPCC employed hundreds of scientists, used the most advanced climatic modeling, analyzed the most complete information in history and cited hundreds of academic papers to finish the most comprehensive climate assessment the world has ever seen.

Its report tells us that different research centers, using different models, all came to a similar conclusion: humans have created global warming, and with the prospect of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, global warming will become more and more severe.

These are not simply foregone conclusions, but are the consummation of research by many scientists.

Confronted with this kind of warning, how should wise governments respond? Perhaps decades from now, all of these global warming predictions will be proven false.

But we must deal with these potentially disastrous problems in the present.

The heart of the issue is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced: how to interpret this information and carry out the best counter-strategy to minimize the dangers of global warming.

This is not a question of right or wrong, but a matter of choice. Humanity's common challenge is Taiwan's challenge, and humanity's collective fate is Taiwan's collective fate.

Taiwan will not be able to remain outside the next wave of globalization -- or global warming for that matter. So what should the nation's decision be?

We can choose not to act, then pray that global warming turns out to be the greatest scientific blunder in human history. Or we can take concrete action to solve the problems facing our environment.

This action will not only help lessen the global warming trend, but will also make Taiwan a nation with a sustainable environment and limitless commercial opportunities.

Hsu Huang-hsiung is a professor at the department of atmospheric sciences at National Taiwan University.

[Translated by Marc Langer IN TAIWAN]

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An Afternoon Chat with Dr Hsu in Chiayi City, January 23, 2010

Notes compiled by Dan Bloom after meeting with Dr Hsu at the 85 C cafe on Mintsu Road, from 2 pm to 4 pm, with an interview by Liberty Times reporter Irma Yueh squeezed in as well, her story and photo follow below:

Hsu Huang-hsiung [許晃雄] is a native of Chiayi City, who now teaches atmospheric science at Taiwan's prestigious National Taiwan University (NTU). Dr Hsu received his doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle and went to do research at major academic institute in Reading, England for two years. When offered a teaching position at NTU, he returned to his native country and has been living in Taipei now for about 25 years.

During a quiet Saturday afternoon, Dr Hsu and I chatted informally about climate change and global warming, and much of our conversation focused on Dr Hsu' oped piece above, which first appeared in both the Liberty Times and Taipei Times in Taiwan in 2008. In fact, it was Dr Hsu's very insightful oped piece that introduced me to his thinking, and I made contact with him by email and phone soon after this piece appeared in transaltion in the Taipei Times.

Dr Hsu is an optimist, and while he knows there's an elephant in the room that many people don't want to admit is there -- global warming! -- he also feels very strongly that it is important to deliver positive messages about how we can fix the situation in the future, rather than dwelling on doom and gloom appeals (which I am rather well-known for).

One of the things Dr Hsu told me is that he feels climate change and global warming problems present humankind with an opportunity to find new technologies to benefit mankind, and that the whole situation opens up many creative and business opportunities for young people to think about as they pursue their education and enter the work world. Not only in Taiwan, but in every country.

Here is a summary, in my own recollection of Dr Hsu's renmarks to me in the coffee shop (they are NOT his words exactly but roughly as I remember him saying, and in very good English, too):

He told me something like this, and I paraphrase here:

"I feel that humans will use their creativity and talent in working with old and new technology to fight climate change and mitigate the problems, so that the future will turn out to be rosy and productive," he told me, as I recollect and paraphrase here. "There's no need to dwell in negative thoughts and bemoan the situation we are in. Instead, we can use this period of history to build up new business opportunities and jobs and technologies that will be victormous over climate change. Just as 20 years ago we could not imagine using a Kindle or a PDA or a nook or twitter or FaceBook or other kinds of modern computer and screen technologies that we take for granted today, the same can happen with technological fixes for climate problems and global warming. So I am a positive thinker on all this, and when I speak to students and high school science teachers, I always try to impart a positive message. I am not interested in doom and gloom. We need to face the future with a positive enegery. But yes, as the same time, there is an elephant in the room. As I wrote in my oped in 2006, this topic of global warming, especially mand-made global warming, which I tend to think is real and needs to be confronted head-on, even though not all the data is in yet, is like 'an elephant with a fever being cared for by a group of blind people'."

Here is what Dr Hsu said in an interview the same afternoon in Chinese with a reporter from the Chinese-language Liberty Times, a sister publication of the Taipei Times (they have the same owner and are part of the Liberty Times Group):



dan said...

By the way, one issue that Dr Hsu stressed was the need to think of working on climate issues today as a form or "insurance" for whatever might happen in the future. In other words, we should be prepared! said...

Given a planet with the size, composition, frangible ecology and finite carrying capacity of Earth, could someone comment on how much longer the global limitations of Earth can be expected to sustain the unsated overconsumption, unbridled overproduction and unregulated overpopulation activities of the human species in our time?

Despite every effort to appear reasonable and sensible, the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe among us approach economic and ecologic problems in patently unsustainable ways by adamantly advocating and recklessly pursuing greed-driven schemes based upon the seemingly endless growth of human consumption, production and propagation that will lead humanity to precipitate, however inadvertently and soon, the destruction of life as we know it and the Earth as a fit place for human habitation, I suppose.

If the human community is in a race against time, even at this late hour when pathological arrogance, greed-mongering and elective mutism rule the world, is it ever too late to speak of what is true to you or to do the right thing, as best we can?

dan said...

Dear Dan,

Prof. Hsu is a very sensible person.

From what I have read and see, global warming seems to be real, man made or not.

It make a lot of sense to me to make adjustments or changes in the way humans live to avoid the excessive warming as much as possible. Many things that have been proposed are healthy to the environment anyway, I don't see the reason not to make changes in the way we live.

By the way, Prof. Hsu has the same last name that I have, 許, but I use the Hakklo pronunciation, Koh, instead.


- Dr Koh in USA, longtime resident of USA, heart doctor, born in Taiwan in 1946....