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Global warming’s slower pace hardens views on need to act

Global warming has slowed since 1998 as pollution reached record levels and rising seas became a more pressing concern, according to a United Nations report that’s hardening views on both sides of the climate debate.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the temperature has been increasing at less than half the longer-term average since 1951. It also found for the first time most of the world’s untapped fossil fuels must remain in the ground to avoid catastrophic increases in storms and ocean levels.

The findings came in a 36-page summary of a report that’s aimed at guiding the work of policy makers and provided ammunition for both environmental groups pressing for stronger action on carbon emissions and skeptics who dispute that climate change is a concern. Scientists said the lull in warming shouldn’t provide any comfort.

“The global average surface temperature trend of late is like a speed bump, and we would expect the rate of temperature increase to speed up again just as most drivers do after clearing the speed bump,” Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate researcher at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a blog.

Global-warming skeptics seized on what the scientific community calls a “hiatus” in warming as evidence that the IPCC’s concerns are overblown. Pointing out mistakes in the panel’s 2007 report, which exaggerated the rate of melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and overstated the risk of floods in the Netherlands, they said yesterday’s findings reduce the need to act.

Weakened argument

It’s not clear “that scientists know enough about how the climate works to make policy-relevant recommendations to the world’s government leaders,” Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, said yesterday in a statement. The Chicago-based lobby group is pushing to repeal clean-energy policies.

“This weakens the argument for widespread alarmism over global warming,” Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish scientist and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” wrote by e-mail. “The report contains none of the media’s typically apocalyptic scenarios, no alarmism, and no demands to cut emissions by X-percent or to hand out lavish subsidies on solar panels.”

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s climate commissioner, discounted the idea that the slowing pace of warming is a sign that climate change can be ignored. “The train is still gaining speed in the wrong direction,” she said in an interview.

The report probably won’t change the opinions of groups that don’t believe human activity is driving global warming, she said. “We hear what we want to hear.”

‘Wakeup call’

President Barack Obama’s administration echoed European leaders saying the report was cause for concern. The report is designed to inform the work of envoys from more than 190 nations attempting to negotiate a treaty that would restrict fossil fuel pollution from 2020. They meet in November in Warsaw.

“This is yet another wakeup call,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire. Climate change is real. It’s happening now. Human beings are the cause of this transformation, and only action by human beings can save the world from its worst impacts.”

The report also found that the world already has released more than half the emissions from fossil fuels that it can without doing irreparable damage to the atmosphere. The IPCC estimated about 531 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted from oil, natural gas, coal and deforestation.

It estimated that capping those greenhouse gas emissions at 840 billion tons gives the world a 50 percent chance of meeting its target to holding global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the first time it has made such an estimate.

Melting ice

The report flagged an acceleration of the melting of ice caps covering Greenland and Antarctica and a retreat in sea ice over the Arctic Ocean. It said concentrations in the atmosphere of the three main gases blamed for global warming — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — are at their highest in at least 800,000 years. It also repeated a statement from 2007 that warming of the climate is “unequivocal.”

“We need to build resilience and seize the opportunities of a low-carbon future,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message to the meeting in Stockholm. “The heat is on. Now we must act.”

Temperatures on average worldwide rose at 0.05 degrees Celsius per decade from 1998 through 2012, according to the report from the IPCC. The rate was 0.12 degrees per decade from 1951 through 2012, the panel said, noting that “due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.”

Global warming

Even at the slower rate, the increase translates to half a degree of warming per century, which is more than three times the estimated speed of warming when the last ice age ended between 17,500 and 10,000 years ago. The UN has resolved to limit warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius since industrialization began, and has charted about 0.8 degrees of warming already.

“We are not on a path that would lead us to respect that climate target,” said Thomas Stocker, co-chairman of the group that drafted the UN report. Stocker is a climate professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

The lower pace of warming in recent years may be explained by natural phenomena including volcanic eruptions, a periodic drop in the sun’s warmth and natural variation in the weather, the panel said in its wider report, the UN said.

‘Firm foundation’

The study provides “a firm foundation for considerations of the impacts of climate change on human and natural systems and ways to meet the challenge of climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, which is charged with compiling the work of thousands of scientists around the globe.

He spoke in the Swedish capital, where the environmental group Greenpeace placed a 2-meter (6.6-foot) high block of ice with a model of an oil rig flaring flames onto it.

“We know that pollution from burning fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change,”Samantha Smith, leader of the climate and energy program at the environmental group WWF said in a statement. “Climate change is a gigantic and clear risk.”

Before this year’s report, envoys from the U.S. and EU sought more details about the global-warming hiatus. In including language about the slowdown, the IPCC overrode concerns from Germany and Hungary that the 15-year period since 1998 isn’t long enough to determine trends in the climate.

Negotiating terms

At the same time, negotiations on the wording that went through the night led to the inclusion of the caveat that trends based on short periods may be affected simply by the starting and ending dates used.

The panel noted that 15-year periods starting in 1995, 1996, and 1997 would have average warming rates of 0.13, 0.14 and 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade respectively. The UN World Meteorological Organization defines climate as the average weather over a 30-year period.

The report didn’t mention another possible reason behind the slowdown in warming: that oceans may be absorbing more of the temperature increases. That was the subject of a study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in May, since the cutoff date for science in the UN report was March 15.

That study found ocean waters deeper than 700 meters have absorbed more heat since 1999. The study said heat uptake from 700 meters to 2,000 meters “likely continued unabated,” without signaling any acceleration.

Next reports

The UN’s findings are the first installment of three reports summarizing the IPCC’s work. The next parts are due in March and April, with a final document synthesizing the three scheduled for completion in October 2014.

When the panel finished its last study six years ago, it was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize and the prospect its findings might spur a globally binding treaty to cut greenhouse gases. That deal never materialized, and scientists were criticized for inaccuracies in their work and the content of leaked e-mails between climate researchers.

A probe into the scientists recommended that leadership of the panel should change after every major assessment, a conclusion the UN said it would accept and implement after this study, allowing Pachauri to stay in charge for a second assessment report.

Other findings

Scientists said it’s “extremely likely” that humans caused more than half of the global temperature increase since the 1950s. That’s more certain than the 2007 report, which put the probability at “very likely.” The language assigns numerical probabilities of at least 95 percent for “extremely likely” and greater than 90 percent for “very likely.” Other findings and forecasts include:

* Global average temperatures are likely to rise by 0.3 degree to 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to a draft issued on Aug. 12. That’s less than the gain of 1.1 degrees to 6.4 degrees forecast in 2007. The world already has warmed about 0.85 degree since 1880.

* Sea levels may increase 26 centimeters to 98 centimeters (10 inches to 39 inches) by the end of the century, more than the 2007 range for gains of 18 to 59 centimeters. The level already has risen about 19 centimeters.

* The sensitivity to a hypothetical doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be lower, leading to a temperature increase of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees. That’s a half degree less at the bottom end of the range than in 2007.

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