COP-12 Report: Environmentalists in Nairobi Issue Dire Predictions of Drought Even as Rain Falls on Conference

Husband David, head of the National Center’s NGO delegation to the COP-12 U.N. global warming conference in Nairobi, files his first COP-12 conference report for the blog:

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday to heavy rains. On Sunday, it rained at Lake Nakuru National Park — a wildlife park we visited located some 140 kilometers northwest of the city — almost the entire time we were there. On Monday, as the U.N.’s Climate Change Conference (known as COP-12) got underway after the weekend break, there were morning and evening showers.That didn’t stop intrepid environmentalists from sticking with the theme in a number of their events that climate change is increasing drought across Africa, including Kenya. The bad timing was reminiscent of the time Albert Gore held a press conference on global warming at the very time the Northeastern United States was experiencing a major blizzard.

One of the events on the effects of climate change in developing countries was sponsored by the Hadley Centre, which is funded by the British government and the United Nations Development Programme. Although this means the Hadley Center receives almost all of its funding from sources advocating sharp controls on greenhouse gas emissions, I won’t expect to hear Britain’s Royal Society or Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller to decry the Hadley Centre’s credibility anytime soon.

Vicky Pope, head of the Hadley Centre’s Climate Prediction Program, offered some very scary scenarios for Africa and the rest of the world. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which uses temperature data (to estimate evaporation) and rainfall data to determine drought severity (as opposed to measuring soil moisture), her Centre has found that incidence of drought has increased sharply since the 1980s. Moderate droughts, says Pope, affected 10-15 percent of the landmass in the 1980s, but today they affect closer to 25 percent of the land. By 2100, the Hadley Centre projects that this figure will double to 50 percent. What’s more, Pope says, this climate change-induced drought will result in a “profound injustice” by hitting poor nations the hardest.

To underscore this point, Pope showed a series of color-coded world maps — one for the period 1950-1969, one for 1970-1989 and one for 1990 to today — which show significant and increasing drought in Africa, South America and parts of Asia but negligible drought in North America and Western Europe.

The starting point for these maps struck me as peculiar. North America experienced severe drought in the 1930s and, if memory serves (I don’t have access to research materials here in Nairobi), 1936 still has the record for being North America’s hottest year in the 20th Century. Including this information, of course, would significantly undercut Pope’s argument that drought disproportionately harms the developing world. Perhaps it even undermines her assertion that drought and temperature increases coincide.

When I asked her why this information wasn’t included, Pope said it wasn’t included because their objective was to provide a global drought picture and reliable temperature readings were not uniformly available before 1950.

I’m skeptical. Reliable data isn’t uniformly available now. According to recent press reports, one-quarter of the surface climate monitoring stations in southern and eastern Africa no longer function, with much of those remaining operating below specifications.

It would be interesting to know how the Hadley Centre determines what data is reliable and what is not.

A lesson from the Hadley Center’s presentation — one journalists in particular should heed: Beware of cherry-picked data.

As important as the validity of a study is a clear understanding of what it truly is measuring.

More tomorrow.

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