Con Allègre, ma non troppo

Guest Commentary by Georg Hoffmann (LSCE)

Climate change denial is not necessarily a speciality of Washington DC think tanks – sometimes it can also be found in old Europe. Right now there is a little media storm passing by in France evoked by an article from Claude Allègre in L’Express. Who is Claude Allègre? He is one of the most decorated french geophysicists specializing in geochemistry and the use of paleomagnetism. Being a longtime friend of the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, he even became Minister of Education and Research in the former Socialist government. He still plays an active role within the Socialist party and though he has never published anything directly related to anthropogenic climate change, one would assume that he has some understanding of the scientific matter. But this assumption would be wrong.

In the French weekly journal l’Express he exposed his “sceptical” views in an article entitled “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. In the short editorial, he somehow became lost when following Ernest Hemingway to East Africa. Allègre mentions two scientific examples to demonstrate that there is something fundamentally wrong in the IPCC statements on the reality of climate change. First, he commented on the disappearing glaciers of the Kilimanjaro, sometimes treated as the “Panda” of anthropogenic climate change. Citing a “Nature” study (which was in fact published in Science) by Pierre Sepulchre and colleagues from my laboratory, he claimed that this modelling study demonstrated that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are controlled by tectonic activity. In fact, the article describes the impact of tectonics of the East African Highlands on Indian ocean moisture transport —- on a time scale of millions of years! This confuses glacier variability over the last ~100 years with rainfall trends extending back to the time of the early hominids (such as Lucy).

In fact, there are good reasons to believe that the situation on the Kilimanjaro is a bit more complicated than a simple “atmosphere gets warmer/ glaciers are melting” equation (for instance, see this previous post on tropical glacier retreat). Furthermore, the real link to climate change does not come from the retreat of one single tropical glacier, but from the fact that, to my knowledge, all studied tropical glaciers have retreated over the 20th century, and the retreat rates have generally increased in recent decades.

Allègre’s misunderstanding was immediately followed by another one. Citing a recent study on relatively stable Antarctic snowfall over the last 30 years (Monaghan et al, 2006, discussed here) , he highlighted what he thought was a clear contradiction to future climate simulations of global circulation models (melting of the Antarctic ice sheet). However, that’s not what they predict. All models predict a comparably stable Antarctic ice sheet for the 21th century in which comparably moderate temperature changes in Antarctica are compensated by slight increase in snowfall. The Monaghan et al study does not contradict these model scenarios.

The French climate research community was of course not very pleased about this short sequence of misrepresentations and personal attacks (“les Cassandres”) and corrected Allègre in an open letter published here on the website of the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace (which includes links to the ongoing back and forth, for those that speak French).

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