Introduction: This is the last essay in this series, an attempt on my part to set out what I think about the ‘climate change’ issue. It is based on the fifteen previous essays in the series, each linked in the text with (#x), which are in turn based on ten years of reading and thinking about the matter, plus half a working lifetime in the research policy and funding domain. I do not claim to be right about all of this, or indeed of any of it. ‘Climate change’ is an incredibly complicated business, involving the areas of study of the natural and social sciences, the humanities, politics, government, religion and much else. It is important, but not as important as its adherents think it is. In the end we will learn much more, and be able to place the current issue in its proper perspective. The notion that we have all the information that we need to make good policy in an area as multi-faceted as this is fatuous in the extreme.
The series is intended for this who would like a short-cut to knowledge. Like all short-cuts, this one has its pitfalls. Bob Carter, an eminent scientist himself, said that to understand what this is all about requires years of reading. I am in my eleventh year of that reading, and there is a great deal I don’t know well, or at all. Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to know it all to be able to come to terms with what a former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, described (inaccurately, in my opinion) as ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. We are all citizens, with the right to vote and the need to know what we are voting about. This series is offered as an aid to people who would like to find to more.
The basis for my judgments and analysis consists of the articles and other analyses I have read. You will find them by going back to what I wrote on this website and seeing what the sources were. The easiest way is to type in what you are interested in — perhaps ‘rising sea levels’ — at the magnifying glass icon on the top right of the website home page.
Global warming, as such, seems to have been so far a good thing. The Earth’s atmosphere seems to have warmed about one degree Celsius over the past century and a half, which has contributed to greater food production to support a much larger human population. It seems to me very likely that human activities of various kinds, burning fossil fuels, making cement, clearing forest for agriculture, and so on, have caused at least some of that warming, a process that has been called ‘anthropogenic global warming’, AGW for short. There must have been other causes as well, because although greenhouse gas emissions have risen steadily, especially since the middle of the 20th century, measured atmospheric temperature seems to fluctuate quite widely. We have no great knowledge about what the other factors in warming and cooling are, or their interactions, but we are learning.
The global warming scare, or Catastrophic Global Warming (CAGW) is another thing altogether. It can be dated from 1988, when Dr James Hansen, then Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, an NASA agency, warned a US Senate panel that global warming had arrived, and was caused by greenhouse gases; it was really serious. He and other scientists at the time spoke of a future of melting ice, rising sea levels, droughts, and loss of forests. The accompanying call was to abandon the use of fossil fuels. There had been a cooling scare in the 1970s, too, but the warming one of 1988 developed an astonishing momentum (#2) both internationally and within the Western democracies.
Global warming, later ‘climate change’, became and has remained an important political issue. It is now close to thirty years since Dr Hansen delivered his address, and some of the heat has gone out of the issue. In Australia it is an issue of passion for perhaps seven per cent of Australians, a figure that sits comfortably within the Green share of the vote at Australian elections. CAGW bridges the space between science and politics in an almost unprecedented way, though it has some similarities to the ‘eugenics’ issue a hundred years ago. The difference today is that governments are involved, not because the science says they must be, but because the electorate thinks that there is a single ‘science’ that points in the direction of ‘renewable energy’ and the abandonment of fossil fuels, a belief that is fostered by many scientific organisations, NGOs and the mass media, for which doom-laden stories are good front-page material.
In fact, despite Al Gore, the science of global warming is not at all settled, and over nearly three decades the core CAGW proposition (#3) — that current warming is unprecedented, and catastrophes of all kinds will be visited on humanity unless it abandons fossil fuels, NOW — has become less and less plausible. The Earth is warmer than it was 150 years ago, but it may have been appreciably warmer during the Middle Ages, the Roman period and the Minoan period, when greenhouse gases, so far as we know, were not as concentrated as they now are (#4). We still don’t know how much of the present warming has been caused by human activity, and no paper has been published that shows the link decisively, even after thirty years and the expenditure of billions of dollars on climate research and computer model-building (#5).
The seas are rising, but that has been true for some hundreds of years, and the rise may have more to do with the end of the last glacial period than with the modern increase in greenhouse gases. It is not at all clear that there is any acceleration of that rise (#6), and tidal gauges in geologically stable areas, like Sydney harbour, show both a tiny increase over a century and more, together with a lack of acceleration. Coral islands are growing, not disappearing, and there are no climate refugees, though 50 million were prophesied for 2010 several years earlier. As with so much more of climate science, we lack really good long-term observational evidence — the middle of the 19th century is really the beginning of carefully collected weather data. This gap has been filled in part, a small part, by proxies of various kinds, data about something else from one which one might be able to infer temperature, or rainfall, or fire. There are problems with all these proxies.
For the future, one can either extrapolate from the present and past, which is what Dr Hansen did in 1988, and/or build climate models, based on known physics and chemistry, plus what observations we do have, plus some estimates of what might happen economically and industrially in the future. Computer models are not new, but they are now large and complicated. Unfortunately for the modellers, the Earth is a large place, and for models to be accurate they need to have data from thousands of particular places, and many times a day. This is not yet possible, and it may not be possible at all to derive useful knowledge from the models anyway, because of the chaotic nature of weather. Moreover, the large climate models, General (or Global) Circulation Models (GCMs), have neither been validated or verified, and their success in predicting what will happen has so far been poor (#7). A 16-year long pause, or hiatus, in global warming, from about 2000 to the elNino if last year and early this year, was not predicted at all by the models.
What is to be done? And why do so many still believe in the foretold doom? The answer to the first question is that governments seem to be doing their best to get out of policies and regulations that aimed to shift us all to renewable energy, though they are slow to do it. There are two reasons. First, the doomsters are now talking about a time that seems a long way away, long past anyone’s lifetime, let alone the life of elected governments. The second is that cheap, reliable energy is the basis of the Western way of life, and there is no possible transition to renewable energy that is not extremely expensive for everyone.
Why do people believe in it all? There is no simple answer (#8). But elements of an explanation will include the arrival of environmentalism as a kind of substitute for organised Christianity, the growing wealth of the Western nations, a change in the nature of party systems, a feeling of guilt both that humanity may have done something bad, and that we are rich and other people are poor. In addition, the great majority of Western people now have no real connection either to agriculture or to industry, let alone to mining, in their daily lives. They do not see proposed policies as having anything to do with themselves, only to others.
In fact, the notion that we already have the capacity to replace fossil fuels with solar and wind power is fanciful and wrong-headed, for all sorts of quite simple reasons (#9), and in time I expect these policies to be wound back, as is already happening overseas. The process will not happen quickly unless there is a sudden and ‘alarming’ cooling period. Politicians have convinced themselves that ’97 per cent of climate scientists’ think that humans are responsible for dangerous global warming, which is quite wrong (#10), and scientific organisations, which see the AGW as a main source of funding for science of all kinds, keep on advising governments that ‘climate change’ is a central issue (#11).
The AGW scare has been one of the causes of what many see as a decline in the real power and status of scientific research, though there are others. The level of argument and debate about the issue, at least in politics and the mainstream media, is simply abysmal (#13). No one seems able to distinguish between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ (#12). Conventionally, ‘climate’ is the average of thirty years of weather, which seems much too small a difference, at least to me, to be of any explanatory or practical use, given that the changes in climate we know of from history seem to be of the order of a couple of centuries or more.
In 2016 the peak of public and governmental interest in ‘climate change’ is long past. There is now an increasing volume of climate science that is not based on the assumption that carbon dioxide is the villain, while the Paris Agreement of late 2015, signed by most nations in April this year, is devoid of real commitments to do anything except to meet again. Within the scientific community itself there is a kind of stasis, in which, at least in my judgment, there is a agreement that we need to know a lot more about the other variables that act on climate (#14). The much heralded ‘precautionary principle’ of 1992 (#15) is now being seen, as it should have been from the beginning, as operating in both directions: if we do not known nearly as much as we should about something, it is mistake to spend a great deal of money in any attempt to deal with it. Find out first, ought to be the rule.
I do not expect anything of great consequence to happen in this domain. Unless there is a sudden shift to cooling, or another long burst of warming (neither of them likely to be associated with carbon dioxide), my expectation is that by 2020 the world will have other issues to deal with, and ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ will be seen as rather aberrant fusses of the past. Some of those who made the greatest fuss about it will be very quiet about their role.
End-note: I have in mind publishing the series as a small ebook, perhaps by year’s end.