In this third essay I want to illuminate the several strands of the core argument behind the notion that global warming is dangerous for humanity, as well as threatening for other residents in the eco-system of the planet. In my first venture into the debate (A Cool Look…) I summarised the 2008 AGW proposition like this:
Human activity in burning coal and oil, and clearing forests has, over the past century, put an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it has combined with water vapour and other gases like methane to increase global temperatures in an unprecedented way. The evidence that this has occurred is clear-cut, and the increase in temperature will have, according to our computer models, dire effects on the planet, causing the melting of polar ice, the raising of sea levels, droughts, floods, storms and desertification. We must put an end to this prospect by changing our way of life lest catastrophe strike us. It may already be too late.
I accepted that what I put forward then was what you would read in the newspapers or see on television rather than cool scientific analysis — but the media inform us about the news. In fact, the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Third Assessment Report (TAR), the one available to me then, says all of the above except my last sentence. That what we might be doing could be too late was an inference anyone could pick up from what some commentators were saying in the early noughties.
If we move to the most recent IPCC Report, AR5’s SPM in 2013, there is not much difference in the core message. There is now, however, an added note of extra confidence couched in apparently statistical terms. What was missing from my summary, as well as the IPCC SPMs, was why it was that warming was bad for us. I will deal with that question in a later summary, but for now it is probably enough to say that the Global Circulation Models (GCMs), on which accounts of future climates were and are based, predicted that warming would just increase and increase, eventually making the planet more or less uninhabitable. Indeed, there were some who said that the warming could not be taken out of the system for a very long time. Things could only get warmer, and warm was bad.
Actually, it is cold that is bad. We need warmth for the germination of the seeds that are the basis of our foods. Life loves warmth, and a warmer Earth should be better for most plants and animals. How much warmth? Ah, that is for a later essay, but it is worth noticing that in earlier eras life flourished at much higher average temperatures than exist today, and with much higher concentrations of carbon dioxide as well. And one could note that people live in the tropics perfectly happily. One of my colleagues suggests that one reason for the scare is that people in the temperate regions have no idea from their own experience of how it is that people can live with high average temperatures and high humidity — and flourish.
Three things about the AGW proposition made it, in my eyes, an inadequate basis for far-reaching public policy of a global nature, which is what was being urged at the time. The first was that to a reasonable eye, the temperature data, the data about precipitation, and the data about extreme weather events, about glaciers and ice-caps, were a mixture of recent reasonably accurate data, older and much less accurate data, anecdote and surmises from one or two cases. The second was that the climate botherers (I didn’t use that term then) spoke about these data as if they were all gold-standard, which they plainly weren’t. The third was that almost everything about the future was based on the projections of GCMs, which had been neither validated nor verified. All this was couched in what I called the almost panicky media mood about ‘global warming’, in which human beings are pictured and some see themselves as evil actors in the destruction of their own habitation (through greed, arrogance and lack of will), and who deserve the punishment that will be theirs. I saw no reason to think this way and, nearly a decade later, I am still astonished at how many quite sensible people believe in this stuff without examining it at all closely.
I thought it would be helpful to my audience in 2008 to dissect the statement above into a set of topics which I could then analyse, and I chose these ones:
- the extent to which the planet is warming;
- whether or not such warming is unprecedented;
- whether or not the warming is caused by our burning fossil fuels;
- the likelihood of polar ice melting in a major way;
- the use of computer models in predicting future climates;
- the reluctance to admit uncertainty; and
- the extent to which we need to change our way of life to avoid catastrophe.
These days I would need to add topics about alternative energy and its utility, the difference between climate and weather, the role of the media, and probably extreme weather and its connection, if any, with ‘climate change’.
In 2008 it was relatively easy to deal with each of these topics with a few examples. Now the direction of each topic is the same, but the arguments and their complexity are much more extensive. In 2008 the ‘hiatus’ was only a few years old, and no one was talking about it. Indeed, everything was building towards the momentous Conference that would take place in Copenhagen and bring ‘climate equilibrium’ back (yes, there was such a phrase). In 2016 there is just so much more to argue about. Which means that the science is even less settled than it was then.
I returned to my Planning Institute paper three years ago to see what had happened since, and you can read that here. Even earlier, I tried to do what I am now doing, and started it here, and followed it with a piece on measuring global temperature, and you read that one here. Then I stopped because other things arrived in the news, and I wrote on those — that is one of the real problems in trying to plan a website’s topics. But all being well, this time I’ll really finish it!
Next: Is the planet warming?
Footnote: So much of the talk about ‘climate change’ is deadly serious, but every now and again I come across something that makes me laugh, which does clear away for a moment the ideological cobwebs that festoon this issue. Here’s an example. It’s old, but it’s fun.