The insidious character of the phrase ‘climate change’

I was digging into the website of the Grains Research and Development Corporation the other day, searching on behalf of a colleague who needed some information that I thought I could find there. I wasn’t wholly successful, but on the way I was staggered at the amount of stuff there was available about ‘climate change’. It was everywhere. To give you a sense of scale, there were 576 references to consider if you searched within the website for ‘improved crop yields’, something that every grain farmer would be interested in. There were 655 references in the same website to ‘climate change’.

Carbon dioxide is not the enemy, in the grain world. That is nitrous oxide, N2O, the fourth most powerful greenhouse gas after water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane; it has an adverse effect on the ozone layer as well. Much of it is produced naturally by bacteria in the soil, but we humans do our bit in growing crops. The Grains R&DC isn’t suggesting that farmers stop growing crops, you’ll be pleased to learn, but it is interested in their mitigating N2O production.

I suddenly saw, though I should have seen it long before, that the term ‘climate change’ comes with heavy emotional baggage. First, it is the sort of change that is BAD, change that we shouldn’t want (unlike, for example, losing weight). Second it is therefore a PROBLEM, and we must do something about it. Third, we have to DO IT TOGETHER, because none of us individually can deal with such a global issue. Whatever the state of the science, that emotional baggage, it seems to me, infects the phrase every time it is used. It has become a term of our time, and will be with us for a long while. ‘Global warming’ is not so powerful. Americans and Canadians, I am told, think that warming is a good thing.

All this came back to me when I came across an editorial by the Chief Editor of Science, Dr Marcia McNutt. There aren’t many examples, she writes, of global threats so far-reaching in their impact, so dire in their consequences, and considered so likely to occur that they have engaged all nations in risk mitigation. But now with climate change, we face a slowly escalating but long-enduring global threat to food supplies, health, ecosystem services, and the general viability of the planet to support a population of more than 7 billion people.

Yes, she is plugging the line that Paris meeting in December is vitally important. Before I go on, note that there is no reference to anything written, in that long assertion. In my most recent essay I provided a well-referenced account of just how it is that in fact the world is improving, food supplies increasing, pollutants declining, greening almost everywhere. Here what you get from the Chief Editor of one of the world’s two main science journals (the other being Nature) is a flat statement to the contrary, with no attempt at any kind of argument. Why?

Because, she writes, The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed. That is very like what I heard Al Gore say to a reporter off the stage when he received his half of the Nobel Peace Prize in  2007. When I hear people say that, what I think I am hearing is someone telling us to shut up — they’re in charge and they’re going to do whatever it is. The time for debate would be over if the argument was irresistible and the evidence rock-hard — we’d all move on. Websites like this one, WUWT and Climate etc wouldn’t exist — we’d all find something else to write about. That we are still here, and growing in audience size (mine only a fraction of the other two), suggests that Dr Marcia is wrong.

She is cross with India, which is determined to build more coal-fired power stations, and cross with nations that aren’t promising to cut their emissions. [D]eveloped nations need to reduce their per-capita fossil fuel emissions even further, and by doing so, create roadmaps for developing nations to leapfrog technologies by installing low-CO2–emitting energy infrastructure rather than coal-fired power plants as they expand their energy capacity. 

Where does she think these leapfrogging technologies are coming from? If they existed we’d be using them ourselves, and exporting them to these  developing nations. As the old saying goes, ‘If I had some ham, I could have ham and eggs, if I had any eggs’. Actually, we’re not even exporting coal-fired paper stations in any number.

She applauds Pope Francis’s Encyclical, which seems to me about as reliant on real science as her editorial. And at the end we get the by now obligatory reference to the moral obligation we have to our descendants:  all of us … are borrowing against this Earth in the name of economic growth, accumulating an environmental debt by burning fossil fuels, the consequences of which will be left for our children and grandchildren to bear? Let’s act now, to save the next generations from the consequences of the beyond-two-degree inferno. The Pope would be proud.

The two-degree inferno? This is a reference to the political decision in 2010 to regard a two-degree increase in average global temperature measured against the estimate for 1780, or thereabouts, as potentially dangerous for humanity. Satellite measurements of global temperature show it has been virtually flat for almost two decades. Other global datasets show similar but shorter plateaus. We are in an incipient el Nino period, and that could lead to a slight increase in global temperature if that el Nino continues for the rest of the year. But if that happens, what we will have seen is that the only increases in temperature in twenty years seem to have been associated with el Nino conditions, which is hardly a sign that carbon dioxide is pushing us into an inferno.

Dr McNutt is the journal’s Chief Editor, and editorials ought to be conveying the ‘position’ of the journal, which is what I take to be the case in this instance. If these were only Dr McNutt’s opinions, then a statement to that effect, familiar to us all, ought to have been added. There is no such statement. If Science does indeed assert that ‘the time for debate has ended’, then it seems, at least to me, that Science is letting down the science community. Surely the real test of a paper’s worth is its inherent quality, argument, evidence and presentation.

As it read it, Science will not consider any paper in climate science that does not support the orthodoxy. That does seem to be an extraordinary position for a leading journal to take.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Yesterday in a discussion with a few friends, we were considering the question of how this AGW saga will unravel, as unravel it will. As you say, Don, the AGW sceptics have not gone away – they’re growing in number, and they’re only the ones we hear from, or whose interest we deduce from traffic to sceptical web sites. There are many more who don’t voice their opinions through such channels – it’s only through various surveys that we get an idea of how little significance they attach to “climate change”.. In addition, the number of chinks, splits and wide crevices in the pro-AGW case increase as each month goes by.

    Since yesterday’s discussion I’ve been mulling over another strand we have considered earlier – why is it that the populace at large has been drawn into accepting the orthodox view on AGW. (It is AGW and CAGW – not only is the insertion of “climate change” into so many statements of policy and action, quite insidious, the term itself is perfidious, deception cloaked in good faith.) Rather than listing all those reasons in detail, suffice it to note two: the human trait of accepting authority, and the suborning of academia and the media.

    Reinforcing the acceptance of authority is the desire to fit within the mainstream, a useful foundation for human cooperation, without which civilisations, let alone tribes, could not have evolved. Today we see very clearly that desire to conform, because with the instant and multi-threaded communication channels we now have, we can quickly establish the differing opinions around us. With such a mass of information, we take short cuts: “what is the view of my group (political, social, collegium, business, religious)?” And then we tend to follow whichever is to us the more important group.

    That process of following what seems to us to be the safer path, which is really what we mean by the one that is “politically correct”, often means that we pick up one view then another and another, all often linked under some altruistic phrase . . such as “human rights”, “freedom of expression”, “for our grandchildren” – you can pull any phrase you like out of that golden handbag, and use it as you wish. So these various positions on one issue and another, become linked in our minds, a bit like knitting a convoluted three-dimensional woollen jumper (no, not a kangaroo – this for our North American friends – try a woollen “sweater”). It is a ravelling process (in the sense of entangling).

    Therein may lie the answer to yesterday’s question: the very process that has led to this bundling up of conforming opinions, can also be the key to its undoing. If for example, someone who carefully accepted all the politically correct opinions (and for authority, they need but turn to Australia’s ABC media), but then started to have some misgivings about one of those views (over for example the ongoing aboriginal reconciliation debate of the last fifty years, or gay marriage, or detention of illegal asylum seekers), those early misgivings amount to a picking at those woollen threads. It’s like any questioning of authority – once it starts, goodness knows where it will end.

    So I’m thinking the unravelling of an unswerving belief in (C)AGW is quietly happening for many, perhaps starting with some issue other than global warming itself. Now a shift of imagery: once the momentum starts to build, it will be like an unsafe dam wall in a flood – watch out!

    • dlb says:

      It was rather the reverse for me, as the ABC’s one sided climate reporting opened my eyes to their bias in other areas.
      I don’t know whether I am imagining things, but I think they may have toned down their climate rhetoric of late?

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        Interesting, dlb,

        While at times I think your beloved Moon is waxing, despite those tidal generators, there are some winds of political change in Australia and perhaps elsewhere slowly occurring, don’t you think? A more moderate Greens leader, a Labor leader whom the ABC was struggling to defend/support on the news tonight after the latest Commission hearings on union corruption, the meat axe taken to the carbon tax, Greg Hunt dancing around the Great Barrier Reef with a bit of mining on the side (not bad for a warmist), a Europe maybe starting to realise that some things just ain’t workin’ as they should (despite heartfelt encouragement from Barack) . . . these are some of the threads that are interwoven in that great woolly jumper of public thinking.

        Not sure your process was the reverse of what I was getting at, but a real illustration of my point. Maybe you and I could write a script for a movie one day: “The Great Unravelling”.

        • dlb says:

          Yes, all these grand designs starting to unravel. Let’s hope Europe fares better than the Arab Spring.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Again a cogent and careful unfolding of the mindset we oppose, but O melancholy!
    One reason for why the effect of what you say having such a dismal effect on morale arises from the effect one can watch in one’s own person. I do not know Marcia McNutt from a macadamia, but hearing through your post the various emotional manipulations, duress, dishonest use of language and evasions, I find myself thinking her not just wrong, but despicable. Why? Because of the evident satisfaction she takes in fomenting ill-morale, and the guile with which she evades responsibility for doing this.
    I suspect, but cannot prove, that the anxiety to disentangle the issue from debate to ‘clean’ straightforward action has a suspicion and fear of the purchase sceptic argument is starting to have, and a wish to get clear of this danger.
    Ordinarily I prefer not to despise people, remembering that most have dimensions of character outside the dimension that gets betrayed by the polemic tricks Ms McChestnut employs in her editorials. But converting Science into emotional manipulation is wicked, and an aspect of its wickedness is how it arouses in those who perceive this more than disagreement with a person, but the impulse to hex them.

  • PeterE says:

    I’m for both motherhood and climate change. No, wait! I’m for motherhood but, like King Canute, against ….. Well, at least the science is settled and the time for action has arrived. What do we want? No climate change. When do we want it? Now.

  • David says:

    Don it seems like the Pope’s Encyclical has really annoyed you, hasn’t it . 🙂

  • aert driessen says:

    Don, I think that the quote that you ascribe to Dr McNutt (as follows) — ” of global threats so far-reaching in their impact, so dire in their consequences, and considered so likely to occur that they have engaged all nations in risk mitigation. But now with climate change, we face a slowly escalating but long-enduring global threat to food supplies, health, ecosystem services, and the general viability of the planet to support a population of more than 7 billion people” — is spot-on but as I see it this assertion is far more accurate and appropriate if applied to global cooling than warming. Cooling results in crop failures etc. Plenty of historical evidence for that. Warming nourishes civilisations – plenty of historical evidence for that also. Model predictions, not that they constitute evidence, are so far off the mark that it amazes me that alarmists (and many politicians) still rely on them to justify some of their crazy renewable energy schemes. But when you look at real evidence like actual temperature measurements and solar activity (more lack of) and cycles, then I am more convinced that we are heading for a general cooling than a warming. When (or if) that happens, how will we refer to it? Climate change? My water pipes froze one night last week; long time since that happened. Fair chance of snow in Canberra over the weekend, long time since that happened. Sydney is experiencing its coldest prolonged cold spell for I don’t know how many years. I wonder if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have anything to do with it? I doubt it.

  • kvd says:

    Never mind the Southern Oscillation Index – I’d prefer an Expert Oscillation Index, just so’s I could keep up:

  • TFX says:

    Reducing NO2 emissions also has economic benefits as it means less nitrogenous fertilisers is wasted by being lost to the atmosphere or washed away. It costs money losing nitrogen.

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