A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Our Friday essay: confusing 'global warming' with climate change.....

What do Sir David King, 'The Guardian' and 'The Independent' have in common? They all fall into the trap of confusing the myth of 'global warming' with the reality of climate change.....

'Global warming' as myth
© Philip Stott 2004

In any discussion of climate change, it is essential to distinguish between the complex science of climate and the myth, in the sense of Roland Barthes, or the 'hybrid', following Bruno Latour, of 'global warming'.

The latter is a politico-pseudoscientific construct, developed since the late-1980s, in which the human emission of 'greenhouse gases', such as carbon dioxide and methane, is unquestioningly taken as the prime driver of a new and dramatic type of climate change that will inexorably result in a significant warming during the next 100 years and which will inevitably lead to catastrophe for both humanity and the Earth. This, in turn, has morphed, since 1992 and the Rio Conference, into a legitimising myth for a gamut of interconnected political agendas, above all for a range of European sensibilities with regards to America, oil, the car, transport, economic growth, trade, and international corporations. The language employed tends to be authoritarian and religious in character, involving the use of what the physicist, P. H. Borcherds, has termed the 'hysterical subjunctive'. Indeed, for many, the myth has become an article of a secular faith that exhibits all the characteristics of a pre-modern religion, above all demanding sacrifice to the Earth.

By contrast, the science of climate change starts from the principle that we are concerned with the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known and that it is distinctly unlikely that climate change can be predicted by reference to a single variable, or factor, however politically-convenient that factor. Above all, in approaching the science, as distinct from the myth, it is necessary to exercise precision with regard to three specific questions.

First, is climate changing? The answer has to be: "Of course, climate is changing." Evidence throughout geological time indicates climate change at all scales and all times. Climate change is the norm, not the exception, and the Earth, during each moment, however temporally defined, is either 'warming' or 'cooling'. If climate were ever to become stable, it would be a scientifically-exciting phenomenon. To declare that "the climate is changing" is thus a truism. Here we encounter the first major contradistinction with the 'global warming' myth, in which, classically, the myth harks back to a lost 'Golden Age' of climate stability, or, to employ a more 'modern' sensibility, climate 'sustainability'. Sadly, the idea of a 'sustainable climate' is an oxymoron. The fact that we have re-discovered 'climate change' at the turn of the Millennium tells us more about ourselves, and about our devices and desires, than about climate. Opponents of 'global warming' are often snidely referred to as 'climate change deniers'; precisely the opposite is true. Those who question the myth of 'global warming' are passionate believers in climate change. It is the 'global warmers' who deny that climate change is the norm.

Secondly, do humans influence climate? Again, the answer is: "Of course, they do." Hominids and humans have been affecting climate since they first manipulated fire to alter landscapes at least 750,000 years ago, but possibly as far back as 2 million years. Recent research has further implicated the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, as an important human factor. Humans thus influence climate in many ways, through altering the albedo (the reflectivity) of the surface of the Earth, through changing the energy balance of the Earth, by emitting particles and aerosols, as well as by those hoary old favourites, industrial emissions. Here, therefore, we encounter the second major contradistinction with the 'global warming' myth. Human influences on climate are multi-factorial. Unfortunately, we know precious little about most of them. My own instinct is that our ability to change the reflectivity of the Earth's surface will, in the end, prove to have been far more important. After all, if Lex Luther covered the Tibetan High Plateau with black plastic sheeting, even Superman might have problems dealing with the monsoons.

Thirdly, will we be able to produce predictable (the operative word) climate change, and a stable climate, by adjusting, at the margins, just one human variable, namely carbon dioxide emissions, out of the millions of factors, both natural and human, that drive climate? The answer is: "One hundred per cent, no." This is the seminal point at which the complex science of climate diverges irreconcilably from the central beliefs of the 'global warming' myth. The idea that we can manage climate predictably by adjusting, minimally, our output of some politically-selected gases is both naïve and dangerous.

The truth is the opposite. In a system as complex and chaotic as climate, such an action may even trigger unexpected consequences. It is vital to remember that, for a coupled, non-linear system, not doing something (i.e., not emitting gases) is as unpredictable as doing something (i.e., emitting gases). Even if we closed down every factory in the world, crushed every car and aeroplane, turned off all energy production, and threw 4 billion people worldwide out of work, climate would still change, and often dramatically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the myth is starting to implode. The conservationist and Green guru, Professor David Bellamy, has recently called 'global warming' "poppycock". Serious new research at The Max Planck Institute has indicated that the sun is a far more significant factor; Dr Bill Burrows, a climatologist and a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, has concluded: "Perhaps we are devoting too many resources to correcting human effects on the climate without being sure that we are the major contributor." The recent temperature 'spike', known as 'the hockey stick', has been unmasked as a statistical artefact, while the 'Medieval Warm Period' and the 'Little Ice Age' have been statistically 're-discovered'. Moreover, the latest research has shown that there has probably been no real warming, except that which is surface-driven. And in Russia, 'global warming' has been likened to infamous Lysenkoism.

Accordingly, the predication of government, and United Nations', policy for energy growth on the unsustainable myth of 'global warming' is a serious threat to us all, but especially to the 1.6 billion people in the less-developed world who have no access to any modern form of energy. The twin curses of water poverty and energy poverty remain the real scandals. By contrast, the political imposition on the rest of the world of our Northern, self-indulgent ecochondria about 'global warming' could prove to be a neo-colonialism too far.

Philip, calling for a concerted effort to fight back for climate change against the myth of 'global warming'. Coffee time.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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