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.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Back to basics: "Tackling climate change".....

From Sir David King to Prince Charles, and daily on the Today programme, we hear repeated calls for us "to do more to tackle climate change." Now, I foolishly believe I know how to tackle a rampaging prop forward, but I would still think twice about attempting to do so. With climate change, I have no idea how to stop so rumbustious a natural phenomenon in its multifarious tracks. Even greater caution is therefore required with respect to any naive call "to tackle climate change." We need desperately to return to basics, and to think through this mantraic phrase.

First, humans can never halt climate change. This is a simple, unchallangeable, Canutian reality. Climate has always changed, is always changing, and will always change. Whatever we do, climate will continue to vary, and sometimes dramatically. Between 1695 and 1733, for example, annual mean temperature in central Britain rose from 7.25°C to 10.47°C. What would the 'global warmers' have made of this? Thus, when some well-meaning soul declaims, "We must do more to tackle climate change", we must always remember that there is no way we can ever halt this particular prop forward. Even if, worldwide, we closed every factory, shut down every power station, crushed every car, grounded every 'plane, and put 4 billion people out of work, climate would still change. C'est la vie climacique!.

We must thus be precise. What is meant is that we should do more to alter the human factors which may be a part of climate change. But what exactly does this involve? First, we are not just talking about emissions of carbon dioxide and methane, but about a whole gamut of human factors, from urban heat island effects through the emission of aerosols to long-standing landscape changes (albedo effects), from the first use of fire to the development of agriculture and cities. Secondly, we must never forget that our human impacts are indeed only one set of factors in a vast array of factors, largely natural, which drive climate, which is, overall, the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known.

Yet worse: in "tackling climate change", we are not even contemplating "tackling" all of the human factors, but only one, politically-selected factor out of the thousands, both natural and human, involved. And, for a system as complex and chaotic as climate, this forces us to enter a fundamental caveat: changing one factor at the margins can have no predictable long-term effect on climate. Indeed, both emitting and not emitting gases at the margin is equally unpredictable in terms of long-term outcomes. To put it simply: taking either of the above actions will not, in the light of the thousands of drivers involved in climate change, result in any given 'stable' climate. Indeed, the very concept of a 'stable', or, to employ the neologism, 'sustainable', climate is a breathtaking oxymoron.

Moreover, precisely what climate are we trying to produce, remembering that 'this climate' will itself change? Do we want a Medieval Warm Period, a Little Ice Age, the Climatic Optimum of 8000 years ago, the 'Year without Summer', this or that period of an Interglacial, or this or that period of an Ice Age? Who knows?

Put in these basic terms, the fatuousness of "tackling climate change" becomes glaringly apparent. This hegemonic agenda is deeply misguided and very dangerous.

The only way humans can respond to inexorable climate change is by maintaining strong, flexible economies that can adapt to whatever climate throws at us, hot, wet, cold, dry, or all at once.

It is time to re-learn our human limitations where climate is concerned. Humility, rather than hubris, is the order of the day.

Philip, absolutely fed up with the mindless mantras on climate that emanate from the bien pensant media and 'liberal' elites (who actually want to control everything we do). A big, strong coffee. I do hope you are enjoying the nice warm weather in the UK?

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

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