BUT IS IT TRUE (Life & Work)

My reaction to Al Gore’s much lauded film was to think, “But is it true?” This is the title of a famous book by the late Aaron Wildavsky of UC Berkeley. It is a guided tour of celebrated global environmental scares. Across the centuries we have been subjected to an endless series of claims of imminent catastrophe which have turned out to be empty threats. The Global Warming obsession is only the latest example though it has been hyped into an article of religious faith.

 Humanity has always faced a changing climate driven mainly by the activity of the sun and the pitch of the axis of the earth. These solar effects are modulated by cloud formation – the ‘Iris Effect’- where upper level cirrus clouds contract with increased temperature providing a very strong negative reaction to further increases. Recently it has been postulated that certain gases in the atmosphere may also be part of the equation. Be that as it may, we know that solar activity has increased in the later decades of the 20th century and that the temperature on the surface of Mars has also risen. Ominously, the solar scientists of NASA and the Russian Academy have predicted that such activity is likely to decrease during this century. Thus the benign global warming we have experienced in the last sixty years is likely to peak at less than one degree and from then on we may experience global cooling.

 Climatologists try to chart the future using computer models, but there is a problem. We are dealing with an ‘open’ system. Rather like stock exchange predictions, there are just too many variables and we do not know what weight to give to each. In particular it has proved impossible to adequately factor in the cloud effect and the associated precipitation. Thus we cannot even predict the weather for next winter far less say for certain what the climate will be in 100 years. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that, as it involves a coupled non-linear system, computer modelling in this field is unreliable, though that has not stopped the BBC or any other film maker from concocting disaster scenarios.

 This would normally be a matter of indifference since science fiction is always with us and computer modelled natural catastrophes make great television. However, the Environmental lobbies have succeeded in capturing some of the international political class. Thus we have European leaders, not usually known for their great scientific understanding, busy dreaming up new taxes, undermining power production, and imposing their views on the world community. For example, our new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, in a moment of breathtaking hubris, has vowed to lead the governments of China and India in the paths of true environmental righteousness.

 The hypothesis that climate change is almost entirely driven by industrial carbon is one of the most astonishing claims I have ever heard in a scientific debate. The use of such an unlikely idea as the factual basis for economic policy is particularly disturbing. It makes the Stern Report, commissioned by Gordon Brown, a dangerous document for it contains such seemingly innocuous ideas as the precautionary principle. In practice, this will have the effect of preserving the dominant position of the West and will be seen as economic imperialism in the developing world. This may suit those who dislike globalisation but it will keep Africa in thrall for the indefinite future.

 There are many reasons to shift away from fossil fuels and we will do so in this century without legislation, carbon conservation programmes, or the micromanaging of our lifestyles by the state. Whatever the Global Warming Industry might like to claim, there is no overwhelming consensus that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity are the main cause of variation in world temperatures. Moreover, to state that any climate change must be ‘catastrophic’ hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which have no place in empirical or theoretical science. The resulting hysteria makes it difficult to form rational decisions about issues needing attention.

 Climate changes naturally all the time, partly in predictable cycles, partly in unpredictable shorter rhythms, and partly in rapid episodic shifts the causes of which remain unknown. We were fortunate that modern societies developed during the last 10,000 years of benignly warm, interglacial climate. For 90% of the last two million years the climate has been colder, generally much colder, than today. The reality of the climate record is that sudden natural cooling is far more to be feared, and will do infinitely more social and economic damage, than the late 20th century phase of gentle warming. We should, in fact, be much more concerned with the Russian warning of decreased solar activity in years to come.


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