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September 02nd 2012 print

John McLean

The big bunnies of climate science

Rather than reading, and often misreading, ice cores, tree-ring data and the like, climate scientists would do well to ask if they have invested their faith in an illusion

In the 1950 movie "Harvey", James Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd, an inebriate, whose imaginary friend was a six-foot tall white rabbit named Harvey. In one of many memorable lines from the movie Elwood says, "Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it".

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), inebriated with its power and influence, has wrestled with the reality of climate change for 23 years and is even more adamant than Elwood about its imaginary "friend" – significant and dangerous manmade warming.

It’s not only the IPCC suffering the delusion but also the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and, on the basis of those two, numerous governments, government-funded organizations, academics, environmental groups and the dupes of the mainstream media.

To sustain the delusion, which after more than 20 years of substantially funded research still has no supporting credible evidence, requires numerous supplementary delusions. Some of these are:

The delusion that historical temperatures are accurate – The historical temperature record is compiled from data that vary each month in the number and location of observations both on land and at sea. As well as that, manual adjustments are made to take into account the variations in data collection and the relocation of observation stations. To believe this record is accurate to three decimal places is a huge delusion.

The delusion of an abnormal, dangerous and continued warming trend – In a 2010 interview with the BBC, the director of the Climatic Research Unit, Phil Jones, said that the warming trends in 1860-1880, 1910-1940 and 1975-1998 were almost identical, that across 1995-2009 the warming trend was not statistically significant, and that across 2002-2009 the cooling trend – or as he said, negative trend – was likewise not significant. Recent warming is therefore neither abnormal nor continuing.

The delusion that proof of warming can be segued into evidence of manmade warming – This relies on the further delusion that all climate forces are very well understood, which the IPCC’s 2007 report denied, and the delusion that climate models are accurate. The IPCC’s need in its 2007 report to average the results of 22 climate models, some of those run multiple times with slightly different assumptions, and the failure of models to predict the current hiatus in warming, shows what a delusion it is.

The delusion that there are "multiple lines of evidence" to support the notion of manmade warming - This is an often repeated claim, almost always as an assertion without detailed information, and relies heavily on the output of climate models (see previous). A frequent justification is "we don’t know what else could be causing the warming". This must, in the light the IPCC’s admission of poor levels of scientific understanding, be seen an admission of ignorance.

The delusion that the peer-review of climate science papers is accurate and impartial – Firstly, journals request that authors suggest potential reviewers for their papers, which naturally can lead to abuse. Secondly, it’s also human nature to be less finicky with papers that agree with one’s own view and very critical of papers that disagree. Thirdly, from first hand experience I know that reviewers are not above focusing on minor issues rather than the substance of a paper. And fourthly, how many climate science papers pass review or are published but are quickly found to contain serious errors?

The twin delusions that CO2 concentration correlates with temperature and that correlation proves causation – The alleged correlation is refuted by 20 years elapsing from when CO2 was known to be increasing and temperatures starting to rise. Phil Jones’s comment (see above) shows that extended periods of similar warming occurred when CO2 concentrations differed, and despite the increase in CO2 in the last 15 years there’s been an absence of warming. Of course even the alleged correlation does not prove cause. While the absence of a correlation between two factors, A and B, proves that the factors are unrelated, the presence of a correlation doesn’t prove whether A drives B, B drives A, or some other force drives both.

The delusion that the IPCC is impartial and credible – The IPCC’s charter directs it to examine human induced climate change, so by implication if no change can be found then the organization would be forced to disband. The IAC review identified a number of serious problems with the IPCC’s process and structures, including that its process of author selection encourages a bias and that other plausible hypotheses are rarely mentioned. The IAC was not requested to evaluate the IPCC’s science but independent researchers have shown the dubious basis of the key findings of the 2007 IPCC report. They also identified numerous errors in that report, as well as many half-truths and mendacious media statements from the IPCC.

The delusion that a consensus exists and that consensus is how scientific truths are determined – The widely claimed 97% consensus among scientists (which I heard repeated recently at an Australian Climate Commission public forum) is a nonsense derived from two very vague questions and a retrospective culling of over 3000 respondents down to just 77. Of those, 75 answered in a manner that the pollsters interpreted as endorsing AGW, hence the 97%. If the numbers mattered, which they don’t, there’s over 31,000 signatories on an Internet petition, including more than 9000 with PhDs, who disagree, which makes it clear where the consensus actually lies.

Consensus, even if one exists, is not how scientific matters are determined; it’s only a tool for reaching political and administrative decisions. Science is not a democracy. Provisional scientific truths – because they are no more than provisional – are determined by how well a hypothesis accounts for the existing observations and whether they continue to account for new observations. Medical science in particular has many examples of breakthroughs that rejected the consensus of the day.

The eight delusions detailed above are just the tip of an iceberg. Some of the many others are that

  • it’s OK to exaggerate the theoretical CO2-driven warming by a factor of more than 3 despite the absence of supporting evidence
  • clouds can be assumed to cause additional warming despite evidence showing that their influence varies between positive and negative
  • it’s OK to claim that the only solar force on climate is solar radiation despite correlations between temperature and other solar forces having been shown
  • warming would be entirely bad, rather than reduce deaths from the cold and extend arable land
  • extreme weather conditions are unnatural, despite records showing that similar events have occurred in the past
  • sceptics are well-funded by fossil fuel companies (if only!)
  • "he who pays the piper calls the tune" only applies to researchers who don’t accept the notion of dangerous global warming and who receive only a miniscule fraction of the funding made available to those whose work endorses or supports the IPCC’ sopinion
  • and, appearing only recently, those who refuse to accept the AGW delusion are somehow mentally inferior to those that who accept it

The notion of significant and dangerous manmade warming is a delusion, supported by statements from all the national academies of science except Russia and China. It’s another delusion that that these endorsements speak for all academy members. Members were not surveyed and the statements came from executive bodies or subcommittees of interested persons.

In 1852 Charles MacKay’s views on delusions were published under the title Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. MacKay said:

"In tracing the career of the erring philosophers, or the wilful cheats, who have encouraged or preyed upon the credulity of mankind, it will implify and elucidate the subject, if we divide it into three classes: the first comprising alchymists, or those in general who have devoted themselves to the discovering of the philosopher’s stone and the water of life; the second comprising astrologers, necromancers, sorcerers, geomancers, and all those who pretended to discover futurity; and the third consisting of the dealers in charms, amulets, philters, universal-panacea mongers, touchers for the evil, seventh sons of a seventh son, sympathetic powder compounders, homoeopathists, animal magnetisers, and all the motley tribe of quacks, empirics, and charlatans. 

Are there parallels with alarmist climate scientists in the present day? We have "alchymists" who have claim to have determined that CO2 is to blame; astrologers in the form of climate modellers who claim to be able to predict the future; and the universal-panacea mongers who claim that a reduction in CO2 is what we all need.

We also shouldn’t forget the language alchemists who have converted "climate change" into "man-made climate change" with a whole new meaning, and those who’ve taken carbon dioxide, a gas essential for life on this planet, and linguistically twisted the emitting of the substance into "carbon pollution".

MacKay describes how in June 1523 several of London’s astrologers and fortune-tellers started predicting that on the first of February 1524 the Thames would flood the city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses.

"The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. … By the middle of January, a week short of the predicted February 1st flooding, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city…"

Of course no such inundation occurred. MacKay continues:

"On the morrow, it was seriously discussed whether it would not be advisable to duck the false prophets in the river. Luckily for them, they thought of an expedient which allayed the popular fury. They asserted that, by an error (a very slight one,) of a little figure, they had fixed the date of this awful inundation a whole century too early. The stars were right after all, and they, erring mortals, were wrong." 

This sounds very like the climate modellers who confidently predicted – and the IPCC repeated those predictions – that global average temperatures and the average sea level would both now be considerably higher than they are.

The 1523 soothsayers said their mistake was due to a slight error in a figure. Modern soothsayers claim, supposedly settled science notwithstanding, that their error is due to some hitherto unrecognised climate factor that’s has suddenly become been influential only in the last 15 years.

MacKay also noted how believers were quick to interpret chance natural events as omens and confirmations of their dogma.  He says:

"During seasons of great pestilence, men have often believed the prophecies of crazed fanatics, that the end of the world was come. Credulity is always greatest in times of calamity." 

How easily this can be interpreted as being about climate alarmists who claim that any drought, heatwave or flood is a sign of manmade climate change.

Dangerous global warming, unlike the easy-going giant rabbit Harvey, is a very expensive delusion. Over the last 20 years it’s been supported by probably in excess of USD150 billion and the supporting pyramid of other delusions. Phony research, like web searches for phrases, phony statistics, like the Hockey stick graph, and claims expressed in the final paragraph of papers that hitherto have not mentioned man-made warming have all been par for the course.

The IPCC, the UNEP, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and various other fora might not be the originators of all of climate science’s Harvey and the associated delusions but they’ve promoted them to the global public. The delusions are in such common use that hardly a day passes without some being repeated, and they persist even after being shown to be wrong.

The final perceptive words can be Charles MacKay’s:

"Let us not, in the pride of our superior knowledge, turn with contempt from the follies of our predecessors. The study of the errors into which great minds have fallen in the pursuit of truth can never be uninstructive. As the man looks back to the days of his childhood and his youth, and recalls to his mind the strange notions and false opinions that swayed his actions at that time, that he may wonder at them; so should society, for its edification, look back to the opinions which governed the ages fled."

John McLean is a frequent Quadrant Online contributor who recently reported on Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery’s medicine-show visit to Melbourne