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January 21st 2013 print

Tom Quirk

Of climate science and stomach bugs

Climateers always insist that the science is settled and no reputable reseacher can disagree. Their medical counterparts believed just as firmly that spicy food causes ulcers -- and they were no more tolerant of the two men who proved them wrong


There are some instructive examples to make us wary of the claims that thousands of scientists support the “certainty” of climate change being due mostly to atmospheric carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels, and one of the most persuasive case studies of the “so convinced” collective view being proven wrong is the celebrated and once-controversial debate about the cause of stomach ulcers and the best way to cure them.


It was long an article of faith among doctors that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid.  The practice of removing ulcers, a major operation and lucrative revenue stream for surgeons, was first challenged in 1976 with the appearance of Tagamet, a drug 12 years in development. The medication inhibits the production of acid in the stomach and, as such, proved a direct threat to many surgeons’ financial well-being. Tagamet became the first blockbuster drug, amassing sales in excess of  $1 billion in a single year for manufacturer Smith, Kline & French. Five years later, in 1981, Glaxo followed with Zantac, a similar product destined to become the world’s best-selling drug.

These medications were classic examples of treating the symptoms, not the cause of a condition. These were also perfect products to sustain a continuing pharmaceutical business.

A great deal of money and prestige was riding on ulcers by 1982, when West Australians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren proved that the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterium caused most peptic ulcers, neatly reversing decades of medical doctrine. Even worse for the revenue streams of drug companies and medicos, the bacteria could be eliminated by the use of antibiotics.

No ulcers meant no ongoing business, so it should come as no surprise that, in medical circles, all hell broke loose. Drug companies would not countenance the idea that Marshall and Warren’s findings were valid. Revenue was under threat, as were share prices and the egos of those who had driven the drugs’ remarkably successful marketing campaigns. Doctors were slow to change their habits, so surgeons continued to put their patients under the knife, all the while insisting that Marshall and Warren were peddling nonsense.

By 2005 the once-ridiculed researchers were celebrating their Nobel Prize and the pharmaceutical industry had adjusted. The superseded ulcer drugs were found to be useful for limiting the gastric symptoms of hangovers, fresh blockbuster medications appeared, and drug-company revenues increased.

Marshall and Warren published and found acceptance of their results in the peer-reviewed literature. But there was no threat to the funding of medical research institutions from their work. Climate research seems very different, with well publicized examples of rejected work that might threaten the received wisdom.

Let us bear the ulcer example in mind as we examine climate-change theory and its loudest and most ardent advocates.

First, we should note the extraordinary inverted pyramid constructed atop the belief that fossil fuels are the main source of the annual increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The issues of temperature changes and sea-level rises, even the predicted spread of malaria and other tropical diseases, are no more than secondary or tertiary issues. Move further up our inverted pyramid and we find all the industrial research and development programmes, which range from the so-far unsuccessful attempts to sequester carbon dioxide –to extract it at great cost from emissions and bury it — to methane-free cows and alternative energy sources. Curiously, there appears no enthusiasm for nuclear energy, which is entirely carbon-free.

Moving even higher up the topsy-turvy pyramid, we come to the financially fertile fields of industry-assistance programmes, subsidies for grossly inefficient wind power developments and the like, and billions of dollars in taxpayer-backed loans and grants to renewable energy corporations – handouts distributed despite a near-total absence of documentary evidence attesting to the technologies’ viability.

We have now climbed to very top of the inverted pyramid, where we find a financial heaven for the  bankers who buy and sell carbon “indulgences”, much as medieval pardoners once presented pig bones as the relics of saints and persuaded the gullible that purchasing them, or a written indulgence expiating past sins, represented the best hope of salvation. All the faithful had to do was hand over their cash.

There is no doubt with a structure of this sort that the upper-level inhabitants get a bit edgy whenever doubts are raised about the soundness of the foundations. After all, careers and funding are at risk, not to mention the asset value of pension funds, companies’ market capitalisations and bankers’ bonuses.

Floating through all levels are the NGOs. Their role has been that of parasites, deriving nutrition from the host while simultaneously threatening its essential functions. In nature, however, host and parasite have evolved to co-exist, if not always happily. Just as the parasite that kills its host has no future, we should keep a close eye on the “environmental” NGOs. While they appear to have not yet recognised the dangers their buidgets and credibility face as public faith in climate-change nostrums erodes, any change in their behavior – any sign that they have found a new “threat” to promote – should be taken as a clear sign that global-warming bubble is deflating.

Much the same could be said for the political chancers who bear out H.L. Mencken’s famous statement: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

In terms of dollars and political momentum, this climate-change edifice is many orders of magnitude greater than the peptic-ulcer pyramid, so that it is worth making a brief survey of the inverted tip of this edifice.

Are we certain that the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases are really understood? After all, the continuing rise in atmospheric methane in the last half of the twentieth century was blamed on cattle and paddy fields, but leaky natural-gas pipelines may bear a greater responsibility! As for carbon dioxide, bushfires and brush fires during the El Nino of 1997-98 may have been responsible for a third of the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere at the time. El Nino events also limit the growth of phytoplankton so less carbon dioxide was absorbed by the oceans, which left more in the atmosphere.

And what of all the projections of future temperatures, sea levels, rainfall and disasters, which are all visions conjured by computer models? The inputs critical to those computer prophesies are all subject to uncertainties:

  • Present and past measurements of temperature are disputed. Is satellite data better than ground data?  Is the global temperature still rising? In general, while the measurements are said to be "state of the art" proxy data can be problematic. Strip away the hype and we can only wonder if the analysis of, say, tree-ring data tells us more about ancient climates than it does of the mindset and preconceptions of researchers. Don’t forget, when the original and infamous Hockey Stick graph was proven to be a chimera, not least because it omitted the Medieval Warm Period, the same researchers re-grouped to assert that re-vamped modeling showed  temperatures had risen only in the northern hemisphere.
  • Variations of sources and sinks for greenhouse gases cannot be well modelled. The oceans are 70% of the surface of the earth and have as much mass in their top 10 metres as the entire atmosphere. The changes in ocean surface temperature are a key determinant of global temperature. Yet what drives changes in oceanic carbon levels is not understood. Where there is no understanding there can be no computer modeling.
  • Climate sensitivity is defined as the degree of warming expected from a given change in carbon-dioxide levels. There is general agreement that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase the temperature at the surface of the earth. A simple doubling of the carbon dioxide will give a temperature increase of order 10C, but beyond that there is a vigorous debate with a range of estimated increases as a consequence of purported “feedback” contributions ranging from 0.70C to 4.50C .

Despite these uncertainties and doubts, the IPCC continues in the manner best described by a Polish aphorism much heard during the Soviet-dominated 1970s:  The future is certain, only the past is unpredictable.

Billions of dollars have been ventured following risk-benefit analyses by distinguished economists who based their work on the science’s alleged certainty.

But the edifice has not been built upon a secure foundation. Indeed, as we may now be seeing, it could be very close to its own tipping point!

Tom Quirk trained as a nuclear physicist at the University of Melbourne where he took courses in meteorology. He has been a Fellow of three Oxford Colleges