The Cartoonist Who Questioned the Science on Global Warming

A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism. —Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


I was once approached by a friend who is concerned about the danger of human-caused global warming. He asserted that when it comes to scientific issues of major public concern like this, it is “not what you believe but who you believe”. I think he meant that my then hesitant scepticism about global warming was pointless, for as a cartoonist I must be as inadequate to judge the science as he was. For that matter it seems all of us who are untrained in “climate science” have no option but to respect the peer-reviewed authority of the climate science establishment. Of course, as a revered public intellectual, my friend did not see it as his duty to sit on his hands. He felt bound, as many have, to vigorously support the scientific and political authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and regional associates like the CSIRO.

I found my friend’s advice baffling. As anyone familiar with the judicial process knows, the gravest issues of liberty and fortune are often determined by a jury selected from the general public. During some trials, expert witnesses give evidence supporting either side in our adversarial system. The judge must rule which evidence is relevant or admissible, but in the end it is the jury that decides which version of the scientific evidence is to be believed. No one in a civilised society is daunted by this process. We accept the outcome unless a procedural mistake has been made. Often someone goes to jail because one cross-examined scientific expert is believed over another by ordinary jury persons. No big deal.

So what’s the problem? Everyone has the chance to do some reading until they hit the wall of their own ignorance or understanding. Then you ask for help. Acting as the foreman of your own jury, you can ask for more direction or for clarifications to help you follow the logic of the argument. But if in the end you cannot agree with your fellow jurors, then you cannot reach a verdict. It is surely the duty of scientists who wish to influence political events to explain themselves clearly. If they can’t do that to the degree that ordinary people (not to mention many of their equally qualified peers) understand and accept that there really is a dangerous global warming problem, then it is premature for governments to be setting expensive anti-carbon-dioxide measures in place.

But in matters to do with climate change there is no judge except the scientific method, that is, the proposition of a testable hypothesis followed by its testing against factual or experimental challenge. That it fails various empirical tests is, of course, precisely why the advocates of dangerous anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are attracted to the idea of a scientific consensus. And that is where things get difficult for cartoonists, public intellectuals, journalists, politicians, bloggers and the general public. The reason why the phrase “scientific consensus” emerges in this debate is because political activists want to get moving, and if they say that the so-called “scientific consensus” is scary and urgent, then cartoonists and others had better just get out of the way: the science is settled and procrastination is outrageously reckless. The question of whether there is, or can be, such a thing as a useful scientific consensus about a matter like dangerous AGW is a difficult theoretical and practical problem. Cutting through that uncertainty, AGW activists have preferred to use the political process to impose their consensus argument, mainly through the media.

The activist cause perhaps peaked in early 2007 when Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth became an international hit, winning two Academy Awards. This evidence might have seemed compelling to the uninitiated, but in October 2007 the British High Court found the film contained at least nine significant errors of fact and required British schools to refer to these errors when using the film in lessons. Though Professor Bob Carter gave evidence in this case, to date few people in Australia are aware of this severe embarrassment for Mr Gore.

Thanks mainly to media neglect, I never heard of the case at the time, and so, like nearly everyone else, I was initially taken in by the authoritative pronouncements of the former vice-president. However, I remember too that later in 2007, when the ABC broadcast Martin Durkin’s provocative documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, a lot of people got very upset indeed. How interesting. The science was settled; the debate was over; no more discussion was needed, yet all it took was one contrarian television program to cause an explosive and long-running public sensation.

Any media professional should have been aroused by such an excited censorship campaign, and it stimulated my first cartoon on the subject, which depicted the family television set as medieval stocks with an imprisoned climate sceptic being pelted by the family with their television dinner.

And what of Durkin’s documentary? I know it didn’t get one or two of the fine details of the science exactly right, but then very few documentaries ever do. For example, there has been much criticism that any influence of cosmic rays on clouds will apply only to lower-level clouds—not all clouds, as the program stated. But, as in many good documentaries, Swindle presented some riveting interviews with high-calibre professional scientists. To take one example, we heard from Professor Paul Reiter, chief of the Insects and Infectious Diseases Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. As if I were in a jury, I had the opportunity to see him as he spoke (remember that appeals courts won’t hear an appeal based on a written transcript), and I formed a strong impression that he was telling the truth—that mosquitoes are equally at home in freezing Siberia as they are in the tropics. The same goes for malaria, the disease that they carry. Professor Reiter also seemed credible when he spoke of his difficulties with the IPCC process, describing why he thought that the organisation was dysfunctional. Many of the other interviews with sceptics, including one with the co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, had a similar effect on me. Though I hadn’t seen all the evidence, after this film was broadcast the sceptics at the very least had my attention, and no doubt that of many other independent persons. So why did the media at large attack the film, and continue to vigorously promulgate their belief in dangerous AGW?

Up to the time of Swindle’s screening, the role of journalists in the global warming debate had perhaps been unexceptional. But things changed after the screening of the documentary and the outpouring of protest and criticism that it attracted. Then, and just as lobbyists do for matters of economic or social reform, the proselytisers for global warming alarm, who were feeling threatened as never before, got nasty.

Someone came up with the brilliantly clever but insidious idea of using the term “denier” to describe a person who remained agnostic or sceptical about the extent of human contribution to the global warming of the last 100 years. Why “denier”? Because it made the connection in people’s minds to “Holocaust denial”. Unbelievably, this malicious rhetoric henceforward came to be adopted by climate activists, media reporters and politicians up to the level of heads of state, and was applied to distinguished science professors such as Paul Reiter, Richard Lindzen, Freeman Dyson, William Happer and many others.

Holocaust denial describes the heartless and despicable refusal by anti-Semites to acknowledge the historical truth of the Jewish genocide that occurred during the Second World War. If you use the offensive term “denier” in another context, you do so for reasons best known to yourself. You may be calculating or you may be indifferent, but as politicians like Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong and Julia Gillard (all users of the term) would have known, the effect is pungent. No sensible, morally responsible person wants to be stigmatised in such a way.

Intimidation comes in many forms, and there can be no doubt that many people have been inhibited from entering the public debate on dangerous AGW because of the intimidatory power of this vicious language. And just in case you still haven’t got it, some prominent Australian public intellectuals to this day continue to explicitly endorse the moral equivalence between Holocaust and global warming denial. This endorsement is all the more incredible because it comes from academics who really understand the horror of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, this blatant method of stigmatising those who questioned the so-called “consensus” view on AGW turned out not to be enough to suppress all independent views: many agnostic and sceptical scientists are made of tougher stuff. Accordingly, more stops had to be pulled out on the vilification organ, with sceptical scientists being compared by journalists and Labor politicians to eighteenth-century slave trade advocates, the odious tobacco lobby and recently even to paedophiles—a new low in public discourse.

Every cartoonist and satirist in the world, not to mention the investigative reporters, should by now have had their bullshit detectors on high alert. If the evidence was so good, and the sceptical scientists were so weak, wrong and few in number, then why the need for such rancorous politics? If you have the UN, the EU, the banks, the financial markets, most of the clergy and the media on your side, then why this dishonourable nastiness as well? I’ve always hated bullies and they have certainly been thick on the ground in this debate.

No good came of going back to my friend, the intellectual, for another discussion. I was referred to the “only” source of definitive knowledge on the subject; which was supposed to be Dr James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. By this time, the alarm bell in my head was ringing loudly. For example, I came to know that only 0.7 degrees of warming had occurred since 1910, and only 0.4 degrees of that since 1945 when carbon dioxide levels started to rise considerably. Next, I was told that the Arctic sea ice was melting in an “unprecedented” way, despite abundant scientific documentation that the Arctic Ocean was virtually ice-free during the Holocene climatic optimum, only 8000 years ago—nonetheless, the public continued to be told that this melting sea ice manifests a “tipping point” that will lead to catastrophe.

These things notwithstanding, if NASA was the “main authority” then I thought that I should do as I was advised and consult them. So I went to the NASA website and searched for material on Arctic sea-ice melt. Five items into that page I discovered that “a new NASA-led study” into the causes of Arctic sea-ice melting had reported “a 23 per cent loss” in the Arctic’s year-round sea-ice cover between 2005 and 2007. The research team was led by Dr Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who said that the rapid decline in winter perennial ice over the previous two years had been caused by unusual winds, which “compressed the sea ice … and then sped its flow out of the Arctic” where it rapidly melted in warmer waters. Dr Nghiem also said that “the winds causing this trend in ice reduction were set up by an unusual pattern of atmospheric pressure that began at the beginning of this century”. Yet nowhere in the public discussion of the dramatic sea-ice melt had we heard much about these real causes for its diminution, including the North Atlantic Oscillation, doubtless because it was easier to concentrate on the positive feedback loops created by the exposed Arctic sea. The real story was far more complicated and difficult to explain than in the glib terminology of AGW.

Furthermore, other than on Andrew Bolt’s and Joanne Nova’s blogs, it is extremely hard to find any widely-read popular public description in Australia (or worldwide for that matter) of the melting of Arctic sea ice that occurred between 1920 and 1940. Virtually all media coverage has related to the short satellite record of Arctic sea ice, which is only available since 1979. Rather than a simplistic alarming story of global warming, the NASA research was an accurate account of only part of a complex matter.

The real story in the Arctic Ocean obviously involves an intricate relationship between sea ice, ocean currents, atmospheric winds and temperature as affected by ocean–atmosphere oscillations like the North Atlantic Oscillation, and these modern changes need to be studied in the context of changes that have occurred through millennia. When viewed in these wider contexts, there is nothing untoward about the relatively minor changes in sea-ice cover that have occurred in the Arctic Ocean in modern times.

This was, of course, a great time for cartooning. John Howard saw the votes to be gained in crossing over to the warming camp, and Kevin Rudd promised to save the planet from the greatest moral, economic and spiritual threat of our time.

As the Arctic ice melted in 2007, Australia was suffering the continuation of an allegedly unprecedented, decade-long drought. The absence, indeed end, of sufficient rain to fill our rivers and dams was predicted by grim-faced climate scientists who invariably announced that things were far worse than their computer models had predicted. Yet the preceding severe droughts of the 1860s, the 1890s and during the First World War were rarely discussed in order to provide a needed perspective. With a simple Google search, anyone could, and still can, access photographs of horses and carriages on a bone-dry Murray River bed in 1914.

With so much political clout behind the dangerous-warming cause, and the Australian drought in full force, the next game-changing moment that captured my attention occurred on December 19, 2007. Dr David Whitehouse caused a stir by writing an article for the left-wing New Statesman magazine titled “Has Global Warming Stopped?” Dr Whitehouse stressed a point which concerned sceptics had long noticed: “The fact is that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 as well as every year since 2001.” Because of the fundamental mechanism of global warming (the greenhouse effect), temperatures should have been increasing as carbon dioxide levels continued their relentless rise; but they were not. As Whitehouse, a PhD in astrophysics and former online science editor for the BBC, noted, “something else is happening [to the climate] and it is vital we find out what or else we may spend hundreds of billions of pounds needlessly”.

It was about this time that slowcoach denier cartoonists like me really started to wake up and look around, to discover the writings of experienced agnostic scientists like William Kininmonth, a former head of Australia’s National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology. Senior scientists like William had been publishing serious critiques of dangerous AGW way back in the 1990s, which was long before I and other slowcoaches had stopped our dreaming.

So just when those supporting climate alarm thought they had everything settled and nailed down, a gale of discontent started to blow. Cartoonist heaven, really: we love the spectacle of powerful people preparing their policy vessel against strong winds and rough seas, frantically rigging up fragile, flapping sails of spin and blather. If you’re going to spend over $15 billion of taxpayers’ money on desalinated water, or manage a potentially ruinous carbon dioxide trading scheme (please don’t stock our superannuation with the stuff), then you certainly don’t want to be questioned too closely, let alone lampooned, about the scientific details that you misunderstood or got wrong.

Nobody anticipated the next debacle: Climate­gate. As the result of an apparent hacking attack on a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (which might, or might not, have been mounted by an internal whistleblower), thousands of e-mails previously exchanged between senior IPCC scientists were leaked to the public a few weeks before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The e-mails reeked of scientific uncertainty, political manoeuvring, unreasonable secrecy and strange ethics.

The revelations that they contained undoubtedly exercised an influence on the failure of the Copenhagen conference. Climategate also prompted at least a short burst of candour from Professor Phil Jones, Director of the CRU, who confirmed in a BBC interview that the warming rates of the periods 1860–1880, 1910–1940 and 1975–1998 had been statistically similar; that from 1995 to 2009 there had been no statistically significant global warming; and that from 2002 to 2010 there had been slight but “insignificant” global cooling. In answer to a further question as to whether the “climate change (debate) is over”, Professor Jones stated, “I don’t believe the vast majority of climate scientists believe this.” I found this statement extremely encouraging, for the science was obviously not settled and the consensus was crumbling even amongst the warming devotees.

Since 2007 the non-scientific players in this great intellectual drama have been confronted by a creeping uncertainty (which some still do not want to acknowledge) concerning many contentious dangerous AGW issues. These have included: the composition of the IPCC and the credibility of its processes; the unusual melting, or not, of sea ice and glaciers; the evidence for medieval warm temperatures; the importance of sunspots; the measurement of claimed global warming; changes or not in patterns of extreme weather events; ocean “acidification”; ocean warming and sea-level rise; biomass absorption and the longevity of molecules of atmospheric carbon dioxide; the reliability of climate computer models; the influence of the short-period El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and other similar oscillations on a multi-decadal scale; the chaotic behaviour of clouds; the impact of cosmic rays on climate; realisation that it is just clean air that is being vented by the Yallourn power stations (carbon dioxide and water, with virtually no pollutants); and, to cap it all off, even a newly declared scepticism towards dangerous AGW by green gurus like James Lovelock, the founder of the Gaia movement.

By early 2010, it seemed that nearly every single element of the global warming debate was well and truly up for grabs. In addition, and not put off by having their sanity questioned, myriads of qualified agnostic and sceptical persons made public statements, or signed declarations or petitions, to the effect that whilst dangerous AGW was a theoretically possible outcome of human-related carbon dioxide emissions, it was a very unlikely one given that, despite strenuous efforts, no proven AGW at all had yet been identified at a measurable level. For example, in the Oregon Petition, starting in 1998, more than 31,000 scientists, including 9029 with PhDs, signed a statement of protest at the findings and recommendations of the IPCC.

In Australia, and against this hurricane of uncertainty, the tattered vessel of government climate policy heedlessly weighed anchor and began to implement the demonisation of carbon dioxide by introducing penal taxes against its emission. Instead of waiting out the storm in harbour, government activists set out to sea guided by the Green faith and a few bearings taken on scattered windmills along the shoreline.

All of this provided great material for a satirist, but it was bad news indeed for the average Australian citizen whose cost of living was inexorably on the rise. In addition to the continuing increases in direct costs, it is also painful to contemplate the things that could have been done to improve our schools or health services using the money that has instead been squandered in vain pursuit of irrational renewable energy targets and “stopping global warming”.

Imagine if the sceptics are right. Who is going to be accountable, and who is going to do the accounting?

What of the establishment activists, and their media supporters, who have so vilified a group of honest, brave and experienced scientists for merely staying true to the empirical values of their profession? Who will vindicate the sullied reputations of, to name but a few antipodean names: Michael Asten, Bob Carter, Chris de Freitas, David Evans, Stewart Franks, William Kininmonth, Bryan Leyland, Jennifer Marohasy, John McLean, Joanne Nova, Garth Paltridge, Ian Plimer, Peter Ridd and Walter Starck? And the same question applies also for economists like Henry Ergas, Martin Feil, David Murray and others, who have dared to suggest that the Stern and Garnaut reviews were a travesty on both scientific and economic grounds, and that the carbon dioxide pricing/taxing emperor actually has no clothes.

I would love to see a list of all those socially beneficial environmental, educational and health projects that could have been funded instead of the profligate and futile spending on dangerous AGW that has actually occurred. I would like, too, though I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime, to see a public apology from all those advocates, intellectuals and politicians who have so freely slandered and injured the moral reputations of those other Australian citizens and qualified scientists whom they call “deniers”.

History is usually written by the political victors, but the global warming issue seems set to continue as a ritualised tribal debate for a long time yet. I once asked a committed “warming” journalist how many years the present pause in warming would have to last to cause her to challenge her own belief. Calmly looking me dead in the eye, she said, “Fifty years.”

This is the introduction to the new book Taxing Air: Facts and Fallacies About Climate Change, by Bob Carter and John Spooner, with Bill Kininmonth, Martin Feil, Stewart Franks and Bryan Leyland, published by Kelpie Press and available at bookshops and at www.taxingair.com for $30. John Spooner has been a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator since the 1970s. In 2002 he won the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award.

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