Questioning ‘the Science’ on Climate Change

What is it about “climate change” that makes it so different from every other issue? It divides families, friendships and political parties, it has brought about media and campus censorship and classroom propaganda. Minds close over, spooked. To question any aspect is the eighth deadly sin. “Deniers” are sub-human.

About anything else, research that suggests that a looming catastrophe might not be as bad as at first predicted would be welcome news indeed. Some of the issues in question are highly technical, but most are not that difficult.

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This is a layman’s attempt—not even particularly sceptical—to explain them and suggest a way ahead. The nub of it is the long-term impact of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There are respectable scientific arguments about it, as with many a complex problem, but politics, misconceptions and side issues are more and more clouding things over.

The “official” science comes from the United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The main criticism is that it over-estimates future global warming—an argument easy to state but technical in detail and now smothered in irrelevance. In other words, some experts think “the science” is wrong.

So far, after thirty years of operation, the global warming the IPCC has predicted has been at the lower end of the “scenarios” of its mathematical modelling. There are respectable arguments—as there have been from the start—that the IPCC’s theories do not work out in practice.

The IPCC is effectively a global climate science monopoly, with unique power to estimate long-term climate trends and ways to mitigate them, such as the Paris Accords. It has access to a budget of billions, while sceptical scientists have barely peanuts for research and publicity. In Australia they are volunteers.

The claim of a “climate consensus’’ or that 93 per cent of scientists agree with the IPCC approach is not true and has distorted public understanding. It came from a loosely worded question put to a small, biased sample nearly thirty years ago. The IPCC then used it—very effectively—as public relations but has now banished it to the small print of its official reports.

The IPCC has kept a rather low profile in recent times while zealots have dominated the public arena. There are signs that the IPCC is dividing between moderates and radicals, as happens in religion, politics, and often difficult science too.

A few years ago “global warming”, was a reasonably precise and simple name for the phenomenon. “Climate change” suits zealots on both sides. Warmists can claim every very hot day, drought, fire or severe storm is due to “climate change”. Deniers can retort grumpily that “there has always been climate change”. Tony Abbott’s “climate change is crap” and Donald Trump’s that it is “a hoax” did not help understanding. Julia Gillard’s “the science is settled” or “in” was not true and suggests her briefing was biased.

Some points of confusion:

It is not true that the January 2020 bushfires were the result of “climate change”, except in a misleading use of the term. The main cause was the exceptional three-year drought, caused by an unusually strong and stubborn Dipole feature in the Indian Ocean jamming into an equally stiff Southern Annular Mode. This blockage caused extreme drought but it was in line with the sort of natural irregularities that have brought extreme weather events since Adam was a boy. Man-made change cannot be excluded as a contributing cause but it did not deserve the starring role the ABC and other media outlets have persistently given it.

The belief that warming is left-wing and progressive, while scepticism, let alone outright denial, is right-wing and conservative is weird. Climate science is not politics or philosophy.

Carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) is an inert, invisible gas, beneficial and naturally common in the atmosphere in proportions that vary over time. Man-made emissions of it could affect the climate only as a result of excessive amounts, if at all.

The concept of “saving the planet” might be appropriate in the very long term, but to conflate climate change with other more earthly “green” causes does no justice to either. It has nothing to do with a cleaner or prettier planet.

The charge that the “fossil fuel industry” is stopping progress towards a renewables future by corrupting governments is a furphy. There have been barely a few squeaks of protest around the world from the coal and oil industries, while renewables, with a free hand with publicity and subsidies, are making rapid progress. A sinister conspiracy has yet to be unveiled.

The ABC and other politically correct media outlets have been shielded for years from critical aspects that any useful discussion of climate change should acknowledge: that there is and always has been powerful natural climate change; and there are complications in the “transition” to renewable energy, especially that it can stop generating “if the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow” (or blows too hard). Similar averting of the eye seems to be common in campuses and schools. There is typically a media and educational free hand for the warmist side, no matter how careless with the facts.

John Faine, the ABC mid-morning talkback presenter in Melbourne until recently, used to bark at any ignoramus questioning climate change, “Are you a scientist?” If the answer was no, there would be blunt dismissal. It wouldn’t happen on any other subject.

Is the world warming? Perhaps, but so far only slightly. The IPCC said in its most recent Report for Policy Makers (six years ago) that world climate has warmed overall by about one degree Celsius since 1900. This is a good number to work with, though there is disagreement about it. The IPCC says “more than half” of this rise is of “anthropogenic” (man-made) origin, mainly caused by burning coal and oil.

In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology until recently had overall warming here by one degree Celsius since 1910, which was when uniform Australia-wide record-keeping commenced. In more recent climate reports the BOM and CSIRO have upped this figure to 1.4 degrees. The increase was mainly due to a re-working of the records. One effect is to produce more record hot days.

This “homogenisation” was to adjust for a switch from manual to automated measuring stations and in the 1970s from Fahrenheit to Celsius measurement and also for the knotty problem of “urban heat islands”, such as more cars, people and structures over the decades warming the air near city measuring spots. The change was controversial and the BOM does not say how much of the increase is attributed to carbon dioxide. The activity of millions more people over recent times, with cars, interior warming and cooling and computers, for example, adds fractions of a degree at the surface, but it is a side issue.

One degree of warming is not very much. Who notices if the temperature at lunch time increases from twenty to twenty-one degrees? Fractions of a degree can create intense scientific argument though, even the puny half a degree or so the IPCC attributes to man-made carbon dioxide so far. Normal variation in the weather, longer-term natural warming, measuring technicalities and man-made surface warming all jostle with it for a share of responsibility.

What is the problem then? The main and very important concern is that man-made warming will continue and increase unless it is checked. When total warming reaches 1.5 degrees above 1900—which on some counts is not far off—the IPCC says the oceans could begin to evaporate more. This could produce a stronger “greenhouse effect” by increasing the volume of water vapour, the main “greenhouse gas”. Like a garden greenhouse, it would slow down heat escaping from the earth and produce a drastically more uncomfortable planet later this century.

Is this certain? No. There are solid scientific arguments for and against, and these have been much the same since the “warming” debate began in the 1980s. They are technical assessments by respectable scientists about what carbon dioxide can do in the atmosphere over time, what a warming atmosphere will do to water vapour and what increased vapour would do to temperatures.

As with any forecast, even by the cleverest mathematical modelling, the future is notoriously evasive. The best we can usually do is get an idea, as hopeful guidance.

What about natural climate change? It is and always has been a huge influence, on long-term climate as well as on tomorrow’s weather. A serious charge against the IPCC is that it has paid too little attention to this aspect.

It has been known for centuries that the world has been warming since the “Little Ice Age” of the 1600s, when it was three degrees cooler than now and Londoners skated on the frozen River Thames. There is also evidence that grapes grew in Roman England 2000 years ago without oceans evaporating.

A huge amount of research over the last thirty years—the same period as the IPCC research—has greatly increased the world’s knowledge of historic climate. It has not changed the established outline, but shows that big natural changes have typically been frequent, jarringly sharp and uneven; sudden, savage dips down during periods of renewed warming brought a rough climatic ride to our ancestors. Most natural change over aeons has been towards a colder planet than now.

World weather seems to have been unusually steady and benign since 1850. This is the year the IPCC often begins working from, as the beginning of the “industrial era”, when coal and oil use surged.

Forty years or so ago newspapers often reported scientists, referring to natural patterns, predicting a new ice age. The stars were seen as a possible influence. 

There might—or might not—be important change under way at sea. The IPCC suggests that a lot of it is due to burning fossil fuels, with much of the unwanted energy this generates going into the oceans. Arguably, it warms the upper water, helping sea levels to rise, as does melting polar ice.

This theory helps explain why the atmosphere has not warmed as much yet as the IPCC at first predicted it would. But sceptical scientists argue—to greatly simplify—that IPCC modelling of the oceans is the wrong approach. For example, local tidal gauge measuring of sea level often does not support it. Natural land subsidence often gives the impression that the sea level is rising, while the natural movements from ocean deeps explain much other apparent change.

Part of the problem is inadequate knowledge still, despite enormous research in recent decades, of how and why the extremely complex ocean systems change over time. It is critically important research for Australia. Ocean features such as El Niño and La Niña and the Indian Ocean Dipole may be increasing and bringing more drought but the underlying causes are still being guesstimated. 

I wonder if the IPCC itself might be part of the problem. It is a strange organisation. International governments established it in 1988 to investigate why the world was warming at an apparently increasing rate and the influence on this of a plausible, old-established theory that the cause was excessive emission of carbon dioxide through burning of fossil fuel. The IPCC’s headquarters is in Geneva, home of United Nations bureaucracies. There has been strong influence from the start from sections of the National Aeronautical and Space Agency in the US and the World Meteorological Organisation.

Critics say this arrangement leads to domination by scientific cliques and “groupthink”, influenced too often by environmental zealots and careerists, far from the eyes of the rest of the world. They see it as centralised and remote, authoritarian in practice and difficult to challenge. It does not acknowledge critics. Its founding rules tend to restrict it to the carbon dioxide theory.

“Climate science” in the modern sense of what causes long-term climate change was little developed in 1988 and the IPCC’s pioneers learned on the job. Their backgrounds were often in astrophysics, mathematics or weather bureau meteorology. It was the peak moment for confidence about mathematical modelling, which is the basis of IPCC research.

None of this is to say the IPCC does not have good and dedicated scientists, but after more than thirty years of operation perhaps it could be considered for a review, opened to more competition, questioning, and perhaps reorganisation, like any other big powerful organisation.

IPCC procedure is to assess research papers by thousands of scientists from around the world. The eventual result is a “synthesis” and technical report issued every few years. There have been five so far, the last compiled in 2014 for 2015. The next is due in 2022. Dozens of “authors” and assistants, about half from English-language backgrounds, write the reports, meant as a summary of the vast research. They are then submitted for approval to UN-approved committees before being published on the internet. Some obervers wonder if the time lag between the 2015 and 2022 reports bears out the suspicion that there is revisionism in the ranks, internal disagreement about what to say next.

These IPCC reports are among the most unsatisfactory I have ever read. Not only is there much technical language; dogmatically, they have little sense of evaluating, after experience, the original theory and assumptions. There is more about what they predict will happen in the future under various scenarios, how world action could alleviate the dangers, and the degrees of confidence in scenarios and assumptions analysed. More questions are begged than answered.

The reports give the impression of well-intentioned people on a mission impossible, overwhelmed by the task of assessing and summarising the enormous volume of research, the probabilities, possibilities and changes decades ahead while satisfying the opaque pressures of the many interests involved.

From an Australian viewpoint, the IPCC is like a multinational corporation, with the CSIRO and BOM, its main arms here, effectively a branch office.

The IPA’s Climate Change: The Facts 2020 has detailed discussion of many critical points, such as measurement controversies and water vapour. It would be good to see them debated openly rather than dismissed as from the wrong tribe. The IPCC, CSIRO and BOM websites are on the internet, as are those of respectable sceptics like Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen (under their names) in the US. Views questioning the IPCC, however, are grossly under-publicised worldwide.

Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age: How Climate Change Made History 1300 to 1850 (2001) covers natural climate change. Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming: A History (2014) notes the avidity with which the world’s politicians have seized on climate change. Writers like Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger argue that the world should adapt to hotter temperatures rather than try to stop warming. Shellenberger raises the sensitive point of environmental organisations stressing calamity in order to help their fund-raising.

Some Australian (and other) publications are, popularly but unhelpfully, not much beyond the level of good “world’s best scientists” versus bad miners.

Robert Murray is a journalist, author and frequent contributor to Quadrant. His books include The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg)

13 thoughts on “Questioning ‘the Science’ on Climate Change

  • Davidovich says:

    Robert Murray asks ‘What is it about “climate change” that makes it so different from every other issue?”. The answer surely lies in it now being a faith based belief system replacing the old established religions which many people have abandoned. Add to that, HL Mencken’s observation “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.”
    Unfortunately, no amount of reasoning, facts or logic appears likely to change the trajectory of (anthropogenic) “Climate Change” hysteria, at least not in the foreseeable future..

  • whitelaughter says:

    that…was pleasantly balanced and useful. Thank you

  • Harry Lee says:

    Actually, ehe climate scam/sham is similar in nature to several other contemporary “ideas” that animate the mainstream media, the education systems and the legal system.
    It starts with the promise of offering the believer a feeling of Being Good and Doing Good -at no expense to the believer.
    Adding to this, belief in the “idea” requires full ignorance and/or demonising of the (no longer applied) scientific methods required to support in such “belief”.
    And, it is an “idea” that can be manipulated to ensure that power-mongers can gain institutional power and money-scoopers can scoop money when the naive idealists who are believing in the “idea” insist that governments do something about the “idea”.
    Similar idea to the Climate Thing:
    BLM, Aborigianl deaths in custody,

  • Harry Lee says:

    …Aboriginal deaths in custody, the idea that British colonialism was nett negative for the colonials and the defeated original denizens, that violence is a consequence of the free enterprise system rather being a property of the violent person, that China is the better senior partner for Australia than the USA, that Muslim and black African groups and various kinds of Asian groups will one day be nett contributing citizens to Proper Australia, and that the dumbing down of the education systems to encourage “equality and fairness” contributes positively to human flourishing.
    These sorts of things.

  • John Reid says:

    In response to a recent Facebook post on Climate Change concluding: “What if this is all about money and power, and not the common good?” I commented: “I strongly disagree. It is about ideology. It is about “saving the planet before it is too late”. It is about tens of thousands of scientists worried about losing their careers. CEOs of large organisations do not talk about decarbonising their business in a search for money and power; they do it to show what good people they are. People don’t buy expensive, gutless and unreliable electric cars because of greed, they do it for what they believe is the common good. It is all a grotesque over-reaction to a moderate increase in global average temperature which we wouldn’t even have noticed without computers to do the maths. It is based on the fallacy that this small temperature increase is irreversible. It is a moral panic.”

  • Adek says:

    Grotesque overreaction indeed John. In fact, I would say that the response to COVID-19 very much parallels the attitude towards climate change. It seems people have lost their critical thinking ability and replaced it with ideological zealotry.

  • Michael says:

    “The Left’s dependence on catastrophism can’t be overstated. Without some looming or present catastrophe to use as a pretext for their interventionist schemes, leftists would have nothing.”

    Michael Rectenwald.

  • IainC says:

    “Climate science” morphed into climate politics decades ago, and became almost completely decoupled from what the actual data were saying. Climate activists rely on the climate being stable, monotonic and predictable from year to year prior to 1980 (when satellite coverage made comprehensive global data in real time possible in a multitude of variables). However, real scientists have shown over and over again that all sorts of climate metrics change up and down prior to 1980, over and over in complex patterns. Arctic ice, glacier extents, wildfire area burns, drought areas, monsoon rainfalls, on and on, fluctuate dramatically up and down over multi-decadal timeframes. Climate apocalyptics cherry pick those that change in the way they prefer since 1980, and trumpet that it’s proof of this or that. Real science says no, but climate hysterics don’t believe the science, as we all know.

  • Citizen Kane says:

    Robert states ‘ The belief that warming is left-wing and progressive, while scepticism, let alone outright denial, is right-wing and conservative is weird. Climate science is not politics or philosophy.’ But that is the point. It Is! AGW is a political trojan horse, pure and simple.. And just like the panicdemic, reason and calm rationality has left the building replaced by emotive cheerleading , backslapping and project funding rent seeking. It is one thing to be balanced in one’s appraisal another to be naive. If Robert is still in doubt, perhaps he should next focus on what the AGW zealots are proposing as a ‘fix’ to the fact that weather and climate is cyclical and fluctuates with natural variation – a pure socialist agenda.

  • Harry Lee says:

    Yes, the CO2/Climate fraud is bad.
    But so are all the other destructive marxist-inspired scams and shams, rorts and frauds, viz:
    The ABC, SBS, the arts/humanities depts in the universities, the dumb-down of the state school systems, the credentialing of Chinese students (CCP agents) with “university degrees”, taking guns off law-abiding farmers and other contributing citizens while the legal system that puts violent murderers, child rapists and various persons of insanity back on the streets pronto, the immigration/refugee fiasco, multiculturalism -which is a cover for anti-citizenship and anti-white-ism.
    And more.

  • maxpart27 says:

    The melting of the ice has to be an indicator that things are changing and the consequence will be Bangladesh under water. Apart from that the coal and oil are the result of millions of years of unrepeatable deposition and burning them when we are here for several billion more years is derided by the locals in 4576. To not have even one supporter of the scientists foretelling the sinking of Sydney I find amazing.

    • peter dwyer says:

      maxpart27 I wish I had your optimism! Mankind won’t be around in a milliion years let alone billions. The late Prof. Stephen Hawking gives us about 1000 years but I doubt that we will last that long. It is in our nature to destroy ourselves- we will never change.

      We’ve had the power to kill us all since 1945 and it’s always been not if but when some ego crazy lunatic gives the order. Been following the news this year in the northern hemisphere?

  • peter dwyer says:

    The IPCC is a political body not a scientific one. It commissioned its first report from a number of scientists and reviewers from all over the world. In the original summary the conclusion was that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that global warming was due to human activity.

    Once the IPCC got hold of the report they doctored the summary removing the bit about the insufficient evidence.

    Carbon dioxide is absolutely critical to life on earth but the media on the advice of the Fake Scientists has demonised it.

    It’s so much easier to say, well, since the Industrial Revolution a lot of coal has been burnt and later on oil burnt releasing CO2 that one plus one equals two. In fact I reckon their maths were that one plus one equals five. Fake Science.

    The amount of worlwide desertification and forest destruction has not been brought into the so called science. If it was one could argue that CO2 has increased from about 250parts per million (ppm) to 400ppm by the very fact of this enormous amount of CO2 absorbing vegetation that has been lost. Not just any vegetation because trees absorb enormous amounts of CO2 per acre compared to any other type of vegetation.

    Forests are the largest producers of life giving oxygen. The Lungs of the World are the rainforests of Sth America. They produce more life giving oxygen than any other forested areas left on the planet. What is the world doing about this? – nothing- it’s too difficult.
    It’s much easier to believe these stupid Fake Scientists who are desperate to hang onto their reputations and external funding and of course their jobs.

    Once IPCC’s first report came out the the Greens and other lefty loonies fanned the fires of the media to churn all sorts of doom and gloom hysterics. As the PR push gained more and more worldwide attention the politicians joined the “Me Too” brigade. No one in the Western democracies dared say they didn’t believe the rhetoric otherwise they might lose their seat at the next election because of the Green vote

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