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.
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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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)