Global warming: been there, done that
The group which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, the International Panel on Climate Change, says that it is "very likely", ie, 90 percent sure, that global warming is due to increased greenhouse gas emissions generated by man. But "very likely" still leaves room for some uncertainly, doesn’t it?
So when I looked at the cover story of last week’s Nature, I thought that I might see coverage of that 10 percent of unexplained observations and alternative hypotheses. To my surprise, there was none. Instead, there was a windy editorial, "Time to act", which says that the challenge of winding back global warming seems all but insurmountable. This was accompanied by articles headlined, "A burden beyond bearing", "Too much of a bad thing", "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne", and "The worst-case scenario".
It was more like a goosepimpling special feature on asteroid collisions in the London Sun or the New York Post than the world’s leading science journal. But respectable tabloids always tuck in a brief comment from a sceptic. Nature had none. Did its editors have no misgivings at all about the righteousness of their cause?
I confess to being a complete ignoramus about global warming and climate change. But I do like to read both sides of the story. And when experts insist that there is only one side and that I should sign on the dotted line without reading the fine print, I feel suspicious. Even ignoramuses have rights, you know.
That’s why I welcomed the chance this week to interview Australian geologist Ian Plimer about his latest book, Heaven and earth: global warming, the missing science. Plimer is Australia’s best-known geologist and a professor at the University of Adelaide. His book has created quite a stir in the media. Leading journalists have lumped him together with anti-Semitic nutters as a climate change "denialist" and colleagues are shredding his claims in the letters pages.
The vehemence of erstwhile friends suggests that something other than scientific truth is at stake here. And if there is, Plimer is well-qualified to ferret it out. He is a sceptic who not long ago wrote a book attacking creationist science with the provocative title Telling Lies for God. He can’t abide humbug and scientific politicking -– and this is precisely what he claims is the matter with the IPCC’s prediction that we are all going to fry unless we radically reduce our reliance upon fossil fuels.
In fact, in his view, environmentalism is a religion filling a spiritual vacuum in modern life. He writes:
Both environmentalism and fundamentalist religions foster a sense of moral superiority in the believer. They create a sense of guilt. Our wickedness has damaged our inheritance and, although it is almost too late, immediate reform can transform the future.
It was a happy coincidence that Nature’s splash on climate change coincided with our conversation. He jabbed a stubby finger at the name of Stephen Schneider, the author of "The worst case scenario". This article envisages hundreds of millions fleeing from cities flooded by a 10-metre rise in the sea level and the extinction of half of known plant and animal species. "An interesting chap," he says. "In the 70s Schneider was telling us we were all going to die due to global cooling. Now he tells us we're all going to die due to global warming."
I am an agnostic about global warming, but as a voter I want to be able to interrogate experts who make decisions that affect my future. Plimer’s book, a 500-page brick with 2,311 footnotes is just what is needed to assess a scientific "consensus" which is seldom explained, justified -- or questioned. It's long and detailed, but not obscure, with chapters on the history of the earth's climate, and on how the sun, the geology, ice, water and air each influence the climate. Just what you need to throw hardball questions at true believers.
In Australia the book is selling like hotcakes and it will be published in the US and the UK soon. A German-language edition is on the way. The release date was serendipitous: the exact moment when politicians and taxpayers are shaking empty piggybanks and wondering if they can afford climate mitigation schemes.
If you are an ignoramus like me, the credibility of global warming is supported by a few inconvenient truths. What sticks in my mind are these: temperatures have been rising steadily throughout the 20th century; islands in the Pacific are sinking as the seas rise; the Arctic ice pack is shrinking; and industrial activity is the main source of CO2.
Well, it turns out that none of the above is unambiguously true.
About rising temperatures: even though industrialisation began to add CO2 to the atmosphere in the early 19th century, the earth cooled down between 1940 and 1976, warmed from 1976 to 1998, and has been cooling down since 1998. I'll let the experts quibble over the details. What is clear about the record is that the record is not clear.
Sinking islands. One factor I never thought of is that the surface of the earth rises and falls. More than 150 years ago Charles Darwin showed that coral atolls grow on top of sinking volcanoes. As for Tuvalu, the Pacific island nation which is in danger of sinking under the waves, the land beneath it is sinking and the local ecology has been trashed when US Marines quarried the coral for a World War II airstrip. Its problems are real, but not necessarily due to global warming.
Temperatures in the Arctic rise and fall mysteriously. The Arctic was considerably warmer between 1920 and 1940. Temperatures have risen in recent years, but on August 11, 2008, the area of the ice pack was 30 percent greater than a year before.
And industrial activity is a very, very, very minor factor in generating CO2. Plimer points out that the atmosphere only contains 0.001 percent of the total carbon in the top few kilometres of the planet. Furthermore, I was fascinated to learn that earthquakes and volcanoes are a major source of CO2. About 85 percent of the world's volcanoes are under the sea. Their CO2 emissions and warming effects were not included in the IPCC reports, he says.
But can't anthropogenic CO2 push us past the "tipping point"? "Tipping points are a non-scientific myth," snorts Plimer. And indeed, the first I ever heard of tipping points was in a best-seller by Malcolm Gladwell. If climate science is scavenging in the rubbish bins of pop sociology for explanations, you really do have to ask some questions.
Plimer makes two simple and challenging points. First, climate is always changing. In the past, the earth has been both much colder and much warmer than it is today. It is exceedingly difficult to understand, let alone what causes these changes. Second, the sun is the single greatest cause of fluctuations in the heat of the earth. Very small changes in solar output have a profound effect upon temperatures. The sun is the single greatest agent in climate change, not CO2, he maintains.
As he wrote in a recent newspaper article:
In the past, climate change has never been driven by CO2. Why should it be now driven by CO2 when the atmospheric CO2 content is low? The main greenhouse gas has always been water vapour. Once there is natural global warming, then CO2 in the atmosphere increases. CO2 is plant food, it is not a pollutant and it is misleading non-scientific spin to talk of carbon pollution. If we had carbon pollution, the skies would be black with fine particles of carbon. We couldn't see or breathe.
What about criticism from colleagues? Plimer isn't worried. "You can count the number of scientists who are critical of me on a sawmiller's hand," he told me, and nearly all geologists will agree with him. I sensed a certain professional scorn for anaemic nerds who massage computer models of climate under fluorescent lights instead of getting sweaty and sunburned fossicking for strange rocks.
"The reason I put this book out," he says, "is to start a debate. The fact that I've now flushed out a few scientists to criticise me in public is wonderful because we've never had a [scientific] debate. Consensus is a word of politics; it's not a word of science."
Plimer, a man who has spent much of his life in outback mining towns, complains that many of his colleagues are smug elitists. "The reason this book has been a publishing sensation is that a lot of scientists in the media have treated their reading audience with absolute disdain," he says. "They've spoken down to them; they've been arrogant. The average punter might not have the education that you and I have, but he is not stupid. He knows there's a smell, even if he can't tell where the smell is coming from."
Without a lot more study, I don’t feel competent to judge whether Al Gore or Ian Plimer is correct about the urgency of global warming. Elitists may be insufferable, but often they’re right.
But contrarians are not always wrong. Remember Barry Marshall, another rough-hewn Aussie? Just a pain-in-the-proverbial guy with a crackpot theory -- some nonsense about bacteria causing stomach ulcers, not spices and stress. His colleagues thought he was a quack. Drug companies sneered. You know what? He was right. In 2005 he won the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. Heaven and Earth is published by Connor Court.
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