Science in Society Archive

Sceptical about Climate Change Sceptics

Scepticism is good, but the inability to see the whole is what leads climate sceptics astray Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Peter Saunders

Tragedy of the Copenhagen summit & the climate sceptics

“Low targets, goals dropped, Copenhagen ends in failure” was the headline verdict of UK’s Guardian newspaper [1]. The “Copenhagen accord”, brokered by US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, “recognizes” the scientific case for keeping temperature rise to no more than 2 ˚C, but contains no commitments to reduce emissions to achieve that goal. Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre (a think tank for developing countries), condemned the entire process as [2] a “tragedy” and a “disaster”. The three-page long Copenhagen accord, drawn up after the UN conference, was not even accepted by the conference. 

Just weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit, private e-mails were stolen from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK and released on the web [3], fuelling a fresh round of attack on climate change from the sceptics that may have helped to derail the Copenhagen summit.

The Copenhagen summit failed because of other over-riding reasons as described by Khor [2], and predicted by our guest editor, Alan Simpson, UK member of Parliament [4] (Announcing Science in Society #44 - Autumn 2009). Ultimately, it comes down to an inability of the world nations to cooperate, to see the whole picture, particularly in the longer term.

But it is a mistake to dismiss the climate sceptics, as they will continue to influence the tough negotiations ahead. And their voices are getting shriller, louder, and more sophisticated in the political arena. A US Senate Minority Report updated in March 2009 [5], claims more than 700 international scientists (note: not climate scientists) dissenting over global warming.

On the eve of the summit, Saudi Arabia and Republican members of the US Congress used the e-mails incident to claim that the need for urgent action to cut carbon emissions has been undermined [6]. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Environment Secretary Ed Miliband, and Ed Markey, who co-authored the US climate change bill, had to join forces to condemn the ‘flat-earth’ sceptics.

Meanwhile, sceptic celebrities such as Professor Siegfried Frederick Singer and Lord Christopher Monckton were out in force in Copenhagen at a sceptics conference [7], expostulating to a rapt audience on ‘climategate’ - how scientists deliberately distort data to support the global warming hypothesis - and thanking China for emitting CO2 that greatly benefits agriculture. Singer, former president of US National Academy of Sciences, has written a petition signed by 31 000 urging the US government against adopting a climate change treaty [8]. Monckton, a hereditary peer in the UK and formerly policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher, embarked on a tour of North America during the autumn of 2009 to campaign against the Copenhagen summit, warning that the US president Obama intended to sign a treaty at the conference that would “impose a communist world government” on the globe [9]. 

In the same weeks, we were bombarded with messages urging us to stop supporting the conventional theory. A common thread running through climate scepticism is that human activities have no impact on climate, least of all, the increase in CO2 from human activities. The earth has warmed and cooled in the past, and natural causes can account for all the warming that may have taken place since the industrial revolution; and sceptics will jump at whichever natural cause that appears plausible from time to time. There are those who believe global warming itself is a fiction, and the Copenhagen summit a UN plot to establish a (communist) world government.

The scientific case of climate scepticism

Peter Taylor, author of Chill, A reassessment of global warming theory [10], is convinced the earth is cooling, not warming, based on scientific evidence reviewed in his book published in 2009. A good friend sent us the scholarly-looking volume of more than 400 pages complete with notes and references, strongly urging us to read it.          

Taylor is an environmental analyst and policy advisor with impeccable credentials. He has worked as a consultant with the UK government and various NGOs on environmental pollution, nuclear waste hazards, and renewable energies. He doesn’t approve of biofuels, nuclear power stations, GMOs or big wind farms, for good reasons.

On climate change, one finds it strangely reassuring when he says there is no ‘incontrovertible signal’ for climate change and that the climate change ‘consensus’ does not exist, even within the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  That’s just what one would expect from real science, as opposed to religious dogma. Even Taylor himself admits that the “consensus” only exists in the IPCC summary for policy makers, and not in the technical reports.

When Taylor reveals alternative theories largely ignored by the establishment; that too, rings true. The scientific establishment is akin to a religious order; the hacked e-mails incident [2] exposes, if anything, the extent to which the ‘in-group’ can exclude the ‘dissenters’. It is the same in every field, as we can confirm from personal experiences.

What makes us wary is when Taylor says he was “motivated to critically review the evidence of climate change because the proposed cure is likely to be worse than the disease.” His chief concern was the impact on the UK countryside, especially from the push for biofuels as a renewable energy strategy, which would mean using up all the ‘set-aside’ land to grow ‘bioenergy’ crops, leaving no natural ecosystems in the magnificent landscape, no butterflies and bees, or any vestige of natural biodiversity.

Was Taylor unconsciously biased against the evidence for climate change because he did not like the remedial policies proposed? That’s the danger of allowing politics to dominate science, as governments and vested interests do, all too often. We would not be surprised if much of climate scepticism is politically motivated and by far less benign reasons.

We don’t like the climate change remedies on offer either; which is why we have gone out of our way to formulate truly green and sustainable energy policies [11] (Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050, ISIS publication) that are independent of whether climate change is occurring or not [12] (Power to the People, 100 Percent Renewables by 2050, SiS 45). That frees us from potential bias against the conventional theory, which we too, have found overly simplistic (see later).

Nevertheless, we cannot believe human activities have no influence on climate. Humans have destroyed vast swathes of forests and other natural ecosystems, decimating natural biodiversity, turning huge areas into waste land and desert through overexploitation of soil and water. We have literally changed the face of the earth.

Taylor does not waste time on the conventional theory. He simply states categorically that there is no evidence anthropogenic (human-generated) CO2 has any role in warming the planet, nor any other human activities. It is all a fabrication. He singles out the computer modellers as the chief villains that have created the myth. Their models, which dominate the IPCC, are ‘untransparent’, based on false assumptions, ignore natural cycles, and do not take sufficient account of natural forces. All the work on ‘postdiction’ of how atmospheric CO2 correlates with temperature in the earth’s ancient history, as measured in ice cores is summarily dismissed.

The refutations

Actually, the evidence for CO2 and the greenhouse effect is very good indeed. Research into the greenhouse effect began in the 19th century with Fourier, Tyndall, Langley, and Arrhenius who first quantified the relationship between changes in CO2 and climate [13]. In the 1930s, burning fossil fuels by human beings began to be considered a cause of significant warming. The IPCC climate models are based on fundamental physics [14, 15]; and confirmed by direct satellite measurements [16] (see [17] Getting Sceptical about Global Warming Scepticism, SiS 45).

Taylor subscribes to the theory favoured by climate sceptics: solar activity can account for most if not all the warming that has taken place in the latter part of the past century. He devotes most of the book describing and defending the theory, especially as revived by researchers at the Danish National Space Center in the late 1990s [18]. The theory claims a strong correlation between solar activity and global climate, which can be explained by an influence of solar activity on the abundance of cosmic rays.

Solar activity goes through cycles that average 11 years long. When the solar magnetic field is strong during periods of maximum sunspot activity, cosmic rays are excluded from the solar system, and as the sun’s activity diminishes, cosmic rays become more abundant. The theory is that cosmic rays promote the formation of clouds by generating plenty of ions in the atmosphere that can form cloud condensation nuclei upon which water vapour condense to form droplets that coalesce into clouds. More clouds shade the earth from the sun and cool the earth. Conversely, a lack of clouds allows more solar radiation to strike the earth and warms it. The Danish group published a series of papers that attempted to establish links between cosmic rays and in succession, total cloud cover and low cloud cover, and between the solar cycle lengths and Northern Hemisphere land temperatures. But Peter Laut at the Technical University of Denmark analysed the published graphs [19], and showed that the apparent strong correlations displayed on the graphs have been obtained by “an incorrect handling of the physical data” and cautioned against “drawing any conclusions” based on them. In other words, the data have been manipulated in unjustified and unexplained ways to produce the correlations that do not actually exist. This lack of correlation between solar activity and earth temperature was amply confirmed by other researchers [17] including experts in solar physics [20-22].  

Far from ignoring the cosmic ray hypothesis, as Taylor complained, climate scientists have seriously followed it up with the latest satellite data; and the evidence has all gone against the theory. One of the proposals for saving the hypothesis is to invoke sudden decreases in cosmic ray - Forbush events - that occur within a solar activity cycle, as having special significance in influencing cloud formation. But investigations from the space-borne MODIS instrument, which has been operating since 2000, failed to find such correlation [23]. Similarly, little correlation could be found between cosmic ray flux and the formation of new particles that could serve as cloud condensation nuclei [24].

Yet, based on this tenuous and widely discredited evidence, Taylor is predicting a global chill because the flux of cosmic rays has been rising since 2004. The regional cooling across Eurasia, England and parts of North America through December 2009 and early January 2010 might seem to fit his prediction. But much of the planet is in fact experiencing warmer temperatures than usual, including North-east America, Canada, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and south-west Asia [17]. This is an apt illustration of what’s wrong with climate scepticism: the inability to see the global picture while focussing on their tiny areas of interest.  

Scepticism is healthy, especially when the political stakes are high in something like climate change; but it must be accompanied by a passionate commitment to the coherent whole. Contrary to the claims of Taylor and other climate sceptics, scepticism has stimulated good research on cloud formation, for example, which has long been identified as a major area of uncertainty by top climate scientists [15, 25]. Similarly, the importance of natural cycles [10], the slow response/feedback times of greenhouse gases [26] (350ppm CO2 the Target, SiS 44), the role of black carbon in warming the earth [27] (Black Carbon Warms the Planet Second Only to CO2, SiS 44) and the rapid depletion of oxygen [28, 29] (O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising, Warming Oceans Starved of Oxygen, SiS 44) must all be taken into consideration.

One thing we are completely convinced of: human action is effective in exacerbating or mitigating climate change. The choice and responsible are both ours. We need an open and transparent science to help us make the right choice and implement the appropriate solutions.

Article first published 20/01/10



References

  1. “Stolen e-mails turn up heat on climate change rhetoric”, Eli Kintisch, Science 2009, 326, 1329
  2. Khor M. The real tragedy of Copenhagen. Economics and Political Weekly 2 January 2010, 10-13.
  3. “ Low targets, goals dropped; Copenhagen ends in failure”, John Vidal, Allegra Stratton and Suzanne Goldenberg, guardian.co.uk, 19 December 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/18/copenhagen-deal
  4. Simpson A. Skylines beyond the summit. Science in Society 44, 2-3, 2009.data
  5. U.S. Senate Minority Report: More Than 700 International Scientists Dissent Ovcer Man-Made Global Warming Claims, Scientists Continue to Debunk “Consensus” in 2008 & 2009. US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, 16 March 2009, http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=83947f5d-d84a-4a84-ad5d-6e2d71db52d9
  6. “Brown attacks ‘flat-earth’ climate sceptics”, the Hindu, Guardian News Service, 5 December 2009, http://beta.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/article60563.ece
  7. “Copenhagen’s sceptic conference thanks China for emitting CO2”, John Vidal, Environment Blog, guardian.co.uk,  9 December 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2009/dec/10/climate-sceptics-conference-copenhagen
  8. Letter from Frederick Seitz. Research review of global warming evidence. Accessed 12 January 2010, http://www.oism.org/pproject/
  9. Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, Wikipedia, 10 January 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Monckton,_3rd_Viscount_Monckton_of_Brenchley
  10. Taylor P. Chill, A reassessment of global warming theory, Clairview, East Sussex, 2009
  11. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GreenEnergies.php
  12. Ho MW. Green power to the people, 100% renewables by 2050. Science in Society 45 (to appear)
  13. Uppenbrink J. Arrhenius and global warming. Science 1996, 272, 1122
  14. Ramanathan V. The role of ocean-atmosphere interactions in the CO2 climate problem. J Atmos Sciences 1981, 918-30.
  15. Ramanathan V. Trace-gas greenhouse effect and global warming. Underlying principles and outstanding issues. Vovlvo Environmental prize Lecture 1997. MVIO 1998M 27, 187-97.
  16. Evans WJF and Puckrin E. Measurements of the radiative surface forcing of climate. P1.7, AMS 18th Conference on Climate Variability and Change, http://ams.confex.com/ams/Annual2006/techprogram/paper_100737.htm
  17. Cook J. Getting Sceptical about Global Warming Scepticism. Science in Society 45 (to appear).
  18. Svensmark H and Friis-Christensen E. Variation of cosmic ray flux and global could coverage – a missing link in solar-climate relationships. J Atmos Sol Terr Phys 1997, 59, 1225.
  19. Laut P. Solar activity and terrestrial climate: an analysis of some purported correlations. J Atmos and Solar-Terres Phys 2003, 65, 801-12.
  20. Lockwood M and Frőhlich C. Recemt oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. Proc Roy Soc A 2007, doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.1880
  21. Lockwood M and Frőhlich C. Recemt oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. II. Different reconstructions of the solar irradiance variation and dependence on response time scale. Proc Roy Soc A 2008, 464, 1367-85.
  22. Lockwood M. Recent changes in solar outputs and the global mean surface temperatures. III. Analysis of contributions to global mean air surface temperature rise. Proc Roy Soc A 2008, 464, 1387-404.
  23. Kristjansson JE, Stjern CW, Stordal E, Fjaeraa F, Fjaeraa AM, Myhre G and Jónasson K. Cosmic rays, cloud condensation nuclei and clouds – a reassessment using MODIS data. Atmos Chem Phys 2008, 8, 7373-87.
  24. Kulmala M, Rllpinen I, NieminenT et al. Atmospheric data over a solar cycle: no connection between galactic cosmic rays and new particle formation. Atmos Chem Phys Disuss 2009, 9, 21525-60.
  25. Pearce F. Harbingers of doom? 24 July 2004, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18324575.600-harbingers-of-doom.html?page=2
  26. Ho MW. 350 ppm CO2 the target. Science in Society 44, 4-7, 2009.
  27. Ho MW. Black carbon warms the planet second only to CO2. Science in Society 44, 12-13, 2009.
  28. Ho MW. O2 dropping faster than CO2 rising. Science in Society 44, 8-10, 2009.
  29. Ho MW. Warming oceans starved of oxygen. Science in Society 44, 11+17, 2009.

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There are 9 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Ronan Robson Comment left 27th May 2010 11:11:22
Peter Taylor really is suspect when it comes to real science. He uncritically accepts the flawed rantings of Lord Monckton, and his other book Shiva's Rainbow is evidence of someone with mental problems. See here for the reviews: http://www.alastairmcintosh.com/articles/2010-Peter-Taylor-Climate-Reviews.htm

Margaret Powell-Joss Comment left 21st January 2010 15:03:15
Excellent article. But why do we still need this sort of work when the graphs shown in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006, by Davis Guggenheim, with Al Gore) already went through the roof and when "650,000 years of ice have now been analysed for greenhouse gas concentrations saved in tiny bubbles." (see http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/11/650000-years-of-greenhouse-gas-concentrations/). The evidence of correlation between CO2 concentrations and warming is irrefutable; ice-core analyses agree, models agree, only so-called scientists want to disagree -- because it's easier not to do anything? But unless we act now, mitigating climate change (note: I'm already not talking about stopping/preventing it, because it's been happening and is happening at an ever faster rate) is going to be an ever bigger challenge, costing millions of lives and zillions of dollars/pounds/yuan...

Tom Blakeslee Comment left 21st January 2010 18:06:35
For the skeptics here are some links you should watch that are very scientific yet entertaining: http://www.youtube.com/user/potholer54#p/a/u/1/7nnVQ2fROOg climategate funny! http://www.youtube.com/user/potholer54#p/a/u/0/uXesBhYwdRo climategate 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52KLGqDSAjo basic 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoSVoxwYrKI objections http://www.youtube.com/user/potholer54#p/a/A4F0994AFB057BB8/2/EU_AtHkB4Ms gore http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2B34sO7HPM

Clothcap Comment left 21st July 2010 08:08:32
The ice cores damn the notion of ACO2 forcing the climate temperature. If one accepts that an unknown third starts the warming, then stops and CO2 immediately takes over with the identical magnitude of forcing an average 600 years later, why does it start to cool an average 600 years before CO2 starts to decline? One would have thought that needed an answer before committing vast sums of grand children's money to fighting an invisible and highly improbable enemy. Temperate forest destruction is likely the reason we have sudden weather changes and extremes in the NH. Indonesian rain forest is likely the reason for changes in Indian Ocean weather with knock on effects in other systems such as Antarctica and Africa. S.American deforestation probably has a lot to with drought in southern and central countries. West African deforestation has been associated with increased intensity of hurricanes and weather changes in the mid west. Care about grand children? Sack alarmist MPs, scientists and journalists. Fell counter productive wind turbines and plant trees.

Brad G Burch Comment left 29th January 2010 09:09:07
I disagree with Margaret Powell-Joss here. From what I've read and listened to is that the ice core samples showed that warming took place for several hundred before CO2's increased. I've come around 180 degrees in the last year to believe that we have been lied to by Al Gore and friends. The cap and trade will impoverish and cause millions more people to starve. Yes we need clean air and water and I believe that we can do it if we can work together for the sake of all people not vested interests. Have a look at Dr. Willie Soon in Unstoppable Solar Cycles as follows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjQAdjaAt0s He's an astrophysicist - solar and stellar physics at Harvard. A good hearted man with good intentions I believe.

Fergus Mclean Comment left 18th February 2010 14:02:37
The IPCC formulated a model-based scenario of global warming upon which a planetary-wide transformation of economics was proposed: global cap and trade, creating the world's largest ever commodity market. The science upon which this model was based have been shown to be false: false predictions of Himalyan glacier melt; false projections of African drought-caused famine; the list of IPCC falsehoods is long and growing. And the predictions of this model have been shown by time to be fabulously wrong. The science and the model are irreparably flawed. Whether the solar/cosmic ray theory proves to be correct or not is beside the point. The point is that AGW as a theory and model is not correct. Moral arguments about the responsibilities of humans for planetary stewardship are valid and necessary, but should not be confused with the discussions of the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

david llewellyn foster Comment left 9th December 2011 10:10:43
I know it's nearly two years since this was posted, but I must say it never was more relevant than now on the occasion of the Durban gathering. In my view this is a truly fine example of how to approach this most vexing and controversial of global problems. Perhaps if we could accept some essential principles, it might be easier to make progress toward broad agreement, rather than promote more and more polemic and politicised dogmatic opinion and dissent. Surely we could agree about managed forestry? (not plantation economics!!) fisheries' and soil health, just to begin with? Then, deal with technical pollution issues, radiological hazards, water purity and the more specialised aspects of industrialised existence - that is, so to speak, just embrace & acknowledge our entire tree of life in its totality, from our Earth's molten core up through the root of the world to its highest branches under the Sun and then beyond? As the great Wm James pointed out over a century ago, dry logic and ratiocination devoid of vision is not a wise prescription for success...

Jeffrey VanMiddlebrook Comment left 11th February 2014 07:07:23
I happen to know Peter Taylor personally from my tenure in Glastonbury, England from 2003 to 2009. He is not a kook as some have suggested. Since when can a person with extensive scientific and environmental experience not also be interested in the arts? The more eclectic the person the more brilliant, or have we no awareness of those like DaVinci, to name but one of many very eclectic minds? I've read Peter's 2009 book through three times, and though there are minor points I might pick apart, on the whole I believe he's asking the most important skeptic questions. True science must not behave like beliefs, but sadly far too much so-called science is nothing more than technical-based religion.

Alan page Comment left 27th September 2014 11:11:45
There is much about this article that should remain relevant. Recent Arctic methane releases are examples of a factor that is difficult to quantify. Ancient timing of climate change may be quite different from current very rapid changes in factors that at another time followed rather than led the transitions. We discount our influence without due regard to the conseque .

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