Scientists have warned that we are faced with a stark choice; either we leave almost all of our known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground unused or else we will catastrophically damage our climate by the greenhouse effect. Of course there is also an extremely effective campaign based on the conviction that the whole idea is simply a baseless pretext dreamed up by those with an anti- free-market political agenda. Vaclav Klaus has the view that “Freedom, not climate, is at risk”. He states,
There are huge material (very pecuniary) and even bigger psychological incentives for politicians and their bureaucratic fellow-travellers to support environmentalism. It gives them power. This is exactly what they are searching for. It gives them power to organise, regulate, manipulate the rest of us. There is nothing altruistic in their environmentalist stances.
As a witness to today’s worldwide debate on climate change, I suggest the following:
■Small climate changes do not demand far-reaching restrictive measures
■Any suppression of freedom and democracy should be avoided
■Instead of organising people from above, let us allow everyone to live as he wants
■Let us resist the politicisation of science and oppose the term “scientific consensus”, which is always achieved only by a loud minority, never by a silent majority
■Instead of speaking about “the environment”, let us be attentive to it in our personal behaviour
■Let us be humble but confident in the spontaneous evolution of human society. Let us trust its rationality and not try to slow it down or divert it in any direction
■Let us not scare ourselves with catastrophic forecasts, or use them to defend and promote irrational interventions in human lives..
That “climate skeptic” campaign has demonstrably succeeded in derailing any effective attempt to move away from using fossil fuels. If the climate scientists are to have any hope of seeing their warnings heeded, they will need to win over the skeptics or at least the large swathe of public opinion currently influenced by them.
By way of background, we need to consider the case the scientists have presented us with. The key evidence in support of the greenhouse effect is a combination of the geological record and the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide (at the relevant concentrations) is significantly more transparent to incoming sun light than to infrared heat energy returning back out into space. That “climate forcing” effect from atmospheric carbon dioxide allows an estimate of the long term increase in the earth’s temperature that is expected for a given level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In accord with those predictions, the geological record demonstrates that the climate shows the expected correlation with the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, superimposed against the backdrop of the climate changes due to the known variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. We have examples in the geological record of when the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been much higher than today -due for instance to plate tectonics causing volcanic activity to release carbon dioxide from carboniferous rocks. A major source of bickering is whether we have sufficient evidence for man made climate change to date. To my mind, that is entirely missing the point. The real argument that we should be having is not whether or not the slight change to the climate we have already seen is significant and man made but rather whether we expect burning of our remaining reserves of fossil fuels to cause a catastrophic effect.
It is to be expected that there will be a time lag between a sudden increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the subsequent global warming effect. This lag is akin to the fact that typically the warmest part of summer does not occur until several weeks after the solstice; the difference, in the case of climate change,being that the time lag is decades with the full effect perhaps stretching much further. It is critical to note that this is not a feedback effect that mitigates the effects of climate change over the long term, it is simply a time lag. Modeling such effects is iffy -the time lag depends on complex effects, as melting polar ice releases vast amounts of ice cold water into the ocean currents and the oceans absorb heat energy. Climate change skeptics are however extremely foolish if they view the fallibility of efforts to model that lag as somehow providing reassurance that we needn’t worry about climate change. It is merely a question of precisely when (rather than if) the warming effect is going to be realized.
How much climate change can we expect and how hard would it be to live with it? James Hansen and coworkers predicted that burning the currently known recoverable reserves of fossil fuels would increase atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to about eight times their current level (as compared to the 40% increase above pre-industrial levels caused so far by fossil fuels). They point out that mammals have existed on Earth under equivalent conditions (during the Eocene) and that the expected temperature increase of about 20 degrees centigrade (on land, less over the sea) is far below the level that would cause evaporation of the the entire oceans, loss of all water out to space and a climate incompatible with life. Nevertheless, the turmoil of the predicted scenario should not be underestimated. Whilst collapse and melting of all of the polar ice caps would be a very slow ongoing process, much of the currently populated world would become intolerably hot and incompatible with agriculture. There would need to be a mass exodus towards the polar regions. To my mind it is fanciful to imagine that such a scenario would not entail unprecidented strain on the political and economic system. It would be a triumph if we were able to cope with it and not suffer humanitarian disasters, not to mention a breakdown of the freedoms and property rights that Vaclav Klaus and like minded climate change skeptics are endeavoring to defend.
I do not believe that Vaclav Klaus is a nihilist nor an idiot. My impression is that he and other prominent climate change skeptics would have a totally different opinion as to whether we should stop burning fossil fuels if they were not convinced that predictions such as those of James Hansen are merely a mass delusion spurred on by the political opportunities they offer. As Vaclav Klaus puts it,
The scientists should help us and take into consideration the political effects of their scientific opinions. They have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence
Before I recently started looking into all of this, I was completely flummoxed by the rejection of the scientific advice but I think I can now understand how this rejection has come about. The predictions of catastrophic climate change have been through the usual scientific scrutiny of peer review BUT the policy implications are gigantic. We have no option of a trial run; we only have one planet and if we believe the climate scientists we all need to turn our lives upside down. The business as usual, everyday best practice level of scientific scrutiny simply isn’t appropriate for what the climate scientists themselves describe as a fork in the road for the future of humanity. The climate scientists no doubt work very hard at scrutinizing each others’ work and so were dismayed that their peer-reviewed scientific work is not sufficiently trusted. That defensiveness is perceived very badly and the skeptics smell a rat. The response of the skeptics has been to take the most expedient action to clip the wings of any political influence the climate scientists may have had. That has entailed a PR campaign against the science rather than a scientific argument with the science. Opinions have become more inflamed and the debate ever less constructive.
To my mind what is needed by all sides is for a totally fresh set of people from a totally different background to meticulously reexamine the predictions for catastrophic climate change. The issue is not whether climate scientists are any less reliable than any other scientists; the issue is that in this case the stakes are so high that a totally extraordinary belt and braces level of assessment is needed. As a general rule, when assessing scientific findings, people working in the same scientific field are those most able to spot weaknesses that would simply be overlooked by outsiders. What is more, it would be an extremely arduous task to review some scientific work in an unfamiliar field, so people working in the same field are used by journal editors for scrutinizing scientific work. That peer review process however does little to allay the main concern of climate change skeptics. Their concern is that the field of climate science as a whole has a political agenda or at the very least a worrying level of group think. We need a one-off rigorous investigation expressly designed to be entirely robust against any such danger.
I think it would be perfectly feasible to apply a process of “outsider review” as a second safety net for this extraordinary case. The expense and effort would be trivial considering the context. It would be vital to keep the focus very tightly on examining the veracity of the key underpinnings behind the predictions of catastrophic consequences from burning all known recoverable fossil fuel reserves. Perhaps the ideal starting point would be a “global all stars” paper submitted specifically for this purpose, by the climate science field, laying out their best evidence for such a prediction. The team of reviewers could be assembled by a search committee chaired by prominent climate change skeptics (eg perhaps the Koch brothers, Vaclav Klaus and Nigel Lawson). If that search committee had any sense (and I trust they would) they would recruit a team of people who -whilst perhaps being totally unfamiliar with climate science- nevertheless had the capability to get up to speed and do the necessary work over the course of a year of extremely intense full time work. Perhaps the team would be made up from geologists, physicists and chemists from the petrochemical and mining industries along with mathematicians and software engineers previously working in quantitative finance or whatever. By all means they could all be screened by the search committee as having political inclinations that garnered the trust of the skeptics. Salaries and compensation to employers for leaves of absence could be on a pay what it takes basis.
The plan would be to drill down and stress test every point of the argument, word by word, data point by data point. Hopefully it would be possible to provide the team with comprehensive supplementary data and perhaps even access to actual mud cores and ice cores. The computer climate models could be rebuilt from first principles. At the end of the exercise the team could make publicly available their point by point assessment of the science. Just as happens in the current scientific peer review process, the climate scientists could then rejoin with a rebuttal, either clarifying points of misunderstanding, conceding and correcting mistakes or making the case that the reviewers are plain wrong. Unlike the peer review process, this whole exchange would be fully publicly available.
By confronting and dealing with the politics of the science we would be able to get to the point of having a true scientific argument/consensus rather than a political wrangle/PR campaign. We could then focus the political debate on addressing the policy implications.
I don’t think this idea is fancifully naive. Nigel Lawson has already taken part in a face to face meeting with climate scientists organised by the Royal Society in an attempt to build bridges. He has stated that regrettably no progress came of it and that he was not told anything he hadn’t heard before. Nevertheless, the fact that the meeting took place at all demonstrates an encouraging level of good faith from both sides.
Related stuff on the web:
The Beginning of the End of the Fossil Fuel Revolution: GMO_QtlyLetter_3Q14_full (added 22nov2014)