Fables about climate change?
Continuing my review of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996), we come to Chapter 8 – regarding (what they called) the “brownlash’s” fables about the Atmosphere and Climate. Given that the Ehrlichs acknowledge that climate change is the biggest problem we face – and the one which contrarians deny most vociferously – I am not sure why it is not tackled first (or last) in their book: This may be because the Ehrlichs are biologists – and more comfortable talking about food, population and biodiversity but, whatever the reason, I am sticking to their order of presentation. Therefore, the last of these posts about the fables promoted by the brownlash will be tomorrow – regarding toxic chemicals.
As for today, although the Ehrlichs tackle all kinds of atmospheric pollution, I think the brownlash has since been comprehensively defeated on all fronts accept that relating to CO2 emissions. Therefore, I will only review here the fables that the Ehrlichs identified as being put forward by climate change deniers that – as you will see – have not changed much in 15 years; and neither have those promulgating them! Indeed, all of arguments identified below (and their rebuttals) can be found on sites like Skeptical Science; and/or summarised in Robert Henson’s Rough Guide to Climate Change. Nevertheless, as ever, the Ehrlich’s comments are very incisive; and remain just as relevant today as they were in 1996. So, using the abbreviation ACC for (anthropogenic climate change), here is the Ehrlich’s top ten:
01. ACC is not a problem: The Ehrlichs’ simplistic response to this was to say two things – You have to roll dice many times to establish beyond reasonable doubt that they are loaded; and if climate change is not a problem to “sceptics” then, presumably, neither would they be concerned if they found a lump in a breast or a testicle (depending on gender obviously).
02. The greenhouse effect is just a theory: A long-time favourite argument of Richard Lindzen’s. To which many have responded, so is gravity! However, the Ehrlichs point out that without greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere, the Earth’s surface would be at minus 18 Celsius and, although water vapour and methane may be more potent GHGs – water vapour is ephemeral and methane is (thankfully) even more of a trace gas than CO2.
03. Problematic ACC is only predicted by models: Ever since James Hansen went on the record as saying that evidence for ACC had emerged from the “noise” of natural climate variation in 1988, this assertion has been attacked. However, all such counter-claims have proven to be misleading, deceitful, and/or based on flawed analysis of cherry-picked data. Most recently, of course, former sceptic Dr Richard A Muller has conceded that multi-decadal warming is happening. Unfortunately, the response of deniers has been one of two things: To add Muller to the list of people duped by the ACC “scam” or to try and claim that a supposed absence of warming over the last decade is relevant.
04. Scientists used to fear an approaching Ice Age: This is such a tired old argument; I can barely be bothered to respond to it. However, as does everybody else, the Ehrlichs point out that between 1945 and 1975, the cooling effect of atmospheric pollution generated by developed countries was greater than the warming effect of ACC. Today pollution from less developed countries may be doing the same thing but this is not good news because one day soon, just as it did before, ACC is likely to dominate once more.
05. The doubling of a trace gas such as CO2 cannot possibly be responsible for ACC: This is just a straightforward refusal to accept a physical reality that is theoretically well-understood; demonstrable in a laboratory; and now, arguably, observable in nature.
06. Humans can’t possibly affect our atmosphere and/or climate: The Ehrlichs’ response to this was to ask how many micrograms of bacteria does it take to kill a 100kg man? So then, just like Nazi propaganda, no matter how many times this lie is repeated, it will not magically become true. It is an unpleasant reality that we all need to accept: The burning of fossil fuels by humanity is endangering the climate and sea level stability of the last 7,000 years that made modern civilisation possible.
07. 20th Century warming is just recovery from Little Ice Age (LIA): This is, in essence, the same argument as that made by people who continue to attack the MBH98 Hockey Stick graph, as if by doing so, they could invalidate 150 years of scientific understanding of the likely effects of doubling atmospheric CO2 concentration. See this recent post on Climate Denial Crock of the Week: Perfect Timing! New “Hockey Stick” Video/Mike Mann in WSJ.
08. Change will be slow – we can adapt: Having been defeated by the science, this is the fall-back position adopted by economically-oriented “sceptics” – both in 1996 and still today! As those with a tendency to support their arguments by quoting from the Bible (“Moi?“) might say, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). However, such an unscientific position ignores the existence of positive feedback mechanisms and tipping points; it also ignores the fact that climate change is already impeding our ability to grow enough crops to feed ourselves or the animals we eat. This problem can only get worse not better. Also, of course, it ignores the fact that trees can’t migrate!
09. ACC is not worth the cost of fixing: Even in 1996, William Nordhaus was trying to tell the world that this is so. Not surprisingly, therefore, he denounced The Stern Review in 2006. However, I have yet to see anyone rebut Stern’s response to this criticism – which was to point out that putting off expenditure on climate change mitigation will be the greatest economic mistake in human history. If so, why are we still making it?
10. Some parts of the world are getting colder: Up until this year, “sceptics” have continued to cite this argument every time some part of the world is hit by some unusually-cold weather. Hopefully, in the face of the spiralling costs of insurance claims arising from increasingly frequent extreme weather phenomena of all kind all around the world (all being caused – as predicted by models – by warming oceans), they will now shut up and focus instead on solving our problem.
May be now people will accept that climate change is an existential threat to all life on Earth? I hope so, because, as James Hansen points out, we have at most 4 years of business as usual before it will be too late.