In this essay I propose that there are many things about climate change that the general public, journalists, academics, environmentalists and politicians may think they ‘know’ to certainly be true that are actually, at the least, highly equivocal (or demonstrably false) and that once these misconceptions are corrected perceptions of the issue are (or, at least, should be) transformed. Note that throughout I use the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definition of ‘climate change’: ‘a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period (typically decades or longer)’. By ‘global warming’ I mean a rise in the Global Average Surface Temperature of the Earth.
Although the exact terminology and language may vary, we are repeatedly told that the essential ‘facts’ about climate change are that:
a) Global warming is happening, at rate that is unprecedented and accelerating
b) It has been caused by our carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels
c) It has already caused an alarming and accelerating rise in sea levels
d) It has already caused an alarming and accelerating increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events
e) It has already caused alarming and accelerating global species extinctions
f) We are experiencing a climate change crisis that will soon be catastrophic (potentially even causing a mass extinction event) if we don’t stop climate change
g) We can stop climate change by urgently switching to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, so eradicating our emissions
h) The science behind the above points is settled and beyond reasonable dispute.
My assertion is not that these ‘facts’ are ‘fake news’ (deliberately reported falsehoods) or ‘myths’ (implying that there is no truth whatsoever in them) but that they are fundamental misconceptions based on misunderstandings of what the science and evidence actually tell us. These misconceptions appear to have assumed the mantle of ‘collective beliefs’ (or ‘memes’) that through extensive repetition in the media are mistakenly taken to be indisputable truths, despite the ready availability of science and evidence to disprove (or, at the least, seriously question) them. Few people will have heard the opinions of scientists (including many of the world’s most eminent climate scientists) who doubt this ‘man-made climate change crisis’ narrative because their voices have largely been silenced (typically by branding them ‘climate change deniers’ or even ‘science deniers’). In the current climate of hostility to even considering alternative viewpoints there is apparently only one politically correct position to take, the ‘right’ position of accepting that the alarmist narrative is beyond dispute.
It’s hardly surprising that these misconceptions have arisen because for most people (whether they be the general public, politicians or, indeed, journalists) their exposure to the climate change issue is predominantly through the media. Furthermore when the media concerned is mainstream (such as the BBC), and so ‘trusted’, people reasonably believe that they are being told the ‘whole truth’ by unbiased journalists who must have understood and critically investigated the science and evidence. Sadly such understanding and critical analysis is rarely to be found, journalists typically simply taking on trust what the ‘scientific authorities’ tell them (as gleaned from Press Releases and ‘executive summary’ documents from which all the complexities and profound uncertainties, unknowns and ambiguities have largely been expunged). This often superficial understanding is then communicated to the target audience using unscientific, emotional, hyperbolic language (such as ‘climate emergency’ and ‘climate change crisis’) and quoting extreme outlier predictions that are virtually impossible to occur in order to create an impression of urgency and danger; rhetoric appealing to the emotions coupled with alarming images (like ice calving, hurricanes and wildfires or computer-generated drowning cities) are always likely to sway public opinion far more powerfully than rhetoric appealing to logic coupled with complicated science, graphs and data. In this way highly improbable risks in the far future come to be perceived as existential crises today. In fact if you want to convince the general public (and journalists and politicians) that ‘we are experiencing a man-made climate change crisis’ then, because few will understand the fundamental differences between man-made climate change and global warming, let alone the differences between man-made climate change and natural climate variability, you typically need only convince them that ‘global warming is happening’ (which nobody denies). So one temperature graph showing warming (there are thousands available on Google Images) is all it may take to apparently ‘prove’ your case. Yet evidence that global warming is happening is not evidence that man-made global warming is happening and not evidence that climate change is happening (let alone evidence that man-made climate change is happening) because the global warming may just result from natural climate variability. Natural climate variability is variability in the mean state of the climate on all temporal scales (beyond that of individual weather events) resulting from natural processes.
This confusion was epitomized in ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary (that appeared on British TV 18th April 2019) that was a catalogue of scientific misconceptions, spanning claims of man-made climate change causing escalating heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods, ice melt at the Antarctic, sea level rise, species extinctions and widespread coral death. Sample criticisms of the programme can be found here and here and here. It included the claim (also being made by such extremist groups as Extinction Rebellion) that globally we must achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and not exceed a further half a degree Centigrade of global warming if we are to avoid a climate catastrophe and possible mass extinction event – a claim that, to put it as charitably as possible, is not at all supported by the science, as is evident to anyone with even the most basic understanding of climate science or anyone who has actually read the IPCC SR15 report that ostensibly formed the basis of this claim. Furthermore to achieve this goal would, according to the IPCC, ‘require unprecedented changes in our lifestyle, energy and transport systems’, effectively a global social and economic revolution.
The essential problem for those who are prepared to open their minds to alternative viewpoints is that to understand the flaws in the alarmist narrative’s simplistic certainties requires that you delve quite deeply into the science, statistics, politics and economics of climate change – and that is time-consuming, hard work that requires quite a high degree of scientific literacy. However if you do make the effort a very different (far less alarming) picture appears:
1) Global warming and climate change are both unequivocally happening (the latter being reflected in, for example, glacier retreat and sea level rise) but so far both at a rate that is well within the bounds of natural climate variability (and not unprecedented)
2) There are substantial uncertainties about the extent to which human activity (principally in the form of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions and global cooling from aerosol and soot emissions) has contributed to the observed post-industrial global warming and climate change, not least because of the extreme difficulty of separating man-made climate change from the ‘background noise’ of natural climate variability. Nevertheless on the balance of probabilities human activity was responsible for half or more of the global warming observed between 1950 and 2010 (a period of escalating carbon dioxide emissions)
3) Sea levels are rising at a rate of about 7-8 inches per century, a rate that has remained steady despite our escalating carbon dioxide emissions, i.e. the cause is probably predominantly natural. We could globally cease all carbon dioxide emissions overnight and sea levels would continue to rise, an inevitability to which we must adapt
4) There is no remotely compelling scientific evidence that extreme weather events have increased in frequency or intensity in post-industrial times (although the reporting of such events certainly has)
5) There is no remotely compelling scientific evidence that climate change (man-made or otherwise) has resulted in widespread species extinctions (most extinctions have been attributed to habitat loss, over-exploitation, pollution or invasive species)
6) If you remove the (entirely natural) El Niño warming of 2015-16 there has been little statistically significant global warming this century
7) Recently (essentially this century) global warming has been slowing down (while our carbon dioxide emissions have continued to escalate), this illustrating the fact that there is no direct (or linear) correlation between global surface temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions
8) It is impossible to control the Earth’s average surface temperature (on the timescales of decades to centuries) just by controlling our carbon dioxide emissions
9) It is impossible to stop climate change happening – climate change is inherently complex, unpredictable and uncontrollable
10) It is impossible to specify a threshold for global warming beyond which the climatic effects become net-harmful (the 20C goal of the Paris Climate Accord is essentially politically arbitrary)
11) Carbon dioxide is an incombustible, colourless, odourless and tasteless gas that is a very effective plant nutrient. Thanks to our carbon dioxide emissions increasing concentrations in the atmosphere there has been a greening of the Earth that is already equivalent in size to twice the area of the USA and could fundamentally change the Earth’s carbon cycle by adding such a vast carbon sink. Furthermore, as the ‘fuel’ of photosynthesis and the creation of oxygen, it is absolutely essential to the existence of complex life on Earth (which includes us). Dr. Richard Lindzen, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has stated that the idea that carbon dioxide is a dangerous, planet-destroying toxin ‘will be remembered as the greatest mass delusion in the history of the world’
12) Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere today are about 46% higher than their (280ppm) pre-industrial level (largely because of our emissions) but about four times lower than their average level and at least 10 times lower than their highest level in the history of the Earth (based on paleoclimatology estimates)
13) The global average surface temperature today is about 10C higher than its pre-industrial level but about 60C lower than its average level and at least 130C lower than its highest level in the history of the Earth (based on paleoclimatology estimates)
14) Climate change computer models are proving very unreliable guides to future climate change (in particular they are substantially overestimating warming) – yet it is the most extreme ‘predictions’ of these models that are driving global climate and energy policies
15) The future costs and impacts of decarbonization may well exceed the future costs and impacts of man-made global warming, i.e. even if future man-made global warming becomes net-harmful it may not be cost-effective to mitigate it with decarbonization
16) Based on observational estimates of climate sensitivity (simplistically how much warming you get when you double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) on the balance of probabilities further man-made global warming this century is unlikely to exceed 1.50C and its climatic effects might actually be net-beneficial for humans and the environment for many regions of the world [Here I am assuming climate sensitivity not exceeding 20C (based on the best empirical evidence) and ‘business as usual’ emissions trajectories leading to carbon dioxide concentrations not exceeding 700ppm by 2100. Note that by ‘business as usual’ I mean a reasonable extrapolation of economic, population and energy mix trends. This is not to be conflated with recent trends which have roughly tracked the IPCC scenario RCP8.5 (its most extreme emissions scenario, which is virtually impossible to occur)]
17) Climate disruption (e.g. the failure of the Gulf Stream) before the end of this century resulting from man-made global warming is not absolutely impossible but is extremely unlikely
18) A ‘mass extinction event’ before the end of this century resulting from man-made global warming is a virtual impossibility; however a global economic recession/depression resulting from climate policies designed to limit future warming to a half degree Centigrade (and so ostensibly avert such a catastrophe) is a virtual certainty
19) Intermittent wind and solar power is not the solution to any potential future climate change problem (certainly with any foreseeable development of battery technology to ‘plug the intermittency gap’)
20) Climate change science is currently immature, highly disputable and not remotely ‘settled’. This is precisely why many very different interpretations of the science have arisen
Based on the above points the politically correct vogue for councils/counties/countries to declare a ‘climate change emergency’ is clearly profoundly scientifically misconceived (in fact it is hard to avoid the word ‘delusional’) based on any reasonable definition of the word ‘emergency’. It might well make good political sense (to attract the ‘green vote’) but it makes no real scientific or economic sense. For example, the only statistically significant change in Britain’s climate for hundreds of years has been that it has warmed slightly – yet the UK Parliament has now declared a ‘climate change emergency’. Basically it is hard to see how climate change that so far has probably been net-beneficial for humans and the environment, that has lifted us out of the misery of the Little Ice Age that preceded it, with its droughts, crop failures, famines and epidemics, and has been accompanied by the Industrial Revolution’s soaring wealth and life expectancy (according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2014) could reasonably, in the round, be described as an ‘emergency’; indeed quite the opposite.
Despite all of the above, if nevertheless the radical global decarbonization route is to be followed it cannot succeed without global concerted action, in particular from major emitters like China (30% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and rising – and funding about $36 billion of coal projects globally according to the IEEFA). Decarbonization unilateralism by small emitters is worse than pointless. For example even if Britain (1.1% of global emissions) somehow totally decarbonized its economy (with technologies not yet viable, like Carbon Capture and Sequestration), as is being recommended by its Committee on Climate Change, the future reduction in global warming would still be undetectably and unmeasurably small (estimated to be of the order of a hundredth of a degree Centigrade by 2100) and so basically just extremely economically, socially and environmentally damaging ‘virtue signalling’. The only basis on which this could possibly be described as even vaguely rational or responsible would be if major emitters, like China, followed Britain’s lead – and there is, to say the least, a negligible chance of that.
Of course these 20 conjectures are a great deal more complicated, qualified and uncertain than the 8 simple, absolute and certain ‘facts’ at the start of this essay. Given a choice between the complex uncertainties of my conjectures and the simple certainties of the ‘facts’ many would prefer the latter. So can we reduce all this complexity to a relatively simple ‘alternative climate change narrative’, at the very real risk of being as trite as the original set of ‘facts’? If forced to make such a gross simplification my suggestion would be:
a) Global warming is happening, albeit at a rate that is unexceptional and not accelerating
b) It has been caused by both human activity and natural activity (i.e. it has not just been caused by our carbon dioxide emissions)
c) It has caused a rise in sea levels, albeit at a rate that is unexceptional and not accelerating
d) It has not caused an increase in the frequency or intensity of extreme weather events
e) It has not caused accelerating global species extinctions
f) We are not experiencing a ‘climate change crisis’ or a ‘climate change emergency’ (indeed arguably quite the opposite) but climate disruption in the far future, although very unlikely, is not impossible
g) We cannot stop climate change but we can reduce climate change risks (albeit at an economic, social and environmental cost that may be prohibitive) by gradually transitioning to lower carbon-intensity energy sources (like natural gas), so reducing our emissions
h) The science behind the above points is immature and subject to dispute. There is almost total scientific consensus that global warming and climate change are happening and that we are contributing to them – but profound disagreements about the extent of our contribution, whether it will lead to ‘dangerous’ climate change and whether urgent global decarbonization is the correct policy response.
Now all this is highly controversial and iconoclastic because it subverts the politically correct orthodoxy on climate change, those alarming ‘facts’ that we are not supposed to question. Many would doubtless disagree with this alternative, more circumspect and far less alarming narrative, perhaps saying ‘well that’s not what the IPCC say.’ The IPCC is typically described as, ‘The internationally accepted authority on climate change’ and is viewed with reverence, not to say awe, by most academics, politicians, environmentalists and journalists, who regard it as virtually infallible and omniscient in all climate change matters. In fact many of my 20 points are directly derived from IPCC reports. Actually I suspect that the IPCC would privately agree with most of these 20 points (but would never publically admit it for fear of reducing the fear). Furthermore the IPCC, in keeping with its remit from the UN to support the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the main international treaty on climate change), focuses almost exclusively on man-made climate change at the expense of important aspects of natural climate change and is arguably predisposed to a ‘presumption of guilt’ of carbon dioxide emissions. Basically to ignore the opinions of the IPCC would be as foolish as to believe that they are beyond reasonable dispute.
To really understand the climate change issue we must accept that it is far more complicated and nuanced and uncertain than the simplistic way it is typically reported in the media. We must open our minds to the wide range of expert opinions about the issue, give them deep thought, apply common sense, make careful judgements, and above all be wary of any simplistic all-purpose solutions, such as urgent global decarbonization. Unfortunately few people have available to them the time, inclination and perseverance to do that. As Dr. Richard Lindzen has said, ‘Most arguments about global warming boil down to science versus authority. For much of the public authority will generally win since they do not wish to deal with the science.’ The apparent overwhelming message from the authorities (as mediated by the media) is that we are experiencing a man-made climate change crisis that can only be fixed through urgent and radical global decarbonization and it is perfectly understandable (although regrettable) that the vast majority of the general public and journalists and politicians simply choose to believe this. Why do all that hard, time-consuming work when you can just believe. The simplistic certainties of the alarmist media narrative may be based on profound scientific misconceptions (as the authorities are well aware) but the attitude of the authorities appears to be that because a ‘climate change crisis’ in the distant future is not impossible this possible end justifies the dubious means – after all, even this alarmist narrative has failed to get the nations of the world to act decisively. If the authorities communicated the climate change issue honestly, in all its complexity and uncertainty, it would give governments even more reason to avoid or delay decarbonization. So the behavior of the scientific authorities is perfectly understandable, although regrettable, because it risks radical climate change policies being implemented that may be the cause of deep global regret in the future. And of course the behavior of the media is also perfectly understandable (although regrettable) because bad news sells; it is hard to monetize a ‘no climate change crisis’ story.
When people say that they believe in the climate change crisis because they ‘believe in science’ what they may actually be saying is that because they don’t really understand the science they choose to believe in the alarmist narrative promoted by the authorities and abetted by the media. Few people choose the ‘road less travelled’ of opening their minds to the competing arguments in the climate change debate, embracing complexity, uncertainty, doubt and social opprobrium when they can simply choose to believe what they think the authorities and other ‘right thinking’ people believe. On the one hand you have an apparently scientifically-straightforward, very easy to understand, very certain, very alarming problem (‘our carbon dioxide emissions are causing a climate change crisis’) with an ostensibly very simple solution (‘decarbonize’) and on the other hand you have a scientifically-challenging, very hard to understand, complex, nuanced and uncertain problem that may or may not be alarming and which has no simple solution. To put it another way, on the one hand you have an imminent existential planetary crisis that can only be solved by the radical and urgent transformation of global society and on the other hand you have a possible distant future problem with no obvious ‘correct’ policy response today. It’s not hard to see why certain people, in particular young, idealistic and impressionable people, may be more attracted to the former idea and want to break out the banners and ‘save the planet’ through a world revolution.
Within the climate science community the divide is essentially between those (epitomized by the IPCC) who predominantly put their faith in climate models (i.e. virtual world projections of what might happen in the future) and those who predominantly put their faith in empirical scientific evidence (i.e. real world observations of what has actually happened). The former group tend to focus on the possible high risks of future climate change and urge rapid global decarbonization just in case whilst the latter group tend to focus on the probable low risks of future climate change (and high costs and impacts of decarbonization) and urge circumspection. It might be said that the latter group is looking at the issue in the manner of a businessman, assessing the balance of probabilities, costs, benefits and risks (they are essentially gambling and saying that urgent decarbonization is probably a bad bet) whilst the former group is simply saying that there is a huge potential risk and therefore something (radical global decarbonization) must be done, almost irrespective of the probabilities, costs and adverse impacts. As Obersteiner et al put it in Managing Climate Risk, the key unresolved question is whether global decarbonization ‘will fundamentally reshape our common future on a global scale to our advantage, or quickly produce losses that can throw mankind into economic, social, and environmental bankruptcy.’ Climate scientists who question the dominant man-made climate change crisis narrative are not saying that there is a clear scientific verdict of ‘Innocent’ – instead they are simply saying that our guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt (or even on the balance of probabilities). Perhaps here we need the Scottish legal system’s verdict of ‘Not Proven’.
The fundamental problem with the climate change problem is that it is a ‘wicked’ problem: it is impossible to predict our climate future, determine whether it is benign or alarming and know how best to respond because there are simply too many variables, too many unknowns and too many uncertainties. However we choose to respond is a vast gamble with humanity’s future; however we choose to respond may result in deep regrets.