Global warming balance

Last night's Dispatches report on the Great Global Warming Swindle brought some welcome balance to the climate-change debate. Not because the programme itself was balanced - it was completely one-sided in favour of the sceptics - but because the other side of the argument (the alarmists) has been given almost all of the air-time for the past few years. We are constantly told by politicians, publicists and much of the media that there is scientific consensus, that the debate is over, and that it is somehow morally wrong to question the science. Well, there is clearly not consensus, the debate is not over, and suppressing debate is a whole lot more morally contemptible than trying to raise it (stand up and take a bow, all you Royal Society representatives, for your ignoble role in the effort to suppress debate).

Having said that, some climate-change sceptics are as inclined to grasp any evidence as complete refutation of global-warming theory, as the alarmists are inclined to interpret any data as further evidence to support their beliefs. So in the interests of balance, here is a link to the best-informed article I could find that provided counter-arguments to those in the programme.

I don't know what anyone else thinks, but I find quite weak the arguments in that post (and those linked from it) regarding the lag in the long-term historical data for CO2 and temperature rises (the former follows the latter by around 800 years, which is back-to-front on a simplistic interpretation of climate-change theory). I can understand that it is conceivable that something else caused the warming effect for the first 800 years, and that feedback from rising CO2 then continued the trend for the next 4,200 years. But there is a difference between conceivable and probable. If something caused the warming for 800 years, why do we assume that after that time that effect shut off and the rest of the rise in temperature is attributable to forcing from increased levels of CO2? And what about at the end of the rising trends? Temperature starts to fall while CO2 levels are still rising. Why did the forcing effect of the CO2 suddenly shut off?

Perhaps there are explanations for these discrepancies, but does Occam's Razor not apply? It is relatively simple to explain the lag in terms of temperature causing the CO2 increases, but quite complex to explain it in terms of a delayed effect combined with some other unknown factor.

Then again, Occam's razor is not proof but a guide to choice between two alternatives. It does not eliminate the possibility that the more complex explanation is the right one. And even if the simple explanation is correct, it does not eliminate the possibility that natural and anthropogenic global warming may both occur and that what we have seen recently is a man-made trend even if previous swings (over a longer timescale) have been natural and caused by factors other than CO2.

My bet, for what it's worth, is that the man-made effect is real but overstated (probably significantly) by the current models. But while I'd put a tenner (or a bit more) on that bet, I wouldn't gamble the earth. And I certainly wouldn't expect other people to accept that my bet was right. I'd prefer it if politicians and scientists would show the same respect for others' freedom to make their own judgments.

I don't want someone to decide for all of us what the risk is and what we are going to do about it. I want a way of putting a price on that risk (and allowing that value to change over time as science improves and people's perceptions change) so that each of us can make and vary his own decision (sorry for the masculine generic third-person) about what sacrifice they are prepared to make (better?) in order to mitigate the risk.

It is a good sign of a bad climate-change policy if it locks in the current assumptions. Another good indication of bad policy is where specific means are mandated for specific contribution to those current assumptions. A good policy would be designed so that broad incentives reacted to perceptions of the risk and the likelihood of being able to combat that risk. At the moment, we have only bad policies. The announcements from the EU today did not improve the situation.



One of the most powerful parts of the Dispatches programme was the reminder that action as well as inaction on climate-change can carry heavy costs. It was unfair to suggest that the alarmists are unconcerned about stunting development in the third-world - ideas like Aubrey Meyer's Contraction and Convergence try very hard to allow for growth in undeveloped countries within an overall falling pattern. But the broader point remains - that no country will be able to enjoy our current levels of growth and prosperity if we act to prevent the worst predictions of the alarmists. And it is undoubtedly true that many environmentalists over-romanticise the "simple", "sustainable" lifestyle of the under-fed, disease-wracked, fate-tossed poor, and undervalue the benefits of our modern lifestyles in the developed nations.

The choice is not as simple as it is sometimes made to seem. The programme was right to point out that there is a heavy price to pay for contracting our own economies and preventing the development of others'. Equally, there may be a heavy price to pay for these same people if the alarmists' predictions with regard to drought and flooding are proved right. It is not us in the rich West who should make that choice, but the inhabitants of those poor countries, who may be trapped in poverty and condemned to a disease-ridden life and an early death in one scenario, or who face the threat of starvation, thirst, drowning and dislocation in another.

Another guide to good policy would be that it reflected the (changing) preferences of these people as much as it did our own. The price of carbon should be whichever is the lower of the price required to reduce emissions, or the price required by those who may suffer the possible impacts to compensate them for the risk. It should not be €0.88/tonne simply because most of the European government decided to cheat the first phase of EU-ETS. And it should not be £4,500/tonne simply because that is what it may take to encourage certain uneconomic technologies, as the British government is prepared to do under the Low Carbon Buildings Programme Phase 2 grant scheme. It should be equal for all and discovered in a realistic market.

Here is another reasonably-balanced (if less detailed) argument against the Dispatches program. I don't agree with much of the argument, but you can make your own judgments.

And here is another, from George Monbiot, published in today's Guardian. George is persuasive about Friis-Christensen and the sunspots, although he seems to some extent to be trying to damn Svensmark with Friis-Christensen's errors. And he is still resorting to ad hominem attacks, damning by association (comparing scientific critics of climate change with conspiracy theorists) and arguing that the debate is over. I'd be a whole lot more comfortable with the alarmists' arguments if they would resist the temptation to resort to these tactics.

So back to the debate rather than the personalities. One thing George doesn't deal with at all, which seems to me to be the key point from the program, is the (apparently undisputed) fact that carbon dioxide increases tend to lag temperature increases by around 800 years. Without dealing with that point, it feels like most of the refuters are just trying to attack the soft targets. Someone who really knows about this stuff needs to explain clearly and convincingly how to account for this apparent reversal of what one would expect, or the doubts will fester and grow.

Neil Douglas has helpfully reproduced the text of Carl Wunsch's complaint about the use of his interview in the programme, over at A Place to Stand. A few posts earlier, he has also reproduced the text of what Wunsch said in the programme. Of course, Wunsch's point is that many other things he said in interview were edited out. But Neil is right that there should still be consistency between what Wunsch claims he said and what was shown.

There are also plenty of other links on this site to stories, of varying merit, sceptical to the anthropogenic global warming theory.

Here is Freebornjohn's take, with plenty of information about what Wunsch has actually said, and links to his site where both his case and what the programme-makers said to him are available.

Here is a particularly authoritative response to the programme, from Sir John Houghton, "co-chair of IPCC Scientific Assessment working group 1988-2002, and Director General of the UK Meteorological Office 1983-1991".

Interestingly, he agrees with the programme that the historical data show that temperature leads CO2, rather than the opposite. All the less-informed responses to the programme that I have seen have tried to contest this point. If a leading figure in the promotion of the argument for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) says that it is true but irrelevant that temperature increases have historically produced the CO2 increases, and not the other way round, what are all the other commentators thinking who have tried to either deny this or excuse it? It shows a certain determination to fit the argument to the intended conclusion, rather than to reach the conclusion indicated by the evidence.

The reason that Sir John regards this fact as irrelevant is that neither he nor the IPCC have ever argued that this data is significant to their argument. The trouble is, some less scholarly promoters of the AGW theory have relied on this "evidence". He says that the programme claimed that the IPCC have used this data as evidence of AGW. Maybe, but that's not how I remember it. I'd need to look at it again to be sure, but my memory of the programme was that it was referring to Al Gore's use of this data in An Inconvenient Truth.

Sir John admits that he "often shows the diagram in [his] lectures on climate change but always makes the point that it gives no proof of global warming due to increased carbon dioxide". If it doesn't demonstrate anything useful, why show it? And does he simply say that it doesn't prove his case (which leaves the audience to infer that it may nevertheless demonstrate the effect he is describing), or does he acknowledge that it demonstrates an effect that provides an alternative explanation to the current correlation between rising temperatures and CO2? There is a whiff of sophistry about the way this is phrased. That may be unfair, but this point lingers on as a difficult one for the pro-AGW crowd, until one of them provides the detailed explanation of how we are to interpret this data. If the theory is correct, how does temperature start falling while the CO2 level is still rising?