CLIMATE CHANGE - RELIGION OR SCIENCE? By Michael Hart (Article)
Governments have for twenty years tilted at the windmill of climate change. Until last year, these annual extravaganzas in exotic locations could claim some forward movement. At Copenhagen last December, however, reality finally bit, but not after having loosed all kinds of opportunists who have hitched their pet causes to that of climate change, including an increasing number of officials in Canada and elsewhere whose careers are now tied to the vain hope that the earth’s climate is a matter of a government policy. It has become firmly embedded among bureaucrats as the official, perceived, authoritative position. Hubris anyone?
Two years ago I decided I needed to get my mind around this file and see if there was anything to it. Students were interested in doing projects on climate change and trade. Questions came up in class. Casual conversations, newspaper articles, and Sunday sermons all seemed to assume that the world’s climate was changing, humans were responsible, and governments could do something about it.
Over the past two years, I have invested in 65 books on climate issues, and read them all. I spend an hour or two every morning reading interesting articles on the internet. I have accumulated a two-gigabyte folder of articles on every aspect of climate change. I have had to work hard at remembering my high school physics and chemistry. And this summer, I am teaching a course at the Norman Paterson School on Scientific Uncertainty, Public Policy, and Climate Change.
Now, I make no claims to having become an expert on the intricacies of the science of climate change. I have asked one of my colleagues in Earth Sciences to work with me on that aspect of the course. The basic contours, however, are fully within the grasp of any serious layman, including government officials. And that’s the point. Public policy is being ill served by officials who are failing to provide governments with balanced analysis and advice on climate issues. Instead, ministers are getting spin. They are getting Official Science. And official science is not science, just like Official Economics is not economics. Official Economics is responsible for supply management and Official Science is responsible for climate change treaties. We can ill afford supply management, and we can certainly not afford much more climate change nonsense.
For years, ministers were always on the lookout for one-handed economists. They were so much easier to deal with. Now, ministers are looking for, and unfortunately have found, one-handed scientists and we are all going to be the poorer for it.
Let me share a couple of the conclusions I have reached from my readings and their bearing on the public policy of climate change.
The science of climate change starts with the reality that it is concerned with the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known. Change is the only constant. The idea that there is such a thing as a steady-state or stable climate is a figment of the modern imagination and one of the factors that is driving the unhealthy preoccupation with anthropogenic climate change.
Geologists tell us our planet is 4.5 billion years old. Over the eons, earth has experienced all kinds of change, including climate, much of it violent, and all of it unaided by human activity. Over the past several million years, ice ages lasting more than 100,000 years have been periodically interrupted by interglacials of about 10,000 years. The current interglacial period – known as the Holocene – has already lasted 12,000 years, which is long by geological standards.
Over those 12,000 years, there have been periods that were much warmer than today, including the Holocene Optimum, the Roman Optimum, and the Medieval Optimum. They are called Optimums because virtually all species, including humans, thrive in warm periods and shrivel in cold ones. Our current modern warming is classified by most climate scientists as a recovery from a three-century downturn known as the Little Ice Age. So when someone tells you that the current warming is unprecedented and the result of human agency, grab your wallet, because they have an agenda, and you are going to pay for it.
Do humans impact climate? Certainly at the local and regional level. Less certainly at the global level. Land-use changes, in particular, affect local climates. To many climate scientists, the quest for any human imprint on climate change at the global level must be preceded by a thorough understanding of the natural drivers of climate change. That quest has only been undertaken seriously over the past fifty years. As a result, scientists have gained a much better understanding of weather and climate patterns and the influence of such cyclical factors as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the Arctic Oscillation. But debate remains intense and the science far from settled. The role of changes in solar intensity and of clouds, the extent to which various factors being studied lead to positive or negative feedbacks and forcings, are all hotly contested. So when someone tells you that the science is settled and it’s time for action, again, grab your wallet and ask about their real agenda.
What about the role of CO2 and the UN conclusions that we are looking at a warming of up to 5 degrees over the next century? Now we are in the realm of agenda-driven science, rather than real science. The atmosphere is certainly a critical part of understanding the nature of our planet’s climate, and CO2 is part of the atmosphere. A very small part. It amounts to about 0.039 percent of the atmosphere. At sea level, out of a thousand molecules of dry air, about 780 are nitrogen and 210 are oxygen, and the remaining 10 are divided among 3.9 molecules of CO2 and trace amounts of other gases. The most important so-called greenhouse gas is water vapour, which accounts for about 97 percent of the greenhouse effect. The atmosphere is not a greenhouse, by the way; greenhouses are heated by trapped air rather than by radiation, but it is a term that has stuck. CO2 thus has a very small impact. And because that impact is geometric, its impact diminishes with greater concentration. Most of its effect is already present.
The case for CO2 as the driver of climate change is a theoretical one and depends on assumptions about forcings, feedbacks, and sensitivity. Do scientists have any evidence to back up claims about CO2’s long-term, catastrophic effect? The simple answer is no. They have models – increasingly sophisticated models but ones that are still quite crude and far from capturing physical reality. They still cannot model, for example, the role of clouds, probably the single most important factor in determining weather patterns. The greatest believers in CO2-driven climate change are climate modelers whose computers and programs gobble up huge amounts of money and who have learned that scary stories lead to ever more funding. At our expense. Governments have to date poured some $100 billion into climate change science and we have only scratched the surface of the issue.
And we should not forget that CO2 is critical to life on earth. It is the basis of plant life which in turn nurtures all other life. The increase in CO2 over the course of the 20th century is one of the underlying causes of the green revolution that has made it possible to feed the 6.5 billion people alive today.
The global instrument temperature record, which has been the occasion of much controversy over the past few months, is fraught with problems. It provides the basis for much of the official alarmism, but few realize that it is a wholly artificial construct based on aggregating readings taken at various weather stations over the years and then subjected to a variety of homogenizations, filling in of blanks, and various algorithms to create a continuous record. Many of these stations suffer serious siting problems and are often located at airports or in areas that used to be countryside but are now suburbs or even wholly urban. Readings taken at stations that have remained rural show distinctly less warming than those from stations that have become surrounded by towns and cities.
The instrument data only covers the 30 percent of the planet that is land, and then is heavily dependent on readings in the US and Europe. Africa and South America are poorly represented, as is Russia and northern Canada. Oceans have only recently begun to be covered systematically using 3,000 widely dispersed buoys that are monitored by satellites. Antarctica, a continent the size of Russia, is represented by a few stations at its periphery. No wonder the data bases maintained by the Hadley Centre in the UK and the Goddard Institute in New York are subject to frequent adjustments, and suffer from serious credibility problems. The 30-year satellite record, which covers the whole globe, is much more credible and shows much less warming.
Is climate change catastrophic? Hardly. Here in Ottawa, we can experience temperature changes within a 24-hour period of as much as 30 degrees C, and over the course of a year seasonal changes of as much as 70 degrees C. Ottawa’s modern temperature record varies from a low of -38.9°C to a high of +37.8°C, a range of nearly 77°C. Ten thousand years ago, Ottawa was covered by 1,500 metres of ice, and at some point in the future it may be again. We adapt. As does nature. Neither we nor nature need government policy to mitigate climate change.
Climate is a local phenomenon; aggregating the characteristics of thousands of local climates into a global climate may serve analytical goals, but does not make climate a global phenomenon. Similarly, temperature is meaningful only at a specific time in a specific place. The earth does not have a temperature in any physically meaningful sense. Increasing night time and winter time temperatures – which is what the CO2 hypothesis is all about – by a few degrees is hardly earth shattering. To date, climate change alarmism is based on tenths of a degree of change, virtually all of it readily explained by natural forces.
What about all the scare stories about species extinction, dying polar bears, rising seas, and melting ice caps? Precisely. They are scare stories that serve the interests of scientists looking for funding, environmentalists working out their religious obligations, and governments looking for new ways to control our lives. They have scant basis in reality. Those that do usually rest on better explanations than global, anthropogenic climate change.
Polar bears, for example, are thriving; their population has quadrupled since controls were imposed on widespread hunting. The Arctic winter icecap is returning, part of a decadal cycle related to winds and the inflow of warmer water through the Bering Strait. Mount Kilimanjaro’s snows have been disappearing for a century and a half, have recently grown somewhat, and are dependent on rainfall cycles influenced by land-use changes. Coral bleaching is part of normal change. I could go on, but you get the picture. There is a UK site that lists over 600 problems caused by climate change. All of them bogus.
What about the public policy of climate change? Do we need one? Perhaps. Certainly, if some changes in precipitation, wind, temperature, or other climactic factors have deleterious impacts, governments should be prepared to take appropriate action. Sea levels have risen 400 metres since the last ice age. They may have risen 15-20 centimetres over the past century, although this is contested among specialists. They may rise a further 15-20 centimetres over this century, requiring some adaptive strategies. But these and other possibilities hardly justify draconian measures undercutting the very basis of modern civilization and prosperity.
Over the last two and a half centuries of economic development, we have succeeded in making one of the most dramatic changes in the history of civilization. Until the middle of the 18th century, at a global scale, the default position for most humans was that described by Thomas Hobbes: nasty, brutish, and short! Since then, human population has increased six-fold and we all live longer, healthier, more prosperous lives. The share of the global population that now lives a Hobbesian existence is down to less than 15 percent. Fully half can aspire to lives that only kings and princes could enjoy in earlier centuries, and the other half aspires to reach the same level.
The global warming movement has decided that those aspirations are immoral and is doing its level best to frustrate them. Shame on them! These are sentiments grounded in religious preferences, not in science or knowledge. We are all free to exercise the religion of our choice, but part of the genius of modern life is that we have learned to limit the application of such choices to public life. Make no mistake: those insisting on climate change treaties and legislation are motivated by religious preferences.
Modern environmentalism also relies on a gargantuan misapplication of the pernicious precautionary principle. Risk is an integral part of life. Managing risk is integral to good governance and good personal judgment. But the idea that we must shrink from all risk is ludicrous and not sustainable. And that’s what the precautionary principle is all about: if there is a risk, we must avoid or mitigate it. It means the end of life as we know it.
The key to modern civilization is man’s ability to harness the energy contained in fossil fuels, from the early steam engine to modern planes, trains, and automobiles. It will remain the key for many years to come. New technologies may eventually replace oil, gas, and coal, but not in any foreseeable future. Wind, solar, bio, and other so-called renewables are far from reliable and remain prohibitively expensive. The dream of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels in the 21st century is just that, a dream. Or, if it is imposed, a nightmare, forcing us all into poverty and frustrating the hopes of millions in the third world.
The global warming movement looks forward to a grim future. I don’t and I suspect most of you don’t either. It’s time to educate yourselves and demand answers, particularly from the current generation of public officials. The advice they are giving ministers is not based on facts and analysis but on spin. We can’t afford that. It needs to change.
"Hubris: Official Science, Economics, and the Politics of Climate Change." by Michael Hart was published by UBC Press, summer 2015 and is available on Kobo, Amazon and Books on Beechwood.
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