The science around climate change is not as settled as it’s presented as being. I used to think it was, until about 2003 – and then, feeling that the remedies being proposed for climate change would be more damaging to the environment than climate change itself, I took it upon myself to look at the science.
In my book on biodiversity, Beyond Conservation, I had mentioned in one of the chapters that perhaps the man-made global warming theory was not all it was being cracked up to be. The changes we are seeing now, I wrote, suggested that some other processes were at work. I then took time out, visited the science libraries, and checked the original science upon which today’s models are based.
I was shocked by what I found. Firstly, there’s no real consensus among the scientists in the UN working groups, especially around oceanography and atmospheric physics. The atmospheric physics of carbon dioxide for example is presented as being pretty straightforward: it is a greenhouse gas, therefore it warms up the planet. But even that isn’t settled. There’s a huge amount of scientific disagreement on how much extra heating in the atmosphere you will get from carbon dioxide. It is even broadly accepted that carbon dioxide on its own is not a problem. So, you can double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and get half to one degree warming, which is within the natural variability range over a period of 50 years from now at the current rate of emissions.
The role of water vapour in planetary warming is also open to questioning. While it is presented as being a heat amplifier, in fact because it can turn into cloud it could actually regulate temperature instead. As it turned out, at the very beginning of the UN discussions, Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at MIT, and a leading expert appointed to the committee because of his meteorological expertise, was saying precisely that: the amplification effect asserted cannot be relied upon to increase warming because the vapour could turn into cloud. This needed to be proved before basing assumptions on it. But Lindzen was overruled. Despite still being a key part of the IPPC process, he is now vilified by the press and by the environmental movement. So even on the most basic science of the atmospherics, there is doubt.
Or take oceanography. Most of the heat of the planet is not contained in the atmosphere; it is in the oceans. And what happens in the oceans is absolutely vital to the dynamics of heat moving around the planet. So while of course it is possible to warm up the planet to an additional extent as a result of human activity, if the planet then lets more heat out than it would normally do, then it will balance out. That is to say, you have only to produce less cloud over the oceans and the oceans will release heat to space. Like CO2 itself, the atmosphere doesn’t actually hold heat – it simply delays its transmission to space.
The real dynamic of the planet is to do with clouds, yet this area of science – oceanography and cloud cover – is incredibly uncertain. When I first looked at the basic science, the findings were surprising. Over the global warming period – which I limit to the past 50 or so years – the globe didn’t warm at all between 1950 and 1980, even though carbon dioxide emissions were going through the roof due to the postwar expansion of industry; global temperatures stayed pretty much flat.
The real global warming took off in the 1980s and 90s, through to about 2005. (In the last 10 years it’s actually plateaued.) That period of 25 years, from around 1980 to 2005, coincided with changes in the ocean and cloud cover – that is, there was less cloud and more sunlight getting through to the ocean. And this can be seen in the satellite data on the kind of energy that’s coming through (short-wave energy, which is the only energy that heats water – infra-red energy coming from CO2 cannot heat water). So when you look at the real-world data, the warming of that entire period seems to be due to additional sunlight reaching the oceans.
In 2007, I put out a report on this, in the hope of getting feedback before I published my book, Chill: A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory. Since then, top scientists at NASA have agreed that this period of warming over the past 25 years is entirely due to the short-wave radiation from sunlight, with the ocean transferring that heat to the land.
So the crucial question is: has the cloud thinning been due to carbon dioxide? Or is it part of a cycle? If you ask some of the top people at NASA – that is, the people who interpret all the satellite data – they will say it’s 50-50. So you could say the greenhouse effect has warmed the oceans and the warmer oceans have thinned the clouds. But that is still just a hypothesis, it is not a proven scientific fact. That means you could assert with equal validity that thinning clouds have warmed the oceans, which has led to global warming – meaning the effect of carbon dioxide is minimal.
There is a fairly easy way of deciding between the two viewpoints: you look at the history of climate to find out whether there has been warming and cooling in the past, before carbon dioxide became such an issue. And of course there have been cycles of warming and cooling, with the longest of the cycles lasting about a thousand years and the shortest cycle – El Nino – about four-to-eight years.
So, right now, we are at the peak of a thousand-year cycle. We also had a peak for all the other cycles between 1995 and 2005. Given that these cycles have peaked, temperature-wise, before, one can look at what happened back then. A thousand years ago, for instance, the Vikings were growing crops on Greenland, which assumes that the summer ice would have been more limited than it is now. The Arctic melted down a thousand years ago, just as it did 2,000 years ago. What’s astonishing is that you can see all of that in the ice-core record in Greenland. And in each cycle of a thousand years, the peak is getting lower. So overall the planet is actually cooling, from a peak about 8,000 years ago.
Now the only way in which you can get cycles of warming and cooling on such a scale is through the oceans. And the only way that can happen is in relation to cloud cover. So the crucial question then is, how do the oceans vary their cloud cover? What creates these cycles? There is a major scientific controversy over how the sun’s magnetic field influences the different types of energy that reach the planet, and how they, in turn, influence cloud cover. There are several different scientific teams working on it, including one from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). What this shows is that it is still an unresolved question. Nobody knows what the mechanisms are.
So why is the UN saying what it is saying? Well, if you actually look at the wording of what this so-called consensus of scientists has produced, then you will see that they believe that ‘global warming is not due to known natural causes acting alone’. This is clever wording. It means that the door is open to an unknown mechanism driving the warming. So although it is well known that the warming is naturally driven, the mechanism is not.
Why would the UN suppress all of this debate happening within its working groups? The problem is that the secretariat within the UN tasked with processing this debate is already committed – financially – to focusing upon carbon dioxide as the climate-change driver. It is very hard for them to backtrack.
It is only recently that the scientific world has bought into this consensus. In 2001, America, Russia and China did not accept the UN’s analysis. But by 2004, America had signed up to it. And this was all down to a certain team in the US which produced an analysis that ironed out the past cycles of warming and cooling. Although it has since been discredited, this report had a tremendous effect in bringing scientific institutions around to the idea of man-made global warming.
So behind the appearance of consensus and settled science, there is now this tremendous battle going on. The dissenting scientists are described by certain journalists and environmentalists as ‘denialists’ and ‘sceptics’ funded by the oil industry. This is simply not the case. There are top-level atmospheric physicists, oceanographers and solar scientists who do not agree that the case is proven for global warming. Nobody is seriously saying that carbon dioxide has no effect whatsoever, but the defenders of the faith, as it were, set up a straw man. ‘These people’, they say, ‘think carbon dioxide has no effect’. Only a lunatic fringe thinks that.
The critical scientists are simply saying that carbon dioxide’s effect is small, at most 20 per cent. This means that even a 50 per cent reduction by 2050 in manmade greenhouse gas emissions would only reduce the driving force of climate change by 10 per cent. That’s because the natural driving force will determine the climate. As I argue in Chill, if you look at all the past cycles, the temperature declines after a peak. And this decline will bring with it wholly different problems – ones which, so far, we are woefully underprepared for.
What’s really disconcerting for me is that I am a longstanding environmentalist. As part of environmental groups I’ve helped to prevent nuclear waste from being dumped in the ocean, I’ve helped change emergency planning for nuclear reactors, and I’ve also helped develop biodiversity strategy. I’m as green as you can get. But what I am faced with now is environmental groups and major NGOs – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – which have allied themselves with the state. They talk about so-called denialists allying themselves with ‘Big Oil’, but they have fallen into the arms of big government. They’ve allied with disreputable prime ministers; they’ve allied with chief policy advisers who have never got anything right in their lives; they’ve allied themselves with scientific institutions that have never led on any of these environmental issues.
If you write something, as I have done with Chill, which is a rational, critical appraisal of the whole situation, you would at least expect to have some dialogue. But there has been nothing. I haven’t had a single invitation to speak to any of these groups. Even universities have been reticent. I have been invited to speak at Leeds University, which has quite a strong climate community, and the Energy Institute. But the environmental community has been absolutely silent towards me. I would challenge them to bring all of their experts to the table and hammer it out.
We’re seeing the dangerous development here of a very intolerant political ideology. It is a very strange political and scientific situation, in which vast sums of money are underwriting a bureaucracy of climate accountants and auditors, and in which academic funding is easier to obtain if you put man-made climate change at the top of your research proposal. I have never seen anything like it in the 40 years of my scientific and environmental career.