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Scientific sacrilege: is global warming just a con?

Friday 16 March 2007

Our weary environmental specialist John Sheard, who has been recording various scientific fads for more decades than he cares to remember, ponders the international hysteria about global warming and comes up with the unthinkable: is it just a load of hot air?

MY WIFE and I spent part of the last Sunday - the good part, I should add - watching our 18 month old grandson proudly demonstrating his latest skill: he can walk. It got even better when England beat France in the Six Nations rugby.

Then the day went steeply down hill, a descent that as the week progressed became an absolute avalanche of horror stories as hysteria grips not just the UK but the entire Western world. We are all doomed, you see, thanks to a yet far from proven scientific scenario: global warming.

the sun through a dales mist
Global warming: is this the cause?
Photo: Chris Foster

What started the week's plunge into depression was the Sunday Times colour magazine which I picked up on Sunday evening after a rather pleasant day. It's horror-comic cover showing a map of what will be left of the UK in 100 years time, when most of it has been flooded by rising sea levels.

Huge swathes of it would be under water, including London and the South East. The Houses of Parliament would be amongst the first to sink below the waves, which some of us might think to be divine justice. Most of the North West would go, too, including virtually all of Lancashire, which might not be too much of a loss for a certain type of Yorkshireman.

Here in the Yorkshire Dales, however, we would be OK. My house, some 600 feet above sea level now, would still be high and dry so - with a bit of luck - my grandson would go into his old age with his feet dry. Apart from the fact, of course, the he would live in an armed camp fighting off refugees from the South, Midlands and North West.

Since Sunday, more and more politicians have been jumping onto the global warming bandwagon. David Cameron did his best to ensure the Tories lose the next election by saying he will slap huge tax increases on frequent flyers, quite forgetting that most of those travel for business reasons and paying even more taxes will make their businesses even less competitive.

New Labour hope David Miliband, the environment secretary who has so far looked quite sane, blotted his copy book by promising that he will impose an unbelievably complex tax on every man, woman, child (and probably dog) in the UK to give a personal carbon dioxide allowance. This, if we wanted, we could sell to a 4 x 4 owner if we chose to live naked in a cave.

I admit that I have absolutely no idea how such a scheme would work but I know this for sure: it would take hundreds and hundreds more civil servants to enforce - and this from a Government which has already recruited an extra 700,000 state employees at a cost running into billions in salaries and zillions when they retire on their index-linked pensions.

Could it be that scientists need fat new grants to fund their ever more arcane research?

All this took place after Channel Four television had dared to challenged the global warming juggernaut with an enthralling documentary called The Great Global Warming Swindle which produced dozens of world-famous scientists - including on of the co-founders of Greenpeace - saying that global warming was being causes by cyclical sun activity, not the human production of CO2.

Back in the 19th Century, the so-called experts insisted that George Stephenson should not produce a steam locomotive because they had "proved" that the human body would die at speeds over 25 mph. Just 20 years ago, I was reporting scientists who had "proved" that we were heading for a new ice age.

Now I am not denying that global warming is happening. But I agree with many eminent scientists who say that is a perfectly normal phenomenon which allowed grapes to be grown in Yorkshire in Roman times and people to roast oxen on the frozen River Thames when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne.

Lancashire, London and most of Britain is still with us after both those periods (apart from the bits that have been swept away by the North Sea). So why the hysteria? Could it be that scientists need fat new grants to fund their ever more arcane research? Or that politicians believe they can terrorise us into coughing up ever more taxes?

Your views:

  • Thanks for bringing this up.

    On my desk are six separate, peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals between 1999 and the end of 2005. All six are based on analyses of Antarctic ice cores dating back as far as 650,000 years. All six find that across all that time and through the inceptions and terminations of several glacial periods, changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have consistently lagged behind, rather than preceding, changes in temperature.

    The time lags between temperature movement and CO2 changes range from a few hundred to a few thousand years. In at least one paper, the authors attempt to dance away from the inevitable conclusion by saying even if CO2 didn't necessarily drive warming, the subsequent increase of atmospheric CO2 would drive additional warming.

    This tells us far more about the current state of science and the politics of research funding than about what the ice cores say. Even a non-scientist hick like me can figure out that the effect cannot precede the cause.

    David Hoopman - Madison, Wisconsin, USA

  • John Sheard suggests that the theory of climate change in response to human activities is ‘far from proven’. It begs the question ‘how much proof does a person need?’ The climate of the planet alters through time due to natural processes in particular the Milankovitch cycles (the eccentricity, axial tilt and precession of the earths orbit). These control the changing glacial and inter-glacial periods of the present ice age (we are now, obviously, in an interglacial period). But this is not the full story. It has been known for two centuries that certain gasses, including methane and carbon dioxide, act to warm the average temperature of the earth by trapping outgoing long wave radiation. Without this mechanism the earth would be too cold for life. It isn’t a leap of faith to conclude that more of these gasses in the atmosphere would result in a warming effect. Thankfully we do not need such a leap of faith.

    The controls on temperature are complex and include the oceanic circulation system (e.g. the Gulf Stream), the albedo effect (i.e. the relative reflectivity of a surface such as snow or rock), atmospheric composition, living systems and solar activity. Changes in one of these can lead to changes in the others. Whilst in the past rising temperature may have been responsible for a subsequent rise in carbon dioxide we do know that the gas then produces a feedback that further raises the temperature. All we are doing now is bypassing the initial driver that creates a warming effect by adding these gases through industrial activities in quantities unprecedented for a few hundred thousand years and probably more. It isn’t too important how they arrive in the atmosphere the point is once there they create a warming effect.

    A simple experiment with two beakers and heat lamps can show this warming effect. One beaker contains the natural atmospheric composition and the other has enhanced carbon dioxide concentrations, this works because carbon dioxide sinks into the beaker as its heavier then air. When a heat lamp is turned on above them mimicking the sun the latter reaches a higher steady state temperature. This move towards an enhanced steady state is being witnessed on a global scale now and the evidence is all around and includes increased temperatures, increased hurricanes (some of which are more ferocious then they would otherwise be), thawing of glaciers and permafrost, slowing of the oceanic conveyer system, rising sea levels and acidification of the seas, changes to ecosystems with migration of species to polar regions or higher altitudes. All these findings are backed up by ice cores that allow us to piece together past climates and atmospheric composition through simple experiments as well as sophisticated computer models that successfully piece together past and present climates thus giving us confidence that they can predict future climates under different scenarios of greenhouse gas composition in the atmosphere.

    While we pontificate in the developed countries those in poorer regions suffer. Already one low lying island has been inundated and others are heading the same way. We will not be the first ones to lose our homes or, in the case of such islanders all they have ever known, but we were the first ones, albeit in ignorance to the consequences, to emit carbon dioxide on a large scale. Mr Sheard suggests that scientists are deceiving the rest of society in order to achieve grants for research. This is simply not the case. Science works on a rigorous peer review basis and there are checks against poor research. Grants are being placed into climate research in reflection of its importance. It is not the case that scientists elevate its importance to achieve the grants, in fact being a cautious bunch they often play it down. No climate change scientist has ever ignored, or refuted, natural processes for changes in temperature and with the stakes so high it is frustrating that the sound science backing the theory of human induced climate change is being ridiculed. We all have a duty to question the evidence but not to bury our heads in the sand. The evidence is widely available and compelling with the vast number of scientists working in the field being won over by it. I do wonder why many of those arguing against the compelling evidence are elderly or funded by dubious sources and many of them are not even scientists but politicians or economists. If we have a need to find conspiracy theories then we do not have to look too far. A cursory glance at the present US administration or some oil corporations such as Exxon should be just the ticket.

    Mr. Sheard being your ‘science correspondent’ breaks one of the golden rules of science by presenting a hugely subjective argument based on very little evidence. And is it acceptable to say that regions of high altitude won’t suffer from sea level rise thereby suggesting the burden lies solely with those on the coast? Where does Mr Sheard expect they will go? I doubt they will gracefully allow themselves to drown in sacrifice to the future welfare of the lucky ones buffered by altitude. Annoyingly such poor reporting provides the basis for people believing what fits neatly with their lifestyles and removes the burden of future change from them. If we care about the fascinating animals, plants and ecosystems we share the planet with (and each other particularly our children) then we have a responsibility to begin the change and where better to start then the country that took us on the process of industrialisation that is the cause of the predicament?

    David Higgins - Askrigg, North Yorkshire

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