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Skeptical about Climate Change Skeptics

By Dr. Mae-Wan Ho on Jan 27, 2010

Tragedy of the Copenhagen summit & the climate skeptics

“Low targets, goals dropped, Copenhagen ends in failure” was the headline verdict of UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The “Copenhagen accord”, brokered by US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, “recognizes” the scientific case for keeping temperature rise to no more than 2ûC, but contains no commitments to reduce emissions to achieve that goal.

Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre (a think tank for developing countries), condemned the entire process as a “tragedy” and a “disaster”. The three-page long Copenhagen accord, drawn up after the UN conference, was not even accepted by the conference. 

Just weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit, private e-mails were stolen from the servers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK and released on the web, fuelling a fresh round of attack on climate change from the skeptics that may have helped to derail the Copenhagen summit.

The Copenhagen summit failed because of other over-riding reasons as described by Khor, and predicted by our guest editor, Alan Simpson, UK member of Parliament (Announcing Science in Society #44 - Autumn 2009). Ultimately, it comes down to an inability of the world nations to cooperate, to see the whole picture, particularly in the longer term.

But it is a mistake to dismiss the climate skeptics, as they will continue to influence the tough negotiations ahead. And their voices are getting shriller, louder, and more sophisticated in the political arena. A US Senate Minority Report updated in March 2009, claims more than 700 international scientists (note: not climate scientists) dissenting over global warming.

On the eve of the summit, Saudi Arabia and Republican members of the US Congress used the e-mails incident to claim that the need for urgent action to cut carbon emissions has been undermined. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Environment Secretary Ed Miliband, and Ed Markey, who co-authored the US climate change bill, had to join forces to condemn the ‘flat-earth’ skeptics.

Meanwhile, skeptic celebrities such as Professor Siegfried Frederick Singer and Lord Christopher Monckton were out in force in Copenhagen at a skeptics conference, expostulating to a rapt audience on ‘climategate’ - how scientists deliberately distort data to support the global warming hypothesis - and thanking China for emitting CO2 that greatly benefits agriculture. Singer, former president of US National Academy of Sciences, has written a petition signed by 31,000 urging the US government against adopting a climate change treaty. Monckton, a hereditary peer in the UK and formerly policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher, embarked on a tour of North America during the autumn of 2009 to campaign against the Copenhagen summit, warning that the US president Obama intended to sign a treaty at the conference that would “impose a communist world government” on the globe. 

In the same weeks, we were bombarded with messages urging us to stop supporting the conventional theory. A common thread running through climate skepticism is that human activities have no impact on climate, least of all, the increase in CO2 from human activities. The earth has warmed and cooled in the past, and natural causes can account for all the warming that may have taken place since the industrial revolution; and skeptics will jump at whichever natural cause that appears plausible from time to time. There are those who believe global warming itself is a fiction, and the Copenhagen summit a UN plot to establish a (communist) world government.

The scientific case of climate skepticism

Peter Taylor, author of Chill, A reassessment of global warming theory, is convinced the earth is cooling, not warming, based on scientific evidence reviewed in his book published in 2009. A good friend sent us the scholarly-looking volume of more than 400 pages complete with notes and references, strongly urging us to read it.          

Taylor is an environmental analyst and policy advisor with impeccable credentials. He has worked as a consultant with the UK government and various NGOs on environmental pollution, nuclear waste hazards, and renewable energies. He doesn’t approve of biofuels, nuclear power stations, GMOs or big wind farms, for good reasons.

On climate change, one finds it strangely reassuring when he says there is no ‘incontrovertible signal’ for climate change and that the climate change ‘consensus’ does not exist, even within the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  That’s just what one would expect from real science, as opposed to religious dogma. Even Taylor himself admits that the “consensus” only exists in the IPCC summary for policy makers, and not in the technical reports.

When Taylor reveals alternative theories largely ignored by the establishment; that too, rings true. The scientific establishment is akin to a religious order; the hacked e-mails incident exposes, if anything, the extent to which the ‘in-group’ can exclude the ‘dissenters’. It is the same in every field, as we can confirm from personal experiences.

What makes us wary is when Taylor says he was “motivated to critically review the evidence of climate change because the proposed cure is likely to be worse than the disease.” His chief concern was the impact on the UK countryside, especially from the push for biofuels as a renewable energy strategy, which would mean using up all the ‘set-aside’ land to grow ‘bioenergy’ crops, leaving no natural ecosystems in the magnificent landscape, no butterflies and bees, or any vestige of natural biodiversity.

Was Taylor unconsciously biased against the evidence for climate change because he did not like the remedial policies proposed? That’s the danger of allowing politics to dominate science, as governments and vested interests do, all too often. We would not be surprised if much of climate scepticism is politically motivated and by far less benign reasons.

We don’t like the climate change remedies on offer either; which is why we have gone out of our way to formulate truly green and sustainable energy policies (Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050,) that are independent of whether climate change is occurring or not (Power to the People, 100 Percent Renewables by 2050, SiS 45). That frees us from potential bias against the conventional theory, which we too, have found overly simplistic (see later).

Nevertheless, we cannot believe human activities have no influence on climate. Humans have destroyed vast swathes of forests and other natural ecosystems, decimating natural biodiversity, turning huge areas into waste land and desert through overexploitation of soil and water. We have literally changed the face of the earth.

Taylor does not waste time on the conventional theory. He simply states categorically that there is no evidence anthropogenic (human-generated) CO2 has any role in warming the planet, nor any other human activities. It is all a fabrication. He singles out the computer modellers as the chief villains that have created the myth. Their models, which dominate the IPCC, are ‘untransparent’, based on false assumptions, ignore natural cycles, and do not take sufficient account of natural forces. All the work on ‘postdiction’ of how atmospheric CO2 correlates with temperature in the earth’s ancient history as measured in ice cores is summarily dismissed.

The refutations

Actually, the evidence for CO2 and the greenhouse effect is very good indeed. Research into the greenhouse effect began in the 19th century with Fourier, Tyndall, Langley, and Arrhenius who first quantified the relationship between changes in CO2 and climate. In the 1930s, burning fossil fuels by human beings began to be considered a cause of significant warming. The IPCC climate models are based on fundamental physics and confirmed by direct satellite measurements.

Taylor subscribes to the theory favoured by climate skeptics: solar activity can account for most if not all the warming that has taken place in the latter part of the past century. He devotes most of the book describing and defending the theory, especially as revived by researchers at the Danish National Space Center in the late 1990s. The theory claims a strong correlation between solar activity and global climate, which can be explained by an influence of solar activity on the abundance of cosmic rays.

Solar activity goes through cycles that average 11 years long. When the solar magnetic field is strong during periods of maximum sunspot activity, cosmic rays are excluded from the solar system, and as the sun’s activity diminishes, cosmic rays become more abundant.

The theory is that cosmic rays promote the formation of clouds by generating plenty of ions in the atmosphere that can form cloud condensation nuclei upon which water vapour condense to form droplets that coalesce into clouds. More clouds shade the earth from the sun and cool the earth.

Conversely, a lack of clouds allows more solar radiation to strike the earth and warms it.

The Danish group published a series of papers that attempted to establish links between cosmic rays and in succession, total cloud cover and low cloud cover, and between the solar cycle lengths and Northern Hemisphere land temperatures.

But Peter Laut at the Technical University of Denmark analysed the published graphs, and showed that the apparent strong correlations displayed on the graphs have been obtained by “an incorrect handling of the physical data” and cautioned against “drawing any conclusions” based on them. In other words, the data have been manipulated in unjustified and unexplained ways to produce the correlations that do not actually exist. This lack of correlation between solar activity and earth temperature was amply confirmed by other researchers including experts in solar physics. 

Far from ignoring the cosmic ray hypothesis, as Taylor complained, climate scientists have seriously followed it up with the latest satellite data; and the evidence has all gone against the theory. One of the proposals for saving the hypothesis is to invoke sudden decreases in cosmic ray - Forbush events - that occur within a solar activity cycle, as having special significance in influencing cloud formation.

But investigations from the space-borne MODIS instrument, which has been operating since 2000, failed to find such correlation. Similarly, little correlation could be found between cosmic ray flux and the formation of new particles that could serve as cloud condensation nuclei.

Yet, based on this tenuous and widely discredited evidence, Taylor is predicting a global chill because the flux of cosmic rays has been rising since 2004. The regional cooling across Eurasia, England and parts of North America through December 2009 and early January 2010 might seem to fit his prediction.

But much of the planet was in fact experiencing warmer temperatures than usual, including North-east America, Canada, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and south-west Asia. This is an apt illustration of what’s wrong with climate skepticism: the inability to see the global picture while focussing on their tiny areas of interest.  

Skepticism is healthy, especially when the political stakes are high in something like climate change; but it must be accompanied by a passionate commitment to the coherent whole.

Contrary to the claims of Taylor and other climate skeptics, skepticism has stimulated good research on cloud formation, for example, which has long been identified as a major area of uncertainty by top climate scientists. Similarly, the importance of natural cycles, the slow response/feedback times of greenhouse gases (350ppm CO2 the Target, SiS 44), the role of black carbon in warming the earth (Black Carbon Warms the Planet Second Only to CO2, SiS 44) and the rapid depletion of oxygen (O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising, Warming Oceans Starved of Oxygen, SiS 44) must all be taken into consideration.

One thing we are completely convinced of: human action is effective in exacerbating or mitigating climate change. The choice and responsible are both ours. We need an open and transparent science to help us make the right choice and implement the appropriate solutions.



Dr. Mae-Wan HoDr. Mae-Wan Ho, Scientist, Professor, Visionary

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho is a Visiting Reader in Biology at London Open University and a Visiting Biophysics Professor at Catania University in Sicily. She has been one of the most influential figures of the last decade in the debate within the scientific community regarding the use of genetically modified organisms.  She is a highly respected global scientific figure and a well-known critic of neo-Darwinism and reductionist thought in Biology and Physics. Dr. Ho has authored hundreds of scientific articles and many books on a variety of subjects.In 1999, she founded The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), a London-based nonprofit organization that works globally to promote social responsibility and sustainability in scientific research and scientific practice. 

ISIS provides extensive online archives of articles, scientific papers, and press releases written by Dr. Ho and her colleagues related to biotechnology, including genetically modified organisms, sustainable agriculture, environmental issues, Gaia theory,holistic healthnanotechnology and alternative energy.  

ISIS also co-ordinates global campaigns including the The Global Campaign for a GM-Free Sustainable World and  Sustainable World: A Global Initiative.