16 Feb 2010

Was Rome like this in 409 AD?

I have been watching the whole ClimateGate fiasco with a sense of bewilderment. This time last year, there seemed to be broad consensus amongst intelligent people that anthropogenic global warming was real. At least as real as other great scientific theories like evolution and plate tectonics. As Real Climate put it yesterday: The system we study is ruled by the well-known laws of physics, there is plenty of hard data and peer-reviewed studies, and the science is relatively mature. The greenhouse effect was discovered in 1824 by Fourier, the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases were first measured by Tyndall in 1859, the climate sensitivity to CO2 was first computed in 1896 by Arrhenius, and by the 1950s the scientific foundations were pretty much understood.

I don't know about you, but I kind of trust "broad scientific consensus." Because of it, I have a warm home this morning, I am well fed and have been all my life, I have light and my computer works, and you can read this message. If science tells me that plate tectonics causes earthquakes and that we have (as yet) no control over this phenomenon, I am inclined to believe. And if science tells me that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has an effect on the surface temperature of the Earth, I am also inclined to believe. Unlike plate tectonics, atmospheric CO2 is something we have control over (in theory at least) and that is also something that it is hard to argue with.

But in the past few months, we have seen an extraordinary anti-scientific backlash against the mainstream consensus. I don't know how well organised it is, but it's been very effective, and now the right-wing press has taken up the baton (sensing some sort of popular revolt) and is now daily peppering the climate scientists with a few well-aimed blows to the midriff. Sunday's piece in the Mail, re-writing a BBC interview with Professor Phil "CimateGate" Jones is a case in point. In the original interview, Jones seems to be a little too candid for his own good and admits to problems tracking all the data sets, and problems in understanding the Medieval Warm Period. The Mail reporter, Jonathan Petre (presumably acting under orders?) comes on like a barrister at a show trial, using these comments to paint a very different picture. But if you read the article closely, it's almost all innuendo.

Data for vital 'hockey stick graph' has gone missing. So what? It doesn't make the hockey stick wrong.

Warming periods have happened before - but NOT due to man-made changes. So what? It doesn't mean that man-made changes won't affect the climate in future, does it?

Petre of course isn't trying to win an argument, because there isn't really an argument. No one is putting forward a plausible counter theory (the few sun spottists dishonourably excepted). All he is hoping to do is to lodge a few sceptical bon-mots into the heads of the blokes at the bar in Rose & Crown, link it to a fear of government intervention and rising taxes, and cause a general revulsion to a theory that spells bad news for us all. And it's working a treat. More people than ever are sceptical about global warming, and what the right-wing press have managed to do is to link it all up as a left-wing conspiracy. If Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF and the BBC all say it's real, then it must be a lie!

Whilst the sceptics are very astute at "uncovering" discrepancies and conspiracies, what they haven't managed to do is to challenge the basic theory. If we keep pumping vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, we are going to cause some mighty ruptures up ahead. That's it. It's that simple. Arguing that "climate change is a natural phenomenon, its been happening for millions of years" rather misses the point. It's us and in particular our civilisation that is unnatural, and it's been based on a relatively brief interlude of mild climatic conditions, and if we upset this particular applecart, it's not the Planet we need to be worrying about, but ourselves and our comfortable lifestyles. There's nothing left or right wing about this.

What is going on now is all very sad. It's turning into a witch-hunt. Normally obscure figures like Jones, and the guys that write RealClimate, are under attack in ways they can never have anticipated, and all because they are telling us things we would rather not know.

And if the Daily Mail is bad (it is), then the Express is worse. And even the Telegraph and the Times have succumbed to the new mood. And if you read the comments (hundreds of them) that always follow on from these articles, you realise that they are indeed responding to a popular mood, a growing sentiment that all these scientists are just scam artists, and the government is going along because it just wants to keep raising taxes. These people sound so angry, just like a lynch mob.

Here's a not atypical response from Derek J of Chester-le-Street (in Mail on Sunday)

BUT will the Greenie's admit it will they Hell
all that extra Money will all payed out to line the pockets of Al Gore, etc, etc, etc.
its not a case of we put our Heads in the Sand
BUT MORE A CASE OF YOU LOT PUT YOUR HEADS IN THE CLOUDS and couldn't or more to the POINT WOULD LISTERN To Anyone other than your Messiah's who have all turned out to be FALSE

I've been hesitant to use that awful word denialist, but I have known one or two alcoholics and the similarities are striking. The anger, the indignation, the persecution, the justification. "There's nothing wrong with me mate, it's you who are a total fuck-up, leave me alone." It's usually followed by a punch and the sound of breaking glass.


  1. It was always going to happen like this. The effort to make clear how dire the consequences could be involved emphasising huge changes - that would happen over decades. Unfortunately the man on the street thinks from week to week, not in terms of his great grandchildren. So when (quite naturally), nothing much happened people were bound to start asking where the floods, famines and other disasters had gone. The 'hype' couldn't be sustained, and the changes are currently so subtle (that it takes hundreds of researchers to calculate that they exist), that disillusionment was bound to follow.

    It hasn't helped that there have been political hangers on - that there are a few more extreme groups that jumped on the climate change band wagon as a way to push their point of view. Like it or not, there has been talk of collapsing society, and the new society that would have to be created to replace our evil capitalist ways. Global capitalism has been painted as much the baddie in this as CO2 - which is strange, because CO2 doesn't care what your political leanings are.

    Whatever the motives of the core researchers, the science has been 'sexed up' and misused by many other parties who wanted to sell their papers or push their agendas. The arguments over the science have tended to push people to extremes rather than acknowledging that this is a complex topic with many subtleties.

    Hanging changes in housing off climate change was a mistake. The message of sustainability and improving our environment is far easier to explain, and the consequences can be visible within months, not decades. Saving money and having a nice environment to live in is an easier sell, and harder to politicise. More of a Jamie Oliver School Dinners story, than a Unite to save the planet epic. Which would you find easier to believe in?

  2. “• Data for vital 'hockey stick graph' has gone missing. So what? It doesn't make the hockey stick wrong.”

    Science is scepticism, it’s “prove it”.

    Science is not “prove me wrong, but I won’t show you my data”.

    You might question jones’s motives for doing so depending on whether you support the theory or not. But what they did was completely unacceptable, they deliberately withheld and obfuscated the data, they sabotaged scientific methods. Whether they did it for the “right reasons”, and whether they were actually “protecting” a theory, or whether it was plain incompetence doesn’t matter.

    You do realise as well that the IPCC themselves also removed the hockey stick graph from their 2007 report, it has been criticised on many grounds other than that the data was “a bit dodgy”.

    [quote]No one is putting forward a plausible counter theory[/quote]

    Counter theory to what exactly?

    Even scientists who support man made global warming know that the warming we have had so far, is not statistically significant, or proof of the theory, so the scientists who are not in agreement with the theory do not need to put forward a counter theory.

    I’m not going to argue the science on this blog, as plenty of sites already handle that. But I will say that the greenhouse effect and the theory of global warming, are not simple matters, and the “science is not settled”, in particular there is an argument that c02 can only absorb a certain frequency of long wave radiation and no more, “global warming” hinges a lot on feedback effects caused by this, that are as yet unproven conclusively, and a consensus there is not.

  3. "The anger, the indignation, the persecution, the justification."

    This reminds me a little of the other greenhouse effect - you know, the one to do with people throwing stones and all that.

  4. Oh god, it's started already. I now have my own version of the Daily Mail comment column going. I have only myself to blame....

  5. Mark, I don't want to add to you tabloid problem. I hesitate to post what I wrote, having just read the above comments (particularly Lock Farm) but you raise the question about what has changed and to put the answer simply it is the Social Context. (I know I sound like and old sociologist). It is not about science, it's about society.

    It is a truism to say that Climate Change is complicated, of course it is and so it the response to it. We might consider it in 3 stages:

    1 The science
    2 The Middle Bit
    3 'The solutions'

    The public have difficulties with all 3 of these but most people are fairly happy with the science that says higher levels of CO2 increases the heat retained in the atmosphere leading to an alteration in climate. Then it gets stickier; they doubt that this change is all that significant, and anyway they are far from clear that climate change is a bad thing - the climate in the UK is rubbish, can it be worse? Add to this a general, widespread and to some extent justified, distrust of anything fortelling the future and doubly so if backed by the government. Think WMD, 'no more boom and bust', etc.

    However, the real trouble is in 2 and 3. The 'solutions' proposed immediately strike an observer as being remarkably familiar - more of the same. Greater government intervention, more taxes, more regulations and more expensive, imposed, technical solutions. Now, all this might be exactly what's needed but you can understand why it causes indigestion in the Mail and particularly at a time of almost universal distrust of politicians.

    The whole situation has been made much worse by an almost total lack of 2 - the middle bit, the debates, the explanations, the reassurances. I think the vast majority of people struggle to understand how a few wind turbines, and a bit of microgeneration will make everything alright but they recognise a subsidy gravy train when they see one. They cannot grasp the idea that a country producing just 2% global CO2 can make any difference but they can easily see that the 'solutions' proposed are already making their lives more difficult and expensive.

    Some have noted that (post) industrial societies absolutley depend on huge amounts of energy and that no serious attempt (that I know of anyway) has been made to explain how that can be maintained with far lower CO2 emissions. The governmental response has not been to explain or hold detailed, public inquiries into these matters, which are at least as improtant as the Iraq Inquiry, but to turn straight to propaganda, PR and adverts...."drive 5 miles less..." Act on CO2! yeah, right.

    The lack of open debate and a clear path to follow to an achievable goal makes people fear the worst and while no one has experience of a climate disaster, we know a thing or two about 'dodgy dossiers', which is why even a whiff doctored data sets the bells ringing.

    Because the efforts of pressure groups have been so geared to 'compliance' and so little to understanding, the public mood is not rooted in anything solid and when the wind changes, as it always does, that mood can turn ugly in a second. None of this is directly the fault of the scientists but they need to choose their friends carefully - more carefully than they have until now. Building widespread understanding of what is and is not scientifically established might be slow, tedious work but without it you cannot be surprised that the public fears that PhD is just a posh way of spelling Spin Doctor.

  6. whoops pressed send when quoting, try again

    Also, I said I wouldn’t argue the science but I can’t help it.

    "but most people are fairly happy with the science that says higher levels of CO2 increases the heat retained in the atmosphere leading to an alteration in climate."

    I don’t know about “people”, but scientists do agree with the above, but to varying degrees.

    C02 can and will increase temperatures, but it’s by how much that is contentious. There are scientists that say that it is bound by an upper limit of 0.8-1.5 degrees Celsius, and they make good cases for saying so. It’s all to do with the amount and frequency of long wave radiation that c02 can absorb, it can only do so much and no more, this may be of interest http://brneurosci.org/co2.html

    Some say that the warming will be much higher, and that on top of that we will have feedback effects (more warmth = more water vapour = more warmth), but this is the part of the argument that is very much not settled, the fact is that we simply don’t have the capability to model the clouds and prove disprove the theory either way conclusively.

    I’m sure that everyone here would agree that 0.8-1.5 degrees of warming is insignificant, the rest is up for debate, and that’s where it’s all gone wrong.

    We haven’t had a debate, we have had government funded lobbies shutting down the debate, calling us flat earth voodoo sceptics.

    The science has been thrown out of the window, and been replaced by politics. It doesn’t mean the science isn’t valid, I remain open to both sides of the argument.

    But by yourself comparing sceptics to alcoholics, well, what does that say about your understanding of the science?

  7. Hi Mark,

    I work as in Carbon Footprinting and come across this sort of problem all the time. Its quite a challenge deciding the best way to approach the problem. (At the risk of sounding patronising) I personally believe that there is only a small proportion of the population that is receptive to reasoned scientific argument. hopefully some (most?) of the decision makers fall within this category.

    I think that there is a wider audience that is receptive to emotional appeals but then you have the problem with finding a way of conveying the message in an accurate but fair way ... not an easy task.

    I recently read a BBC article suggesting that a different type of hearts and minds approach is needed to get the climate message across. The author suggested that, in America, the topic needs to be 'evangelised' to get the church going Republicians on board. Theoretically its possible I suppose ... perhaps they could start talking about 'God wants you to go green' to that type of audience ...?

    "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe"

    H.G. Wells

  8. Ah, the wonderful world of Daily Mail commenters. A bit of anger, a bit of caps lock, a bit of YOU'RE ALL SHEEPLE, CAN'T YOU SEE THAT? - beautiful. Lovely post, by the way. I would only add that I don't think the media who report these stories this way really care one way or the other - it's not about actually getting to the truth or not. It's about how much you can ramp up the fear factor and the anger.

  9. Jonathon Petre - who I know quite well and is a very nice chap - hasn't got a scientific bone in his body. He was the religious affairs correspondent at the Daily Telegraph before getting the heave-ho. He made some pretty egregious errors because he doesn't understand the science. Of course in the up-is-down world of the Daily Mail, not knowing what you are talking about is a positive virtue.

  10. Well said Mark, though I generally shorten it to Global Warming = Common Sense!!

    Though I do have to say the anti-theorists have put up an arguement, I heard Alan Brazil talking about it on Talksport only last week,

    "how do you explain Global Warming when we have just gone though a winter like that?"

    AAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!! Hang on, brain wave! I'm going to set up my own company making nice pointy hats with a 'D' on them, watch out Branson!

  11. @Anonymous

    We can be pretty confident that the climate's sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 is around 3 degrees C, not 1.5 degrees C. There have been multiple studies using disparate methodologies which point to a "most likely" climate sensitivity of 3 degrees C. These two links provide interesting background:



    Yes, there is uncertainty about the climate's sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 but the uncertaintly is not symmetric around a mean of 3 degrees C. We can be very confident (more than 90% probability) that climate sensitivity is more than 1.5 degrees C but we're not so confident about the upper constraint.

  12. Mark SiddallFebruary 16, 2010

    I try not to get sucked into the climate change debate. Rather I try to direct attention to two other important drivers that could direct us towards a low carbon economy.

    1) Peak oil is coming/here. This will lead to inflated energy costs which will in turn lead to a demand for alternative fuel sources: low carbon technologies are well suited to being the replacement.

    2) Economic benefits of energy efficiency measures are vast and largely untapped/recognised. They include reduced bills, improved building physics (protecting the building fabric), lower maintenance costs, protection of jobs, improved thermal comfort, improved productivity (the economic value of which dwarfs the energy benefits). Depending upon ventilation option improved indoor air quality leading reduced asthma, leading to reduced burdens on benefit systems, health care).

    .....The biggest problem with this argument is the speed at which climate change needs to be addressed.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark - and I expect fuel prices to be hitting pockets hard enough, within 1.5yrs, to make a popular sea-change.

    Leave climate change out of it - simple all-fuel price rises (incl. renewables) will do the trick. The demand for every kind of fuel saving will be powerful. Businesses will start going bust because of fuel overheads.

    In building, govt will be blamed for feeble Building Regs uprates, for toothless/unrealistic EPCs, for not warning us.

    Those who have the foresight to find themselves in possession of low-fuel or Zero-Fuel buildings will not only enjoy great competitiveness (if a business) from lower running costs, but also property capital value rising ahead of the general market. The latter will be the biggest driver, for householders and businesses alike.

    The Daily Mail's financial journalists will make it part of the conventional wisdom, to pitch your purchase or rent offer to reflect the building's expected 8yr fuel bill.

  14. "Those who have the foresight to find themselves in possession of low-fuel or Zero-Fuel buildings will not only enjoy great competitiveness"

    I'm not sure that foresight has a great deal to do with it, the majority of us get what we can afford.

  15. We greeny designer/builders may as well pack up and go home then.

  16. "We greeny designer/builders may as well pack up and go home then."

    I am all for green builders, and buildings.

    I would just rather that *you did it with your own money, rather than having to rely on constant streams of grants and funds from the rest of us.

    *Not you specifically of course.

  17. Thank you, an excellent article. A few suggestions, though:

    Data for vital 'hockey stick graph' has gone missing. So what?

    AIUI, some data for one particular record of recent temperatures as gone missing. So what, there are plenty of other data sources available and omitting the missing data doesn't make much difference.

    Arguing that "climate change is a natural phenomenon, its been happening for millions of years" rather misses the point. It's us and in particular our civilisation that is unnatural, and it's been based on a relatively brief interlude of mild climatic conditions, and if we upset this particular applecart, it's not the Planet we need to be worrying about, but ourselves and our comfortable lifestyles.

    Climate change due to natural phenomena has caused the deaths of many animals and extinction of many species in the past and many humans might well suffer and die as a result of the current changes. Tens of thousands of people died as a result of the Krakatoa eruption but that doesn't mean it's Ok to dump tons of hot rocks on passing pedestrians.

  18. Extending from what Mark Siddall wrote: my understanding is that peak oil is likely to have a bigger direct effect than climate change on those of us in the less underdeveloped world. It's the poor buqqers in the rest of the world who are most likely to suffer directly.

    Climate change will likely have most of its effects on us indirectly through the international food markets, though sea-level rise might have some effects, too.

    What peak oil means is that we have to re-engineer our energy infrastructure anyway. What climate change means is that coal isn't really an option for the replacement.

    Personally, I'm looking for a (cheapish) site to build a very well insulated off-grid house because I have my doubts about whether the energy infrastructure transition will be engineered at all and very serious doubts that it will be done in an even slightly ethical way. The recent idiocy over "climategate", etc, reinforces my worries.

  19. Mark SiddallFebruary 17, 2010

    What if we create better world for nothing?


  20. http://www.businessinsider.com/exxon-found-way-more-oil-than-it-produced-in-2009-and-has-been-doing-it-for-16-years-2010-2

  21. That last link, about Exxon, is interesting, isn't it?The gist of it is this:

    Exxon now has 23.3 billion oil-equivalent-barrels of reserves comprised of about half liquids and half gas. It's the largest amount in the company's history.

    Amazingly, Exxon, who has been accused in the past of being too conservative in terms of exploration and development, has been finding more oil than it produces for each of the last 16 years, to the dismay of peak oil proponents.

    23 billion barrels sounds like an awful lot, but its only enough to power the world as it stands for 9 months. We burn 30 billion barrels a year!

  22. I only post it as whilst peak issue will be an issue, alot of people have been predicting it far earlier than what will actually happen.

    We should really be putting our money on making hydrogen a viable source, and more funding for projects like ITER.

    Instead we are pissing our money down the drain on wind farms.

  23. This anti-science stuff from the Daily Mail is from the same stable that brought us the protest against the MMR vaccine - leading to, at least, a significant rise in the incidence of measles amongst children. One can only guess what this latest bout of wilful ignorance will bring upon successive generations.

  24. "we should be ... making hydrogen a viable source ...instead we are pissing our money down the drain on wind farms."

    Hydrogen isn't an energy source - it's merely a method of packaging and distributing energy created hopefully by wind farms, or hopelessly from fossil.

  25. "Hydrogen isn't an energy source - it's merely a method of packaging and distributing energy created hopefully by wind farms, or hopelessly from fossil."

    I was refering to the problem of making hydrogen, in that it currently takes more energy to make it than it "produces".

    "This anti-science stuff from the Daily Mail"

    Yes, because all skeptics are daily mail readers.

    But keep the ad-hominem's coming, it really makes your argument seem more robust.........