Vivienne Parry is a writer and broadcaster. A scientist by training, she is a former presenter of BBC TV's Tomorrow's World"
Britons have just squelched through one of the wettest winters on record. Floods, torrents, only 20 minutes of sun one cruel winter month in Leeds. The finger of blame pointed to global warming as the cause of these extreme weather event - and then moved swiftly on to us - drivers of cars, belchers of smoke, polluters of planets. It seems blindingly obvious. Of course the two things must be linked. But are they?
Humans very badly want to believe that global warming is caused by human activity. We want to blame it on ourselves. We can see what pollution has done to our environment, and intuitively, putting catastrophic global warming down to us, seems right. And there's a mass of ominous data and doomsday modelling systems with which to beat ourselves.
But nowhere in science is data more fought over, or interpreted in so many ways. Two things alone seem certain. First, there has been an undoubted temperature rise over the last 100 years. Secondly, climate is immensely complex, not static and subject to large natural variations, quite independent of human activity. Thereafter, pretty much everything is up for grabs.
The sceptics argue that most of the half degree rise in temperature of the last 100 years occurred before 1940 whereas most of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere entered after this date.
They point to the complexity of the climate and mistakes in the modelling systems and scoff at suggestions that temperature thousands of years ago can be measured to an accuracy of tenths of a degree. They point out that CO2 is not the most important greenhouse gas - water vapour is - and that warming is not intimately connected to carbon dioxide levels as people imagine.
Raised on woolly mammoths and dinosaurs, we believe temperature change to occur gradually, perhaps over tens of thousands of years. Yet evidence from ice cores reveal past change to have been very rapid - sometimes within a single generation. For instance, dramatic changes in climate occurred within decades as the result of flips in ocean circulation. The very bad news is that Britain would not become Marseilles by the sea - more like Siberia in the Tundra. Humans could be hastening these flips - or simply be experiencing what is natural.
But if we were warming the planet, the crunch would come if it were amplified by feedbacks such as ocean currents and cutting down forests, setting in train further change that may be unstoppable. Precaution seems wise even though, in the long term, we may discover that natural planet events such as volcanic activity are far more important to climate change than anything humans do. But here's my prediction. We'll cope. And somewhere out of left field - in all probability from the States - will come the science that nixes all our models. My guess is that one development - probably in fuel cell technology - will re-write the future. And if human activity has caused global warming, one thing is sure. It will be human activity and ingenuity that gets us out of trouble.
Professor Philip Stott is an ecologist based at the Department of Geography at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Professor Stott's research interests include biogeography and tropical ecology, as well as the role and significance of environmentalist movements and debates.
How easy is it to determine what causes climate change?
Climate is probably one of the most complex science issues that any scientist has to face. It is horrifyingly difficult. We know it is governed by a million, nay, probably a billion variables, what we will call ‘factors’, separate factors. These range quite literally from the flip of a butterfly’s wing to erupting volcanoes, to oceans, to the changing surface of the earth, through the changing geometry of the earth, through natural greenhouse gases, including the most important greenhouse gas of all, water vapour, not CO2, right the way up through solar activity to dust, atmospheric dust of all types, and debris, solar debris, plus also, ultimately, chaotic effects.
The trouble with climate is we know so little about so many factors. Even in the last 3 months alone we have learnt of 3 factors that are not in the model. In other words the models at the moment are still relatively primitive, despite what they seem to have a complexity built into them. Therefore the likelihood of pinpointing any single cause is something we should be very careful about accepting.
Why do people believe it’s our fault?
Every generation appears to want a myth, and therefore when we come to look at a change in climate now, people want to explain it in terms of human action and human faults. In other words, we always need a Noah myth, and a Noah myth that says we have sinned. When carbon dioxide came along, which could be seen to come from things like fossil fuel burning, it was a gift to servicing this kind of myth. Instead of saying we have no control over the elements, we had a feeling that we did, but it was not a benign control it was to do with human sinfulness, human greed. And particularly American greed, hence in Europe, where it had an even greater attraction. So I think one of the reasons we particularly like ‘global warming’ is that it seems to fulfil this long history of myths about human action in relation to not just the environment but in relation to goodness and the Garden of Eden and all the rest of it. It’s a great myth.
What we’re always looking for is something that will show that it’s human causes, I think it’s a desperate plea to find a human cause, when primary school physics and science asks us to stand back, look at the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and say ‘my goodness me, this is just beyond comprehension’.
What do you think about the sharp rise and spike in the temperature curve that it is claimed has occurred over the past 10-20 years?
Firstly, it is not exceptional. Work that is now being done by paleogeologists, those who are looking at the ancient history of the world, there appears that there have been massive rises in temperature over very short periods indeed, over 10 to 100 years up to 4-5 degrees C. It’s not at all exceptional. Secondly, is it actually happening? Measuring temperature is enormously complicated today and I would remind people that in certain of the free atmosphere measurements there are still measures that show cooling, small, but cooling.
What do the temperatures really reflect? In the oceans we’ve just learnt that the figures that have been fed into the models from sea are probably wrong in relation to free air by 40%. So the second point about this, are we really measuring a real spike? But the most important thing comes to a major paper of hard science produced in Nature just before Xmas 2000. This was a magisterial piece of work, by a team under Jan Veizer. If he is right it drives a coach and horses through the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature. Interestingly, that famous paper had virtually no coverage in the European media.
In any case, we have to remember is one simple fact – in 1200AD Europe was 2 degrees centigrade warmer that it is today. We know that, we grew grapes, of course in England, and in was possible even as far as Northumberland. Agriculture flourished in Greenland. More recent work has shown that in S. Africa it was probably 3 degrees C warmer, in other parts of the world 1 degree: so in other words, it was warmer virtually all around the world. The world did not come to a crunching halt.
What is your opinion of the IPCC report?
One of the things I think it is very important for the public to understand about the IPCC report and a lot of other reports too is that they are not reality. They are computer modelling, they are predictions based on models of what possible climates might exist. Quite frankly there are hundreds of them. The IPCC report relates to from about 40 to 250. Recently, interestingly, there was one produced in India showing cooling. They range from cooling, therefore, to extreme warming. But it’s vital to understand that they are based on inadequate models, and I’m afraid, it’s not a criticism, it’s simply the state of the science. And one of the big criticisms of the IPCC that can be made is that next to its ‘scenarios’, as these models are called, there are no risk assessments, that is, what is the likelihood of this scenario actually happening. So we’re dealing with ideas in a computer, not real climate.
What do you think of the Bush administration’s decision not to ratify Kyoto?
In Europe there has been a predictable hysterical and moral outrage at the decision of the Bush administration to withdraw from Kyoto. But we must look very carefully at Europe’s own position – is that moral outrage justified? The EU, which politically and militarily wants to be compared to the US actually produces more CO2 per unit area, more CO2 per person and more CO2 in total than the USA. But who knows that?
Moreover, out of the 15 EU member states, only 2 are predicted to be even near to meeting their Kyoto targets, that’s the UK and Germany. Germany, however, with a precipitate withdrawal from nuclear energy under pressure from their Green movements is unlikely to do so, and there are some estimates that the UK will be 20% short. And when we come to those wonderful moral countries of France and Sweden, that helped to scupper John Prescott’s attempts in the Hague to get an agreement, we find they are miles off meeting their Kyoto targets.
Kyoto agenda clearly has allowed Europe to play a bigger role on the world stage in this particular issue and I am sure that Europe has had its eye on running the carbon trading agenda. It also helps them to continue to have some control over what happens in the developing world – you must keep your rainforests, you must allow us to plant trees here, etc. In other words, there’s a neo-colonial element of Kyoto which Europe definitely has been wanting to exploit.
So you disagree with the decisions taken at Kyoto to control climate by cutting down CO2 emissions?
The idea of controlling climate is the biggest single mistake of Kyoto. It has deflected the international eye from the way that humans have always coped with change – hot, wet, dry or cold – and that is not through control, in other words trying to fiddle about and try to play God with climate, but through adaptation. Just think, suppose our planners had not allowed the building that they have allowed on flood plains. Suppose, alternatively, that the building had built to cope with the 1000 year norms of flooding. Most of the problems that we have seen over the last 2 years in GB wouldn’t have happened. So we come to a very important question here – is the future about control or adaptation? I am absolutely myself 100% convinced that it is it is not about control, but is about adaptation, of ways of living, of architecture, of building design and that that has to be flexible, so that if the change turns in an unpredictable projection we are not caught out.
We must remember change is the norm and it is normally the poor who suffer most from change, because they have the least ability to adapt to it. We must therefore internationally have an agenda in financial terms and technical terms to help wherever inequitable change takes place. We should accept that change is inequitable. Living in GB we are very, very lucky people – we have no volcanoes, minor earthquakes, and fundamentally despite any change a temperate climate. In other words, we have got advantages just by the fact we happen to be born in this geographical area over and above a country like, say, Bangladesh. I think there’s a moral duty indeed to help on that level, but it won’t be done through control at Kyoto, it’s got to be done through international agendas that will with adaptation, growth and development all over the world, wherever inequitable change takes place.
So what I would like to see is a new language turning to flexibility and resilience, rather than sustainability, because I think in the end that’s what wrong with Kyoto, it’s about the idea that we can reach an equilibrium climate, a stable climate, and I want to say 100% that is a lie.
Dr Geoff Jenkins is a climatologist working at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, part of the Met Office. Dr Jenkins is an expert on the models used to predict future climate.
Could you explain the recent trends in temperature change? Is what we find unusual?
Over the last 140 years or so since good global measurements have been made we’ve seen a temperature rise of something like 0.6 or 0.7 degrees Celsius. Some of that occurred during the earlier part of the century and we don’t necessarily believe that much of that is due to human activity, but also there’s been a large surge in temperature since the mid-1970s and we believe that a substantial part of that may be manmade. Going back over the last 1000 years or so using proxy records from ice-cools and tree rings and so on, that sort of temp rise hasn’t been seen before over that period so it does appear to be exceptional in the context of the last 1000 years at least.
What makes you believe the recent rise is due to human activity?
Feeding in the different agents that cause climate change into our models – like greenhouse gases, output from the Sun, volcanoes - we’ve looked at the patterns of change they cause across the surface of the Earth and through the atmosphere. We compare them to what’s actually been observed and find the best match between computer simulations and the observations. This has indicated to us that over the past 30 or 40 years that most of the warming has been due to human activities.
Do you therefore believe temperature rise to be directly linked to CO2 emitted by human activity?
Some people maintain that the reason that CO2 has gone up in the atmosphere in the past 200 years or so is because the Earth has warmed, due to solar changes for example, and this warming has acted to put more CO2 from the natural carbon cycle back into the atmosphere. However, by looking in detail at the isotopic composition of the CO2 we can determine that that has come from human activities and isn’t natural. We believe that the simple explanation is the correct one, that it is CO2 that’s been increasing due to human activities, and that has led to the greenhouse effect, to an increase in temperature.
Can you explain the ‘greenhouse effect’?
There are natural gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly water vapour, which trap heat and make the Earth warmer than it would otherwise be – this is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. So these natural gases already keep us something like 33 degrees warmer than we would be and indeed make life on earth possible. The concern comes from increasing amounts of these gases and new greenhouse gases which will exacerbate the problem. When the amount of CO2 rises, as it has done due to fossil fuel burning and deforestation, it causes warming. As the temperature of the atmosphere rises it can hold more water vapour, which is a greenhouse gas, so you get positive feedback and the Earth gets warmer and warmer.
How do you respond to accusations of inaccurate temperature measurements?
We’ve made temperature measurements across the surface of the Earth, good temperature measurements, for about the past 140 years or so. We’ve got 3 independent measurements for temperature - we’ve got the temperature over land; we’ve got the temperature of the sea surface; and also we’ve got the temperature of the air over the sea that are made by thermometers on ships bridges. We’re pretty confident the global average temperature record over this period is pretty sound because we have these different types of measurements which all in the long term fall into line, although there are differences over years and decades where they don’t agree. We don’t fully understand the difference for that short period disagreement, but I stress that over the long period they all pretty much fall into line.
What about recent work that questions the link between CO2 and warming?
We’ve from very good records from French and Russian work going back about half a million years that there’s a very close correlation between CO2 and temp. If we go back very much further than that and we’re talking now about hundreds of millions of years, then what we have to remember is that the Earth was in a very different condition from what it is now, the land masses were in different places, the ocean currents were very different, and it’s very difficult to apply any of the knowledge that’s been gained over that very long term to the situation that obtains today, because the conditions were so very different.
Is global warming causing more extreme weather conditions – for example the floods in Britain in winter 2000?
We can’t point to one event and say that’s due to global warming. However, what we can say is that we are beginning to see more and more events, and this is line with what the climate models will predict and we would expect to see more of them in the future. So it’s cautious, but I think it’s not unreasonable to link the two together. We don’t have any robust predictions of increases in major catastrophic events like hurricanes and cyclones and so on in the future, that varies from model to model. In principle because the atmosphere has got more energy in it we might expect to see more of those, but getting a robust conclusion from models hasn’t been straightforward.
Everyone agrees climate is very complex. How can it be accurately represented in models?
The mathematical models that we use to try to simulate the complex climate system have to make some what we call prioritisations or representations of processes that go on at very small scales, in clouds and so on. And therefore there is some simplification involved. But we believe that we can represent the most important processes and indeed when we compare the model results over the last 150 years with the observations, we can see that we can do a relatively good job of simulating that. We can also test the model against data from many thousands of years ago when the Earth’s climate was in a different state and again the models do a reasonably good job of simulating those.
There have also been some views that the strength of the water vapour feedback that we have in the climate models is wrong, that the water vapour feedback is quite an important enhancement of the greenhouse effect, the basic greenhouse effect due to CO2 is probably doubled by the effect of water vapour. And there are uncertainties about, but we believe again from the tests we can do looking at the way the model responds and looking at satellite information about water vapour that we can say that the model roughly gets it right. Nonetheless, there are large uncertainties and we may find that further work in the atmosphere and so on does lead to a modification of some of these views.
How can policy makers use the models if there are uncertainties in them?
We have a diversity of predictions from these climate models. But it sometimes can be quite difficult for people to deal with this, people for example who want to design flood defences will say, ‘Which model is right, what’s actually going to happen, is it going to be x or y?’ We’re trying to address that by instead of giving them single predictions, of giving them a distribution of possible outcomes, a probability distribution, and we’re going to be doing that by building perhaps 10 000 or 100 000 climate models, all of which have slightly different ways of representing processes in the atmosphere, all of which are plausible, but are each slightly different. We then run those models to produce a climate prediction and from that we can build up a probability distribution of one particular type of climate change. So if someone says to us ‘what’s the change in rainfall over southern England going to be by 2100’, we can say not ‘it’s going to be x%’, but we can say that there’s an x% probability that it’s going to be 5mm or 10mm or whatever it is. And that’s very much what users want in doing risk assessments and deciding how much to build in the way of flood walls or coastal defences.
We believe this is the way forward because of course the answer isn’t a black or white one, we don’t have one figure with zero uncertainty, we never will have zero uncertainty in our climate predictions. So in some ways it’s more important to know what the uncertainties are and what the distribution of probabilities are, rather than try to keep homing in on one figure which we’re never going to achieve.
Dr Joanna Haigh is an atmospheric physicist in the department of Space and Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College, London. Dr Haigh's research interests include the role of the sun in climage change and prediction.
Are humans to blame for the recent sharp rise in temperature?
Some argue that recent increase in temperature is just another natural variability in climate. I think one of the most convincing arguments that it is human induced is the fact that the rate of increase has been so fast, never before over the last thousand years and more has such a fast increase in temperature change be seen in any of the records. Also, if you put all the effects on climate into climate models, the only way you can simulate the recent warming is by including greenhouse gases. In addition, if you analyse the data and try and see how the recent warming could be produced by any known factors, again you can’t explain the recent warming without invoking greenhouse gas increases.
How would you respond to those who accuse scientists of scare-mongering?
I don’t think many atmospheric scientists are trying to prove that there is global warming. Most of us are in the subject just because we enjoy it and we like to understand more about the atmosphere, we like to be able to understand why there’s local and regional and intra-seasonal climate and climate change, and the fact of the greenhouse gases is just another aspect that we can investigate. So I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t allowed to do more atmospheric physics, but I wouldn’t be particularly disappointed if I wasn’t asked to do anything more to do with greenhouse gases.
How can the climate models predict anything if climate is so complex?
In order to represent all the factors that are going on we have to make approximations. Now, some people argue that because essentially it’s a chaotic system we can’t represent it – if we change a small effect over here it might have a huge effect somewhere else and therefore we’re not in a position to do any sort of simulations and we can’t really predict what’s going on at all.
The argument against this is that it’s true if you take a particular example, but if you look at the average properties over a particular region over a period of, say, a month or so, then they’re fairly reproducible. I mean, reproducible not just in terms of the average, but also in terms of the degree of variation. So we know that the average temp in London in April varies over a certain range, and the models are able to produce not only that mean temp, but also the variation. So we think that the models are capable of reproducing mean climate and climate variability.
Why do you think people are sceptical about the IPCC conclusions about human culpability and action we should take?
I think there are several reasons why scientists, politicians and others are sceptical about the IPCC conclusions and indeed trying to prove them to be wrong. The first reason is probably that scientists are naturally argumentative, they always question the accepted truth and this is how the scientific method progresses - this is quite a valid thing to do. But if they’re going to do that they need to take a proper scientific approach to the criticisms and a lot of the work that’s produced is not in reputable scientific journals, it’s not peer reviewed - it’s very difficult to answer these criticisms because they don’t have any sort of formal scientific backup. So while it’s very good scientists should dispute the results, I feel they need to do it in a more objective way.
The second reason is of course a large body of opinion that doesn’t like people telling them what to do and doesn’t like governments organising industries or anything else in a way that’s prescriptive, and perhaps there’s an element of that. But the third, and I think the biggest part of it must be the threat to the economy – in particular US economy – of having to use less greenhouse gases, and the CO2 lobby in the US will use any shred of evidence they can to try and make their position safer.
Professor Richard Lindzen is an Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, working in the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Lindzen believes that the climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change do not properly account for the physcis of cloud formation, and that as a result they exaggerate the warming effect of CO2.
Do you disagree with the assertion that increases in CO2 causes GW?
It is a complicated issue how the earth’s climate changes, it’s changed dramatically in the past – we’ve had cycles of Ice Ages every hundred thousand years for the last 700 000 years, we’ve had warm periods when there were alligators in Pittsburgh, we’ve had changes, change has been the norm in climate. And we’ve had models in recent years that can’t explain any of these major changes, we’ve had models that they can’t explain even shorter term changes. In a sense there’s no science. We know these models don’t have the physics of water vapour and clouds which are the major factors in these models determining their sensitivity to climate. They do not get regional forecasts rights, they do not get polar temps right, and I mean by big errors.
I think to be fair to the scientific community over the years they have at least explored their assumptions and we now know that in the distant past and even in the recent past climate change and CO2 are not intimately connected, at least not in the sense that CO2 causes climate.
But we’re willing to accept that the model predictions are possible until disproved.
Could you explain your recent research which suggests that the effect of clouds shown in current models is wrong?
We have published a paper recently on this so-called ‘iris effect’, where we looked at clouds in very high resolution, geostationary data, provided by Japanese, and we saw a very good relation between the area of cloud coverage and surface temp. It operated in a way so that the clouds and the associated moisture would oppose changes in surface temp – when the surface got warm, they opened up more clear air to let heat out, when the surface got cold, they closed it down to keep heat. A potentially very important thermostat, it might be sufficient to reduce the response to a doubling of CO2 to another half degree.
There will undoubtedly be controversy about it, and we’re not even absolutely sure - the data we got was data of opportunity, there is other data we would like, it may take a few years to get that data. But one thing one could do immediately was take many existing large climate models and ask what they produce for these cloud diagnostics that we observed with the geostationary data. And it’s clear that the models do not reproduce what you observe, confirming that this important aspect of the model response is not behaving the way does in nature.
What do you think of the IPCC report and the decisions taken at Kyoto about actions against CO2 emissions?
We have introduced this precautionary principle that seems to suggest if something is possible we better let people do something about it, even though we have no idea what to do. I don’t think this is healthy.
Picking holes in the IPCC is crucial. The notion that if you’re ignorant of something and somebody comes up with a wrong answer, and you have to accept that because you don’t have another wrong answer to offer is like faith healing, it’s like quackery in medicine – if somebody says you should take jelly beans for cancer and you say that’s stupid, and he says, well can you suggest something else and you say, no, does that mean you have to go with jelly beans?
The Kyoto treaty in many ways represents a triumph of politics over science. Despite all the controversy in the science over what you think may or may not happen to the climate, there has been very little controversy over what one expects the Kyoto emissions caps to do to climate, and that is nothing. If you have a model that predicts 4 degrees warming by 2100, Kyoto might knock it back to 3.8. Sometimes argued it does so little because it only involved the developed world, rather than China and India, but the truth is if China and India also agreed to cap their emissions at 1990, if you predicted 4 you might get 3. The point is, if you expect a lot of warming, Kyoto will leave you with a lot of warming. And the question is why go through what could be a wrenching economic reorientation of society, to do nothing about climate? I don’t know the answer to that, but it can’t be about climate.
So I think in the interests of public accountability to have policy that you claim is dealing with climate that you have another reason for, without telling the public what your reason is goes against democracy. But environmentalists say the reason is we’ll have lots of Kyotos. Nobody knows how to meet one Kyoto. It’s possible in 50 years we’ll all be using nuclear fuel shells and it won’t even be an issue, but the way we’re oriented now we don’t know how to do Kyoto.
Why do you think there is such a focus on CO2 as a cause for GW?
Whenever you have a problem which involves the interaction of science with politics and where there are advocates, like the Environmental movement and so on, there’s a kind of battle for the public mind, you are inevitably going to try and simplify the science as much as possible. CO2 for different people has different attractions. After all, what is it? - it’s not a pollutant, it’s a product of every living creature’s breathing, it’s the product of all plant respiration, it is essential for plant life and photosynthesis, it’s a product of all industrial burning, it’s a product of driving – I mean, if you ever wanted a leverage point to control everything from exhalation to driving, this would be a dream. So it has a kind of fundamental attractiveness to bureaucratic mentality.
It also has an attractiveness to a number of components of the scientific community. They also are attracted by an easy answer as to how climate works, so as a community they were attracted to the notion that there was one thing that determined climate and they didn’t have to learn the rest.
The difficulty is with a complicated subject we cannot simplify it without misrepresenting it. And so yes it would be nice if we could say the greenhouse effect is utterly basic and CO2 is a greenhouse gas and so changing it is responsible for climate. Well, there are many greenhouse substances, there are quite a few that are far more important that CO2, but climate changes irregularly, there are historical times when you don’t have this relationship, the greenhouse effect is not simple. And so the simplification gives people a comforting feeling they understand something, but that feeling is designed for propaganda purposes.
The public is being confused by not being permitted to distinguish between changing temp, which always occurs, and about which there is agreement, and man’s role in it, which is extremely uncertain and which there is very little agreement on, and the predictions of catastrophes, which there is almost no agreement on –they’re all lumped together in a kind of amorphous statement which they’re told all scientists agree on. And rather than having to disentangle each of these, they’re being provoked into a hysterical response which they’re told science demands, and science is doing nothing of the sort.
Julian Morris is one of the directors of the Environment and Technology Programme at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think-tank. The IEA's environment programme 'suggests innovative solutions to environmental problems based on the principles of a free society - property rights, the market and the rule of law'. He is very sceptical about what he calls the 'precautionary principles' of the environmentalist movement.
You believe the idea of global warming to be something of a myth. Why?
There are basically 3 groups that benefit from the global warming myth: government, scientists and environmentalists. Environmentalists benefit because they are able to present a scary scenario to the general public, and because of their desire to maintain revenues scary scenarios are good business for them, it means the general public are more likely to give them money.
What’s happened with the science is that scientists have realised that their funding is also contingent on coming up with scary scenarios. Meanwhile government realises that making claims about global warming is a major problem help in terms both of placating environmental groups and also in terms of selling to the wider society the idea of raising higher fuel taxes. So we have a coalition in a sense of 3 groups, the scientists, the government and environmental groups who like coming up with scary scenarios to scare the public because that enables them to garner more revenue.
Why is it in the interests of environmental groups to scaremonger?
Well, environmental groups are seen by the general public as being altruistic, as being in favour of things which benefit the wider public, whereas business groups are seen by the general public as being concerned only for their own self interest. In fact environmental groups are almost as concerned about their own self interest as big business. Groups such as WWF and Greenpeace have multi-million dollar budgets, which means that they have to raise revenue every year in order to keep their own business going. That means that they’ve become if you like a scare business, and in so doing they’ve had to exaggerate scares in order to garner public support.
What is your view about the problem of global warming?
Global warming is happening, whether it’s caused by man or whether it’s natural is a matter for debate. But we’ve seen temperature has changed over the past 100 years on a global basis. The question is whether global warming is actually a good thing or a bad thing. In certain parts of the world an increase in temp will actually enable larger levels of crop production, which is clearly a good thing in those areas. Now, there may well be harmful things as well, such as an increase in flooding in certain areas, but the question is on balance is this a good thing or a bad thing and at the moment we do not know.
What do you think about the CO2 emission reduction mandated at Kyoto?
Environmentalists promoted the Kyoto protocol which mandated a reduction in CO2 emissions the effect of which would have been only a tiny reduction in temp change over a long period. But the cost of that reduction could have been enormous, as much as 1% of GDP over 10 years. So one has to think about the impact of that on the common man. Reduction of GDP means a decline in earnings, it means that many people will become unemployed, especially in heavy industries.
Is it worth imposing those costs on society for the tiny benefits, even perhaps a cost of reducing CO2 emissions? What about the necessity of finding an alternative to fossil fuels, which are believed to be running out?
People have been concerned that fossil fuels are going to run out for the past 100 years and actually the idea that they’re going to run out is something of a myth. What happens is the fossil fuel extraction companies invest only a certain amount of money in development of new reserves, so the amount of fossil fuels we know about today is rather a representation of what those companies have invested in developing.
So, for example with oil we’ve had 30 years of reserves for the past 50 years and we’re likely to 30 years of reserves for the next 50 years. With coal we’ve had 200-1000 years of reserves ever since records began and we’re really not going to run out of these things in any time frame which is an issue for policy makers over the next century. Given that, it would be totally inappropriate to invest in alternatives to fossil fuels where those alternatives are more costly than the fossil fuel alternative.
George Marshall is an environmentalist working for a campaign organisation called Rising Tide. He believes that uncertainties are being used as an excuse for not acting to prevent global warming and that there is far more certainty about climate change than there is about many other aspects of science on which policy decisions are routinely made.
The science of climate change is full of uncertainty – why should we act on something we’re not sure about?
The first public relations act has been to play on that uncertainty to suggest that the science is inconclusive, we are not yet in a position when we can take action. It hasn’t been to deny the science, it has merely been to say that there is too much uncertainty. Actually the fact is that there is a great deal more certainty around about climate change than there is about almost any other aspect of science as it affects government policy, there’s far more certainty around climate change than there is for example around BSE, there’s far more certainty around climate change than there is around public health aspects in which government routinely makes decisions.
The scientists are telling us, and this we can be confident of, that there is a lag time of at least 50 years between greenhouse gas emissions and their long-term climatic impact, putting up increasing quantities of gases and what those effects are on the climate. There are sceptics, people from think tanks, people from the libertarian right and so on who argue strongly against a precautionary principle, on the basis that we should seek to adapt. They are very powerful vested interests that are seeking to take hold of arguments generally as a means of not investing in the changes that we need in society. They’re seeking to have it both ways: they’re seeking to say first of all, we don’t know for certain that climate change exists; secondly, if it does exist, we should be seeking to adapt to it.
The fact is that we are, in the words of the IPCC, conducting a vast experiment in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. We cannot afford to wait for 50 years to have the complete science, if we continue to experiment with changing the composition of gases in the atmosphere we will producing substantial changes in the world’s climate. And whether we can say with 100% confidence that we know what those changes are or what causes them, it is clearly an experiment of extreme recklessness that we have no right to carry out. We have no right or justification to argue to future generations or to the people around the world who may well be affected by that action that we were waiting in order to achieve a full scientific understanding of what we were doing.
How would you respond to those who see a powerful Green lobby merely acting to serve their own interests by scaring people about global warming?
Many people actually greatly over-exaggerate the power of environmental organisations. In reality their power is only as powerful as the ideas that they spread and they stand with, it’s only as powerful as the science that they argue for. No environmental organisation has ever achieved any results where there hasn’t been a level of scientific support or political will or general public support to achieve those changes. So we’re foolish if we think that say Greenpeace can produce a change on its own, it can only catalyse a change.
What kind of changes do you think people need to make to stop global warming?
I don’t think environmentalists can say ‘this is what we want to see done’, other than to say that climate has to put at the top of the agenda in all aspects of social activity. Individuals need to be considering in all ways what their personal impact is on the world’s climate, governments need to be asking that question of every aspect of governmental policy, and we need to set very stringent goals for our emissions.
The problem we have in communicating climate change is that people diffuse responsibility both of being a cause of climate change and being a possible solution to it. That the problem seems so huge and that they seem such a small part of the cause and the solution to it that they are reluctant to take any personal action whatsoever. They prefer to think that this thing doesn’t exist and that they can just simply get on with their lives. The challenge for enabling people to engage in climate change is therefore to break down some of the barriers that prevent personal action, it’s to connect people to their personal role in this problem, the role that their lifestyle and the role that their professional working activity plays in this. The next thing is to persuade people that personally they can make a difference, both in terms of their own lifestyle choices but also in terms of political mobilisation. We need to get people to come together and mobilise collectively for political, social and economic change.