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Climate change — a word from the sceptics

12 August 2009

Adam Ford looks at the ‘consensus’ —and the dissenters

What does it mean? A stream of glacial runoff from the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru. From Climate Change: Picturing the science, reviewed here

What does it mean? A stream of glacial runoff from the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru. From Climate Change: Picturing the science, reviewed here

Climate Change: Picturing the science
Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe

W. W. Norton £17.99 (978-0-39333125-7)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

reviewed with

Heaven and Earth Global warming: the missing science
Ian Plimer

Quartet Books £25 (978-0-7043-7166-8)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


Quartet Books £25 (978-0-7043-7166-8)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


While the Earth Endures: Creation, cosmology and climate change
Philip Foster

St Matthew Publishing £12 (978-1-90154631-6)


St Matthew Publishing £12 (978-1-90154631-6)


Sustainable Energy — without the hot air
David J. C. MacKay

UIT Cambridge £19.95 (978-0-9544529-3-3)
Church Times Bookshop £17.95

WE USED to talk lightly about the weather, with perhaps a grumble, or occasionally a bursting smile of de­light. Now we talk about the climate with trepidation. It is chang­ing, we are told; the future is painted in apocalyptic colours, and only the united will of nations can hope to protect us from disaster and avert a man-made global catastrophe. The story is a gift to the press: it will run and run.

Climate Change: Picturing the science acknowledges that accurate predictions about the future are difficult to make and that the science of climatology is imperfect. The climate of Planet Earth has always been subject to change and sometimes great turbulence. Is any­thing different today?

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report stating that the case for global warming had be­come “unequivocal” with a “very likely” dominant role for humans in causing it. (It is the fossil fuels we have been burning since the indus­trial revolution, the carbon dioxide released, and the “greenhouse warming” said to follow.) Schmidt and Wolfe explore the underlying scientific research that led the IPCC to its alarming conclusion.

Their aim is to educate and create an informed public able to engage with the debate. Here is a collection of highly readable essays by scien­tists working in the field, supported by some stunning photography to illustrate the issues: “before” and “after” photos of retreating glaciers; sunsets through polluted skies; cloud tops and swirling patterns of ocean plankton viewed from space; forest fires; and empty tide-marked reservoirs. It is a great collection of images.

The accompanying text is good, clear, and informative. First, they examine the symptoms of climate change, and then they diagnose the causes. Finally, they suggest some cures: from reducing our individual carbon footprints to national energy policy.

Global warming, fuelled by hu­man irresponsibility and polluting practices, is seen as a fact of life. This view is backed by a consensus in the “scientific community”, it is believed. Who are we, mostly non-scientists, to disagree?

A consensus? It sounds good. It sounds reassuring. But it is simply not true.

Not true, according to Plimer, author of Heaven and Earth: Global warming: the missing science. Plimer, himself a well-respected geo­logist from Broken Hill in Aus­tralia, has amassed a wealth of know­ledge about the planet’s climatic history from the same “scientific community”. More than 2000 references to research articles published in prestigious scientific journals tell a very different story.

The climate is changing. It always has. Planet Earth is dynamic, not static. Currently, we are living in a turbulent interglacial period and still emerging from the Little Ice Age (AD 1280-1850), when ice formed around Britain’s coasts and the river Thames regularly froze over. Warm­ing should not be a surprise. But in fact we find that global warming stopped in 1998.

Having an open mind can hurt — and good science depends on sceptical questioning and an accept­ance of uncertainty. But everything you thought you knew about global warming, from the press, turns out to be questionable.

A calving iceberg makes good television for a catastrophic mes­sage. The reality is that the Antarctic is not warming, and its ice sheet is expanding. Nor are all glaciers retreating; and the ice cap on Green­land is getting thicker. Pic­tures of lonely polar bears on thin ice touch the heart, but research suggests that the polar-bear popula­tion is currently thriving. And the storm threat has been overstated: hurricanes in the northern hemi­sphere have been less frequent in the 21st century than in the prev­ious two centuries. The list goes on.

Carbon dioxide is presented by the IPCC as the villain of the piece, despite the fact that it is the fuel for all plant growth; our hopes depend on it for feeding the expanding population of the planet. Plimer views it as an essential trace gas in the atmosphere, much misrepre­sented by current fears. Historically, an increase in this gas has followed warming periods, not driven them; and many times in the past there has been very much more of it around than there is now.

He ridicules the “runaway greenhouse” scenario as baseless scaremongering, but reserves special criticism for the IPCC’s reliance on computer models that give simplistic, erroneous results. They fail as good science. There are too many variables to be confident of any predictions: solar cycles, cosmic rays (not as mad as it sounds), cloud cover, ocean dynamics, volcanic activity (above and beneath the sea), the tilt of the Earth’s axis, precipitation. The list of things that influence the changing global climate is very long, and not well understood.

Plimer’s book is well worth reading, given time to think and some focused mental energy.

Foster, in While the Earth Endures, also rejects “man-made global warming”, but with a different agenda. God, not man, is in charge of the climate, he proves to his own satisfaction by appeal to scripture. His main mission is to persuade fellow creationists to abandon their “Young Earth” beliefs. The universe, on all scientific counts, is ancient. But Adam and Eve are still there, Darwinian evolution is mocked, and, strangely, organic farming is ridiculed as a Western neurosis.

Sustainable Energy is a fat textbook on how the world community can, and should, give up dependence on fossil fuels, and switch to sustainable energy sources — wind, wave, tide, and sun. With MacKay’s book in hand, the future looks good. We need to learn some respect for the planet, not despoil or pollute it. We have to be alert and may have to adapt, as our ancestors did, and as evolving life does all the time. My bet is that we can do that.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

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