CLIMATE CHANGE, SCIENCE, SPECULATION AND PROPAGANDA
We had an excellent session with our two speakers kicking off not they said as Climate Change deniers, but as questioning science driven voices. After their 40 min and 30 min talks, everyone who wishes spoke out their views and a vigorous discussion followed. I only gave bits of the paper I had prepared but here it is with responses from Greg and Iain to make of it what you will.
This is our final session for this our 8th year and we have found that our format encourages everyone who attends to think carefully about the evening’s subject, to hear our speakers, express their own views and then to discuss the issues in a frank but courteous way. This has been quite an achievement when it seems so many shy away from hearing views they do not agree with, let alone discussing with those they do not agree with.
Tonight challenges us to reflect on the spectre of catastrophic climate change and how it is commonly portrayed and how scientifically accurate this is. So where to start?
First, neither of our speakers Professor Greg Atkins nor Dr Iain McEwan are climate change deniers, that is they do not, as a significant minority of well qualified scientists have done, argue that the observed changes in the climate are not anthropogenic, the result of human activity, rather than part of the continuous cycle of climate changes that have always affected the earth causing at different times temperature changes and a series of mass extinctions.
That point of view has now been largely abandoned as I understand it as a result of three things.
The first is the build up of data around temperature from tree rings, rocks and ice cores together with accurate temperature measures for the last two centuries which show a recent, rapid, year on year temperature rise.
The second is for developments in mathematics and super computers building on the work of Nobel laureates Manabe and Hasselman in making computer models of the Earth’s climate. These quantify variability and predict warming with increasing accuracy as Dr Friederike Otto has demonstrated from Oxford and now UCL.
The third has been the obvious global acceleration of droughts, arboreal fires, flooding as the result of extreme rain, cyclones, and artic ice melting on a huge scale.
My son-in-law is a scientist with a doctorate in microbial palaeontology from UCL and a specialist in the marine environment. He works for the Government of Jersey and he now accepts what we are seeing is both anthropogenic and increasingly catastrophic, particularly as it applies to fish and the sea.
It took him a long time to reach this conclusion and his change of opinion carries considerable weight with me for I know he has a relentlessly enquiring mind, remarkable mathematical and statistical skills, attention to detail and a drive to get things right.
How then am I to deal with Greg and Iain, who again are both retired scientists who have worked at a high academic level in the face of relentless peer review of their academic studies and conclusions.
In fact my dilemma raises the general question. How should the great majority of us, however educated we may or may not be, yet are not scientists, make conclusions and decisions which we want to believe are based on good science?
Which scientists and whose opinions should we trust or accept? There is no easy answer to this dilemma for scientists can often disagree. Our own emotions and habits of thought always come into this – as they do with the scientists, who are never without their own personal biases, for we are always complex, never totally rational and personal experience is always part of the mix when we come to making decisions about what to believe, who to trust and what actions to take.
The practice of science always attempts to screen out such biases, be they political, moral, religious, racial, cultural or simply our intuitive gut reactions as much as possible. This is done with repeatable experiments and widespread peer review and when it comes to setting up investigations into complex issues like Climate Change it seems to me that this has been very carefully done both by the IPCC and the government CCC. To reject their judgements about the severity and probable future of increasingly catastrophic climate change requires I suggest very strong scientific evidence.
This of course is the point made so powerfully and unexpectedly by Greta Thunberg in 2019 and which she has hammered ever since, “Follow the Science” by which she has meant the IPCC reports. The rest she says is “Blah Blah Blah.” Never have three words so haunted an international conference.
So what do they say? I have given you the IPCC physical science basis as regards Europe (yes this still includes us) the CCC’s The UK’s Path to Net Zero and The Four Key Steps the UK Should Take. Also I include again my summary of Breaking Boundaries, the book and the video by Attenborough and Rockstrom. Also please look at www.johnbaxter.org.
It is very important to point out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been set up as carefully as possible to be free of national or political bias and to provide a scientifically based analysis of the data and a programme to deal with Climate Change. To accuse it of partisan bias or bad science requires evidence I have not seen. Again, when it comes to the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee which includes our top scientists, it has shown itself highly critical of and independent of government policy. Again to accuse it of bias, political or scientific is hard to substantiate.
COP26 IN GLASGOW
The opening day had speeches and film from Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, Sir David Attenborough, Prince Charles, the PM who represented West Indian states and our very own Boris. As regards science they all followed very closely the line taken in Breaking Boundaries which is very much in line with what both the IPCC and the CCC have been saying though expressed in more accessible language.
Basically, this is that “where we are” means more drought, rainstorms, fires and sea levels rising, and two degrees or anything over that means a death sentence to island and low-lying nations and possibly millions of people before 21,100. From then on it seems there was no criticism made of the science or of the scientific forecasts made by these bodies as the delegates set about trying to reconcile these present and future challenges with practical policies, laws and economic choices that might mitigate them. These have moved positively in some directions like more forestation and financial co-operation, but with a final count of 2.4 degrees and coal, gas and oil use rising, the words of Greta still ring out.
Grounds for pessimism? Not entirely. There is an international flurry of activity with Rolls Royce at its head for developing and building smaller, more efficient nuclear power stations and research into new forms of nuclear generation to provide enough electricity to replace fossil fuels. Electric cars are being heavily promoted, but Professor Schwanem, Director Oxford University Transport Studies says electric vehicles “are not compliant with the Paris accord.” He argues for smaller, more efficient petrol vehicles immediately before hydrogen becomes workable. Oddly he did not in the short video I have seen , mention Biomethane which might solve many problems with HGVs.
What happens if you think that global warming is moving rather slowly and so we need not worry too much about CO2. That is where looking at the nine boundaries Rockstrom focuses us on becomes I think very disturbing. The worst it seems to me is what is happening to the oceans with acidification and particle pollutants, heat waves and the decimation of fish, coral and marine life. All caused by human activity and very difficult to stop unless large sea areas are declared protected from all fishing. Cop26 seems to have said very little about it, nor about pollution of the atmosphere or the terrible loss of biodiversity which cuts across all species from insects to elephants. Nitrogen and Phosphorus are also poisoning the air and the earth while fresh water is disappearing in drought affected areas as never before. All these turning points are interrelated and they all point to global warming and CO2. All this seems to me incontrovertible.
Given that the UK is so small in what it emits of the global total (1.1%) and how little direct difference cutting down our CO2 could make to global emissions, is it worth doing what we can as a country and as individuals to reduce it and all the other aspects of global warming that go with it? I think as Greta does, that it is essential we do. If we are to face our children and grandchildren realistic optimism is always needed. The TV Earthshot series showed this and 39 Ways to Save the Planet. Cop26 has woken many people up and I am sure will be used by many to work for a better future. John Baxter
And in response to my paper first Greg and then Iain sent these replies to put you all right,
|Nov 18, 2021, 11:08 AM (1 day ago)
I think biomethane could be a help, but it is one of the marginal issues. There would never be a capacity, for example, for it to be used on a large scale to replace fossil fuels.
As you know I do not take Cop26 seriously, neither do I take Greta Thunberg’s utterances seriously. Both were more concerned with political posturing rather than addressing practicalities. I also do not share your enthusiasm for popular TV documentaries or books based on them. As far as I know, Cop26 did not address emissions from oil and gas, and only dealt with coal in a vague and ambiguous manner. No mention was made of support for scientific projects concerned with addressing climate change, nor was there any discussion of their nature.
So we can forget about Cop26, it was a non-event. What is more important are individual policy decisions made by individual countries. I am encouraged by some recent decisions made by our own Government, albeit somewhat belatedly. These are, as you say, support for construction both of smaller nuclear power plants, support for Sizewell C, and the intention to plan more large nuclear power plants. Also, they are substantially supporting the STEP fusion project here and are participating in the larger international ITER fusion project that involves 34 other countries. They have also decided to support the first prototype geothermal power station here at Redruth in Cornwall, which unlike wind and solar power will produce large amounts of sustainable renewable energy. Similar developments are occurring in other countries, such as the thorium reactors being built and planned in India and China, and the investment in the USA in laser fusion technology. These developments are far more significant than the farce that was acted out in Glasgow.
Have read your enclosed paper and, after descending from the ceiling, here are a few points.
Tree rings. Trees are not thermometers. Tree growth depends on many variables, temperature is only one. Water, nutrients, sunlight, pests and diseases are but a few others. At best, tree growth is an extremely rough, and totally uncalibrated, proxy for local temperatures.
Rocks and ice cores. Again proxies, however based on sound physics in the main. But still uncalibrated with respect to modern instrumental temperatures. It’s a scientific sin to conjoin both to form a continuous temperature record. Data from these sources can justifiably be reinterpretated as indicating temperature changes comparable to the present, but with no correlation to CO2 concentrations.
Accurate temperature measures. No, no and thrice no, they may be accurate, but we simply don’t, and never will, know. We have little record of historical measurement accuracy. In fact we’re rarely given the accuracy of modern data. Presenting data without error limits is, or was in my day, a scientific hanging offence.
Rapid, year on year temperature rise. The Central England Temperature (CET) record since 1820 shows an unarguable 1.3 degree rise, but it’s not made up of regular year-on-year increments. Temperature changes are random, and is ca. 0.7 oC per century rapid? We can argue that one till the (methane beltching) cows come home!
Super computers. No matter how super a computer is its output is not data. It’s a function of input and algorithms used, and can only be checked against future reality. They don’t have a good record of “predicting” the past weather.
Acceleration of droughts, arboreal fires etc. Fire is emotive. I’ll bet a recent article, published in Science, showing that the amount of burned area declined by about 25% globally 1998 to 2015 won’t figure in many headlines. Again context is everything, we lack accurate historical data to put our present fire damage into. Same for hurricanes and extreme rainfall.
Science is not consensus, it’s doubt. Man’s main weapon against change is, as it’s always been, adaptability