The fear of carbon

After 20 years of research, Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen believes theories of global warming and 'climate alarmism' are unscientific and for political gain

The science underlying global warming is deliberately constructed, with the help of the latest information technology, to serve purposes other than climate protection. The big questions are: what are these purposes, and who are the losers?

Science (but not research) is already a loser. It has already become dangerously politicised and polarised. The findings underpinning global warming policies are labelled by science-policy analysts as post-modern, post-positivist, or even post-sensible.

Climate science is no longer traditional science where theory must be confirmed by empirical evidence and where value-free results are deliberately sought. Findings must support policy, even though there is little agreement on the magnitude of the greenhouse effect or the relative contributions made by the many factors that generate climate: natural, human and extraterrestrial.

Sceptical, or rather realist, climate scientists (and there are many of them), point out that predictions of dangerous climate change are derived from unverified computer models and even more uncertain emission scenarios.

Their views have had little effect so far and even less official attention in Europe. Often the critics cannot find publishers and are ignored by the media, although this varies of course with government and editorial policies.

Not only are policy people today battling over cost and risk assessments and the meaning of precaution but scientists themselves are insulting each other about what are permissible assumptions, acceptable theories, proper methodologies and reliable empirical databases.

Fundamental to the predictions of approaching danger (or climate alarmism) is their lack of empirical confirmation in spite of major, polarised efforts under way to provide just this.

The most alarming predictions of a future hothouse are generated by a small number of government-funded computer models developed from weather forecasting. These combine mathematical equations and assumptions about the causes of climate change with future emission scenarios.

They are rejected by critics as unrealistic; mere experiments with, as yet, little policy relevance. Yet policy relevance is what is being funded, and what is sought from government-funded science. Why?

Atmospheric CO2 may never double

All climate models assume a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere, something that may never happen (some argue that it never will because there are not enough fossil fuels around or because they will have been replaced long before).

The big debate is therefore not about science but about the role of the state in finding replacements for fossil fuels, which will either run out, become too expensive or too difficult to trade – all contested claims.

But, assuming that such a transition is indeed sought in most countries, who is to pay for the transition, and how urgent is it? Should it be slow enough to allow industrialising countries to rely on their own resources and technologies, or should it be forced in the interest of international trade and international financial flows (and possible increase in debts)? If forced, at what cost to taxpayers and energy-users?

The climate modellers, as distinct from their users, usually admit inconsistencies and uncertainties in their future scenarios. Available models are not good enough to predict climate, much less so future change, in spite of billions of pounds having been devoted to this question.

All models assume a single theory that can only generate warming: that of radiative forcing by tiny but increasing quantities of so-called greenhouse gases. This theory is applied to a much simplified Earth: the complex, non-linear interactions between atmosphere, oceans, land surface (biology and human impacts included) and extraterrestrial influences are only partially understood.

While there has been much learning, there has also been much selection for media value and policy relevance, and policy was made as long ago as 1992.

Research findings are subjected to the diktat of political correctness or interpreted to support climate alarmism by media and some officials. Scientists that raise uncomfortable questions or express doubts, are ridiculed and accused of being in the pay of the fossil fuel lobby.

There has been some regionalised warming recently. We are still speculating about whether this has been natural, possibly cyclical, extraterrestrial in origin, man-made, or, most likely, a mixture of all three.

Exaggerated threat

Some claim that we are due for a cooler period in a decade or so, most that we shall fry in a few decades, unless we do something. And we do have solutions – we’ve had them since the 1970s, the era of very high fossil-fuel prices.

The warming threat is clearly linked, by bureaucracies in particular, to the promise of solutions that require serious action by the state. This observation alone suggests that this global environmental threat, like others before it, is exaggerated for political reasons, but also that the proposed solution, while costly, is attractive to many.

To underpin this effort, the equations claiming to describe the working of global climate (itself a myth) are coupled with seriously exaggerated storylines or emission scenarios deeply imbued with values and judgements about the future.

The IPCC and Hadley Centre forecasts, for example, are anything but purely scientific in the narrow sense of the term. They necessarily predict (because they are funded to do so) what is legally required under the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol: dangerous, anthropogenic climate change that can be mitigated by human action.

While the need for adaptation is no longer denied for Africans, here fossil fuels need to be replaced with carbon-free energy supplies. This is indeed technologically feasible and, in some parts of the globe, sensible.

But, as we do not understand climate, and least of all the contribution made by humanity to climate change, major global policy interventions are not justified on scientific grounds. This is the position of the US, China and many others. By contrast, in the EU, serious mistakes may well be in the pipeline.

Suppose the climatic consequences of decarbonisation efforts are largely unknowable. Would these efforts continue, especially in Europe? Few other countries have adopted a similar agenda. Russia continues to doubt but has been well rewarded for its ratification of Kyoto. Industrialising countries and quite a few others have no intention of accepting Kyoto, although they keep moving ahead with anti-global warming research and development.

Post-Kyoto agreements are now unlikely. Either politicians and regulators have been fooled by environmentalists, climate modellers and the media, or they have other no-regret motives for pushing ahead with decarbonisation.

A closer look at these efforts – research and development, economic regulation and sequestration – shows that for those with the investment capacity, lower-carbon economies are indeed possible, at a significant initial cost.

So far, the economic damage has been small and some side payments can be observed. Short-term benefits (for example wind farms and nuclear power) and energy-policy integration have strengthened the EU and national bureaucracies as well as selected research and industrial lobbies.

A growing number of beneficiaries of advocated climate-protection policies involve the transfer of public money to the private sector. We can observe the resurgence of nuclear power worldwide. Governments are moving fast towards the solution of the nuclear-waste problem and public perceptions are less negative. Nuclear reactors are being built and the phasing out of old ones is no longer a certainty – even in Germany. The UK government is trying to lead a new adventure into fusion as energy source.

Energy efficiency is back on technological and regulatory agendas; some agricultural and waste-disposal problems clamour for public funding with reference to global warming.

Carbon phobia is also attractive to other old solutions that were first advocated and funded during the oil crises of the 1970s, as well as new ones. Solar power, wind turbines and wave power – each with its own local environmental problems – are being resuscitated and developed further.

Jumping on the bandwagon

CO2 sequestration enabled much new research and is likely to improve the extraction of both oil and gas. Bureaucracies that had lost power with liberalisation and privatisation can now claw back control over energy policy.

As a virtually traded product, CO2 may even become a significant source of income to middlemen. Should humanity indeed contract and converge its emissions, a way might even be found to share our wealth better.

In the meantime, who pays for the transition? Persuasion is needed. Given the persuasive power of the warming threat, business, unless it fights back, can merely pay lip-service and jump on to the bandwagon of environmental responsibility: innovate, accept subsidies, and above all ensure level playing fields for energy regulations and costs. If only the US would sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Politicians and research bodies are not stupid; they know how to inspire the masses with myths of fear and promises of salvation. But here the danger is that control is lost, and belief – environmental ideology – overcomes reason.

Then, we Europeans would really be in trouble. The threat of global warming may one day be widely recognised as a socially constructed myth, useful to some, a threat to others and encouraging conflict rather than solidarity.

Inside the EU, the interest groups that see decarbonisation as an opportunity appear to be winning – but at what cost to competitiveness? My warning is to those who take the threat too seriously. When the warming scare ends (cooling would be much worse) and no-regret missions are accomplished, we can all enjoy the benefits of a little warming. Real global problems lie elsewhere.

Dr Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen reads Geography at the University of Hull

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