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June 30, 2005

The global warming "mainstream" is deeply political

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Global Warming: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: a sceptic's account of global warming and its humbugs.

The global warming "mainstream" is deeply political
It seems that many of our global warming (GW) scientists can't see the differences between being able to identify a potential problem, and working out either the degree of risk it poses, and the merits of proposed solutions. They seem to be natural interventionists, and such people do not often see the downside of the state feebly or strongly responding to the cry, "We must do something".

Deniers, contrarians and sceptics mostly believe that the process by which the governments of the world have funded and organised "the science" and the "scientific consensus" on GW is deeply flawed.

Modern science is expensive and the universities and research units where it goes on need large-scale sponsorship. Climate science has been funded for about a decade and a half mostly by public funding on the premise that we are trying to understand and come to a consensus on climate change. The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) corrals scientists and experts who work in three areas: the science of GW; its likely impacts; and how to deal with it in political and economic terms. Much of this work is in the mainstream tradition of "hard" science and the social sciences. That is, there is a wide range of opinion and evidence on offer.

However, climate change science represents two major breaks with tradition. Both concern consensus.

The inadequacy of the IPCC "consensus": #1
At the points where IPCC is most interested in consensus, it is least empirically-based (because most dependent on computer modelling). If you took all the thousands of academic papers on geography, climate observation, geology, and so on which constitute much of the IPCC science, you would see masses of contradictions and uncertainties. This work feels like real science and gives plenty of scope for contrarians and sceptics. It is really only in the papers which rely on climate modelling where you find the "consensus". And that consensus covers a wide range: for instance, it posits a wide range of temperature outcomes for the planet.

So, yes, the computer-based scientific work which leads people to believe that man is warming his planet has achieved consensus. But experts strain when they try to produce a consensus amongst the work on the impacts of the warming, or on how to deal with it.

Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Today programme (9th July, 2005) that there is now a:

consensus view apart from a few lobbyists… in the scientific community there is no longer argument on these issues.
Here Sir David makes the mistake of suggesting there is or should be such a thing as a "scientific community", and that the genuine consensus on GW extends to its impacts and to the best ways of dealing with it.

The inadequacy of the IPCC "consensus": #2
By the time it arrives in the hands of the writers of the summaries for policy-makers, and in the hands of the "leaders" of the process, the message is pretty consistently that GW is causing effects we can already see, will mostly be awful, are man's fault, and ought to be avoided by efforts to reduce emissions.

Broadly speaking, deniers, as you might expect, think the summaries are very bad indeed, and they are suspicious that the whole process does not capture the real essence of GW, which is its variability and uncertainty.

The contrarians and sceptics are in a more nuanced position. Some of them believe much of even the policy-makers' summaries produced by IPCC. But they tend also to believe that GW is rich in uncertainties, and that very small efforts to reduce emissions will have very small if any effects on GW outcomes and that even quite large efforts might be largely wasted.

Deniers, contrarians and sceptics all believe that the IPCC process was designed to produce a consensus (because that's what policy-makers need), and that it represented the first time scientists got funding (and careers) which were in effect linked to finding agreement that a complex phenomenon could be talked-of and dealt with simply. That's to say: the IPCC's job was to say that GW was big, bad, man's fault and curable. And it duly did so.

Then the IPCC made a move which is even less in the scientific tradition. Its leaders became campaigners on behalf of those who not merely took a view on GW, but took a view on what political response was needed. Leading climate change scientists such as Stephen Schneider, Bob Watson, and Sir John Houghton were cheer-leaders for a policy, instead of aloof informants of policy.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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These articles are very helpful. Publish the remaining ones please!

Posted by: Mark at July 1, 2005 11:21 AM
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