If there is any credit due to the monstrous legacy of Britain's Margaret Thatcher it is that she -- with her background in science -- always accepted the reality of man-made global warming. The British Conservative Party never took the route of denial that Republicans in the U.S or the Liberal Party in Australia followed. The same cannot be said, alas, for Britain's predominantly right-wing press which has given a great deal of space to Global Warming time-wasting as it once did to denying the link between HIV and AIDS.
This week, the Spectator (a bit like a British counterpart to the National Review) has a front page splash: "Relax: Global Warming is All a Myth" with James Delingpole interviewing Australian denier, Ian Plimer, publicising his new book.
Global warming denial is not a set of scientific ideas -- it's a collection of bogus factoids which have a zombie-like ability to keep returning to life, seeking new brains to feed on no matter how many times they are shot down.
To give an example. Someone, somewhere at one time decided to claim that the carbon dioxide (CO2 -- our leading contribution to heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere) of volcanoes is greater than that of human industry and transport.
This claim is unambiguously false. Man-made carbon emissions exceed those of volcanoes by a factor of 130.
But no matter. When Martin Durkin's film The Great Global Warming Swindle was broadcast on the UK's Channel 4, there it was. Complete with a little cartoon of a volcano belching out CO2. In one of many edits for errors and distortions, the volcano claim was removed prior to the film's DVD release.
Now Ian Plimer has written a book, Heaven and Earth, getting a lot of people very excited, and guess what? The volcano factoid is back! Back from the dead, volcanoes are celebrated by deniers one again.
The process goes like this:
1. Global Warming Denier makes claim
2. Claim is comprehensively, indisputably debunked
3. Claim is withdrawn, while Denier publicly continues to assert they are the new Galileo and their critics are religious fanatics with no regard for facts
4. New Global Warming Denier makes exactly the same claim as if previous debate never happened
And on and on. Apparently forever. No matter how often the volcano factoid -- just one of many -- is shown to be false, it will come back. Maybe in a new book, film, newspaper article, bogus scientific paper produced by a think tank funded by industry, from the mouth of a TV pundit, or from a politician. It will survive in a fact-free vacuum, ready to be reborn as required.
The deniers constantly accuse those who understand the basic science of global warming enough to realize they are full of it, of being intolerant, fanatical adherents of dogma. But it is pretty clear who is, and who isn't, susceptible to changing their minds in the face of the facts.
Most of us would wish the deniers were right. The trouble is, the evidence is entirely against them. Unable make an argument, they will latch on to anything -- anything at all -- and reassure themselves with the same zombie factoids all over again.
Imagine a Universe Where Nothing Ever Had Any Consequences: Wouldn't That Be Nice?
Delingpole begins, "Imagine how wonderful the world be if man-made global warming were just a figment of Al Gore's imagination." Yes indeed, and imagine too how wonderful it would be if magical winged horses flew down from the sky each morning and made you breakfast and only Al Gore tried to stop them with a pernicious, envious flying-pony tax.
The ad hominem attacks on Al Gore are an obsessive constant of anti-environmentalist writing. Now Gore has become an ambassador for the science to the global public. But he didn't come up with it himself. His slide-show lecture is a collection of claims made by scientists with the relevant expertise. The message is theirs, not Gore's. The basic theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming was proposed by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1895. He's the guy you want. Him and the tens of thousands of climate scientists whose work followed from it.
Research claims in science are submitted in the form of a paper to established journals where they are then critiqued by others in the field before publication. This process allows old ideas to be challenged, but only after new ones have been tested. It's a process designed to remove fraudulent or obviously weak claims. New ideas are welcome -- but they have to prove themselves.
It's fairly common in any field to have leading scientists disagree about the data and its interpretation. But with the basic facts of global warming -- that burning fossil fuels releases gases that trap more heat in the atmosphere on a scale great enough to change climate, there is no dispute. None. There is not a single peer-reviewed paper among hundreds.
Ian Plimer -- a geologist, not a climatologist -- can challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus if he wants. He just has to write a real scientific paper and send it to an established journal for peer review. Writing a book full of bogus claims for the benefit of readers who don't know anything about science is not "going to change forever the way we think about climate change."
So far, no peer-reviewed from paper from Pilmer. Or any other global warming denier. Why? Because their arguments don't stand up to 30 seconds' scrutiny from anyone who gives it real thought, let alone climatologists.
Mmmmm, Carbon Dioxide...Yum!
Delingpole's article would not be complete without more than its fair share of zombie factoids, apparently taken from Plimer's book.
One favorite is the claim that "CO2 is not a pollutant but a plant food." So if we lock ourselves up in a room full of CO2 in order to celebrate its life-giving qualities, what will happen as we breathe in this fine plant food?
Well done to those aged nine and up who learned at school that you would suffocate and die. In some contexts, CO2 is a pollutant. Oh, and it's not actually a food.
Not that either point is relevant -- what matters is that CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere. A lot of it traps more heat. Lots of extra heat is a potential problem for those who live on Planet Earth. Talking about the wonders of CO2 in some other, irrelevant context is a painfully transparent attempt to sound science-y while distracting your reader.
Also in there we have the claim: "...the CO2 in the atmosphere -- to which human activity contributes the tiniest fraction -- is only 0.001 per cent of the total CO2 held in the oceans, surface, rocks, air, soils and life."
Returning to the facts -- before the emergence of human industry, there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now, as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration informs us, there are 387 ppm. Not "the tiniest fraction," but a significant jump -- the predicted result of pouring billions of tonnes of the stuff into the atmosphere every year at an ever-increasing rate.
Plimer and Delingpole are propounding the withdrawn-from-their-backsides Law of How Small Things Don't Have Major Effects. It's an idea that has no real basis in science and relies of emotional demagoguery -- look at those tiny parts per million! They're so small! They wouldn't hurt a fly! The testable, provable effectiveness of small amounts of CO2 molecules in trapping heat is swept away using irrelevant appeals to ignorance.
The same logic would lead us to conclude that viruses and bacteria are harmless because they are very, very small. Why, the anthrax virus must be only a tiny fraction of your body weight. Therefore, it is safe to eat, as proven by percentages.
Global Warming Doesn't Exist And It's Not Even That Bad Anyway
Plimer and Delingpole, like most professional deniers, are men of contradictions, as we have already seen. At the beginning of the piece, Pilmer explains why his background as a geologist is even better in understanding the climate than a climatologist, who actually studies it: "They're only interested in the last 150 years. Our time frame is 4,567 million years. So what they're doing is the equivalent of trying to extrapolate the plot of Casblanca from one tiny bit of the love scene. And you can't. It doesn't work."
OOOH! Smackdown! How could anyone be so foolish as to make conclusions out of a mere 150 years of data, when the planet's climate has been developing and changing over billions of years?
Well, apparently Plimer can, within three paragraphs:
"There is no problem with global warming. It stopped in 1998."
Climatologists can't work in a time frame of 150 years, says Plimer, but Plimer can work in a time frame of the 11 years since 1998. Never mind, it will still get published in the Spectator.
While we're at it, are those claims actually true? Do climatologists work in a frame of 150 years? Did global warming stop in 1998? Well, no. And also no.
Climatologists have used a number of methods to learn how climate has changed over longer time periods and shown that the current warming exceeds anything humanity has experienced in at least a thousand years. Among them, Michael Mann famously produced a graph of temperature in the Northern Hemisphere over the last thousand years and deniers have dedicated a great deal of their time failing to discredit it. How could Delingpole have forgotten the denier nemesis, the hated, wicked, tricksy, false and demonstrably accurate "Hockey-Stick Graph"?
As for 1998 -- that was an unusually hot year, exceeding even the temperature of the previous record-holder way back in 1997. Average temperatures in 1998 were exacerbated by the short-term effects of a record-breaking El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, as well as the long-term trend towards global warming. Nonetheless, global average temperatures have continued to rise since 1997 and NASA recorded fractionally higher temperatures in 2005 -- when there was no additional El Nino effect. A graph makes the upward trend, and the denier cherry-picking, clear.
Medium and short term trends (such as the ocean cycle) can work both ways -- they can cool the planet down for a while, even as CO2 and other greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. But they don't effect the long-term trend as greenhouse gases accumulate.
If climate scientists had ever said, "Because global warming is taking place, it will never be cold anywhere, ever again and each day will be hotter than the last", then the observation that some years have been cooler than 1998 would matter. Since they don't, loudly and often, there are no excuses for the "It's-cold-today-so-global-warming-is-a-fraud!" time-wasters.
Global Warming Doesn't Exist and Historically It's Always Been Fun for Everyone
Global warming is part of a natural cycle, nothing to do with people. Also, global warming has stopped. Global warming is associated with nice things like warm, sunny days and wine-growing. Also, the world is getting cooler. The ice caps have melted before anyway. Also, global warming has caused mass extinctions in the past quite naturally.
All of those claims appear in Delingpole's piece. Is there anyone who can't see the contradiction between them? Global warming is not happening, but it also is happening and it's a natural process that shouldn't bother anybody. And it isn't happening. And it happens all the time in Earth's history! And it stopped in 1998!
The one fact that those in deep denial have is that the climate of the Earth does indeed change over time without man-made causes and has done many, many times in the planet's history. It's not a magical process, though. The climate changes because of a forcing. A forcing can be any of a number of things -- including changes in solar activity and variations in the Earth's orbit and rotation.
The evidence shows now that human beings, by releasing the energy stored in fossil fuels into the atmosphere, can also create a climate forcing. The only forcing that explains current warming. There isn't a contradiction between these facts.
Now if the global warming currently taking place were not caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, it would still be a very serious matter and cause for, yes, alarm. But the deniers' main interest -- their only consistency -- is to say anything that will prevent people from thinking that industry or government need to act. They have a particular need to ridicule the thought that global warming is a potential destroyer of the lives of hundreds of millions of people. You will never come across a denier who says that global warming is not man-made but nonetheless worrying and we should prepare for it.
They are in the difficult and multi-contradictory position of insisting that climate change is a natural process which is always going on and also there is no need to worry.
Usually the trick is to look at various moments of past natural climate change and pick out cutesy-wutesy anecdotes like how in the Mediaeval Warm Period (MWP), people in the North of England used to grow grapes for wine or how during the Little Ice Age around the 17th-19th centuries, people in London used to hold ice fairs on the frozen River Thames, which currently does not freeze over at all.
Delingpole does not disappoint those on the look out for these zombie-stories:
"...the Earth's warmer periods -- such as when the Romans grew grapes and citrus trees as far north as Hadrian's Wall [in England] -- were times of wealth and plenty."
Sigh. The actual scientists at RealClimate.org persist in pointing out that, actually, wine is still made in the North of England, and it wins international prizes for its quality. Readers could play a drinking game where you whip out a bottle of English wine whenever you hear a denier make this fatuous claim yet again.
But over in Central America you can look at the still-standing ruins of the once-mighty Mayan civilization, its glorious cities abandoned during the MWP. There isn't a consensus on this, but some scientists have claimed that the period of warming triggered centuries-long droughts in their part of the world, not wealth and plenty -- a suggestion you won't hear deniers mention during discussions of natural climate change. Perhaps the Mayans all left Central America for England where they could grow wine and live happily ever after.
And the MWP was limited in its scope -- it affected the North Atlantic region, not the entire globe.
In the same paragraph of factoids where Delingpole lists wine from the North of England, he also states breezily that, "extinctions of life are normal". So just relax, guys, and enjoy your extinction!
Nasty Rich Socialists Want to Stop the Poor From Enjoying Global Environmental Catastrophe
Finally, and inevitably, we have a consideration of the mysterious and dark motives of environmentalists, particularly the nasty rich socialists who want stop the world's poor from enjoying environmental catastrophe.
Delingpole's article covers the life of Plimer growing up in working-class Australia, a part that interests me because my own Dad grew up there at the same time. It didn't turn my Dad into a global warming denier, so it can't be especially relevant. Unless this is part of some inverted, bizarre Class War which is contrasting Plimer's working-class authenticity with the supposed wealth and privilege of members of Greenpeace. Which, of course, it is.
The point of this biographical detail is that environmentalism is the product of the disordered minds of the rich, those terrible "metropolitan liberals" who live in cities and are liberal, proving their infamy for everyone to see. American readers will know this script.
"Eco-guilt is a first-world luxury," Plimer asserts, arguing that some people he has met in rural Turkey and Iran have no time for this science nonsense. Real working-class people want to improve their lives by burning more fossil fuels. They must not be held back by hateful rich left-wingers who envy rich people and are rich, seeking to impose their fanciful notions of environmental aesthetics enviously on the poor. (NB: I am not caricaturing that argument in the slightest -- read it yourself and see.)
This is a particularly obnoxious lie, another complete reversal of the truth. Global warming is a major concern of the world's poor who will be (and are being) hit hardest by it. It is denial that is a luxury for those who can afford to protect themselves from environmental catastrophes from New Orleans to India to Darfur. Here is Johann Hari (declaration -- a friend of mine), interviewing a Bangladeshi teenager in a country where the effects of global warming are obvious and ominous:
I clambered back on to one of the 42 school-boats in this area. Young children were in the front chanting the alphabet, and teenagers at the back were browsing through the books. I asked a 16-year-old boy called Mohammed Palosh Ali what he was reading about, and he said, "Global warming." I felt a small jolt. He was the first person to spontaneously raise global warming with me. Can you tell me what that is? "The climate is being changed by carbon dioxide," he said. "This is a gas that traps heat. So if there is more of it, then the ice in the north of the world melts and our seas rise here."
I asked if he had seen this warming in his own life. "Of course! The floods in 1998 and 2002 were worse than anything in my grandfather's life. We couldn't get any drinking water, so the dirty water I drank made me very sick. The shit from the toilet pits had risen up and was floating in the water, but we still had to drink it. We put tablets in it but it was still disgusting. What else could we do?"
Eco-guilt isn't a luxury. It's the normal, non-sociopathic emotion you get when you realize what the effects of our carbon-intense lifestyles are on others.
There are no arguments in Plimer's article that stand up. His book has already been doused elsewhere in the acid of scrutiny by people who know what they're talking about. It has not fared well.
But it won't stop the arguments it contains from doing their work. Too many people, really, really do not want to believe that life on Earth is changing and that drastic changes in our economy and society will be necessary, possibly costing industry a lot of money. That's why the story of the volcanoes that produce more CO2 than burned fossil fuels lives on and are destined to be repeated over and over.
Expect too, to hear about wine in Northern England again, how CO2 is only a small part of the atmosphere, that climate change is cyclical and unthreatening but also world-changing, that CO2 is good for plants so we can put it in the atmosphere without consequences, that global warming stopped in 1998. I'm only surprised they left out the one about the time when all scientists in the 70s in the world thought there was going to be an ice age except for the majority who didn't.
And when every one of those is knocked down again by the facts, you'll hear deniers proudly boast that they are bold truth-tellers who refuse to tow the party line (watch out for that one in the comments below!), wrongly persecuted for their courageous stance by the mindless sheep who accept the overwhelming weight of the evidence. When this appears in the national press, it merits a stern, clear response.
Meanwhile, global average temperatures and man-made greenhouse gases both rise inexorably.