by Iain Aitken
As explained in my new eBook, Climate Change: A Curious Crisis, the climate change ‘debate’ has long-since become a Manichaean, deeply polarized, ‘you are either with us or against us’ war of words in which both sides accuse the other of being closed-minded and refusing to accept the ‘facts’.
Instead of a respectful exchange of views and the seeking of mutual understanding and common ground we tend to find sarcasm and ridicule and ad hominem attacks, as mutually intolerant, entrenched positions have arisen based on different interpretations of the science and evidence and different perceptions of risk. What should have been a mutually cooperative, disinterested, value-free search for the truth (basically, ‘science’) has morphed into a combative, biased, value-laden promotion of positions and ‘point scoring’ over opponents (basically, ‘politics’). Lest they yield any dialectical ground to their opponents, ‘doomsters’ are deeply reluctant to admit (perhaps even to themselves) that climate change might actually be predominantly natural and benign – and ‘deniers’ are deeply reluctant to admit (perhaps even to themselves) that climate change might actually be predominantly man-made and dangerous.
So what is the doomsters’ story? One of the most prominent and vocal doomsters is António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, who, in August 2021, described the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report as ‘a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk’. And in response to the news that July 2023 was likely to be the warmest July since records began he stated, ‘The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.’ So what is all this ‘irrefutable evidence’ of the climate crisis that has so convinced Guterres and his fellow doomsters? Let’s examine a few representative examples:
(1) We know, based on the Anthropogenic Global Warming theory, that increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (e.g. by burning fossil fuels) will cause global warming to occur.
(2) We know, based on ice core data (and more recently direct atmospheric measurements), that in post-industrialization times the carbon dioxide level in our atmosphere has already risen by about 50% to a level that is unprecedented in more than 14 million years – and the rise rate is accelerating.
(3) We know, based on the Anthropogenic Global Warming theory, that the post-industrialization global warming cannot be explained by natural phenomena.
(4) We know, based on all the leading temperature datasets, that in post-industrialization times about 1.2ºC of global warming has already occurred, a level of warming that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years (and probably the last 125,000 years) – and the rise rate is accelerating.
(5) We know, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, that the last 8 years have been the hottest years since records began and each decade since the 1980s has been hotter than the previous one.
(6) We know, based on global tide gauge and satellite altimetry data, that in post-industrialization times the global mean sea level has already risen by about 9 inches as a result of global warming – and the rise rate is accelerating.
(7) We know, based on satellite observations, that Arctic sea ice has already declined by 50% and is declining at a rate of about 12% per decade as a result of global warming – and the decline rate is accelerating.
(8) We know, based on observations and attribution studies, that extreme weather around the world has already become more frequent and intense and, based on the world’s largest study of climate-related mortality, that that is already causing almost 10% (5 million) of global deaths each year.
(9) We know, based on the Paris Climate Accord, that warming must be limited to 1.5ºC to avoid the most dangerous climate change impacts – and that based on the current warming trends that critical threshold may be crossed by 2030.
(10) We know that by the end of this century there could be up to 6ºC of warming (i.e. exceeding the 1.5ºC critical threshold by 4.5ºC) potentially resulting in catastrophic climate change.
The adverse climate change impacts noted above are just representative – many more could have been added, such as ocean acidification, coral reef loss, biodiversity loss and species extinctions – and that’s even before the consideration of potential ‘tipping points’ into irreversible climate change impacts. The climate crisis narrative (i.e. the cause and effect storyline) based on such evidence is simple and certain and compelling: our escalating burning of fossil fuels has caused a huge and unprecedented and accelerating rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere which have in turn caused a huge and unprecedented and accelerating rise in global surface temperatures which has in turn already caused huge and unprecedented and accelerating climate change impacts on the planet and mankind – and very soon it’s going to get catastrophically worse, unless we stop climate change by stopping burning fossil fuels. In this narrative climate change is a new and terrifying man-made phenomenon, an existential threat that has arisen as an insidious ‘by product’ of rampant industrialization and capitalism and that it can, and must, be stopped by urgent global decarbonization.
So how many of the above ten statements are actually true? I would argue that all of them are true – at least exactly as worded – and assuming we accept as beyond reasonable dispute the ‘scientific consensus on climate change’, Anthropogenic Global Warming theory, climate models, analyses and conclusions of the IPCC, the ‘internationally accepted authority on climate change’. Trusting the IPCC and believing such evidence and the frightening story it apparently tells is entirely rational and reasonable; in fact, why would any rational, reasonable person doubt it? On the face of it this evidence alone makes an irrefutable case in support of the existence of a climate crisis and it’s surely not at all hard to understand why so many people accept it – and think that those who do not accept it (the so-called ‘climate deniers’) are deluded, badly-informed, badly-intentioned, scientifically-illiterate, irresponsible fools (or are perhaps covertly in the pay of Big Oil).
But what if we don’t just accept as ‘beyond reasonable dispute’ the IPCC’s ‘scientific consensus on climate change’, its Anthropogenic Global Warming theory, climate models, analyses and conclusions, but instead consider criticisms of them by ‘denier’ scientists? In that case we find that the ‘simple and certain’ climate crisis narrative unravels and becomes decidedly complex and uncertain. I deconstruct the ten statements above and set out some of the key complexities and uncertainties in my eBook, in which I conclude that we simply don’t know (with a confidence level sufficient to inform climate policy)
whether carbon dioxide is the main (let alone sole) controller of the Earth’s climate system
whether rising carbon dioxide levels are on balance good or bad for the planet and mankind
whether the post-industrialization global warming has been abnormal (even over the last 2,000 years)
how much of the post-industrialization global warming has been human-caused
whether global warming is currently accelerating
whether our warming climate system is on balance good or bad for the planet and mankind
how much of the post-industrialization sea level rise has been human-caused
whether the sea level rise is currently accelerating
whether global decarbonization would materially reduce future sea level rises – and whether global decarbonization is anyway the most cost-effective policy for addressing future sea level rise
whether the recent Arctic sea ice loss has been abnormal
how much of the recent Arctic sea ice loss has been human-caused
whether the Arctic sea ice loss is currently accelerating
whether recent extreme weather events have been abnormal
whether recent extreme weather events have been human-caused
whether extreme weather events will become significantly more frequent and intense as a result of global warming
whether exceeding 1.5ºC of warming would be ‘dangerous’
whether achieving net zero by 2050 (in order to limit warming to 1.5ºC) is technically feasible (never mind geopolitically realistic)
whether achieving net zero by 2050 would materially improve the climate in this century
how much further global warming there will be this century and whether it might lead to ‘catastrophic’ climate change.
All of this can be summarized in one word: doubt. Doubts about the reliability of the science, doubts about the reliability of the climate models, doubts about the scientific integrity and policy-neutrality of the IPCC, doubts about the scale of future warming, doubts about the scale of the climate change risks (i.e. doubts about the scale of the possible adverse impacts and the probability of their occurring), doubts about the wisdom of the 1.5ºC warming ‘threshold’ – and doubts about the wisdom, not of decarbonization, but of precipitate and precipitous decarbonization (as epitomized by ‘net zero by 2050’ policies) that may do more socioeconomic harm than good largely as a result of the vast transitional costs and societal impacts of such fast and radical decarbonization and the current lack of affordable and reliable carbon-neutral alternatives to fossil fuels. Basically, the ‘irrefutable evidence’ that there is a climate crisis is not, perhaps, so irrefutable. So when António Guterres asks, ‘Can anybody still deny we are facing a dramatic emergency?’, the answer is, yes, many people can – and for very good reasons.
The fundamental problem with the climate crisis narrative is that it is simplistic and gives us only one side of the story. It largely expunges all the scientific complexities, unknowns and uncertainties, all the benefits of global warming and higher carbon dioxide levels, all the serious difficulties, costs, impacts and risks of rapidly eliminating fossil fuels – as well as expunging the option of simply adapting to living in a warmer world as an alternative (to net zero) policy response. It is as though man-made climate change had been put on trial in the court of public opinion on a charge of crimes against the planet and humanity (with a presumption of guilt) – but with only the prosecution case presented to the jury. It has apparently been found guilty, not on the basis of certainty, not on the basis of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, not even on the basis of ‘on the balance of probabilities’ but simply on the basis of the possibility that it could be guilty, if not now, then in the future.
The ‘deniers’ (more accurately described as ‘doubters’) think that the uncertainties in the science are very high, that the possible worst case climate change outcomes are extremely unlikely to occur and that the socioeconomic risks of trying to eradicate the possibility of such outcomes are unacceptably high. The ‘doomsters’ (more accurately described as ‘believers’) think that the uncertainties in the science are very low and that however unlikely the worst case outcomes might be they are nevertheless possible and are so very bad that the very high socioeconomic risks of trying to eradicate the possibility of such outcomes are almost irrelevant. Both positions are rational and reasonable and worthy of intelligent debate – there is no ‘correct’ position. There does, however, appear to be a politically correct position and that, of course, is the position of the ‘doomsters’. To put it another way, the statements, ‘Climate change is probably not a very serious problem but net zero by 2050 probably is’ and ‘Climate change is possibly a very serious problem and net zero by 2050 possibly isn’t’ are not incompatible. Furthermore both sides agree that human activity, in particular our burning of fossil fuels, is contributing to a warming, changing climate – the debate is about how much we are contributing and how dangerous that warming actually is. On which basis there appears to be more uniting the two sides than dividing them.
Whether the IPCC’s theory and climate models are reliable (at least reliable enough to be fit to inform climate policy) is just a matter of opinion. Whether carbon dioxide is the ‘control knob’ of global warming is just a matter of opinion. How emissions will evolve this century is just a matter of opinion. Whether natural climate variability can partially (or even largely) explain the post-industrialization global warming is just a matter of opinion. Whether climate sensitivity is relatively low or high is just a matter of opinion. How much global warming there will be this century is just a matter of opinion. How much global warming is ‘dangerous’ is just a matter of opinion. Whether renewables technology will evolve quickly to deliver affordable and reliable carbon-neutral alternatives to fossil fuels is just a matter of opinion. Whether climate policy should be predicated on plausible/likely outcomes or worst case possible outcomes is just a matter of opinion. There is no ‘right’ answer to the climate change problem.
In summary, believing that we are experiencing a climate crisis and so we must eradicate fossil fuels as fast as possible is rational and reasonable – as is doubting that we are experiencing a climate crisis and so we must be very circumspect about how deeply and how quickly we eradicate fossil fuels (because the radical decarbonization ‘cure’ may be worse than the climate change ‘disease’). That simple claim may horrify ‘deniers’ and ‘doomsters’ alike, who both tend to a belief that they have the monopoly on rationality and reasonableness – which is why accepting this would be an excellent first step to reducing the current polarization of attitudes to the issue. To approach the truth about climate change you really do need to hear both sides of the story – and they are both good stories. At the very least, given all these doubts, if a climate crisis really exists then it is a very curious one.