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The over-blown science of global warming

By Garth Paltridge - posted Monday, 17 August 2009

In one limited sense the members of the “do something about global warming” lobby are correct. If humans insist on giving the atmosphere an extra dose of carbon dioxide, then indeed one can expect Earth’s surface temperature to rise. To be strictly accurate, we should say that its temperature will be higher than it would have been otherwise. Either way, it doesn’t take a lot of physical knowledge and insight to accept the statement. It is rather the equivalent of saying that if one hits something with a bat then that something will respond. So it is true, as the lobby delights in telling us at every opportunity, that there is no longer much argument among scientists about the existence of the greenhouse global warming phenomenon. There never was.

The consensus goes no further down the chain of political correctness than this. It is rather naughty of the greenhouse lobby either to say outright, or to imply by judicious omission, that it does.

It has not been solidly established, and it is certainly not accepted by the majority of scientists as proven fact, that global warming from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide will be large enough to be seriously noticeable - let alone large enough to be disastrous. Imagine the response of a well-bedded concrete post when belted by a relatively small bat. In a situation where the post has been around a long time and has in the past survived the beatings of lots of much bigger bats, the chances are that it won’t move much.


More than 30 years of well-funded international research directed specifically at the climate-change problem have brought us no nearer to an estimate of future temperature rise than to say, rather feebly when one thinks about it, that the global-average increase over the next century may be somewhere between one and several degrees Celsius. Thus say the various computer models, whose simulations even of present climate fall into the “reasonable” range only by dint of forced tuning of many of the pieces of input information.

There are no means of experimentally checking the overall predictions of future climate change - basically because our knowledge of past climate is not precise enough. Furthermore, it should be remembered that the “one to several degrees” range covers only a limited set of the results obtained from all possible variants of climate model. The choice of that particular set derives from what might be called seat-of-the-pants statistics - the sort of statistics practiced by members of a committee dedicated to producing figures which on the one hand are interesting and on the other are not so over-the-top as to be rejected by their peers.

Suffice it to say that there are more than enough pitfalls associated with the application of statistics to actual measurement. The pitfalls are multiplied enormously when applied to various manifestations of pure theory.

Even accepting for the sake of argument that some significant degree of global warming may be observed in the future, it is certainly not the consensus of the majority of scientists that the actual impact on humans will be significant - or indeed that it will be detrimental. The bottom line here is that computer models have no provable skill at forecasting the change of regional and local climate even if we accept that they may say something sensible about global averages. In particular it may be that things like the continental, regional and local averages of rainfall are inherently unpredictable. Therefore the models are in no position to tell us anything of the impact of climate change on any particular aspect of human endeavour.

Instead one must resort to all sorts of “what if” scenarios, virtually all of which have no justification other than that they are easy enough to sell as doomsday forecasts to politicians and to the public. “Where it is dry we will get more droughts.” “Where it is wet we will get more floods.” “Where there is disease, it will spread.” “Where there are people the sky will fall in.” Such predictions are tailor-made for the mournful tones of the politically correct reformers of mankind. They are now accepted without a murmur of dissent by a large fraction of western society.

The trouble is that the uncertainty inevitably associated with the chaotic behaviour of climate works both ways. It may be impossible even in principle to substantiate a doomsday forecast, but it is also impossible to prove anything to the contrary. So the winning side of any argument about the matter will inevitably be the side with the loudest collective voice. In any event, should the doomsday scenario indeed fail to inspire fear and trepidation because it cannot be substantiated, one can always fall back on its unspoken basis - namely that “all change is bad”.


Why is it that the scientific community has become so one-eyed in its public support for the disaster theory of climate change? Why is that community taking such an enormous risk with its reputation?

In fact, the short-term risk to the profession is probably not all that great. In view of all the uncertainty inevitably associated with argument on either side of the fence, it is not likely that anyone will be able in the near future to prove absolutely that any particular forecast of climate change is nonsense. It has taken the apparatchiks of global warming more than 20 years to develop a story which, though replete with uncertainty at just about every level, is coherent enough to be sold to the public at large.

Perhaps more to the point, the story is complex enough to be virtually unarguable by anyone or anything other than a fully-fledged research institution specifically assigned to make that argument. Thus it is unlikely - not impossible, but unlikely - that an individual somewhere will produce a single scientific result powerful enough to blow the idea of disastrous global warming out of the water.

It is even less likely that a national government would risk the anger of its scientific establishment by creating a research institution - it would have to be a very large research institution - designed solely to perform a large-scale critical audit of the scientific bases of the forecasts of climatic doom. While the suggestion along these lines by Michael Crichton some years ago was sensible enough, one has to suspect he didn’t really hold out much hope that such an institution would ever come to pass.

On the face of it, the long-term risk to the profession is much greater. In 50 or a 100 years the forecasts of doom will have been tested and, with any luck, proved wrong. But by then the leading role of the scientific community in upsetting the global economic system will probably have been forgotten. The scientist of that time will be able to dig into the archives and find various quotes to the effect that “on such and such an occasion, this or that scientist spoke publicly about the uncertainty of the climate forecasts”. He will therefore be able to maintain with his hand on his heart that it was not the fault of scientists that society went overboard on the matter. Rather, it will have been the fault of the environmentalists and politicians who misinterpreted the scientific results for their own nefarious purposes. Loud enough repetition of statements along these lines should effectively obscure the existence in the past (that is, in the “now”) of a carefully calculated campaign to trade scientific reputation for political action.

By then as well, there will be enough “wiggle room” to evade serious enquiry as to why scientists rarely bothered to refute in public the more fantastic of the scenarios for climatic disaster. “It was not our job to protect the public from misinformation” they will say in the year 2109. Die-hard global warming scientists make that comment even today. Strangely enough, they are not nearly so coy when it comes to refuting ideas to the effect that things might not be as bad as they are painted.

As to the “why” of the business, there are a fair number of very strong forces at work to encourage the interpreters of climate science to overstate their case. To a large extent the forces are at work also on the scientists themselves. As with all religions, woe betide those demented souls, scientists or not, who are so deluded as to question the beliefs of the politically correct.

It is worth remembering that among the interpreters are the scientific administrators - in particular the managers of research institutions who by virtue of their office are the official spokesmen for the views of their organisations. Their words carry tremendous authority with the public because it is assumed they have a deep understanding of the science for which they are responsible. Sadly, in the modern era of management, that assumption can be way off the mark. They may have little real knowledge of science, and are as subject to the necessities of political correctness as the rest of us. Indeed, perhaps rather more than the rest of us. Many of them have been appointed to their position precisely because of their “feel” for the views and needs of the community rather than their “feel” for science.

There are a number of pragmatic reasons for sub-conscious bias by the ordinary bench scientist towards the politically correct. Basically they boil down to the need to eat. Fame and fortune in the research profession depend largely on artificial measures of success related to the quantity rather than the quality of research publications and of grants. Undoubtedly the system rewards conformity to the popular view when outcomes are determined by consensus rather than proof.

There are also a number of less pragmatic reasons for bias. Among them are other agendas related, for instance, to a belief in the need to preserve the world’s fossil fuels, or to a belief in the need for global government, or perhaps to a vision of forced transfer of resources from rich nations to the poor.

But perhaps the saddest and most deeply hidden is related to the fact that much modern research can be intensely debilitating to the scientist concerned. The reward system of his profession forces him to spend a great deal of his time researching safe topics whose importance in the grand scheme of things is virtually nil. He can be reasonably certain that work of this type, when published, will probably never be read by anyone. Persuading himself that it is nevertheless significant and worth doing requires a tortuous and painful exercise of self-delusion. In such circumstances it is an immense relief to be associated with an international program which, whatever one might think of its aims and politics, at least has high and popular moral purpose. It restores his pride.

The bottom line in the global warming story is that the potential for bias is overwhelmingly towards the politically correct. If for no other reason, the money lies on that side of the fence. Perhaps the most interesting, and probably unanswerable, remaining question about it all is how a belief in climatic doom became politically correct in the first place. Conspiracy theorists would probably favour the idea that it was all planned 30 years ago by some small, shadowy, secret organisation bent on destruction of the world’s social order. Personally I would rather believe that, given the human addiction to tales of collective guilt, there is no need to invoke conspiracy as part of the explanation. The path to the final outcome was inevitable from the start.

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This is an edited extract of the author's recently released book, The Climate Caper, published by Connorcourt in July 2009.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Garth Paltridge is an atmospheric physicist and was a Chief Research Scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research before taking up positions in Tasmania as Director of the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies and CEO of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre. He retired in 2002 and continues to live in Hobart. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

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