Category Archives: Debate

Falstaff prepares for battle in Paris

Christopher Monckton and his merry band of global warming contrarians have been in Paris last week plotting their next skirmish in their never ending war against the science of global warming.

Their meeting to discuss their ‘messaging’ for COP21 has been documented by a journalist from Open Democracy and gives a remarkable expose into their rambling thought processes.

I have a vision of Falstaff – a tragic, comic and hopelessly flawed figure – and his crew of weary old soldiers preparing for a new battle. For audiences of Shakespeare’s plays, these scenes provide some light relief from the more serious plots afoot in his great plays. The same was true here except that on this occasion no one was laughing.

In the main play at COP21 there are serious actors at work: mayors of cities planning to decarbonise; managers of huge investment funds now actively forcing businesses to accept fiduciary responsibility; entrepreneurs promoting zero carbon innovations in energy, transport and elsewhere; climate action networks working with citizen groups; and many more. They are not debating whether or not we have a problem – all informed people know we do – they are instead working hard on solutions. Whatever happens with the final text of COP21, the transition is underway. It cannot be stopped.

The contrarians are bound together by a suspicion, and in some cases hatred, of environmentalism, the UN and ‘big’ Government. They have no interest in exploring scientific truth, only in finding ways to create confusion in the climate debate, for the sole purpose of delaying action. So their strategy has been to challenge science in ways that are thoroughly disingenuous.

For example, over many years these people have said that you cannot reliably measure the average global surface temperature of the Earth, or have claimed it is in error because of the heat island effect or whatever (all untrue, but they keep repeating it). So guess what happens when it appears that the warming has slowed or ‘paused’? They then switch tack and say “look, its stopped warming”, now feigning a belief in the very science of global temperature measurement they were lambasting before.

I call that disingenuous.

This is a game that some people have called ‘wack a mole’, because the contrarians pop up in one place and no sooner have you wacked them there, they pop up in another place. Having no shame, they are happy to pop in the prior places where they have been thoroughly ‘wacked’, hoping no one will remember. This is ‘wack a mole’ meets Groundhog Day.

It is not merely a case of getting tangled in knots over the science. Even before we get to the science part, the contrarians deploy a myriad of debating techniques and logical fallacies. One of the favourite fallacies deployed by contrarians is what I call ‘Argument from Incredulity’.

Now, I do not blame anyone for being incredulous about the universe. I would say it is quite normal, on hearing it for the first time, to be incredulous that we are in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars and in a universe with over 100 billion galaxies. Incredulity is often a good starting point for enquiry and discovery. But it should never be an excuse for persistent ignorance.

As a child, I was surprised when I learned that even 1oC temperature rise meant a fever and a few degrees could be fatal. It is indeed a wonder how a complex system, like the human body, works to create such a fine equilibrium, and that when the system goes even slightly out of equilibrium, it spells trouble.

The Earth’s system has also been in equilibrium. It too, can get a fever with apparently small changes that can knock it out of equilibrium.

In No. 7 of the talking points in Monckton’s rather long list is his observation that CO2 is less than a tenth of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere (currently, it is 0.04%, or 400 parts per million [ppm])). True, but so what?

If I look through clear air along a long tube I see visible light from a torch at the other end undiminished, but if I then add a small amount of smoke there will be significant dimming out of all proportion with the relative concentration of the smoke. Why? Because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

The same is true when considering infra-red (which is invisible to the human eye but is emitted from the ground when it has been warmed by sunlight). Since 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to this infra-red, the ‘small’ amount of CO2 (which does absorb infra-red) is very significant in relative terms. Why? Again, because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

Contrarians like to express the rise as 0.03% to 0.04% to suggest that it is small and insignificant.

Actually, a better way to express the change is that it is equivalent to a 33% increase in CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels (see Note).

The current 400 ppm is rising at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. All of this increase is due to human combustion of fossil fuels. That is not small, it is huge, and at a rate that is unprecedented (being over a period of 150 years not the 10s of thousands of years over the ice age cycles).

But here is the most amazing conclusion to the Monckton meeting. In trying to rehearse the arguments they should use when ‘messaging’ on the topic of the greenhouse effect:

“We accept that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect …
yes, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it would cause some warming – there are some on the fringes who would deny that, but it’s tactically efficacious for us to accept that.”

Efficacious to say something you don’t believe! I don’t call that denial, I call it deceitful.

The old soldiers were naturally up in arms. Being sold out at this stage, would be a bitter pill to swallow. As the reporter noted:

Monckton suggested that they should accept that the greenhouse effect is real. There was a fair amount of disagreement in the room. The chair said “I’m trying to appeal to left wing journalists”. For a moment they lost control as a number of people shouted out their various objections. The conclusion?: “The Greenhouse Effect – the debate continues”.

Enough of dissembling contrarians, I say.

At this point the comic interlude must come to a close. Time to get back to some serious debate.

[Falstaff exits, stage Right]

[The action moves back to the main stage]

COP21 continues without interruption, despite noises off.

(c) Richard Erskine, 2015


In fact, the Earth’s average surface temperature would be roughly the same as the Moon’s (being the same distance from the sun) without the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 30oC cooler (-15oC rather than +15oC, on average). So adding even a small amount of CO2 to to an atmosphere of Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon has a huge effect. Something on top of nothing is a big change in percentage terms.

Over the 4 last ice ages, CO2 concentrations have varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. So less than a halving or doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere moved the Earth from ice age to interglacial and back again. We know that less than a doubling can have dramatic changes.

Today’s level of 400 ppm has not been seen on Earth for almost 1 million years.

For at least the last thousand years, the level has been stable at 280 ppm, up until the industrial revolution.

The question of a ‘pause’ in surface temperature is debated amongst climate scientists. One thing they do not disagree about: the increased CO2 means there is an energy imbalance that is causing the planet to warm, with over 90% of the heat going into the oceans, mountain glaciers receding apace, etc.

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Global Group-Think?

Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection (and independently by Wallace) was the result of many years of meticulous observations of the natural world. In some ways it was even more brilliant because this discovery was made in the absence of any known basis for the variations in species (which are ultimately required by the theory).

It took a century to pass, with the discovery of DNA’s structure and processes, for scientists to understand how the shuffling and transposition of genes provided the underlying mechanism for the variations on which natural selection depends (along with the differentiation of environments that provides the selective pressures at the level of species).

While there continues to be a rich vein of discoveries in the exploration of this interplay between the genotype and phenotype, the underlying truth of Darwinian natural selection remains inviolate.

Similarly, through the statistical analysis of lung cancer rates, the link between smoking and lung cancer was clearly demonstrated in 1962 (Royal College of Physician’s report ‘Smoking and Health’), long before the underlying causative processes were understood (and these underlying processes could be argued to be very much still ‘work in progress’). No one seriously doubts the link, even though the tobacco industry tried for many years to claim that correlation does not prove causation.

In the case of man-made global warming (or ‘anthropogenic global warming’, AGW), the history of its discovery is in complete contrast to the above examples. With AGW we knew the essential underlying mechanism before, not after, the macro-scale phenomenon was even recognised as an issue!

By 1861, Tyndall’s experiments had demonstrated unequivocally that carbon dioxide was able to trap heat, and in 1896 Arrhenius had made the first calculations (laboriously by hand) of how variations in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would impact average global temperature.

Yet despite this, it took till 1938 before Callendar first published data to show that far from being a theoretical possibility, man’s emissions of carbon dioxide were indeed having a measurable influence on global average temperature.

Few scientists took this up as an issue at this time, or even as a research priority. Maybe in 1938 the world had some higher priorities to address, with the world already deep into the ‘dark valley’ and on the eve of World War II, but it is certainly true that there was not much interest in the topic even in academic circles.

Of course, over the years some did explore different aspects related to climate and related fields of enquiry, such as the study of glaciers, diverse isotopic methods, modelling weather and climate, and many more, but these were distinct fields which did not really converse with each other. It was really only in the 1970s that various seminal conferences took place that tried to piece together these disparate strands of evidence. This history is explored in meticulous detail in Weart’s ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’

Perhaps the most striking was the use of isotopes of oxygen measured in ice cores, acting as a proxy for temperature (because of the differential evaporation rates of water), which correlated strikingly with CO2 concentrations. As Weart notes:

“In the 1960s, painstaking studies had shown that subtle shifts in our planet’s orbit around the Sun (called “Milankovitch cycles”) matched the timing of ice ages with startling precision. The amount of sunlight that fell in a given latitude and season varied predictably over millenia. …
The new ice cores suggested that a powerful feedback amplified the changes in sunlight.

The crucial fact was that a slight warming would cause the level of greenhouse gases to rise slightly. For one thing, warmer oceans would evaporate out more gas. For another, as the vast Arctic tundras warmed up, the bogs would emit more CO2 (and another greenhouse gas, methane, also measured in the ice with a lag behind temperature). The greenhouse effect of these gases would raise the temperature a little more, which would cause more emission of gases, which would … and so forth, hauling the planet step by step into a warm period.

Many thousands of years later, the process would reverse when the sunlight falling in key latitudes weakened. Bogs and oceans would absorb greenhouse gases, ice would build up, and the planet would slide back into an ice age. This finally explained how tiny shifts in the Earth’s orbit could set the timing of the enormous swings of glacial cycles.

These ice cores and associated methods were improved over several decades with the Vostok cores reaching back 400,000 years finally convincing many in the scientific community.

Only in the 1980s was AGW finally gaining recognition as a serious issue, and this led eventually to the formation of the IPCC in 1988, which is the internationally sponsored vehicle for assembling, reviewing and reporting on the multiple primary published research including interlocking streams of evidence and analysis.

There are some who argue against the much vaunted consensus on AGW (the 97% of climate scientists who agree that AGW is demonstrated).

I was at a meeting recently on science communication where someone from the audience objected to this 97% consensus saying “can we trust a science where so many are in agreement?” … he was pointing out that often in science there is a hotbed of debate and disagreement. Surely this 97% is evidence of some kind of group-think?

Well, of course, as Weart documents, at almost every step in the 200 odd years of science that has tried to explain the ice ages, and latterly global warming, there has been intense scientific dialogue that has been a million miles from group-think. The role of Milanovitch cycles, mentioned in the above quote, is just one example. The dialogue continues, for example, in relation to the so-called ‘hiatus’ and many other topics.

But these same combative scientists do not dispute the reality of AGW only the details, and particularly those relating to regional impacts. These will of course be the subject of intense research that continues as we as humans seek to mitigate where we can, and adapt where we must.

Let’s consider some possible examples of ‘group think’ in science:

  • Ask 1000 biologists if they think Darwinian natural selection is true and I suggest over 97% would concur.
  • Ask 1000 clinicians if smoking will greatly increase the risk of lung cancer and I suggest over 97% would concur.
  • Ask 1000 physicists if they think the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is both true, and will survive any revolution in science (even the changes that dark matter and energy no doubt presages), and I suggest that over 97% would concur.

Are these examples of ‘group-think’?

I would say, absolutely not! They represent a consensus informed by many decades of cumulative scientific endeavour that has stood the test of time and battled through many challenges and tests.

As we see from Weart’s history, the acceptance of AGW is not something the scientific community have jumped to in some rash, rush to agree; that’s not how science works. Rather, it has been a methodical, multi-disciplinary emergence of an understanding over many decades, which only quite recently (1980s) can be said to have reached a consensus.

The reality of AGW has survived many challenges and tests (mostly from within the scientific community, best able to frame challenging tests).

I think it is therefore a rather lazy and ill-informed viewpoint to characterise the consensus on AGW among scientists (and specifically climate scientists) as evidence of ‘group-think’.

Perhaps those determined to disagree with AGW should ask themselves whether in fact they are the real victims of ‘group-think’: a curmudgeonly kind of contrarian group-think from an increasingly marginalised section of the media.

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Ignoring Denial

AGW opinion


Professor Richard Betts made a guest post on the blog “And Then There’s Physics” (ATTP) on how we should “label the behaviour, not the person”, in relation to global warming denialism or contrarianism, and in particular labels applied to people, such as “denier”.

He proposes that we should de-polarize the ‘debate’ around Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), and specifically, avoid using the term ‘denier’. Of course, it takes all sides to ‘de-polarize’ but in any conflict, it is good to take the initiative.

He further points out that this goes beyond the negative language traded between those with opposed positions, because often those of moderate temperament, but with a lot of insight and knowledge (e.g. the climate scientists who are colleagues of Richard Betts) are it seems put off from engaging in the blogosphere, due to the atmosphere that has been created, in this increasingly polarized medium.

I was thinking of contributing to the over 300 comments to this blog post, but decided that my best response was a blog post of my own, because I support Professor Betts basic premise, and wanted to go further: to question if polarization was leading to something worse – missing the target!

I envisage a simple matrix to characterize the spectrum of opinions on AGW.

  • In one dimension (vertical), we have the point of view, from the “Pro” (AGW) and “Anti” and the much greater population of those or are undecided (no, I cannot say this is backed up by a specific opinion survey, but is broadly reflected in samples of opinion, and polls – but the areas are not accurate, merely indicative).
  • The other dimension (horizontal) represents the level of engagement with AGW, from ‘passive’  (and often confused with it), through to ‘engaged’ (and with an exploratory / learning posture), and finally, those who are ‘active’ participants in the ‘debate’, with an establish Point Of View (POV), which may be backed up with some expertise (but that in itself is sometimes a contentious point).

This is depicted in the diagram at the head of this post. Within this spectrum of views I have overlayed different populations:

A. The mass of population, who are it seems minded to believe in AGW, but certainly not equipped to argue the case. To a large extent they are passive and rather confused by the arguments.

B. The influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace are much less in number but have significant impact on policy. They are engaged to the extent of exploring and learning, and have formed but malleable opinions.  In the ‘Pro’ camp will be a number of activist groups as well as outreach organizations (e.g. COIN). In the ‘Anti’ group are a number of vocal contrarians, such as contrarians that feature in the WSJ. [quite a few on both side – this is not intended to provide an exhaustive list]

C. These have an established point of view (POV), and are the experts bodies including scientific societies and of course the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents the overwhelming scientific accumulation of knowledge, and consensus.

D. These have an established POV, and are those groups dedicated to countering the consensus, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), often within a liberal economic posture.

X. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Pro’ position, and include experts in various disciplines, including climate science, as well as amateurs

Y. Are those blogs in the blogosphere aligned to the ‘Anti’ position, and include experts in various disciplines as well as amateurs

To be “undecided” as an establish POV is not an impossible position, and scientists in this category, after they did the analysis, have moved to the “Pro” position. See, for example, Professor Muller’s change of viewpoint.

The problem with the blogosphere is that it has today a characteristic (partly borne of weakly moderated ‘discussion threads’) that seems to encourage an escalation in language. The ‘deniers’ versus the ‘warmists’, rapidly degenerates into personal abuse and expletives.

Professor Betts feels it is not helping, and inhibits engagement of a wider audience or participation, and to recruit valuable resources who can help in communicating the science and ensuing issues.

What the diagram above tries to convey is that two groups – A. the mass population and B. influencers, opinion formers and the engaged populace – are where those (with a strong POV) should be expending our energy.  Those in the D category like GWPF have certainly got this message. Those in the C category have in recent years begun to do much better (despite a funding disadvantage), but need to do much more.

We need those in the C and X categories to spend more time talking to each other, to develop the materials needed to engage effectively with categories A and B, rather than engage in attrition with categories D and Y.

Should X category bloggers refuse to talk to Y category bloggers?  Mostly, I believe yes, given the current atmosphere. But when there is a shared interest in a specific topic, there is scope for a constructive discussion (e.g.  to debate the potential role of nuclear in mitigation).

The Anti-Pro polarization is consuming excessive energy while, guess what, the Anti-camp is working vigorously to influence the  mass population and opinion formers, to try to undermine the Pro position (although, increasingly, ineffectively judging from the polls).

Focusing on the conflict between the small number of Pro and Anti bloggers (X vs Y), may provide some kind of gratification, but it fails to ensure we build a wider ‘Pro’ platform.

We need a bigger community of active Pro communicators … that can better engage with both the passive and engaged populace, and use limited time and energy in smart ways.

Maybe the time has come to ignore denial.


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