Category Archives: Contrarianism

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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Filed under Climate Science, Contrarianism, COP21, Essay, Uncategorized

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.


Filed under Climate Science, Contrarianism, Debate, Essay