Sunday, November 15, 2009

What are the Deniers Denying?

There is a growing anxiety amongst the supporters of a climate change treaty that the “deniers” are exerting an undue influence over the Copenhagen negotiations and are sowing the seeds of confusion and doubt in the minds of the general public. Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has suggested that the deniers are "too dangerous to ignore" and that they are "holding the world to ransom".

But what are the deniers denying? Basically, the deniers are denying four things:

1. They are denying that CO2 is the primary cause of climate change. They do not doubt that climate change is occurring, it always has and always will and it is nature’s response to a complex array of conditions. While emitting CO2 in ever-growing volumes is not a desirable thing, reducing these emissions, even dramatically, will not unduly influence climate.

2. The deniers deny that there is a consensus within climate science that man is the primary cause of global warming. There are many areas of dispute amongst the scientific community with respect to climate, including explanations for changes in Arctic and Antarctic ice, the role of the sun in determining climate and the validity and robustness of computer models of climate change. As Einstein noted, it takes a single set of observations linked to an alternative theory to trigger a shift in thinking in science. The theory that humans are the primary cause of climate change is not, like Newtonian laws of mechanics, a closed theory – it is still open to question.

3. The deniers deny that many of the events attributed to climate change – the melting of the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro, hurricanes, the spread of malaria in Africa and so on – are connected to climate change. For each of these events there are other, more plausible explanations. For example, the melting of the ice cap on Kilimanjaro is strongly linked to deforestation of the area in close proximity to the mountain, which results in a lowering of moisture levels which impact ice formation.

4. Finally, the deniers deny that taxing carbon and developing carbon markets will have an impact on the climate. Indeed, the economists who are deniers are skeptical about the economics of many green “solutions” – wind farms, solar farms, cap and trade, carbon taxes and emissions control. They do not deny that reducing CO2 emissions may be desirable for other reasons – air quality being the most important. But they are not convinced that all of these investments will produce the return expected – a cooler planet.

To support their denials, deniers use peer reviewed scientific papers which call into question the currently dominant scientific view and comprehensive economic analysis. There are many such papers by experts in climatology, including some who are or have been part of the scientific team used by the UN to create the technical documents which are said to inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. They also make extensive use of observational data and measurements of temperature, ocean level, emissions and so on. They do not put their faith in computer models, which in any case produce contradictory findings: rather they rely heavily on direct measures.

Because the deniers have been very vociferous, they have also come under attack. The attacks take three basic forms. The first is to question the scientific credentials of those why deny the man-made global warming thesis. The same standards are not applied to the IPCC itself or to many “warmists” – the head of the IPCC (a former railway engineer), David Suzucki and Al Gore, for example, have no qualifications in climatology. Second, there is the standard accusation that deniers are funded by big oil or the coal industry. This ignores the funding granted to the “warmists”, which runs into billions, by interest groups and governments which should not be regarded as neutral sources of funds. The final accusation is that they ignore the human suffering their denials may cause. This is not at all the case – the primary action plan suggested by the deniers is that we should focus our actions on adaptation and technologies to combat warming, cooling and the other effects of the natural cycle of climate change.

Skepticism is healthy and necessary condition of science. It is also a necessary condition of public policy development. Trying to weigh evidence and make decisions is tough, but the warmists refuse to debate with the deniers and the policy makers have their minds set on a course of action, despite growing evidence that it will make little difference to the climate over time.

As we get near to the December meeting of world governments in Copenhagen, now less than four weeks away, frantic attempts are being made to salvage something from the meeting. What now looks likely is a high-level political agreement to be followed by more talks. The deniers will be blamed for derailing what could have been a powerful moment in Copenhagen, leading to the creation of a powerful global governance organization for climate change strategy management. The deniers certainly influenced public opinion, but the failure of Copenhagen to produce a binding agreement is as much a failure of the intellectual quality of the argument for such an agreement as it is about the politics surrounding it.

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