The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is one of the world’s two major organizations scrutinizing the issue of global warming and working toward advocacy and regulatory objectives. The other is the Non-governmental Panel on Climate Change, a research and advocacy consortium who promote an opposing position to that of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environmental Program as global warming fears began to go mainstream.
My subject matter today originates with the IPCC, the source of most of the science supportive of the global warming theory as commonly accepted by our schools and media, specifically, that excess carbon dioxide exacerbates the greenhouse effect, hence causing the earth to warm unnaturally through anthropogenic pollution. Sir John Houghton is one superbly credentialed scientist who has spent a great deal of his career working with the IPCC, with numerous scientific societies has been employed by Oxford University. Few have contributed as much to our understanding of the prevailing global warming theory.
I, however, am a bit of a Luddite and was skeptical from the earliest days of my earliest global warming inklings. People were trying to make it into an emergency. I could sense hysteria when people on the left tried to talk about it but their worry just didn’t fit well with the ways I understood the biological world to really work. The building hysteria seemed a much better fit for politics and pop culture than science. Much about the theory warranted suspicion.
As I grew older, I tried to do my due diligence and really understand the subject, not just accept spokespeople’s opinions – from either side. (Incidentally, the dichotomous nature of the debate is, itself, a clue that we’re dealing with politics – not science.) I felt ever more re-enforced in my skepticism, finding much science that blatantly contradicted the news accounts on climate issues. I noticed that the only effects of global warming were purported to be negative, typically the kinds of cataclysms people feared most and this too was a red flag that I was hearing propaganda. If the planet is warming, there has to be at least some benefit to man and beast. Why don’t we hear about any of that? But while learning and attempting to follow a sound course of reasoning, I worried at times that I was now listening much more to the voices of skeptics, less to the vast body of science and scientists warning of climate apocalypse. I was falling victim perhaps to a confirmation bias myself even while seeking to eschew bias. What was I missing?
To this end, I picked up Sir John Houghton’s definitive work on the subject (Global Warming – The Complete Briefing) and did what few climate skeptics will: I read it from cover to cover. With so many learned people accepting the prevailing climate change teachings, there must have been something I was missing, some sets of data and lines of reasoning so persuasive that they were beyond resisting. It took quite a while at my notoriously slow reading pace, but I read and thought about every word. Generously, the author had set it all out in layman’s terms so that all of the crucial arguments hit home. I was poised for re-education.
The early chapters offered little that could be contradicted, at least by a layman, just charts and graphs of physical and chemical processes. Composition and circulation of the atmosphere was discussed and the movement of energy through that atmosphere. And I do understand all these things better now, thanks to Sir Houghton.
But things changed gradually, especially upon reaching the fifth chapter dealing with climate modeling. Things seemed more and more open to differing interpretations beyond this point, more complex, and hence more open to small errors that could easily metastasize into much larger errors when run through a linear model. The book’s theme, from this point on, seemed to become uncertainty.
In fact, hints of uncertainty are found even in the work’s early chapters. The explanation of the carbon cycle is surficial, the bulk of the complexity and potential feedback loops of variable magnitude are left out, perhaps to keep it readable. It should come to the reader’s attention early on that temperature measurements have only been captured by precision instruments fairly recently but that even these are extremely widely scattered over the face of the earth. Earlier temperature re-creations come from proxy data such as the chemical composition of ice cores, bog pollen cores, tree rings and deep sea sediments. The imprecision of these methods is noteworthy when dealing with the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (about .03% of the atmosphere). Skepticism should be heightened by the understanding that only a vanishingly small 3% of this .03% (EPA) is likely derived from human sources. The rest comes from, predominately, outgassing of the oceans which is variable, as are other natural Co2 sources. And to put this in even better perspective, the main greenhouse gas, utterly natural water vapor, ranges up to 40,000 ppm per volume while Co2 hits about 400.
Other questions that arise as a reader progresses include:
Are the climatologists really able to forecast likely changes in CO2 future concentrations?
Is it possible to calculate movement of a substance that depends on nearly everything we do and everything the earth does?
Do the wide range of possible scenarios produced by the IPCC render forecasts next to meaningless?
Are feedbacks being ignored or conveniently minimized which would tend to mitigate global warming?
Can we really calculate the full effects of aerosols, a wide range of particles which may strengthen or weaken the greenhouse effect? How are aerosols going to change as international manufacturing, consumption and electrical generation change?
Is it possible to capture the complexity of the biosphere in a long-range forecasting environmental model? What about the economy?
Can we make models that accurately predict cloud formation (primary to the greenhouse effect) for next week, next month, next year or next century?
Uncertainty multiplies as we move on into the realm of economic transitions the world will have to undergo and ways people will have to change their thinking and lives. When even diligent economists can’t predict economic change, why do the climatologists feel that they are anointed to do so? This really only scratches the surface of the ambiguous, ill-defined and questionable elements of the theory. But climate-change advocacy organizations seek to persuade that this is not a realm for those of alternative or sub-standard credentials to delve in to. There’s no place for amateurs to assail this greatest of ivory towers.
Which makes me wonder: why would you write a persuasive plain-speech book pushing forward your viewpoint to amateurs when none of us can hope to comprehend it and there’s no room for dissent anyway?