kenny hodgart

Turning the heat on climate science

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

There is a book, written by a man named Gou Honyang, which can be found in all good government-approved bookshops on mainland China – meaning, essentially, that it carries the Communist Party’s imprimatur. Low-Carbon Plot was published in 2010, and in it the author alleges that the theory of man-made climate change amounts to a torrent of hogwash. The whole business is a conspiracy got up by Western governments and corporations, he says, to protect their own interests and way of life at the expense of the entire developing world.

No English translation has been made of the text, but other snippets of Gou’s thesis may be a little more familiar to those attuned to the whole climate change debate – such as it exists – elsewhere. “After many years of repeated indoctrination from every kind of propaganda machine,” he writes in his introduction, “[and with evidence of] environmental pollution and the exhaustion of natural resources, people have already formed a conditioned reflex … and quickly hang these things on the hook of ‘carbon’.”
“We must not get into too much of a fluster,” he adds. “It is with polluted water, acid rain, destructive logging and waste which we must struggle over the long term.”

It is probable that in the west Gou would be branded a “climate change denier”, the charge – suggestive of that most vile of moral perversions, holocaust denial – that is frequently levelled at anyone who dissents from the mainstream orthodoxy on AGW (anthropogenic global warming). But in China even strident environmentalists such as Ma Jin, a former South China Morning Post journalist who is now director of the Beijing-based NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, are given to expressing the view that climate change is rather less of a concern than, say, water pollution.

In recent years, Beijing has made gestures towards amenability on “legally binding” global agreements on carbon checks. That they have been undermined by delaying tactics and obfuscation only points to the reality that any approximation of a coherent Chinese position on climate is likely to be something of a stab in the dark.

The same cannot be said, inter alia, of the European Union. Indeed, of all the tumult and brinksmanship the 27-member bloc has visited on global economic affairs of late, one episode stands out as constituting something of a feat: its dragooning of China, the US and Russia onto the same side in a trade dispute over emissions. Following its decision to force all airlines flying in or out of Europe to pay a carbon tax, in fact, the EU has seen most of the world’s powers close ranks in a sort of beachhead assault on the notion.

And on this matter, at least, Beijing’s position has been unequivocal. In February an un-named official announced Chinese airlines were banned from paying any such taxes.
The theory of AGW may be afforded a veneration bordering on the religious in parts of the West, then, but in China – where new coal-fired power stations are said to go on line at a rate of one per week – the prosleytisers have made only tentative inroads.Last year, the central government pledged to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by the end of 2020. It is not clear how it intends to achieve this, but, given the Chinese economy’s rates of growth, overall emissions in eight years’ time would still be significantly greater than now if it did.

Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission is said to be keen on binding commitments, but only after 2020. The government’s chief climate negotiator, Su Wei, has let it be known he is of a similar mind. Before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in December, however, he stipulated that any pact would have to recognise that countries had “common but differentiated responsibilities.” In other words, nations including China and India should have the right to continue developing via the engine of cheap carbon-based energy.

“Personally, I think that in the next two or three decades, emissions in China will continue to increase,” says Ding Zhongli, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Science, from Beijing. A geologist who has studied climate records spanning the last 2.6 million years, he is also a renowned sceptic when it comes to the global temperature increases prophesised by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“In designing international emissions reduction policy,” he adds, “three factors have to be taken into consideration: historical accumulative emissions per capita, recent emissions per capita and emissions transfers in international trading. If you look at these factors carefully, you’ll naturally find that the present gap between the poor and the rich in the world would be fixed for ever if the developing countries have to reduce their emissions.”

One vaulting leap of the imagination down the line from this argument, Gou Honyang’s assertion that climate change is a western capitalist conspiracy is interesting, if only for the fact that in the West it tends to be the libertarian right and political conservatives who are quickest to dismiss global warming. That they find common cause with many in Communist China is one irony. Another is that Big Government intervention – the path submitted to be humanity’s only available course by those ringing alarm bells in the west – is precisely what Beijing does better than anyone else. It is thinkable, though fanciful, that some day it will realise this and lead some kind of global green revolution. On the other hand, it is equally conceivable that, suspicious of foreign-minted political correctness, it will side with the west’s “reactionaries” in the matter.

Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said that “the consensus [on global warming] was reached before the research had even begun”, adding that scientists who question the prevailing wisdom are marginalised and labelled deniers – when in fact they are simply being good scientists. It seems at least plausible that, having stood apart from the formulation of the “consensus”, China sees, more plainly, grounds for scepticism which, in the west, are hid from sight.

A DECADE or so ago, the then just-ennobled Baron May of Oxford, Robert May, told a journalist he was being interviewed by that “I am the president of the Royal Society and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over.” Science has traditionally valued men of logic over men of conviction, but the study of climate appears singularly prone to inspiring certainty. In fact, Lord May’s faith in his own pronouncements was reminiscent, in its way, of Lowell Ponte’s, as recorded for posterity in his book The Cooling, some 25 years earlier. “It is a cold fact,” Ponte asserts,”[that] the Global Cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years.”

May vacated his presidency in 2005, but the 452-year-old British learned society – which acts as an advisor to the country’s government – continues to castigate sceptic viewpoints and pressure media not to give them coverage.

Climatologists who are sceptical of the AGW orthodoxy say they find it difficult to attract funding for research. The late atmospheric scientist Reid Bryson put it like this: “There is a lot of money to be made in this… If you want to be an eminent scientist you have to have a lot of grad students and a lot of grants. You can’t get grants unless you say, ‘Oh, global warming, yes, yes carbon dioxide’.”

Worse, there have been reports of intimidation. Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist and the author of the sceptical book Heaven and Earth, has had to endure demonstrations outside his home, while others say colleagues who have doubts remain silent because they fear reprisals or for the security of their jobs.

The dissenters may well have felt some degree of vindication, if not schadenfreude, then, when in November 2009 thousands of emails were hacked from the servers at the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, in Britain, and made their way into the hands of sceptic bloggers. The most interesting of these involved correspondence among a tight group of academics – all men whose papers have been cited by the IPCC, which every few years publishes “assessment reports” on climate research.

Inquiries in the UK and US into what became known as “Climategate” exonerated the scientific community, but on the face of it at least, many excerpts picked up on seemed to offer considerable grist to the sceptic mill and corroborate suspicions that cliques of scientists were determined to make their data fit with pre-determined models of runaway AGW. In one exchange, Kevin Trenberth, one of America’s most senior climatologists, states: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” And on another occasion – referring to what is called the Medieval Warm Period, a spell, from about 950 to 1250 AD, during which the temperature records in many parts of the world show significant warming – he writes: “It would be nice to try to ‘contain’ the putative ‘MWP’.” The implication being, of course, that if it can be shown that warming and cooling have taken place throughout history, then the current warming may be discounted as unexceptional. There is also a long series of communications on how best to squeeze dissenting colleagues out of the peer review process and complaints about sharing data with other scientists who “just want to find something wrong with it.”

Professor John Christy, whose doctorate Trenberth supervised, is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society best known for his development, along with a colleague, of the first successful satellite temperature recording system. Far from denying that human activity has had an impact on climate, he is nevertheless a critic of those who make catastrophic predictions of global temperature and sea level rises and is deeply suspicious of the IPCC’s culture and procedures.

“Basically, and I’m generalizing here, the IPCC is not a collection of neutral scientific observers,” he says from his office at the University of Alabama. “It is rather a cast of self-selected players whose views can be counted on to generate a product acceptable to governments which seek more control over energy policy and thus human opportunity. Many, not all, of those who write the IPCC [reports] have a direct, vested interest in assuring a catastrophe is upon us to solidify their various positions of authority and income positions largely funded by the governments for whom they work.”

The world, he adds, “always has catastrophes being promoted by various entities, and human-caused climate change is now fading because of lack of evidence and something else will take its place – world-wide economic destruction, Middle East turmoil, repressive regimes.”

It may be worth recalling that “consensus” has existed in the past among scientists on everything from the benefits of eugenics to stomach ulcers being caused by stress (they’re not) and, of course, global cooling. But Christy goes further, suggesting that the oft-cited consensus on climate change is not as significant or as clear-cut as we’re constantly being told.

“Surveys are not useful here,” he says. “Virtually every [scientist] will say the earth has warmed in the past 150 years, that climate always changes, that carbon dioxide has increased and that there will be some impact on global temperatures. [But] these are relatively trivial. Agreeing to those statements does not lead to the notion of claiming dangerous climate change is occurring. It’s all in how you ask the question and allow the reader’s mind to extrapolate to the alarmist vision of the answer.”

Various reasons have been suggested for man-made global warming becoming established in the popular consciousness as “fact”, before, as Richard Lindzen alludes, the theory had even been tested. One is that as the traditional political Left in the west lost its way, something had to take its place. At the same time, environmentalism had snowballed from the 1970s onwards, and warming offered generally anti-capitalist movements – buttressed by sympathetic liberals in the media and academia – a new cause, something to rally against. This ideological dimension may help to explain the factious, emotive nature of climate rhetoric, pace Lord May, perhaps, but it has been of little service to the public: debate, informed or otherwise, tends to be polarised; the shades of grey are crowded out.

THE objectives outlined on – “an independent, non-commercial, bilingual website” where “China and the word discuss the environment” – sound perfectly heroic. Founded in London and partly funded by the British government, it has offices in Beijing and San Francisco and is “devoted to the publication of high quality information and debate” and to “direct dialogue”.

When it comes to engaging in dialogue about climate scepticism, however, its managing editors prove to be a little less devoted than their mission statement suggests: no sooner is it intimated that “alternative” views on climate might be up for consideration in this article than enquiries are stonewalled.

Perhaps pariah status is no more than the non-believers deserve; but then again, such an attitude might be considered a little ungracious in a country where the non-believers aren’t exactly thin on the ground. And not only that: in China even “warmists” afford those shades of grey credence.

Veteran meteorologist Ding Yuhui, who helps to advise the central government on climate, says global warming of 0.74 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years is “abnormal” and that it has caused melting of glaciers and Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels and “an increase in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather and climate events.” He adds, however, that “it is still in debate that the temperature during the Medieval Warm Period could [have been] warmer than the contemporary climate.”

According to Ding Zhongli, “most” Chinese climate scholars believe only that an increase in carbon dioxide “could” be the main cause of planetary warming. For his part, he says: “I’m sceptical that the [climate’s] sensitivity to CO2 could have been exaggerated by IPCC reports,” adding that “over the last decade we don’t actually see a clear warming.”

Most Chinese paleoclimatologists (who study changes in climate over the entire history of the planet) believe, he says, that “compared to some periods in Chinese history, we are now still in a relatively colder stage, and so recent climate variability is still within normal patterns.”

Studies of tree ring data conducted by Ding Zhongli’s colleague, Liu Yu, show that temperatures around China have been higher at various points over the last 2,500 years. Yu told The South China Morning Post last year that China was experiencing neither its warmest temperatures in history nor its most dramatic climate change: during the Eastern Jin dynasty, for example, mean temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau increased by 0.9 C over 30 years. He also cited archeological records showing that pomegranates – which require much warmer temperatures than northern China experiences today – were used as currency in the north-eastern province of Xinjiang during the same period.

These are the kinds of “inconvenient truths” that get climate sceptics animated and their detractors twitchy. Of all the deviations and incongruities lit upon, though, the early 21st Century temperature standstill alluded to by Yu and in the “Climategate” emails is perhaps the most inconvenient to those demanding drastic action to stop rising temperatures. As confirmed, begrudgingly perhaps, in numerous peer-reviewed studies, including data sets produced by the British Met Office and the Berkeley University Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST) – albeit the latter stands accused by one of its own team of trying to cover up its findings – mean global temperatures stood still between 1998 and at least 2009. All of which means that the basis for global warming over the last 100 years is predicated on just two warming spells: pre-1940 and 1975-98. In-between times, carbon dioxide emissions were still on the rise, but temperatures were not.

Few disagree that there has been an overall warming – in the region of 1 C at most since 1850. But according to John Christy there is no universal agreement as to the quantitative magnitude of AGW relative to other factors.

“There are many studies which show that the climate system is not very sensitive to CO2,” he says. “Mine for example have shown far less warming than predicted by the models, a pattern of warming that is inconsistent with model projection and regional trends that are not outside the range of natural variability.

“In terms of global temperature trends, we now have a third of a century of bulk atmospheric temperatures showing a modest 0.13 C per decade rate of rise – less than half that predicted by climate models. In the past 15 years the trend has been close to zero – the period in which warming was expected to have its fastest rate due to the enhanced greenhouse effect.

Others point to evidence that while some glaciers may be in retreat, others are not: there has been melting on the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, but some studies show icepacks on the rest of the continent – the other 90 per cent of it – are growing. And others yet pour cold water on the panic over rising sea levels. According to Nils-Axel Morner, the retired former head of the International Union for Quaternary Research, sea levels have been oscillating close to their present level for the last three centuries.

“Sea level has been rising for thousands of years and continues at about 1 inch per decade,” is Christy’s assessment. “Since during the last warm interglacial period, 130,000 years ago, the sea level reached about five metres higher than today, you should expect present sea level to continue to rise until the next ice age.”

Meanwhile, some sceptics flatly dismiss the notion of man-made global warming altogether. In an email interview, octogenarian Japanese geophysicist Syun-Ichi Akasofu, who was founding director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says data on sea level changes, glacier retreat, sea ice retreat, ice cores, tree-rings and changes in cosmic-ray intensity indicate simply that the planet is still recovering from what is termed the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling and increased glaciation following the Medieval Warm Period and beginning in about 1550.
“The recovery has proceeded continuously, roughly in a linear manner, from 1800-1850 to the present,” he writes, adding that “cosmic-ray intensity data show that solar activity was related to both the Little Ice Age and recovery from it. It peaked in 1940 and 2000, causing the halting of warming temporarily after 2000. These changes are natural changes.”

WHEN applied to climate change, the precautionary principle – that we should assume the worst-case scenario is a possibility and act accordingly – has the ring of logic to it. But what if, as seems likely, the world simply finds it impossible to reduce its overall dependence on carbon dioxide-emitting fuels within the time frame being urged?

The EU has been making noises about reducing its emissions by 80-90 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050. Such costly masochism sounds all well and good, but the world’s economic development – an energy-intensive process – will demand a large amount of outsourcing of production elsewhere. This being the case, might it be better to do nothing? And if not, then what?

“Numerous calculations show that the impacts of these severe energy-suppression measures would be too small to measure on the climate, but easy to measure in economic harm,” Christy says. “Thus in a simple cost to benefit study, we find large costs, but no benefits for carbon dioxide reductions.

“The precautionary principle is a false perspective … This higher cost reduces the standard of living, thus reducing the health, prosperity and opportunity for [most] people – unless you are fortunate to be in a specific subsidised industry that government decides with tax payer money to support.”

Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish environmental economist and author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, has said that the brunt of the costs of reducing global carbon emissions would be borne by developing countries, mainly in terms of having their dreams of economic development thwarted. As he put it in an interview: “Africans ask, ‘how can you have a steel industry or a rail network based on solar [energy]?”.

Economists forecast a vastly more developed world 100 years hence – one in which poverty has all but been eliminated. This scenario is to a large extent dependent, however, on poorer nations being able to avail themselves of the benefits of cheap energy. For them warmer but richer may seem more appealing than still poor but cooler.

What can’t be proven is how much cooler things might be if carbon emissions are successfully reduced. And likewise the scare reports don’t take any account of man’s ability, proven over millenia, to adapt to whichever circumstances are thrown at him. Research is already being carried out on the viability of geoengineering – a catch-all term for technologies that sequester carbon dioxide or other greenhouses from the atmosphere or cool the planet through solar radiation management – while more resources can and, for reasons quite apart from rising sea levels, probably should be invested in sea and flood defences around the world. After all, the Dutch mastered this aspect of hydraulics in the 16th Century.

The former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, who chairs the London-based sceptic think tank The Global Warming Policy Foundation, has written that “adaptation will enable us, if and when it is necessary, greatly to reduce the adverse consequences of global warming, at far less cost than mitigation [emissions reduction] to the point where for the world as a whole, these are unlikely greatly to outweigh (if indeed they outweigh at all) the customarily overlooked benefits of global warming.”

Besides the fact that raised carbon dioxide levels have been shown to speed up crop growth – it is a misnomer to call it a “pollutant” – such benefits include the obvious one that in many regions of the world warmer temperatures would be deemed advantageous. Professor Xie Zhenghui, deputy director of the International Centre for Climate and Environmental Sciences in Beijing theorises, for example, that China would do alright under warmer temperatures. “Chinese civilisation has reached its highest points when temperatures have been warmest (such as during the Han and Tang dynasties) and its lowest points when they have cooled,” he told The South China Morning Post last year.

Whether or not such thinking reflects the views of Chinese policy makers is a matter for conjecture. But mixed in with the more eccentric viewpoints, it is hard not to be struck by the sense of realism that pervades much of the debate over climate in China.

Xu Ming, another professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said recently that while China should do what it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “no matter what we do, global warming is inevitable. Therefore we must get ready for it.”

“Instead of ploughing money into expensive carbon reduction technologies,” he added, “[China] should build water redistribution facilities, plant trees and develop new crops that could endure temperature fluctuations.”

Protecting the environment is probably one of the most enlightened ideas humanity has had. It just might not be the same thing as trying to stop climate change.


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