Friday, 16 March 2007

More heat than light in global warming debate

Last week I reported on The Great Global Warming Swindle, Martin Durkin’s documentary claiming that the “climate change consensus” was a conspiracy of bad science, protected because it justifies massive research grants, that will ultimately retard the development of desperate Third World nations. My original article contains a précis of the programme and is followed by comments providing links to some counter-arguments.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the various arguments, I was at least glad that a debate was taking place. I had been aware for some time that there the so-called consensus was actually a widely-held prevailing belief, and that there were scientists out there that demurred. I was also aware that there has been a lot of vitriol directed at those who do not accept the orthodox view (and, to be fair, vice versa). As a liberal I find that uncomfortable; I believe that open and honest debate both uncovers lies and strengthens the truth. I had hoped that this programme would stir up such a debate.

Sadly, it seems that the elevated tone I had hoped for was a façade. The Times reported yesterday that Dr. Armand Leroi of Imperial College, London, wrote to Mr. Durkin to point out that the correlation between solar radiation and global temperature, posited in an article in Science in 1991, had been subsequently disproved. Mr. Durkin responded to this by explaining that Dr. Leroi was “a big daft cock”. Dr. Leroi was rather shocked by this: so much so that he has since withdrawn from a project that he was planning to work on with Mr. Durkin that was to discuss race. Race “is such a sensitive topic that it requires great care and great balance,” explained Dr. Leroi.

Simon Singh, a scientific author who had been copied into the exchange, intervened by writing “I suspect that you will have upset many people [Mr. Durkin]… so it would be great if you could engage in the debate rather than just resorting to one-line replies. That way we can figure out what went wrong/right and how do [sic.] things better/even better in the future”.

Mr. Durkin’s response concluded with the suggestion that Mr. Singh “Go and f*** yourself.”

Mr. Durkin has since apologised (via the Times, it seems), saying that “I regret the use of intemperate language. It is so unlike me.” That seems unlikely considering he originally considered calling his programme Apocalypse My Arse.

I am disappointed that the debate has so quickly degenerated to this level. However, I am encouraged by one comment from Mr. Durkin that the Times reported, that he has asked Channel 4 to stage a live debate on the issue. However, I wonder whether this is really the debate we need to have. Ultimately, global warming is just a scientific curio until it intersects with public policy. It is for scientists to argue and debate about the truth of the problem; us mere mortals must merely accept what wisdom filters down (though there is undoubtedly a question mark over government funding being directed towards research supporting the status quo). Policy-makers must act on the prevailing scientific evidence, even if there is still some doubt; I can think of at least one government that lost an enormous amount of power and influence because it resisted the prevailing view of science.

What is needed, therefore, is not a public debate on the science, but a public debate on our response to the prevailing evidence. Too much of the environmental policy debate is dominated by socialists and Gaiaists, those who believe that the solution rests in a massive expansion of state power and those who think that man is a blight on the planet. Too often have I heard otherwise rational people peddle the lie that there are too many people on Earth; that we need to reduce the human population to a “sustainable” level. Even more often the solutions offered seem strangely reminiscent of the state-planning consensus of the post-war world.

I believe that we can have a sustainable environment and a tolerable climate, with room for humans and polar bears alike, without giving up our freedom or our right to have children. But if that is to be achieved liberals must wrest control of the debate from the crypto-socialists and enviro-fascists, and offer a liberal alternative. The debate is more urgent than ever.


Bishop Hill said...

How right you are. I'm fortunate enough to be able to follow at least some of the science, having a scientific degree. There's a role for popular science writing to get the subtleties of the debate over to the general public. Unfortunately the message seems get distorted into "the debate is over". From what I've seen in the last seven days the sceptics have at least a prime facie case.

Bishop Hill said...

This is a debate held between the two sides in the US last night (I think). Included in the panel were Philip Stott and Richard Lindzen for the heretics, and Gavin Schmidt and Richard SOmerville for the orthodox.

The results of the polls, before and after the debate were

For it not being a crisis: Before debate — 29.88% After debate: 46.22%
Against it not being a crisis: Before — 57.32 After: 42.22

When people hear the arguments, they seem to have different opinions on the issue.

Joe Otten said...

Bishop, I got as far as page 2 of that transcript and spotted this barefaced lie:

"I‘m old enough to remember when there was a, uh, scientific consensus on global cooling,..."

Nope, never was, this is a lie.

Sure there were a few papers discussing the possibility of global cooling, and why not, it did seem possible, it still is possible. But consensus that it was happening, nope, not even close, total lie.

And that was from the chairman!!!

So I guess the vote shows that lying works.

There may have been some good arguments further on, but it's not a good sign.

Kit said...

Cool down Joe, you sound like a sceptic when someone says "there is a scientific consensus on global warming.";)

Nick H said...

Hello Bishop

Thank you for the data. I thought to make it easier i'd tabulate results and take away double negative:

-----------Crisis-------Not Crisis


To summarise, before debate, most people thought global warming a crisis. After debate, majority thought global warming not a crisis.

Nick H said...

Hi Tom.

On on this matter, it has always seemed to me that with affirmation of anthropic causes of catastrophic global warming, public policy, at least in UK, would have to follow. I have always considered this as a nascent public policy issue rather than a scientific curio.

The debate seems to have blown up in the UK just as public policy has changed gear on the issue. On this basis, I fully agree with you that an open debate is even more important now than ever.

However, we need to avoid ad-hominem attack arguments and other logical fallacies. Durkin has set himself up for ad-hominem attack. This issue is far bigger than Durkin. Perhaps we shouldn't be sidetracked by his attention-seeking sideshow.

6 months through college, with aspirations in scientific research, social changes as illustrated in 'The Trap part 1' caused me to loose confidence in a scientific career. How can science flourish in an environment of self-interest? If from right at the top, money is doled out on the basis of self-interest, there is no room for any science except for science commissioned by industry to give a market advantage.

Bishop Hill said...


You probably ought to provide something to back up your assertion that they are lying. It's a serious accusation.

Joe Otten said...


A scientific consensus on global cooling, are you kidding?

If there had been such a consensus, there would be some documentary evidence of it, and there is not.

Bishop Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bishop Hill said...


There is a widely cited 1975 Newsweek article that claimed:

"Meteorologists are almost unanimous that catastrophic famines will result from global cooling."

I'm sure you are right, however, that there wasn't really a consensus, just as there is no consensus on AGW now.

Joe Otten said...

This article?

Can't be sure here because it doesn't contain your exact quote.

Still, you have one article saying that the earth "seems to be cooling down".

Still, good going, all you need now is something with a rather stronger conclusion, and some evidence of a consensus on it among relevant scientists.

(Frankly if an article in a newspaper or news magazine constituted a consensus, then there would be a consensus on just about everything.)

Tristan said...

The 'global cooling' thing.
There was certainly lots of talk of it, my grandmother certainly remembers being told that the world was cooling and we must act.

The worrying thing is that neither side in the debate is being honest and scientific a lot of the time.
We're now having nonsense spouted about 'post-normal science' which apparently doesn't need proof.

As I see it, there are three questions four questions to be asked:

1) Is global warming happening?
2) What will its effects be?
3) Are humans responsible for climate change, and if so, to what extent?
4) What should we do about it?

Currently it stands at:
1) Yes
2) Not sure, but the consensus is arriving at much less than the scare stories promulgated by the likes of Al Gore.
3) Don't know. Its a distinct possibility though.
4) Don't know. Some say a lot, some say nothing, others say (the most sensible in my opinion) 'Stop the politicians using it as an excuse for restricting our freedoms, and lets look at this rationally'.

Unfortunately, the media and politicians all go with:
1) Yes
2) Terrible - your children will be eaten by cannibals and giant mutant insects.
3) Yes. Its all our fault! We must do penance and starve ourselves and prevent any more progress.
4) We must grab/give the politicians more power and restrict our freedoms and listen to the green lobbyists who want us to live in a self sufficient paradise.

(granted, a little hyperbole there, but that's the gist of it).

Joe Otten said...


Politicians will look for excuses to extend their powers at the expense of our freedoms. There we probably agree.

If it turns out that we will all have to do less of something, this is a loss of freedom all round. And one that even admitting carries an unpopularity price. The incentives for policitians in this case are all to ignore the problem, and this is largely what they are doing.

Nobody - with any power - is listening to the green lobbyists, the Monbiots. What some, all too few, have started doing is listening to the scientists. It is part of the dishonest contrarian strategy to lump the scientists with the, frankly anti-science, green extremists.

Joe Otten said...

Sorry, to complete the point, the idea that the whole thing has been fabricated by scientists seeking research grants, and politicians seeking excuses for curtailing freedom, however unpopular this will make them, even if they don't expand their own powers in the process - this idea is typical paranoid conspiracy bullshit.

It is projecting onto others an extent of lying and cheating that the contrarians would struggle to manage even themselves.

Bishop Hill said...

"It is part of the dishonest contrarian strategy to lump the scientists with the, frankly anti-science, green extremists. "

It's a conspiracy!

"[T]he idea that the whole thing has been fabricated by scientists seeking research grants... is typical paranoid conspiracy bullshit."


Come on Joe, neither side has a monopoly on truth, honesty or anything else.

Joe Otten said...

Bishop, no lumping moderates with the other extremists is a standard propaganda technique for extremists everywhere - there is no conspiracy involved, it is openly practised. A party manifesto is not a conspiracy.

If you put contrarians on one side, and eco-nuts on the other, yes you are right, neither has a good grasp of the truth, and both are prone to believing absurd conspiracy theories.

So, avoid both those camps.