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17 January 2018 19:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Ten reasons to reject climate alarmism

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

It seems my previous effort to convince critics of my climate change position failed to convince some die-hard believers. Here's another.

The problem arguing with true believers is their faith. Like the faithful who hold up holy books in support of their religion, the eco-cultists gladly rebut accusations of scientific malfeasance by citing blogs written by those very same scientists.

The faithful are deeply offended by any suggestion that their goddess, Gaia, may not require our pious self-denial and sacrifices. They are mortified by the thought that their high priests might be bereft of the cardinal virtues and invested with the deadly sins.

And so, a neat man with a side-parting, clutching his little green book, knocked at my door. Metaphorically speaking, of course. My first sin, he clucked, was "intellectual arrogance". Then, there was "narcissism", "incompetence" and "overweening self-confidence".

He was about to assail me for getting up too late in the mornings, when he bethought himself and made a real point: I am not qualified to hold an opinion.

Though I never claimed to be a climate scientist, I was time and again asked to prove my expertise by responding, in detail, to a barrage of several dozen scientific facts or fictions. The fellow, who preached about humility, even gave me homework.

This is a nifty rhetorical trick. It would take weeks to answer and document each point. I naturally declined. Predictably, this was held up as a concession on my part.

The notion that only an expert is entitled to an opinion is patently false. When public policy about coercive measures are at issue, people most certainly have a right to an opinion. It is unjust (and dangerous) to subject them to the whims of a technocratic elite. The Americans said it best: "No taxation without representation."

Moreover, I make a point of avoiding the minutiae of thermohaline circulation, or ice-pack albedo, or aerosol forcings, or dendroclimatology in my columns. They make my eyes glaze over, and I'm actually interested. So while I am probably better acquainted with these issues than most lay people, they are usually not core to my arguments.

My primary point over the years has been one of political and economic philosophy. The question is not just whether or not catastrophic climate change is likely, but what – if anything – an appropriate policy response would be. I maintain that even if the scientific basis for predicting our doom were true, coercive measures that seek to influence climate will be ineffective, and restricting the use of inexpensive energy will be counter-productive. For very speculative long-term gains, we will increase poverty and decrease humanity's ability to deal with natural disasters.

Contrast Chile and Haiti, for example, and ask yourself whether Chile's economic development might account for markedly fewer casualties in an earthquake that was nominally stronger.

The attack

The argument that a non-expert should defer to experts on a particular issue is moot when those experts are shown to be unreliable.

It doesn't take a chartered accountant to call Enron a fraud. Likewise, it doesn't take a climate scientist to appreciate the revelations in the leaked e-mails from the East Anglia University Climatic Research Unit.

The quality of the the scientists' data is shocking[1], they are reluctant to submit their data and methods to public scrutiny even in the face of legal obligations to do so[2], they have deleted primary data and lied about it[3], they face serious allegations of cherry-picking[4], they have changed results to reach preconceived conclusions or make contradictory data disappear[5], they blatantly suppress dissenting research[6], they try to get dissenting scientists fired and have succeeded in at least one case[7], they privately concede doubts and errors that undermine the public claims to consensus and "settled science"[8], and they now contradict themselves in public statements[9]. Not to forget the petty issue of unprofessional conduct[10], which is all that the faithful tribunes for climate alarmism appear willing to concede.

All this undermines my respect for their impartiality and honesty as scientists, and denies them any authority at all as policy advocates and political activists.

The counter-attack

The trick of counter-attacking those who cite this as reasons to disbelieve the alarmist "consensus" that global warming is man-made and will have catastrophic consequences, is well established.

For example, Sharon Begley, Newsweek's science editor, reviewed with approval a book entitled The Lomborg Deception, purporting to debunk many of the claims Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg makes in his books. His thesis is that many of the supposed facts on which the environmental litany of doom is based are simply not supported by the available data and statistics. He proceeds to illustrate this with thousands of examples.

Begley considers the debunking laudable, but then, she is a noted alarmist herself. So much so that one of her own cover stories, about a "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry", was described as "highly contrived", "a vast oversimplification of a messy story", and "a morality tale" in the same magazine. "The story was a wonderful read," wrote Robert Samuelson, "marred only by its being fundamentally misleading."

Likewise, the counter-attack against my columns took the form of nitpicking about dozens of specific scientific issues.

The logical problem

The problem with the concept of such a book is that as a counter-attack, it misses the point. If one constructs a theory, and a number of premises are essential to it, then the falsification of even one of those premises undermines the theory. If someone sets out to attack those premises, they have to be right only in a few instances in order to achieve their goal. Even if half of what they wrote is wrong, the theory under attack remains gravely threatened.

Of course, I'd like to hear Lomborg's response to the charges. Some appear quite serious. However, even if some of the criticism stick, this would not invalidate all his points. He is not proposing a theory which logically depends on the truth of all his arguments, so the case he makes is much less vulnerable than the theory it attacks.

The theory of man-made global warming is built up of a lot of premises, each of which has to be true (or at least very likely), for the entire edifice to stand. If just a few critical pillars crumble, the entire theory collapses. If those who attempt to falsify the theory throw a dozen things at it, and only two stick, that's enough.

That dynamic does not hold for the other side: those two things aren't wrong because the other ten are. When some sceptics are proven to be wrong in some cases – an ever-present risk in a world full of lunatics, idiots, and oil-funded propagandists – this has no implications for the validity of the remaining critiques.

I declined to address each technical question thrown at me not because I didn't think I was capable of producing a satisfactory answer, given some time and research. I declined because by answering, I would implicitly concede that this was important. That being wrong about any one of them – not a negligible possibility – would undermine my broader argument. It wouldn't.

Ten reasons

Let me contrast this by illustrating the logical basis for my own rejection of global warming orthodoxy, and why I am so confident. In 2007, I wrote up a list of ten reasons, which with minor modifications in light of recent events still holds.

  1. I'm not convinced that "global warming" as a one-way bet is happening any more. Au contraire, I'm convinced "climate change" is a trivial truism, warming and cooling periods are to be expected, and the most recent three-decade warming trend appears to have stopped a decade ago.
  2. Even if it is happening, I do not believe that computer models are reliable predictors of future climate. The models are too incomplete, the input data is too scant, and both are too suspect to model a system as complex and chaotic as planetary climate with any confidence.
  3. Even if they are reliable, I'm not convinced warming is a crisis. Au contraire, I suspect the environment has survived equally warm or warmer periods in the past, and that warming has brought mixed blessings, with benefits of which we could take advantage and drawbacks to which we had to adapt.
  4. Even if it is a crisis, I'm not convinced human activity is the primary cause of climate change. Au contraire, I'm fairly sure our own contribution is small, and is dwarfed by the scale and natural variability of the climate system.
  5. Even if it does, I'm not convinced CO2 is the cause. Au contraire, although it is a greenhouse gas, paleoclimate records appear to show global warming causes higher CO2 concentrations, not the other way around.
  6. Even if it is, I'm not convinced the environment is so fragile that it cannot easily recover its equilibrium. Au contraire, I'm convinced the environment is a robust, stable system that can and does recover, even from significant damage.
  7. Even if it does, I'm not convinced we're able to make significant changes to our carbon output. Au contraire, I'm convinced that even with the best of intentions and vigorous government enforcement we can make only small, woefully insufficient adjustments at the margins.
  8. Even if we are, I'm not convinced that it will have a significant effect on the climate. Au contraire, I'm convinced even a drastic reduction in our CO2 emissions won't halt whatever global warming may be occurring.
  9. Even if it does, I'm not convinced we can afford it. Au contraire, I strongly suspect that significant cuts in carbon output will come at too high a price, especially for the world's poor, and we can better invest those scarce resources to solve more immediate problems.
  10. Even if we can, I'm not convinced that telling people what they ought to do has any place in a free world, or that government's place is to enforce moral virtues by legislative force. Au contraire, I'm convinced that's fascism.

One need not have an expert's certainty on any of these points, because only one of these logical connections has to fail to make the entire basis for coercive regulation and punitive taxes fall over.

Even before the ClimateGate scandal, the whole edifice was wobbly. If you flipped a coin on each condition, your chances of surviving all ten would be one in a million. That was enough reason to reject the orthodox position on global warming.

Now we know that thanks to the bad faith, sloppy science, messy data and outright dishonesty of the climate science elite, some points in this logical construct are in grave danger of outright collapse. If they do, it will drag the entire edifice down with it. But even if they don't, it would remain prudent to reject global warming regulation.

To cling even now to dreams of climate change treaties and heavy carbon taxes is illogical. It smacks of mindless adherence to a discredited cult.

No amount of pettifogging about dendroclimatology – such as whether Keith Briffa cherry-picked samples for his Yamal series in support of Michael Mann's hockey stick, and how much one can really conclude from one lone tree in Siberia (YAD061) – will change any of this.

[1] The notes written by a programmer show the extent of the mess in which the actual temperature data appears to be:

[2] Phil Jones: "The two MMs [Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre] have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone." (Click here.)

[3] Patrick Michaels documented the data deletion in a column. The explanation was that raw data was deleted in the 1980s for lack of storage space:
Evidence of when the deletion really took place was published by Steve McIntyre:

[4] See, for example: "Analysts say Russian meteorological stations cover most of the country's territory, and that the Hadley Center had used data submitted by only 25% of such stations in its reports. Over 40% of Russian territory was not included in global-temperature calculations for some other reasons, rather than the lack of meteorological stations and observations. The data of stations located in areas not listed in the Hadley Climate Research Unit Temperature UK (HadCRUT) survey often does not show any substantial warming in the late 20th century and the early 21st century." (For more, go here.)

[5] Phil Jones: "I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." [This refers to an interval of overlap where historic tree-ring data flatly contradicts more recent instrument data, for a reason that nobody can explain.] (For more, go here.)

[6] Phil Jones, defending his own unit in peer review: "Recently rejected two papers (one for JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research] and for GRL [Geophysical Research Letters]) from people saying CRU has it wrong over Siberia. Went to town in both reviews, hopefully successfully. If either appears I will be very surprised, but you never know with GRL." (For more, go here.)

[7] Tom Wigley: "Proving bad behavior here is very difficult. If you think that [James E.] Saiers [the editor of the journal Geophysical Research Letters] is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU [American Geophysical Union] channels to get him ousted." (For more, go here.)

[8] See the exchanges involving (sceptical scientist) John Christy, and in particular this note from Kevin Trenberth: "[We] are no where close to knowing where energy is going or whether clouds are changing to make the planet brighter. We are not close to balancing the energy budget. The fact that we can not account for what is happening in the climate system makes any consideration of geoengineering quite hopeless as we will never be able to tell if it is successful or not! It is a travesty!" (For more, go here.)

[9] Witness Phil Jones's certainty before ClimateGate: "Bottom line – their [sic] is no way the MWP (whenever it was) was as warm globally as the last 20 years." (For more, go here.)
...and Phil Jones's equivocation in an interview with the BBC, after ClimateGate: "There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. ... For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.
"Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today ... then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented." (For more, go here.)

[10] Ben Santer to Phil Jones: "I'm really sorry that you have to go through all this stuff, Phil. Next time I see Pat [Patrick] Michaels at a scientific meeting, I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted." (For more, go here.)

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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