Consensus and Climate Change

The debate surrounding ‘Climate Change’ has previously been discussed and may provide an appropriate starting point for some readers. While research into this debate started by making reference to an assumed weight of authority, i.e. the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a subsequent duty of inquiry became increasingly sceptical of some of its scientific arguments, such that this discussion may also come to question its moral position. Again, as further background reading as to what is implied by scepticism and ethical morality – see ‘The Role of Scepticism’ and ‘The Limits of Morality’ discussions. However, we will start with a very generalised summary of the IPCC’s position.

The fifth IPCC report, published in 2013, claimed 97.5% of scientists were certain that humans were the dominant cause of global warming and that greenhouse gas emissions, predominately carbon dioxide (CO2), produced by humanity since the industrial revolution were the root cause of global climate change. They were also certain in their predictions that global warming would lead to a series of disastrous global climatic changes in a matter of decades.

Based on the summary above, we possibly need to consider the issues of both consensus and certainty. Voltaire warned of the absurdity of certainty as early as the 18th century, while Michael Crichton later warned of scientific consensus as being a ‘pernicious development’. As the idea of a scientific consensus is somewhat central to this discussion, the context of Crichton’s warning is reproduced in the quote below.

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period. In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of.”

Even so, given the implied weight of authority of the IPCC and 97.5% of scientists, the scepticism alluded to in the opening paragraph might not only be perceived as inappropriate, but dangerous if it argues against any of the proposed urgent action now considered necessary to ‘save the planet’ from all the predicted disasters.

Note: While this discussion will not directly discuss the validity, or absurdity, of the certainty of 97.5% of scientists, it may be appropriate to cite two critical references. The first is a 6-page summary entitled ‘Heartland’s Claim Against the 97% Climate Consensus’, which is essentially advertising a 135-page report entitled ‘Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming’. Now might also be an appropriate point to reference a page entitled ‘The Scientific Debaters’ that lists scientists, who either question the accuracy of climate science or argue that many of the mechanisms cannot be directly linked to CO2 emissions or that the causes of climate change are still not fully understood. However, it is highlighted that nobody ‘denies’ that climate change is happening, such that the debate centres on different causes and effects.

Before we jump to any conclusions, one way or the other, we possibly need to step back to review the weight of authority assumed by the IPCC. As a very brief potted history, the IPCC was established in 1988 and published its first assessment report in 1990, the second in 1995, the third in 2001, the fourth in 2007, the fifth in 2013 and the last in 2019. Over this 30-year period, the general position outlined in the first note above has not really changed, although the nature of the debate has become much more antagonistic, which might also be questioned along with the science.

Note: While the full IPCC reports can be over 7000-pages, most people only focus on the 30-page summary intended for policy makers and media soundbites. As such, this summary tends to headline the results in terms of potential extreme weather events and effects, e.g. world’s major cities to be under water by 2100.

While there are many different types of inputs into the IPCC reports, it is probably fair to say that its predictions of future climate change rest on the validity of various climate models, which attempt to model 1) temperature rise with and without greenhouse gases, 2) predict changes in extreme weather events and 3) reverse-engineer current data back to align with pre-industrial data. Of course, as in all fields of science, models are by definition a simplification of the real world and this might be especially true for all climate models given the obvious complexity of the Earth’s climate systems – see Climate Models, Climate Mechanisms and Model Assessment for more details on these issues.

As cited in the Climate Mechanisms discussion, the two graphs above compare the predictions of the various climate model forecasts with historical observations of global temperature change. On the left, we see a graph produced by John Christy, a climate scientist, and on the right, a graph produced by Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist, which suggest two different pictures of the state of climate change. Of course, when different authorities disagree, this creates a problem for any general duty of inquiry. Without going into all the technical details needed to really understand the graphs above, we might initially assume that John Christy’s graph is relatively unambiguous, if only comparing the historical temperature against what were originally future predictions of the various climate models.

Note: For those interested in more detail, an article by Pat Michaels and Chip Knappenberger entitled ‘Climate Models versus Climate Reality’ has been posted on the Judith Curry website. It might be highlighted that the basic conclusion of this article is not that some future global warming will not occur, only that the rate will be substantially lower than that predicted by current climate models, such that we might question the impact of climate change. The interested reader might also want to consider some of the 244 comments at the end of the article, both for and against, which might also highlight the need for ongoing open debate.

Of course, there is another perspective that might be used to explain the discrepancy between the two graphs above, which is that the historical data used to draw the graph on the left was wrong. However, before we pursue this issue in terms of just the last 40 years or so, we might first attempt to establish a ‘bigger picture’ of climate change over the last 2000 years, as depicted in the following charts. Based on the top chart, we see an average temperature change of +0.6oC in the Medieval Warm Period falling to -0.6oC change in the Little Ice Age, both of which predate any increase in man-made CO2. However, this temperature change is missing in the lower ‘hockey stick’ chart, which was first published in 1998 and featured prominently in the third (2001) IPCC climate report and Al Gore’s 2006 film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’

So, which of the graphs above should we believe?

It is believed that most reasonable people, on both sides of the climate debate, accept that the Michael Mannhockey stick’ graph was wrong in its presentation of the historic temperature record. However, whether the production of this graph simply represented a mistake or was more akin to scientific fraud is still a matter of ongoing debate. In a recent 2019 lawsuit case against Tim Ball by Michael Mann, Ball’s legal defence argued that the hockey stick was a deliberate fraud, which could be proved if given access to Mann’s original data and calculations. However, because Mann refused to produce this data, as ordered by the court, the court dismissed his case and Mann was order to pay all legal costs. However, if we ignore the legal implications of this decision, we might still worry that Mann’s hockey stick presented a false picture of temperature change that persisted from its first publication in 1998 and given further worldwide publicity via Al Gore’s 2006 film. Of course, we might wish to assume that this was simply one unfortunate mistake, i.e. the exception not the rule, by which climate change science is being conducted.

The Climategate controversy came to light in 2009 with the copying of thousands of emails and files from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. These emails and files suggested that some scientists were manipulating climate data and attempting to suppress critics, although some have tried to argue that this information was taken out of context.

 As there are many references discussing this controversy, both for and against, this discussion will not pursue the details, although it might summarise some of the accusations. 1) prominent scientists central to the global warming debate were concealing rather than disseminating information, 2) some of these scientists appear to view global warming as a ‘political’ rather than ‘scientific’ issue and 3) many of these scientists appeared to admit the evidence was weak, such that the case for climate change required a manipulation of facts and data. So, having highlighted some concerns that the case for climate change has not always been conducted in the ‘spirit’ of impartial science, we might return to the issue of whether John Christy’s graph was based on incorrect historical data.

Again, this discussion will only outline some of the basic issues surrounding the historic temperature records, which the graph above only attempts to summarise. The plot shown in blue represents the original US measured temperature record, while the plot in red represents a revised US temperature record, which some claim has been adjusted downwards so that it supports the idea that temperature has been steadily rising, as predicted by climate warming, throughout the 20th century.

Note: The global temperature record for the 20th century is very limited, primarily restricted to the US and western Europe. It might also be realised that the temperature may change in different regions of the world due to many factors associated with physical geography and ocean currents. As such, the historic global temperature record is quite speculative. Today, the official US temperature record is controlled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is also actively involved in predicting future change using climate models, which appear to be pessimistic when compared to actual temperature measurements, as suggested by John Christy’s graph.

While there are legitimate reasons for adjusting historic temperature records, e.g. geographic change from rural to urban surroundings, there is much anecdotal evidence that the US climate in the 1930’s was subject to many more extreme weather events, such as dust storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and wild fires, than today. As such, this may lead us to question whether the adjusted temperature in the previous graph is really telling the whole story, especially in terms of CO2 being the primary cause of climate change as predicted by the climate models.

Note: It is now generally accepted that there has been no significant change reported in surface temperatures since 2000. If so, we might reasonably question the scope of global warming and the role of CO2 as a primary cause. In 2015, just weeks before the Paris Conference and the US presidential election, NOAA produced a ‘scientific paper’ that suggested the pause in temperature, since 2000, was an illusion, while the National Climate Data Centre (NCDC), part of NOAA, published a paper in Science magazine that attempted to explain away the existence of the temperature pause and went to great lengths to promote the paper.

It might also be highlighted that while some temperature warming may exist in the surface records, it is far from obvious that there is any evidence in the atmospheric records, such that the predictions of climate models, based on increasing CO2, also leads to further questions. While possibly promoting an opinion that is both sceptical and biased, might we have to also question whether some of these government organisations have an agenda that extends beyond scientific debate. So, returning to the accuracy of the John Christy and Gavin Schmidt graphs, it is accepted that it may not be an appropriate way to judge the two authoritative opinions, but it is not necessarily unreasonable to highlight that John Christy is a professor of atmospheric science and has worked with Roy Spencer, who also has an academic background in atmospheric sciences and meteorology, to develop a global temperature dataset from satellites. In contrast, it appears that Gavin Schmidt is primarily a mathematician, whose work is more focus on climate modelling and who presumably does not question NOAA’s temperature revision.

Note: While this discussion does not assume any weight of authority, it is entitled to carry out its own duty of inquiry, which may be biased towards or away from the assumed 97.5% consensus. It is clear that this discussion is sceptical of many of the arguments said to be supported by this consensus. Therefore, it is important to provide reference to more authoritative sources that support a similar scepticism, but based on more accredited scientific analysis.

 We shall proceed by referencing 3 sources of information in  chronological order of publication, starting in 2018, with a 42-minute video featuring Nir Shaviv entitled ‘The Cosmic Ray Climate Link’. This video provides its own explanation of this climate mechanism, as only illustrated and summarised below.

The cosmic ray link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate. The changing solar activity is responsible for a varying solar wind strength. A stronger wind will reduce the flux of cosmic rays reaching Earth, since a larger amount of energy is lost as they propagate up the solar wind. The cosmic rays themselves come from outside the solar system. Since cosmic rays dominate the troposphere ionization, an increased solar activity will translate into a reduced ionization, and empirically, also to a reduced low altitude cloud cover. Since low altitude clouds have a net cooling effect, and their ‘whiteness’ is more important than the blanket effect, increased solar activity implies a warmer climate.

The next 42-page reference was published in 2019 by the Global Warming Policy Foundation entitled ‘The Sun’s Role in Climate Change’ by Henrik Svensmark. The following is an abbreviated synopsis of the executive summary.

An important scientific task has been to quantify the solar impact on climate. Over the 11-year solar cycle the energy variation that enters the Earth’s system is of the order of 1.0–1.5 W/m2. This is nearly an order of magnitude larger than what would be expected from solar irradiance alone and suggests that solar activity is getting amplified by some atmospheric process. To-date, 3 theories have been put forward to explain the solar–climate link: 1) solar ultraviolet changes, 2) atmospheric-electric-field effect on cloud cover and 3) cloud changes produced by solar-modulated galactic cosmic rays. This theory suggests that solar activity has had a significant impact on climate, which is in contrast to the official consensus from the IPCC, where it estimated the change in solar radiative forcing between 1750-2011 to be 0.05 W/m2, a value which is negligible relative to the effect of greenhouse gases, estimated at around 2.3 W/m2. However, the existence of an atmospheric solar-amplification mechanism would have implications for the estimated climate sensitivity to CO2, suggesting that it is much lower than currently thought. In summary, it is concluded that the impact of solar activity on climate is much larger than the official consensus suggests.

The third 6-page reference was also published in 2019 and titled ‘No Experiment Evidence for the Significant Anthropogenic Climate Change’ by Kauppinen and Malmi. Again, this discussion will only make reference to the following abstract.

In this paper we will prove that GCM-models used in the fifth (2013) IPCC report fail to calculate the influences of the low cloud cover changes on the global temperature. That is why those models give a very small natural temperature change leaving a very large change for the contribution of the greenhouse gases in the observed temperature. This is the reason why the IPCC has to use a very large sensitivity to compensate a too small natural component. Further they have to leave out the strong negative feedback due to the clouds in order to magnify the sensitivity. In addition, this paper proves that the changes in the low cloud cover fraction practically control the global temperature.

Of course, as might be expected, there are many counter-claims regarding the scope of the various solar forcing mechanisms outlined in the references above. However, the central argument of this discussion is not that these references are necessarily right, but that they represent the ongoing need for open and honest debate about other potential mechanisms, which might also be influencing climate change, other than CO2 emissions caused by human activity. Of course, this would be especially true if human CO2 emissions are not the primary factor driving climate change.

Note: This might be a good point to inject a somewhat different perspective into this discussion. A human population of 7.7 billion, see Global Clock for the latest figure, combined with accelerating technology is clearly creating many global problems that require solutions. However, what is far from clear is whether simply proceeding to impose a potentially radical solution, such as the ‘green new deal’ being proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the US Democratic Party, represents the best or even a viable solution. For in reality, much of the global population cited above still live in energy poverty and therefore the issue of energy development requires a practical and affordable solution, which might best be addressed by first trying to mitigate the worst effects of pollution associated with the mining and burning of fossil fuels, not simply assuming that they should be banned in favour of renewable sources, which are unproven on a large-scale 24/7 basis and may well turn out to be more expensive, especially in developing economies.

At this point, we might move the discussion in a different direction to consider the history of the climate change debate, i.e. the last 50 years or so, in order to review some climate predictions, most of which have proved to be incorrect. As such, it might be argued that the accuracy of the climate models, which supported many of these predictions, might also need to be questioned along with the effectiveness of any action predicated on the reduction of CO2 emissions in isolation. Of course, over the years, the media have helped perpetuate a variety of impending disaster predictions ranging from global cooling to global warming, which then lead to famines, droughts and rising sea levels, should we failed to act on climate change.

So, might we try to assess the accuracy of these predictions from a position of hindsight?

Without being too rigorous or detailed, we might consider a few examples along a 50-year timeline of climate change. In 1970, a US newspaper ran the headline predicting a new ice age by the 21st century. In 1974, a UK newspaper warned that space satellites showed a new ice age was starting. In 1978, Time magazine declared that another ice age was imminent. Strangely, in the timeline under discussion, the contradictory idea of global warming was already being developed, which might be reviewed under the heading ‘Scope of Climate Change’. However, in 1988, the IPCC was formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change and, in 1990, it released its first assessment report that concluded that temperatures had risen by 0.3oC over the previous century and that humanity was the main contributor to a ‘greenhouse effect’ leading to global warming.

So, how did prediction change at this point?

 In 1988, James Hansen testified before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and stated that he had a high degree of confidence, implying certainty, in the cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and global warming. This testimony was to become instrumental in igniting the climate change debate that continues to this day and may yet come to define future energy policy and development.  

Hansen’s testimony also forwarded three possible future predictions related to CO2 emissions. a) Was described as ‘business as usual’ that maintained the accelerating emissions growth of earlier years and would result in global temperatures increasing. b) Setting emissions lower would lead to the prediction of a 0.7oC increase. c) Assuming lower CO2 emissions by 2000, temperature rise would be limited to 1/10’s of a degree before flatlining after the year 2000.

In the 30-years since Hansen outlined the 3-potential scenarios, as outlined above, global surface temperatures have not increased significantly since 2000. While this situation might appear to align with the prediction of option-3, the chart above shows that a doubling of CO2 emissions has occurred over this time, mainly attributed to China, which is outside of the control of the US senate. Of course, it was not only Hanson who got it wrong, as the IPCC climate models also predicted twice as much warming as has been observed since global satellite temperature monitoring began 40 years ago. However, undeterred by the failure of earlier predictions, in 2007, Hansen predicted that most of Greenland’s ice would soon melt, raising sea levels 23 feet over the course of the next 100 years. In 2016, he predicted that hurricanes were getting stronger, although satellite records dating back to the 1970’s suggests no obvious correlation between the global surface temperatures and the frequency of stronger hurricanes, which appears to be equally true for tornadoes.

But surely, we might simply accept that most predictions are unreliable?

This seems to be a relatively uncontentious assumption, especially in reference to longer-term predictions, e.g. 100 years, and therefore it might be assumed that while they might cause a little embarrassment to the originator, little harm is done. Unfortunately, people like Hanson and the IPCC infer a weight of authority that can influence the next generation, who possibly acquire an increased zeal and certainty of their ‘worldview’, which can then become problematic to open debate.

Might this discussion forward an example of this problem?

Michael Mann, who created the ‘hockey stick’ graph, first published in 1998, and then featured prominently in the third (2001) IPCC climate report and Al Gore’s 2006 film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, has apparently demanded that the climate debate be ended and that ‘sceptics’ simply submit to the ‘scientific consensus’. For Mann is another ‘certain’ of his assumptions and conclusions, which when supported by a 97.5% consensus, proves he is right and that sceptics are simply ‘deniers’ of an obvious truth. In this context, Mann and others have made it clear that they perceive any climate-change sceptic as ‘traitors’ to their righteous cause to ‘save the world’ and therefore appear to have no qualms in trying to silence individuals, and institutions, by almost any means, e.g. lawsuits, loss of academic funding and even the loss of their jobs.

Note: The level of intransigence appears to have now infected the political debate, where the US Democratic party has stated that it is committed to a national mobilization and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II, presumably spearheaded by the ‘green new deal’.

Like Hanson before him, Mann will undoubtedly influence another generation of activists, who may possibly be even more certain of a climate crisis that is about to inflict disaster on their generation unless radical action is taken immediately. Of course, at this point, you might reasonably start to wonder whether this discussion is forwarding a conspiracy theory that has no basis in reality. However, we have recently seen the spectacle of a 16-year old schoolgirl, who is possibly psychologically ‘fragile’ with only a very limited understanding of climate science, invited to give a speech at the UN, which is now sending shockwaves around the world that few politicians will openly criticise. An example of her fragile state of mind might be perceived in the following quote:

"This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."

These words are sad, not only because they presumably reflect a genuine anguish, but because they are based on questionable assumptions that seem predicated on ideological belief rather than scientific understanding of the issues. However, in a wider context, it appears that children are now being ‘groomed’ to become the new face of a climate change movement, who are apparently capable of filing lawsuits, organising walkouts and lobbying lawmakers. However, many are now questioning whether these children are being motivated or simply being manipulated for reasons that have nothing to do with the scientific debate. As far back as 2012, there is evidence that some climate activists wanted to involve children in a legal and civil offensive against the fossil fuel industry, which would include worldwide marches from the youth climate movement. So, while this discussion started out by only outlining some of the issues of scientific concern, it is now alluding to the possibility that some organisations, and individuals, may have additional political and economic agendas. If so, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that scientific opinion in support of global action against climate change might never have achieved its current status of a ’97.5% consensus’ without the support of political and economic interests that extend well beyond the climate change debate. However, while the next question will be tabled it will not be addressed as the reader possibly needs to consider the many implications on future generations for themselves.

What, if any, are the political and economic motivations supporting the climate change agenda?

It is also recognised that this discussion did not address the issue of increasing energy needs around the world. However, this requirement might simply be characterised in the following quote taken from a 2014 report entitled ‘Our High-Energy Planet’.

“Today, over one billion people around the world, five hundred million of them in sub-Saharan Africa alone, lack access to electricity. Nearly three billion people cook over open fires fuelled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. This energy poverty presents a significant hurdle to achieving development goals of health, prosperity, and a liveable environment. The relationship between access to modern energy services and quality of life is well established. Affordable and reliable grid electricity allows factory owners to increase output and hire more workers. Electricity allows hospitals to refrigerate lifesaving vaccines and power medical equipment. It liberates children and women from manual labour. Societies that are able to meet their energy needs become wealthier, more resilient, and better able to navigate social and environmental hazards like climate change and natural disasters. Faced with a perceived conflict between expanding global energy access and rapidly reducing greenhouse emissions to prevent climate change, many environmental groups and donor institutions have come to rely on small-scale, decentralized, renewable energy technologies that cannot meet the energy demands of rapidly growing emerging economies and people struggling to escape extreme poverty. The UN’s flagship energy access program, for example, claims that ‘basic human needs’ can be met with enough electricity to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day. A reconsideration of what equitable energy access means for human development and the environment is needed.”