How have we come to a situation where, as some polls suggest, most Australians are so concerned about dangerous climate change that they will put aside the very tools and technologies that have sustained clean air, clean water, nutritious food and long life? More importantly, is the perceived danger real and will the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions avert the perceived danger? Although there are many uncertainties to be resolved, it is clear that the community has been the subject of more than two decades of heavily biased propaganda.
In spite of claims to the contrary, there is no consensus of scientists supporting the findings and recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There exists a large and vocal group of highly qualified dissenters (often denigrated as sceptics, deniers or worse). Published letters and opinions in the press suggest the scientific community is still divided and the community has not succumbed to the propaganda of human-caused global warming. Many in the community, with every justification, are awaiting more information about the costs and the economic and social impacts before lining up to march behind the government’s carbon dioxide reduction banner.
A widely accepted conviction that dangerous climate change is actually pending will be required before the community will support the government’s strategy to shut down fossil-fuel-dependent industries and willingly abandon the energy-dependent and satisfying lifestyle activities they enjoy. After all, in the cause of saving the planet we will all be required to give up a wide range of personal freedoms that we currently take for granted. We will want to be in full agreement that the alleged dangers are real and present, and that the course of government-imposed actions really will avert them.
Are the Dangers of Human-Caused Climate Change Real and Present?
The notion of human-caused global
warming has its origins in late-nineteenth-century speculation about the causes
of past climate shifts, especially the ice ages when large parts of
During the 1960s and 1970s computer modelling was being developed to advance weather prediction. As they advanced, weather prediction models were adapted to crudely simulate climate, and a number of simple “what if?” experiments were carried out. For example, what would happen to Earth’s temperature if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was doubled, or trebled? Some of these crude experiments suggested that increased carbon dioxide might significantly raise the temperature of the earth.
As a consequence of the early modelling experiments, the issue of dangerous human-caused global warming was a consistent underlying theme of a series of international and intergovernmental environmental conferences that preceded the formation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in the early 1970s.
The 1979 First World Climate Conference
In 1985, mainly at the instigation of
UNEP, but co-sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (
The Villach Statement was the basis for
instigating a series of national and international conferences. The essential
purpose of the conferences was to raise community awareness of the danger from
burning fossil fuels and raising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. In
Australia, the then Commission for the Future and CSIRO were leading players in
the local promotion, including sponsoring of the December 1987 conference of
invited scientists, “Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change”. A 1988
international conference in
The very strong and active role being
played by UNEP and the environment movement generally in the promotion of
human-caused global warming became of concern to the more conservative
“The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”
What is not generally understood is that the objective of the Convention is not to prevent climate change, dangerous or otherwise, but to prevent dangerous climate change caused by human activity. This is underscored in the Definitions to the Convention: “‘Climate change’ means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”
The negotiations for the UN Framework Convention were carried out against a background of politics rather than science and logic. Many undercurrents could be clearly discerned that reflected the various vested national and regional interests.
Developing countries saw the issue starkly: whether the problem was real or not it was created by industrialised countries; it was for industrialised countries to fix and there should be money for compensation to developing countries that would be affected; and there should be technology transfer to ensure developing countries did not make the same “mistakes”. The association of small island states was most vocal in this respect—their very existence was claimed to be threatened by rising sea levels and they should receive refuge and compensation.
The oil exporting countries of the
The newly independent countries of the
Most intriguing was the obvious tension
between the European Union and the
Now that the first
Are the Alleged Impacts of Climate Change Exaggerated?
In Australia the assertions of
dangerous human-caused climate change, and even runaway global warming, are
being fanned by varying interests who should know better, or who, at least,
should check the facts. Drought and problems of the
There is currently a focus on the state
One of the great myths that gained
currency during the recent debate on human-caused global warming is that higher
temperatures will cause more droughts. However, continental rainfall largely
has its origins in evaporation from the surrounding oceans. The fact is that
evaporation increases by more than 6 per cent with each degree Celsius of sea
surface temperature rise and, as a consequence, warmer temperatures will
generate more rainfall. The great wind-blown sand dunes of
What we find is that maximum
temperatures are lower during wetter years, when there is more cloud and wetter
soil from which evaporation keeps the surface cooler. During very dry years
there is less cloud and very little cooling evaporation; maximum temperatures
are consequently higher. It is the clouds, rainfall and soil moisture that
regulate temperature. It should be noted that the all-time daily maximum
Many other mythologies that link possible dire outcomes with global warming have their origins in studies following the major El Niño event of 1997–98. The shift in seasonal weather patterns during the event caused many tropical and middle latitude regions to experience drought, while other regions experienced excessive rainfall and flooding. The uncommon weather sequences and seasonal rainfall patterns resulted in a range of ecological responses, most of which were deemed undesirable because they were outside the boundaries of usual experience. Land and water management systems became stressed, much community infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, and ecological changes promoted the spread of a range of diseases.
Drought in many equatorial and tropical forests and grasslands made these lands susceptible to fire; outbreaks that occurred were generally unmanageable because of inadequate planning and response infrastructure. The accompanying smoke promoted respiratory and eye infections; the stagnation of streams and waterways led to pollution accumulation and to the outbreak of a range of pollutant-related diseases.
Elsewhere, excessive rainfall caused waterlogging of fields, flooding, and destruction of private and community infrastructure. Expansion of insect populations, especially mosquitoes, meant that the carriers could spread disease more readily. Higher incidences of encephalitis, dengue fever and malaria could be linked directly to the changed environmental conditions. As a general rule, the increased incidence of disease occurred in countries that did not have the resources on hand for rapid deployment to control the outbreaks, either through insect control or for medication.
According to a
The 1997–98 El Niño event, and information from earlier events, provided a valuable database for linking changed climatological conditions to environmental, community and industrial impacts. The real value of this database is in the formulation of response strategies so that, in the future, resources are marshalled and potential impacts can be mitigated. For example, early response will prevent the build-up of insect populations and reduce the spread of disease; medications will be available for treatment of eye and respiratory diseases where smoke is a problem; and water purifiers can be mobilised to ensure clean water.
Unfortunately, the raw data relating unmanaged ecosystem responses and community impacts from the local and limited duration seasonal climate anomalies of the El Niño events have been extrapolated to give potential impacts of human-caused climate change. However, directly extrapolating future impacts from past experience can be misleading. For example, the expansion of mosquito populations and increased disease incidence to a hypothetical future climate gives a very scary but exaggerated scenario. This, of course, is the intention.
There are two essential pieces of
information that the proponents of the theory of dangerous human-caused climate
change do not discuss. First, the impact statistics relate to largely unmanaged
systems. For example, malaria was endemic throughout northern
Is Dangerous Human-Caused Global Warming a Reality or an Illusion?
The case for dangerous human-caused global warming rests solely on the projections of computer models. Without such projections, which have consistently been in the range of a 1.5°C to 4.0°C global temperature rise from a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration, there would be no basis for alarm. The low-end computer projections exceed the range of temperature variation of the past 10,000 years—the experience that ranged between the Holocene Optimum and the Little Ice Age. The high-end projections approach the temperature and climate range between the major ice ages, including advance and retreat of continental ice sheets and sea level variation of more than 130 metres. Sediment analysis from ocean cores suggests that the range of tropical temperature variation across the glacial cycles was only about 3°C, although the range was much larger over the polar regions.
There is, however, much observational and theoretical evidence to suggest that the computer projections are fanciful. Even the evolution of computer modelling of climate suggests that the projections should be treated with extreme caution. Importantly, the oceans and their circulations are the thermal and inertial flywheels of the climate system; as the ocean circulation changes, the atmosphere and its climate respond. Our knowledge of subsurface ocean circulations and their variability is limited. Without this vital input, projections of future climate are tenuous at best.
The computer models used as the basis
of projections at the 1985 Villach Conference and later for the 1990
The issues surrounding the natural
tendency of the coupled models to warm were claimed to have been overcome by
the time of the 2001
The combination of unvarying computer
simulation and apparently steady temperatures before the rapid
industrialisation and then temperature rise of the twentieth century was
powerful imagery to support the propaganda that the warming of the twentieth
century was human-caused. Unfortunately the “evidence” was all a mirage. The
statistical analysis underlying the “hockey stick” has been shown to be fatally
flawed; a wide range of compelling historical, cultural, archaeological and paleo data support the Medieval Warm period–Little Ice
Age–modern warm period climate cycle. Moreover, there is no strong evidence
that the current temperatures are warmer than those of the Medieval
period from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries when, for example, there were
thriving settlements on
Credulous supporters have accepted the
The current global temperatures are relatively warm but not too dissimilar from those before Earth entered the current glacial phase about 5 million years ago; the current global temperature is only marginally cooler than the temperature peaks achieved during each of the interglacials of the last half-million years as earth recovered from successive ice age periods. A casual observer of the record might readily conclude (and not be far wrong) that there is a natural upper limit that earth’s temperature asymptotes towards.
Although not in the context of global warming, in 1966 C.H.B. Priestley (then Chief of CSIRO’s Division of Meteor-ological Physics) wrote of the limitation of temperature by evaporation in hot climates. High daytime maximum temperatures are reached over arid lands of the tropics where only radiation loss and conduction are available to rid the surface of energy absorbed from the sun. Where the land surface is wet or covered in vegetation the temperature is considerably lower because the additional evaporation of latent energy has a powerful cooling effect; evaporation (and latent heat exchange to the atmosphere) increases almost exponentially as temperature rises. The combined radiation, conduction and evaporation losses from the oceans and wet or vegetated surfaces can offset the absorption of solar energy at a lower temperature than when evaporation is absent.
The principle is identical for carbon dioxide forcing and its enhancement of the greenhouse effect. The magnitude of the down-welling long-wave radiation at the surface increases as the concentration of carbon dioxide increases. There is a corresponding rise in surface temperature that is constrained by the increase in surface energy losses (radiation emission, conduction and evaporation of latent heat). The earth’s surface is predominantly water or well-vegetated land; increasing evapor- ation of latent heat is a dominant factor in the additional energy loss under carbon dioxide forcing. It is the additional evaporation of latent heat that will constrain surface temperature response to human-caused carbon dioxide emissions.
The mathematical formulation of surface temperature response to carbon dioxide forcing is straightforward, even considering water vapour feedback. For a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration the global average surface temperature increase from 280 ppm (before industrialisation) to 560 ppm (towards the end of the twenty-first century) will only be about 0.5°C.
Why then, it might be asked, do computer models give projected temperature increases that are nearly an order of magnitude larger; and why are there claims of dangerous “tipping points” and potentially runaway global warming?
The likely answer to these questions is
the recent revelation that computer models grossly under-specify the rate of
increase of evaporation with temperature, the factor that constrains surface
temperature increase. In 2006, US researchers Isaac Held and Brian Soden reported that, on average, the rate of increase of
evaporation with temperature in computer models used for the
The significance of the computer model
shortcomings identified by the
In the more extreme computer models, the erroneous specification of evaporation response means that the models are approaching computational instability and the global temperature projections give the appearance of “runaway global warming”. Of course, the projections are erroneous. The exaggerated surface temperature increase associated with the computer model projections is a direct consequence of the failure of the model specification and does not represent the true sensitivity of the earth’s temperature to carbon dioxide forcing. In reality, surface evaporation from the oceans and vegetated land areas will constrain surface temperature increase to about 0.5°C for a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration, which cannot be considered as dangerous.
Unfortunately, those who are entrusted
with building and validating the computer models seem to be blind to the
inherent failings—the models have cost so much to build but the presentation of
being accurate and useful is fallacious. In many countries, such as
The CSIRO has taken state funding for the purpose of generating specific predictions for land use planning and water resource management at the regional level. But we should note that the CSIRO has legal disclaimers of responsibility for the truth or veracity of these predictions in case they turn out to be incorrect or misleading. The CSIRO apparently has no confidence in its computer predictions—all the risk is with the user.
Notwithstanding that computer models
exaggerate the magnitude of warming, there continue to be NGO commentators and
advocates who claim the danger is even more horrific than the
Is There a Sound Case for Carbon Emissions Reduction?
Australians are now being bombarded by an intense government-funded propaganda campaign to encourage people to accept the reality of dangerous human-caused climate change and support early action for “carbon pollution” reduction. The scaremongering about dangerous climate change is based on the erroneous computer model projections and the unsubstantiated extrapolations of a range of climate impacts that are only realistic if no adaptive or mitigating measures are taken.
In the absence of computer models there would be little credence given to the view that the relatively small warming of the second half of the twentieth century was due to carbon dioxide emissions; there would certainly be no credence given to the possibility of irreversible runaway global warming over the coming century. Cool heads would note that most of the earth’s surface is either ocean or freely transpiring vegetation and that surface evaporation will continue to constrain surface temperature rise, as it always has done.
The likely magnitude of human-caused global warming is so low that it will not be discernible against the background of natural variability in the climate record. Thus national or internationally co-ordinated efforts to impose carbon dioxide emission reduction for the purpose of preventing climate change will be a tremendous waste of resources. The real danger is that government-instigated measures to drastically downsize a wide range of fossil-fuel-dependent industries in order to achieve emission reduction targets will actually be effective. Such success will destroy jobs and will limit future development opportunities, with no discernible impact on climate. Then the government will realise that it is much easier to change the economy than to change the climate, and it will also find that the direction and impacts of change will be equally unpredictable.
William Kininmonth is the former head of
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