by Norman Pilon
As a person who is neither a scientist nor well-versed in the minutia of climatology, it is interesting to survey the field of contentions over AGW, but in particular, how, on the one hand, the IPCC (sold to the public as a body of bona fide climate scientists solidly united in a singular consensus) publicly professes 95% certainty on the issue of AGW, while, on the other hand, measured observations and disagreements between highly credentialed climatologists belie both the professed ‘certitude’ of and the ‘consensus’ over ‘anthropogenic global warming.’
The imputations of deviousness leveled by the faithful of either side of the debate against the blasphemies of the other are also interesting: those who either deny or question AGW are accused of being in league with Big Oil or other such business interests. And those who ardently affirm the AGW hypothesis are accused of being extortionists who understand how to use fear to exact funds from terrified publics.
Each side is right and each side is wrong, of course: some who deny AGW are indeed doing it at the behest of some political and business interests, but not all; and some who ardently affirm AGW as undeniably and catastrophically upon us are doing it also as cynical professionals intent upon eking out a comfortable living for themselves, but not all.
Regardless of the side of the debate on which you stand, money is always a great temptation. And yet not everyone feels starved enough to compromise themselves in their honesty, whether in denying or affirming AGW to any degree of certitude. There are genuine holdouts: some climate specialists are skeptical of the AGW only because their method of approach to the data of climactic phenomena does not yield much support for the ‘attribution;’ other equally competent specialists, working from a different set of assumptions, ‘know’ that the data sets, properly understood, ‘must’ confirm AGW, and they ‘know’ this in all sincerity.
And then to add more muck to the embroilment, there is this propensity that we ‘all’ share, which is simply to talk one another into this or that consensus of opinion, rightly or wrongly. Everyone knows that consensus is not science, and yet it is both reasonable and possible for a group of people, collaborating in a spirit of critical thinking with one another, to come to a consensus of opinion on the basis of scientifically rigorous methods of analysis and investigation, as inherently dangerous and misleading as any kind of group consensus may be, scientific or otherwise.
Therefore, what sometimes appears to be bad faith, whether in an act of agreement or disagreement, is merely a manifestation of the ‘social’ nature of what ‘we’ are as humans in cultural terms, intellectually and cognitively. We cannot ‘think’ alone but under the discursive influence of others, many of whom with which on many things we come to agree, although we must at the same time, for the sake of finding our collective way forward to a more adequate understanding of ourselves and our world, be wary of deriving too much comfort from thinking too much as others do, that is to say, conventionally, however astute and sophisticated that general outlook or mindset might be.
If consensus is not science, the scientist cannot always avoid being under its sway and, moreover, if the ‘truth’ is eventually to win out over our collective cultural benightedness, it must eventually tempt and enthrall the reasoning assent of more than just a few and thereby itself become the basis of a consensus. If consensus is not science, science cannot for all that dispense with it.
The ‘global warming’ debate, then, is fractiously multidimensional in its appeals and interests. The political dimension itself bifurcates into at least two phyla or subspecies: the politics of competing for research funds and the politics of which business interests stand to gain or lose from policies that might be elaborated and instituted on the basis of the prognostications of ‘climate science.’ Most of what appears of the debate for broad public consumption is driven by these two highly politicized ferments.
On the one hand, scientific research must go begging for the resources it needs to further its inquiries, and it secures these resources to the degree that it can persuade prospective patrons or backers of the usefulness or necessity of its initiatives. Depending on who is being wooed as a prospective supporter, his understanding of the ‘usefulness or necessity’ of the initiatives being proposed can be very different from that of another, because different ‘interest groups’ do have different and often conflicting interests.
What is ‘useful and necessary’ from a public policy standpoint is not always what is ‘useful and necessary’ from a business standpoint, and even between business interests, what may be an opportunity for one sector of the economy may portend catastrophe for another. One only has to think of the economic implications of serious curtailments of CO2 emissions for, on the one hand, hydrocarbon intensive industries and, on the other, the burgeoning ‘green technology’ business consortia.
It is not to be wondered at that Big Oil and related business interests and foundations – assuming that reductions in emissions would negatively impact their bottom lines, which is not necessarily the case, as ‘climate alarmism’ can be turned to account by even these industries, if only by providing a pretext for creating conditions of ‘scarcity’ in hydrocarbon markets – will want to seek out and support ‘climate scientists’ skeptical or incredulous of the claim that CO2 is the main or sole driver of climate change. Likewise, ‘green technology’ interests will find their natural allies to be ‘climate scientists’ who are pushing the AGW line, sincerely or otherwise.
‘Climate scientists’ who manage to sell their theses to the wealthiest or politically most powerful patrons will receive the most by way of research dowries, but perhaps also more importantly, will be the ones whose ‘viewpoints’ will come to dominate public opinion, or at least appear to do so, since the uniformity of public opinion (through the mechanisms of the corporate media and universal education, tightly under the control of the dominant sources of funding in our society) is also a phenomenon under the sway of the wealthiest and most powerful patrons in our midst.
Consequently, the ‘truth’ or ‘untruth’ of the hypothesis of AGW has little to do with its dissemination and acceptance in a broad cultural sense. That dissemination and acceptance is predominantly determined by ‘political’ factors, by who control the main channels of information distribution. In our society, regardless of which position on the issue of ‘global warming’ becomes prominent, that control ultimately rests with the corporate capitalist cartels.
One can therefore expect that irrespective of the scientific validity or invalidity of the AGW hypothesis, the version deemed most propitious to advancing both the short- and long-term interests of the ruling elite will also be perceived to be, whether in ‘fact’ or not, the dominant ‘scientific consensus.’
The ‘truth value’ of this politically generated ‘consensus,’ then, whatever it may be, is and will continue to be incidental, largely arbitrary and coincidental, in a word, an accident, like so much else that is characteristic of our age and era.
It remains, however, whether ‘global warming’ is actually happening, and if so, whether it is being driven by an anthropogenically induced accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Apparently, most climatologists agree that in the last 150 years or so, there has been a measurable increase in the mean global temperature. But to say that the increase in that mean is measurable is to say nothing about its magnitude or its actual relevance for determinate changes in climate.
NOAA estimates that the global mean temperature of the earth has increased by about 0.85ºC, allowing for a probable error of 0.2ºC. [NOAA] [Lindzen] But as Richard Lindzen observes, this measurable increase in the mean global temperature is actually so small as to be invisible in its effects in either local weather or climate events: it is simply impossible, given the extreme inherent variability of climate and weather events, to determine the impact of an increase of 0.85ºC in the mean global temperature in any one location or area on the surface of the planet. [Lindzen] If the effect of a measurable increase in the mean temperature of the earth is in any real sense inappreciable, it is as if it hasn’t happened. With confidence, climatologists can say that coinciding with the rise of industrialization and the exponential increase in CO2 emissions, a warming of the planet has indeed occurred. But it is so far very slight and remains well beneath instrumental notice in its actual local climactic effects.
But is CO2 a greenhouse gas? According to climate scientists on all sides of the debate, it is.
Is the increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for which we are responsible in the last 150 years or so the reason why the earth’s mean temperature has risen by roughly 0.85ºC? To my mind, this is highly improbable as well as unprovable. For to make that claim is by implication also to claim that over the last 150 years, in the absence of our CO2 emissions, the mean global temperature would have remained more or less stable. Is there a climatologist anywhere who claims as much and on what grounds? To confidently state as much would entail knowing all of the relevant cumulative factors terminating in the measure we call ‘the mean global temperature.’
Furthermore, it would entail knowing not only that the cumulative effects and interactions of these factors had to have been stable for the last 150 years, but all of the mechanics of that stability in detail. But this is simply impossible, not merely on account of the intractability of the complex interactions that go into generating climate and weather on our planet, but because many phenomena that we suspect implicate important weather generating mechanisms and climate effects have yet to be properly deciphered.
One such suspected phenomenon or correlation (and keeping in mind that it only takes one anomalous observation to falsify a theory) is the one being investigated by the teams of Henrik Svensmark and Jasper Kirkby: the apparent synchronicity between solar magnetic cycles and cycles of global warming and cooling. Svensmark has established that when the solar magnetic field peaks in strength, the surface temperatures of our planet tend to be markedly warmer; and when the solar magnetic field ebbs to its weakest, the surface temperatures of our planet tend to be markedly cooler.
Svensmark’s hypothesis for explaining these correlations is that cosmic rays raining down on our planet from disparate parts of the sky play a crucial role in building up the particulate aerosols necessary to the genesis of clouds. The denser the flux of cosmic rays raining down on us, the denser become the cloud forming aerosols in our atmosphere, and the more clouds we have overhead to counter our sun’s radiative heat emissions. And the density of the incoming cosmic flux, given its ionized and therefore electrically charged state, varies according to the intensity of the sun’s fluctuating magnetic field: the more intense the solar magnetic field, the more attenuated, because deflected, the cosmic flux will be, and conversely.
It remains for the Svensmark hypothesis pertaining to the influence of cosmic rays on aerosol formation to be confirmed or disproved. ‘The CLOUD Project’ at CERN being conducted under the supervision of Jasper Kirkby intends to do just that.
Now consider that if Svensmark’s speculations find corroborative support from Kirkby’s experiments, climate and weather events on earth will be shown to be influenced by distant cosmic events. Such events lie beyond the scope of any reliable weather or climate forecasting methods we currently possess. If it is demonstrated that distant cosmological events and cycles are themselves a source of significant climactic ‘forcing,’ climate forecasting becomes at least in part dependent on being able to forecast astronomical events such as, for example, super novae, but not only that, but also on being able to predict or map the probable paths of interferences of the cosmic rays generated by those events.
Suddenly, if Svensmark turns out to be right, a whole other layer of confounding complexities superimposes itself on an already incredibly complex system of energy redistributions. At this point, though we actually would have arrived at a better understanding of the “what and how” of weather and climate, forecasting climate on a scale measured in years would become what perhaps it currently is and will forever remain, little more than the occult reading of signs and auguries.
If experiments are being conducted to better determine the role of cosmic rays in cloud formation, it is clear that ‘climate science’ is not at an end or complete, and it cannot possibly be stated with any high degree of confidence as yet that, in the absence of anthropogenic CO2, the mean global temperature of our planet would not have increased by 0.85ºC over the last few hundred years. Svensmark’s theory about cloud formation is but one of what must surely be many examples of pivotal questions yet to be resolved by climate science.
I think, then, that it can reasonably be asserted with a certitude of 95% that ‘climate science’ remains a very long way off from being able to assert with 95% certainty that ‘global warming’ is already upon us and that its consequences will be nothing short of catastrophic, and that mankind and mankind alone will have been the cause of that catastrophe.
To my mind, because our world and its weather systems are so complex, and because our knowledge of those systems will always be a lot less than perfect, the most that we can aspire to in terms of understanding our planet’s climates is akin to what we can aspire to in terms of understanding the evolution of earthly life: though we have a pretty good grasp of the underlying mechanics, because the diversity of life on the planet is so sprawling, because the drivers of mutations are so numerous and random, our comprehension of evolution as a process, as profound as it may be, must remain for the most part spectatorial or contemplative.
Mutations, inherently random as they are in and of themselves, and even more so in their heritability, cannot be predicted in terms of the actual diversity of species that they will surely generate in the future that remains to life on this planet. Likewise, because of its intractable complexities, though we may eventually understand a great deal more about them than we currently do, the emergence and distribution of climate patterns years into the future will remain largely beyond our measure, as is certain that they currently do.