Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sceptical journey

When apocalyptic climate science appeared on the public stage, I initially took a fairly neutral view of it. As a professional environmental scientist I assumed that the science would at least be fairly rigorous even if the apocalyptic predictions might be exaggerated by journalists.

Hints that all was not well appeared on my radar via two letters in Chemistry In Britain which in 2004 became Chemistry World, the member's magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Letter 1 was from a professor of physical chemistry. He accused climate scientists of misusing the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. He went on to claim that there was also no credible physical theory of how CO2 might control the thermal properties of the whole atmosphere. I won’t go into the details, but what surprised me about the professor’s letter was how easy it was to check that he appeared to have a good point – at least as far as I could see.

However, more extensive reading allayed my suspicions somewhat. Climate scientists had built mathematical models of how CO2 might indeed exert control over the thermal characteristics of the atmosphere. However...

Letter 2 was from a qualified scientist who asserted that criticisms of mainstream climate science should not be published as the science was 95% likely to be correct and of apocalyptic importance. This, so the letter asserted, was sufficient reason to suppress sceptical voices.

I’m relying on memory here because at that time I didn’t know I’d begun an interesting scientific journey. However, I well remember being quite shocked by letter 2. Not good whatever one might think of climate science, especially in a magazine for professional scientists.

These two letters were published quite a few years ago and it took most of the intervening years for me to conclude that there is indeed a serious problem with mainstream climate science. I’m not advocating one-sided scepticism here by the way – this is merely an outline of my personal journey of discovery.

Eventually I resigned from the Royal Society of Chemistry. In my resignation letter I mentioned obvious but ignored hints of malpractice in climate science, but didn’t make a big deal of it.

Why not? Well by then I’d retired and become thoroughly bored with the pusillanimous way institutions are led by the nose when it comes to matters of official policy. I’d done more than enough background reading to know there was certainly a major scandal behind apocalyptic climate predictions.

Once I had learned to be sceptical about the apocalyptic message, where did I place the blame? It’s a complex issue, but some climate scientists journalists, politicians, activists and self-serving businesses must all take the credit for jumping on a bandwagon and downplaying major uncertainties in our knowledge of how and why the climate changes.

Do your own research, be guided by behaviour, find people you trust and be guided by their manner and their scepticism. As always, the important clues are to be found in human behaviour - that was my climate lesson.

As scientists or non-scientists we have to build our own web of trusted opinion and reliable information. During the peace and quiet of a snowy winter evening perhaps? Before the lights go out?

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Sackerson said...

Yes, the tribalism is a problem, especially when the issue is potentially enormously serious.

And it cuts both ways - David Rose's recent climate skeptic pieces in the Mail may be hard-hitting, but are as one-sided and polemical as the Prophets of Doom.

Paddington said...

The atmospheric effects of carbon dioxide have been written about and studied since the 1890's (yes, over a century), and the conclusions haven't changed. Those still arguing against the data either have self-interest in doing so (like the fossil fuel folks), or have an emotional bond to their position.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - it does cut both ways. Many sceptics think we are in for a spell of cooling, but there is no good evidence either way. If I had to bet on the issue I'd go for cooling, but with no inside information a bet is just a guess.

Paddington - in my view the problem lies not in the data but extrapolations from the data which is where the emotional attachment seems to acquire its rationale.

Emotional attachment to extrapolations is certainly an old problem - ancient even.

Paddington said...

AK - As I've said before, I have confidence in the science, but not in the political solutions suggested. Every model is being refined at supports the same conclusion. I will happily take your bet - say a pint of decent clotted cream?

A K Haart said...

Paddington – make it marmalade and you’re on (: Do I get to choose the timescale like a real climate scientist?

I have little confidence in the science. Apocalyptic claims just don't stack up against a host of uncertainties.

Nick Drew said...

It always amuses me when I read the reactions to proposals for perfectly straightforward geo-engineering solutions to 'global warming'

(because nothing is easier than reducing ambient temperature, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated in the deserts of Kuwait)

for some reason, these plans are always greeted with horror - because "there will be unintended consequences"

but somehow, their own 'solutions' won't suffer from the same drawback ...