Prospect - a response
David Whitehouse, once a science reporter for the BBC, has responded to my denunciation of ‘climate sceptics’ in Prospect. Here are his comments – I don’t find them very compelling, but you can make up your own mind:
"Philip Ball veers into inconsistent personal opinion in the global warming debate. He says the latest IPCC report comes as close to blaming humans for global warming as scientists are likely to. True, its summary replaced “likely to be caused by humans” with “very likely”, but that is hardly a great stride towards certainty, especially when deeper in the report is says that it is only “likely” that current global temperatures are the highest they’ve been in the past 1,300 years.
As for “sceptics” saying false and silly things, Ball should look to the alarmist reports about global warming so common in the media. These “climate extremists” are obviously saying false, silly things, as even scientists who adhere to the consensus have begun to notice. And it’s data, not economics, that will be the future battleground. The current period of warming began in 1975, yet the very data the IPCC uses shows that since 2002 there has been no upward trend. If this trend does not re-establish itself with force, and soon, we will shortly be able to judge who has been silliest.”
The first point kind of defeats itself: by implying that the IPCC’s move towards a stronger statement is rather modest, Whitehouse illustrates my point, which is that the IPCC is (rightly) inherently conservative (see my last entry below) and so this is about as committed a position as we could expect to get. If they had jumped ahead of the science and claimed 100% certainty, you can guess who’d be the first to criticize them for it.
Then Whitehouse points out that climate extremists say silly and false things too. Indeed they do. The Royal Society, who Whitehouse has falsely accused of trying to suppress research that casts doubt on anthropogenic climate change, has spent a lot of time and energy criticizing groups who do that, such as Greenpeace. I condemn climate alarmism too. Yes, the Independent has been guilty of that – and is balanced out by the scepticism of the right-wing press, such as the Daily Telegraph. But Whitehouse’s point seems to be essentially that the sceptics’ false and silly statements are justified by those of their opponents. I suspect that philosophers have got a name for this piece of sophistry. Personally, I would rather than everyone try harder not to say false and silly things.
I don’t know whether Whitehouse’s next comment, about the ‘current warming’ beginning in 1975 is false and/or silly, or just misinformed. But if it’s the latter, that would be surprising for a science journalist. There was a warming trend throughout the 20th century, which was interrupted between 1940 and 1970. It has been well established that this interruption is reproduced in climate models that take account of the changes in atmospheric aerosol levels (caused by human activities): aerosols, which have a cooling influence, temporarily masked the warming. So the warming due to CO2 was continuous for at least a century, but was modified for part of that time by aerosols. The trend since 1975 was thus not the start of anything new. This is not obscure knowledge, and one can only wonder at why sceptics continue to suppress it.
As for the comment that the warming has levelled off since 2002: well, the sceptics make a huge deal of how variable the climate system is when they want to imply that the current warming may be just a natural fluctuation, but clearly they like to cherry-pick their variations. They argue that the variability is too great to see a trend reliably over many decades, but now here’s Whitehouse arguing for a ‘trend’ over a few years. Just look at the graphs and tell me whether the period from 2002 to 2006 can possibly be attributed to variability or to a change in trend. Can you judge? As any climatologist will tell you, it is utterly meaningless to judge such things on the basis of a few years. Equally, we can’t attach too much significance, in terms of assessing trends, to the fact that the last Northern Hemisphere winter was the warmest since records began. (Did Whitehouse forget to mention that?) But that fact hardly suggests that we’re starting to see the end of global warming.
“Who has been silliest” – OK, this is a rhetorical flourish, but writers should pick their rhetoric carefully. If the current consensus on a warming trend generated by human activity proves to be wrong, or counteracted by some unforeseen negative feedback, that will not make the scientists silly. It will mean simply that they formed the best judgement based on the data available. Yes, there are other possible explanations, but at this point none of them looks anywhere near as compelling, or even likely.
My real point is that it would be refreshing if, just once, a climate sceptic came up with an argument that gave me pause and forced me to go and look at the literature and see if it was right. But their arguments are always so easily refuted with information that I can take straight off the very narrow shelves of my knowledge about climate change. That’s the tiresome thing. I suppose this may sound immodest, but truly my intention is just the opposite: if I, as a jobbing science writer, can so readily see why these arguments are wrong or why they omit crucial factors – or at the very least, why the climate community would reject them – then why do these sceptics, all of them smart people, not see this too? I am trying hard to resist the suspicion of intellectual dishonesty; but how much resistance am I expected to sustain?