TCS Daily

Mythical Madness

By Philip Stott - June 10, 2002 12:00 AM

LONDON -- The other day, a somewhat irascible environmental correspondent who writes for one of the UK's more liberal bien pensant broadsheet newspapers demanded to know why I was so against the idea of 'global warming' and the Kyoto Protocol. "It seems you are in favour of pollution," he averred somewhat disparagingly (and, though left unsaid, that I was in favour of America, too, a much greater sin). I replied at length, but as simply as possible, producing my own broadside against the Kyoto Protocol and the dangers of the myth of "global warming."

I reproduce the core of this Manifesto here, in the hope that others might find it of use to explain precisely why ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would be such a serious mistake.

The Science

I. Climate change is the norm, not the exception, and temperature is always either rising or falling. No climate change would be a most unexpected phenomenon worthy of report. Climate change is both gradual and catastrophic, in the sense of involving sudden change. In the past, there have been marked temperature changes within periods as short as 10 years of as much as 8 to 10 degrees Celsius, some of which have occurred within the last 15,000 years.

II. A sense of climate history is thus vital in assessing any given change during our own short lifetime. The "Medieval Warm Period" ranged from 1 to 2 degrees (possibly more in some parts of the world) Celsius warmer than at present, despite our current emergence from the Little Ice Age, which ended around 1880. Moreover, in Europe, malaria (the ague) was worse during the cold of the Little Ice Age, and recent floods and storms are entirely within the norms of the last 1000 years. Changes in the distribution of fauna and flora have always occurred, present-day patterns being no exception. The ever-fluctuating population of cod in our seas is a fine example of such natural variation over the last 2000 years, especially during the Little Ice Age.

III. The estimate of a rise of 0.6 degrees C over the last 150 years or so is thus very small beer and entirely in line with an emergence from a Little Ice Age, although even this figure is doubtful because: (i) there is little concordance between surface, balloon, and corrected satellite measurements; (ii) we must take into account increased urbanisation and the "Urban Heat Island" effect; and (iii) there are genuine problems with measuring air temperatures over the oceans.

IV. With respect to modeling, climate is the ultimate coupled chaotic non-linear system involving: (i) millions of variables, all acting at different spatial and temporal scales; (ii) unpredictability over even short periods; (iii) possible chaotic shifts; and (iv), because of immensely complex feedbacks, including such factors as water vapor and clouds, near impossible challenges granted the poverty of our current state of knowledge. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits that we know next-to-nothing about 75% of the main proxy variables involved.

V. There is, accordingly, a serious antinomy at the heart of the myth of "global warming" (as distinct from the complex science of climate change), namely that climate is the most complex chaotic system known, but we think we can manage climate by playing about with just one small set of factors, namely so-called 'greenhouse' gases. In truth, we can no more predict the impact of halting gas emissions than of emitting gases.

The Political Agenda

VI. The idea that we can control climate is thus a dangerous myth. The Kyoto Protocol will not halt climate change, period.

VII. Kyoto is dangerous, because: (i) the idea of a sustainable climate under human management is an oxymoron; (ii) what happens to scientific credibility when climate doesn't act as predicted? (iii) it is setting an agenda that could cost the world dear for no predictable impact on climate; (iv) there are many far better reasons for controlling genuine pollution both locally and nationally (I also do not believe that command-and-control economics and politics will work in this respect); and (v) it is setting completely the wrong international agenda, which must always focus on human adaptability and flexibility in the face of change, whatever its direction, (and in this, we must set up world systems to help the poor and disadvantaged above all else);

VIII. Outside of the myth of global warming, carbon dioxide may not be a serious pollutant at all and it has only been thought to be "a pollutant" for the last 15 years. Moreover, nearly all alternative energy sources have their own downsides, from ecosystem disruption with tidal power to landscape despoliation with wind power. And even an hydrogen economy will emit locally water vapour, the most important greenhouse gas of all, and have immense problems with pipe embrittlement.

IX. Kyoto may therefore be causing us to set completely false agendas in both economic and political terms, especially for the developing world. Even on a conservative economic estimate, the costs of Kyoto represent enough money to cancel the debts of the 49 poorest countries and provide clean drinking water for all.

(As an example of such a false agenda, sea-level change in relation to Tuvalu is perhaps a classic. All real measurements show that Tuvalu has suffered, at worst, no sea level rise. However, it is likely that beach erosion and building on the island have caused the sea flooding of areas over the last decade. If this were true, it would be a genuine local environmental concern. But it is a local problem that will not be solved by massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, the 'global warming' myth, of course, insists otherwise.)

X. My own studies indicate to me that 'human-caused global warming' has now become more an article of faith than of science, especially in Europe, where serious science questioning the myth rarely gets a look in through the media.

XI. Lastly, it has conveniently become part of the myth that there are only a few contrarian scientists and that they are all in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. In reality, there are hundreds of independent scientists all round the world and, at last, they are beginning to bring commonsense to bear on the myth.

I very much hope, dear reader, that you will help in the continuing fight for critical science against ecochondria and hype.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political ecology: science, myth and power (Arnold and OUP, 2000).



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