TCS Daily


Climate in Wonderland

By Hans H.J. Labohm - April 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Suppose you are Minister for the Environment of a cute compact sized country, Wonderland, somewhere in Europe. You are a prominent member of the biggest party in the country, the Christian Democrats, and within that party you are a champion of green causes. Yes, they even call you Mr Green. You regard this to be the logical corollary of your Christian faith. You believe that God is committed to his creation and that he has delegated the care of it to humans. This is how you translate good stewardship, which is one of the basic tenets of your faith, into practice. In this context you believe that the Kyoto Treaty, which addresses the mother of all environmental scares, man-made global warming, is crucial and should be supported by all means. You have an academic background in public administration, which does not augur too well to understand climatological issues. But you are happy to rely on the backing of the experts at your ministry. Also, you recall that, after all, war is too important to leave to the generals. In the same vein, you argue that climate is too important to leave to the climatologists.

By the way, Wonderland is proud to belong to the vanguard against global warming. Wonderland's Greenpeace counts more members than the US and Canada together, though these countries have a population that is almost twenty times larger.

Regrettably, not all people in Wonderland agree. There is a small but vocal bunch of sceptics who are adamantly opposed to the way you handle the issue. They tell that the emperor wears no clothes, or a slip at most. What to do? Muzzle them? That option should be rejected out of hand, because Wonderland cherishes free expression of thought and quality newspapers and journals regularly publish their heretical articles. Stigmatize them as the lunatic fringe? No way, because they all have impeccable scientific credentials and are attached to Wonderland's most venerable universities and institutions.

What then about their (financial) connections with the darker forces in the world, such as the wicked multinationals? It is true that the sceptics are rumoured to shop in supermarkets and tank at gas stations, which are all owned by multinationals. But so does everybody else. Should you then drag them before some court of scientific dishonesty, as they did with Bjorn Lomborg in Denmark? Hmmm .... but you are not aware of the existence of such a court in Wonderland. More importantly, however, you are basically a decent and likable fellow, who abhors those practices and who firmly believes in the great traditions of involvement of civil society, of transparency, dialogue and consensus, which are so dear to Wonderland. Why not invite the sceptics to come to your ministry and allow them to air their grievances in an open debate with your own IPCC people (IPPC= Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which Wonderland plays a very active role)? And so you decide.

After many months of meticulous preparation, your own national IPCC team and the team of climate sceptics face each other in front of a live audience, including people from academia, politics, the administration, the business world and the media, plus a number of interested individuals. Of course, to avoid any misunderstanding, you have instructed your people that the meeting should start with the reconfirmation of the official truth: the familiar doom-and-gloom litany. And you notice with satisfaction that your IPCC team does not let you down. The end is nigh. Repent! If we humans do not alter our behaviour we will surely face the Apocalypse. Or to be precise: 'The globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8 C over the period 1990 to 2100.' This will cause all kinds of harmful effects for mankind, such as more precipitation and a sea level rise of 9 to 88 centimetres. That's the spirit!

But, wait, one of the members of the team of sceptics retorts that there is no consensus whatsoever on the scientific base. Scores of qualified scientists all over the world have expressed serious doubts about it. The ground temperature measurements are unreliable because of unequal coverage over the surface of the earth, as well as distortions because of the urban and regional heat island effects. Highly accurate temperature measurements by satellites in the lower troposphere do not show any significant warming, contrary to what the climate models predict for those layers. Why do the satellite measurements diverge from the surface measurements? Moreover, he points out that the models have not been validated. They do not match reality. They haven't even been able to predict the past. How then can they relied upon to predict the future?

Remember, you are still the Minister for the Environment of Wonderland listening to this interesting exchange of views and you wonder why your folks have never told you that the science was not settled. And what about this silly divergence of low and high level measurements? You ask your IPPC people to clarify this point. They answer that they do not have the faintest idea. How disappointing! But fortunately they have also good news. They are happy to tell that they have achieved a nice fit of curves. They have created a temperature curve over the last century, based on natural climate factors (or forcings in the jargon of the climatologists), including El Niño, volcanos and solar activity, on the one hand, and anthropogenic factors, including greenhouse gasses and aerosols, on the other. This curve shows a remarkable resemblance with that of global temperatures based on surface measurements. Quod erat demonstrandum? Well, eh .... not exactly. Some evil sceptics might even call this fudging.

The next climate sceptic, a well-known astronomer in Wonderland and beyond, counters with an alternative set of nice curve-fitting. His thesis is that the sun is responsible for the temperature changes over the last century or so. He says that he believes one should not focus on the sun spots but on the emissions of the sun's coronal mass. He is seconded by a third sceptic, a paleoclimatologist, who explains that his recent research has shown that the climate system is far more sensitive to small variations in solar activity than generally believed. This could mean that the global temperature fluctuations during the last decades are partly, or completely explained by small changes in solar radiation. These observations, of course, call into question the conventional wisdom of attributing the global warming of the past century or so to the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content. But wasn't this wisdom expected a priori? Yes, but in the mean time we have seen that a considerable and growing part of man made CO2 emissions are consumed by the earth's vegetation.

The point is further reinforced by the findings of the next sceptic, a geologist, who points out that testing (validation) of the climate models requires studying the relationship between temperature and CO2 in the past. Contrary to conventional wisdom, all historical geological evidence from ice cores, peat sediments, tree rings and coral reefs show no correlation between the alternation of warmer and colder periods in the present (interglacial) period with changes in CO2 concentrations. He adds that, as a geologist, he is not opposed to conservation of fossil energy, since it is a finite resource, but this should be based on rational science, aimed at a positive strategy of technological innovation, and not on the virtual reality of the climate models and/or the ideological greenhouse mantra of green activists.

Finally you listen to the last sceptic, an economist, who highlights the economic drawbacks of Kyoto. You believed that your own IPCC people excelled in scare-mongering, but you were surprised to notice that this guy proved to be a good match for them. He pointed out that cost/benefit relationship of Kyoto will be devastating. It will cost hundreds of billons of dollars per year. It will lead to massive lay-offs in energy intensive industries and to trade conflicts with countries that did not ratify Kyoto. Moreover, he warns that it will introduce elements of central planning into our economic system, because the need of compliance with Kyoto will legitimize all kinds of government intervention in business. You listen and wonder what he means exactly. You ask him whether he means the introduction of Stalinism via the backdoor. The economist politely declines to adopt this formulation. He just repeats that he is talking about the introduction of elements of central planning. He then he goes on and wonders why one should bring all those sacrifices. He points out that according to a prominent spokesman of the IPCC, 'Kyoto', as amended in Marrakech, would reduce global temperature in 2050 by only 0.02 degrees Celsius, an amount too small to measure with standard thermometers. It requires a diplomatic nightmare of some thirty more negotiation rounds à la Marrakech to achieve a stabilisation of CO2 concentrations, which will plunge Wonderland's and any other economy in the world into the dark ages.

Remember, you are still supposed to be the Minister for the Environment of Wonderland. After the discussion you obviously feel somewhat bewildered. Nobody told you before that Kyoto's scientific base was so flawed, that it cost so much and that its cooling effect was so negligible. Nobody ever showed you a down-to-earth cost/benefit analysis of the whole undertaking. How come? Weren't you supposed to know? Did your people deliberately withhold this information from you and from your colleagues at the ministry of finance and economic affairs? Or did you - perhaps unconsciously - discourage them from coming up with that kind of information?

So what to do? According to the programme you are supposed to wrap up the meeting. Somewhat desperately you look around for help from your staff. One of them hastily slides across a piece of paper to you, prepared in advance, which to your great relief neatly draws the most important conclusions of the exchange of views. You warmly thank the participants. And with the special kind of postmodernist logic that is the hallmark of Wonderland, you announce that in the light of the discussion you have decided to make an extra effort to bring about an additional reduction of man-made green house gasses of thirty percent in the next twenty years.

PS: Any resemblance of this story with the real world is purely coincidental.
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