Paris and Climate Denialism

This coming week’s climate talks in Paris are surely to elicit some strong emotions from those who believe anthropogenic global warming (AGW) poses the most serious threat to the planet and those at the other extreme who deny the very notion that humans are capable of influencing climate.  Our own President, who seems more serious about waging war on coal than he does on terrorism, will join 150 other Heads of State at COP21 (short for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change) in an attempt to forge an international agreement on the head-throbbing issue of AGW.  More specifically, the world’s leaders will focus on a policy solution to stop the planet from warming 2 degrees centigrade more than pre-industrial times.

After many years of studying the science, I am persuaded that humans are indeed influencing climate, but am unpersuaded by warming alarmism or unilateral disarmament.  And apparently I’m not alone. The President too will have a difficult time persuading a skeptical Congress and American public (not to mention developing nations) that the solution rests on dismantling a carbon-based energy system that has fueled our nation’s economy and quality of life for the last century.  Energy poverty remains a serious global and environmental problem that cannot easily or economically be solved without some level of reliance on fossil fuels.

In anticipation of COP21, there have been some thoughtful articles on the topic, two of which are worthy of bringing to your attention.  And I encourage you to read them both.  The first by Josh Goldstein and Steve Pinker is titled Inconvenient Truths by the Environmental Movement that ran in the Boston Globe.  The article begins,

CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS MAKE an easy target for their denial of climate change: “I’m not a scientist” is the new “Drill, baby, drill.” But denial also infects large swaths of the environmental movement. Environmentalists deserve enormous credit for calling the world’s attention to the threat to humanity posed by climate change. But precisely because this challenge is so stupendous, we need an uncompromisingly focused plan to solve it. Instead of offering such a solution, traditional greens have been distracted by their signature causes, and in doing so have themselves denied some inconvenient truths.

The first is that, until now, fossil fuels have been good for humanity. The industrial revolution doubled life expectancy in developed countries while multiplying prosperity twentyfold. As industrialization spreads to the developing world, billions of people are rising out of poverty in their turn — affording more food, living longer and healthier lives, becoming better educated, and having fewer babies — thanks to cheap fossil fuels. In poor countries like India, citizens want reliable electricity to power these improvements, and stand ready to vote out any government that fails to deliver it. When American environmentalists tell the world to stop burning fossil fuels, they need to give Indians an alternative that delivers the prosperity they demand and deserve.

That brings us to the second inconvenient truth: Nuclear power is the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source. In today’s world, every nuclear plant that is not built is a fossil-fuel plant that does get built, which in most of the world means coal. Yet the use of nuclear power has been stagnant or even contracting.

Seems that the moniker of “denialism” shouldn’t be reserved for just Congressional Republicans.  If we are to fix this problem, we need more honesty and less denialism.

The next article is by David Rose of the UK’s The Spectator titled “‘I was tossed out of the tribe’: climate scientist Judith Curry interviewed“.  If you know nothing more about AGW and simply don’t have the political stomach or attention span to sift through hundreds of IPCC peer-reviewed reports, remember nothing else than the issue of “climate sensitivity” – or how quickly climate will change in response to varying levels of atmospheric CO2.

Judith Curry, a prominent climate scientist from Georgia Tech, has an impressive background with over 130 peer reviewed papers.   You can follow Curry on her blog at Climate Etc.   She too is persuaded by the science that humans are influencing climate.  However, she isn’t persuaded by the conventional wisdom on AGW as it relates to climate sensitivity and has been highly critical of the IPCC and unsupported predictions regarding warming.  Rose writes:

In the run-up to the Paris conference, said Curry, much ink has been spilled over whether the individual emissions pledges made so far by more than 150 countries — their ‘intentional nationally determined contributions’, to borrow the jargon — will be enough to stop the planet from crossing the ‘dangerous’ threshold of becoming 2°C hotter than in pre-industrial times. Much of the conference will consist of attempts to make these targets legally binding. This debate will be conducted on the basis that there is a known, mechanistic relationship between the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how world average temperatures will rise.

Unfortunately, as Curry has shown, there isn’t. Any such projection is meaningless, unless it accounts for natural variability and gives a value for ‘climate sensitivity’ —i.e., how much hotter the world will get if the level of CO2 doubles. Until 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a ‘best estimate’ of 3°C. But in its latest, 2013 report, the IPCC abandoned this, because the uncertainties are so great. Its ‘likely’ range is now vast — 1.5°C to 4.5°C.

This isn’t all. According to Curry, the claims being made by policymakers suggest they are still making new policy from the old, now discarded assumptions. Recent research suggests the climate sensitivity is significantly less than 3˚C. ‘There’s growing evidence that climate sensitivity is at the lower end of the spectrum, yet this has been totally ignored in the policy debate,’ Curry told me. ‘Even if the sensitivity is 2.5˚C, not 3˚C, that makes a substantial difference as to how fast we might get to a world that’s 2˚C warmer. A sensitivity of 2.5˚C makes it much less likely we will see 2˚C warming during the 21st century. There are so many uncertainties, but the policy people say the target is fixed. And if you question this, you will be slagged off as a denier.’

Curry added that her own work, conducted with the British independent scientist Nic Lewis, suggests that the sensitivity value may still lower, in which case the date when the world would be 2˚C warmer would be even further into the future. On the other hand, the inherent uncertainties of climate projection mean that values of 4˚C cannot be ruled out — but if that turns out to be the case, then the measures discussed at Paris and all the previous 20 UN climate conferences would be futile. In any event, ‘the economists and policymakers seem unaware of the large uncertainties in climate sensitivity’, despite its enormous implications.

Meanwhile, the obsessive focus on CO2 as the driver of climate change means other research on natural climate variability is being neglected. For example, solar experts believe we could be heading towards a ‘grand solar minimum’ — a reduction in solar output (and, ergo, a period of global cooling) similar to that which once saw ice fairs on the Thames. ‘The work to establish the solar-climate connection is lagging.’

Curry’s independence has cost her dear. She began to be reviled after the 2009 ‘Climategate’ scandal, when leaked emails revealed that some scientists were fighting to suppress sceptical views. ‘I started saying that scientists should be more accountable, and I began to engage with sceptic bloggers. I thought that would calm the waters. Instead I was tossed out of the tribe. There’s no way I would have done this if I hadn’t been a tenured professor, fairly near the end of my career. If I were seeking a new job in the US academy, I’d be pretty much unemployable. I can still publish in the peer-reviewed journals. But there’s no way I could get a government research grant to do the research I want to do. Since then, I’ve stopped judging my career by these metrics. I’m doing what I do to stand up for science and to do the right thing.’

We need more like Curry who are wiling to stand up for science.  It’s a real pity that a serious scientist, such as Curry, is victimized by a professional shunning due to her fierce independence and criticism of the conventional scientific wisdom.  Lest we forget, the conventional scientific wisdom at one point in history argued the world was flat.