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13 August 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Worlds apart
Between the myth of global warming and the complex science of climate change.

by Philip Stott

In any discussion of climate change, it is essential to distinguish between the complex science of climate and the myth - in the sense of Roland Barthes, or the 'hybrid', following Bruno Latour - of 'global warming' (1).

The latter is a politico-pseudoscientific construct, developed since the late 1980s, in which the human emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, is unquestioningly taken as the prime driver of a new and dramatic type of climate change that will result in a significant warming during the next 100 years and lead to catastrophe for both humanity and the Earth.

This, in turn, has morphed since 1992 and the Rio Conference on the environment into a legitimising myth for a gamut of interconnected political agendas - above all for a range of European sensibilities with regards to America, oil, the car, transport, economic growth, trade, and international corporations.

The language employed tends to be authoritarian and religious in character, involving the use of what the physicist PH Borcherds has termed the 'hysterical subjunctive' (2). Indeed, for many, the myth has become an article of a secular faith that exhibits all the characteristics of a premodern religion, above all demanding sacrifice to the Earth.

By contrast, the science of climate change starts from the principle that we are concerned with the most complex, non-linear, chaotic system known, and that it is distinctly unlikely that climate change can be predicted by reference to a single factor, however politically convenient that factor. Above all, in approaching the science, as distinct from the myth, it is necessary precisely to examine three questions.

First, is the climate changing? The answer has to be: 'Of course it is.' Evidence throughout geological time indicates climate change at all scales and all times. Climate change is the norm, not the exception, and at any moment the Earth is either warming or cooling. If climate were ever to become stable, it would be a scientifically exciting phenomenon. To declare that 'the climate is changing' is therefore a truism.

By contrast, the global warming myth harks back to a lost Golden Age of climate stability, or, to employ a more modern term, climate 'sustainability'. Sadly, the idea of a sustainable climate is an oxymoron. The fact that we have rediscovered climate change at the turn of the Millennium tells us more about ourselves, and about our devices and desires, than about climate. Opponents of global warming are often snidely referred to as 'climate change deniers'; precisely the opposite is true. Those who question the myth of global warming are passionate believers in climate change - it is the global warmers who deny that climate change is the norm.

Secondly, do humans influence climate? Again, the answer is: 'Of course they do.' Hominids and humans have been affecting climate since they first manipulated fire to alter landscapes at least 750,000 years ago, but possibly as far back as two million years. Recent research has further implicated the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, as an important human factor. Humans influence climate in many ways, through altering the albedo (the reflectivity) of the surface of the Earth, through changing the energy balance of the Earth, by emitting particles and aerosols, as well as by those hoary old favourites, industrial emissions.

In Russia, global warming has been likened to Lysenkoism
Here we encounter the second major difference between the science and the myth. In fact, human influences on climate are multi-factorial. Unfortunately, we know precious little about most of them. My own instinct is that our ability to change the reflectivity of the Earth's surface will, in the end, prove to have been far more important than industrial emissions. After all, if Lex Luthor covered the Tibetan High Plateau with black plastic sheeting, even Superman might have problems dealing with the monsoons.

Thirdly, will we be able to produce predictable climate change, and a stable climate, by adjusting just one human variable, namely carbon dioxide emissions, out of the millions of factors, both natural and human, that drive climate? The answer is: '100 per cent, no.' This is the seminal point at which the complex science of climate diverges irreconcilably from the central beliefs of the global warming myth. The idea that we can manage climate predictably by minimal adjustments to our output of some politically selected gases is both naive and dangerous.

The truth is the opposite. In a system as complex and chaotic as climate, such an action may even trigger unexpected consequences. It is vital to remember that, for a coupled, non-linear system, not doing something (ie, not emitting gases) is as unpredictable as doing something (ie, emitting gases). Even if we closed down every factory in the world, crushed every car and aeroplane, turned off all energy production, and threw four billion people worldwide out of work, climate would still change, and often dramatically. The only trouble is that we would all be too poor to be able to adapt to the changes, whatever their direction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the myth is starting to implode. The conservationist and Green guru Professor David Bellamy has recently described the idea of global warming as 'poppycock'. Serious new research at the Max Planck Institute has indicated that the sun is likely to be a far more significant factor than emissions; Dr Bill Burrows, a climatologist and a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, has concluded: 'Perhaps we are devoting too many resources to correcting human effects on the climate without being sure that we are the major contributor.'

The recent temperature 'spike', known as 'the hockey stick', has been unmasked as a statistical artefact, while the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age have been statistically rediscovered. Moreover, the latest research has shown that there has probably been no real warming, except that which is surface-driven. And in Russia, global warming has been likened to Lysenkoism - a notorious episode in Soviet science featuring a non-scientific peasant plant-breeder, named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976), who became the leading proponent of Michurianism during the Lenin/Stalin years. IV Michurin was, in turn, a proponent of Lamarckism, from Lamarck, the scientist who argued for a now largely discredited theory of evolution.

Accordingly, the predication of government, and United Nations', policy for energy growth on the unsustainable myth of global warming is a serious threat to us all, but especially to the 1.6billion people in the less-developed world who have no access to any modern form of energy. The twin curses of water poverty and energy poverty remain the real scandals. By contrast, the political imposition on the rest of the world of our Northern, self-indulgent ecochondria about global warming could prove to be a neocolonialism too far.

Philip Stott is professor emeritus of biogeography in the University of London, and blogs at EnviroSpin Watch.

(1) See Roland Barthes' famous 1956 essay 'Myth today' (available inter alia in 'A Roland Barthes Reader', edited by Susan Sontag, Vintage Classics); See Bruno Latour (1991 [1993]) 'We have never been modern'. (Trans. by Catherine Porter). Edinburgh: Pearson.

(2) See PH Borcherds 1999. 'Science or anti-science?' Eur J Phys20, pp. 357 - 364.

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