Why climate alarmism isn’t toppled by cock-ups
It will take more than exposés of scientific errors to dent green miserabilism, because its roots are moralistic rather than scientific.
Climate change is certainly not an exact science. In fact, if the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World is anything to go by, it appears to be a wildly inaccurate science.
Published last week, the thirteenth edition of the widely respected resource revealed that the Arctic ice covering Greenland has shrunk by 300,000 square kilometres, or 15 per cent, since the twelfth edition of the atlas was published in 1999. The atlas’s publishers, Harper Collins, were clearly delighted by the news, and promptly flagged it up in an accompanying press release: ‘This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever – and doing so at an alarming and accelerating rate.’
And, as is to be expected of all decent churnalists, out came the headlines. ‘New atlas shows the extent of climate change’, said the Guardian. ‘Atlas shows warming of the Earth’, announced the Press Association. ‘Competition: win a copy of the thirteenth edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas’, celebrated the Ecologist, the toffee-nosed-and-funded magazine that has never knowingly sacrificed a chance to see man as the bane of the planet.
For those all too inclined to believe the worst in the warmest of all possible worlds, there was no need to question the Times Atlas’s revelation. It merely told them what they already knew – that our nasty industrialised ways are destroying Earth.
But among those who actually know a little about ice sheets, the atlas’s findings were a little too much of a revelation. First up were researchers from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, who promptly wrote to the atlas’s editors: ‘There is to our knowledge no support for this [15 per cent] claim in the published scientific literature.’ Other scientists in the field were quick to back up the Cambridge researchers. ‘The claims here’, said Graham Cogley from Trent University, ‘are simply not backed up by science; this pig can’t fly’. Others agreed. Jeffrey Kargel of the University of Arizona, principal scientist on a project involving the mapping of ice and glaciers from space, was unequivocal: ‘These new maps are ridiculously off base, way exaggerated relative to the reality of rapid change in Greenland. I don’t know how exactly the Times Atlas produced their results, but they are not scientific results.’
So how exactly did the Times Atlas cartographers produce their results? More kindly commentators have suggested that the atlas bods foolishly relied on the National Snow and Ice Data Center-maintained online resource, the Atlas of the Cryosphere. This apparently shows the thickness of the central part of the ice sheet over Greenland, but it does not show the thickness of the ice sheet’s periphery. The cartographers presumably interpreted this to mean that the peripheral ice did not exist - that it had melted. Other critics have been less generous, with one suggesting they might have been just a little too reliant on that bastion of truth, Wikipedia.
This is not the first time that evidence of man’s destructive effect on the planet, or ‘climate change’ as it’s otherwise known, has been exaggerated. Most famously, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserted that the Himalayan glaciers ‘are receding faster than in any other part of the world’. If the Earth keeps warming at the current rate, it continued, ‘the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high’. This worry-inducing factoid was circulated far and wide: it popped up in countless newspaper articles; it emerged from the mouth of Nepal’s prime minister in 2009; it even caused the UN’s resident coordinator in China to warn, in 2007, that China’s water supply was under threat. Sadly for those dreaming of the world’s dried-up future, this indubitable fact turned out to be bull-emitted fiction. The glaciers may or may not be shrinking, but either way, the degree to which they are is negligible.
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Just like the incredible shrinking Greenland ice sheet, a piece of half-baked speculation had simply been used without checking because, well, it seemed true enough. The IPCC error was remarkable for its complacency. The claim that the Himalayan glaciers were about to disappear was originally made in an Indian magazine in 1999 by an academic called Syed Hasnain. It was then recycled by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce in 1999, seized upon by the animal-loving World Wildlife Fund in a 2005 report, before the IPCC enthusiastically took the factoid up, unalloyed with anything approaching research, because it fitted its doom-filled narrative. And just as the Times Atlas crew turned fiction into mapped-out fact, so in the Gospel According to the IPCC, one man’s ‘speculative’ hypothesis, as Hasnain called it, became truth.
Similar mistaken facts, born of the environmentalist’s belief that they must be true, are evident elsewhere. Take that purveyor of inconvenient truths, Al Gore. It turns out that, for Gore, ‘inconvenient’ is also used as a synonym for ‘made up’. So it was in a speech at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, much-heralded at the time, little-remembered afterwards, that Gore, puffed up with the Good Green Cause, declared that research shows there is a 75 per cent chance that within five to seven years the entire polar ice cap could be ice-free during the summer months. The only problem for fans of the environmental Gore-no genre was that there was no such research. The climatologist Gore excitedly cited, Dr Wieslav Maslowski, was forced to admit that Gore might have got carried away by dreams of a hot, crappy future. ‘I was very explicit’, explained Maslowski, ‘that we were talking about near-ice-free conditions and not completely ice-free conditions in the northern ocean’.
There have been numerous other exaggerations and fictions taken as fact over the past few years: mistakenly high accounts of exactly how much of the Netherlands is below sea level; a dubious assertion that 40 per cent of the Amazon rain forest will be lost to climate change… And each time that the poorly researched facts are exposed as being groundless, those sceptical towards climate change slap their backs raw in the hope that now, finally, the edifice of climate-change propaganda will come crashing down around their factually grounded feet. So in response to the Times Atlas cock-up, one blog harrumphed: ‘Just another warmist myth’. Elsewhere, a newspaper columnist concluded: ‘Too much evidence has come to light in recent years to suggest that much of their belief in global warming may be little more than a vastly overblown scare.’
Yet such over-eager triumphalism on the part of climate-change sceptics is misplaced. This is not because advocates of climate change are not frequently making mistakes. And it is not because the climate-change narrative, demanding so many facts to fit its story of manmade doom, is not fundamentally flawed. No, the problem with celebrating every scientific, factual refutation of the climate-change thesis as the beginning of the end for what remains the dominant narrative of our times, despite growing public indifference, is that climate change is not primarily a scientific issue. It was not born in science labs or in meteorology centres. And likewise, it will not be defeated by scientists or meteorologists, either.
That is because climate change is principally a political issue, not a scientific one. Climate-change alarmism is about channelling a vision of the future in which man, producing too much and consuming far more, is conceived as a problem. And the only way to challenge this widespread political and moral outlook is by coming up with something a little less human-hating – a political vision in which humanity’s needs and desires, our productive capacities and our consuming wants, are championed rather than denigrated. To rely on the mistakes of climate-change advocates to undermine their own cause is no substitute for the long-awaited, never-seen political debate about climate change.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.