Global warming: Mr Blair’s hot air

If the UK prime minister is not scaremongering about global warming, why does he exceed even the worst-case scenario predicted by the IPCC?

Helene Guldberg

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UK prime minister Tony Blair, speaking at a World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-hosted conference in central London on 6 March 2001, warned that ‘the evidence grows daily all around us of the dangers of indifference to our duty to treat nature with respect, and care for our environment’.

But is the evidence about global warming really that clear cut?

Pledging £100million towards the development of renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power, Blair claimed that ‘the Earth’s temperature [is] expected to be up to six degrees celsius above 1990 levels by 2100’. The likely consequence of this, he said, is ‘increased flooding, soil erosion, decreased crop yields, increased risk of epidemics. Deserts will grow. Disease will spread. Many species of plant and wildlife are expected to become extinct.…Some of our most familiar plants will disappear, ones we consider exotic will become commonplace, and many of our animals and insects will be forced to migrate northwards or disappear altogether’.

Blair concluded his vision of apocalypse by stressing that ‘we would be irresponsible to treat these predictions as scaremongering’. But scaremongering is precisely what Blair’s predictions are.

The scenarios for climate change outlined by Blair – and widely rehearsed by other scientists and commentators – are not based on empirical observations but on statistical extrapolations. The mathematical models used by climate experts are based on assumptions about a whole host of complex and interconnected factors, many of which are still not sufficiently understood.

‘Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis’, the draft report of 9 February 2001 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a UN-sponsored group made up of the world’s leading atmosphere scientists – admits that our understanding of climate change is shrouded in ‘uncertainty’. UN advisers accept that we still lack knowledge about a number of factors thought to affect the global climate – including solar variation, volcanic eruptions, sea-ice dynamics, ocean-heat transport, and water vapour.

Such is this uncertainty that the IPCC range of estimated temperature increases has widened rather than narrowed over the past few years. In 1995 the IPCC forecast that the globe would warm by between 1.5 degrees and 3.5 degrees celsius over the next 100 years. In the IPCC’s 2001 report, the range widened to between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees. The error bars that the IPCC gives in relation to their many predictions are huge, to allow for the possible inaccuracies in the science that goes into the computer models which make the predictions.

So if Blair is not scaremongering, why does he exceed even the worst-case scenario predicted by the IPCC? And when he claims that his predictions ‘represent the considered opinions of some of the world’s best scientists’, what about those scientists who do not share his vision of doom?

Global warming sceptic Professor Philip Stott, from the University of London, argues that ‘the IPCC models and correlations are not new; they are recycled’. He goes on to explain that ‘computer models present various “stories” or scenarios, and people should not see them as outcomes that are bound to happen. There are over 40 such stories; inevitably, of course, the media selects the very worst storyline’. As we have seen, so does the UK prime minister.
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