21 Dec 2009
'Climate sceptics are like alcoholics' says Dr Wall
There is a moment in Malcolm Lowry's novel Under The Volcano that reminds me of climate change sceptics.
Doomed alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin is on a journey towards death but he insists to his estranged wife Yvonne and brother that he can drink a beer or two because beer isn't really alcohol.
For an alcoholic any excuse will do - even one as weak as the notion that alcohol isn't really alcoholic.
For climate sceptics any excuse is enough to keep on the oil they are addicted to.
The sceptics, like all addicts, resort to the lamest arguments to deny that there might be a problem.
For the right, climate denial is increasingly a matter of faith. Listening to scientists could be an indication of dangerous socialist inclinations.
Tory David Cameron likes to be seen cycling, albeit with the chauffeur carrying his bags, but climate denial is increasingly dominant in the Conservative Party.
Thatcher's former chancellor Lord Lawson is perhaps the best-known sceptic, but many of the most prominent Tory bloggers, such as Iain Dale, also reject the science of global warming.
I suspect that climate scepticism is virtually a membership requirement for UKIP. For the far-right, suspicion of scientists is nearly as popular as suspicion of Europeans and migrants.
Yet the facts of climate change are in essence very simple.
C02 in the atmosphere traps heat and leads to warming, temperatures are rising and this correlates with the highest CO2 for thousands of years. Thousands of peer-reviewed papers from scientists have established this link.
The arguments posed by the sceptics often lack logic.
David Bellamy, who seems to be an estranged BBC nature correspondent but at least has a scientific background, argues that CO2 is vital to life and is not a pollutant.
And? Water is vital to life and is not a pollutant but in large enough quantities it leads to drowning. CO2 in the atmosphere likewise alters the weather.
I once listened to Tory rightwinger Lord Monckton argue that the climate in the past had changed, suggesting that this refuted the role of "man-made" global warming. It is true that temperatures in the past have changed and a range of factors have been responsible, but saying that there are other causes of climate change does not refute the role of CO2.
The creation of huge stores of fossil fuel in the form of coal and oil has made our planet habitable for animal life.
Millions of years of geological activity have taken CO2 from the atmosphere, making the atmosphere breathable for mammals and temperate.
Yet in a matter of decades we are burning fossils that have taken millions of years to be laid down. This has potentially catastrophic results.
The sceptics have been funded by the multibillion-dollar coal and oil companies. Indeed scientists have been under huge pressure to deny the reality of climate change, particularly in the US during the Bush years.
It is important to follow the money trail, but listening to their arguments to see if they hold true is far more valuable when testing the relevance of climate sceptics.
A close examination of the sceptics' argument is extremely instructive. It reveals not a theory backed by evidence, let alone peer-reviewed papers, but a set of paradoxical claims.
Any argument will apparently do. And the sceptics seem to disagree with each other more than with the scientific mainstream.
Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, notes that sceptics can be divided into at least three different and largely contradictory species.
Trend sceptics deny that temperatures are rising. They argue that climate data is collected in cities where human activity artificially raises temperatures, climate change is an artefact of flawed data collection. However weather balloons are just one control that prove this to be false.
The fast-disappearing trend sceptics argue when presented with data that the scientists concerned are part of a conspiracy and lie.
Then there are attribution sceptics, who argue that warming is occurring but isn't caused by emissions. Sunspots are a favourite theory, while Piers Corbyn, the meteorologist brother of left Labour MP Jeremy, has a magnetic theory of climate change.
But such theories are contradicted by scientific data which provides both a model of the greenhouse effect and solid data showing that CO2 is rising with temperatures.
Last are the impact sceptics, who don't deny rising temperatures or reject the link with C02 emissions but say that warmer temperatures are beneficial.
The published statements of the sceptics are full of spin and internal contradiction. It is instructive to reflect that sceptics stole 10 years of emails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia and dug out one or two suspect statements about tree-ring data.
Scientists are imperfect and science, especially the science of climate change, is uncertain. Science is rarely immune from social influences, but scientific revolutions are propelled by data and the construction of testable alternatives. The sceptics are certainly not using the data to construct an alternative theory.
They are killing us with their words and slowing effective action on climate change. Now they are moving on to a new argument - that it is too late to act and humanity should do nothing.
Ending the oil addiction requires that we introduce a green new deal to create clean energy and to take sensible steps to create an economy that works with rather than against nature.
Sadly the current framework of global climate policy does not provide an alternative. Its model based on carbon trading has so far failed to cut emissions.
The most destructive effect of the climate sceptics has been to throw a huge cloud of dust over the science of climate change. This has distracted us from the real debate that is required - how to replace the current global framework with policies that actually work to reduce emissions.
In Lowry's cult masterpiece, the alcoholic Firmin ends up quite literally in the abyss. The oil-addicted sceptics are taking humanity in the same direction.
Derek Wall is a former principal speaker of the Green Party.