May 12, 2011
Yesterday I was at Downing College, Cambridge, for a Climate Change conference organised by Professor Alan Howard, the scientist/philanthropist/entrepreneur known, inter alia, for having devised the Cambridge diet and for funding the magnificent lecture hall in which the event took place. (For more reporting – and some brilliant cartoons from Josh who sat right next to me sketching in a most impressive way – see Bishop Hill; and many, many thanks to the Howard Trust for organising it.)
The big difference between this and almost any other Climate Change conference is that it was the first – in Britain, anyway, so far as I know – to field a solid team of scientists from both sides of the debate. The Warmists included Professor Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit, Professor Andrew Watson – also of the UEA and Professor John Mitchell, former chief scientist at the Met Office. The Sceptics – Realists if you prefer – included Professor Henrik Svensmark, Professor Nils-Axel Morner, and Professor Ian Plimer. Any mention of “Climategate” announced Prof Howard at the beginning would result in immediate ejection: he wanted to keep this event civil and scientific.
So no, I didn’t go up and introduce myself to Phil Jones as the man who made him world famous. I think he may have given me a long, hard, hollow stare at breakfast yesterday morning; and there was a dodgy moment during a coffee break where he perched his cup near me, suddenly noticed the danger, and fled elsewhere. But I certainly wasn’t going to bother him, not least because I think he cut a rather pitiable figure. His talk – essentially on why the CRU’s adjusted temperature figures are kosher – was slightly nervy and resolutely dull. I got the impression he now wishes climate science were just an apolitical backwater in which yer average PhD could happily eke out his career untroubled by the kind of controversy which has all but ruined Jones’s life.
Some of the presentations were excellent. It was particularly good to hear Professor Svensmark make his compelling case (which no one on the other side could successfully refute) on cosmic rays and cloud formation. But overall, I shared the disappointment expressed by one of the final speakers, Czech President Vaclav Klaus that there had been almost no honest, open debate between the two sides. One side made its case; then the other put its contradictory case. But apart from a bit of snide questioning and the odd sniping shot from the wings, there wasn’t much by way of robust exchanging of ideas. It was more – as Klaus noted – a series of monologues.
You’d have to be very naive, though, to conclude that the fault lay on both sides and that if only they could communicate with one another we’d all attain the sensible middle ground position where wisdom, truth and sweet reasonableness resides. That would be to fall for what I call the “Dog S*** Yoghurt Fallacy.”
It goes like this: one side of this debate thinks that the best thing to put in yoghurt is fruit; the other side is of the view that what really needs to be added to yoghurt is a nice bit of dog poo. Now suppose we were to compromise. Suppose the latter faction were to concede sufficient ground to agree that only a tiny quantity of dog poo should go into the mainly fruit-rich yoghurt, would this constitute a victory for commonsense?
Of course it wouldn’t. Even if just the smallest, smidgen of a fraction of dog poo were to go into that yoghurt it would still be irredeemably tainted. Similar rules apply to the current debate on global warming. On one side – what you might call the fruit side – you have those scientists, economists and, yes, bloggers who maintain that CO2 is a generally beneficial trace gas which encourages plant growth and poses no risk of catastrophic global warming. On the other side – the dog poo side, obviously – you have “scientists”, politicians, spivs, rent-seekers, cranks, whackos, eco-loons, EU fonctionnaires and such like who believe that CO2 poses a major problem to global climate and must be taxed and regulated to oblivion.
Which side is right? One of the very few things which emerged from yesterday’s debate with pellucid clarity was this:
WE DON’T KNOW.
The Warmist scientists are quite capable of talking a good game about their belief system, even to the point – almost – of being persuasive on the subject of their computer “projections” of future global temperatures.
But then, so too are the Sceptics. You’d need to be very set in your belief system indeed to come away from one of Professor Ian Plimer’s feisty, funny engaging lectures and not be convinced that the whole idea of AGW is a complete crock. Same goes for Professor Nils Axel Morner’s hilarious, crazy-Swede lecture on his experiences measuring sea-level rises in the Maldives (there hasn’t been any: whatever the Maldives president and his underwater cabinet tell you). Same also goes for Prof Svensmark: really his cosmic ray theory is gloriously compelling.
In other words there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty out there about the chaotic system which causes climate. But here’s the rub: global policy makers are acting as if there isn’t.
And the reason they’re acting as if there isn’t because, essentially, they have been hijacked by the scientists on the Warmist side who – behaving far more like political activists than dispassionate seekers after truth – have exaggerated the strength of their case, even to the point of tweaking their data and suppressing contradictory research, in order to ensure that their “correct” interpretation of reality is the one that prevails.
This was the whole point of the Climategate scandal and why it mattered. And since Climategate – as we saw from the entirely unapologetic, nay struttingly arrogant in some cases – behaviour of the Warmist scientists present absolutely zip-all has changed.
Hence Dr Klaus’s frustration. Apart from being the only European leader (apart from Hungary’s) worth his salt, Dr Klaus is also an economist and a former serf of a Communist state.
He said: “The arrogance of global warming activists and their fellow travellers in politics is something I know well from the past. They wish to suppress truth, control the market and dictate policy and I, who have spent most of my time living under communism feel obliged to warn against it.”
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