The group which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, the International Panel on Climate Change, says that it is "very likely", i.e., 90 per cent sure, that global warming is due to increased greenhouse gas emissions generated by man. But "very likely" still leaves room for some uncertainly, doesn’t it?
So when I looked at the cover story of last week’s Nature, I thought that I might see coverage of that 10 per cent of unexplained observations and alternative hypotheses. To my surprise, there was none. Instead, there was a windy editorial, "Time to act", which says that the challenge of winding back global warming seems all but insurmountable. This was accompanied by articles headlined, "A burden beyond bearing", "Too much of a bad thing", "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne", and "The worst-case scenario".
It was more like a goose-pimpling special feature on asteroid collisions in the UK’s Sun or the New York Post than the world’s leading science journal. But respectable tabloids always tuck in a brief comment from a sceptic. Nature had none. Did its editors have no misgivings at all about the righteousness of their cause?
I confess to being a complete ignoramus about global warming and climate change. But I do like to read both sides of the story. And when experts insist that there is only one side and that I should sign on the dotted line without reading the fine print, I feel suspicious. Even ignoramuses have rights, you know.
That’s why I welcomed the chance to interview Australian geologist Ian Plimer about his latest book, Heaven and earth: global warming, the missing science. Plimer is Australia’s best-known geologist and a professor at the University of Adelaide. His book has created quite a stir in the media. Leading journalists have lumped him together with anti-Semitic nutters as a climate change "denialist" and colleagues are shredding his claims in the letters pages.
The vehemence of erstwhile friends suggests that something other than scientific truth is at stake here. And if there is, Plimer is well-qualified to ferret it out. He is a sceptic who not long ago wrote a book attacking creationist science with the provocative title Telling Lies for God. He can’t abide humbug and scientific politicking - and this is precisely what he claims is the matter with the IPCC’s prediction that we are all going to fry unless we radically reduce our reliance upon fossil fuels.
In fact, in his view, environmentalism is a religion filling a spiritual vacuum in modern life. He writes:
Both environmentalism and fundamentalist religions foster a sense of moral superiority in the believer. They create a sense of guilt. Our wickedness has damaged our inheritance and, although it is almost too late, immediate reform can transform the future.
It was a happy coincidence that Nature’s splash on climate change coincided with our conversation. He jabbed a stubby finger at the name of Stephen Schneider, the author of "The worst case scenario". This article envisages hundreds of millions fleeing from cities flooded by a 10-metre rise in the sea level and the extinction of half of known plant and animal species. "An interesting chap," he says. "In the 70s Schneider was telling us we were all going to die due to global cooling. Now he tells us we're all going to die due to global warming."
I am an agnostic about global warming, but as a voter I want to be able to interrogate experts who make decisions that affect my future. Plimer’s book, a 500-page brick with 2,311 footnotes is just what is needed to assess a scientific "consensus" which is seldom explained, justified - or questioned. It's long and detailed, but not obscure, with chapters on the history of the earth's climate, and on how the sun, the geology, ice, water and air each influence the climate. Just what you need to throw hardball questions at true believers.
In Australia the book is selling like hotcakes and it will be published in the US and the UK soon. A German-language edition is on the way. The release date was serendipitous: the exact moment when politicians and taxpayers are shaking empty piggybanks and wondering if they can afford climate mitigation schemes.
If you are an ignoramus like me, the credibility of global warming is supported by a few inconvenient truths. What sticks in my mind are these: temperatures have been rising steadily throughout the 20th century; islands in the Pacific are sinking as the seas rise; the Arctic ice pack is shrinking; and industrial activity is the main source of CO2.
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