Why climate change is the least of our problems

Post by Clive Best

Cartoon-End-of-the-World

On the scale of problems facing humanity over the next 100 years climate change should pretty much be near the bottom of the list. Continuous over-hyping of impending doom has caused incoherent action to be taken too early, which can only damage western economies and must ultimately fail. Unlike any previous environmental scare, climate change is a perfect storm because there can be no simple solution to what is in effect a long term existential problem involving life itself. The 20% oxygen and 0.04% carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is determined by life on earth. Metabolism of carbon consumes oxygen producing carbon dioxide which is then photosynthesized by plants. Oxygen accumulates through buried carbon sediments, a very small percentage of which are fossil fuels. By increasing CO2 levels to 0.06% humans may slightly modify the net heat flux to space, but whether this is actually ‘dangerous’ or not is not at all clear. The IPCC is still unable to tell us whether climate sensitivity is as low as 1.5C or as high as 4.5C, and this range hasn’t changed in 36 years1! Yet climate sensitivity is crucial to decide if and when any action should be taken.

Climate change will remain a minor problem if climate sensitivity lies below ~2.5C, leaving plenty of time to plan to resolve it. Activists continuously lobbying to decarbonize the economy are simply playing the Devil’s advocate and being counter-productive. Every wind turbine built now may ease their consciences and perhaps even line their pockets, but all of those turbines will be abandoned after only 15-20 years. They are the modern equivalent of 60s tower blocks, because they fail to deliver any long term solutions. Europe has already invested ~ €1 trillion in renewable energy, yet the result is that it produces just a measly 4% of total electricity needs. Can it possibly be sustainable to pump in this level of investment every 15 years for such a ludicrously poor result? Technology advances so fast that it always pays to wait until a coherent technical solution emerges before entering a post fossil fuel world.

We humans have always had a preoccupation with end of the world myths and stories. This seems to be because we are the only species who are conscious of our own mortality, so we project our own looming death on to the earth itself. This is true across religions and primitive societies. Furthermore we almost seem to have a craving for ever more frightening imminent disasters. Foreseeing the end of the world has become one of our most perverse pleasures. In the middle ages the apocalypse was an ever-present threat. The Bible made it clear that the world would end, soon, and that Judgement Day would follow. Those who were sure they were going to heaven rather looked forward to this. The church hoped that the horrors of hellfire would encourage the unfaithful sinners to reform their ways.

Religious zealots no longer have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. As society has become more secular, so other groups like NGOs, scientists and politicians can now indulge in such scaremongering.  Recent examples include Bird Flu, Swine Flu, GMOs, and various health scares. Mostly though it has been environmental disasters that experts have assured us are inevitable.  Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” In 1977 Jimmy Carter stated on television: “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade.”

All such predictions of global disaster have been proved just as wrong as all the end-of-the-world forecasts from medieval religious zealots. Yet there is no sign that these experts are becoming more cautious about their apocalyptic promises. They are on a mission to save us from ourselves for our own good, by lobbying governments on our behalf. It is sinful for us to have enjoyed a good life so now we must pay back future generations for our indulgences. Perhaps this guilt tendency can be traced back to the Christian concept of original sin, and why the West now feels itself responsible for climate change, ignoring the benefits the modern world enables.  The past half century has brought us endless warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, bacon cancer scares, and of course climate catastrophe.

Anthropogenic climate change is like a very slow motion disaster movie. It may take one or two hundred years to happen but once it sets in (at least so we are told) doom is certain, unless we repent and mend our evil ways. There is no time left to waste time on debate, according to the BBC and its FOE/Greenpeace advisors. The scientific consensus must be upheld and sceptical voices must be silenced. The consensus agree on an urgent need for governments to impose carbon taxes to skew energy markets to benefit green companies in order to save our future great-great-grandchildren in 100 years time.

We only have to look at how much the world changed in the 20th century to see how ludicrous this argument is. You cannot manage an uncertain future. In 1900 horse transport was universal, except of course for the poor. Farms practiced crop rotation where yields were 3 times lower. No-one took a regular bath and health and sanitation was appalling. Everyone burned coal for heating and the future of transport was steam railways. Did they start fretting and worrying about a future world without coal? Did they imagine that within 40 years there would be two devastating world wars destroying their world view? Or that within 70 years there would be nuclear power, electronics, computers and the Internet. So why do we presume that the 21st century will be any different?

The basic question is whether climate change a real danger or not? We basically don’t know because it all depends on climate sensitivity to CO2 and unfortunately the IPCC still can’t really give us an answer.  We don’t even know for certain what future CO2 levels will be  because the IPCC ‘RCP’ scenarios all assume that the carbon cycle saturates causing an ever higher percentage of CO2 to remain in the atmosphere. This may well not be true.

Scaring young people is immoral. I spent much of my youth being frightened sick of an impending  nuclear holocaust. Did I live far enough away (Bromley) to survive a 10 Mton bomb dropped on London Bridge? Would we survive the radiation fallout if we stayed inside the house for a week? The same nuclear threat still exists today but we just don’t worry about it any more. As a result, I can’t now even afford to buy a 2-bed flat in London Bridge either!

Today it is the same story with climate change as it was 40 years ago with fear of a nuclear war. However there is one significant difference. Nuclear war was then and still remains today a real threat, whereas climate change simply isn’t. Today’s climate zealots are mostly middle-aged or elderly ex-politicians and scientists pushing for drastic cuts to “carbon emissions” onto future generations to save the planet. They know that they will all be long dead and gone before any tangible effects of climate change might come to pass, but they seek redemption now by saving the world, just like medieval religious zealots did.

Are humans part of nature or do we somehow imagine we have become gods able to control the climate? Homo sapiens only emerged 200,000 years ago, and became the dominant species only after the end of the last Ice Age. The climate determined where we migrated and where we flourished. No doubt it will continue to do so in the future. Humans have been on earth for the blink of an eye. The earth will survive with or without us.


1. Historical ECS values:
1979 ECS = 3±1.5C Charney Report
1990 ECS = 1.5 – 4.5C – IPCC FAR
1995 ECS = 1.5-4.5C – IPCC SAR
2001 ECS = 1.5-4.5C – IPCC TAR
2007 ECS = 2.0-4.2C – IPCC AR4
2013 ECS = 1.5-4.5C – IPCC AR5

10 thoughts on “Why climate change is the least of our problems

  1. “As society has become more secular, so other groups like NGOs, scientists and politicians can now indulge in such scaremongering.”

    A further example of scaremongering was the demonization of cholesterol. We are told now that low fat, high carbohydrate diets are causing an epidemic of late-onset diabetes and fat in the diet is not so bad as once believed.

    An adverse effect of a “health-food” diet that I experienced was nickel allergy, which causes extensive skin lesions that are regularly misdiagnosed as eczema. The most uncomfortable symptom is the development of what has become known as a “baboon’s bum”.

    A victim of this uncomfortable symptom of the “health-food syndrome” may be amazed that 6 weeks on a low-nickel diet will see remission of most of the symptoms, including the baboon bum.

    The cure is to switch from whole grains, legumes, and nuts–all high in nickel–to a low-nickel diet of refined food. Unfortunately, beer is on the list of high-nickel foods.

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  2. Some time ago I read an interesting book A.D. 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse which backs up a lot of what you have said about humanity’s belief in the world’s impending doom.

    In terms of temperature and CO2 one could add that the “science” shows that current levels of CO2 are linked to global temperatures 800 (+/-200) years ago . So maybe more interest should be taken in the period 1015-1415 (that looks awfully like the medieval warm period).

    Another point that I have never seen discussed is a mechanism for the end of interglacials. At the end of interglacials the CO2 is still going up while the temperature is going down.

    Surely we should have some interest in what happens at the end of an interglacial?

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  3. We should really be entering a new ice age within the next 1000 years, because currently the Arctic is experiencing lower summer insolation than Antarctica. The last ice age ended when northern summers coincided with the earth’s closest distance to the sun. Once ice begins to increase in the Arctic and spread to continents the earth cools rapidly due to increased albedo.

    Another Ice age in the northern hemisphere really would be a catastrophy for civilisation. So a little global warming lasting a few hundred years could be a blessing in disguise.

    Regarding health scares: I lived in Italy for many years and the best food was always simple peasant food. It doesn’t matter what you eat or drink so long as it is produced or cured locally. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen anymore in the UK. I prefer my vegetables to have mud on them rather than show polish.

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  4. Clive, of course this was the attitude of scientists in the past, such as Guy Callendar who wrote in the 1930s that burning fossil fuels will help to prevent the return of the deadly glaciers.

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  5. Clive Best: “It doesn’t matter what you eat or drink so long as it is produced or cured locally.”

    That’s a common attitude here in the south of France – understandably so. As my pharmacist cousin pointed out, the advantage of the traditional method of distribution was that if you poisoned your customers, only a relatively small number of people were affected.

    And cured of what?

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  6. Most of us love to contemplate global disaster, if we were to admit it. ‘End of the world’ scenarios are endlessly fascinating topics of conversation. We pack out theatres showing the latest disaster movies like there’s no tomorrow (sarc).
    CAGW seems to be an entirely different breed of the impending doom narrative. It is genetically, politically engineered uber hype based upon a statistically generated and supposedly ‘well defined’ risk of catastrophe rooted in basic physics observations coupled to ensembles of computer models generating near and far term atmospheric futures according to the ‘Laws of Physics’, yes, but constructed via a whole set of largely untestable and as yet unverifiable assumptions and simplifications about the real world. The narrative has grown wings, flown the nest, transmogrified into a grotesque, gigantic fire-breathing winged serpent which is busy eating up our natural landscapes, draining our financial resources and impoverishing millions in the developed world, whilst threatening to keep those in the Third World in the desperate poverty to which they have become accustomed. Not bad for a genetically/politically engineered tiny egg lovingly brooded in the late 1970s.
    Meanwhile, disasters rather more firmly rooted in science heap up at our door, largely ignored: the recurrence of a Carrington-type solar eruption which could decimate electronics, satellite communications and power grid infrastructure all over the world, effectively wiping out electronic communications and disrupting power supplies for months; the very real possibility of global cooling, resulting in widespread crop failures in mid-latitudes, punishing winters, especially in the NH, combined with the failure of tropical monsoon rains due to global circulation changes. With the current decommissioning of fossil fuel plants and the increasing reliance upon wind and solar energy having already rendered surplus energy margins wafer thin at times, such a scenario would be disastrous in Europe especially. Finally, the ever present possibility of a supervolcano going off somewhere around the globe.

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  7. There is an essay by Matt Ridley “The Climate Wars and The Damage to Science” published by GWPF today, see new blog post here.

    He mentions some of the same themes – the wide uncertainty range, the fact that “most environmental scares never turn out as bad as first feared”, and that “much greater humanitarian and environmental problems deserve more attention”.

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  8. Here is another very scary graph

    The earth’s magnetic field is reducing. It has fallen by 10% since 1850 and at that rate will reduce to zero in about 1000 years time. Perhaps it will flip completely sooner, as it has done many times in the past and knock out all our electronic systems. Why aren’t we worried about the rapid increase in cosmic rays entering the earth’s atmosphere? What will the effects be on climate?

    We are not worried about any of this because we blissfully unaware of it. This complacency must end so I think we should set up a committee that reports regularly on this growing threat to our very existence!

    😉

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  9. Pingback: COP21: a pointless virtue-signalling farce? | Climate Scepticism

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