It’s perishing hot here in the south of France and I hate it. It’s maybe a degree and a half above August temperatures in recent years (I’m guessing) which is enough to make nights a misery. OK, it means I can pop out for a morning dip (the Mediterranean is only fifty yards away) without suffering the pangs of the proverbial brass monkey but still.. Should I go Vegan in order to bring the global mean temperature back to its senses? Or install air conditioning? Why should I worry about the minimal addition to my absurdly feeble carbon hoofprint implied by an air conditioning unit, given that Greta Thunberg’s decision to imitate her Viking ancestors in sailing across the Atlantic has wiped out my personal contribution to global warming at a stroke? Thanks Greta.
But on hot nights when the digestive effects of the previous day’s cargolade and the drunken shouts of nightclubbers disturb my slumber, I do sometimes wonder: What if we climate sceptics are thoroughly mistaken in our take on climate science? What if the consensus is right?
Have you ever thought about that? What if temperatures do go through the roof, and Florida and Manhattan disappear beneath the sea as predicted? Who here would be willing to sign a letter of contrition addressed to the 200 odd national scientific bodies, the 97% of climate scientists and the Guardian letters page? Hands up.
I thought not.
First let’s define what “being wrong” means. Can we all agree that the essential measure of climate change / catastrophe / collapse is climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric CO2? Good. Estimated in the 1970s as somewhere between a barely noticeable and probably beneficent 1.5°C and a hellish 4.5°C, fifty years and several billions of dollars of research later, it is now estimated to be… somewhere between 1.5 and 4.5°C.
“Being wrong” would therefore mean a climate sensitivity being proved to be at the hellish end of things, somewhere between 3 and 4.5 degrees or more. “Being wrong” would mean the current global temperature (currently dipping after a 2016 el Niño high, according to the Climatic Research Unit) suddenly taking off again, but not at the stately rate of about 1.5°C per century which it has maintained since about 1980 (I’ve cherry-picked my starting date to be as favourable as possible to the opposing point of view, as any scientist would) but twice or four times as fast. That means a hockey stick – a sudden sharp elbow in the global temperature graph – occurring some time soon.
Being wrong would mean thousands of people dying every time there’s a heatwave, as they did in 2003.
Being wrong would mean English children not knowing what snow looked like.
Being wrong would mean people relying on water from standpipes being entirely the fault of greenhouse gasses, and nothing to do with the needs of water companies to keep their shareholders happy.
But this is all in the future. What about the data, the actual global temperature rise, as measured by NOAA and the World Meteorological Association? They currently estimate global temperature rise during the 20thcentury to have been 0.9°C, which is almost twice their estimate of 0.5°C twenty years ago. (At current rates of adjustment of past data, by 2039 they will be estimating that 20th century warming/heating was in fact nearly 2°C, which would imply that current temperature rise is decelerating. But all this is mere projection on my part, and as Kevin Trenberth has reminded us, projection is what climate scientists do. Better not go there.)
One degree is the kind of beneficent warming that in the twentieth century resulted in improvements in agricultural yields which lifted billions out of starvation. A catastrophic rise of three or four or six degrees per century requires temperatures to start rising right now at a rate two or four or six times faster than they have ever risen in history. If it happens, then we sceptics will have been wrong, and we must admit it. It hasn’t – so far. But just suppose…
“Being wrong’” is easy to define in terms of expectations of temperature rise, but more difficult in terms of possible consequences (Working Group 2 of the IPCC reports.)
Suppose average global temperatures rise one or two degrees in the next three decades (that’s the minimum period climate scientists require to know it’s not just weather.) That would be the clearest possible sign that we were wrong and the catastrophists were right. But what would it mean? First, almost certainly increased crop yields over a vast part of the planet, with cheaper, more abundant food. Second, even more uncomfortable temperatures in parts of the world (especially mega-cities) where summer temperatures are already pretty unbearable, mainly in Asia and Africa, where economic development proceeds at a healthy rate, and where they have been promised three trillion dollars for mitigation and adaptation under the Paris Agreement. You can buy an awful lot of air conditioning and desalination plants for three trillion dollars. Among the worst hit cities would be Baghdad and Damascus, and possibly Caracas, where apparently the electricity supply is not 100% reliable, don’t ask me why.
Now it could be that, despite all the measures of mitigation and adaptation enabled by the trillions of dollars of aid promised by rich countries of the temperate regions, millions may die or seek more temperate climes as climate refugees anyway. That’s the second way we might be wrong.
To me, and I suppose to most climate sceptics, the claims of the World Health Organisation, the British Medical Association and others about millions dying, millions more crossing the Mediterranean, and diseases and mental illness etc. spreading as a result of climate change are logically independent from, but psychologically equivalent to, similar knicker-wetting in the hard sciences. It doesn’t matter what your speciality or the nature of your data; you may be ex-NASA chief scientist James Hansen predicting the drowning of Manhattan; or ex-Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Race laying odds on the imminent extinction of the human Rees; or some underfunded PhD student worrying about the habitat loss of her favourite beetle or glacier – the psychological mechanism is the same. It’s an Expert thing.
But just suppose, once again, that we’re wrong about the facts, and climate catastrophe does in fact happen – as regularly predicted by the serious media – and Manhattan, the beetle, the glacier, and the human race do all pop their clogs.
I like to imagine us dozen clisceppers, plus our faithful fans – last survivors of a doomed species – still blogging away from our diesel generator-powered eco-resilient redoubts, pointing out that, despite appearances to the contrary, we were right all along.
Because no climate scientist ever predicted that spewing a regular x zillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere would have no effect except a gentle benign temperature rise, indistinguishable from other previous temperature rises, for 70 years, followed by a savage threefold increase in temperature for no apparent reason starting at the very moment that the Paris Agreement persuaded the world to behave better, and suddenly causing the world order to collapse.
Because no temperature rise on earth can efface the evidence that refugees from hot countries south of the Mediterranean are not coming to Europe looking for a place in the shade, but for jobs with salaries enabling them to support their poor suffering families back home in the tropics.
Because admitting that we were wrong would be admit that the scientists were right to falsify graphs; to create hockey sticks out of thin air; to turn evidence from Finnish mud upside down to get the right answer; to use tree rings as temperature proxies when the tree ring experts said explicitly that they were not temperature proxies; to correct wonky temperature data decades after the thermometers and their proprietors had gone to their long home; to make stuff up where there was no evidence; to lie to the media claiming that they had been vindicated when they had been caught red-handed suppressing data, hiding data, losing data.
Because all the lies propagated by academia and the media about temperature rise from 1950 to 2020 and its effects cannot – logically cannot – be effaced or reversed by an acceleration of temperature rise in the future.
Because the total uselessness of windfarms, solar panels, and electric cars is not going to be changed by a rise in temperature. They don’t work. Air conditioning does.
There. I’ve convinced myself. But too late. I’m now back home in a proper house with air conditioning and no longer fifty yards away from an ever rising Mediterranean gaining on me three millimetres every year. My sleep is no longer disturbed by the shrieks of orgiastic pleasure coming from revellers on the soon to be drowned beach. I can now sleep easy knowing that, even if we sceptics are totally wrong about our optimistic projections of future temperature rise, that doesn’t make Michael Mann a scientist.
We can be 100% wrong about our predictions of future temperatures and their effects, and still 100% right about the nature of science, of truth, of reality.
Isn’t that odd?