Last night the BBC published a “reality check” about the “new climate change denial”:
COP26: The truth behind the new climate change denial
By Rachel Schraer & Kayleen Devlin
BBC Reality Check
This article is so full of logical fallacies that I was taken aback – you might say it was “worse than I thought.” I have witnessed over the years a slow change in the BBC: it has always published alarmist articles, but it has only recently began to demonise sceptics and argue past them with propaganda. The new article was a new low.
As world leaders met at the COP26 summit to debate how to tackle climate change, misleading claims and falsehoods about the climate spiralled on social media. Scientists say climate change denial is now more likely to focus on the causes and effects of warming, or how to tackle it, than to outright deny it exists.
The BBC would probably call me a denier, but I have never thought that global warming (as we used to call it) was not happening, nor that the increased concentration of CO2 was not a significant contributor. I was fully signed up to the alarm until I started looking at the data.
We’ve looked at some of the most viral claims of the past year, and what the evidence really says.
Good. Let’s see if any of your allegations stack up.
The claim: A ‘Grand Solar Minimum’ will halt global warming
People have long claimed, incorrectly, that the past century’s temperature changes are just part of the Earth’s natural cycle, rather than the result of human behaviour. In recent months, we’ve seen a new version of this argument. Thousands of posts on social media, reaching hundreds of thousands of people over the past year, claim a “Grand Solar Minimum” will lead to a natural fall in temperatures, without human intervention. But this is not what the evidence shows. A grand solar minimum is a real phenomenon when the Sun gives off less energy as part of its natural cycle. Studies suggest the Sun may well go through a weaker phase sometime this century, but that this would lead, at most, to a temporary 0.1 – 0.2C cooling of the planet. That’s not nearly enough to offset human activity, which has already warmed the planet by about 1.2C over the past 200 years and will continue to rise, possibly topping 2.4C by the end of the century.
OK, where to begin. I have never made any claims about Grand Solar Minima or anything else to do with the Sun. Nevertheless, some sceptics do major on this. But what proportion of these base their argument on the Sun “giving off less energy”? I do not believe that total solar irradiance (TSI) varies enough to have a sizeable effect on climate. That does leave room for nuance: what about irradiance in the UV? More importantly, what about the Sun’s magnetic field and its effect on cosmic rays and cloud formation? We know that the cosmic ray/cloud nucleation effect has been shown in principle. Whether this has a scaled-up effect, I do not know. But it is clumsy of the BBC to put the Sun in a crucible and boil it down to TSI alone.
We know recent temperature rises weren’t caused by the changes in the Sun’s natural cycle because the layer of atmosphere nearest the earth is warming, while the layer of atmosphere closest to the Sun – the stratosphere – is cooling. Heat which would normally be released into the stratosphere is being trapped by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from people burning fuel. If temperature changes on Earth were being caused by the Sun, we would expect the whole atmosphere to warm (or cool) at the same time.
The argument seems to be that because the Sun is nearer to the stratosphere than the troposphere, any increase in TSI would be noticeable in the stratosphere. But as usual there is nuance here that is not discussed. First, I draw your attention to this graphic of stratospheric temperatures by Remote Sensing Systems:
Note how the temperature does not, with the best will in the world, seem to be declining as the BBC would have you believe – at least, not since the mid 90s. You can see the temperature spikes owing to volcanic dust. But we also know that the earlier part of the figure coincides with another onrushing catastrophe, the ozone hole. Naturally ozone is famed for absorbing UV and sparing us skin cell damage – such absorption, one presumes, increases the temperature of the stratosphere. Thus we might expect a decline in ozone to be matched by a decline in stratospheric temperatures absent any nudging from increased CO2 concentrations in the troposphere.
The claim: Global warming is good
Various posts circulating online claim global warming will make parts of the earth more habitable, and that cold kills more people than heat does. These arguments often cherry-pick favourable facts while ignoring any that contradict them.
Pot, meet kettle. In any case I am always cautious in saying that cold kills more than hot. Sure, more people by far die in the winter, a pattern exemplified in the UK. This is as much to do with respiratory illnesses as actual temperatures, since the low temperatures force socialising to be done indoors. And no-one freezes to death in the UK (there are rare exceptions). But there are falls on ice leading to broken hips, and hypothermia in cold homes.
For example, it’s true that some inhospitably cold parts of the world could become easier to live in for a time. But in these same places warming could also lead to extreme rainfall, affecting living conditions and the ability to grow crops, [sic for hanging comma]
“For a time”? What is it that the BBC knows that we don’t? Is Aunty seriously suggesting that EVERYWHERE THAT IS TOO COLD NOW WILL SOON BE TOO HOT? Also, that’s a magnificent “could” they slipped in there. Sure, it “could” lead to extreme rainfall, but I don’t think there’s any serious evidence for that.
At the same time, other parts of the world would become uninhabitable as a result of temperature increases and rising sea levels, like the world’s lowest-lying country, the Maldives.
It is only possible to make such claims if you do not know, or deliberately do not wish to know, how low-lying islands in the Maldives are formed. The claim is wrong. If the Maldives are under threat, it is from construction, water abstraction, pollution, overfishing, etc… none of which are things the locals can blame the West for. Nor can they demand reparations for them.
There may be fewer cold-related deaths. According to a study published in the Lancet, between 2000 and 2019, more people died as a result of cold weather than hot. However, a rise in heat-related deaths is expected to cancel out any lives saved. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says overall, “climate-related risks to health [and] livelihoods…are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5 degrees”. Any small local benefits from fewer cold days are expected to be outweighed by the risks of more frequent spells of extreme heat.
Oh good, well, I suppose there is no such thing as an air conditioner? I know, power is going to be so expensive that… wait! These hot days will coincide with strong sunshine and free power via solar PV, so it looks like we’re saved after all. It will be easier, I hope the BBC will agree, to use solar power to cool houses than it will to use solar power to heat them.
The claim: Climate change action will make people poorer
A common claim made by those against efforts to tackle climate change is that fossil fuels have been essential to driving economic growth. So limiting their use, the argument goes, will inevitably stunt this growth and increase the cost of living, hurting the poorest.
The claim is made and as far as I can see it is true. It would take powerful evidence to disprove it.
But this isn’t the whole picture. Fossil fuels have powered vehicles, factories and technology, allowing humans over the past century to make things at a scale and speed which would previously have been impossible. This enabled people to make, sell and buy more things, and become richer.
Still true. The “but” is still hanging portentously, sword of Damocles style.
But stopping using coal doesn’t mean returning to the days of ox-drawn carts and hand-cranked machines – we now have other technologies that can do a similar job. In many places, renewable electricity – powered by wind or solar energy for example – is now cheaper than electricity powered by coal, oil or gas. On the other hand, studies predict that if we don’t act on climate change by 2050, the global economy could shrink by 18% because of the damage caused by natural disasters and extreme temperatures to buildings, lives, businesses and food supplies. Such damage would hit the world’s poorest the hardest.
The renewable electricity is free inasmuch as it uses no fuel. It is still more expensive than fossil fuel power in most cases. Otherwise there would not be an annual £10,000,000,000 bill for renewable subsidies in the UK, nor a >£1,000,000,000 bill for balancing the grid every year. No allowance is made for the necessity for doubling supply in order to provide for lulls in the wind, etc. To say that the global economy could shrink by 18% because of climate change needs its own reality check. From memory, this relates to a decrease against a large “business as usual” baseline, AND it depends on socio-economic conditions that are dependent on “anti-development” policies. (I will look this up and update when I have more time.)
The claim: Renewable energy is dangerously unreliable
Misleading posts claiming renewable energy failures led to blackouts went viral earlier in the year, when a massive electricity grid failure left millions of Texans in the dark and cold. These posts, which were taken up by a number of conservative media outlets in the US, wrongly blamed the blackout on wind turbines.
As I understand it, over-reliance on wind was at least a contributing factor.
Blackouts are an artefact of poor electricity generation and distribution management,” says John Gluyas, executive director of the Durham Energy Institute. He says the claim that renewable energy causes blackouts is “nonsensical…. Venezuela has oodles of oil and frequent blackouts”.
Wow – we have now hit rock bottom. Venezuela has lots of oil. Venezuela has grid failures. Therefore, too much oil is the cause of grid failures. Another case of “less is more”, or perhaps better, an obvious failure to match the two premises to the conclusion. Let’s see if we can construct one: Boris is blonde. Boris is stupid. Therefore, blonde hair made Boris stupid. Come on, BBC!
According to Jennie King from the think tank ISD Global, this discrediting of renewable energies is a “key line of attack for those keen to preserve reliance on, and subsidies for, oil and gas”.
“Those keen to preserve reliance on… oil and gas” – or, as I like to say, “those keen to keep the lights on.” (ISD again? The new go-to organisation for dumb quotes?)
Critics of renewable energy schemes also claim the technology kills birds and bats, ignoring the studies that estimate that fossil fuel-powered plants kill many times more animals.
That’s because wind turbines do kill birds and bats, and the studies showing worse from fossil fuel stations are wrong. (I promise to dig into this: I am relying on memory here, but I think the claim is that increasing CO2 is causing the deaths via speculative knock-on effects on climate, not anything to do with the power plants per se. Either way, this does not rule out nuclear power, which beats wind turbines for reliability and does not kill wildlife.)
There’s no doubt some wildlife, including birds, are killed by wind turbines. But according to the LSE’s Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment: “The benefits for wildlife of mitigating climate change are considered by conservation charities… to outweigh the risks, provided that the right planning safeguards are put in place, including careful site selection.”
Careful site selection? Perhaps Reality Check should look into how much of the North Sea is going to be covered with whirligigs, and then they can plot safe courses for migratory birds through this minefield, and tell seabirds where they are going to be able to safely forage? And I think the BBC has missed out a word in the name of that outfit: it’s the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
Perhaps the Reality Check team would find it useful to speak to a sceptic or three, to find out what they really think, rather than engaging in raising straw men that are easy to knock down, providing irrelevant or discredited evidence, not providing easily available relevant evidence (picking nuts), assuming the (impossible) worst and even presenting ill-constructed syllogisms supplied by an expert without a synapse or two firing off to say “hang on, this is nonsense.”