Poles Apart

Poles Apart: The Great Climate Change Debate

“The Alarmists were right, and we shouldn’t call them alarmists any more – or at least not all of them!” For rather dubious reasons Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal decided to call serious climate scientists Alarmists throughout their book. A retraction on the last page seemed to me rather late. But the appellation  suited the tenor of their title: Poles Apart:  Beyond the Shouting, Who’s Right about Climate Change?

(For the benefit of readers not familiar with the New Zealand background, Gareth Morgan is an economist and investment adviser who commissioned scientists, including sceptics, to answer the authors’ questions about climate change. The book reports the findings. Information about some of the papers they commissioned can be found on their website.)

The fancy on which the book proceeds is that there are two unruly groups of scientists, designated Alarmists and Sceptics, much occupied with hurling abuse at each other and consequently confusing the poor general public. But the authors have entered this baffling arena and emerged with a verdict, making suitable admonishments to the scrapping parties along the way.  It’s not a scene I recognise from my three years of reading about the sober work of climate scientists, but it’s the presentation framework chosen by the authors for what proves on the whole to be a genuine engagement with the science of climate change.

It’s the seriousness of that engagement which made their favourable verdict almost inescapable. Their exposition of how global warming is occurring, according to the science, is clear. Their account of the case for anthropogenic global warming covers both the evidence for warming — in the cryosphere, the oceans, the atmosphere and the biosphere — and the evidence that it is due to increased CO2 from fossil fuels and unable to be explained by any other cause.  The treatment is often quite detailed, and while they always have an eye open to the possibility of  overstatement they don’t actually accuse anyone of it in this section of the book. (Though in an earlier chapter they describe Michael Mann’s so-called hockey stick thesis as a grievous overstatement of the case and accuse the IPCC of conspiring to send a resoundingly false message to the public — a rather grievous overstatement itself.)

They do their best with the case against global warming, but it is apparent they are having difficulty with it. They lean towards Svensmark’s theory of the significance of cosmic rays, finding its graphs carry some conviction but they don’t make a big deal of it. They consider the argument that increased precipitation will decrease the impact of increasing water vapour as a feedback mechanism. Some attention is given to Lindzen’s theory that there is a self-correcting mechanism in high cirrus changes above the tropics, depending on warmth, but they acknowledge that it has not fared well against evidence. In fact this chapter ends with the acknowledgement that the objections to the theory of anthropogenic global warming are weak, but adds they do leave doubts about the IPCC’s numbers, especially the projections of how much warming to expect.

However when the book turns to that question it reaches the conclusion that the result of doubling the CO2 level in the atmosphere is highly unlikely to lead to anything less than a 2 degree temperature rise and settles for the IPCC’s estimates of a range between 2 and 4.4 degrees. Incidentally at the end of this chapter Bob Carter’s five ‘tests’ against anthropogenic global warming are examined and found seriously wanting. ‘Straw man tests’ they conclude.

Considering their own difficulties in finding substance in sceptical positions it seems unreasonable of them to complain that climate scientists haven’t paid sceptics the attention they deserve.  The authors’ evidence for this seems to be largely anecdotal. They nowhere point to wilful neglect of serious hypotheses. They describe the peer-review process and the difficulty of achieving publication in prestigious journals as if it is open to abuse of power, but don’t venture that accusation themselves.

Cautions about science are always in order, of course, but the authors overstep the mark with comments like these: “The self-assurance with which climatology presently speaks may have more to do with the brash presumption of youth than with wisdom.”  This on the grounds that it is a comparatively recent science. I can’t say that I’ve noticed much self-assurance in what I’ve read of climate science – one often senses almost a reluctance to report what investigations are revealing – but in any case the comparison of climate science with human adolescence is hardly evidence of its inadequacy. It fits the fanciful framework of the book, that’s all.

The arrogance of the IPCC is an overworked theme in the book.  The authors don’t take serious issue with the IPCC findings, but still claim that the aggregate level of certainty in the reports is unwarranted. “It’s as though there has been a general agreement to bring back a verdict before all the evidence has been heard…a conspiracy to overstate the case.” They also accuse the IPCC of not communicating reasonably with the general public. It seems to me that the IPCC bends over backwards not to overstate the case, and if anything errs on the side of caution. And so far as talking to the general public goes, the media’s frequent failure to engage systematically with the subject has made clear communication difficult. However, many illuminating books and articles are readily available to anyone who will take the trouble to read them. I’m no scientist, but I could follow Elizabeth Kolbert and Tim Flannery and James Lovelock (all borrowed from the library at no cost) when I first tried to get a proper handle on climate science three years or so ago, and since then I’ve found no shortage of material available for lay consumption. I don’t know why Morgan and McCrystal weren’t satisfied with such sources, but far be it from me to disparage journeys of discovery, however expensive and whatever the conveyance. They ended up at a fitting destination, and their explanations of why they got there are generally well told and accessible to the general reader.

Their accompanying claims that great uncertainty still surrounds the extent of climate change and its impact are beside the point. All the scientists will acknowledge that there’s a great deal not yet understood. The question is whether there’s enough that is understood to add up to a scientific consensus that we’re in a danger zone.  If there is, then the reservations the authors express hardly measure up against the seriousness of the issue. In a brief concluding comment on policy decisions they advise against using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. (Some likelihood!) When I saw that I wondered whether they have quite realised the consequences of their favourable verdict.

Incidentally on policy matters, the book is incorrect about China and the Kyoto treaty. China ratified it in 2002. Admittedly Kyoto didn’t require them as a developing nation to cut emissions, but they were part of the agreement. The US is the only member to have signed the protocol and then refused to ratify it.

31 thoughts on “Poles Apart”

  1. thanks for that Gareth. Don’t think i’ll be rushing out to buy the book – it’ll be interesting to see how many do, and whether the cranks push the bits they like, such as the treatment of the IPCC.

  2. There mightn’t be so many people squawking about ‘alarmists’ if scientists like James Hansen (a ‘serious climate scientist’), just stuck to science and not pronouncements like “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains.” and the like – really not helping James!!! He’s obviously the tallest ‘poppy’, but I imagine there are others like him.

  3. Thanks Bryan, and thanks for the review. Hansen does some good work, just has to be aware of how the media will jump on his more dramatic statements over a well written letter (not really the type of letter most people write though!) to the Japanese PM. He has probably learned this now.

  4. Stephen, Hansen’s statement may have verged on the sensational, but it reflected the deep concern about the human future which arises out of his work as a climate scientist, acknowledged as one of the world’s most eminent. As I recall he later qualified the statement to take away any implication that the coal industry was knowingly involved in some kind of genocide. But he is an interesting example to adduce in relation to alarmism.

    To begin with, he is an excellent communicator to the layperson. Not in a book, but in articles and recently in letters to governments. This letter to Japan’s Prime Minister last year before the G8 summit is a good example. There are numerous other examples on his website . Just what the authors of Poles Apart would have asked for, I would have thought.

    Second, it is what he understands of the science that impels him to sound the alarm. He would regard it as irresponsible not to. If sounding the alarm is alarmism, then I’m all for it, but the term normally carries the implication of exaggeration. That is why I was sorry to see Poles Apart use it so blithely.

    Mark Bowen’s book, Censoring Science, reviewed here includes a lot of material about Hansen himself, which the review briefly summarises. One quote from it: “I dont want, in the future, my grandchildren to say, ‘Opa understood what was going to happen but he didn’t make it clear.’ And so I’m trying to make it clear.”

  5. This seems to be an opportune moment to trot out my quote of the month.
    “Humans won’t see the writing on the wall until their backs are up against it” (Ditlev Engel – CEO Vestas)

    Hansen simply wants us to either feel that are backs are against the wall or he wants us to turn round and read what is written there.
    Scientists can publish for all they are worth and no one will take any action until the ‘great unwashed’ feel that sense of impending doom.

    Now, when Hansen and others try to convey that sense they become a lightning rod for denialists to attack, but the way I see it they have no real choice.

    No elected government has a long enough view to make the hard calls early. The population has to demand it. The population has to have its back to the wall.

  6. Great review, thanks Bryan. Setting up the false negatives ‘sceptics v alrmists ‘ is an old trick preferred by politicians and journalists. It’s a great format for telling a story, albiet an overly simplistic format. My only beef is that Morgan honours the ‘sceptic’s with a word preserved for those who care to weigh the evidence before coming to an opinion. I prefer Gareth’s word, employed in Hot Topic: cranks.

  7. AndrewH, Hansen and other reputable scientists must stick to the science or destroy their own credibility, if they start making claims that aren’t based on sound science they’ll be shot down, and down with them will go other good people and other genuine arguments.

    1. AW.

      Acknowledged, understood, agreed.

      Review of my previous comment for compatibility with this position………………………………completed, no edits required.


    2. AW, such a deep thoughtful statement. The clear implication is that they are not. Do you have any example of claims that they have made which you think are not backed by sound science?

      I think you’re actually wrong about that. Because cranks all over the place make claims which are based on the shonkiest of science and still get much space in newspaper columns, audiences and even MPs reshouting their nonsense.

      1. From a discussion with Gareth in this thread:

        “Take for example the article headed “Climate catastrophe” in New Scientist July 28th, Hansen advances his belief that a 5 metre rise in sea level is possible by 2095, how does he arrive at 5 metres? He uses geometric progression “let us say that ice sheet melting adds 1 cm to sea level for the decade 2005 to 2015, and that this doubles each decade until the West Antarctic ice sheet is largely depleted. This would yield a rise in sea level of more than 5 metres by 2095.”

        Hansen doesn’t mention that the last decade ie. 2085 to 2095 would have a sea level rise of 256 cm, that is, over half the total, and that under this scenario the rise from 2095 to 2105 would be 512 cm and the decade 2125 to 2135 alone sea levels would rise by 41 metres, with the total rise by 2135 being around 80 metres, how realistic is that?”

  8. Andrew, I have just re-read the Hansen article . He isn’t pushing geometric progression in the detail you suggest. Here are some of his words:” Of course, I cannot prove that my choice of a 10-year doubling time is accurate but I’d bet $1000 to a doughnut that it provides a far better estimate of the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise than a linear response.” Also his article focused on the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which do not provide enough ice to produce the sea level rise you end up with.

    The article is a fine example of his ability to communicate reasonably to the non-scientist, and also a lucid illustration of why he feels the need to sound alarms.

    1. Much of what you say was argued in that HT thread I link to.
      I think the “demonstration” (to use Gareth’s term) by Hansen justifies the reasons for my concerns as expressed above.

      Hansen wasn’t sticking to the science, he was advancing speculative ideas that were evidently not supported by the experts in the relevent field.

  9. Gareth Morgan is not an economist. He is a self-created brand that portrays him as a speaker of truth to power. For example, he showed us how the greedy institutional fund managers would nickel and dime our retirement investments to death and then offered us salvation in the form of Gareth Morgan Investments and Gareth Morgan Kiwisaver.

    His modus operandi is to identify himself as the only one you can trust in a world filled with spin – the Dwayne Johnson of public policy who delivers the People’s Elbow to the powerful who seek to deceive you. This is why he identifies the IPCC and its scientists as “Alarmists” – he needs to establish himself as the only rational white hat in the room.
    But the truth is that Dr Morgan has no qualifications and no experience as a climatologist. He demonstrates this by offering to adjudicate in a dispute that has repeatedly been shown here and at Real Climate and at Sceptical Science to be bogus. The scientific evidence identifying greenhouse gases and their potential to warm the planet is undeniable and the only argument is one of (heh) degree. The denialists are unable to produce an alternative scientific theory to explain the changes we can see happening to the planet’s climate. They are therefore reduced to the harass and delay tactics of their intellectual ancestors from the tobacco lobby, in the hope they can forestall the curtailment of business as usual.

    The real debate is between those who see us as Masters of the Planet who should be free to consume its bounty whenever, however and in the quantities we please and those who agree with E O Wilson when he says:

    Humanity did not descend as angelic beings into this world. Nor are we aliens who colonized Earth. We evolved here, one among many species, across millions of years, and exist as one organic miracle linked to others. The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness was our cradle and nursery, our school, and re-mains our one and only home. To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life.

    You won’t find the answer to that debate in Dr Morgan’s book.

  10. hansen is a human being. A very frustrated one.

    For decades he has been a leading climate scientist, warning the world in carefully selected scientific terms about climate change. He has sat and watched the international community do little or nothing to act on the information he and his colleagues were providing us with.

    Is it really very surprising that he has now started to speak out in a more political manner. It must be incredibly frustrating to see so much of what you predicted now coming to light, and yet to see governments still sitting on their hands using short term economic arguments as a rationale for inaction.

    Scientific research isn’t doing the trick. Yes, we need to understand more. But we know enough now to act.

    We are, to quote a film being released around the world now risking being in the “age of stupid.” . We’re in the tiny moment in the whole of time where we can do something to stop climate change. We are rapidly running out of time to act.

    Maybe that’s why he’s starting to speak out? Sure, he risks credibility loss – but that’s largely because he’s joined Al Gore as a key target of the conservative crank tank campaign.

    I know people who cannot bear to be involved in the negotiation process or campaigning any more – they are just too angry. Angry that if we’d acted on the information coming from scientists like Hansen were saying in the early 1990’s, we could still have had a chance of actually preventing any of it from happening.

    Maybe if more people got angry then something might shift?

    And maybe Hansen has decided that becoming political the only way to try to get action.

    yeah, I’m ranting again.

  11. Cindy,
    Rant away! Did you see this post at Climate Progress by Gillian Caldwell about climate change campaigners getting burned out?

    We are all indebted to folk like you who are prepared to stand on the front lines in spite of all the crap that’s coming from the opposite direction.

  12. hehe thanks Chat.

    Don’t think i’ve got to that climate burnout point. Yes, sometimes ranting and angry, but I think i have a relatively balanced life (apart from all the travelling – but fun gets factored in – hence plans for Glastonbury Festival .

    But i certainly have colleagues who simply cannot work on climate any more. Some of them have moved to teaching.

    Some have moved out of campaigning to things like promoting solar power (jeremy leggett, for example, heads up Solar Century, – he’s still very much involved in the wider debate – but not the negotiations.

    Back in 1991 he was warning about
    * methane hydrate release from melting permafrost
    * risks of tipping points/runaway greenhouse effect
    * economic risks of climate (aka Stern)
    …but was accused of scaremongering. Difficult to hold back the “i told you so” these days.

    heading back to Bonn for the next round soon so may post an update to two from there if Gareth lets me…

  13. I have not read this book. But I think “alarmists” is a fine word in this case.

    I’ve always been opposed to changing the meaning of a word just because people tend to imply and infer additional meaning over time. Alarmist means one sounding the alarm, and that is exactly what climate scientists are doing. Any associations with exaggeration are inferred, not necessarily implied, and in this case I think the question of exaggeration is posited provisionally… the whole question is “are they exaggerating?” Don’t be offended by the provisional implication if the conclusion is in favor of mainstream climate science. I think the word is very apropos.

    On the other side, skeptics seem to have little problem with the word skeptic, even though
    many people infer “disbeliever,” or “denier.” Skeptics are neither. They are agnostic, refusing to believe without evidence and not in possession of the necessary evidence. Yet many people infer “sourpuss,” “grumpy,” “angry,” “buzzkill” as well. I should think skeptics would be just as irritated if they made those same inferrences. But they don’t infer “disbeliever” or “denier” so they don’t seem upset by the word “skeptic.” But I’ll bet most people on this board do infer those things. In fact AndrewH and Le Chat Noir go so far as to use the word deniers (maybe to differentiate from skeptics, I’m unsure).

    As an aside, I have become aware of the fact that many people have trouble distinguishing between the meaning of “imply” and “infer”. I hope this comment helps those people via context. As another aside, “incredible” means “not credible” and I continue that usage, often to fun and hilarious results when people misinterpret me thinking it’s a compliment! Though I have serious reservations about “inflammable.”

    I think what many people who are worried about climate change fail to appreciate is the nature of game theory when it comes to sovereign actions. Cheaters prosper. Companies and governments that prosper become richer, larger, and the cheating ethic grows, while the ethic to do the right thing shrinks. Doing the right thing is not a survivable strategy. While it is in the best interest of the group (and thus each of the individuals) to reduce emissions, individuals (sovereign states in this case) can do even better by letting other people reduce emissions, while cheating themselves.

    Stated another way: The damage I do to myself by polluting is infinitesimal, since my pollution’s damage is shared by 6 billion other people. maybe the damage is -100 on some arbitrary point scale. But the benefit only needs to be greater than 100 divided by 6-billion in order for the cost-benefit analysis to show that polluting is profitable for me. Within a nation, we can squash behavior based on this kind of thinking by creating environmental protection laws, and by assigning property rights (where appropriate, since people tend to care for their own property because they count the cost of pollution damage as affecting only themselves).

    Across nations, there is no good solution at present. There is no international legal authority that has power over nation states, so this kind of cheating is not only possible, but fully expected. If the USA for example changed policy on Kyoto, I would wager a mint that some other large nation would defect (unless the USA acted as military police over the world). The fundamental game theoretic is difficult to change.

    If you want to take action to prevent climate change, you need to think about how to solve this game theory problem between nations. Its solution is prerequisite.

    Personally I think we can all get far more mileage with coping strategies. Accept climate change, and let’s figure out how we are going to deal with the effects. I, for one, will not be buying coastal property.

    Disclaimer: when I say “wager a mint” I’m talking about those little peppermint candies. 😉

  14. That was a long post, but I need to clarify something. I firmly believe that empowering international authorities carries it’s own extreme dangers on par with the dangers of climate change, and I’m much more hopeful about coping strategies.

    I also think religions have the ability to cause individuals to act against the own selfish interests for the benefit of the group, in the end helping all the individuals, which is exactly what we need here…. a spiritual belief in Gaia might save us. Although I’m not the appropriate salesman for this as I’m not a good lier, and I suppose a religion would need some believable lies to deceive people into compliance against their better option of cheating. Where is Gaius Baltar when you need him?

  15. Mike, the meaning of the noun alarmist provided in the Shorter Oxford Dictinary (not all that short – two large volumes) is a person who raises alarm on slight grounds, a panic monger. Morgan and McCrystal pretty well acknowledge they understood the meaning when they retracted the term on their final pages. Sceptic, on the other hand carries little in the way of meanings that could be seen as pejorative. The book was hardly providing a level playing field in its chosen nomenclature.

    We’ll certainly need coping strategies for what is already in the climate pipeline, but the results of our not reducing emissions would be catastrophic for generations not far away from our own. Have a look at Gareth’s post today. We can’t in all conscience leave them to cope with that.

  16. Bryan Walker: “the meaning of the noun alarmist…”

    Bryan Walker: “We can’t in all conscience leave them to cope with that.”
    I wholeheartedly agree. And I don’t mean to come off as a fatalist. I think humanity can solve this. My point is that I think the effort to inform has been successful, and now we need to move on to efforts to solve the problem. And the significant obstacle in my view is not a misunderstanding or miscomprehension or disbelief, but the simple economic incentive to cheat, and thus “pretend” to misunderstand or disbelieve or to simply ignore the issue on selfish/nationalistic economic grounds.

    I don’t know enough economics to know if trade barriers would be of help (I know they are weapons of mutual damage, but the threat can have an effect), but it’s along the lines of where I’m thinking.

  17. I hope I’m not posting too much on this, I’ll shut up after this post. One more very important clarification to my comments.

    Individuals are not hyper-rational. They don’t make the cost-benefit analysis I alluded to. They are social, they tend to want to do the right thing by their peers, for many reasons including fear of reprisals, to be liked, because it just feels good, and from an honest sense of morality. In the 60s and early 70s in the US, the highways became densely littered. Everyone just “threw it out the window.” Over time, social norms changed, and the amount of litter decreased substantially, but never completely. That change appears to have come from a simple change in social norms, rather than legal enforcement, although there was some of both.

    However, companies and nations, especially companies, tend to be much more selfish and hyper-rational. Directors can be sued by shareholders if they don’t act in the interest of shareholder value, but rather harm the compnay to benefit the climate. It is in fact illegal for them to act in such a fashion, and so if we desire it, they must be constrained by laws in order to channel their behavior. They probably cannot even say this themselves: saying “pass a law to constrain me” could be considered an actionable offence, as it would detract from shareholder value. I don’t have certainty around this point, but I was struck hard by this thought when I watched a discussion between corporate executives and policy makers on climate change, and I watched the corporate executives struggling with their words. As people they want to do the right thing, but they seemed shackled. That’s ok. We don’t need business on board, we just need laws to constrain them. In the case of nation-states, it’s much sticker of an issue.

  18. Mike, Anthony Giddens, whose book The Politics of Climate Change I’m reviewing – expect to post it here in a day or two – spends a bit of time writing about the problems of international co-operation on the issue. He thinks regional and bilateral policies will need to figure as well as the overall international agreements. He points to the need for major emitters such as the US and China to get together, for instance. And there seem to be indications that that is already happening to some extent. He suggests Brazil and Indonesia getting together to take proposals to stop deforestation to the world. He recommends a body representing the largest polluters being set up to mount collective efforts to control emissions, proceeding at least in some part separately from the other international endeavours. I think we have to assume that at least some of the leading people in the various administrations will be in earnest because they understand the seriousness of the issue – certainly the Obama team gives every indication of such a focus

  19. Hi Mike

    Yes I do use “denier” as distinct from “sceptic”. Sceptic is a badge of honour (among scientific types) and is certainly not what many of the “denialist” community are engaged in. A review of websites like Watts Up With That or Climatescience.org.nz quickly reveals their biases.

    I don’t actually think denier is a pejorative term….however, I can see that if one positions oneself as a sceptic and are called a denier then it could be thought of as a little irritating.

    Your comments on the likelihood of success in the game theory/ tragedy of the commons sort of way are all fairly reasonable but your proposed solution of “coping” is very much a win-lose. With the worst of the impacts being inflicted upon those least able to adapt (think Bangladesh and sea level rise). I think Gareth “tweeted” a map that showed the shape of the world weighted by emissions vs impacts…from a Lancet study. (Gareth – can we find those old tweets?)

    cheers, Andrew

  20. Pingback: Ice, Mice and Men

Leave a Reply