Friday, August 8, 2008

Hyperbolic sentiment--the engine of illogical thinking

I have avoided discussion of the hot and current topic of "global warming" for it is much like a discussion concerning religion/theology and science. After a while it gets boring with no one budging from their respective positions. Global warming is fraught with bad logic, poor and incomplete data often misinterpreted and misunderstood, and whipped up by hysteria of massive proportions especially from the guru Al Gore and many misinformed and often quoted scientists.

I will not contest that there are pockets of events that indicate a general global warming and that mankind may have a significant role in contributing to those phenomena but to make a sweeping [and illogical] conclusion that mankind is the sole contributor and responsible is inaccurate. And it is even worse to make dire predictions of doom and gloom. Data and documentation of the Earth's history is lacking over millions of years and to base current status and predictions based on climate conditions mostly based on collected data since the Industrial Revolution is shallow...the whole picture of portraying a dynamic Earth [warming and cooling] based on 200 years of data is unscientific. The ebb and flow of climatological changes of Earth may be perfectly normal but when it involves human activity it gets whipped into doom and gloom and a lot of finger pointing.

"Global warming a New Religion"


Brian Durrant

March 10th, 2008

Bits of News

There was an article in Newsweek which reported that 'there are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically, and these changes may portend a dramatic decline in food production with serious implications for just about every nation on earth'. 'What's new about this?’ you might ask. After all, we are bombarded daily with scare stories about the future of the planet. But this article is significant because it came out in April 1975 - and the fear expressed in the text was not about global warming, but about global cooling!

For several years in the 1970s the fear of global cooling continued to inspire a spate of articles and books, including Climate Change and World Affairs, by British diplomat Crispin Tickell. But then quite suddenly, around 1978, global temperatures began to rise again. The panic over global cooling quickly evaporated.

There is a simple explanation for this temporary hysteria. In imagining the future, human beings like to extrapolate an exaggerated version of a tendency they are experiencing at the time. What commentators were noticing in the 1970s was that the average temperature of the earth had been in decline for 30 years. But the one certain thing about the climate is that it is always changing.

Ten years on from the end of the global cooling panic, scientists were saying unless urgent and drastic action was taken to curb CO2 emissions, the temperature rise would soon be so great as to unleash catastrophic consequences. The ice caps would melt. Sea levels would rise. Deserts would expand. The world's climate systems would be thrown into chaos. The fear of global warming was born.

And it was truly remarkable how quickly this became the prevailing orthodoxy. So strong were the convictions of the adherents that their case was so self-evident that scientifically it was no longer open to question. The transcendent importance of the cause was buttressed by insisting repeatedly that their view was supported by the overwhelming 'consensus' of scientists.

But 'consensus' is a political concept, not a scientific one. Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests. Consensus is achieved when the outcome of discussion leaves everyone feeling they have been given enough of what they want. The accomplished politician is a negotiator and conciliator. The process of scientific enquiry could not be more different. The accomplished scientist is an original, an extremist and iconoclast. Good science requires perpetual open debate, in which every objection is aired and dissents are sharpened, not smoothed over.

The response to the threat of global warming has been a political one. In 1988 the United Nations assumed responsibility for the collective response of the human race to this threat. The UN set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unbelievably, an active lobbyist for the planned IPCC had been Sir Crispin Tickell, previously of global cooling fame.

In 1989 a group known as the 'Union of Concerned Scientists', which originally campaigned for nuclear disarmament, organised a petition urging the recognition of global warming as potentially the greatest danger to mankind. Of the eventual 700 signatories, amongst whom included Nobel Prize winners, only three or four were climatologists. The consensus of scientists was a purely political contrivance.

The cause quickly became fashionable with Hollywood, with the likes of Robert Redford, Barbara Streisand and Meryl Streep jumping on the bandwagon. Suddenly there was a great deal of money available for research into climate change, particularly for those who could make the case for man-made global warming. At the same time those who came up with inconvenient results were ostracised. The self-proclaimed high priest of global warming, Al Gore, compared 'true believers' such as himself to Galileo, bravely standing for the truth against the blind orthodoxy of the time.

In 1990 the IPCC produced its first assessment report. The summary was an exercise in spin that Alistair Campbell would have been proud of. It largely ignored grave reservations by some contributors and presented the expectation of substantial man-made warming as firmly based in science. The summary spawned the 1992 Rio Earth summit, which in turn paved the way for the Kyoto agreement in 1997, which called for carbon emissions to be scaled back.

The global warming lobby works on the following principles: Global warming is a fact. It is caused by man's activities. If mankind could be persuaded to alter his behaviour the planet would be saved. The goodies are those who are committed to saving the planet, the baddies are the deniers. The simplicity of the argument makes it a favourite topic in primary schools across the country.

Alarmist activists operating in well-funded advocacy groups have a lead role in creating an unbalanced story. In many cases they manipulate public perceptions with emotive and fiercely judgmental 'scientific' pronouncements, adding a tone of danger and urgency to attract media coverage.

Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, is a case in point. Our government and the educational establishment appeared to be quite relaxed about this being shown in our secondary schools. That is, until a school governor from Kent contested it in the High Court. Mr Justice Burton identified nine significant errors, and said that some of Mr Gore's claims had arisen in the context of alarmism and exaggeration. He went on to say that the apocalyptic vision was politically partisan and not an impartial analysis of the science of climate change. Specifically he took issue with the claim that sea levels could rise 20 feet 'in the near future', when such a rise would only take place after over 1,000 years.

Sexing up the global warming story is seen as a legitimate tactic to hog media attention. If you exaggerate a story enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. This leaves little space for alternative views to be aired.

However, there is an inconvenient truth for Mr Gore. Astronomers have noted in 1998 that Triton, Neptune's largest moon, seemed to have heated up significantly since it was visited by the Explorer space probe in 1989. Moreover, in 2002 it was reported that the temperature on Pluto had risen by two degrees Celsius in 14 years. Furthermore, in 2005 NASA confirmed that the CO2 'ice caps' near Mars' South Pole had been diminishing for three summers in a row. Warming, yes. Man-made? Certainly not.

Evidence that warming is taking place throughout the solar system, even though the mechanism is unclear, implies a common cause may be at work that it not limited to events on this planet. And it is the man-made element to the story that gives climate change activists their real motivation.

But one thing keeps puzzling me. The supporters of the global warming orthodoxy are only too happy to proclaim that unless drastic steps are taken to combat the threat, the earth is heading for catastrophe. However, surveying the measures that are actually being advocated, they are astonishingly trivial. Low energy light bulbs, switching your TV off at night, wind power and carbon emissions trading. Even if the aspirations of the Kyoto protocols are met in their entirety, this would only supposedly delay the global temperature rise predicted for 2100 by just six years.

To understand the emergence of the global warming activists, you have to look at the dynamics of politics, or indeed religion, rather than science. It may be no coincidence that the emergence of global warming as an issue came at the same time the Cold War ended. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 finally demonstrated the superiority of market-based economies over command economies in delivering prosperity. For those of a left wing disposition who thought Marxism would deliver a socialist utopia, this was tough to take. The solution was to jump on the global warming bandwagon. This helps explain the peculiar passion with which many enthusiasts for the man-made global warming thesis argued their case and advanced policy solutions. The ideological pattern is familiar. Just as blame for industrial squalor and deprivation was laid on capitalism, the blame for the ruin of our planet was laid on the greed and materialism of the developed world, particularly the US. And just as the Marxist solutions involved confiscation of the wealth of the rich, the new orthodoxy clamour for restrictions on rich lifestyles; their gas guzzling 4X4s , their polluting air travel and all other examples of self-indulgent consumption at the cost of the planet.

There is no doubt that environmentalism fulfils a political and indeed spiritual need among its adherents. The global warming narrative embraces a myth of the Fall; the loss of harmony between man and nature caused by our materialistic way of life. In reality this Eden never existed. It reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons of two cavemen talking "clean air, no pollution, unadulterated food... how come we don't live over 30?" The apocalypse myth is equally familiar. 'Our wickedness has damaged our inheritance and only immediate reform can save us'. For a long time environmentalists lacked the Apocalypse myth. The fear of acid rain came and went. But global warming fits the bill. This is why environmentalists attach so much importance to the assertion that the world is not just warming up, which is true at the moment, but that the warming is mainly our fault, which still should be a matter of debate. The connections between rising carbon dioxide concentrations and the growth of industrial society, provides a convenient link between the sins of our past and a catastrophic future. This narrative does not depend exclusively on factual accuracy.

Now as I have pointed out above, the solutions of wind power and cycling to work, etc. are insignificant, in practical terms, for heading off the predicted catastrophe. But this is why environmentalism is a religion. Every religion needs rituals of observance which demonstrate the commitment of the adherents. So the committed evangelicals, with time on their hands, sit on runways or on the roof of the Houses of Parliament or spend their Bank holidays outside power stations, while busy pop stars can buy carbon offsets. It's a broad church.

Moreover, it is interesting that governments in developed countries are treating environmentalism not as a threat posed by Marxism, but like another religion. Governments have not opposed the environmentalist creed, just as they do not question the tenets of other faiths. Indeed, like other religions, environmentalism has been a force for good, leading to cleaner air and rivers and the phasing out of fluorocarbons. And like other religions, governments are using it for their own purpose when it suits, and ignoring it when it doesn't. So the Government is using the threat of global warming as a cover for raising new taxes it could not otherwise get away with. A good example is the phoney government environmentalism that provided the pretext for the 'fuel escalator' that saw petrol prices surging above inflation year on year. But at the same time its green credentials are only skin deep, as it is not standing in the way of increased airline capacity at Heathrow.

Meanwhile, businesses are treating the environmental movement as it treats other trends in consumer behaviour. The companies themselves do not have to believe in the doctrines, but have found it commercially expedient to acknowledge the apparent rapid increase in awareness in this area.

However there are unsavoury areas where the global warming brigade mirrors the worst excesses of organised religion, namely hypocrisy and intolerance. Al Gore, the high priest of climate change, has a 20-room mansion in Nashville that uses 20 times more electricity than the average American house. Yet he has exhorted his fellow citizens to reduce their carbon footprint. Gore's defence is that he bought renewable energy credits to offset his carbon use. In the Middle Ages, the wealthy members of the church bought 'indulgencies' or relics to speed their passage through purgatory. Nothing new there then.

It is nearly 20 years since Al Gore cast himself in the role of Galileo. But now the boot is on the other foot. Global warming is the orthodoxy and with it comes intolerance. You are always going to get outrageous comments from the overzealous foot soldiers in any religion. The worry is when intolerance comes from senior figures that should know better.

Bjorn Lomborg is no climate change denier, nor does he quarrel with the view that man-made influences are a cause. However in his latest book, Cool It, he argues that the costs of imposing radical carbon abatement measures are very high and the benefits are limited. Scarce resources could be better spent combating malaria in Africa and so forth. Lomborg's analysis is calm, civil and even-handed. In response Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, told a newspaper "If you should follow the thinking of Lomborg, then possibly what Hitler did is right." Meanwhile, the Guardian's environmental correspondent, George Monbiot in 2006 said: "Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and unacceptable as Holocaust denial."

In 30 years time, if we are found to be wrong to be sceptical about the IPCC's line on climate change... can we expect to be the accused in a show trial and then burned at the stake as heretics?


Brian Durrant

[Brian Durrant has a Masters degree in economics from Cambridge University, followed by nearly 25 years' experience in the City. In the 1980s Brian worked with Tim Congdon in the economics department of stockbrokers, L. Messel & Co. And in the 1990s he was Head of Research at GNI, the leading futures and options broker, specialising in exotic options strategies in foreign exchange markets.

Brian Durrant has been the Investment Director of The Fleet Street Letter since 1999.]

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