Climate

Essay 1: ‘Global Warming’ as Myth

In any discussion of climate change, it is essential to distinguish between the complex science of climate and the myth, in the sense of Roland Barthes, or the ‘hybrid’, following Bruno Latour, of ‘global warming’.The latter is a politico-(pseudo)scientific construct, developed since the late-1980s, in which the human emission of ‘greenhouse gases’, such as carbon dioxide and methane, is unquestioningly taken as the prime-driver of a new and dramatic type of climate change that will inexorably result in a significant warming during the next 100 years and which will inevitably lead to catastrophe for both humanity and the Earth. This, in turn, has morphed, since 1992 and the Rio Conference, into a legitimising myth for a gamut of interconnected political agendas, above all for a range of European sensibilities with regards to America, oil, the car, transport, economic growth, trade, and international corporations. The language employed tends to be authoritarian and religious in character, involving the use of what the physicist, P. H. Borcherds, has termed the ‘hysterical subjunctive’. Indeed, for many, the myth has become an article of a secular faith that exhibits all the characteristics of a pre-modern religion, above all demanding sacrifice to the Earth.

By contrast, the science of climate change starts from the principle that we are concerned with the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system known and that it is distinctly unlikely that climate change can be predicated on a single variable, or factor, however politically-convenient that factor might prove to be. Above all, in approaching the science, as distinct from the myth, it is necessary to exercise precision with regard to three specific questions.

First, is climate changing? The answer has to be: “Of course, climate is changing.” Evidence throughout geological time indicates climate change at all scales and all times (see ‘Tractatus’ on the ‘Nature and Society’ Page). Climate change is the norm, not the exception, and the Earth, during each moment, however temporally defined, is either ‘warming’ or ‘cooling’. If climate were ever to become stable, it would be a scientifically-exciting phenomenon. To declare that “the climate is changing” is thus somewhat of a truism.

Here we encounter the first major contradistinction with the ‘global warming’ myth, in which, classically, the myth harks back to a lost ‘Golden Age’ of climate stability, or, to employ a more ‘modern’ sensibility, climate ‘sustainability’. Sadly, the idea of a ‘sustainable climate’ is an oxymoron. The fact that we have re-discovered ‘climate change’ at the turn of the Millennium tells us more about ourselves, and about our devices and desires, than about climate. Critics of ‘global warming’ are often snidely referred to as ‘climate change deniers'; precisely the opposite is true. Those who question the myth of ‘global warming’ are passionate believers in climate change. It is the ‘global warmers’ who deny that climate change is the norm – they are, perhaps, the true ‘climate history’ deniers.

Secondly, do humans influence climate? Again, the answer is: “Of course, they do.” Hominids and humans have been affecting climate since they first manipulated fire to alter landscapes at least 750,000 years ago, but possibly as far back as 2 million years. Recent research has further implicated the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, as an important human factor. Humans thus influence climate in many ways, through altering the albedo (the reflectivity) of the surface of the Earth, through changing the energy balance of the Earth, by emitting particles and aerosols, as well as by those hoary old favourites, industrial emissions. Here, therefore, we encounter the second major contradistinction with the ‘global warming’ myth. Human influences on climate are multi-factorial. Unfortunately, we know precious little about most of them. My own instinct is that our ability to change the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface will, in the end, prove to have been far more important. After all, if Lex Luther covered the Tibetan High Plateau with black plastic sheeting, even Superman might have problems dealing with the monsoons.

Thirdly, will we be able to produce predictable (the operative word) climate change, and a stable climate, by adjusting, at the margins, one human variable, namely carbon dioxide emissions, out of the millions of factors, both natural and human, that drive climate? The answer is: “One hundred per cent, no.” This is the seminal point at which the complex science of climate diverges irreconcilably from the central beliefs of the ‘global warming’ myth. The idea that we can manage climate predictably by adjusting, minimally, our output of some politically-selected gases is both naive and dangerous.

The truth is the opposite. In a system as complex and chaotic as climate, such an action may even trigger unexpected consequences. It is vital to remember that, for a coupled, non-linear system, not doing something (i.e., not emitting gases) is as unpredictable as doing something (i.e., emitting gases). Even if we closed down every factory in the world, crushed every car and aeroplane, turned off all energy production, and threw 4 billion people worldwide out of work, climate would still change, and often dramatically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, the myth is starting to implode. The conservationist and Green guru, Professor David Bellamy, has recently called ‘global warming’ “poppycock”. Serious new research at The Max Planck Institute has indicated that the sun is a far more significant factor; Dr Bill Burrows, a climatologist and a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, has concluded: “Perhaps we are devoting too many resources to correcting human effects on the climate without being sure that we are the major contributor.” The recent temperature ‘spike’, known as ‘the hockey stick’, has been unmasked as a statistical artefact, while the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ and the ‘Little Ice Age’ have been statistically ‘re-discovered’. Moreover, the latest research has shown that there has probably been no real warming, except that which is surface-driven. And in Russia, ‘global warming’ has been likened to infamous Lysenkoism. 

Accordingly, the predication of government, and United Nations’, policy for energy growth on the unsustainable myth of ‘global warming’ is a serious threat to us all, but especially to the 1.6 billion people in the less-developed world who have no access to any modern form of energy. The twin curses of water poverty and energy poverty remain the real scandals. By contrast, the political imposition on the rest of the world of our Northern, self-indulgent ecochondria about ‘global warming’ could prove to be a neo-colonialism too far.

Essay 2: On Flooding

The devastating floods in Boscastle, North Cornwall, are a dramatic reminder that coastal beauty is often bought at a high geological price, being the outcome of  the ever-restless sea and violent storms. This picture postcard resort snuggles in a deep, rugged combe, long-gouged out of the rock by wave and water, right beneath the confluence of three rivers, today flowing through convex hills largely denuded of forest and Cornish heath. Moreover, the stone-built and plaster-covered houses bravely face the mightly Atlantic Ocean, which through geological time has thrown all its wild energy and fury at this most capricious, yet charming, of coasts.Of course, like scavengers, the ‘global warming’ seagulls are inevitably circling overhead the stricken settlement, screeching ever-more shrilly their cries of doom. I find this morally distasteful. We know that, for the last thousand years, this rough-hewn coast has suffered from ‘weather’ and from the unpredicted coincidences of mighty natural  phenomena. Indeed, at one of the troughs of the Little Ice Age, towards the end of the C16th, storm activity increased by some 85 per cent. In July 1596, England endured almost perpetual rain and near famine. And who can forget the 34  people, and the thousands made homeless, by a strikingly similar catastrophe at Lynmouth, in North Devon, in 1952?

What transpired at Boscastle was just one more scene in the great cycle of plays that is our weather. In stark contrast to the previous summer, when we experienced high temperatures and blazing sun through the penetration of tropical dy air into Britain, 2004 witnessed the incursion into the Caribbean and the Atlantic of heavy tropical moist air, leading to hurricane havoc in Florida and to the powerful convective storm that unleashed its “cataracts and hurricanoes” over the A39 road around 3 in the afternoon. Tragically, this coincided with a high tide that blocked the outgoing surge of run-off and that breached the sea defences. The result, as we know, was a torrent of mud and water that drowned the quiet houses and shops which straddle the normally gentle stream.

And it will happen again. Yet, the randomness of such occurrences will mean that it is unlikely to be Boscastle a second time around, just as Lynmouth escaped on this occasion. All we can say is that some tiny tourist gem harbouring itself on this beaten and battered coast will come to know, at sometime in the future, Nature’s elemental unkindness.

Yet, confidently, I can predict that Britain as a whole will suffer from more floods and from more severe flooding. Over the last 50 or so years, we have constructed a landscape that can no longer absorb the outpourings of our fiercest Atlantic storms. Rivers have been straightened, reducing their capacity to cope with increased flow; water meadows, which once acted like great biological sponges, are today largely a thing of the past. We have covered the earth with concrete and tarmac, so that rainfall run off is now 100 per cent for much of the surface. Every front garden slabbed-over for an oily car, every new caravan site, and every new supermarket car park increases the danger. In addition, we have denuded the hills and frequently opened them up to more run-off by the planting of untimely crops, like winter wheat. And we have unthinkingly built unsuitable houses in lowlands and marshes, some even below sea-level and sometimes against wise and cautious planning advice.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, quite rightly visited stricken Boscastle. But what, I wonder, will happen to flooding with those 250,000 ‘Prescott houses’ that are currently planned for the lowlands of Britain? Brown field sites? Many are more likely to become muddy puddles and uninsurable. We can truly sympathise with the people of Boscastle who suffered at the hands of a mainly natural disaster. Tomorrow, we could be witnessing flooding entirely of our own making. And this, unlike me, is a government that says it believes in the threat of ‘global warming’.

I say:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!rage!blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”

[Loosely adapted from my ‘Thunderer’ column first published in The Timesin 2004]

Essay 3: On Kyoto

America’s Republican election tornado drenched Europe’s Kyoto Protocol umbrellas. Tear-stained ‘global warmers’, hand-wringing sodden brollies, are in overcast mood. Yet, even if Tony Blair wants to cast off his image as a pliant poodle licking George W. Bush’s Texan spurs by trying to extract concessions on climate change from his Washington buddy, the fact that, in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Republicans are returned with strengthened majorities means that any measures seen to hinder America’s economy will be treated with contempt. Kyoto could cost $1 trillion. Neither the Senate nor the House will have any diesel truck with Europe’s whining over American withdrawal. Ecochondria about climate change simply did not figure in an election focused on moral values, the economy, terrorism, Iraq, healthcare, taxes and education.The electoral map reveals a swath of Republican red from Nevada to Virginia, from Texas to North Dakota. The blue of the demoralised Democrats is corralled within the founding cities of the North East, the industrial cities of the North, and the three Pacific states beloved by Europeans. Republicans hold sway across the heartland, the southern states of the old Confederacy, the wide prairies, and the mountain West, lands where the car and GM crops reign supreme and where both are vital. The more snooty-old Europe rattles on about these, the more it will drive a wedge between this heartland and itself. And, I have no doubts that Republicans know where to reap their corn.

Europe’s addiction to the Kyoto Protocol is dangerous, if not an insult. It is an assault on different cultural values which have been largely determined and honed by history and the wider horizons of geography. Moreover, we know that the Kyoto Protocol will do nothing about climate change. To declare otherwise is to mislead. More embarrassingly, most European countries are far from attaining their own emission targets, although they lecture arrogantly the good folk of Ohio and Oklahoma.

In addition, future energy demand does not lie in the West, but in the countries of the East, in China, India, Indonesia, and Russia, most of which are not bound by the Kyoto Protocol. Russia only joined because of political gerrymandering to allow it to dine at the WTO table. China will happily support Kyoto in theory, knowing that it can benefit economically while having to do nothing. 

Like the Vice-Presidency, the Kyoto Protocol isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit, and the Republicans know it.

[Loosely adapted from my ‘Thunderer’ column first published in The Timesin 2004]

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