Climate Realism: Non-science, or nonsense?
Contributions by Dr. Alastair Smith, Senior Teaching Fellow of the Global Sustainable Development Division at the University of Warwick
Editorial Note: GLOBUS, its Members, and where applicable its Guest Writers, fully support, where reasonable, and not in contravention of other conventions, or legal, ethical, or moral institutions, the expression of viewpoints opposed to that which might be construed as the ‘prevailing school of thought’.
On Sunday 18th February, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (hence GWPF) published an abstract and set of slides for a presentation to be given the following day at the University of Warwick. This presentation, entitled “Climate Realism: Understanding Agreement & Disagreement in Climate Science,” was delivered by Dr. Benny Peiser, Director of the GWPF, to first year students of the Environmental Principles of Global Sustainable Development and Challenges of Climate Change modules.
According to the organiser of this event, Dr Alastair Smith, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Division of Global Sustainable Development at Warwick: “The pedagogical objective of this experience was to promote critical thinking and learning around the climate change agenda, by exposing students to authentic narratives that likely challenge their pre-existing assumptions”.
Given the one-sided nature of the GWPF’s own publication of the event, the purpose of this editorial is to present the challenges posed to Peiser’s implicit argument following his presentation – despite an assertion, both in the publication and lecture, that Peiser’s presentation would not be “about who is right and who is wrong”.
It should be noted, at this juncture, that Peiser has not sought to question scientific conclusions regarding temperature and climate change since the 1850s. Indeed, the premise of the presentation was to undermine the providence of paleo-climatic sources of ‘proxy’ data about climate pre-modern measurement – for example, data regarding temperatures and CO2 concentrations from air trapped in ice cores buried in Antarctic ice sheets, or regarding the length of the growing season derived from the width of tree rings in ancient woodlands – and the methodology involved in modelling predictions of global temperatures, based upon different scenarios of pollutant emissions. To explore Peiser’s argument, in the limited depth provided by a PDF presentation, this correspondent recommends that you refer to the GWPF’s own publication, to avoid providing it an additional platform.
Criticisms of the prevailing theory of global warming often refer to a period in history known as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’: a time between 900 CE and 1300 CE (or thereabouts – given beginning and end years differ slightly) in which, although estimations of temperature differ, it is said that various parts of the world experienced warmer than usual climatic conditions: predominantly in the North Atlantic region (Rafferty, 2014). Climate sceptics often cite the period as an example of warming without human interference – and that, therefore, predictions about future warming and its consequences may be unfounded. Peiser’s own position is that as some modelling shows historical periods to be almost as warm as the present day, such as the Medieval Warm Period, attributing modern warming to human activity could be overly reactionary.
Two flaws exist with this claim. Firstly, while the scientific consensus accepts natural variability throughout geological time, the existence of historical warm periods does not undermine the conclusion that at least 50% of modern warming is entirely attributable to human activity; a point seemingly accepted by Peiser himself. It may set a precedent, but this in no way challenges prevailing scientific theory, modelling and observation of the impact of human-made Greenhouse Gases, such as CO2. In addition, the argument relies on assumptions about the provenance of aforementioned “proxy” (paleo-climatic) measures of climate conditions: provenance which Peiser sought to question in his presentation. This correspondent wonders, therefore, whether Peiser himself realises the contradiction in his own argument – or whether it was hoped that it would not be highlighted.
The second key criticism that this correspondent would like to highlight concerns the use of the cornerstone – nay, keystone – of essential academic practice: sources, citation, and referencing. Explore the early slides – particularly 3, 4, and 6 – of Peiser’s presentation, and you will discover a disturbing lack of any of these critical components. Evidence for past terrestrial climate change is said to be “ambiguous knowledge based on circumstantial evidence and estimates” (Peiser, 2018: 3); regarding future change, Peiser asserts that “long-term future climate cannot be predicted reliably” (Peiser, 2018: 3) – two bold assertions, striking in their confidence, and entirely unsupported by other credible experts on the science of climate change.
Later, citations begin to appear – both from institutions such as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in general support of the scientific consensus, and others, tending to be against it. Specifically, Peiser cites two studies as evidence: one by Lewis and Crok (2014) and another by R. Connolly and M. Connolly (2014). As was identified by two Discussants of Peiser’s presentation – two University of Warwick undergraduate students – the first of these, rather than being from an accredited, academically rigorous, and independently peer-reviewed publication, was published directly by the GWPF itself. This correspondent will leave the reader to consider if it is responsible, or even acceptable, to present this as a valid counterpoint to the IPCC consensus, derived from a systematic review of “many thousands” of scientific studies (IPCC, 2013: 2).
Later, Peiser presents the IPCC conclusion alongside one paper by two authors Connolly and Connolly, in order to suggest that students should question their acceptance of consensus science. In contrast to some co-authors, who happen to have the same family name, Ronan and Michael are father and son. While this correspondent would not seek to inherently discredit their work as a family-run research group, we must question whether it is appropriate to give the same weight to their analysis, submitted to a ‘trial’ version of a journal that they have set up themselves, to which they have been the only ever contributors, through an ‘open’ review process, which only provides reviews when anyone, expert or not, invests the time. In addition, as Dr. Peiser did not include a List of Cited References in his presentation, it is not easy to identify which of the nine articles the Connollys effectively self-published in 2014 was being referred to. This correspondent would like to invite any reader sufficiently interested in determining which, and consequently analysing the argument of the Connollys, to submit any thoughts they may have to this publication (firstname.lastname@example.org) for inclusion here as an addendum.
The final, and arguably most important point against the ‘realism’ case put by Peiser is that of the Precautionary Principle. This is a principle applied primarily to policymaking at national and international level, and most notably has been adopted by signatories at the United Nations’ Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and by the European Union, in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (European Commission, 2016). According to the same source, “the precautionary principle may be invoked when a phenomenon, product or process may have a dangerous effect, identified by a scientific and objective evaluation, if this evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.” In short, this key principle of environmental sustainability promotes action despite a lack of absolute certainty, wherever the cost of inaction is too great.
This correspondent believes that “climate realists” attempt to turn this principle on its head: not by assembling a robust basis on which to critically engage with scientific consensus, but by exaggerating the importance of uncertainties and promoting prevarication over work of significantly limited credibility. With this course of action “realists” are endangering the very core of the contemporary climate movement. In fifty years’ time, should the “climate realists” – Heaven forbid! – prove to be wrong, and the world experiences catastrophic global warming, sea level rise, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, mass flooding, or famine (or even all of the above, and more – IPCC, 2014: 10, 12, 13), as a result of anthropogenically-caused climate change, then whether or not we pay attention to “climate realists” now becomes one of the most important collective decisions required of our generations.
To play on the old cliché, then – should we be safe… or should we be sorry?
Editorial Note: Should the Global Warming Policy Foundation, or Dr. Peiser himself, wish to submit a response to this rebuttal, GLOBUS would be happy to engage in discussions. The Global Sustainable Development Division would also welcome a return visit by Dr. Peiser to address these points.
Addendum: 25th February, 2018
In the days following the original publication of this article, the Telegraph released an article as a preface to the publication of a new book by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Written by Christopher Booker, the book – according to the Telegraph’s summary – seeks to criticise the ‘consensus’ around the evidence for climate change, in a similar manner to Dr Peiser’s presentation. This correspondent hopes that the book is more rigorous in its choice of sources, its use of references, and its approach to considering the validity of differing viewpoints on the issue – rather than simply seeking to sow doubt and uncertainty over established scientific method.