Peril In Ignorance: Climate Change – From ‘Realism’ to ‘Denial’
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’.
The author would like to thank Dr. Jessica Savage and Dr. Alastair Smith, Senior Teaching Fellows of the Global Sustainable Development Division at the University of Warwick, for their valued comments
Is ignorance bliss?
What about wilful denial in the face of near-universally accepted empirical evidence and scientific theory?
According to a highly-publicised opinion piece published by the Sunday Telegraph on October 14th – available here – both are apparently acceptable, and to be encouraged, in the face of the looming monolith that is climate change.
On the previous occasion that this correspondent addressed the praxis of so-called ‘Climate Change Realism’, in an editorial for this publication, the proponent of inaction in the face of arguably the greatest threat in mankind’s contemporary history was, at least, entitled to the prefix of ‘Doctor’. His field of expertise? Social anthropology – according to a 2009 publication (GWPF, 2009) by his own organisation, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think-tank dedicated to ‘climate change realism’.
In the case of this piece in the Telegraph – that this correspondent would not feel comfortable describing as “journalism”, in the sense of reporting and editorial framing undertaken for the social good – the author, Christopher Booker, is in no way qualified to be attacking global scientific consensus. Booker has spent his professional career in journalism, taking a stance counter to consensus on many issues aside from climate change – including the link between passive smoking and cancer (Booker, 2007), and the dangers posed by asbestos (Booker, 2006). In both cases, Booker accuses the “anti-smoking” and “anti-asbestos” campaigns and actors of “remarkable lobbying campaigns”, “[manipulating] the evidence”, “shameless exploitation”, and “a commercial racket”. In particular, to wage his campaign in support of asbestos use, Booker repeatedly endorsed the supposed expertise of John Bridle, who was later convicted under the UK’s Trade Descriptions Act for falsifying his qualifications: a stunning revelation that one would suggest should throw doubt on the logic of and means behind Booker’s arguments in any and all situations for readers of every stripe.
As such, before discussing why nay-sayers such as Booker should be considered as clear and present a danger as climate change itself, this editorial will outline Booker’s claims, and explain succinctly why they are of no substance or consequence.
- Carbon capture and storage technologies do not exist, and are not viable options for climate change mitigation
Booker argues that these technologies simply do not, and never will, exist – at any rate, in a form that could materially contribute to reductions in atmospheric carbon concentrations. As this correspondent will demonstrate, carbon capture and storage technologies, while not in wide commercial use or development, are serious up-and-coming potential contributors to the out-of-the-box thinking required for humanity to avoid catastrophic climate change: either Booker is wilfully ignorant of the fact that technological development is possible, and only blocked by a lack of will and belief, or Booker is fully aware of these facts, and intending to stoke opposition to the very idea that technological solutions to a real problem are possible.
The Guardian outlined two major centres for carbon capture and storage testing (CCS), one of which presents a major commercial opportunity (Vidal, 2018). The BBC in May featured a power plant in Iceland, generating geothermal electricity, pumps water diluted with CO2 back into the ground – where it turns into rock after a matter of months, and is stored forever. Combine some of these technologies together, implement – likely to the horror of characters such as Booker – a scheme of public-private co-operation in their implementation, and this correspondent would suggest that consequential incremental improvements in their efficiency, and a growing awareness of their technical feasibility, could likely lead to a wide-scale commercial rollout (Perasso, 2018).
- It is not possible to reach the $2.4tn annual expenditure suggested by the IPCC as necessary to meet renewable energy targets
In 2017, Coady et al. estimated that global fossil fuel subsidies amounted to 6.5% of 2015 world GDP – or, in monetary value, that’s $5.3tn. Perhaps some global-scale economic measures should be taken to put this to better use, Mr. Booker?
It should also be noted that there exists a body of evidence that suggests the costs of mitigating climate change now are far less than the potential costs of adapting to the impacts of climate change in the future: in the well-regarded words of the Stern Review, “the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs.” (Stern, 2006: 1) The review estimates that the long-term costs of unabated climate change could amount to 20% of global GDP or more – far larger than the $2.4tn annual expenditure suggested by the IPCC to achieve climate change mitigation.
- Energy from gas is the only way of providing backup power when wind and solar energy is not available
The use of high-capacity, rechargeable batteries, connected to the grid, has been documented as a rising trend for some years now. Articles from technology news site Wired (Bennett, 2018), renewable energy developer British Solar Renewables (British Solar Renewables, 2017), and global energy news outlet Energy Storage (Colthorpe, 2018) are all effective in beginning to demonstrate the future of battery storage technologies. Indeed, in 2017, the University of Warwick was awarded £80mn to establish a new National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility, enabling UK-based actors to establish the UK as a world leader in battery technologies through a strategic link between research, development, and full-scale industrialisation processes (University of Warwick, 2017).
In areas of high relief, there is also the opportunity to deploy pumped storage hydroelectricity generation: during areas of excess supply from other renewable sources, water is pumped up and into a reservoir. Perhaps predictably, when demand outstrips supply from those other renewable sources, all that it takes it the opening of the floodgates to generate huge quantities of hydroelectric power. The US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s profile (OEERE, n.d.) of Pumped-Storage Hydropower is a good place to start for further reading.
To support these expansions in storage capacity, further developments in the capacity of grid-connected renewables are ongoing, seeking to integrate renewable technologies into existing designs: for example, the development of ‘thin-film solar PV’, which allows the use of solar power at poor angles and in low light – while also enabling the creation of transparent solar PV panels (Polysolar, n.d.). This technology was developed to further reduce the costs and material use of solar PV deployment (Green et al, 2004).
- Contemporary warming is all blamed without explanation on human activity
The IPCC Special Report (IPCC, 2018) suggests that between 80% and 100% of the observed difference between the 1850-1900 temperature mean and that of 2006-2015 is due to anthropogenic global warming. Booker is indeed correct that “until now, the IPCC has recognised that much of this was due to natural causes.” The Special Report goes on to detail, however, the expansion of evidence for anthropogenic contribution to increased temperatures that has led to the increased attribution of global warming to human actions, and thus Booker’s claim: this correspondent would suggest that this change, rather than being an indictment of the analysis, is proof of the roaring success of scientific processes in demonstrating the impact of humanity on our climate.
- Arctic sea ice has only decreased modestly since satellite records began
Here, Booker is let down by his, and his colleagues’, lack of ability to substantially reference their claims. Booker cites “all those computer model predictions” that suggest the summer Arctic would “soon be ice-free” – the article linked to, also in the Telegraph (Knapton, 2016), cites two authors as suggesting that this would be the case by 2016. The linked article goes on to point out that satellite data since 1981 shows an “undeniable downward trend in sea ice over the past 35 years”.
One would suggest that, in this case, Booker is either following such poor academic practice that he does not even read the full length of sources that he employs, or is selectively choosing parts of others’ work to cite to support his case – and will leave the reader to decide which situation would be a more damning indictment of his work.
Further data on sea ice extent is published by the US’ National Snow & Ice Data Center, available here (NSIDC, n.d.).
- Decreasing extent of summer Arctic sea ice is nothing to worry about
This claim is incorrect on a variety of levels.
Firstly, a trend towards lower or no extent of summer Arctic sea ice is an indicator for much wider changes in the Earth’s systems as a consequence of climate change. Warmer oceans, alterations in sea currents, and indeed warmer Arctic temperatures during the summer, are all potential causes of decreases in sea ice extent (Min et al, 2008; Ding et al, 2017) – though some natural processes have contributed a minority of the impact, too.
The loss of ice itself also poses a threat that should be acknowledged: the loss of habitat for species that depend on sea ice for survival, such as polar bears or seals, is perhaps the closest to the public’s heart. As much of the Greenland Ice Sheet is land-based ice, the melting of Arctic ice in the summer also contributes to global sea level rise – detailed by the IPCC Special Report as a serious threat to civilisations across the globe. Other impacts, just as salient, include links with autumnal weather conditions, warming and freshening of the upper ocean, and impacts on mid-latitude weather patterns (Meier et al, 2014).
The loss of Arctic sea ice is also, through positive feedback mechanisms, reinforcing its own melting. Ice is much lighter than the darker oceans that it covers – as a result, it reflects much more light. When ice sheets retreat to expose the darker ocean beneath, more light – thus more heat – is absorbed, causing the oceans surrounding the ice to further warm. As a result, more ice melts, exposing more oceans – and so on. Evidence suggests that this process is a statistically significant contributor to human impacts on Arctic ice retreat (Meier et al, 2014).
Booker here conveniently omits any reference to Antarctic sea ice – which, while not documented as being in slow-but-steady, year-on-year decline, is slowly being destroyed (Pritchard et al, 2012; Guardian, 2018).
There are two key conclusions to be drawn from this piece, and this correspondent’s consequent analysis.
Firstly, Booker’s piece is clearly fundamentally inaccurate in its claims – as one would suggest is the case with much of his work, Booker’s writing is clearly aimed at generating publicity and attention for his writings, a likely consequence of which being to promote sales of his own works. Similarly, The Telegraph’s editorial decision to provide Booker with a platform for his writing is likely to be for a read- and revenue-generating purpose, designed to exploit Booker’s controversial writings to create maximum exposure. As a side-effect, however, both of these motivations lead to the wilful generation of doubt about climate science: both serving to undermine, in the minds of ‘ordinary people’, the reality that climate change represents the greatest contemporary threat to humanity – one that is not only monolithic, but actually existential in nature.
The IPCC qualifies the vast majority of its conclusions with the phrase “high confidence”: in statistical speak, this equates to a 5% chance of the conclusion being incorrect. This editorial’s second, and far more meaningful conclusion, is therefore very simple:
Is humanity willing to gamble on a 1 in 20 chance that business as usual will not lead to catastrophic, civilisation-destroying (Olive, 2018) climate change?
This correspondent is not.
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