Thursday, December 17, 2009

Earth: The Climate Wars; History of climate science

I have been watching Earth: The Climate Wars on BBC2. Watching documentaries is always a bit frustrating at first, as the information comes out so slowly, like honey emerging from an 8mm hole, but then you set back to enjoy the visuals, and the presenter, Dr Ian Stewart, geologist at Plymouth Uni, is not irritating, which is always a bonus for a presenter.

His treatment of the New Ice Age worry was illuminating. It was stimulated by global cooling in the 1960's, which turned out in the end to be due to the sun-screening effects of industrial particulate pollution.

The history of science is always fascinating, especially the human emotions that go into the intellectual wrangles. The piece started with the scientist David Keeling who began meticulously to measure CO2 in the air. It was a bit moving to view the result of his life's labour, a 2" squiggly, upwardly mobile line on a graph - and then to view its modern extension.

Key was that when scientists became concerned at the threat of global warming, and alerted the US Government. They set up a scientific panel, which came up with a sobering report, one which was very accurate given the limited data available at the time. Not sure what to do, the US Government set up another panel, which confirmed the previous work. Oh. Never mind, along comes Ronald Reagan, who chooses a more ideologically sound chairman, who comes up with the result desired by the President: warming would be slow and its effects mild.

The rest of the story is a tale of the efforts of pro-free market controversialists to slow the progress of AGW science, an effort which continues to the present day. They are the rearguard of a retreating and physically aging army, though, as first their denial that Earth actually is warming had to be abandoned, and then their claim that it would be slow. He shows how Michael Mann's Hockey Stick, intensively attacked by skeptics, has been validated by many strands of subsequent research.

The key piece is in the second film, The Fightback (of the skeptics) is the footage of the admission by Patrick Michaels, the doyen of skeptical scientists, that climate change (a) is happening, and (b) is influenced by man-made gases. (56:54 into the film) He still claims that it is only a mild influence. Patrick Michaels has received much money from business with a reason to continue pumping out CO2.

The next stand of the retreating army of skeptics will be to argue that projections for future warming of 2*, 4* or 6*Celsius of warming are exaggerated.

Irritating as it is to have to fight the skeptics datum by scientific datum, this is a necessary battle, because just as the clash between America and Russia was fought out on the soil of Vietnam, the clash between free market fundamentalism and the ecological world view is being fought out in the field of the climate science.


Anonymous said...

In the third episode, stewart goes to greenland where
It is very clearly explained that 10000 years
Ago at the end of ther younger dryas the climate dramatically
Changed "in a year" as in shot up as much
As five degrees.

Yet five minutes later we are told that rapid climate change is within
Our control if we change our way, despite having shown the historical record
Proves otherwise.

So how are the sceptics on the run when the programme tells us very
Clearly that in recent history the climate
Swung dramatically without us affecting it?

Why are we suddenly able to stop that natural process?

DocRichard said...


We can and must try. We must act as if the science is right, and hope to god that the sceptics are at least a little bit right.

Thanks for commenting.