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My Position on Global Warming and Climate Change - by a left-leaning environmentalist

• David Crowe for

If I can be classified it would be as a left-leaning environmentalist, with a history of environmental concerns dating back to my pre-teen years in the 1960s. I was one of the founders of the Alberta Greens political party in 1990 based on support for a federal Green candidate in 1988, and was the party's president until 2004 and then CFO until a right-wing takeover in late 2008.

I have organized my position on global warming/climate change as a self-interview because my concerns have arisen as I have been asked more questions about this and some of my green friends exhibit shock at my position.

Q1. Is Global Warming Happening?

It is impossible to know if global warming is happening without waiting for hundreds or thousands of years to see if short term trends go up or down. Of course we can't wait that long, so the question is whether catastrophic global warming is imminent. That also is impossible to know. If the changes are small they are also manageable.

It is also impossible to define a global temperature. Even small biases in measurements made in a small number of points over the globe (such as heat island effects due to measurements near growing cities) can create false temperature increases. When extrapolated and fed into a mathematical model that accelerates them, dire predictions can appear on computer screens around the world.

Q2. Why are you speaking up now?

I feel forced to speak now as environmentalists are trying to enforce adherence to the climate change theory even as more and more evidence comes out against it. For a long time I didn't speak because I'm not a climate scientist but I gradually realized that all the people telling me this were not climate scientists either and, in fact, I am probably far better educated and experienced to comment than most of them.

Q3. Don't the data show an unambiguous trend?

I recently looked at arctic and antarctic ice area data. The arctic data does show a trend towards lower amounts of ice since records began in 1979 but antarctica shows, if anything, the opposite trend. Longer term records only show the decline in arctic sea ice since about 1979. It is quite likely that this is due to data from 1979 on not being comparable. Furthermore, 30 years is not even a drop in the geological bucket. To state that this is a firm trend, when it is only found in the north, and records for the last couple of hundred years are not available, is not warranted.

A panel, including James Hansen, wrote in 2000 that global warming was real despite there only being evidence that the surface was warming, not the troposphere (indicating that the atmosphere was not actually warming). They defended this by saying, "The disparity between surface and upper air trends in no way invalidates the conclusion that surface temperature has been rising" (but that's not the question. Is the atmosphere warming?), noting that despite their best efforts, "a substantial disparity remains" (between surface and tropospheric temperatures), admitted that other factors were highly significant (including volcanoes), blamed human activities for global cooling (including ozone-depleting substances) and finally "cautions that temperature trends based on data for such short periods of record, with arbitrary start and end points, are not necessarily indicative of the long-term behavior of the climate system".

Clearly there is data in both directions. But the climate of the planet varies with every day, every season, with influence from many human activities, amounts of volcanic activity and from variations in the output of the sun. Climate is incredibly complex, with many feedback loops that are poorly understood. It is impossible to draw conclusions based on a few year's data especially when the data is being interpreted by scientist who have a priori decided what the trend is.

Furthermore, 'ClimateGate' is just the most recent evidence that data is being manipulated to make the picture cleaner and more biased towards global warming being real – "Manufacturing Certainty".

Q4. Don't You Believe Any Warming is Happening?

That's not the question. Only if the warming that is happening is intolerable should we take these dramatic actions. If mild warming to the planet is occurring, any disruptions will occur over many years and can be easily mitigated. After all, dramatic changes in the earth have occurred relatively frequently due to perfectly natural events like tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions, raising and lowering of land and sea levels, floods, earthquakes and so on.

The actions being proposed by climate change proponents are dramatic, have significant side effects, probably won't have the desired effect, but can only be justified if the changes in climate are so dramatic that the very future of humans is threatened.

The right question is, "Don't You Believe that Catastrophic Global Warming is Imminent?" No, I don't.

Q5. Aren't Hurricane Katrina and the Burmese Typhoon Proof that Global Warming is Happening?

Yes, but not of climate change. These tragedies have something in common with a third, the Indonesian Tsunami. The problem is that tsunami's are not connected to climate change, but to geological phenomena (movements of tectonic plates). The common denominator in the increased devastation is coastal forest destruction. Allowing coastal forests to regrow will provide a buffer of protection to people all over the world from these destructive ocean events. It is entirely speculative that reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will have any benefits. Given the randomness with which these events occur it is not clear how you could ever determine whether changes to the composition of the atmosphere were helping to reduce the frequency or destructiveness of severe weather events.

Q6. Aren't Some Proposals of Climate Campaigners Justified?

Yes. Some actions (such as reducing use of fossil fuels) can be justified for other reasons. I am concerned about actions that can only be justified by prophesies of climate doom. These actions are clearly counter-productive if we are not facing climate doom as they take considerable energy and will produce their own side effects. We should focus on actions that can be justified as solutions to known problems which means that we can ignore climate change and go back to real environmentalism.

If you should only undertake actions that have a justification other than climate change then you can factor climate change out of the equation. Furthermore, climate change action requires global agreement, which simply will not happen. At Copenhagen we see true climate change fanatic James Hansen arguing against an agreement because it won't be extreme enough.

Q7. If Some Actions Are Justified Isn't Climate Change Campaigning Good?

No. The focus on climate change has resulted in orders of magnitude more talk than action. Climate change action is only perceived as useful if actions are universal. However, action against other environmental damage is beneficial on a small scale. Public transit would be a benefit to the world if only Canada invested. An end to mountain-top removal coal-mining would be a benefit to the world if only the USA did it. More bike paths would be beneficial if only Holland built them. Reforestation would be a great thing even if only in Nepal and Burma. Reduction of coal-burning would be a benefit to the world if only China did it.

Traditional environmental activism is "Think Globally. Act Locally". Climate Change is "Think Globally. Act Globally". Even if global action on CO2 was warranted, it will never happen because it is impossible to get such sweeping global agreements, it just leads to treaties with nice words that can be safely ignored.

Q8. Isn't Talking Good?

All climate change campaigners appear to do is talk. I am confident that no substantive improvements to the environment will ever occur because of global warming actions. But that is not a problem for some people – money will be made through massive increases in research funds, speculations on the carbon market and installation of equipment of speculative value, such as systems to pump CO2 into the ground.

What the planet really needs is action justified by traditional environmental principles – reduction of exposure to toxic chemicals being one of the primary goals. And CO2 is not a toxic chemical. Other goals should be the elimination of unsustainable killings of animals (especially fish), reduction in extraction of raw materials (including fossil fuels) and a halt to habitat destruction, especially of forests and ocean environments. Many of these things will, as a by-product, reduce the production of CO2.

Q9. Aren't Carbon Taxes and Trading Good?

Climate Change is based on a neo-liberal philosophy. I define this as a fundamental belief that government is bad and that the free market is good, but a grudging acceptance that government influence is sometimes necessary, but only through a free market mechanism. Carbon taxes will not influence the behaviour of the well-off (look at how much more they spend on cars than they need to). And if the funds are merely redistributed they won't pay for things like public transit, bike paths or energy conservation projects. And redistribution of carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade are invitations to fraud, which will make many neo-liberals very rich, and make the planet poorer.

Q10. Aren't Carbon Credits Good?

We are now realizing that carbon credits are likely to result in the eviction of poor people in the third world to make space for trees to assuage the conscience of rich people in the first world. If even this much happens. There are many avenues for fraud in the carbon credit market leading to an incentive to produce paperwork indicating that carbon is being sequestered when it really isn't. Only the perception counts. People may claim credits for things that already exist, claim double credits in different places, or simply claim credits for things that don't exist.

Another example of corruption is the excess credits mysteriously given to steelmaker ArcelorMittal and Eurofer in Europe after extensive lobbying of the European Commission, including threats to move jobs out of Europe. This will result in windfall profits to these companies for not producing a harmless gas that they would never have produced anyway.

Q11. What's Wrong with Climate Reparations?

Sending huge amounts of western money to third world countries is a truly horrible idea. This will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and will almost certainly not produce the mitigation projects that it is presumably intended for. Most countries are ruled by corrupt elites (high level corruption is rife in countries as diverse as America, Nigeria and China), and most of this money will disappear into their pockets, or in megaprojects such as large hydro-electric generation dams that will not improve the life of ordinary people, and may end up displacing them.

A more fundamental problem that neo-liberals don't understand is that money does not actually solve all problems. If the west continues to operate mines and oil production without adequate safeguards for workers, the environment and people in the vicinity; if hydro projects continue to displace people living sustainable lives; if plantations continue to gobble up land and produce crops for export not for local consumption; if chemical production continues to poison workers, rivers, air, groundwater and our food – what does it matter if buckets of cash are shoveled into capital cities where little will leak out?

What is needed is local government action to eliminate bad practices and a reforming of global ties to put principles of fair trade (which value the environment, workers and people in both trading nations) above the principles of free trade (which value only free movement of capital and goods). If an industrial practice is not in the overall interests of a nation it should be banned – not taxed or traded.

Q12. Can't we Trust Scientists?

There is a lot of evidence that the activity often called science, and the scientists who practice this activity (as opposed to those few who have a monk-like dedication to the scientific method), are not trustworthy. Peer review is a bankrupt process, for example. It is lousy at detecting fraud but very good at suppressing innovative thought. Financial conflicts of interest are frequent and rarely disclosed. Scientists often fall into the trap of focusing on their next grant rather than what important questions need to be asked (including questioning their own assumptions and biases). The prejudices of the system are amplified in this way. Those who conform are rewarded with grants which inform the granters that this is a subject of great interest.

The proof of this is that there have been many scientific errors that have survived for decades – Piltdown Man, Radical Mastectomy, (opposition to) continental drift, irradiation of the thymus, the germ theories of scurvy, pellagra and SMON. We, like all generations before us, falsely believe that all false beliefs lie in the past.

The ClimateGate scandal illustrated this problem well. Without access to data scientists cannot fully evaluate the work of others. Phil Jones, the head of the CRU, at the center of this scandal, said, "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?" That is exactly why the data should be released. If it can pass scrutiny from a skeptical, critical, cynical scientist then our confidence in the data and interpretations drawn from it will be much higher. It is a waste of time to give data to a scientist whose intention is to prove that previous interpretations are correct.

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December 22, 2009

Copyright © 2009 David Crowe

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