If there is a single issue today that is bound to cause controversy and a reaction from our readers it has to be that of global warming. My past efforts at discussing this issue have always resulted in a lot of feedback from all sides of the debate. However, I want to tackle this topic again today as it impacts our industry significantly.
The number of times I have seen the phrase “the science is proven” when it relates to the potential impact of manmade CO2 on the Earth’s climate astonishes me. For some, the very fact that I even termed this a “debate”
above will be enoughhowever, do please keep reading. But let us look at whether, in fact, the science is proven and we may find that idea that the “science is proven” or, even that the majority of scientists agree, is simply not true.
The Philosophy of Science
Science, as I was taught by the professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Strathclyde as I started my Ph.D., is about creating a working hypothesis that explains all of the observable facts. This working hypothesis must be presented for peer review by the community of scientists who will attempt to find flaws in it. If no flaws are immediately found, the hypothesis may be accepted as the best hypothesis available until such time as it fails to explain a new observation. At which time, it may be amended or scrapped in favor of a new hypothesis. In this way, science and scientists are progressively working towards the ultimate hypothesis but they may never actually know if they got there. There is no such thing as a proven hypothesis. There are just accepted (temporarily) hypotheses. We all know examples of this from our schooldays such as Newton’s laws and how those were eventually modified and replaced by Einstein and others’ improved theorems. We may even have read recently how scientists may have discovered particles that appear to break Einstein’s laws.
In other words, a hypothesis is never actually “proven” and by suggesting that this is so demonstrates a misunderstanding of what science actually is and how it is properly performed.
The problem with the global warming debate is that I (or anyone) can rightly say that they observe the effects of climate change on the world. “I see it with my own eyes.” This statement is truewe do observe climate change all around usbut how this then must mean that man made CO2 is responsible is, I would argue, based on a leap of faith. The Earth’s climate isn’t static, it changes through time both globally and regionally. Such changes may be observed in our lifetime as well as the geological record (Figure 1). From a scientific perspective, over the course of our short lives about the only factual thing we can prove relative to climate is what we already know to occurthat the Earth’s climate changes.
Average Global Temperature and Atmospheric
Carbon Content Over Geologic Time
The Key Question Then is, “Why?”
Logical reasoning suggests that, if the Earth’s climate has always changed through time (more than four billion years of it), then we must look for the mechanisms behind those changes through that entire period of time. In other words, if nothing new is occurring now, then the answer to what drives climate change must be some broad set of systemic Earth processes. We even have some ideas about what these processes are. They include things like continental configuration, ocean currents, cloud formation and cover, solar activity, and much more. It’s a very complex set of processes that are not entirely understood (i.e., the science of climate is, in fact, a long way from being “proven”).
Why, then, the focus on CO2? A gas that occupies such a minimal proportion (parts per million) of the planet’s atmosphere that logical thought would immediately discount the idea that minor fluctuations of the stuff could cause much of an issue on a global scale. We also know that in the distant past the Earth’s atmosphere contained significantly more CO2 without much of a discernable impact on temperature (Figure 1). In fact, today, our atmosphere is actually CO2 impoverished by comparison to the geologic past.
For me, it intuitively feels wrong that C02, a gas for which Mother Earth appears to have many processes to regulate it (so-called carbon sinks) could possibly be the sole culprit? And while some may react strongly to me having this doubt, please keep in mind it is doubt that helps to drive better science. We must never stop asking ourselves, “Do we have this right?
What can we do to continue to gather objective data and analysis?” This is the basis of good science.
Politics and Belief
The potential problem, as I see it, is that the question of climate change has become politicized to the point where criticisms or even critiques of analysis or data are met with an immediate dismissal or fierce opposition.
Climate science has become anything but science with believers on both sides of the debate who seek to block the publication via peer review of opposing views, attempt to discredit each other both professionally and personally, and resort to the utilization of fear making sound bites delivered via the global media. Research funding isn’t readily available to those who seek to probe the currently accepted hypotheses.
A good example of this is the recent findings by The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) published in Nature1 magazine.
CERN has called for climate models to be changed in the light of its findings calling the findings rightly “politically sensitive.” Why? because the research shows rather definitively that cosmic rays do seed clouds in the atmosphere which impacts climate change and this requires computer climate models to be overhauled. In the press briefing from CERN regarding the experiment, they said,
“Based on the first results from CLOUD, it is clear that the treatment of aerosol formation in climate models will need to be substantially revised, since all models assume that nucleation is caused by these vapours and water alone. It is now urgent to identify the additional nucleating vapours, and whether their sources are mainly natural or from human activities.”2
CERN built a stainless steel chamber to as accurately possible recreate the Earth’s atmosphere to test the idea that clouds may be the primary driver of global climate as opposed to CO2. It, therefore, tested the relative importance of one aspect of the factors involved in climate change outlined above. In this chamber, 63 CERN scientists from 17 European and American institutes demonstrated that cosmic rays promote the formation of molecules which grow in Earth’s atmosphere and seed clouds, making it cloudier and cooler. While it may not disprove the idea that CO2 is responsible, it casts further doubt on that theory.
But the real story here is just how politically complex it was for CERN to fund and conduct this experiment. In an intriguing article written by Lawrence Solomon for the Financial Post, we learn the truth behind this experiment. I quote verbatim.
“The hypothesis that cosmic rays and the sun hold the key to the global warming debate has been Enemy No. 1 to the global warming establishment ever since it was first proposed by two scientists from the Danish Space Research Institute, at a 1996 scientific conference in the U.K. Within one day, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Bert Bolin, denounced the theory, saying, “I find the move from this pair scientifically extremely naive and irresponsible.” He then set about discrediting the theory, any journalist that gave the theory credence, and most of all the Danes presenting the theory – they soon found themselves vilified, marginalized and starved of funding, despite their impeccable scientific credentials.
The mobilization to rally the press against the Danes worked brilliantly, with one notable exception. Nigel Calder, a former editor of The New Scientist who attended that 1996 conference, would not be cowed. Himself a physicist, Mr. Calder became convinced of the merits of the argument and a year later, following a lecture he gave at a CERN conference, so too did Jasper Kirkby, a CERN scientist in attendance. Mr. Kirkby then convinced the CERN bureaucracy of the theory’s importance and developed a plan to create a cloud chamberhe called it CLOUD, for “Cosmics Leaving OUtdoor Droplets.”
But Mr. Kirkby made the same tactical error that the Danes had – not realizing how politicized the global warming issue was, he candidly shared his views with the scientific community.
“The theory will probably be able to account for somewhere between a half and the whole of the increase in the Earth’s temperature that we have seen in the last century,” Mr. Kirkby told the scientific press in 1998, explaining that global warming may be part of a natural cycle in the Earth’s temperature.
The global warming establishment sprang into action, pressured the Western governments that control CERN, and almost immediately succeeded in suspending CLOUD. It took Mr. Kirkby almost a decade of negotiation with his superiors, and who knows how many compromises and unspoken commitments, to convince the CERN bureaucracy to allow the project to proceed. And years more to create the cloud chamber and convincingly validate the Danes’
Yet this spectacular success will be largely unrecognized by the general public for yearsthis column will be the first that most readers have heard of itbecause CERN remains too afraid of offending its government masters to admit its success. Weeks ago, CERN formerly decided to muzzle Mr.
Kirby and other members of his team to avoid “the highly political arena of the climate change debate,” telling them “to present the results clearly but not interpret them” and to downplay the results by “mak[ing] clear that cosmic radiation is only one of many parameters.” The CERN study and press release is written in bureaucratese and the version of Mr. Kirkby’s study that appears in the print edition of Nature censored the most eye-popping graphonly those who know where to look in an online supplement will see the striking potency of cosmic rays in creating the conditions for seeding clouds.”
Fig. S2c from supplementary online material for J. Kirkby et al.,
Nature, 476, 429-433, C Nature 2011
Continue to Test the Hypothesis
The implication that man made CO2 is causing temperature increases and that it will result in calamitous impacts for mankind has many far-reaching consequences. Regulation of CO2 emissions impacts each and every one of us and specifically our industry, including potentially higher taxes or costs and ultimately changes in lifestyle. Given that, we should be careful to be sure that these fundamental shifts in lifestyle and business processes are founded on proper science and debate. Other well-supported explanations for the observed changes in climate are emerging and they should not be rejected out of hand, but met with careful critique. The scientific method requires it.