As a former student of physics, I’ve long been perplexed by the apparent scientific consensus on climate change. If the newspapers can be believed, scientists basically all agree that human beings are pumping enough carbon dioxide into the air to destroy the planet.
And yet the science of how carbon dioxide — a harmless gas exhaled by mammals and vital to plant life — traps the sun’s rays is well understood. From a physics point of view, we’d expect the global temperature to rise by perhaps 2 degrees as a result of the carbon dioxide we’re pumping into it.
No doubt any change whatsoever will cause big problems for large numbers of people, but there’s equally little doubt that many would be benefitted by a small rise in temperature. Indeed, the Earth’s climate has been wildly unstable ever since it came into existence, so future stability is unlikely. Why then, I’ve been wondering, all the prognostications of doom and destruction?
A Scientific Theory Or Just Speculation?
It seems that scientists are somewhat perplexed by the sheer apparent instability of the Earth’s past climate. Changes in carbon dioxide levels appear to occur after rises in global temperature, rather than preceeding the changes. So some scientists have decided that, “probably”, changes in carbon dioxide levels can trigger some kind of feedback effect that accounts for the past changeability of the Earth’s climate.
This theory may or may not be correct; in a sense it’s not a scientific theory at all, since there’s no way to test the hypothesis. We can’t go back in time and alter the carbon dioxide levels to see what happens.
But let’s say they’re right; let’s say that carbon dioxide can precipitate large climate fluctuations. I can’t help but wonder — might it be a good idea if we were to take account of the fact that we are in the middle of a brief pause in a gigantic ice age?
We Are In An Ice Age
It seems that the Earth may have been entirely free of ice at various points in its history. Several million years ago an ice age began, known as the Quaternary Glaciation. Permanent ice caps settled at the poles, and for a couple of million years or so the Earth was basically covered in ice.
Then, practically a couple of years ago — well, OK, 10-15,000 years ago — the ice retreated somewhat, giving humanity a breathing space in which we were able to create civilisation. Yet the ice threatens to return at any moment — and according to some studies, once it starts it really gets going, the entire climate changing in perhaps as little as a few days.
Given the uncertainty over global warming, why is the theory so damn popular? Back in the late 80′s, when the theory first began to really gain ground, global warming seemed like a godsend to many of us. We were sick of the rampant environmental destruction and ruthless expoitation that seemed — and still seems — to characterise our society. And yet we had no single, clear way of arguing that it should be restrained by legal means. Global warming gave us the argument that we wanted. Finally we could say “stop polluting or the planet will explode” — or some such thing.
The tragedy is that we unknowingly played right into the hands of the large corporations that are responsible for much of the pollution. Thanks to the focus on carbon dioxide, a gas vital to all life on the planet, the pressure was taken off many far more pressing pollutants, such as mercury, lead and PCBs to name but a few. Even quite recently it was finally recognized that certain types of fish contain so much mercury (thanks to our own efforts) that they should almost be regarded as inedible.
Not only that, but the big corporations seized the chance to knock off their competitors. If you’re a large oil company, do you care if oil — sorry, carbon, is taxed? Of course not — your smaller competitors may go under, but you’ll do just fine. People need oil. And maybe you can sell more “cleaner” natural gas into the bargain.
Scientists too leapt on the bandwagon. Suddenly the success of your grant application could be ensured merely by putting the magic words “global warming” into the title of your study — even if your study really had little or nothing to do with global warming.
David vs. David — Who Will Win?
The debate is perhaps summed up by the diverse stances taken by veteran BBC TV presenters David Bellamy and David Attenborough. Bellamy, a bone fide botanist, feels that we should stop wasting our time complaining about carbon dioxide, which he points out is actually good for plants, and instead worry about “real” pollution. Attenborough on the other hand, a great and learned man if ever there was one but not (as far as I know) any sort of qualified scientist, feels that man-made global warming is certainly a reality.
Strangely, Bellamy hasn’t been much on our TV screens since he started asserting that global warming is poppycock.
Pro-Neurotoxin Environmentalists: Update September 2011
Last week I happened to read a news article about the demise of the 60-watt bulb. The 60-watt bulb, in case you’ve never thought about it, is a thing made mostly from glass and harmless metal. EU legislation is apparently about to render the manufacture of the 60-watt bulb illegal, or as good as. Why? In order to meet climate change targets on carbon dioxide emissions. The 60-watt bulb is to be replaced by a device that contains neurotoxic mercury and releases mercury when it’s thrown away and gets broken, as most surely will be. Mercury is already present in our environment in sufficient quantities to potentially damage us; now we are going to get even more of it, thanks to the efforts of environmentalists who, for the most part, are generally ignorant of any actual science. And this looks set to be only the first of many great victories for the global warming movement ….