Who remembers the 1980s, and how hard it was to convince anybody to take global warming seriously? Well now it is virtually impossible to pursuade anybody that we might have got this wrong, and that we must never stop considering other possibilities
As in the vaccine debate, there are powerful interests that think certain arguments must be suppressed at all costs, lest the certainty on which social stability rests be demolished. In other words, policy and commerce can too easily take precedence over the truth. Within every area of science, there is an unavoidable dose of dogma, assumption, lobbying, and control, aka bias. And ‘big science’ can suffer ‘big bias’.
Brian Cox’s ‘absolute consensus’ is maintained by systematic exclusion of anything that does not support the prevailing view. Anyone researching areas of climate science that do not imply global warming, can find it very difficult to get funding or peer review. They can be automatically dismissed as ‘not credible climate scientists’. That is not consensus, it is suppression of dissent. I do not think Malcolm Roberts put up a very good fight in the clip, but his demolition by Cox was pure showmanship. I urge the public to choose better reasons for making up their minds.
Environmental sciences were pretty big where I studied my first degree. My father was a high-ranking research director in the publicly-owned gas industry of the 1960s and 1970s, and we heard of the greenhouse concept back then. Prof Cox pulling out graphs is a shoddy example of how science is supposed to be approached.
Putting it on the BBC News website is media support at its finest for an establishment view. Why an establishment view? Because when they realised the level of popular awareness of climate change in the 1980s, some parts of the establishment decided not to fight but to make money out of it. And thus began carbon-trading and carbon quotas on Bill Clinton’s watch, and a war of messages. So no message can be trusted uncritically. And any sincere scientist could in fact be an unwitting disseminator of any agenda.
Those familiar with the vaccine debate will recognise ‘The Graph Trick’. Produce a graph that shows the section of data supporting your hypothesis, and compel others to acknowledge the trend. Give them less than 3 seconds to come back with a complex and detailed rebuttal. But in the case of vaccines, if you go back in time far enough, the graphs actually show that major diseases were well on the way to eradication LONG before their vaccines were introduced, thanks to public health measures that are far more important than immunisation.
How many of us have a better graph in our pockets, just when needed to challenge a point? In fact we don’t actually know what Prof Cox’s graph shows – it could be the inflation-adjusted price of baked beans in Kwachas for all I can tell, yet it raised an instant cheer from the audience.
Take a long view with the atmospheric carbon trends and you see that a similar sleight-of-hand is at play in the media. Because, barring a mere blip since the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon is at its lowest in geological history. Why? because so much of it has been lost to fossil sinks, in other words oil, gas and coal deep underground.
Some say atmospheric levels are in fact dangerously low, near to the point where plant life can no longer thrive and life on earth could die out if it gets any worse. There is propaganda on all sides, and so the honest position for the layman is to not know what to believe. The savvy layman keeps openly sceptical, and isn’t pursuaded just because it is Brian Cox and a graph.
The more CO2 there is in the atmosphere, the more ‘food’ for plant growth. Plants capture CO2 as they grow, and so there is this kind of homoeostatic mechanism in place (as long as we don’t keep cutting down our forests). In support of the idea that levels are in fact currently low, sceptics point out that horticulturalists actually install CO2 generators in greenhouses to feed their plants.
And when plants die, the carbon they contain is recycled into new life, either directly or by release into the atmosphere and later absorbtion into other plants. But a small amount gets more permanently fixed into fossil sinks. And as the amount of fossil carbon increases in geological time, that leads to a gradual long-term loss of atmospheric CO2. By burning fossil fuels we are merely putting some of it back. There are other mechanisms at play, and the whole picture is unavoidably complicated, meaning certainty here is not the domain of the wise.
Now, I am not here saying unfettered burning of fossil fuel has been a good thing. Dumping hundreds of millions of years’ worth of sunk carbon back into the atmosphere in a few centuries is not a very ‘organic’ approach. And I realise this opens the door to some huge conversations, such as the fate of the coral reefs and so on.
But nor is it a good thing constructing a false-narrative, calling it science, and then using it as a pretext for massive control measures against whole societies. Make no mistake: climate change is big business and power. And that can turn any good intention bad.
Yes earth’s temperatures appear to be rising in parallel with the recent rise in CO2. But we are all aware that statistics can be used to create any picture. Assuming there is overall evidence of a rise, there are other hypotheses worth exploring that can explain it, fully or partly. Admitedly some of them are very complicated and hard to grasp, but that alone should not make them less likely. And it is bad practice scientifically to say these ideas are invalidated by a lack of consensus. The ‘absolute consensus’ was once that the earth was the centre of the solar system, as Brian Cox of all people should know.
And yes, altering the chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere on a grand scale is dangerous. And yes, pollution from fossil hydrocarbons and their many byproducts is one of our worst problems. And yes, clean air, clean water, a sustainable energy future and economic independence from finite resources would not be such a terrible mistake to make: in fact I totally support it. I don’t want to see climate action filibustered.
None of that means that we should allow fair debate and exploration of all ideas to be stifled by mainstream thinking. So it is the official message I always take with a pinch of salt. If the message is that we need to shut down all industry, cover every spare acre in solar panels (with huge up-front energy costs), dump heavy metals into the atmosphere or build giant space-shields to block out the sun, then our mindset is going to kill us just as surely either way.
But my main point is that every ‘mainstream’ idea was once a minority idea, and if we shout down current minority ideas we could be suppressing the next sustainable energy solution, or cure for cancer, or the invention that will get us to the next habitable planet. So I admit being a bit of a supporter of scientific underdogs, not because I think all wierd ideas are right, just because we risk losing some great ideas if we keep saying certain things are ‘settled’ or beyond debate. Being ahead of ones time is even more a disadvantage than being behind, and sometimes ideas need to be kept alive until mankind is ready for them.
Having for a time myself become very disillusioned by science, I eventually had my faith restored by realising it was the abuse of science by scientists in the name of science I so deplored. Science is always right, but scientists are often wrong. Part of this return to science now compels me to respect ANY hypothesis, no matter how outlandish it may at first seem. And to be especially wary of herd mentality, consensus and science wrapped in public policy: but to realise that good science requires constant vigillance over details, constant awareness of the interests it serves, and most of all, a realisation that at any moment one new piece of information can turn everything on its head.
Meantime, there is one thing humans can do right now that is virtually free of negative consequences, that will reverse our dependence on fossil fuels, moderate or even reduce atmospheric carbon, and reverse many of the harmful environmental problems of the post-industrial age. And that is to PLANT TREES. More than any other project, restoring the earth’s forests is arguably mankind’s most urgent duty right now.