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Professor Roger Bowden

Climate change and the social importance of scepticism

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A lifetime of observation and work in the social sciences has convinced me of one thing. George Orwell was partly wrong in his classic novel 1984. The threats to the open society do not come from above. They come from all around us: from our peers. The oppression is rooted in economic interest and professional capture.  Yet its expression is strikingly reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘ thought crimes’, media capture, and other techniques of social manipulation.  What should be hypotheses are presented as ‘ done deals’ , and to express doubt or disagreement is excoriated as personally negative, reactionary  and socially obstructive.

Take global warming, now. When the Keeling curve appeared in 1958, it documented the apparently exponential rise in CO2 emissions. It took a while for the link to global warming to be made; indeed at the end of the ‘ seventies, the orthodoxy was that it might be associated with global cooling, not warming! But by the end of the ‘ eighties the hypothetical pendulum had swung quite the other way, due in no small measure to the UN convention on climate change, the IPCC as its informational instrument, and of course to Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth.

It all looked convincing to me.  But the doubts started to creep in. As a mathematical modeller myself, I was uneasy about the faith being placed in the causal models. Given his outstanding mathematical modelling credentials, it was hard to dismiss the negative assessment of Freeman Dyson , of Princeton University, as out of date or over the hill. And at the outset I was just a little worried by the curve, which appeared to show that global temperatures were leading CO2 rises, not the other way round.  And any unusual weather pattern, it seemed, was grist to the mill for the climate correctness industry.

Moreover as an economist, the motives for professional capture became progressively more apparent. By that I do not mean just money, consultancy, or at one remove, government funding for me and my team. Scientists enjoy public attention and social importance just as much as the next man, or woman.  But I also became troubled by the intolerance of opposing views that had started to develop. Climate change and its mechanism became a ‘done deal’ in the media, as though no socially responsible person could possibly think otherwise. University sponsors endowed chairs in ‘climate change’ instead of the more neutral ‘climatology’.

In the meantime, markets in carbon credits were set up, to the profit of some, and the cost of many. That the European market is now in state of collapse was not altogether a surprise ( I had foreseen problems in a 2005 book).  Nor even the suggestion that it be resurrected by ‘backloading’, which is telling firms that bad luck, the free credit allowance has now to be revised downward after the event. Economic theorists would call that ‘policy inconsistency’, and it’s a decision-making nightmare.

Early on, small cracks started to appear in the edifice of moral certainty on climate correctness, in the form of controversies about selective data quotation, or even data fudging. The Himalayan glaciers were not all retreating, the Antarctic sea ice was in fact growing, and so on.

But a much larger crack developed as the first C21 decade passed. It became apparent that although CO2 had continued its march upwards, it had left warming behind; since 1997 there has been little or no global warming. Credit for disseminating this finding goes to the UK Daily Mail, who promptly got into hot water for suggesting that the UK Met Office had hidden the light under a bushel. And a few months later, a team from Reading University showed that this had breached the 95% confidence band for the prevailing IPCC model. Or to put it plainly, there was only a 5% chance that the model was right.

It’ s too early to say whether the  reality crack will widen. Hardline proponents will doubtless claim that it’s just a temporary blip, a matter of the timescale of fluctuations (the wavelet, in technical jargon). Apart from this, several attempts1 are going on to resolve the apparent non concordance of the facts with the model, by recalibrating the latter.  Most appear to be on the lines that the hypothesis is basically correct, but the rate of global warming will just be a bit slower. More interestingly, effects like atmospheric soot are being explored; carbon again, but not CO2 as such. Nobody who has ever struggled to breathe in Beijing, or any other big Chinese city, will disagree with that. The villains of the piece are thermal coal burning and vehicle emissions.

None of the doubts that have recently surfaced should serve to diminish the need to study climate, and the mechanisms of possible climate change. As a statistician would put it, there are heavy social costs in type I error (accepting the null hypothesis of ‘no change’ when it is really occurring). But by the same token, the costs can go the other way, in expensive remedial measures that are misplaced either because the change is not occurring; or it is, and the causal mechanism is quite different.

If there is a moral in the climate story thus far, it lies in the intolerance and dismissal of dissenting views among the scientific community; and the failure among too much of the media to realise that they were hostage to professional capture.  Likewise, Harvard students are pressuring the Harvard Educational Foundation to divest oil and gas shares like Exxon. This seems bit tough for the less wealthy students on Foundation scholarships, but then university students have never been noted for sober evaluation.

The same intolerance over a wider variety of social issues has become embedded in society at large. I tend to think that political correctness in general is a form of cowardice that becomes transmuted into bullying. Cowardice in refusing to face up to the facts; bullying those who might otherwise attempt to put the record straight. We see it every day in the rewriting of social history to promote the interests of this or that special interest group.

In their bombastic mission statements, NZ universities claim to encourage ‘critical thinking’. Doubtless this is why they now feature degree programmes in such gems as ‘Leadership’. (Genghis, Tamurlane, Adolf or Joe as foundation students?). But to my mind, true leadership and critical thinking lie in the willingness to dissent if the facts of the matter call for it. Sceptics do us all a service. We should not disparage them.

  1. The Economist magazine of March 30-April 6 has a nice summary, even if its author evidently feels obliged to stick with the orthodoxy.