Rupert Murdoch brought the world of science to its knees last week with a simple tweet aimed at Al Gore, the man he apparently views as the leading authority on all things climate change:
Al Gore. Pls explain record increase in Arctic ice. Other greenies crippling US growth in opposing safe tracking for natural gas.— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) September 15, 2013
That confidence might seem pretty reckless from someone who supposedly didn’t even know what was going on inside his own business. But Murdoch isn’t alone in his scepticism; the Tory MP David TC Davies recently outlined his own opinion on the matter in a largely empty debate on climate change in the House of Commons. He explained that yes, “Carbon dioxide is a warming gas,” and yes, “There has been an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since we started industrialising,” and that sure, some warming had taken place in the exact same period, but that it was all just a big coincidence and we really shouldn’t be getting our knickers in a twist about it.
Davies was far more concerned about the money involved. According to his figures, “Every person in the country will be paying between £4,700 and £5,300 a year towards the government's climate change policies.” Tallied up, that amounts to roughly £316 billion per year, meaning Davies believes that nearly half of the entire UK budget is being spent on climate change policies. To be fair, if I were that bad at maths, I’d be pretty sceptical about science, too.
Personally, I’d love to be able to convince myself that climate change is bogus. The pain of having to agree with pollution apologists would be easily outweighed by not having to deal with the effects of scary things like ocean acidification and rising sea levels, or the paying out of billions of pounds and dollars to mitigate those effects.
So I thought I'd give it a shot, coercing myself into accepting that all the scientific evidence I've witnessed with my own eyes is some liberal conspiracy to fuck over big industry. But what exactly does it take to hand-wave away global warming?
The obvious place to start is with the temperature record. The great thing about temperatures in a complex system is that they’re messy and can be influenced by other things – volcanic eruptions, for example. That makes it easy to cherry-pick data to "prove" that other people’s analyses are bogus. For example, earlier this year, the Met Office used the following graph to argue for the existence of "summer" on the basis that temperatures were rising between March and May:
The casual observer might be fooled by the trend line imposed by those devious science wizards, but look closer: the temperature on March the 7th reached 6C, higher than the temperature on April the 27th. A third reading on May the 23rd confirmed an inconvenient truth for those who claimed summer was afoot – there had been no rise in temperature since that first measurement in early March.
It’s just as easy to apply these voodoo statistics on a global scale. Take a temperature graph like the one above from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The choice of red and the use of liberal science tells us that this government organisation is probably socialist, so we could just choose to ignore their data.
But it’s still usable – all we have to do is ignore everything before 1998, a freakishly hot year caused by regular temperature shifts in the Pacific known as "El Nino", and then see if 2013 beat the record. And look – it didn’t! Hurrah!
As for sea ice – well, look above, it's kind of hard to argue that there was a big increase in Arctic sea ice cover this year.
With a bit of effort and creativity, you can make the numbers say anything you want, but it’s much harder to deal with the basic science. Energy from the sun reaches the earth, which warms up and radiates some of that energy back out into space in the form of infrared radiation. The UV and visible light reaching us can pass through "greenhouse" gases like CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, but the infrared coming back out is blocked and contained. Trapping energy in a system raises its temperature, and so the Earth warms a little.
And this isn’t some new-fangled theory whatsoever, but very old and very established science. Way back in the 1890s, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius worked out a formula linking the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to surface temperatures. By 1906, he’d calculated that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a couple of degrees rise in average temperatures – not far off modern estimates that converge on around three degrees. Living in Sweden, he actually didn’t have a huge issue with that.
So we’ve known for almost 120 years what effect CO2 has on surface temperatures, we know that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing and we know that the temperature is rising pretty much as predicted.
It might be worth arguing that the CO2 increase is natural, except that we know how much carbon we’ve released into the air, and we can actually differentiate man-made emissions from natural ones because CO2 released from burning fossil fuels has a slightly different chemical signature. Yes, the bulk of our emissions are absorbed by the oceans, but not all of them – and those emissions have the slightly unfortunate effect of turning oceans acidic. Given all that, what do we have to do to believe that climate change is bogus, thereby getting rid of all these nagging worries and doubts about the future?
Well, at this point the choices are pretty limited. You can believe that the gajillions of tons of carbon dioxide we release don’t actually go into the air at all, but are spirited away by sympathetic aliens, God or some other convenient natural process we’ve never heard of; that the equivalent rise in atmospheric CO2 is just a massive coincidence, as David Davies MP claims, or maybe a misprint; and that the increase in C02 won’t actually raise temperatures anyway, because some handy response or feedback mechanism will kick in, like trees growing gigantic enough on all that extra carbon to start blocking out the sun.
Or you could just believe that scientists are really stupid – that they lucked out on stuff like the internet and the Higgs Boson. Or perhaps that hundreds of thousands of scientists around the world have been engaged in a massive 120-year-old conspiracy to invent and propagate a bogus bit of physics that nobody would give a crap about for about the first 70 years of its existence; that the Met Office are at the vanguard of the socialist New World Order and that it’s all a secret plot by the UN and David Attenborough to depopulate the world and steal our precious bodily fluids.
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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