Casting the runes on climate change

December 14, 2011

Something has gone wrong with global warming. It’s not that the world has stopped heating up. It’s that the anti-warming political movement, which seemed almost unstoppable when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, has stalled.

Last week’s United Nations climate change conference in Durban ended with little more than an agreement to talk some more about what to do next. Even that was too much for Canada, which has just said no to emission-reduction targets. The activists blame recalcitrant governments and many commentators blame economic distractions. They are probably both right, but I think the activists’ own approach bears much of the responsibility.

While only experts can judge the strength of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change, no technical knowledge is required to be troubled by the way the activists present their case. The willingness to describe knowledgeable opponents as “deniers,” a word previously used only for fantasists about Nazi atrocities, suggests a very unscientific attitude.

The “Climategate” emails show scientists so passionate about their beliefs that they are unwilling to brook opposition. Fervor seems to have led to overconfidence. The status of the claim that recent years have been by far the warmest in a millennium has been downgraded from certain in 2001 to likely or mistaken (depending on the expert consulted).

The activists’ excess of passion and certainly has led them to a dogmatic conviction that a radical policy — rapid and sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions — is required to save the world. Since industrial economies cannot yet function without using large amounts of energy generated by burning carbon, the anti-carbon prescription equates to a campaign against prosperity — tough on rich countries (too tough for Canada to bear) and practically a sentence of economic stagnation for poor ones.

Such draconian measures only make sense if global warming is exactly what devout affirmers say it is — hazardous, accelerating, man-made and about to go non-linear (science-talk for catastrophic). Otherwise, a more moderate strategy makes sense. We should work on energy conservation (good in any case), increase research on carbon-neutral technologies and build up industrial production and prosperity in poor countries so they will be better able to marshal technological forces against the problems which global warming may eventually cause.

Why do activists show so little interest in such a sensible compromise? I blame the sorcerer’s apprentice. In the 1797 poem by J W Goethe (familiar from in the Walt Disney film Fantasia), this clever student is able to invoke — but not control — the magical-technological ability to turn a broom into a water-carrying machine. The man-made global warming activists tell a less poetic version of the same story. It goes like this: we have learned how to use the energy stored in the earth to serve our purposes, but do not know the spell which keeps the unleashed energy from destroying us — and we have no equivalent to the poem’s old master to rescue us from our carbon folly. Halfway countermeasures are likely to replicate the apprentice’s effort to stop the broom by splitting it with an axe — he ended up with two brooms and twice the trouble. Under the circumstance, moderation would be madness.

Durban is history, but the debate on global warming can still be calmed down. Activists need to admit that both their scientific analyses and their policy recommendations have been under the spell of this sorcerer’s apprentice-model. Rather than telling a simple tale of good (themselves) and evil (unresponsive industry and anyone who disagrees with them), they should accept that possible man-made climate change is a complex topic which deserves dispassionate study. True, delay might prove dangerous, but so too might hasty action. Besides, in practice, the activists’ current approach has been tried and found wanting.

A call for more careful study is not a counsel of despair. Rather, it is a call for aid from one of the most effective power-groups in the contemporary economy: scientists and engineers working together with politically sensitive regulators. Consider the dark arts of aviation, mobile phone technology and nuclear power (now there’s something with a sorcerer’s apprentice-feel). In all these domains, knowledge has been advancing steadily, accidents are rare and well grounded criticism has helped to make the technologies safer and more acceptable.

Indeed, in the modern economy this technical-regulatory complex — undramatic committees meeting in unbeautiful offices — plays the heroic role of the master sorcerer. It does not permit wild experiments and it eventually changes old practices when new evidence comes along. If climate change is to be taken seriously, the IPCC and UN conferences need to have less madness and more method.


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It is unfortunate that Mr. Hadas raises the red herring of the non-existent “climategate scandal”. It was reviewed by several different panels, all of whom concluded that the e-mails were taken out of context and did not reveal any attempt to conceal the truth. As for the claim that the “anti-carbon prescription equates to a campaign against prosperity”, the reality is quite different. The Scandinavian countries and Germany are the world’s leaders in tackling GHG emissions, and they rank among the world’s wealthest countries. The solution being put forward by Mr. Hadas is more study and delay – which is really no solution at all. It is the solution that has been put forward by the fossil fuel industry, oil countries, and right-wing ideologues who oppose government regulation.

Posted by Dan85 | Report as abusive

I disagree my friend, the community is divided on the findings and only the ones paid by the enviromentalist movement are with it. there is no indipendant study done. Everyone is paid by one side or the other.

Posted by castlerocku | Report as abusive

One wonders if Mr Hadas has ever opened an issue of Science or Nature and has any knowledge of what he is talking about. 2001 was 10 years ago, update, update please…

Posted by Kowaliski | Report as abusive

Thank you Mr. Hadas for a thoughtful and concise article for which I am sure you will now be promptly pilloried for.

While it is impossible to deny a current climate cycle of global warming it is entirely reasonable to question the statistical significance of human activity in the equation.

Measure twice, cut once, or our efforts turn to waste.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

what’s gone wrong is that too many people like Mr Hadar prefer get their science from internet blogs that will tell him what he wants to hear, as opposed the National Academies of every country, NASA, the American Meteorological society, and every respected, relevant science body on the planet, who tell us the world is getting warmer, we are doing it, and the consequences are dire.
For people like this, there is no word quite as accurate as “denier”.

Posted by greenman3610 | Report as abusive

Thank you for telling the truth!

If the climate change political movement had used less quasi-religious fervor and been more reasonable in their approach, they might have been able to make significant strides towards their goals.

However, I agree with your analysis, as it is they seem to have “shot themselves in the foot” for a multitude of reasons.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

A very American-centric view. Around the world, activists advocating that their governments to act on science and the advice of the overwhelming number of climate scientists are not considered radical and over- the-top, but are considered rational and responsible. Only in America do witty journalists consider out of line those who challenge the feel-good propaganda coming from the big oil & gas companies about how they will get around to a solution one of these days. Perhaps it is the deniers and go-slow advocates who we will be able to say in a 2-3 decades have shot us all in the foot.

– An American Abroad

Posted by KnightPC | Report as abusive

Like many opinions, the radical solutions offered by many create a constant point of disagreement. The main item of discussion is the CO2 levels which exceed all possible levels found by extensive research. Conclusions from from this create an enviromentt of disagreement which facts do not answer totally objectively. Some argue that a season of severe snow contradicts global warming. Most scientists agree that the oceans of the world are slowly getting warmer. James Lovelock, as I remember in his writings suggested that we have lots of specialists for every area of research, but we do not have many who specialize in interpretating all of the items of information and coming to a repeatable objective conclusion that we can all agree on. It has also been suggested that if we feed all of the data from all scientific resources into a computer, the is not one developed to handle all of the data. At our rate of progress in technology we will hopefully resolve this problem in the near of less distant future. To ignore the problem suggested is wrong, but we should not stop everything to jump on a conclusion that is not yet totally viable. Certainly industry has an effect, but we do not yet know how much. Our complex planet is infinitely more comples and interactive by all events that happen. The more we know about our planet, the more questions are created. Encourage our scientists to do their job, listen to them, and let them work out a true answer—that’s why they have different opinions at this point in their research.
Daniel Sullivan

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