Climate-Change Alarmism: Fuelled By Fantasy

14/02/2012 20:22:21

Ben Pile: A study published in Nature last week has found that the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers have been overstated. But rather than facing up to their alarmism, those who have been guilty of exaggeration remain as unreflective as ever. Perhaps they are intent on continuing to make political and moral capital out of the possibility of climate catastrophe.

The researchers claim that, in spite of the non-melting Himalayan glaciers, the rate at which ice throughout the world is melting remains a cause for worry because sea levels are still rising. But then sea levels have been rising for all of recorded history and for thousands of years before. Even at the current rate of rising, global sea levels will be just 30 centimetres higher in a century’s time – an increase that would be dwarfed by a modest wave on a beach. It’s hardly the stuff of disaster movies.

Among the litany of claims about climate change, sea-level rise is one of the most tangible. But a sober reading of the literature put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does not support the alarmist message or the claim that immediate and drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change. Of course, that’s not to say that climate change isn’t a problem, but rather that it’s not as urgent as often claimed. It’s a problem that could be solved in good time and without the kind of reorganisation of the world that environmentalists demand.

But because this reality doesn’t suit the policies environmentalists want to bring about, more dramatic images are constantly called for. Greens have long traded in icy icons to advance their cause. For example, in his 2006 Oscar-winning doc, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore warned about the peaks of Kilimanjaro becoming ice-free. In fact, there was good evidence that the disappearance had been taking place since the nineteenth century, and had nothing at all to do with us driving cars - as implied in the film.

Then there is the annual ritual of shrill panic-peddling about the melting of Arctic sea ice. Each summer brings fresh speculations about how many years the sea ice will remain at the pole. As I have pointed out previously on spiked, when one out of six new studies showed that a new record had been set for Arctic sea ice extent, the Guardian’s Damian Carrington declared: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ It didn’t matter that none of the other five datasets warranted Carrington’s doom-mongering, the anomalous outlier gave his fantasy plausibility anyway. Environmental alarmism is nothing if it isn’t promiscuous with ‘scientific evidence’.

Perhaps even worse is that other story from the Arctic, told ad infinitum: the plight of the poor polar bear. The melting Arctic is, according to the claims of many environmentalists, depriving this creature of its natural habitat and so it is in danger of extinction. But this story is wildly exaggerated, too, including in the BBC’s recent Frozen Planet series.

In a letter to the Radio Times, Nigel Lawson of the Global Warming Policy Foundation rebutted many of the series’ claims, including the one about the polar bear population falling. In truth, Lawson wrote, it is rising. Environmentalists were apoplectic. Polar oceanographer, Dr Mark Brandon from the Open University, issued a rebuttal after claiming that Lawson’s article had been ‘patronising, wrong and the usual tired obfuscation and generalisation’. Yet a closer examinationof Brandon’s research suggests a very different picture. In fact, there is only sufficient data to say that one out of 19 sub-populations of polar bears is in decline. Polar bear populations had been estimated as being in decline in spite of evidence to the contrary. Overall, and based on actual population studies, there is good evidence that polar bear numbers have increased, as Lawson said.

So how come scientists and environmental journalists are so often ‘stunned’ when data from the real world turns up to challenge the view of the world that exists within their heads? Tom Chivers of the Telegraph graciously informs us that ‘when we learn something unexpected about climate change, it’s because the much-derided climate scientists have found it’. So it’s not thanks to the sceptics interrogating the alarmists’ claims - no, never! But Chivers’ haughtiness was premature. What needs explaining is not who discovered what – the scientists or the ‘deniers’ – but how alarmist claims about climate change always seem to precede the evidence, such that researchers believe the negative picture before the science has delivered a verdict.

After all, scientists - as much as environmental activists - emphasise dramatic stories, and they often do so on the scantest evidence. Expertise does not preclude the reproduction of hysteria about the imminent collapse of the world’s glaciers, ice caps or polar bear populations and the subsequent inundation of all the world’s cities by floods, the drying up of resources, the creation of ‘climate refugees’, chaos and war. These are the views produced and reproduced uncritically by experts.

What concerns this sceptic when it comes to that kind of climate alarmism and the bizarre politics it produces, is the possibility that all too often stories precede science. There is a widespread idea that there are actual and robust measurements of polar bear populations, the extent of glaciers, the rate of sea-level rise, and the extent of polar sea ice. But in each of these cases, closer examination of the available evidence reveals the role of guesswork in the estimation of these ‘indicators’ of climate change and its effects. Worse still, perhaps, is the possibility that these ‘indicators’ are presupposed to be in decline for no other reason than the truism ‘climate change is happening’.

Once you presuppose that climate change is happening, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to incorporate the assumption into models to estimate the health of polar bear populations, the progress of glaciers, and the vulnerability of Arctic sea ice. There was no data showing polar bears and Himalayan glaciers to be in terminal decline. Even measurements of Arctic sea ice only extend back to 1979. And so knowledge which is patchy, based on sparse data, estimates and guesswork is fitted into an encompassing storyline of climate change. Really, they ought to remain disconnected stories, at least until more robust studies can show otherwise.

The most extreme conditions on the planet are naturally the least accessible and therefore the least understood. Such regions aren’t simply distant; our primary access to them is through the imagination. It is no coincidence, then, that stories about climate change seem to be located at the hottest, highest, deepest and coldest parts of the world. The most alarming stories about climate change rest where there is the least data. Like explorers in search of Yeti, climate researchers hunt frozen landscapes hoping to make the myth a reality.

Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.