My Path to Catastrophic Global Warming Scepticism

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Anthony Watts was kind enough to publish this on his superb blog Watts Up With That, you can see the archive copy here. The number of responses it provoked was one of the things that spurred be to start my own blog.

Please allow me to recount the details of my personal path to CAGW scepticism. I have never previously found myself at odds with the scientific mainstream and at times it feels quite strange. Perhaps other readers have similar experiences. If some have gone from genuine skepticism to accepting CAGW, I would find that especially fascinating.

My own story begins at school in England in the early 80s. Between playing with Bunsen burners and iron filings, I remember being told that some scientists predicted that we would soon enter a new ice age. This sounded quite exciting but I never really thought it would happen; I was too young then to have seen any significant change in the world around me and it all seemed rather far-fetched. A nuclear war seemed far more likely. Soon enough the whole scare melted away.

I grew up into a graduate engineer with an interest in most branches of science but especially physics. I read the usual books by Sagan, Feynman and later Dawkins (whose The Ancestor’s Tale I simply can’t recommend highly enough). I also dipped into philosophy via Bertrand Russell. I like to think this reading helped build upon the basic capabilities for critical thinking my education had provided.

I suppose it was in the early 90s that I first noticed predictions of global warming and the associated dire warnings of calamities to come.  Some of these emanated from the Met Office and so I knew should be treated with a pinch of salt but other sources included NASA, which I then personally still very much respected; despite the space shuttle evidently being the wrong concept poorly executed, their basic scientific expertise seemed unquestionable. In general I was looking forward to the warmer climate predicted for the UK, and assumed that the overall effects for the globe wouldn’t necessarily all be bad.

Now, being English I knew all about the vagaries of the weather, but the warnings about CAGW always seemed to be made in the most certain terms. Was it really possible to predict the climate so assuredly? The global climate must be an extremely complex system, and very chaotic. I had recently heard about financial institutions that were spending vast sums of money and picking the very best maths and programming graduates, but still were unable to predict the movements of financial markets with any confidence. Predicting changes to the climate must be at least as difficult, surely? I bet myself climate scientists weren’t being recruited with the sort of signing-on bonuses dangled by Wall Street. I also thought back to the ice age scare, which was not presented as an absolute certainty. Why the unequivocal certainty now that we would only see warming, and to dangerous levels? It all started to sound implausible.

The whole thing also seemed uncertain on the simple grounds of common sense. Could mankind really force such a fundamental change in our environment, and so quickly? I understood that ice ages could come and go with extreme rapidity, and that following the scare of my childhood, no one seriously claimed to be able to predict them. So in terms of previous natural variability, CAGW was demonstrably minor in scale. It seemed obvious that if natural variability suddenly switched to a period of cooling, there would be no CAGW no matter what the effect of mankind on the atmosphere. Even more fundamentally, how could anyone really be certain that the warming then taking place wasn’t just natural variability anyway? The reports I read assured me it wasn’t, but rarely in enough detail to allow me to decide whether I agreed with the data or not.

The other thing that really got me thinking was seeing the sort of people that would appear on television, proselytising about the coming tragedy that it would imminently become too late to prevent. Whether from charities, pressure groups or the UN, I knew I had heard their strident and political use of language, and their determination to be part of the Great Crusade to Save the World before. These were the CND campaigners, class war agitators and useful idiots for communism in a new guise. I suddenly realised that after the end of the Cold War, rather than slinking off in embarrassed fashion to do something useful, they had latched onto a new cause. The suggested remedies I heard them espouse were always socialist in approach, requiring the installation of supra-national bodies, always taking a top-down approach and furiously spending other peoples’ money. They were clearly eager participants in an endless bureaucratic jamboree.

Now don’t get me wrong: a scientific theory is correct or not regardless of who supports it. But recognising the most vocal proponents of CAGW for what they were set alarm bells ringing, and made me want to investigate further. I had always been somewhat sympathetic towards Friends of the Earth but much less so towards Greenpeace, by that time obviously a front for luddite socialism and basically shamanistic in outlook. I had deep personal concerns about the environment, having seen reports of terrible industrial pollution in developing countries and the former Eastern Bloc. I had also sailed across the Atlantic twice in a small yacht, and seen for myself floating plastic debris hundreds of miles from land. (I also saw an ‘eco warrior’ yacht in Antigua, lived on by a crusading hippy and daubed with environmental slogans. It was poorly maintained and leaked far more oil into the water than any other boat present.)

So I was quite passionate about the environment, but my focus was on keeping it clean and safe for all life to live in. I wanted people to stop overfishing and manage fish stocks sensibly, I wanted agricultural land to produce the best long-term yields possible, to provide enough food without encroaching on wilderness and wild spaces. I wanted people everywhere to have clean air to breathe and water to drink. I had hoped that the CAGW crusade would somehow also lead to more urgent progress in fighting pollution, and the other environmental issues I cared about. If anything it did the reverse. Why the absolute fixation on reducing CO2 emissions, why was it taken for granted that this was the only way to proceed? Where was the public debate about the balance between prevention and mitigation? The CAGW protagonists always came up with solutions that were anti-industrial, anti-development and always, always required more public money. Where was the encouragement for inventors and entrepreneurs to discover and develop new technologies? And most of all, why oh why not spend some of the huge sums of money thrown at CO2 instead on getting effective pollution controls enacted in developing countries?

It had become quite clear to me that the BBC and similar media organisations would never even discuss whether the science underpinning CAGW was really robust. It had simply become a truism. An occasional doubting voice would be offered a sliver of airtime in the interests of supposed impartiality, but a proponent of CAGW would always be allowed the (much longer) last word. But, if NASA kept having to adjust their course calculations as the Voyager probes entered the outer reaches of the solar system (an utterly trivial problem compared to the complexities of the global climate), how could the science possibly be settled as claimed? Surely the great joy of science is in admitting ignorance, in taking a finely honed theory and sharpening it still further, or even better in realising a fundamental mistake and stepping aside onto a new path? The claimed certainty itself seemed unscientific.

Then in 2007 I saw a trailer on television for the forthcoming documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. I watched it excitedly, for here finally were people publicly addressing the science and the data, but drawing alternative conclusions to the mainstream. There was none of the usual hand-waving and appeals to trust the experts, who magically seemed to be the only doubt-free scientists in recorded history. The backlash against the program told its own story too, being mainly outraged appeals to authority and conscience.

Having recently become a regular user of the internet, I started digging around looking for more information and so, soon after he started it, I found Warren Meyer’s excellent web site climate-skeptic.com. Oh, the joy! Here were links to data I could see and evaluate myself; here was critical dissection of reports and papers accepted elsewhere without demur. From there, I moved onto WUWT, Bishop Hill, Climate Audit and all the other sites that have become part of my daily round of the internet whenever I have access. However late to the party compared with many regulars at WUWT, I could now see fully both sides of the argument.

When the Climategate emails were released, some further scales fell from my eyes. I had hitherto assumed that most of the most prominent scientists supporting CAGW were well intentioned but wrong, akin to those opposing the theory of continental drift. I have taken part in many lengthy email exchanges concerning technically complex projects, and instantly recognised familiar methods used by those playing the political and bureaucratic game, for whom the data is infinitely malleable in order to reach a pre-determined goal. I had fought against this kind of factual distortion myself.

Now at this point, I am sure some (perhaps many?) readers are thinking, ‘Great, an inside view of how someone becomes a believer in a conspiracy theory, perhaps I’ll base a research paper on this idiot’. My response is that like most people I have at times stumbled upon the real conspiracy theory nuts lurking on the internet. But on WUWT and other CAGW-sceptic sites criticism of the position of the website founder isn’t just tolerated but often encouraged. ‘Prove us wrong! Please! It would be fascinating!’ There are many articles and views published on WUWT that I treat with suspicion, or even downright disagree with, but it is all stimulating and usually well argued. Plus, I am an experienced professional engineer and know what real science looks like, and when people are misusing it as a smokescreen. Neil Armstrong was a great man, and most certainly did land on the moon. Right or wrong, WUWT is a site that considers real scientific issues.

So I now find myself wondering where we go from here. The global climate will continue to change, as it has always done, and although I tend to expect some cooling I am pretty agnostic about it. Nature will assuredly do its own thing. The CAGW scare is in the process of burning out, but I do not expect an outright or imminent collapse. I hope to see the deliberate manipulators of data punished, but doubt very much it will ever come to that. Whatever happens next, it will undoubtedly be interesting, and stimulate much discussion and widely varying viewpoints. This is good news, because it means that we are back to doing science.

Postscript

Some responses at WUMT have suggested that my comments regarding the left-wing standard bearers for CAGW indicate that I am some sort of right-winger. I am not. If the proponents of CAGW had been fascists and other far-right groups I would have been just as suspicious, and my language towards them would be much more caustic than used above. The corruption of science under fascism in the 30s and 40s was far more sinister than anything happening today. The important point is that once my suspicions were aroused, it was still the science that decided me one way or the other, not the mouthpieces involved.

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2 responses to “My Path to Catastrophic Global Warming Scepticism

  1. Thank you for publishing this. I have found my own path to a “skeptical” position, based in part on real world observations over my lifetime being at obvious variance with the CAGW nonsense, backed up by a general curiosity, the ability to read and to think for myself, and thus the ability to recognise when data have been manipulated. All this is leavened by a healthy suspicion of anyone being actively evangelists about anything and claiming to have the answer to everything. The final convincing moment came when CAGW advocates and believers began saying that “deniers” should be charged with a criminal offence, jailed, or even executed. Therein lies the exposure of the mind-set of CAGE “believers”.

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