Climate consensus cracking open - or not

Refinery with emissions Is there a need to panic about greenhouse gas emissions - and are we doing so?

Is there or isn't there a scientific consensus on climate change?

And does it matter?

What's brought me here now is the letter published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) about 10 days ago, in which a group of 16 scientists declared there was "no need to panic on global warming".

"A large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed," it says.

In other words - in a meme that's become very familiar over the last few years - "the consensus is cracking".

It's a troublesome meme in several ways.

First, and most obvious, is the absence of any evidence that it's actually true. Certainly, since the "ClimateGate" affair there's been criticism from within the scientific community about the practices of some climate scientists - but that's very different from disputing their broad conclusions.

A letter to the Financial Post newspaper in 2006 protesting against the "consensus" was signed by 67 scientists, another to the UN in 2009 was signed by 141, while the latest garnered just 16 - and was met by a riposte bearing 37 names.

The numbers tell you precisely nothing of value.

A second problem is the absence of clarity over which consensus we are talking about; consensus that the Earth is warming, consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are the main reason, or consensus that it's a problem requiring urgent solution, to name but three?

Turtle Warming waters and pH changes may threaten ocean life - but will projections come true?

Thirdly, is the fact that it may not matter very much.

A couple of years back, at one of the UNFCCC meetings in Bonn, I had a long chat with Viscount Monckton. As a scholar of Classics, he was able to detail with Classical derivation the reasons why consensus matters far less than simply being right.

And he is surely correct; after all, in more recent times, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Hawking are among those whose work broke with the consensus, yet turned out to be correct.

But if the presence of a consensus is irrelevant, so, logically, is its absence; which makes the continued use by sceptics' groups of the "consensus is cracking" meme a bit mystifying.

After all, how many times can you say it's cracking before people start asking "so why hasn't it cracked, then?"

In both cases - consensus and breaking consensus - it's surely the evidence that should count, not the number of people you can get to sign your letter.

In interpreting the various letters that have claimed to see signs of the crack, it's also important to be very clear about what the people signing them are and aren't saying.

In 2007, for example, I wrote a series of articles loosely based on the letter to the Financial Post, and found that among its signatories there were widely divergent views about which aspects of the "consensus" they disagreed with.

One, Gordon Swaters from the University of Alberta, went as far as to retract his signature saying he had thought he was signing something asking for more research on climate change, rather than denying its existence.

"Clearly the agony of having stupidly signed that damn first letter will not abate," he told me at the time.

"I am not a climate skeptic... anthropogenic climate change is clearly occurring (and) it is likely the case that most of the observed warming over that 50 years or so is the result of human activities."

Finding the name of a Cambridge University engineering professor, Michael Kelly, on the WSJ letter, I decided to get in touch and find out his reasons for signing.

His basic position is that the kind of energy transformation through which the UK, for example, is planning to go is really tough to achieve in engineering terms, and would be financially ruinous.

To meet the goals of the Climate Change Act (notably an emissions cut of 80% from 1990 levels by 2050) he argues that "we'd really need a command economy of the kind we had in World War 2 if we were really serious about meeting the targets in full.

House with wind turbines The rush to renewables is largely driven by hot air, Prof Kelly believes

"What we need to do will bankrupt us if we really go for it and ignore the rest of the world."

He would, he says, still endorse the rapid transformation if he thought the scientific evidence for needing it was compelling.

"Are you convinced that the world's going to hell in a handbasket on the basis of the predictions and what's been happening for the last 10 or 12 years?

"The answer is simply 'no'.

"I look back 300 years and I find that the temperature went up by more than it's gone up recently - in Central England from about 1699 to 1729 it went up by nearly 2C - and nobody said that was carbon dioxide."

(UPDATE: The full CET time series is graphed here, while one of the original science papers on analysis of its early years is here)

Other components of his argument are that money is better spent on aid to Africa than on a dash to renewables, that higher CO2 levels will boost plant growth, that current climate models are not trustworthy - in particular, because they project an acceleration of warming whereas over the last 17 years we have seen a deceleration - and that wind turbines may be left derelict in future when the cost of replacing the nascelles proves uneconomic.

He also cites a recent study on ocean acidification showing that natural short-term variability in ocean pH is greater than the change in the average projected to occur over the next century or so.

And he has a bet with other Fellows of the Royal Society that temperatures during the current decade will be lower, on average, than during the preceding one, the stake being a case of wine.

All of the points above are challengeable, and - playing Devil's advocate - I did challenge him on some.

What we agreed on is that formulating climate change polity is first and foremost a question of risk judgement.

In Prof Kelly's view, the risks of rushing into a low-carbon future, as opposed to taking the transition more slowly, outweigh the risks of not doing so; hence the WSJ article's title, "No need to panic".

I'm sure his arguments will find favour with many regular readers, and equally infuriate many others who contend that political leaders aren't panicking enough.

But it is surely the arguments themselves that ought to be the focus for discussion - not what they purport to say about a cracking consensus.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 687.

    If Lead authors of the IPCC report don't support the idea then there is no consensus, end of story, what can you possibly say to that?

    You can't change the hard facts
    I understand you have a belief, but smearing people does't fool anyone

    We are not stupid !!

    the truth is that there is no frakking consensus and there never has been

    don't pee on my back and tell me its raining

  • rate this

    Comment number 686.


    Funny how these scientists are good enough to be lead authors of the IPCC, but as soon as they open their mouths and speak their mind you claim they have been discredited, tell me have the IPCC reports they authored also been discredited as well?

    As usual you pick and choose the story that best fits your original belief, face it, if these guys dont believe they hype, you have no reason to

  • rate this

    Comment number 685.

    Why do you not read the article referred to in posting 660 Lunds Jumper? It is after all in the Wall Street Journal owned by none other than News Corp and Rupert Murdoch who is no fan of AGW
    Is it because you really don't want the truth, could it be inconvenient?

  • rate this

    Comment number 684.

    pt 6.
    However, he fails to address what the effects of various CC that he accepts are happening might be. His comments come as one of the reviewers of the climategate which upheld the vast bulk of the research.

    His lack of calculation is what is lacking here. Failing to account for Ocean CO2 etc..

    He's an engineer trying to use CC debate to forward idea of open source sci.

  • rate this

    Comment number 683.

    pt 5.
    3. biologist could find little to no info.

    The 1 signatory who can be treated as a genuine scientist is
    7. Prof Mike Kelly.

    However, you need to read what he says carefully. From earlier letter his complaint isn't against GW but only about the precision of predictions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 682.


    Dr. Phillip Lloyd.. did you mean the chemical engineer from Cape Peninsula University of Technology?

    '..the environmental consequences of fracking, he added, had been minimal.' - MoneyWeb. 26 May 2011


    "UK firm says shale fracking caused earthquakes..' - Reuters. 2nd November, 2011

    .. good to know Dr Lloyd thinks the precautionary principle is an 'intellectual cop out' eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 681.

    pt 4

    8. William Kininmonth (?) another octagenarian.
    His main point is that climate is too complex to understand as a whole therefore AGW impossible

    WK ever heard the term CC?

    Even ignoring the lack of reasoning

    - He doesn't know about TD control boxes.

    Kininmonth (too many to count) says - "X is true" . You know however it is not science due to total absense of a ref. -

  • rate this

    Comment number 680.


    Dr. Richard Tol has a degree in economics..not climate.. and his opposition to AGW appears to be entirely political rather than scientific.. 'poor and exhausted people are unlikely to take up arms, and if they do, they are probably not very effective'.. - Why Worry About Climate Change. 2008

    .. nice to see a libertarian openly 'speaking his mind' eh?...

  • rate this

    Comment number 679.


    Dr Oliver W. Frauenfeld - co-author of a propaganda publication 'Shattered Consensus.' 2005 with Patrick Micheals, who is a senior fellow at the right-wing Cato Institute (Crikey! the Cato Institute.. again)

    If Contrarians wish to say Consensus is unscientific then logically their own consensus that AGW doesn't exist, must also be unscientific and wrong.. can't have your cask and eat it..

  • rate this

    Comment number 678.

    @674 '..try to discredit scientists who speak their mind'

    You listed those names as authorities, implying their opinion cannot be contested..I am simply demonstrating that is piffle.. not to mention the gargantuan hypocrisy of Contrarians whining about 'personal attacks', when their propaganda campaign consists almost entirely of ad homs about reputable scientists.. people in glass houses etc?..

  • rate this

    Comment number 677.

    Pt 3
    Neo con Martial group
    4. Roger Cohen - Lobbyist
    6. William Happer - Lobbyist
    11. Rodney Nichols - lobbyist

    14. Nir Shivav - seriously?? the affect from supernovas caused all extinction on earth??. even if alpha centauri would be 10^-13 reach here assuming no attenuation. Reality nearer 10^-300

  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    "Why do you feel the need to personally attack or try to discredit scientists who speak their mind."

    Because they don't deserve the accolade scientist. They are trying to build reputations based upon lies.

    They should be discredited & my qualifications are better than half the list.
    Do you agree asbestos is harmless?

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.


    You lie. In the list, farcical views:

    John Christy - 65
    Dr John T. Everett - 115
    Dr Oliver W. Frauenfeld - 123
    Dr Richard Lindzen- 227
    Dr. Richard Tol - 373

    Not there - Dr. Phillip Lloyd

    The usual pattern now for you who ignore the balance of scientific opinion is to discredit the list. Let's see who disappoints who.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    @Lamna_nasus and Gort2012

    Why do you feel the need to personally attack or try to discredit scientists who speak their mind.

    So every scientist who agrees with you is beyond reproach, if anyone voices another opinion you destroy their reputation and continue to claim consensus.

    How clever of you, and how brave of you to use a pseudonym and attack those openly speaking their mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.


    Now, even if we ignore the affect of old age on the brain
    - hardly people who would have any attention if they agreed with AGW.
    - not exactly going to live long enough to feel the affects of CC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    #660.Lunds jumper
    "The WSJ letter that sparked this article was by 16 scientists but not 16 climate scientists."
    1. Claude Allegre (75) denies Asbestos is harmful
    2. J. Scott Armstrong (75) PhD in management
    5. Ed David (87) - Engineer
    9. Richard Lindzen (72)
    10 James McGrath (70+)
    12. Burt Ratan (69)
    13. Harrison Schmitt (76)
    15. Hendrik Tennekes (75)
    16. Antonino Zichich (81)

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.


    Dr John Christy - has stated that anthropogenic forcings have an effect on climate, he is simply unsure to what degree - Fortune, 2009

    Dr John Everett is on the record as not knowing if the climate is changing and if it is, what is casing it (impressive Bloviation skills).. and so is irrelevant to the debate either way - 17th April 2007 US Subcomittee on Fisheries,Wildlife and Oceans

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    @661 Living by Logic
    You dissapoint me

    None of the names I wrote were on the smear list in that link you posted, the guys I listed were lead authors because of their high status in the scientific community their authority is not in doubt

    Dangerous AGW is just a meme that has spiraled out of control, fueled by UN funding, ideology, media hype, vote grabbing, tax creation and profiteering

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    @668 shrewd dude
    Yet again I find myself doing other people's homework for free.

    Look-up "ingartio elenchii"

    H20 ~1% of atmosphere. It is not a greenhouse gas.
    In fact we are talking about vapour which isn't even a gas. The % CO2 as with other gases is dry air.

    + even if it was GW -> greater evapouration -> more vapour

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    H2O accounts for ABOUT 0.4% on AVERAGE. H2O is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and is present at over 10 times the concentration. The uncertainty in the level of H2O is greater than the total concentration of CO2. This is the elephant in the room. ;-)


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