Denying the climate deniers remains important because there are still so many who put their unfounded beliefs before scientific argument, well funded to protect the industries that fuel global warming.
A couple of years ago, Allan Chatenay – CEO of a Canadian Exploration Company – wrote an “open letter” to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, which ended up being widely shared on the internet. Upon reading it, I was reminded of this widely attributed quote: “Your analysis was both original and good. However the bits that were good were not original, and the bits that were original were not good”.
Whilst well written, persuasive and and no doubt heartfelt, the scientific accuracy was dubious and mostly half truths put together with shaky logic, full of contradictions.
If all you had read about climate science consisted of only this letter, you would probably find it highly persuasive and conclusive. However, if you were well informed about the topic, you could immediately see various glaring holes in both the logic and the selective arguments presented. Only facts which can be construed as supporting his arguments are presented, while ignoring large tracts of well established, and frankly not even controversial, research that contradict Chatenay’s polemic narrative.
His letter was an excellent example of the sort of misleading rhetoric popular amongst climate change deniers, combining as it does, just about every talking point developed over the years by fossil fuel industry funded ‘think tanks’. It uses standard phrases and memes that have scanned well with consumer focus groups which these think tanks have sampled. The letter is well worth reading to get a flavour of how persuasive this type of analysis can be, and judge for yourselves the quality of the argument.
In the following I present some of the contentious claims and my counter argument to each for you to reach your own informed conclusion.
Claim: Imagine the energy required to melt several continental ice sheets thousands of kilometres across and several kilometres thick, thereby raising the sea level by over 100 metres in just a few thousand years – a blink of an eye in geological time just on the edge of recorded human history. Let the fact that humans had nothing to do with that sink in, and then ask yourself how taxing Canadians and issuing government subsidies to install windmills and solar panels will stop that sort of planetary-scale climate change.
Here the writer indulges in a gigantic “non sequitur” (does not logically follow), argument. Just because humans have never before caused major planetary change in the past, does not mean that we cannot therefore cause it now. This is like arguing that because humans used to only die of natural diseases in the past, they can’t possibly die of man made diseases now.
Aside from the faulty logic though, there is a deeper problem. Much is made of the huge climatic changes occurring in ‘just a few thousand years’ whilst ignoring the fact that we humans have already increased the planetary temperature by 1 degree Centigrade in just 100 years. Let us just unpack this a little more. From the depths of the Ice Age 18000 years ago to, say 8000 years ago, (the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia and Egypt), was around 10,000 years. Another extraordinary fact is that between continental ice sheets a mile high and sea level hundreds of feet lower, the temperature difference is just 4 degrees Centigrade. Since the dawn of mass , agriculture 8000 years ago and the 19th century, the temperature of the planet has been remarkably constant, as stability that has aided the development of our complex civilisation.
Until that is, the advent of the industrial revolution. Since then, the planetary temperature has climbed by 1 degree. So, to put it into context; in 10,000 years (18,000 to 8000 years ago), the planetary temperature increased by 4 degrees. That is 1 degree per 2500 years, a rate of change that was slow enough to allow both humans and animals, (plus trees and plants) to adapt. In the space of 100 years, the temperature has now increased by a further 1 degree. Doesn’t sound much does it? Until you realise that it is 25 times the natural rate of change! Let that sink in! Not only that, but if we do not start doing the sorts of things our energy CEO self righteously complains about, we will have around a 3 degree (or more) increase in world temperatures by 2100. All this, in just two centuries! Way, way faster (maybe 50 times or more,as fast) than the “blink of an eye” geological time he is talking about. This of course, is far faster than the natural background rate, and faster than any animal or even human society can cope with; perhaps even catastrophic for our civilisation.
For more on the subject of ice melting during glacial and interglacial periods click here.
Claim: Today, humans are more able to respond to natural disasters than ever before largely because we have access to abundant energy – and this is a good thing. Life before hydrocarbon energy was available was much harder and many lives were cut short by starvation and disease. Today, anti-hydrocarbon positions are written with computers made of and powered by hydrocarbons by people who got to work in a vehicle powered by hydrocarbons, who demand access to health care that is only possible because of hydrocarbon energy and who go on vacations to warmer climates in planes powered by hydrocarbons. The hypocrisy is telling – no opponent of hydrocarbon energy seems prepared or willing to live without it – including you and your government.
This is really not a claim but a justification. What he says is all true, but basically irrelevant. Yes indeed, fossil fuels have made our lives much easier but this has all come at a huge cost, and if we do not do anything about it soon, the cost will be unaffordable, and climate change itself, irreversible.
Claim: The primary indisputable and measurable impact of increased levels of CO2 on earth is that plants will grow quicker – which is why greenhouses routinely pump CO2 into their greenhouses (to levels 300% higher than current atmospheric levels) to accelerate plant growth. CO2 should be celebrated just as water is, not vilified as a ‘pollutant’ – which it clearly is not.
This reminds me of the famous trilemma posed by C S Lewis, that Jesus was either a Lunatic, a Liar or Lord. The options are deliberately restricted to just three (two of which can easily be dismissed), so that he can prove his central claim that Jesus must therefore, be Lord! This deliberately ignores a fourth option, (in fact the most likely of the lot), that Jesus might just have been mistaken. This is a highly deceptive and dishonest argument.
Similarly, the writer here tries to restrict the argument by claiming that the primary impact of increase in CO2 is plants growing faster. This is demonstrably false. One of the effects of increased CO2 may be plants growing quicker, but it is certainly not the primary or even most impactful effect. The writer totally ignores the main effect of increased CO2, which happens to be an increase in planetary temperature. In fact it is fairly easy to calculate (well it is, if you are a suitably qualified scientist), what the temperature of the planet would be without the greenhouse effect (mainly due to CO2), and it comes out at around minus 20 C! Clearly CO2’s impact on the planet is far more than just helping plants to grow. If you were starting to feel any sympathy for this Guy’s arguments, one would hope you are having second thoughts. This is deliberately misleading, and it is difficult to imagine that he does not know that.
So, it is clear that, the small trace amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere have an outsize contribution on planetary temperature. The pre-industrial level of CO2 was around 280 ppm (parts per million), but it is now around 410 ppm. This original tiny level of CO2 in the atmosphere was responsible for keeping the average planetary temperature at 15 C, which is about 35 Degrees C higher than the planet would be without CO2. Let that sink in. We now have 43% more CO2 in the atmosphere after only 100 years. If 280 ppm increases planetary temperature by 33 degrees, can it be doubted that nearly 50% more will not have a much larger, perhaps destabilizing effect?
Click here for more on earth temperature without CO2.
Let us also dispense with the CO2 is “not a pollutant” argument. The argument is, that because CO2 is a natural product of respiration, and is beneficial plants, therefore it can’t be classed as a pollutant. Let us be clear, anything, no matter how beneficial, can be a pollutant in large enough quantities. Example, cow or pig manure is perfectly natural, and in small quantities, acts as fertilizer and plant food. However, try living next to an industrial farm where huge numbers of animals live crowded together. The stench is enormous, and the run-off into streams and rivers cannot be classed as anything other than a pollutant, causing, as it does, algae blooms and fish die-off. There is also a common, often made claim (not made in this article), that, because we are talking about small, trace amounts of CO2, that it can not possibly have any effect on temperature. This can immediately be refuted as follows: try ingesting similarly small, ppm quantities of Cyanide and see how you go.
For more on the subject of CO2 as a polutant, click here.
Claim: There is no invisible thermometer controlled by taxation and regulation and subsidy that will change the output of the sun or our relationship with the sun. It turns out that the earth and the sun and the universe at large just don’t care that much about humans or our actions. The simple fact of the matter is that we are vastly more affected by the planet than the planet is by us – and one day in the distant future we will simply be another sedimentary layer in the geological record.
This is just meaningless waffle, and, based on the facts I presented previously, patently untrue. We can and have affected our environment, as shown by the one degree temperature increase we have already caused, which is fully one quarter of the temperature difference between glacial and interglacial periods.
How is today’s temperature different from the past?
Claim: However, just as Galileo was persecuted during his time for advancing a heliocentric theory and questioning the geocentric view of the universe, those of us who question this anthropocentric view of climate are now also subject to ridicule and persecution.
The writer here is claiming the high ground (on grounds of being contrarian), and claiming to be just like Galileo because Galileo was also contrarian. Again, an obvious “non-sequitur”. Just because you don’t agree with the majority scientific opinion, it does not automatically follow that you are right. He forgets that Galileo had facts and logic on his side, whereas climate skeptics demonstrably, do not.
Claim: This persecution takes shape in the notion that if I deploy scientific knowledge to refute many of the alarmist claims made by those who believe climate change is anthropogenic, then I must be a ‘denier’ – an epithet closely linked to neo-Nazism that would subtly try to link me to that horrible way of thinking.
Again, easily refuted. As I have shown, he demonstrably does not deploy such scientific knowledge, but a very limited subset of pseudo scientific arguments, carefully chosen not to give the whole picture. Besides, how can the author, who is plainly not a scientist, claim to be the arbiter of what is or is not, a scientific argument? Also, he bizarrely complains that his point of view is being equated with Nazism, solely because he is labelled as a ‘denier’. What a load of codswallop. Denial does not automatically equate to Holocaust denial. One can deny all sorts of things, for example evolution, or the moon landings, but pointing it out does not imply that such people are Nazis. This argument is often made by Climate Change Deniers, and is truly pathetic.
Claim: Statements like “the science is settled” or “97% of scientists agree” are extremely troubling as they are themselves anti-scientific and designed to suppress the relentless questioning that is essential to the scientific method. Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s statement that “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it” misappropriates the scientific method to declare science as an infallible source of truth rather than a process of finding and discovering truth through questioning and testing. People in your government tend to say things like “Canadians know…” or “We all know…” when it comes to the anthropocentric view of climate change. In fact, we may not know, or we may know the opposite.
This again, while, on the surface, seems to be a reasonable position to take, completely misrepresents how science actually works and what scientific consensus actually means. There is in fact a greater than 97% consensus for example, among medical experts, as to whether vaccines cause Autism (they don’t). Those few (frequently fringe practitioners), who doubt this are rightfully ignored. There are some areas of climate science where there are some uncertainties, (eg exactly how bad the effects of Global Warming will be); the fact that it is actually happening, is not one of those uncertainties, and every single scientific institution on the planet agrees with that analysis, whilst every scientific study so far, confirms that it will either be detrimental or perhaps eve catastrophic to our civilisation. There are no reputable studies, none at all, that claim it will be beneficial.
Let us also dispense with the argument that the CO2 increase is not anthropogenic, (which is peripherally made in the above letter). There are numerous methods showing that we humans are responsible for the increasing carbon in the atmosphere. It is possible for example, to calculate how much coal, oil and natural gas we have burned since the industrial revolution, and correlate that with the amount of CO2 increase since then. It works out pretty much exactly. However, the clearest and most direct illustration involves isotopes. Specifically isotopes of carbon. The reason this argument is not presented very often is because quite technical; many people would have no idea what an isotope is in the first place, and two, even if they did, they would have no idea that an atom of Carbon can come in 3 isotopes.
Firstly a quick refresher. The most common form of Carbon is C12. That is 6 Protons and 6 Neutrons. The 6 Protons are what gives Carbon it’s chemical properties. Varying the number of protons changes the element drastically. For example 7 protons is not even a solid, it is a gas, Nitrogen. However, varying the number of neutrons does not change the chemical properties, and in fact Carbon has three forms or isotopes. C12, C13 and C14. C13 is a normal Carbon atom plus an extra neutron and C14 is plus 2 neutrons. Now here comes the interesting part. CO2 from burning fossil fuels has a different C13/C12 ratio than CO2 in the atmosphere and other sources of CO2. Chemists can measure these ratios and it turns out that all the increase in CO2 since the industrial revolution can be accounted for by an increase in this ancient C13/C12 ratio. There is no doubt at all, that the extra CO2 in the atmosphere comes from burning fossil fuels. No doubt at all. Those so called skeptics who claim otherwise or claim it is not possible to know are either lying or ignorant of basic, high school chemistry. The full explanation can be found below, though this refers to an earlier time when ppm CO2 was just 380. It is now 410, and rising.
Fact is, we have known about all of this for a long time, here’s an article from 2004.
I am bemused when a person who is clearly not a scientist, claims that scientists themselves are being “anti-scientific”. Excuse me, but how would he know? And why should we listen to a non-scientist opining about the scientific method? When he talks about “suppressing the relentless questioning essential to the scientific method”, he omits to mention that the questioning should be based on strong and objective evidence, not just endlessly bringing up the same spurious arguments, based on flimsy evidence that have been disproved many times already.
Based on my personal experience with scientists, (as I work in the environmental field), the 97% mentioned actually understates the consensus, which is actually close to 100%. I know of no scientist personally who doubts that global warming is happening, that it will be hugely detrimental, if not catastrophic if not dealt with immediately (if not sooner), and that our fossil fuel burning is the cause. If you check the bona fides of the (very) few scientists who actually disagree with the scientific consensus, you will find that they all have links to the fossil fuel industry, so their independence is extremely suspect. As is indeed, the author of the above polemic, who appears to be in the fossil fuel exploration business himself.
There is an interesting contradiction within this denial of the existing scientific consensus, which pretty much proves that this argument is not made in good faith. Recall that the argument is that there is no real consensus on humanity’s role in Climate Change and that there is no majority of scientists who agree with this premise.
However, there is a parallel and simultaneous argument, also made by many science deniers (including the US president), that this is all a giant hoax and conspiracy perpetrated by pretty much the entire climate science community, in order to protect their jobs and bring in more grants for their work. At the very least, scientists have been accused of lazy “group think”, agreeing with each other and avoiding independent thought. It shouldn’t take too much to realise that these two arguments completely contradict each other. How can you simultaneously be a member of a huge conspiracy to manufacture a consensus if the consensus doesn’t exist in the first place? This sort of contradictory thinking should alert you that these arguments are not being made in good faith, and are just there to manufacture discord.
This is not the only contradictory position taken by climate science deniers, in fact there are many more. A somewhat more esoteric argument is promoted by deniers claiming that the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (a crucial number when calculating future Global Warming), should be very likely low, and scientists, to advance their Global Warming Hypothesis, are way over stating it. Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity is the temperature change associated with a doubling of CO2. So if we double CO2 in the atmosphere (from 280 ppm to 560 for example), what temperature increase would we expect? It is an extremely difficult number to ascertain, but the science community expects between 2.5 to 3.0 Celcius increase on doubling CO2.
Climate Skeptics are, (unsurprisingly and for obvious reasons), arguing for a very low climate sensitivity of 1 degree C or below. However, they simultaneously claim that the current rash of extreme weather we are getting, such as heatwaves in the Northern Hemisphere right up to the Arctic, are “just weather” and nothing to worry about. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that weather extremes would only happen if the climate was extremely sensitive to inputs, so yet again, we have a clear contradiction. You can’t simultaneously argue that the climate is not very sensitive, and yet claim that extreme weather is perfectly normal. Again, it is clear that these arguments are not made in good faith but are intended to sow confusion amongst the scientifically illiterate. In fact, Frank Luntz, who was George Bush Jr’s climate messaging guru, specifically argued in the early 2000’s that ‘doubt is our product’, when discussing climate change. It is worth noting that he has now recanted and admits he was wrong, and now advocates for the very policies he used to fight against.
In conclusion, I will just mention that whilst the above shallow analysis and errors in logic are understandable coming from a non-scientist, there are a few fully trained scientists who I believe are deliberately involved in misleading the public. William Happer, a Princeton Physicist, for example, is President Trump’s new science guru, and a prominent climate change denier. (No surprises there). He specialises in optics and spectroscopy with no expertise in climate science. He has opined variously on the theme that “correlation is not causation”, which happens to be the new favourite whipping boy of climate science deniers. Specifically, they use it to try to discredit the obvious correlation between increase in CO2 levels, which tracks almost exactly the increase in world temperatures.
Whilst there may be some merit to this argument, in that you can’t necessarily rely on just one correlation to prove something; the fact that there exists a strong correlation, usually means that two independent factors are actually connected. Happer is however, on record as saying that a rooster crowing at day break does not cause the Sun to rise. This may be trivially true, but this is an outrageous miss-statement and inversion of the logic here. It is in fact indisputable that the sun rising is what causes the rooster to crow in the first place. This sort of deliberate dishonesty is in fact all too common amongst climate science deniers. I am certainly not accusing all climate skeptics of this sort of mendacity; in fact, I suspect that Allan Chatenay – author of the article used as the preface for this piece probably sincerely believes in what he has written, but he clearly doesn’t understand how muddled and anti-scientific his line of thinking is.