Climate change – scepticism and science as drivers of progress

Published in James Panton and Oliver Marc Hartwich (ed.), Science vs. Superstition – the case for a new scientific enlightenment, Policy Exchange and University of Buckingham Press, London and Buckingham 2006, pp. 103-113.

The meaning of the Enlightenment is highly contested. Nonetheless, any serious attempt to describe or define it would have to involve reference to the following: scepticism towards received doctrines and wisdom; a belief in science and empirical methods of investigating the world; the employment of human reason and the ever-present possibility – perhaps necessity – of doubt.

These principles, which blossomed during the Age of Enlightenment, are the foundation of most of the innovations and developments that we in the modern world take for granted. Much of our technical, social and economic development could only happen thanks to those scientists and inventors who challenged those commonly held beliefs – what the late John Kenneth Galbraith called “conventional wisdom”.[1] Michael Faraday’s idea of generating electricity by moving a magnet in a wire coil was initially the subject of much derision; and the then president of the Royal Society, Lord Kelvin, warned the Wright Brothers that an object which was heavier than air could not fly. Hindsight is a great cure for ignorance, but there could be no such hindsight without those few brave individuals who are prepared to challenge the received wisdom of the day. It is this kind of fearless enquiry which broadens our understanding of the world and which drives our progress in it. We must be careful not to accept our own “conventional wisdom” which may yet turn out to be little more than unsubstantiated beliefs and prejudices. It is the task of scientist to challenge such thinking.

Science is not a discipline in which we should expect to find final truths. On the contrary, the principles upon which science is built are doubt and constant inquiry. In the 20th century, this view of science was most clearly expressed by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who once put the issue thus: “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve”.[2] To Popper science was an ever evolving process of discovery and refinement.

We can only wonder what Popper would make of the current debate about climate change.

In April of this year TIME magazine devoted almost an entire issue to the topic of “climate change”, with a front cover declaring: “Be worried. Be very worried. Climate change isn’t some vague future problem – it’s already damaging the planet at an alarming pace.”[3] The Economist recently told its readers that “[t]he heat is on” and that any remaining uncertainties argued for action, not inaction.[4] Tony Blair’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, keeps warning the public that climate change is the most severe threat we face today, more serious than terrorism.[5] French president Jacques Chirac agrees that climate change is “the greatest threat hanging over the future of humankind”.[6] One can only wonder what happened to HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition or the proliferation of WMDs. And the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, attempted to terminate the discussion with the assertion that “[t]he debate is over. We know the science. We see the threat posed by changes in our climate. And we know the time for action is now.”[7]

Time and again one hears the claim that there is a broad consensus on climate change: what it means, what is causing it and what has to be done about it. But is this true? And can there ever be such a scientific consensus?

To begin with, “consensus” is a term which is alien to science. It is a concept from sociology which describes only that a general agreement has been reached, a process of collective decision-making, if you will. In science, however, such a process could never be understood as a means of establishing “truth”, for it would not only require the individual scientist to submit himself to a majority view, but it would make that consensually achieved view virtually unassailable. Thus, establishing a scientific consensus is incompatible with the way that science has evolved, from the Age of Reason to Karl Popper’s theory of critical rationalism.

One would be well advised then to treat the talk about a “climate change consensus” as what it is: not as a scientific consensus about climate change but at most as a political agreement to act and speak as if the major questions surrounding climate change had already been answered. In reality, however, there are very few things on which the majority climate scientists would readily agree.[8]

Dealing with those issues on which there is agreement is very simple, for they are few. First, the average global temperature has risen by approximately 0.7 degrees centigrade since 1860. Second, an ever increasing world population has an influence on the climate through increased energy and land use. Everything else in the climate change debate is highly controversial. Has the climate of the past millennium always been colder than today or not? How much of an effect on the climate does atmospheric carbon dioxide have? Do rising carbon dioxide concentrations lead us to a point of no return? Or are there self-regulating mechanisms which will slow, halt, or even reverse the process? For each question one finds much disagreement among climatologists. Such disagreement should be welcomed, for it is what science is all about. Far from any clear-cut consensus then, there is a debate amongst experts about the various aspects of climate change. Puzzling, then, that most of what we hear in the public domain gives the impression that the case is quite the opposite.

One reason why the public perception and the reality of scientific debate and disagreement are so discordant is the way in which the climate change debate is conducted. In 1988, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Association and the UN Environment Programme. It has since produced three substantial assessment reports on the scientific basis of climate change, which have been compiled by hundreds of scientists. A fourth report will be published next year.

The IPCC assessment reports have been remarkable achievements, bringing together scientific expertise, and this is something on which the IPCC has to be commended. Yet we must also not overlook some serious limitations with the IPCC process. The first problem is that the scientific content of the reports is far too complex to be understood by non-scientists. Recognising this, and assuming, probably correctly, that it is very unlikely that anyone but the most expert student of the debate will wade through several hundred pages of scientific evidence, the IPCC provides a “Summary for Policymakers”. However, this summary is as much by policymakers as it is for policymakers: its wording is determined not by scientists, but by governments; the contents are thus less a reflection of the breadth of the scientific discussion, than an exercise in political “consensus-building”.

Apart from this obvious politicisation of the IPCC process, the second problem is that the IPCC has failed to deal adequately with the numerous criticisms raised. Two examples can exemplify this problem. The first concerns the treatment of the economics of climate change. In order to estimate future carbon emissions, one must project global economic development over a long period of time. This in itself is a difficult task for there are many unknowns such as population growth and technological development. The IPCC based its predictions on the assumption that the least developed countries will over time catch up with today’s rich nations in terms of their per-capita incomes. While this may be plausible, the way in which it was modelled was not. Instead of estimating the future growth of developing countries’ economies based on purchasing power parities – a standard method in economics – the IPCC used exchange rates. In several papers, David Henderson, former OECD chief economist, and Ian Castles, former head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, demonstrated that this led the IPCC to seriously overestimate future global economic growth. In one of the scenarios used by the IPCC even North Korea achieved a higher per capita income than the US in 2100. The IPCC first ignored and then rejected this criticism. However, when the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs produced a report on the economics of climate change last year, it acknowledged that Henderson and Castles were not only right to raise the issue, but concluded that the IPCC’s use of economic scenarios contained “questionable assumptions and outcomes”. The Lords also found that the IPCC process was “apparently influenced by political considerations”.[9]

The second example comes from the other side of the Atlantic, where Canadian economist, Ross McKitrick, and mineral consultant Steven McIntyre, have criticised the so-called “hockey stick curve”, which features prominently in the IPCC’s third assessment report and summary for policymakers. This model suggests that global temperatures had basically been cold and unchanged for the first eight centuries of the second millennium and then started to rise steeply, and this has been taken to demonstrate the effect of carbon dioxide emissions over the past two centuries. However, McIntyre and McKitrick claimed that the methods used to calculate the hockey stick curve were flawed. This triggered an investigation by the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Three renowned professors of statistics were commissioned to evaluate whether McIntyre and McKitrick’s accusations were justified. The result of their report did not leave the slightest doubt. It found a misuse of statistical methods, a lack of effective peer review and inadequate scrutiny in the preparation of the IPCC’s assessment report. The judgement on the IPCC could hardly have been harsher.[10]

What all this means is that the desire to establish and defend a “consensus” has seriously damaged the very basis of our understanding of climate change. This is regrettable as it has done a disservice to science, which should be an open inquiry process in which scepticism is regarded as a virtue, not a vice. Even worse, the doctrine of a “climate change consensus” has also narrowed down the political debate. When climate change is discussed in political debates and the media, the focus is now almost exclusively on the question of carbon emissions rationing. Interesting as this issue may be, it is only one aspect of the climate change challenge; and it may not even be the most important one. In this way, the so-called climate change consensus prevents necessary political debates that must go beyond the question of carbon emissions reduction. To understand why such debates are needed, it is worth considering the current programme of emissions reduction established in the Kyoto Protocol.

Under the Kyoto Protocol industrialised countries have committed themselves to a reduction in emissions of 5.2 per cent on 1990 levels by 2012. The actual achievements, however, have thusfar been disappointing. According to figures from the United Nations statistics division the UK has only achieved a reduction of 1.9 per cent. Most other industrialised countries are even further away from their reductions targets. For example, France increased its emissions by 3.2 per cent, Denmark by 9.2 per cent, Japan by 15 per cent, Ireland by 35.1 per cent, Spain by 46 per cent and New Zealand by a staggering 47.3 per cent.[11]

Failure to meet the Kyoto commitments will have financial consequences. In the case of Spain, for example, the gap between its Kyoto target and its actual emissions over the period from 2008 to 2012 will be up to 289 million tons of carbon dioxide. In order to close this gap the Spanish government and Spanish businesses will have to purchase emission certificates. According to the Spanish environment minister Cristina Narbona, at current prices this would cost about three billion Euros (£2 billion).[12] Other countries face similar problems: New Zealand’s Kyoto bill will probably be around one billion NZ$ (£350m),[13] and Ireland is expecting a fine of up to a billion Euros (£670m).[14]

It should be noted that these are by no means the only costs associated with the Kyoto Protocol, although other costs are more difficult to predict precisely. Economist William D. Nordhaus of Yale University has calculated that a full implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, including full adherence by the US, would cost about 2.5 trillion US$ (£1.33 trillion) until the year 2100.[15] More ambitious goals than those under Kyoto would be even more expensive. The IPCC estimates that limiting the rise of carbon dioxide concentrations to a level of 550 ppm from their current level of around 380 ppm could cost up to 17 trillion US$ (£9.08 trillion) in present value terms.[16]

As the costs of cutting carbon emissions become more and more apparent, it is likely that political support for more severe targets will dwindle. It does not need much imagination to predict the reactions of the Spanish, Irish or New Zealand public to suggestions of emissions targets far below their existing Kyoto commitments. It would be even harder to explain to these economically successful countries why they should be penalised by being forced to buy emissions certificates from countries with emissions certificates to sell as a result of their more sluggish economies. Yet, this is precisely the kind of policy that supporters of the so-called climate change consensus have in mind. What they are often calling for are targets of cutting carbon emissions by 60 to 80 per cent over the next decades. Given the experience with the much less ambitious targets under the Kyoto Protocol and the consequences, both practical and financial, it is extremely unlikely that more stringent targets could achieve any kind of international political agreement. Even if such a treaty were to be negotiated this would by no means be a guarantee that its targets would actually be achieved. Thus the Kyoto Protocol should serve as a warning, not as a model.

The problems with the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol do not, however, suggest that nothing should be done about carbon emissions. Neither do they mean that increasing energy efficiency is unnecessary. In fact, increasing energy efficiency may be a desirable goal for a number of reasons, of which fighting climate change is only one. Another may be the wish to reduce the dependency of the world economy both on energy prices and on oil and gas exporting countries. But if emissions rationing regimes do not successfully contribute to achieving these aims, then it is only reasonable to consider alternatives.

One such alternative is promoted by the six countries of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate Change (APPCDCC). It was formed by Australia, India, Japan, China, South Korea and the US in 2005 – six countries which currently account for about half the world’s population, greenhouse gas emissions and GDP. What differentiates the APPCDCC from the Kyoto Protocol is the very fact that it is not an agreement by which the member states would submit themselves to fixed emissions reductions targets. Although emissions reductions are the goal of APPCDCC they are meant to be achieved through developing new technologies and cooperation between the member states in this process. This way, their economies shall become less emissions intensive.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the APPCDCC approach out of hand as an American and Australian led PR exercise – after all, these two countries are the only industrialised nations that have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol But actually the US has already demonstrated the value of technology-based climate change policies at home. At the time the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1992 the US was emitting 0.69 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every 1,000 US$ of GDP (£534). By 2004 this figure had fallen to 0.55 metric tons – a 25% increase in energy efficiency.[17] Put differently, US carbon emissions in 2004 were approximately 1.5 billion metric tons lower than they would have been in the absence of efficiency improvements, a reduction the magnitude of which is greater than the entire emissions of India this year.

The US government has introduced a wide variety of measures to improve energy efficiency as well as programmes to capture greenhouse gases. It has set itself a target of a further 18 per cent increase in efficiency between 2002 and 2012. So far the Bush administration has spent 20 billion dollars on climate change; the climate change budget for 2006 is more than 5 billion dollars, rising to 6.5 billion dollars in 2007.[18] This money is spent on initiatives ranging from the development of clean coal technology to tax incentives for renewable energies.[19] The ENERGY STAR programme alone, an initiative to raise efficiency awareness, helped to save greenhouse gas emissions of 35 million metric tons in 2005 – the equivalent of 23 million vehicles.[20] That all these programmes are producing positive results can also be seen in the US per capita carbon emissions which have begun to fall in recent years. So even though the US have never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, their science and technology based climate change policies have proven remarkably effective. Through the APPCDCC they will now be made available to energy-hungry India and China where they will help to prevent future emissions on a large scale.

Considering the success of this pragmatic, technology based US climate change policy, it seems bizarre that the US has become the pariahs at international climate change conferences where mere signatories of the Kyoto Protocol with no positive records of achievement are celebrated for paying lip-service to a failing policy. It could be argued that most supporters of the idea of a climate change consensus follow a version of what Max Weber calledGesinnungsethik: the ‘ethics of good intentions’.[21] It is thought sufficient to commit oneself to a policy hoping to bring about certain results, regardless of whether this kind of policy is suitable, let alone whether it is actually likely to accomplish anything.

While the climate change consensus, with its focus on carbon emissions reductions, currently serves to block discussion about non-rationing alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol, it hampers discussions about non-carbon related responses to climate change even more. Yet there are such alternatives, and they consist of a variety of adaptive strategies. The reasoning behind adaptation is this: it is politically unlikely that far-reaching emissions reductions will take place in the near future, and if they were to take place they would come at enormous economic costs. At the same time, it is not even clear by how much carbon emissions would have to be cut, and when such cuts would have an actual effect on the climate. Even Al Gore’s climate change adviser, Tom Wigley, estimated that the full implementation of the Kyoto Protocol would result in a 0.07 reduction in global mean temperatures by 2050.[22] Put differently, one would be well advised to expect future climate change and proceed from there. Climate change is happening, it is improbable that it can be stopped in the short or medium term and the most pressing question then becomes: How are we dealing with its effects?

That such questions make sense has recently been demonstrated in the heatwave of the European summers of 2003 and 2006. In 2003 there were reports that hundreds or thousands of people had died in the French heatwave. Some even went so far as to claim that the heat had killed more than 14,000 people.[23] But such claims begin from a false premise. It was not heat that killed people, but, at least in the example of the many elderly who died, dehydration. Dehydration occurs when people fail to drink enough, and it was much aided by the fact that many elderly people were stuck in hot flats with no air conditioning. So, although the heat played a role in these fatalities, they were by no means unavoidable. This was demonstrated in 2006 when another heatwave hit the country. This time, the elderly received phone calls from social services to give them free health advice, and radio and TV programmes reminded people to drink enough water. All this prevented the heatwave from becoming another death trap. There were hardly any reports of heat related casualties.

Adaptation, therefore, is a very pragmatic approach to climate change and it can happen in numerous ways. It can, for example, mean having evacuation plans for areas that are prone to flooding; it can also mean not settling in these areas in the first place. It can mean installing air conditioning as well as changing building standards to include better insulation. Adaptation can also consist of installing agricultural irrigation systems as well as building dams and dykes in coastal areas. In one sense, adaptation is a more complex response to climate change than simply cutting carbon emissions. There is not one single adaptive measure which would be the answer to all problems. On the contrary, the potential of adaptation depends on the circumstances of the situation. But this is also the greatest advantage of adaptation as it enables a much more targeted response to the effects of climate change. Further, it is an approach that works regardless of the reasons that the climate is changing: whether the climate is warming due to increased atmospheric carbon concentrations, or due to other influences which we may not yet fully understand, does not matter. What matters is our ability to cope with the effects. Finally, adaptation may also be a very cost effective way of tackling climate change. As German climate change expert Professor Hans von Storch once put it: you can either invest 100,000 Euros (£67,000) to build a dyke in Bangladesh which will save 3,000 people from storm floods which they already have to fight today, or you can invest the same amount of money in carbon reduction projects which has the potential of lowering sea levels in 2050 by a fraction of a millimetre.[24] Given this choice, it is probably more reasonable to build dykes.

Once again it has to be stressed that adaptation is something to which science and scientists can make valuable contributions. These can range from coastal research, as in the case of Bangladesh, to medical research and advice as in the case of the European heat waves. It could also mean the development of drought and flood resistant crops which can better cope with extreme weather situations. Needless to say all such measures work better under the conditions of economic prosperity. Countries at a higher level of economic development are obviously better able to deal with climatic changes. Thus, the Netherlands, although mainly located below sea-level, suffers very little flooding, while Bangladesh suffers regularly and severely; thus agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is much more weather dependent than Australia’s agricultural sector which uses irrigation, better crop varieties, machinery and pesticides. This means that the best policy to strengthen a country’s adaptive capacity is economic development. It is economic development which can build weatherproof economies. Australia’s economy, for example, had been extremely dependent on its agricultural sector (wheat, meat and wool) throughout the 19th century, but through sound and stable institutions the Australian economy was able to develop and grow into an economy that does not have to be afraid of climate change. Of course, calling for such economic development also means challenging a dominant assumption that underpins the environmentalist lobby, that increased economic and productive development, with its associated increase in consumption, is a problem. This may be one of the many contemporary “common sense” prejudices that a serious political debate around climate change must begin to challenge.

It should be apparent that climate change is an issue that requires a serious scientific, political and economic discussion to which unfortunately there are no convenient shortcuts. Because of this, it is not helpful that the public discussion is too often dominated by scare stories, simplified and often distorted facts and the pretence of a consensus which encompasses everything from the reasons of climate change to the necessary answers to it. It is unfortunate that the notion of such a consensus has made more difficult a reasonable political discussion about effective and efficient strategies to deal with climate change. It is time to engage in a new enlightened debate on the subject.

[1] “Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. It will be convenient to have a name for the ideas which are esteemed at any time for their acceptability, and it should be a term that emphasized this predictability. I shall refer to those ideas henceforth as the conventional wisdom.”; John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, Penguin, London 1958, p. 9.
[2] Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972, p. 266.
[3] TIME Magazine, 3 April 2006.
[4] The Economist, 7 September 2006.
[5] David A. King, Climate Change Science: Adapt, Mitigate, or Ignore?, Science Magazine, 9 January 2004, pp. 176-177.
[7] Arnold Schwarzenegger, It’s not a time for talk. It’s a time for action, The Independent, 3 July 2005.
[8] See for example the analysis of 928 abstracts of academic papers on climate change by Dr Benny Peiser (Liverpool John Moores University),, or the letter of Professor Dennis Bray (GKSS Science Centre) to Science Magazine,
[9] House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, The Economics of Climate Change. Volume I: Report, London 2005.
[10] US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Ad hoc committee report on the ‘hockey stick’ global climate reconstruction (Wegman Report), Washington D.C. 2006,
[11] The Millennium Development Goals Indicators can be found on this website:
[12] El Gobierno calcula en un máximo de 3.000 millones la factura por incumplir Kioto, El Pais, 12 July 2006,
[13] Carbon tax too costly, says NZ, The Age, 30 December 2005,
[14] Global warming – Ireland falls well short of Kyoto target, Irish Examiner, 24 May 2006,
[15] William D. Nordhaus, Global warming economics, Science, Vol. 294, 9 November 2001, pp. 1283-1284.
[16] IPCC, Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, Cambridge 2001.
[17] US Energy Information Administration statistics,
[21] Max Weber, Politik als Beruf, 1919.
[22] Thomas M. L. Wigley, The Kyoto Protocol: CO2, CH4 and climate implications, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 25, No. 13: 2285-88
[23] European heatwave caused 35,000 deaths, New Scientist online, 10 October 2003,
[24] Die Sorge ums Klima wird überverkauft, NZZ am Sonntag, 31 August 2003, p. 28.
%d bloggers like this: