Two children of the United Nations (UN), the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have just issued various reports - commissioned by the governments of 195 countries - on the world's climate.
All the evidence and detail – at least in summary - of these reports was published on Friday (in Stockholm) by another UN institution: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC itself says that its remit is "to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts".
The IPCC is made up of 12 full-time staff. The scientists involved work on a voluntary basis.
The first thing to say about this report is the wording. The very fact that the words 'global warming' and even 'climate change' are used signals an immediate problem. For a start, there is always climate change in that the climate always changes. Secondly, there have been many previous periods of systematic climate change – sometimes of very long timescales. Finally, the fact that there is persistent – and man-made - global warming seems to be taken for granted.
The last point - on the given nature of global warming - is strange because even though many argue that there is a 'scientific consensus' on global warming, there are nevertheless literally hundreds of well-known and established scientists who challenge the data and evidence behind such claims.
Despite these dissenting voices, the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme documents say that scientists are more convinced than ever that the planet is warming up. There's also a finger-pointing corollary to all this. It is that we human beings are largely responsible for global warming; specifically over the last 50 years or so.
The first question we must ask is which 'scientists' are being talked about here. It can also be said that the very fact that scientists are studying global warming – or, more specifically, that they are involved in this report - probably means that they already believed in such warming before these recent studies and investigations.
There is a well know idea in the philosophy of science (though many 'sociologists of science' claim it as their own idea) that certain – perhaps many - scientists seek to hold on to their theories come what may. There is nothing scientifically wrong with that. However, Karl Popper also argued that some scientists - not just 'pseudo-scientists' like Freudians and Marxists - are far more concerned with corroborating or confirming their pet theories than with 'falsifying' them. Again, it can be said that going out of you way to establish one's own scientific theory is not automatically or necessarily a bad thing. Indeed many such cossetted theories have - in the long run - turned out to be accepted by the overall scientific community. Nonetheless, there have been many examples of false consensus in the scientific community and of particular scientists – or groups thereof - repeatedly attempting to push square shapes into round holes. Indeed the theory of negative global warming may well turn out to go the way of phlogiston theory or of the theory of aether.
The Global Warming Abatement From 1998 Until Today
It can be said that some global warming exponents have been modest enough to admit that some of their previous projections - of average global temperature rises - should have been lower. Yet some of these false projections were only made in an IPCC report of 2007 – six years ago. In addition, it is very or likely to be the case that such qualifications have only been carried out due to outside pressure – pressure from scientists who aren't part of the anti-global-warming business.
All this is a result of the now-accepted fact that there has been a abatement in global warming since 1998. Of course we can ask if a pause in global warming of fifteen years is relevant or significant. I don't know. It's hard to say. Nonetheless, if there has been a pause of 15 years, who's to say that there won't be a pause of a further twenty or fifty years? Or, alternatively, if there is a pause now, then there may also be pauses in the future. In fact there may be decreases in the global temperature (i.e., without significant CO2 reductions).
According to some, even keeping under that average rise of 2°C is already problematic. Prof Ypersele, of the IPCC, has said that the world has already passed a significant milestone even whilst keeping under the 2°C level. He talked specifically about the concentration of the 'greenhouse gas' carbon dioxide (CO2) and the fact that last May it went passed the 400 parts per million ratio. (The ratio of CO2 for every one million molecules in the air.) However, even before human beings were on the earth, this record was surpassed - according to scientists - three to five million years ago. In addition, that information alone hardly tells us anything. If there is 400 parts carbon dioxide per million molecules of the overall atmosphere then... what? Even on these fairly meaningless ratios (at least to the layperson), it is still a fact that carbon dioxide only forms a minute part or proportion of the overall atmosphere. Indeed it could even be the case that even if that figure is correct, of 400 parts carbon dioxide per million molecules, it is still a minute proportion of the whole atmosphere. Perhaps if it were 400 parts nuclear radiation or poison gas per million molecules, things would be very different. However, we are talking about carbon dioxide, not radiation or poison gas. In other words, carbon dioxide, per unit, when compared to, say, carbon monoxide or even the flatulence of cattle, is not that toxic or dangerous. In fact it's part of our biological systems. Put it this way, it's not classified as toxic or harmful by the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (a system devised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). However, all this depends on its concentration and relative toxicity or danger.
The other thing is that there have been periods when CO2 levels were as much as sixteen times higher than they were at any time after 1998. Yet these periods were characterised by glaciation rather than global warming. In addition to all this it has to be said that there is no absolute consensus on the theory (not fact) that rising CO2 levels leads to rising temperatures. Sceptical scientists freely admit that there have indeed been rising CO2 levels. Nonetheless, since 1995 there has been no significant global warming and, moreover, since 1998 average temperatures haven't increased at all. Quite the opposite. The UK's Hadley Centre says that there has been a decrease in global temperatures since 2001. (Of course, one scientific center doesn't hold the truth on this or on any other matter; but neither does one that argues in the opposite – 'the world is warming' – direction.)
On the other hand, the exponents of negative global warming - or those who believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGM – i.e., global warming caused by us) - state a necessary connection between raising CO2 levels and rising temperature levels. Yet the evidence suggests that in the most recent period - and in other periods - this hasn't happened. Nonetheless, AGW scientists have been required to take on board the contradictory evidence. In response to this contradictory evidence they resort - you can argue - to the 'auxiliary hypothesis' strategy which was outlined by Karl Popper. This states that once a theory has been falsified (or when it has simply come up against contradictory or disconfirming evidence/data), its proponents simply resort to auxiliary hypotheses in order to back or or justify the previous theory or thesis. These qualifications or subsidiary hypotheses may be fine, but what if they go on forever (as with Marxist theories)?
Science & Scientific Bias for the Public
Everyone should be for 'the public understanding of science' and in favour of - most of - the measures used to simplify science for public consumption. Nonetheless, there are problems. In the case of these most recent reports and studies on global warming, the scientists involved are producing a summary which, they claim, will be easier to understand than the previous one they produced. One delegate said:
"It still won't be a text my mother would read and happily understand. But it will be more clear than when we came here."
Along with these simplifications will come a lack of accuracy as well as more scientific and indeed political soundbites. And if most – or all – the scientists involved in this study believed in global warming before these most recent studies, then soundbites and dangerous simplifications of the data and evidence will be even more likely. After all, there is no point in producing a more complex summary if it has the consequence that it fails to motivate the layperson in both political and personal terms. Instead, surely it would be better to produce a summary which converts a few sceptics and fires up believers to take more political action.
Indeed these warnings about the dangers of simplifications, soundbites and hidden ideology have been admitted to - if unintentionally - by exponents of the global warming theory. For example, Stephen Schneider - of Stanford University – once said:
“... we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have... Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest...”