Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apocalypse Never

Over the last nine months or so I have been spending a lot of time and energy trying to get some intellectual clarity on what is patently the most overwhelming issue of our time - climate change. 

I have read 13 books, two Quarterly Essays and numerous articles, watched half a dozen videos and visited three or four well-regarded web sites on a regular basis. I have explored the scientific, environmental, social, political and economic dimensions of this complex issue.

I have tried to be open-minded, and valiantly tried to come to grips with the science behind it all. I've been like a dog with a bone, trying to pin it down until even the most abstruse stuff became reasonably clear to me. That's how I've always worked. I don't sleep too well unless issues I'm wrestling with are sort of resolved.

Most importantly I have read both sides of the issue in roughly equal measure - the consensus view and that of the sceptics.

Previously in this blog I wrote about sceptic Ian Plimer's Heaven+Earth and how good I thought it was. Having read much more now, including a good sprinkling of very negative and dismissive reviews of this book, I have to agree that Plimer got a lot wrong, mainly in the details, due to a general sloppiness that should simply have been avoided. Hopefully, if he produces a second edition, which he should, a lot of this will be corrected. His basic vision however, the reach and depth of it, is overwhelmingly persuasive.

Three books I've read over the last few weeks (all published just prior to Xmas) are also essential reads: James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren; Christopher Booker's The Real Global Warming Disaster; and Peter Taylor's Chill.

Hansen is universally recognised as perhaps the world's leading climate scientist. He is certainly the most well known, having been a key player in bringing global warming to the world's attention since the 1980's. He was instrumental, for instance, in bringing Al Gore into the frame. Storms of My Grandchildren is, remarkably, his first book, and I say remarkably because it is so well written. Literate, passionate and very persuasive, Hansen has that rare and natural talent for making difficult scientific concepts very clear and digestible for the non-specialist reader. 

Christopher Booker is on the other side of the argument well and truly. He originally founded the satirical magazine Private Eye and has in recent years, through his weekly Sunday Telegraph column, become the most conspicuous global warming sceptic in Britain. It would be fairly easy to dismiss Booker as a right wing nutcase, as many critics have (that is the usual fate of sceptics unfortunately), but that would be a profound mistake. His book, in my humble view, in the way it marshalls an enormous amount of detail and constructs its absorbing narrative, is one of the best of the bunch. Like in the Naked City, there are many stories about the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) and how it goes about its business of constructing consensus, and this is just one of them. For the history, politics and economics side of this debate you couldn't do any better than Booker.

Chill: A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory by Peter Taylor, is the one book I would advise you to read if you had no time to read anything else. Taylor is a highly regarded science analyst and has been an advisor to European governments on environmental issues for over 30 years. The beauty about Taylor's book is it reviews the scientific literature that has gained prominence over the last five years or so (post the IPCC reports), and that presents a new and critical perspective on the consensus view articulated by the IPCC. Whereas sceptics traditionally assault that view with claims of conspiracy, corruption and politicisation, Taylor allows the emerging and confounding new science of solar and ocean cycles to effectively demolish the 'establishment' naturally. Not that the world should be complacent. But we should be focussed on the real environmental problems not the illusory ones.

If a side has to be taken, then I've certainly ended up a sceptic. But, hopefully, an intelligent and well-informed one.

We are all familiar with the ancient and medieval literary device known as 'Deus ex Machina', which referred to the common practice of dramatists and poets of introducing a new character or event into the plot that magically resolved the story and brought things happily to an end. 

I am persuaded that we are seeing a similar syndrome today, in our modern story of climate change. It could be better termed 'Homo ex Machina'. The complex threads of Nature's story can't easily or satisfactorily be identified, so Man has been thrust onto the stage to bring resolution. 

So our modern story might be an ancient one after all. What a happy thought!



  1. Ok, sure, the climate might be changing from 'natural causes', but don't you think as humans we should probably settle down a bit on the poisoning-waterways-with-toxic-effluent, creating-pacific-ocean-garbage-islands, and mowing-down-forests-and-animals-to-make-more-suburbs?

    Nature will most likely wipe us out at her whim, but in the meantime we can probably make our lives here that little bit more enjoyable by reeling in the big polluters (with laws, or just by changing our way of life). Even some divine 100% confirmation that 'climate change isn't caused by humans' is not going to magically provide us with more fossil fuels and oil to live off forever. So lets all stop playing the blame game and just start changing it up regardless.

  2. Well said Tess. Real pollution is the problem, as well as feeding the hungry and working towards solving the world's water problems.

    I'd like to see people in the West obsess about their 'water footprint' instead of their 'carbon footprint'. Individual efforts could make a huge difference.