Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change.

Toronto: HarperCollins, 2006. 332 pp.

1972, a group called the Club of Rome “told us the world was running out of resources and predicted catastrophe within decades.” It didn’t happen. On the contrary, despite wars and strife of various sorts, the world got wealthier, and estimates of available resources at the end of the century were far higher than when the Club started its jeremiads. Tim Flannery is aware of this: “Even today no one can accurately predict the volume of oil, gold and other materials beneath our feet.”

Flannery does not add the far more important point than no one has any reason whatever to think that 200 years from now humanity will be heavily dependent on oil, gold or any other specific material you care to name. Never mind that for the moment. The story of this book is that “the climate change issue is different. It results from air pollution … The debate now … concerns the impacts of some of those pollutants (known as greenhouse gases) on all life on Earth.” That’s the claim, anyway.

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Who is Tim Flannery? Well, he is a scientist, for one thing. Not, however, a climatologist, but rather a paleontologist. Also, a “science writer.” One thing about science writers is that they like to write what’s interesting. The Global Warming scenario is, in the hands of a skilled writer, certainly “interesting” (in the Chinese sense of the word). Indeed, if this book were your only source of information, it would be downright scary. Chicken Little was right! Here you’ll find nary a word of doubt about the Official View on this matter, sanctified by Kyoto, Rio, Al Gore, Harper’s magazine, etc., etc. Flannery states as if it were simply a fact that virtually all of the warming, which he has no doubt at all is a lot, has taken place and is taking place, and for sure is caused by human-made greenhouse gases, and on top of that, it’s all propelling us toward climatological disaster, at an alarming pace.

Nor does he have any interest in possible positive side-effects of the increase in the most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), in the atmosphere, or of the increase in global temperature, such as it is. That increase is well documented – at a much lower level than Flannery allows. Well documented too is the effect of this increase on plant growth in today’s heavily populated world. During the second half of the 20th century, as Cassandras such as the Ehrlichs were predicting massive starvation just ahead, the world in fact substantially increased its output of food per capita even as the world’s populace doubled.

Part of this was certainly propelled by a much improved climate for plants. Flannery says, “There was even a period of optimism when some researchers believed that extra CO2 in the atmosphere would fertilize the world’s croplands and produce a bonanza for farmers.” He doesn’t add that the theoretical basis for supposing this is perfectly clear and sound, and also that it has actually happened.1 He is, however, terribly alarmed about the decline of the Golden Toad, the decline of the Great Coral Reef and many, many, many other things. Those with a taste for alarm will give this book pride of place on their shelves, and will read with a certain thrill the dictum of John Polanyi, a Nobel laureate (but not, needless to say, in climatology), quoted on the dust jacket to the effect that “of the doomsday clocks ticking toward midnight, climate change is the most fearful.” By the way, of the many accolades quoted on the cover pages, not a single one is by a climatologist.

How much has the globe warmed? Many climatologists working on this matter have examined computer simulation programs producing alarming predictions – predictions that Flannery appears to swallow whole. The fact that all of the known programs have been demonstrated to be wrong, for reasons that are also well understood, appears not to interest him much. As climatologists Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling have written, “No GCM has ever succeeded in creating a troposphere (the bottom 40,000 feet of the atmosphere) that behaves at all like the observed data of the last quarter of the 20th century.”2 Nor does the existence of interesting rival hypotheses about the causes of such warming as there has been. For example, according to blogger Alec Rawls, “There is indeed solid theory and evidence that some global-warming is caused by human activity, especially greenhouse gas emissions. There is just as much evidence that some global warming has been caused by the abnormally high level of solar activity since the 1940s.”3 The fact of solar activity is well known, as are the reasons for expecting it to affect climate.

Again, a Russian scientist, Vladimir Shaidurov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has assembled an impressive theory that the apparent rise in average global temperature recorded by scientists over the last hundred years or so could be due to atmospheric changes that are not connected to human emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of natural gas and oil. Shaidurov points out what everyone in the climatology business knows: that the only “greenhouse gas” that really matters is water, present in the atmosphere as vapour, as ice crystals and in other forms. (Flannery is aware of this, noting that CO2 makes up only about 3 parts in 10,000 in the atmosphere, which means that it cannot have more than a negligible effect on climate on its own.) The question is, then, what affects the water vapour enough to have a significant effect on climate?

Changes in the usually cited greenhouse gases can, in some degree, have such an effect. The exact numbers are still the subject of much dispute, but they are pretty modest. However, Shaidurov points to the astonishing Tunguska event of 1908, when an asteroid or a comet smashed into northeastern Siberia with an incredible impact, releasing massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere and arguably affecting the water vapour situation enough to cause the very gradual temperature rise of the 20th century.4 And no doubt other theories will come on stream too, along with further speculation about when the well-known Milankovich cycles will set in, bringing on the next ice age. Whatever comes of such theories and speculation, the point is that to treat the Official Story as a slam-dunk is simply not warranted. In this respect Flannery’s book is propaganda rather than science.

On behalf of the Official Story, he is quite capable of being remarkably selective about the facts. In his chapter on “Peril at the Poles,” the story is that the ice caps are melting. This makes great press, of course. If all of the ice in the polar regions were to melt, it would raise sea levels by something like six metres, inundating quite a large percentage of the world’s major cities. Scary stuff!

The fact that the next ice age will have set in long before this happens is given no notice, along with assorted interestingly contrary evidence, plus the fact that actual rises in ocean levels over the past century have been trivial, and expected ones, supposing global warming continues, likewise trivial. Then Flannery takes the warming of the ocean around the Antarctic Peninsula as indicative of this dangerous trend. However, while temperature records have indeed shown prominent warming in the Antarctic Peninsula, in most of the region, it seems, ice is increasing and temperatures declining. In a study published in the Annals of Glaciology, Claire Parkinson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center “examined 21 years (1979–1999) of Antarctic sea ice satellite records and discovered that, on average, the area where southern sea ice seasons have lengthened by at least one day per year is roughly twice as large as the area where sea ice seasons have shortened by at least one day per year.”5

Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, there is Greenland, repository of by far the major amount of land ice in that part of the world. (That’s the only ice that matters so far as ocean levels are concerned, since the melting of sea ice makes no difference to water levels.) And indeed, as Patrick Michaels noted early this year, a recent issue of Science “contains a paper by Eric Rignot and Pannir Kanagaratnam claiming that glaciers along the periphery of Greenland are melting at a rapidly increasing rate.”6 Mind you, another paper on this subject “was published by Science just last year. Ola Johannessen did not consider direct ice lost by glaciers into the ocean but instead only focused on elevations changes. Johannessen showed that increasing snowfall in Greenland was leading to greater ice accumulations than had previously been measured and this was acting to slow Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise. It was conspicuously ignored in this new report.”

Rignot and Kanagaratnam “speculated that snow and ice over other parts of Greenland are melting and the water is flowing into the ocean. Citing other work by Hanna et al. (2004), Rignot and Kanagaratnam figure another 35 km3 in 1996 and 57 km3 in 2005 of ice loss occurred from surface melting bringing the total annual loss volume to 91 km3 in 1996 and 224 km3 in 2005 … Not surprisingly, the reason that is given – or at least presumed – for the melting ice and the rising seas is that temperatures are going up because of global warming.” Just one thing, though: “Why would Science publish this paper with no reference to Johannessen’s earlier paper showing that Greenland is accumulating ice at a rate of about 5.4±0.2cm/year? Johannessen even used data from some of the same satellites. What’s more, Johannessen used real data and Hanna et al., cited by Rignot, used a model of surface melt.” An interesting question, but no news of this kind has reached Tim Flannery’s ear, you may be sure.

Then too, there’s the fact that “global warming” has been pretty selective. It isn’t just that, for example, in eastern Europe they just had the coldest winter in six decades even while in Canada we had one of the warmest. Local variation is enormous, and incidentally the effect of temperature report biasing at the hands of the urban heat island effect7 is a continuing worry – it was known to have infected most of the data put out by early fearmongers about global warming. The picture of global climate is not a simple, uniform thing, and making it out to be so is frankly irresponsible.

But Flannery has no use for caution and care in these matters. He knows that it’s all due to human-made greenhouse gases, and by gum, we have to act now! “The best evidence indicates that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 70 per cent by 2050.” And why? Well, that’s an interesting question. Worry about the Golden Toad aside, it’s not so obvious that most of the Northern Hemisphere, where most of the action is taking place, couldn’t stand a slightly warmer climate. And as noted, the increased CO2 really is good for crops and trees, which really do feed (and shade, and house) a lot of people. Another thing that’s good is all those excellent modern vehicles which get us and our goods around in so efficiently and in comfort, not to mention all those nice warm homes in the northerly parts of the world. Turning down all those thermostats and trading in your big vehicle for a little one or maybe a hybrid will do something for the atmosphere and a great deal to you – almost all of it bad. Fortunately, Flannery’s recommendation is not going to be taken seriously by the several hundred million people who matter, and their elected representatives are probably, in the end, not going to be all that serious about compelling them to do it.

Flannery discusses Kyoto a bit and like many people regards it as a step in the right direction. The main criticism, he says, is that it’s a “toothless tiger”; in his estimate, this is because its target of decreasing CO2 emissions by 5.2 per cent is “little more than irrelevant.” He thinks it needs to be “strengthened twelve times over.” He doesn’t tell us the math on this, and in particular he doesn’t mention the well-known figure, derived by several scientists who have done their homework, that even if Kyoto were fully lived up to, its effect after five draconian decades would be to reduce temperatures by somewhere between one fifteenth and one seventh of a degree Celsius. Since this is below the threshold of discernibility, for all practical purposes we can simply say that the net effect of Kyoto on climate would be zero, even if it were put fully into effect (which of course it will not). Estimates of the cost of Kyoto are fairly variable, ranging up to a global figure of $6 trillion, but by no remotely rational standard is it worth it. This is wasting public money in the most obvious and straightforward sense of the word. And yet Flannery berates his native country, Australia, for refusing to ratify Kyoto. It is depressing that “science” in the hands of science writers overwhelms common sense.

If you want a more intensive, theoretically far more compelling story about this matter, try reading the charmingly named The Satanic Gases by Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling, both of whom are climatologists. It was published in 2000 by the Cato Institute – which assures that many of leftish politics will not bother to read it. The fact that all of the data are from standard scientific sources won’t matter to such readers. It might matter to you, though. For despite its light-hearted title, this book is studded with graphs, charts and data taken from the standard literature of the discipline, and serious theory together with the notes of caution always needed in such things. What it will tell you is that the world is probably due for another 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius or so (not 3 degrees, the figure favoured by Flannery, who gets it from sources known to be erroneous) of warming in the next century – with largely benign effects. It isn’t nearly as “interesting,” though, as Flannery. Gee, with your new hair shirt and your bicycle, you can join Flannery on the Stop Global Warming march (http://www.stopglobalwarming.org/default.asp). That’s far more thrilling than a sober assessment of the facts, and who can fault him for that?

Continue reading “Sounding the Climate Change Alarm”