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Wednesday, 2 October 2019

500 Scientists UN Letter: A Response

NB: Long post.

Recently, I've seen a few people posting about a recent letter, apparently sent from 500 scientists to the UN on the same day that Greta Thunberg made her speech to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, with the letter saying that there was "no climate emergency". This raised alarm bells for me, so I did some searching. I quickly found that a grand number of sites were reporting on this, and going, "Oh goodness, isn't it amazing! People are ignoring real science! Look at this!" ....which is basically a good clue to dig a little deeper. There is an actual letter that was sent, it is real (as far as I can tell). I'll include a copy of the text below, in fact (which seems to be identical on all sites I've seen thus far).

Your Excellencies, 
There is no climate emergency. 
A global network of more than 500 knowledgeable and experienced scientists and professionals in climate and related fields have the honor to address to Your Excellencies the attached European Climate Declaration, for which the signatories to this letter are the national ambassadors. 
The general-circulation models of climate on which international policy is at present founded are unfit for their purpose. Therefore, it is cruel as well as imprudent to advocate the squandering of trillions on the basis of results from such immature models. Current climate policies pointlessly, grievously undermine the economic system, putting lives at risk in countries denied access to affordable, continuous electrical power.
We urge you to follow a climate policy based on sound science, realistic economics and genuine concern for those harmed by costly but unnecessary attempts at mitigation.
We ask you to place the Declaration on the agenda of your imminent New York session.
We also invite you to organize with us a constructive high-level meeting between world-class scientists on both sides of the climate debate early in 2020. The meeting will give effect to the sound and ancient principle no less of sound science than of natural justice that both sides should be fully and fairly heard. Audiatur et altera pars! (listen to the other side)
Please let us know your thoughts about such a joint meeting. 
There is no climate emergency
A global network of 500 scientists and professionals has prepared this urgent message. Climate science should be less political, while climate polities should be more scientific. Scientists should openly address the uncertainties and exaggerations in their predictions of global warming, while politicians should dispassionately count the real benefits as well as the imagined costs of adaptation to global warming, and the real costs as well as the imagined benefits of mitigation. 
Natural as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
The geological archive reveals that Earth’s climate has varied as long as the planet has existed, with natural cold and warm phases. The Little Ice Age ended as recently as 1850. Therefore, it is no surprise that we now are experiencing a period of warming. Only very few peer-reviewed papers even go so far as to say that recent warming is chiefly anthropogenic. 
Warming is far slower than predicted
The world has warmed at less than half the originally-predicted rate, and at less than half the rate to be expected on the basis of net anthropogenic forcing and radiative imbalance. It tells us that we are far from understanding climate change. 
Climate policy relies on inadequate models
Climate models have many shortcomings and are not remotely plausible as policy tools. Moreover, they most likely exaggerate the effect of greenhouse gases such as CO2. In addition, they ignore the fact that enriching the atmosphere with CO2 is beneficial. 
CO2 is plant food, the basis of all life on Earth
CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to all life on Earth. Photosynthesis is a blessing. More CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the Earth: additional CO2 in the air has promoted growth in global plant biomass. It is also good for agriculture, increasing the yields of crop worldwide. 
Global warming has not increased natural disasters
There is no statistical evidence that global warming is intensifying hurricanes, floods, droughts and suchlike natural disasters, or making them more frequent. However, CO2-mitigation measures are as damaging as they are costly. For instance, wind turbines kill birds and bats, and palm-oil plantations destroy the biodiversity of the rainforests. 
Policy must respect scientific and economic realities
There is no climate emergency. Therefore, there is no cause for panic and alarm. We strongly oppose the harmful and unrealistic net-zero CO2 policy proposed for 2050. If better approaches emerge, we will have ample time to reflect and adapt. The aim of international policy should be to provide reliable and affordable energy at all times, and throughout the world. 
Our advice to political leaders is that science should strive for a significantly better understanding of the climate system, while politics should focus on minimizing potential climate damage by prioritizing adaptation strategies based on proven and affordable technologies. 
The undersigned ECD Ambassadors
Professor Guus Berkhout, The Netherlands
Professor Reynald Du Berger French, Canada
Terry Dunleavy, New Zealand
Viv Forbes, Australia
Professor Jeffrey Foss English, Canada
Morten Jødal, Norway
Rob Lemeire, Belgium
Professor Richard Lindzen, USA
Professor Ingemar Nordin, Sweden
Jim O’Brien, Republic of Ireland
Professor Alberto Prestininzi, Italy
Associate Professor Benoît Rittaud, France
Professor Fritz Vahrenholt, Germany
The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, United Kingdom
What was difficult to find was any response to this from the other side. I did find a post that had a look through the ambassadors list, and found a few shady characters (notably Richard Lindzen). They also found that many of them aren't really experts on the topic at all, and almost definitely have ulterior motives (i.e. being paid by the fossil fuel industry, or similar).

But that's not what I want to focus on. No, I want to focus on the points that they've made, and I want to refute them. With easily available data, that anyone can access and have a look at for themselves. (I will concede that I am relying heavily on, so if you consider them to be a bad source, you may think my arguments are void. However, they are very good at listing their sources, and being detailed and honest in their answers.) As a reminder, these are the basic points that they are arguing.

  • Natural as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
  • Warming is far slower than predicted
  • Climate policy relies on inadequate models
  • CO2 is plant food, the basis of all life on Earth
  • Global warming has not increased natural disasters
  • Policy must respect scientific and economic realities
  • There is no climate emergency
Hopefully, by the end of this post, I will have shown somewhat conclusively that these are each incorrect on some level.

Natural as well as anthropogenic factors cause warming
This is an old argument from climate skeptics. It goes something along the lines of, "the Earth's temperature has fluctuated for millennia, this warming that we're experiencing is just part of that fluctuation". 
The first part of that sentence is true. The Earth's temperature has variated quite a bit in the past, and yes, we have had Ice Ages before. What's significant about now, and why scientists are saying this is different, is the speed and amount of that change. It's getting warmer faster, and at greater levels, than anything we have records for. Here's a handy infographic that gives you an idea, with sources.
So, while the Earth does naturally change in temperature, it doesn't naturally do it as much as it is now. And the amount it is doing now is alarming.

Warming is far slower than predicted
This is a classic of Lindzen himself, actually. You can see the long version here of why this statement is incorrect; essentially, though, claiming that warming is slower than predicted is ignoring a number of factors. When those factors are taken into account, then the warming matches the predictions quite well.

Climate policy relies on inadequate models
The argument here is saying that we shouldn't base our economic plans on climate models that are uncertain or unreliable. We need concrete, definitive data to act on.
Again, read the fuller rebuttal here. But it's good to remember that we're talking about the future. It is, by definition, uncertain and unknown. Considering that, the climate models that we have and have been working with have been pretty darn good so far at predicting what's happening, with a high degree of certainty. The point about CO2, we will tackle momentarily.

CO2 is a plant food, the basis of all life on earth
Everybody knows that plants use CO2 to survive. This is actually why one of the big pushes you might be seeing at the moment from climate warriors is planting trees (which we should do more of!) - and so this is a clever argument, because it uses a nugget of truth.
However, while plants love CO2, it's clearly quite toxic to humans, and most other animal species, if it gets to higher concentrations. Higher amounts of CO2 are also increasing the warming effect, as detailed further here again. If we want to decrease our warming, we need to decrease our CO2 emissions, and increase our numbers of trees to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere that we've already put there.

Global warming has not increased natural disasters
This one is almost observably false. There certainly has been an increase in both the number and intensity of natural disasters, as you can read about fairly quickly here (with a nice graph). A telling sign in Australia - where I live - is that each year, the "fire season" gets longer. We have a history of bushfires in Australia, and the "fire season" (usually just over summer) is when you get most of them. Each year, that season has been getting longer, and stretching through more of the year, leading the CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre to say that there's now a danger year-round.
So the only way to say that global warming hasn't increased natural disasters, is to say that these are caused by something else. But that seems very unlikely. As this page goes into detail on, more and more indications are pointing to the likelihood that these are the result of climate change, or that climate change will result in effects like those we are seeing.

Policy must respect scientific and economic realities
This is basically putting the focus back on money. It's saying, "we have no reason to panic - and if we do this now, we're pouring money down the drain." This is where I will come back briefly to the note I made before this, that several of these scientists may be being backed by fossil fuel companies. And indeed, if we go down this path, they are going to lose money. Big money. They're the ones that stand to lose the most, and have known as much for a long time, and have been intentionally fighting against efforts to reduce climate change.
To answer the point more directly, though - it really comes down to whether you think this is an emergency, or just a serious issue, or not an issue at all. If it's the former, then any economic loss in the short-term is mitigated by the prevention of catastrophic loss that would have happened. If it's the middle, then there's good evidence to say that climate change policies, such as putting limits on carbon emissions, only have a very minor impact on the economy, and an overall positive impact. And if you think that there's no issue, by now - then there's not much I can do to convince you, and you'll think that any spending of money on this is a waste.

There is no climate emergency
Many would disagree. Many would say, in fact, that we've already passed dangerous points, where there will be irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Depending on who you listen to, we may have no time at all, or a very short amount of time.
And when people hear that, it can be shocking. People don't want to hear that things are going to change, and get worse. People want to hear that it's all going to be normal, and they'll fight to preserve that normal. They'll fight to ignore or dismiss anything that might disrupt that normal. And that's what we see happening. We see people denying that anything is wrong, fighting to keep their 9-to-5 normality, fighting to keep economic stability, and shutting their ears to the doomsayers.
It's a psychological phenomenon that's well-documented, and it's called normalcy bias. It's kinda when you get the "freeze" response instead of the "fight" or "flight" ones, but it's not just an in-the-moment thing. It's also a mental attitude, and an issue with brain psychology. As in, it's normal for us to have! 
How do we break out of it? Generally, by someone else pulling us out. From someone else pointing out to us what's happening, the dangers, the situation that is around us. The truck that's rushing towards you, the plane that you're in having crashed, or the cyclone on the horizon. The problem is, climate change is much less visible, for the most part. People can't see it, and so they can feel like it's not real, or not important, or not urgent. It will be fine.

But unless we take some very real and serious action right now, no, it won't be.

Thanks for those that have read all of this and stuck with it for the long haul. Please be somewhat civil in the comments, if you decide to leave some. If you're looking for what to do next - check out Extinction Rebellion on Facebook. They typically have pages local to your country and/or state as well. They're generally pretty good at keeping on top of what's happening, and keeping people informed about developments, as well as encouraging and facilitating action (particularly in the face of very inactive governments).