Climate change

Chop and change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am

There is a book, written by Gou Hongyang, that can be found in all good government-approved bookshops on the mainland. Published in 2010, it is called Low-Carbon Plot, and in it the author alleges that the theory of man-made climate change is hogwash. The whole business is a conspiracy concocted by Western governments and corporations, he says, to protect their own interests and way of life at the expense of the developing world.

No English translation has been made of the text, but other snippets of Gou's thesis may sound familiar to those attuned to the climate-change debate - such as it exists - elsewhere.

'After many years of repeated indoctrination from every kind of propaganda machine,' Gou writes in his introduction, '[and with evidence of] environmental pollution and the exhaustion of natural resources, people have already formed a conditioned reflex ... and quickly hang these things on the hook of 'carbon'.

'We must not get into too much of a fluster. It is with polluted water, acid rain, destructive logging and waste which we must struggle over the long term.'

It is probable that in the West, Gou would be branded a 'climate-change denier', a charge - suggestive of that most vile of moral perversions, holocaust denial - that is frequently levelled at anyone who dissents from the mainstream orthodoxy on AGW (anthropogenic global warming). But in China, even strident environmentalists such as Ma Jun, a former South China Morning Post journalist who is now director of Beijing-based NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, are given to expressing the view that climate change is rather less of a concern than, say, water pollution.

In recent years, Beijing has made gestures towards 'legally binding' global agreements on carbon checks. That they have been undermined by delaying tactics and obfuscation only points to the reality that any approximation of a coherent Chinese position on the climate is likely to be something of a stab in the dark.

The same cannot be said of the European Union. Indeed, of all the tumult and brinkmanship the 27-member bloc has visited on global economic affairs of late, one episode stands out as constituting something of a feat: its dragooning of China, the United States and Russia onto the same side in a trade dispute. Following its decision to force all airlines flying in or out of Europe to pay a carbon tax, the EU has seen most of the world's powers close ranks in a sort of beachhead assault on the notion. And on this matter, at least, Beijing's position has been unequivocal. In February, an unnamed official announced Chinese airlines were banned from paying any such taxes.

The theory of AGW may be afforded a veneration bordering on the religious in parts of the West, then, but in the mainland - where new coal-fired power stations are said to go on line at a rate of one per week - the proselytisers have made only tentative inroads.

Last year, the central government pledged to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by the end of 2020. It is not clear how it intends to achieve this, but, given the economy's rates of growth, overall emissions in eight years' time would still be significantly greater than they are now, even if it were successful.

Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, is said to be keen on binding commitments, but only after 2020. The government's chief climate negotiator, Su Wei, has let it be known he is of a similar mind. Before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, in December, however, he stipulated that any pact would have to recognise that countries had 'common but differentiated responsibilities'. In other words, nations including China and India should have the right to continue developing using cheap carbon-based energy.

'I think that in the next two or three decades, emissions in China will continue to increase,' says Ding Zhongli, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. A geologist who has studied climate change spanning 2.6 million years, Ding is a sceptic when it comes to the global temperature increases prophesied by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

'In designing international emissions reduction policy,' he says, 'three factors have to be taken into consideration: historical accumulative emissions per capita, recent emissions per capita and emissions transfers in international trading. If you look at these factors carefully, you'll find that the present gap between the poor and the rich would be fixed for ever if the developing countries had to reduce their emissions.'

One vaulting leap of the imagination down the line from this argument, Gou's assertion that climate change is a Western capitalist conspiracy is interesting, if only for the fact that in the West, it tends to be the libertarian right and political conservatives who are quickest to dismiss global warming. That they find common cause with many in Communist China is one irony. Another is that 'big government' intervention - the path submitted to be humanity's only available course by those ringing alarm bells in the West - is precisely what Beijing does better than anyone else.

Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, has said, 'The consensus [on global warming] was reached before the research had even begun', adding scientists who question the prevailing wisdom are marginalised and labelled deniers - when in fact they are simply being good scientists. It seems at least plausible that, having stood apart from the formulation of the 'consensus', China sees grounds for scepticism more plainly than most.

A DECADE OR SO ago, the then just-ennobled Baron May of Oxford, Robert May, told a journalist 'I am the president of the Royal Society and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over.'

Science has traditionally valued men of logic over men of conviction, but the study of climate appears singularly prone to inspiring certainty. In fact, May's faith in his own pronouncements was reminiscent, in its way, of Lowell Ponte's, as recorded for posterity in his book The Cooling, some 25 years earlier.

'It is a cold fact,' Ponte asserted, '[that] the Global Cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years.'

May is no longer its president but the 352-year-old society - which acts as an adviser to the British government - continues to casti-gate sceptical viewpoints and pressure media not to give them coverage. Climatologists who are sceptical of the AGW orthodoxy say they find it difficult to attract funding for research. The late atmospheric scientist Reid Bryson put it like this: 'There is a lot of money to be made in this ... If you want to be an eminent scientist you have to have a lot of grad stu-dents and a lot of grants. You can't get grants unless you say, 'Oh, global warming, yes, yes carbon dioxide.''

Worse, there have been reports of intimidation. Ian Plimer, an Australian geologist and author of the sceptical book Heaven and Earth, has had to endure demonstra-tions outside his home, while others say colleagues who have doubts remain silent because they fear reprisals or for the security of their jobs.

The dissenters may well have felt some degree of vindication, if not schadenfreude, then, when in November 2009 thousands of e-mails were hacked from the servers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain's University of East Anglia, and made their way into the hands of sceptic bloggers. The most interesting of these involved correspondence among a tight group of academics - all men whose papers have been cited by the IPCC.

Inquiries in Britain and the US into what became known as 'Climategate' exonerated the scientific community but many excerpts seemed to offer grist to the sceptic mill and corroborate suspicions that cliques of scientists were determined to make their data fit with pre-determined models of runaway AGW.

In one exchange, Kevin Trenberth, one of America's most senior climatologists, states: 'The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.' And on another occasion, referring to the Medieval Warm Period - a spell, from about 950 to 1250, during which the temperature records in many parts of the world show significant warming - he writes: 'It would be nice to try to 'contain' the putative 'MWP'.' The implication is that if it can be shown that warming and cooling have taken place throughout history, then the current warming may be discounted as unexceptional. There is also a long series of communications on how best to squeeze dissenting colleagues out of the peer-review process and complaints about sharing data with other scientists who 'just want to find something wrong with it'.

Professor John Christy, whose doctorate Trenberth supervised, is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society best known for his development, along with a colleague, of the first successful satellite temperature-recording system. Far from denying that human activity has had an impact on climate, he is nevertheless a critic of those who make catastrophic predictions.

'Basically, and I'm generalising here, the IPCC is not a collection of neutral scientific observers,' he says from his office at the University of Alabama, in the US. 'It is rather a cast of self-selected players whose views can be counted on to generate a product acceptable to governments which seek more control over energy policy and thus human opportunity. Many, not all, of those who write the IPCC [reports] have a direct, vested interest in assuring a catastrophe is upon us to solidify their various positions of authority and income, positions largely funded by the governments for whom they work.'

The world, he adds, 'always has catastrophes being promoted by various entities, and human-caused climate change is now fading because of lack of evidence, and something else will take its place - world-wide economic destruction, Middle East turmoil, repressive regimes.'

It may be worth recalling that 'consensus' has existed in the past among scientists on everything from the benefits of eugenics to stomach ulcers being caused by stress (they're not) and, of course, global cooling. But Christy goes further, suggesting the oft-cited consensus on climate change is not as significant or as clear-cut as we're constantly being told.

'Surveys are not useful here,' he says. 'Virtually every [scientist] will say the Earth has warmed in the past 150 years, that climate always changes, that carbon dioxide has increased and that there will be some impact on global temperatures. [But] these are relatively trivial. Agreeing to those statements does not lead to the notion of claiming dangerous climate change is occurring. It's all in how you ask the question and allow the reader's mind to extrapolate to the alarmist vision of the answer.'

Various reasons have been suggested for extreme man-made global warming having become established in the popular consciousness as 'fact' before, as Lindzen alludes, the theory had even been tested. One is that as the traditional political left in the West lost its way, something had to take its place. At the same time, environmentalism had snowballed from the 1970s onwards, and warming offered generally anti-capitalist movements - buttressed by sympathetic liberals in the media and academia - a new cause, something to rally against. This ideological dimension may help to explain the factious, emotive nature of climate rhetoric, but it has been of little service to the public. Debate, informed or otherwise, tends to be polarised; the shades of grey are crowded out.

In the mainland, by contrast, those shades of grey tend to be awarded credence, even by 'warmists'. Veteran meteorologist Ding Yuhui, who advises the central government on climate, says global warming of 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years is 'abnormal' and that it has caused melting of glaciers and Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels and 'an increase in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather and climate events'. He adds, however, that 'it is still in debate that the temperature during the Medieval Warm Period could [have been] warmer than the contemporary climate.'

According to Ding Zhongli, most Chinese climate scholars believe only that an increase in carbon dioxide could be the main cause of planetary warming. For his part, he says: 'I'm sceptical; the [climate's] sensitivity to CO2 could have been exaggerated by IPCC reports,' adding that 'over the last decade we don't actually see a clear warming'. Most Chinese palaeoclimatologists (who study changes in climate over the entire history of the planet) believe, he says, that 'compared with some periods in Chinese history, we are now still in a relatively colder stage, and so recent climate variability is still within normal patterns'.

Studies of tree-ring data conducted by Ding Zhongli's colleague Liu Yu show temperatures across China have been higher at various points over the past 2,500 years. Liu told the SCMP last year that China was experiencing neither its warmest temperatures in history nor its most dramatic climate change: during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420), for example, mean temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau increased by 0.9 degrees over 30 years. He also cited archaeological records showing pomegranates - which require much warmer temperatures than northern China experiences today - were used as currency in the northwestern province of Xinjiang during the same period.

These are the kind of inconvenient truths that get climate sceptics animated and their detractors twitchy. Of all the deviations and incongruities lit upon, though, the early 21st-century temperature standstill alluded to by Liu and in the Climategate e-mails is perhaps the most inconvenient to those demanding drastic action. As confirmed, begrudgingly perhaps, in numerous peer-reviewed studies, including data sets produced by the CRU, Britain's Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research and the Berkeley University Earth Surface Temperature project, mean global temperatures stood still between 1998 and at least 2009. All of which means that the basis for global warming over the past 100 years is predicated on just two warming spells: pre-1940 and 1975-98. In-between times, carbon dioxide emissions were still on the rise but temperatures were cooling.

Few disagree that there has been an overall warming - in the region of one degree at most since 1850 - but, according to Christy, there is no universal agreement as to the quantitative magnitude of AGW relative to other factors.

'There are many studies which show that the climate system is not very sensitive to CO2,' he says. 'Mine, for example, have shown far less warming than predicted by the models, a pattern of warming that is inconsistent with model projection and regional trends that are not outside the range of natural variability.

'In terms of global temperature trends, we now have a third of a century of bulk atmospheric temperatures showing a modest 0.13 degrees per decade rate of rise - less than half that predicted by climate models. In the past 15 years, the trend has been close to zero - the period in which warming was expected to have its fastest rate due to the enhanced greenhouse effect.'

Others point to evidence that while some glaciers may be in retreat, others are not: there has been melting on the West Antarctic ice sheet, for example, but some studies show icepacks on the rest of the continent - the other 90 per cent of it - are growing. As for sea levels, they have been oscillating close to their current level for the past three centuries, claims Nils-Axel Morner, a former head of the International Union for Quaternary Research.

'Sea level has been rising for thousands of years and continues at about one inch per decade,' is Christy's assessment. 'Since during the last warm interglacial period, 130,000 years ago, the sea level reached about five metres higher than [it is] today, you should expect present sea levels to continue to rise until the next ice age.'

Some sceptics flatly dismiss the notion of man-made global warming. Japanese geophysicist Syun-Ichi Akasofu, founding director of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says data on sea-level changes, glacier retreat, sea ice retreat, ice cores, tree rings and changes in cosmic-ray intensity indicate simply that the planet is still recovering from what is termed the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling and increased glaciation following the Medieval Warm Period and beginning in about 1550.

'The recovery has proceeded continuously, roughly in a linear manner, from 1800-1850 to the present,' Akasofu has said, adding, 'Cosmic-ray intensity data show that solar activity was related to both the Little Ice Age and recovery from it. It peaked in 1940 and 2000, causing the halting of warming temporarily after 2000. These changes are natural changes.'

When applied to climate change, the precautionary principle - that we should assume the worst-case scenario is a possibility and act accordingly - has the ring of logic to it. But what if, as seems likely, the world simply finds it impossible to reduce its overall dependence on CO2-emitting fuels within the time frame being urged?

'Numerous calculations show that the impacts of these severe energy-suppression measures [the EU talks of reducing emissions by up to 90 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050] would be too small to measure on the climate, but easy to measure in economic harm,' Christy says. 'Thus in a simple cost-to-benefit study, we find large costs but no benefits for CO2 reductions.

'The precautionary principle is a false perspective ... This higher cost reduces the standard of living, thus reducing the health, prosperity and opportunity for [most] people - unless you are fortunate to be in a specific subsidised industry that government decides with taxpayer money to support.'

Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish environmen-tal economist and author of the book The Sceptical Environmentalist, has said that the brunt of the costs of reducing global carbon emissions would be borne by developing countries, mainly in terms of having their dreams of development thwarted. As he puts it: 'Africans ask, 'How can you have a steel industry or a rail network based on solar [energy]?''

Economists forecast a vastly more developed world 100 years hence - one in which poverty has all but been eliminated. This scenario is to a large extent dependent on poorer nations being able to avail themselves of the benefits of cheap energy. For them, warmer but richer may seem more appealing than still poor but cooler.

What can't be proven is how much cooler things might be if carbon emissions are reduced. And likewise, the scare reports take little account of man's ability, proven over millennia, to adapt to changing circumstances.

Research is already being carried out on the viability of geoengineering - a catch-all term for technologies that sequester CO2 or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or cool the planet through solar radiation management - while more resources can and, for reasons quite apart from rising sea levels, probably should be invested in sea and flood defences around the world. After all, the Dutch mastered this aspect of hydraulics in the 16th century.

Former British chancellor Nigel Lawson, who chairs the London-based sceptic think tank The Global Warming Policy Foundation, has written that, 'adaptation will enable us, if and when it is necessary, greatly to reduce the adverse consequences of global warming, at far less cost than mitigation [emissions reduction], to the point where for the world as a whole, these are unlikely greatly to outweigh (if indeed they outweigh at all) the customarily overlooked benefits of global warming'.

Besides the fact that raised CO2 levels have been shown to speed up crop growth - it is a misnomer to call it a 'pollutant' - such benefits include the obvious one that in many regions of the world warmer temperatures would be deemed advantageous.

'Chinese civilisation has reached its highest points when temperatures have been warmest [such as during the Han and Tang dynasties] and its lowest points when they have cooled,' Professor Xie Zhenghui, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' International Centre for Climate and Environmental Sciences in Beijing told the SCMP last year.

Whether or not such thinking reflects the views of Chinese policymakers is a matter for conjecture. But mixed in with the more eccentric viewpoints, it is hard not to be struck by the sense of realism that pervades much of the debate over climate in the mainland.

Xu Ming, another professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said recently that while China should do what it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 'no matter what we do, global warming is inevitable. Therefore we must get ready for it.

'Instead of ploughing money into expensive carbon-reduction technologies,' he suggested, '[China] should build water-redistribution facilities, plant trees and develop new crops that could endure temperature fluctuations.'

Protecting the environment is probably one of the most enlightened ideas humanity has had. It just might not be the same thing as trying to stop climate change.