The Moronic Inferno

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As a self-confessed know-it-all, I find it irksome to admit that I am perplexed by anything. When I do admit defeat, it's usually as a result of the inexplicably silly things I see some people saying or doing. Why, for instance, do drivers turn on their foglights at the slightest wisp of mist, yet insist that they can drive at 70 in a pea-souper? Why do we, as a nation, obsess about hypothetical risks to our health, even going to the extent of tearing up GM crops while ignoring rather more obvious and proven ones such as tobacco? Why do American parents panic about whether their kids have a helmet on while riding the bike, while allowing them to clog up their arteries eating junk food? Generalising further: as a species we set ourselves apart from the others by seeming to delight in perverse acts.

Our saving grace might be said to be that we think before we act. Unfortunately perverse thinking also seems to be on the increase and more often than not it prefigures perverse inaction. In particular, why do supposedly intelligent people insist on clinging to discredited ideas about our impact on the world around us as an excuse for doing nothing about it? It is plain to anybody with half a brain that there is something seriously wrong with the climate in Britain. This summer has been the wettest on record, with seemingly endless rain drowning Middle English villages such as Tewkesbury. On the cricket pitches, rain has stopped play: flannels are out, waders are in. In the High Streets, tea and scones are off the menu, floodwater and turds are on.

Arguably, one swallow doesn't make a summer and, by that reckoning, one inundation doesn't mean that the Deluge is on the way. Yet it's hard not to make the connection between the short-term rain and the longer-term pain predicted by climatologists the world over. It requires an even more obdurate mindset to claim that no such connection exists, but some will try all the same.

My First Personal Lesson in Denialism

Several months ago I got involved in a really nasty spat in Peer Review. The reason was that someone who should and did know better had, totally contrary to the spirit of PR, posted a highly tendentious piece titled 'Global Warming: the Cynic's View'. This was apparently to establish his credentials as a contrarian but also to use h2g2's peer review process as a soapbox. I weighed in and he got 'Global Warming: the Cynic's View of a Cynic's View'. To be fair, there was an attempt at establishing a credible argument that nothing was going on the world that we needed to worry about. He maintained that the chemical principle known as 'Le Chatelier's Principle' would buffer virtually anything that we could throw at the environment.

To understand why this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, you also need to understand what the principle does and doesn't apply to. Imagine you have a chemical equilibrium, say

A+B ↔ C+D

where A+B are converting to C+D and back again continually. The argument says that if external conditions are changed the equilibrium will shift so as to compensate. As an example, if A + B are gases and C+D are solids, then applying external pressure to such an equilibrium will result in C+D being favoured over A+B. Release the pressure, and C+D will start reconverting back into A+B. So far, pretty straightforward.

If you think the environment has more in common with an A-level chemistry textbook than anything else, then you may well now be tempted to conclude that as levels of the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, increase, changes will start to occur that minimise their effect. Up to a point this is perfectly correct, but the world is a very much messier and more complicated place than a school chemistry lab.

Firstly, Le Chatelier's Principle is generally exploited in open systems. An example of such a system is the industrial production of ammonia by the Haber Bosch process. The reactants, hydrogen and nitrogen, occupy more space than the product, so if the pressure of these is increased, then the yield of ammonia increases. However, if the ammonia was not removed on a continual basis, the system would at some point begin to 'kick back'.

The environment on the other hand is a closed system. It has a very limited short-term capacity to absorb CO2. The pH of the oceans, a measure of their acidity, has fallen by 0.1 since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This is a bad trend, not a good one: lower pH means more acid. Currently they have a pH of 8 but this may drop to 7.6 if CO2 emissions are not cut. Lower the pH by 0.3 and marine organisms such corals, diatoms and other plankton can't build their exoskeletons. This is happening across the world at this very moment. Moreover, some of the major carbon sinks, such as the polar seas, are already showing signs of serious overloading, almost to the point of breakdown.

Secondly, won't the CO2 eventually get trapped in carbonate rocks, like it did millions of years ago? The answer again is yes but with some pretty major caveats. The way the geological CO2 cycle1 works is like this. If CO2 levels increase, rain becomes more acid. Acid rain weathers rocks, reacting with them to precipitate CO2 as carbonates. These get washed down to the ocean, where they settle and form layers of sedimentary rock: limestone, to the non-geologists. Eventually, the limestone gets carried under the surface of the earth on a tectonic plate (known as subduction), where the intense heat and pressure decomposes the limestone and generates huge amounts of CO2, which gets steadily released back into the atmosphere through volcanoes. If the CO2 levels rise, more weathering leads to more precipitation and subduction, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. If the levels fall, then the steady backdrop of vulcanism eventually pushes CO2 levels back up again.

The problem with relying upon this kind of self-correcting mechanism is that it operates on geologic timescales and we are increasing CO2 levels over decades. Textbook chemistry is obsessed with equilibrium, but it's when systems get far from equilibrium that the really interesting stuff starts to happen. You just have to look into the morning sky to see what I mean. The planet Venus was once probably a world very much like ours, with oceans covering its surface3. Now it resembles a vision of Hell more than anything else: unceasing volcanoes belch carbon dioxide, among other nasty substances, into a barren, baking desert landscape. The temperature on a good day is rarely less than 400 C, and the atmospheric pressure is 90 times that on Earth. Current thinking holds that for some reason - very probably its own local version of global warming - Venus' oceans dried up. Without water, there was nothing to lubricate the plate tectonic processes and these ceased. The vulcanism meanwhile carried on chucking more CO2 into the planet's already overburdened atmosphere to the point that it has become a runaway example of the greenhouse effect, a warning (to those of us that will listen) of the consequences of our profligacy.

'Well, actually, if you we listening properly you would have realised that...'

When faced with these arguments, the true climate contrarian will start 'trimming', adjusting their position so as to give themselves some room for manoeuvre. 'So,' they admit, 'CO2 levels are rising, but there's no direct evidence to back up the fact that it does cause global warming, is there?' We also have very little direct eyewitness evidence that evolution as described by Darwin takes place, but take place it most certainly does, with the fossil record and countless other corroborating examples to back it up4. Wars have been started and Middle Eastern dictators hanged on less direct evidence. Then the old argument about 'solar cycles' will get dragged out, and one finds oneself pointing out yet again that millions of years ago the Sun was weaker but the Earth was warmer, all because of the atmosphere being much richer in greenhouse gases, mainly(you guessed it) CO2.

If you've managed to stay the course with such revisionists without either walking out or thumping them then it's either because you've marshalled your arguments effectively or because you are actually now intrigued as to why they would wish to hold onto the views they do. Why is climate change such a bête noire for some? What is the thinking behind such unreconstructed contrarian views?

Irresistible Force or Immovable Object?

Well, it came as no surprise to me whatsoever to learn that the person who originally advanced these views in PR once described himself as 'fearlessly right wing': climate change contrarians as a species tend to 'dress to the right'. I think he'll be a little more fearful in propounding his views now, but I imagine he'll still hold them. And I suspect it's in deliberate spite of the galling fact that a once-marginal vision of our future, believed only by tree-hugging hippies with beards (and that includes the women) has come to displace the old libertarian orthodoxies of the free market, God and country. The mainstream and the marginal have now traded places and the Right find themselves on the sidelines. Moreover, their thinking has left them, as a movement, singularly ill-equipped for dealing with the challenges of climate change, so they pretend that they aren't happening. Instead of living in a world where poverty and class are ordained by God, 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate', we now as a race face an uncertain future but for which we are totally culpable: 'In Nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences'. The Right nevertheless simply don't like to have to face a scenario where no amount of equivocation, prevarication or complacency – 'business as usual' – in the name of their cherished dogmas will save them, as it has always seemed to do.

But it gets worse. If the diagnosis is disturbing, then the prescription - greater regulation, curtailment of certain liberties we take for granted (such as driving huge cars when and where we like), a global as opposed to a national perspective on the Environment - is anathema to them. All the same, the old certainties are being crushed by the progress of an environmental juggernaut set in motion by all of us but that will spare no-one, no matter which school they attended or merchant bank they work at or which Prime Minister their bloody father knew.

Ultimately, the Right identifies the climate change lobby with these tiresome sloganeering hotheads who have been a thorn in its side for so long, the ones who attended peace marches, camped out at Greenham and trashed the odd MacDonalds in an emotional spasm against globalisation. And they cannot be right simply because of who they are. God only knows, I'm no Green: I often find their subjective and selective use of the intellectual products of a discipline they affect to despise - science - both hypocritical and dishonest. I also find their alarmism misplaced (remember the Brent Spar) and their stance insufferably self-righteous given the frequent flimsiness of their arguments.

But my personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant to this issue, as are anybody's. Science done properly should be colourblind, but this doesn't imply that it should admit a plurality of opinions on a contentious topic, whether green or blue tinged, if any of those opinions is subject to evidence. 'Balance' doesn't come into it: science isn't the BBC. If two diametrically opposing standpoints are asserted with equal fervour, it isn't under a duty to conclude that the truth lies equidistant from either. Rather, one may simply be right and the other wrong, so science looks for the evidence to decide which one.

This is precisely what the IPCC did when they wrote their recent report. When hundreds of climate scientists get together and publish a report concluding that the world is warming, I am inclined to sit up and take notice. This is not to admit that there wasn't some dissent, but the disagreement was about exactly how much the world was warming, not as to whether it was warming at all. And as for the frankly laughable idea that it's some kind of conspiracy between the Greens and left-leaning scientists, conspiracies of such a size would require an unsustainable compact of secrecy. As Ben Franklin once said, 'three people can keep a secret providing two of them are dead'. The idea therefore that hundreds of scientists have secretly managed (for some unfathomable motive) to dupe the rest of the human population of this planet is a ludicrous fantasy.

The time for denial is over. We are in an environmental hole and we haven't stopped digging. Any debates should now be about how we face this challenge, not whether there is a challenge to be faced. So, if you're a climate change denialist, recognise that along with the right to your opinions goes a responsibility to change them when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Try modifying your views in light of the science, instead of trying to modify ours in light of your prejudices. And finally, if you still insist on adopting an 'ostrich attitude', with your head buried in the sand pretending that nothing untoward is happening, then just dwell on the observation that sticking your head in the sand leaves you with only one orifice left to talk from.

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Felonious Monk

23.08.07 Front Page

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1Otherwise known as the Urey reaction2. There is plenty of material explaining why trusting to biology or geology to sort out our climate problems is a foolhardy decision.2Nothing to do with urea, by the way3'Global Climate Change on Venus', Scientific American, March 1999.4Although a certain coterie of denialists would dispute even this.

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