Lords of Climate Change

by John Quiggin on July 19, 2006

I see in this piece by Alan Wood that the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs inquiry into “The Economics of Climate Change” (which strongly questioned the science of climate change) is still getting a run in denialist circles.

I haven’t bothered posting on this before, because the main outcome of the inquiry was the establishment of the Stern Review which issued its first discussion paper back in April, stating (from the Executive Summary)

Climate change is a serious and urgent issue… There is now an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that human activity is increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and causing warming.

There’s more like this, giving an excellent summary of the mainstream scientific position.

So the House of Lords exercise was something of an own goal for the denialists. But how did a supposedly serious inquiry come up with with such nonsense in the first place?

One possibility is a snow job, with the members of the committee (not scientists) being taken in by the superficially plausible claims of people like Ross McKitrick (I don’t imagine they bothered to check whether he was talking about degrees or radians). However, I think a setup is far more likely. Looking at the list of witnesses, it’s obvious that denialists and anti-Kyoto activists from all over the world rushed to appear before this rather obscure committee, while most serious scientists didn’t find out about it until after it had reported.

Then there’s the dubious logic of the report itself, where the Commitee, admitting it had no qualifications or remit to examine scientific issues, then split the difference between the thousands of scientists who’ve worked on global warming (but did not appear) and the handful of sceptics (nearly all of whom did). This kind of bogus neutrality managed to get past the members of the Committee, and the report was then trumpeted by denialists as a complete refutation of climate science.

Looking at the membership of the committee, the obvious candidate for a setup of this kind is Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 2004, he wrote to The Times with six other rightwing economists (most of them subsequently witnesses to the inquiry), attacking Kyoto. The arguments of the letter, including claims about “scientific uncertainties” were reproduced in the Lords report.

As a politician of longstanding, Lawson would be well aware of the adage “Never set up an inquiry unless you know what it’s going to find”. His only mistake was to succeed so well in getting the report he wanted that it necessitated a proper inquiry, the Stern Review, too well-run and well-publicised to be snowed by the denialists.



Eamonn Fitzgerald 07.19.06 at 9:11 am

“In Britain, temperatures were expected to top 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit), hitting an all-time high for July….The House of Commons issued a special ‘shirt-sleeve order’ allowing journalists covering parliament to break with convention and enter the chamber without a jacket.”

Hope everyone can see the connection with denialist crop circles.


Barry 07.19.06 at 10:03 am

I posted something similar over on Chris Mooney’s blog, in ScienceBlogs:

Evolution is a 150-year old, highly successful theory, which provides the underpinnings to a whole field of science. In this past 150 years, technology unimagined by Darwin has validated his core ideas, as biologists have probed features which were not measureable by mid-19th century biolgists, and have filled in many of the ‘how’ questions.

However, creationism, through lies, fraud and junk science, has waged a very successful delaying action – ‘successful’, that is, when one realizes that *all* of the science is against them. All that they have is liars, frauds and fools. They get mileage from recycling 50-, 100-, or 200-year old claims, claims which biology has kiled, peeled, and dissected back before most of us were born.

When one considers that, it’s not surprising that other right-wing anti-science campaigns will copy creationist tactics. It’s worked quite well for creationists, and they don’t generally have the backing of large corporations, some of which are backers of the anti-global warming campaign.


Stuart 07.19.06 at 10:22 am

When one considers that, it’s not surprising that other right-wing anti-science campaigns will copy creationist tactics. It’s worked quite well for creationists, and they don’t generally have the backing of large corporations, some of which are backers of the anti-global warming campaign.

Isn’t ‘anti-global warming campaign’ fairly ambiguous a term to use – I am guessing you mean people that don’t believe global warming has significant human causes, but it could also refer to people that don’t want global warming to happen. Maybe opponents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change would be clearer?


nelziq 07.19.06 at 12:39 pm

Climate change is a serious and urgent issue… There is now an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that human activity is increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and causing warming.

Even if the science is absolutely conclusive that climate change is occuring and that it is caused by human action, this does not neccesarily imply that [BIG SCARY BOOMING VOICE] Something must be done! [/VOICE], and that certainly doesn’t imply what that something must be. One can fully agree with the scientific concensus on global warming and still think that something like the Kyoto Protocol will cause more harm than good. A good article on that note: http://www.free-eco.org/articleDisplay.php?id=513


Steve LaBonne 07.19.06 at 1:17 pm

No, one can’t responsibly think that on the evidence now available (and I speak as one who used to think that way). There is a really huge difference in where we’re headed if carbon emissions keep increasing at their current rate vs. the still bad but much less catastrophic scenario that will result from taking serious action now to curb that growth. Here is a link to a good overview of the case for action.


Barry 07.19.06 at 2:12 pm

Stuart, you’re right, although ‘junk scientist’ would be a better term yet.


bi 07.19.06 at 2:16 pm

Barry: at least they aren’t arguing (yet) that our thermometers have been doctored by some nefarious force to give a false impression of global warming.


James Killus 07.19.06 at 3:26 pm


Try googling Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment + “astroturf.” Or check this article:

The FREE organization seems to be yet another front organization, funded by various energy companies, with the express purpose of laundering PR points. You’re being lied to.


mcd 07.19.06 at 6:34 pm

Allow me to be a pest:

If the concepts of “elite interests” and “zero-sum games” were in everybody’s analytical toolkit, it would be no surprise that august bodies come up with such nonsense.


John Quiggin 07.19.06 at 9:31 pm

It’s certainly useful to know about zero-sum games, but unless you also understand positive-sum and negative-sum games, you’re likely to reach invalid conclusions.


jet 07.19.06 at 10:36 pm

On the other end of the spectrum, Discovery channel had a special on Global Warming promising that in 50 years it was quite plausible for only the highest buildings in NYC and Miami to be visible above the ocean. I hadn’t realized it was Discovery worthy science that we might see not just multiple inches of Ocean rise, but 10’s of meters of Ocean rise in the next 50 years. Plenty of junk science on both sides of this issue.


bi 07.20.06 at 1:34 am

jet: and the other day someone was saying that “[INSERT NAME HERE] is worse!” is a childish sneering tactic.

I’m surprised nobody’s talking about the Bogdanov affair. But maybe Galileo’s just more famous.


John Quiggin 07.20.06 at 3:39 am

Still, I think jet is right on this one. The denialists are about as credible as those who predict a 100 metre increase in sea levels in 50 years. Looking at a distribution around a plausible mean projection like that of the IPCC, both are in two-sigma territory or worse.


Steve LaBonne 07.20.06 at 9:06 am

Yes, if Discovery said that it’s crap, but I object to jet’s “both sides” remark- that program is NOT representative of what’s being said by the great majority of those trying to educate the public about climate change. Climate scientists themselves aren’t saying such things, nor are communicators like Gore who are quite careful to stick pretty closely to the actual scientific consensus. (The general reaction to Gore’s presentation in the scientific community has been that there a few points on which he can be faulted but that on the whole he gives an accurate and responsible representation of the current science.) Contrast that with the denialists, who are ALL in that “two sigma or worse” territory.


jet 07.20.06 at 1:27 pm

Gore, has never outright said that we’ll see multi-meter rises in sea levels, but he sure hints at it. The true test of Gore’s commitment to science will be this latest movie on Global Warming. I’m fully expecting something akin to Apocalypse Now, but I’m hopeful it will be something more similar to the Copenhagen Consensus’s section on Global Warming repercussions.

Either way, whenever I read news stories or watch science shows on Global Warming, they all either flatly state or strongly hint that Apocalypse Now is the strongest possibility.


Steve LaBonne 07.20.06 at 1:34 pm

I suggest you read the Hansen article I linked above. Apocalypse is a little farther off than the Discovery Channel suggested, but it’s closer than you seem to realize. Time for some heads to start being pulled out of the sand.


jet 07.20.06 at 9:28 pm

Steve, I’m not sure where those multi-feet numbers come from, but from what I’ve seen, we’re looking at a max of 8.8cm over the next 100 years – granted that number is only from the IPCC ;)

I’m unfamiliar with the isotherm issue, but since your article was wildly enthusiastic with the truth when it came to sea level’s, I can’t help but assume they did the same with isotherms.

But don’t get me wrong. The single best thing that could happen to the world would be modernization and large expenditures in power generation and alternative energy. Simply raising CAFE standards and forcing the modernization of power plants would provide incredible long term gains in economic growth with a long, long, long, your great-grand kids type of long, term benefit of not melting any more ice or killing bugs that can’t backpack fast enough.


bi 07.21.06 at 6:21 am

I still pity Galileo.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 7:24 am

I love the way jet won’t pay attention to anything that’s not in a 5 year old report. (I guess science stopped after 2001!) I believe that much of the work Hansen talks about, on correlations among past CO2 levels, temperatures and sea levels, is too recent to have been considered for that report. And that is definitely the case with the accelerating deterioration of the ice sheets which has been a major surprise since the period when that report was put together. By the way, you do realize that Hansen is not just some guy?

Get your head out of the sand.


jet 07.21.06 at 9:29 am

Yeah Steve because “twenty feet or more per century” is just sound science. And you have to love that their lower estimate is a mere “few feet per century”. That lower number is crazy on two fronts. First, how the hell could we keep global warming under 2F per century at this late stage of the game. And second, what kind of magical mushrooms do you have to smoke in order to read the science and think TWO FRICKING feet of sea level rise will result from 2F per century. Hello, here’s a cluebat, the last century had similar increases in tempature and the sea level rose 2cm in 100 years. Sounds like pure scary mojo get some votes for the greenies to me.
Either way, the 2004 satellite data, which was questioned as it did not correlate with the lower estimate from tide gauges, was a maximal of 2.8 mm per year. That is 11 inches every 100 years. Melt rate would have to increase at least 2000%, but actually more like 4000% to hit 20 feet at the end of the century. If Hansen et al are so sure of themselves, they should put their proverbial balls on the chopping block and put their name on a Wikipedia update.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 9:35 am

jet, are you sure you read Hansen’s articles? These kinds of rates of sea level rise are not conjectured things calculated from models; they are things that have actually happened in the past history of the earth at the kinds of temperatures we’re headed for. (Talking about the last century is comprehensively irrelevant. Because of the role of ice-sheet melting, there is not anything remotely close to a linear relationship between temperature and sea level. If you don’t even grasp that, you’ve understood precisely nothing of what you’re attempting to babble about.)

You’re the one who needs to get a clue. You’re just making a fool of yourself.


jet 07.21.06 at 9:39 am

Actually Steve, I’m being just as unfair as Hansen is. I know when he says 2 feet per century or 20 feet per century he is talking an average into the foreseeable future and not just the next 100 years. But if he doesn’t see the need to explain this to laymen, then he is intentionally misleading the public. And I don’t know where you are from, but intentionally misleading the public in the US is quite alright if you are on the Left, and only slightly contemptable in you are on the Right. So he should do just fine.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 9:42 am

I don’t know what you’re on about, jet, but I’m talking about the FACTS of how the earth has responded in the geological past to the temperature regime we’re headed for with a 5 degree rise. Of course, the great conservative hero did say “facts are stupid things”…


jet 07.21.06 at 9:51 am

Wow, there isn’t a a linear correlation between temperature and ice melt? Hansen should get a Grammy for discovering that.
On a side note, let me just add how happy I am that there is now a concensus on sea level rise and that it is somewhere between 2 and 20 feet per century.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 10:02 am

From the #&$%ing article, in case anybody is still reading this and is confused by jet’s clueless snarking:

A rise in sea level, necessarily, begins slowly. Massive ice sheets must be softened and weakened before rapid disintegration and melting occurs and the sea level rises. It may require as much as a few centuries to produce most of the long-term response. But the inertia of ice sheets is not our ally against the effects of global warming. The Earth’s history reveals cases in which sea level, once ice sheets began to collapse, rose one meter (1.1 yards) every twenty years for centuries.


jet 07.21.06 at 10:08 am

So your FACTS showing how the Earth has responded over 100 years to a 5F increase are pretty solid? You’d say there exists data points that directly correlate to our current situation with a high enough degree of accuracy to be pertinent? Because from what I’ve read in the IPCC, Hansen must be a frick’n Einstein and has really revolutionized the field since 2004. He must be like the 1337 p0wn of historical data.

Also, if you could point me at a public set of this data, I’d really appreciate it. I’m looking forward to thousand year old data points that aren’t +-100 years in accuracy.

Hansen’s 20 feet per 100 years is significantly faster than the fastest increase in sea level in history which was 2 full meters per 100 years slower (Big Meltwater Pulse event).

Also, I hope you can understand why I find it incredulous that the estimate for sea level rise went from a rough consensus in 2001 of 8.8 cm to Hansen’s magical 2006 number of 609 cm per 100 years.


jet 07.21.06 at 10:11 am

Stop using conjecture from the article and lets see some numbers. Hansen surely published this stuff, right? Peer review? Agreement, disagreement? You’re the Hansen fanboy, show us the love.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 10:12 am

Have you ever even seen a series of maps of how the land and sea areas of the earth have changed over geological time? This is not, like, new information we’re talking about here. It’s geological history 101. Buy your own textbook.


Steve LaBonne 07.21.06 at 10:23 am

Hell, I’m in such a good mood today that I decided to give jet a free clue: Google “Meltwater Pulse 1a” (at least 20 M in less than 500 years- a minimum of 4 meters per century or almost a meter every 20 years.)


James Killus 07.21.06 at 1:18 pm

The most important fact about greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere is that the increase in such gases in the recent past and the foreseeable future is =unprecedented=. It’s never happened before. So any prediction about what it’s going to happen is, at best, an extrapolation from an uncalibrated model.

Some people think that having an uncertain prediction means that everything is going to work out fine because you can’t prove that it won’t. One word that is =not= appropriate to label such people is “conservative.”

In this case, I’m suggesting that the correct word is “idiots.”

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