In act

Have scientists really admitted climate change sceptics are right?

  1. Have scientists really admitted sceptics were right about global warming?
  2. So how does the research in this paper actually change things?
  3. Are climate models always wrong?
  4. So what is the accepted scientific view?
Ian Johnston
Environment Correspondent
@montaukian
Thursday 22 February 2018 15:48
comments

For a section of the right-wing media, it was too good to miss, an opportunity to cast doubt on one of their favourite bugbears – climate change.

A scientific study had estimated that there would still be a reasonable chance of restricting global warming to 1.5C by the end of the century even if humans used the equivalent of current fossil fuel consumption for 20 years.

The lead scientist involved in the research, Dr Richard Millar of Oxford University, in an article on the Carbon Brief website said this “update” on earlier estimates suggested that “we have a little more breathing space than previously thought” to achieve the target to avoid dangerous global warming adopted by the Paris Agreement.

But some found a rather different message in the paper in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“Fear of global warming is exaggerated, say scientists,” screamed an article on Mail Online.

And the Conservative MP David Davies – not to be confused with Brexit Secretary David Davis – tweeted: “World's scientists now being forced to admit they were wrong and sceptics like the Global Warming Policy Foundation were right all along.”

He actually included a link to The Independent's story, although his remark was very much his own spin on the subject and not reflected in the article.

“Climate models are ‘wrong,’” proclaimed the Telegraph on its front page.

And The Times' front page had scientists “admitting” that the “world is warming slower than predicted”.

Curiously the Mail Online also published another article about the same research with a headline much more in keeping with the paper. “We CAN meet ambitious Paris climate change agreement goal to limit global temperatures rise to 1.5C by 2100 (but only if countries stop using coal),” it said.

  1. Have scientists really admitted sceptics were right about global warming?

    You may be unsurprised to know they have done nothing of the sort.

    In a speech last year to a meeting of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), Matt Ridley, a hereditary peer and former chairman of the Northern Rock bank, laid out the ‘sceptic’ philosophy.

    Mainstream scientists had a “vested interest in alarm” that was making them exaggerate the risks of global warming, he claimed. And there was no need to worry because “environment predictions of doom” were “always” wrong.

    According to the GWPF’s founder, former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson, greenhouse gases produced by human activity have caused the Earth’s climate to get warmer.

    But he told a House of Lords committee that it would “crazy” for the UK to try to do anything about this process, because our emissions account for just two per cent of the global total.

    The take-home message from all this can be summed up by one basic idea: keep on burning the fossil fuels.

    Dr Millar told The Independent he had noticed a problem with the media coverage of the research.

    “These headlines had a clear spin in what they were trying to put across, but the articles themselves were less bad,” he said.

  2. So how does the research in this paper actually change things?

    The paper provides a new estimate of humanity’s ‘carbon budget’ – the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned before global warming would probably hit 1.5C. So far human influence has caused temperatures to warm by about 0.9C.

    The researchers concluded that total emissions of 200 gigatonnes of carbon – or 240 gigatonnes with significant amounts of climate mitigation – would probably produce less than 0.6C of warming, according to their analysis of climate models.

    Dr Millar said this budget represented about 20 years of emissions at the current rate, giving humanity more time than some other estimates and, therefore, a greater hope of meeting the Paris Agreement target.

    But he said a more sensible way of spending this budget would be to start making cuts now with a view to hitting a zero-carbon world in about 40 years.

    And that, in sharp contrast to the sceptics, is the take-home message: start cutting greenhouse gases and a temperature increase that could lead to dangerous climate change can be avoided.

  3. Are climate models always wrong?

    Yes. Climate models incorporate the laws of physics to try to make sense of what is happening, but they will never be 100 per cent accurate.

    “All models are wrong,” goes a saying in science, “but that doesn’t mean they are not useful”.

    As Dr Millar explained: “By definition, a model is not the real world … it’s called a climate model for a reason.

    “But they can do an incredibly good job at capturing some incredibly complex physics.”

  4. So what is the accepted scientific view?

    Scientists have produced estimates of how warm the world will get if the amount of carbon increases to double pre-industrial levels.

    This produces a range of results from about 1.5C to 5C. The lower end of the scale would be relatively benign; the upper end would result in the end of human civilisation as we know it.

    Those who say we will be fine make the same mistake as those who say we are heading for Armageddon – insisting on certainty when there is doubt.

    The question then is what is the wisest course? Roll the dice and hope for the best or make efforts to ensure the worst-case scenario does not happen?

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