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Response to Fraser Nelson’s blog

April 3, 2011


This week I took part in the Spectator debate speaking against the motion: “The global warming concern is over”. A poll prior to the debate revealed that the audience was heavily in favour of the motion and against myself and my colleagues Sir David King and Professor Tim Palmer: 63% For, 22% Against, 15% Don’t Know.

The good news is that our arguments seemed to make some sense to the Don’t Knows, as the final vote was 64% For, 32% Against, 5% Don’t Know. It seems that over 90% of the Don’t Knows who made up their minds adopted the position that climate change is indeed a concern.

I would not consider myself a climate change journalist, and certainly not a climate change scientist, and I suspect that it was only via a twitter altercation that I ended up on the platform. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet some climate change experts and to think about the arguments and concerns of the opponents to the climate change consensus.

My biggest disappointment in the debate was that I failed to ask the questions that would have helped me appreciate exactly what separates the two sides of the debate. Are we agreed on the science, but arguing about economics and future policies? Or, is it pointless debating future policies, because the other side still don’t accept the basic science?

However, a couple of days after the debate, I put some of the relevant questions to Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator. The magazine, like the vast majority of those who attended the debate, appears to be suspicious of (even hostile to) the scientific consensus on climate change, so I am glad Fraser has responded to my questions in such a positive way.

You can find my original questions and Fraser’s response here.


Responding to Fraser’s Blog

Fraser, thanks for taking the time to respond.

I like your 4-point framing of the orthodox position:

1. That the planet is warming
2. That manmade activity is, in some part, responsible

3. That decarbonisation is the only effective solution
4. There is a degree of urgency to it.

However, it is only worth discussing (3& 4) if (1 & 2) are true. My five questions were an attempt focus on your points (1) and (2) to see where we diverge.

My original five questions are below:


1. Do you agree that increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases lead to an increase in the global temperature?

2. Do you agree CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280ppmv to 380ppmv (35%) during period of industrialisation?

3. Do you agree that the Earth’s climate has warmed by 0.6 degrees in the last 50 years?

4. Do you agree human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a major factor in the warming over the last century?

5. Do you agree best scientific predictions estimate further rise of 1.1 to 6 C over 100 yrs based on good (not perfect) models?

It is very good to know that you answer Yes to question (3), i.e., you agree that the planet is warming. I get the impression that some Spectator writers are not even prepared to accept this. For example, Melanie Phillips on BBC Question Time (27.11.09) said: “I have always thought [global warming] was a scam… There is no evidence for global warming … let me tell you that the seas are not rising anymore than is in any way out of the ordinary, the ice is not decreasing it is increasing, the polar bears are increasing in number and the temperature is going down not up. There is no evidence for this whatsoever.”

Where do you stand on questions (1) & (2)? These should be utterly obvious Yes’s, as the answers relate to basic physics and established observations. However, I need to check, because I am sometimes shocked at where some climate “skeptics” stand on these straightforward questions.

When Johnny Ball appeared on BBC2’s Daily Politics, he said (and wrote something similar on the BBC website): “Only 4% of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere is put their by man, the rest is completely natural.” Ball’s maths is untangled here, and the bottom line is that CO2 levels have increased by 35% and this is due to human activity.

Fraser, when it comes to question (4) you reply: “I’m not yet persuaded. How much is man’s activity contributing to global warming? Is it 20 percent? 80 percent? I haven’t seen a proper paper that attempts to quantify it — perhaps Simon can find me one.”

This section from the report by the IPCC (Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis) explains: “It is very unlikely that the 20th-century warming can be explained by natural causes.” Similarly, this page from the Skeptical Science website explains: “While there are many drivers of climate, CO2 is the most dominant radiative forcing and is increasing faster than any other forcing.” I think charts on these websites are very convincing. In particular, without the manmade influence, it is clear that it is impossible to accurately model the observed climate data over the last five decades.

Would you now be willing to answer “Yes” to my first four questions? We could then discuss question 5.

If you still feel unable to say Yes to my first four questions, then I can suggest that you and I meet up with Professor Tim Palmer who also took part in the Spectator debate?

You are the editor of one of the most influential magazines in Britain and you have taken a stand that challenges the orthodox science. I am merely keen to know exactly where that doubt comes from and which elements of the scientific argument worry you.

That’s enough on the main point for the time being, but I have also added a couple of extra brief comments below.

  1. You suggested that “the IPCC had maximum credibility” on my credibility spectrum, but in fact it did not appear. I referred to organisations such as AAAS and the Royal Society.

  2. You said: “I’m more than prepared to believe that all the clever people are capable of being wrong, and the dotty dissenting scientist can be right.” I agree that we must always listen to mavericks, but you can only accept the maverick’s position if you are convinced by their arguments and evidence. If we meet with Tim Palmer, then we can discuss which of their arguments you find most compelling

  3.  You said: “As a Gershwin once put it, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus”. I think the scientific consensus in 1492 was that the world was round. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy (early 14th century) assumes that the Earth is a sphere. In fact, knowledge of a spherical Earth in scientific circles dates back several centuries prior to this.

    One or two columnists in the fifteenth century edition of “Ye Olde Spectator” might have laughed at Columbus, but scientists and smart folk did not find flat earth views very convincing.


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  1. hengistmcstone permalink

    @Neil Craig "The honourable course is, when you find you are wrong you acknowledge it openly." Very wise. So Neil are you going to acknowledge openly that you made up the 10 per cent figure for CO2 improving plant growth?

  2. Anonymous permalink

    I’d support Neil’s retraction of the 10% claim – experience tells us that 97.2% of all climate-related statistics are made up on the spot – but, hengist, will you accept graciously that CO2 is plant food rather than a pollutant, and that it is a required atmospheric component for sustained life on earth? The thrust of Neil’s point, even with the unquantified 10% claim excluded or dismissed, is entirely correct.

  3. matthu permalink

    Interesting paper being cited by Judith Curry (usually viewed as being a warmist, if only a luke warmist) : Solomon, Amy, and Coauthors, 2011: Distinguishing the Roles of Natural and Anthropogenically Forced Decadal Climate Variability. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 92, 141???156. doi: 10.1175/2010BAMS2962.1Part of Judith’s conclusion is as follows:The authors of this paper are members of the climate establishment, in terms of being involved with the WCRP CLIVAR Programme and also the IPCC. This paper arguably provides more fodder for skepticism of the AR4 conclusions than anything that I have seen from the climate establishment (the authors may not realize this). The issues surrounding natural internal decadal scale variability are a huge challenge for separating out natural from forced climate change. The same issues and challenges raised for future projections remain also for the warming in the last few decades of the 20th century. Sorting this out is the key challenge. No more unequivocals or very likelys in the AR5, please.

  4. matthu permalink

    The GWPF has this to say about the same article:It has been reported that influential people have been convinced by the IPCC curve fitting argument. Now we know that it was based on inadequate science all those who were convinced by it, and use it in arguments, should revaluate their position and await a new statement by the IPCC.Simon – are they directing that at you?

  5. Neil Craig permalink

    Hengist asks me to retract my question about CO2 increase having increased crop growth by 10%. I never, as he suggests, refused to produce the evidence I merely said that i first required him to say that he disputed it; that if it were true he would call on Singh to answer it; & to say that Singh should answer the other questions. All of which Hengist refused to do.In fact just before his last post I did answer his point on my own blog, where he had also asked it. I said:"well Hengist perhaps the reason you "have seen no evidence" is because you refused to look. "On that link is a graph of CO2 against growth rates which in fact suggests the extra crop growth caused by "catastrophuc" warming is significantly above 10%.Hengist therefore clearly knew this at the time he put up his last post asking me to "acknowledge making it up". I now ask him to acknowledge he lied. If he doesn’t, as I suspect he won’t. I ask anybody at all who supports warming alarmism to acknowledge that Hengist has behaved with a disgraceful but typical degree of dishonesty & that the alarmist movement can never be treated as honest until such dishonesty is routinely condemned by alarmists everywhere.******************************On thread may I say I am pleased that, after several days of having removed all comments here Simon has restored them. This may or may not be linked to the fact that his deletions have been discussed on the Bishop Hill blog.May I now, yet again, ask him to answer questions mirroring those he thought it proper to ask & Fraser Nelson answered.

  6. Paul Butler permalink

    NeilThe original article quoted in the blog you link to (where it is described disingenuously as "some information from the Canadian government on the effect increased CO2 has on plant growth. ") is about gardening!Its about what happens when you change CO2 levels in a very controlled environment – ie, a (real) greenhouse.You do understand that the situation in the real world, where many external feedback mechansims come into play, is very different?Its because your original list of questions includes uninformed assumptions like this that people like Simon Singh who likely have far better things to do with there time don’t take the trouble to answer them.Best wishesPaul

  7. Neil Craig permalink

    No Paul it is about experimental evidence.If you have experimental evidence that outside greenhouses this effect entirely disappears I would be very interested to see it.In the same way when Fleming discovered penicillin it would have been wrong to dismiss his announcement as "just about petri dishes". Nobody did, though I’m sure if "environmentalists" armed with the Precautionary Principle had been around then they would have. Experiment in controlled conditions is how science works.

  8. Paul Butler permalink

    Neal, that’s obvious rubbish.You know as well as I do that the kind of experimental evidence you require has to be carried out in controlled conditions. Which is precisely what we haven’t got when it comes to the study of the earth’s climate. There is no control in this experiment. That’s probably why, in the case of climate change, many people believe that the precautionary principle should be applied even if (or perhaps because?) the level of uncertainty is high.

  9. Anonymous permalink

    The application of the precautionary principle is entirely value judgement-based, and not one bit science-based. Subjective interpretations of risk are not objective observational science, and it is this purposeful conflation of the two which is causing the entire field of environmental sciences to haemorrhage credibility.

  10. Paul Butler permalink

    SimonIt’s based on our perception of risk, and that often is science-based, particularly when – as in Earth systems science – complex modelling is required.

  11. Anonymous permalink

    No, Paul, you’re conflating subjective presumption with objective observation. I don’t know if you’re doing this deliberately or not, but there is nothing scientific – statistical, probablistic perhaps, but not scientific – about the application of precautionary principles in the ideologue of combating presumed catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.

  12. hengistmcstone permalink

    @Neil Craig, if I understand you correctly your charge of dishonesty relies on me not reading your blog as frequently as i check Simon’s. I asked you twice here on this page 13 days ago for clarification for your 10 per cent figure. You ignored me . Don’t spin some bollocks out of that to cast aspersions on my own honesty . The study you are citing is about plant growth in controlled environments with supplementations of approx 1000ppm of CO2, much higher than BAU projections in the real world . So it is not fair of you to suggest that anthropogenic CO2 rise will increase plant growth by the amount in that study.

  13. Neil Craig permalink

    Paul your position means you are claiming that there are no circumstances under which any experiment that bears a less than 1;1 correlation can ever have value. The only possible way a Moon landing can be prepared for is by building the entire thing and sending it there to see if every part works. Trying re-entry systems on earlier flights or even testing the hull steel in the laboratory is worthless. Ignore the fact that you are thereby saying that all the computer models on which the warming lie are based are less than valueless. Ignore the fact that you are thus saying you do not believe the most basic scientific principles. You are saying that nothing can ever under any circumstances be done until it has already been done.Clearly any alarmist who is capable of using the internet (or indeed much less complex actions) and has any trace of integrity will rush to disociate themselves from such insanity. I’m sure there must be one or two such, somewhre. We shall see.I note Hengist has not yet made the apology he asked for. I guess we won’t be seeing him opposing Paul’s dishinesty.

  14. Paul Butler permalink

    I’m sure we can leave it to the intelligent reader (if there are any left here!) to decide who is being dishonest.

  15. malcolm permalink

    Columbus isn’t a very good parallel.They laughed at Columbus because he was wrong: everyone knew the earth was round, and they also knew (from Eratosthenes’ work 1700 years or so earlier) that it was so far round that his ships would run out of food and fresh water before he got to the Indies. But he was lucky, and stumbled on an undiscovered continent sitting in the way, and never realised it. He was convinced he’d arrived at India, and stuck to that belief in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary…He never did find the route to the Indies. Just as critics said he wouldn’t.

  16. Stephen Pruett permalink

    I think proposition 4 is the critical one (most of the warming is due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide). As a biomedical scientist for 25 years who just got interested in climate science after Climategate, my impression is that data of the type that is being treated as conclusive in climate science probably wouldn’t even be published in biomedical research because it is so speculative and there are so many other possible explanations. Most alarming (pun intended) is that the entire CAGW hypothesis is based on about 30 years of late 20th century warming. For the last 12-13 of those years, there has been no significant warming. Try to convince any scientists in any other field that you can predict the future based on results like that and you would not get very far. The only answer I have seen is that "we can’t think of anything else that might be causing this warming". Thus, it is very interesting that in the instrumental record there are periods of ~30 year in which the rate of warming was as great as the last 30 years, before carbon dioxide would have been a major player. In most fields scientists are reasonably humble when facing extremely complex systems, but this seems not to be the case in climate science.

  17. Neil Craig permalink

    I note Simon still has been unable to make any attempt to answer any of the questions & can confirm that nobody else in the alarmist fold has eiuther. If they believed their own scare story one would expect them to at least try.Paul and Hengist still refuse to produce any evidence to support their position either.QED

  18. Paul Butler permalink

    NealWhat position are you referring to precisely?

  19. niqpax permalink

    Cool article, and the site itself, I do not even look very bad. Got here from a Google search, he brought in bookmarks 🙂

  20. nii2ylexijn permalink

    Zehr Hood put 5 balls.

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