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Climate change could be real but do less harm than climate policy

My luke-warming column in the Times on 28th September 2013,
pleaded in vain for a moderate middle approach to climate change,
and drew a parallel with the nature-nurture debate. Here’s what I

In the climate debate, which side are you on? Do
you think climate change is the most urgent crisis facing mankind
requiring almost unlimited spending? Or that it’s all a hoax,
dreamt up to justify socialism, and nothing is happening

Because those are the only two options, apparently. I know this
from bitter experience. Every time I argue for a lukewarm “third
way” — that climate change is real but slow, partly man-made but
also susceptible to natural factors, and might be dangerous but
more likely will not be — I am attacked from both sides. I get
e-mails saying the greenhouse theory is bunk and an ice age is on
the way; and others from guardians of the flame calling me a

Yet read between the lines of yesterday’s report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and you see that
even its authors are tiptoeing towards the moderate middle. They
now admit there has been at least a 15-year standstill in
temperatures, which they did not predict and cannot explain,
something sceptics were denounced for claiming only two years ago.
They concede, through gritted teeth, that over three decades,
warming has been much slower than predicted. They have lowered
their estimate of “transient” climate sensitivity, which tells you
roughly how much the temperature will rise towards the end of this
century, to 1-2.5C, up to a half of which has already happened.

They concede that sea level is rising at about one foot a
century and showing no sign of acceleration. They admit there has
been no measurable change in the frequency or severity of droughts,
floods and storms. They are no longer predicting millions of
climate refugees in the near future. They have had to give up on
malaria getting worse, Antarctic ice caps collapsing, or a big
methane burp from the Arctic (Lord Stern, who still talks about
refugees, methane and ice caps, has obviously not got the memo).
Talk of tipping points is gone.

They have come to some of this rather late in the day. Had they
been prepared to listen to lukewarmers and sceptics such as Steve
McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Pat Michaels, Judith Curry and others,
then they would not have had to scramble around at the last minute
for ad-hoc explanations. These issues have been discussed ad
nauseam by lukewarmers.

The climate war has been polarised in the same way that the
nature-nurture debate was in the 1970s. Back then, if you argued
that genes affected behaviour even a bit, you were pigeon-holed as
a heartless fatalist with possible tendencies to Nazism. I barely
exaggerate at all. Today, if you express a hint of doubt about the
possibility of catastrophic warming, you are a heartless fool with
possible tendencies to Holocaust denial. Sceptics are “truly evil
people”, the former US Senator Tim Wirth said this week.

In the nature-nurture war, polarisation was maintained by the
fact that people only read their own side’s accounts of their
opponents’ arguments. So they spent their time attacking absurd
straw men. Likewise in the climate debate. The most popular
sceptical blogs — such as Wattsupwiththat in America, Bishop Hill
in Britain, JoNova in Australia and Climate Audit in
Canada — provide sometimes brilliant analysis and occasional mad
mistakes: scientific conversation as it should be.

[Update: sure enough Steve McIntyre of Climate
Audit found a huge problem in the IPCC report on day 1: the graphs
appear to have been changed since the previous draft, without
referring back to reviewers, in such a way as to reduce the
apparent failure of the models to match reality. Watch this space.
See “The IPCC disappears the discrepancy“.]

But most “proper” climate scientists won’t go near them, so
misunderstand what the sceptics are talking about. They keep saying
they don’t “believe” in climate change. Nothing could be farther
from the truth: most think man-made climate change is real, just
not very frightening. So the IPCC saying yesterday that it is 95
per cent certain that more than half of the warming since 1950 is
man-made is truly a damp squib: well, duh.

We’ve warmed the world and will probably warm it some more.
Carbon dioxide alone can’t cause catastrophe. For that you need
threefold amplification by extra water vapour — which is not
happening. So maybe it’s not a big enough problem to justify
ruining landscapes with wind turbines, cutting rain forest to grow
biofuels and denying World Bank loans to Africans for life-saving
coal-fired electricity. (I declare a commercial interest in coal
and wind, although I give the latter money away as an essay prize:
won this week by Michael Ware’s brilliant demolition
in The Spectator of the electric car

Of course, the IPCC’s conversion to lukewarming is not the way
it will be spun, lest it derail the gravy train that keeps so many
activists in well-paid jobs, scientists in amply funded labs and
renewable investors in subsidised profits. After all, Dr Rajendra
Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, confidently asserted in 2009 that
“when the IPCC’s fifth assessment comes out in 2013 or 2014, there
will be a major revival of interest in action that has to be
taken.” He said this before the people who would write the report
had been selected, before any meetings had happened and before the
research on which it was based had even been published.

Nature-nurture eventually grew reasonable: most people now agree
it’s a bit of both. In the end, the same moderation will happen
with climate, but by then fortunes of your money may have been
spent on technologies that do more harm than good.

We need a grown-up conversation without name-calling about the
possibility that, if the climate resumes warming at the rate the
IPCC expects, it may do more good than harm for at least 70 years:
longer growing seasons, fewer droughts, fewer excess winter deaths
(which greatly exceed summer deaths even in warm countries) and a
general greening of the planet. See here and here.  Satellites show that in the period 1982-2011, 31 per cent
of Earth’s vegetated area became more green, 3 per cent more
brown. The main reason: carbon dioxide.

Leave the last word to Professor Judith Curry, of the School of
Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of
Technology, who used to be alarmed and no longer is. Her message to
the IPCC this week was: “Once you sort out the uncertainty in
climate sensitivity estimates and fix your climate models, let us
know .. .. . And let us know if you come up with any solutions to
this ‘problem’ that aren’t worse than the potential problem



In response to a comment by Tom Whipple, challenging my “gravy
train” remark, I wrote the following:

I’m surprised by your naivety here. Go and look up the total
grants to climate scientists for their research. it’s a very large
number,has grown hugely over the last 3 decades, is almost entirely
unavailable to sceptics and would vanish like snow in summer if the
scientists were more honest about lukewarming. No, they don’t get
rich but they get very large flows of funds from taxpayers, which
sceptics don’t.

As for the idea that straying from the consensus is lucrative,
the reverse is the truth. Sceptic scientists have in some cases
been driven from their posts and the sceptics I know struggle to
make ends meet by doing other jobs.

As Jo Nova, one of those who lives on a shoestring, pointed out
after doing research on the sums concerned:

“As Climate Money pointed out: all Greenpeace
could find from Exxon was a mere $23 million for skeptics over a decade, while
the cash cow that is catastrophic climate change roped in $2,000
million a year every year during the same period for the scientists
who called other scientists “deniers”.”


which finds that the US government alone has spent “$79 billion
since 1989 on policies related to climate change, including science
and technology research, administration, education campaigns,
foreign aid, and tax breaks.” Tom, it would be great to get the
numbers for the UK — why not do that?

And as others have pointed out, McIntyre, McKitrick, Michaels,
Curry and others do publish in the journals. But the gate-keeping
by alarmists exposed by the climate gate scandal continues so it’s
far harder to get sceptic papers published. Oh, and remember 30% of
the last IPCC report’s sources were non-peer-reviewed.

If you don’t believe me, Tom, why not look into it? Go and do a
feature on some of these sceptic blogs. They have HUGE traffic
compared with the ones that promote alarm. At the very least they
are an interesting social phenomenon.

Or you could remain content in the echo chamber of of only
reading your friends’ accounts of your enemies’ arguments as I
describe above.

2nd postscript:

In response to a message from Hugo Rifkind, I wrote the

The 3.2mm per year since 1993 is a steady rise. You can find the
graph on the web, (e.g. here:
and there’s no acceleration within that 18 year period, which is
what I was referring to. It’s showing no sign of acceleration in
the last two decades, in others words. That’s the total satellite
era as far as sea level is concerned. Before that, the data is much
less good. They are saying, based on buoys corrected for changing
land levels (which complicate the picture e.g. As Scotland
continues to rise because of the ice sheet having been lifted off
it), that the rate of increase was lower before 1993. Well, yes, we
would expect that because there was slight cooling during the
periods 1890-1910 and 1940-1980, so sea level rise was likely to
have been slower. So yes it probably did accelerate around 1990,
but no it is not accelerating now.  I stand by the statement.
They did forecast an acceleration in each of their previous four
reports and it has so far failed to show up.

This is what they said in 2007: “Global average sea level rose
at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year over 1961 to 2003. The rate
was faster over 1993 to 2003: about 3.1 mm per year.”. So they
claimed the acceleration had then happened. There has been no
acceleration since then. That’s news.

As for their prediction of an acceleration in the future, yes,
but their previous predictions of acceleration were wrong.
Remember, I was not arguing that there will be no further sea level
rise and no further acceleration, just that reality continues to be
less alarming than predicted. It really is peculiar how journalists
are not prepared to ask tough questions about failed predictions,
but instead jump on those who do.

On the general doomsday stuff, the IPCC may not have yet
pronounced on it, but the scientists who contribute to it have
conceded these points in recent publications.

On malaria: Gething et al have said as follows and all the
people I talk to say this will now be the orthodox view in the IPCC
report: “First, widespread claims that rising mean temperatures
have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and
mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global
trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent. Second, the
proposed future effects of rising temperatures on endemicity are at
least one order of magnitude smaller than changes observed since
about 1900 and up to two orders of magnitude smaller than those
that can be achieved by the effective scale-up of key control
measures. Predictions of an intensification of malaria in a warmer
world, based on extrapolated empirical relationships or biological
mechanisms, must be set against a context of a century of warming
that has seen marked global declines in the disease and a
substantial weakening of the global correlation between malaria
endemicity and climate.”

On refugees, the claim was made by UNEP that there would be 50m
climate refugees by 2010. See here:

You say “And the frequency of droughts, floods and storms
obviously wouldn’t be affected yet, because the temperature hasn’t
changed, yet.” which I find puzzling for two reasons.

1. The temperature has changed! The IPCC says it has, so
do I. Just not in the last 15 years. But the change before
that led to no change in extreme weather.

2. There are very frequent claims made, even in the pages of the
Times, that the frequency of these things has changed! Lord Hunt in
a Times column in April said: “Extreme weather has become more
frequent across the world.” and proceeded to give examples ranging
from unseasonable cold in Britain to floods, droughts
and storms elsewhere. I was astonished at
the time that a former chairman of the Met Office should tell
such an untruth and get away with it. Al Gore and many others
frequently claim that climate change caused Sandy and
frequently claim that extreme weather has increased. It would be
bizarre if you were to deny that this claim of an increase in
extreme weather has not been very frequently made by both
scientists and politicians as well as journalists. Yet
the IPCC itself produced a report in 2011 that explicitly denied
it, which is what I was referring to.
So I stand by that.

This is what Roger Pielke Jr said in recent testimony to

“• It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim
that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods
or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the
United States or globally. It is further incorrect to
associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission
of greenhouse gases.

• Globally, weather-related losses ($) have not increased
since 1990 as a proportion of GDP (they have actually
decreased by about 25%) and insured catastrophe losses have
not increased as a proportion of GDP since 1960.

• Hurricanes have not increased in the US in frequency,
intensity or normalized damage since at least 1900. The same
holds for tropical cyclones globally since at least 1970 (when
data allows for a global perspective).

• Floods have not increased in the US in frequency or
intensity since at least 1950. Flood losses as a percentage of
US GDP have dropped by about 75% since 1940.

• Tornadoes have not increased in frequency, intensity or
normalized damage since 1950, and there is some evidence to
suggest that they have actually declined.

• Drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less
frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the
last century.” Globally, “there has been little change in
drought over the past 60 years.”

• The absolute costs of disasters will increase
significantly in coming years due to greater wealth and
populations in locations exposed to extremes. Consequent, disasters
will continue to be an important focus of policy, irrespective
of the exact future course of climate change.”

Two final points if I may. I do hope you will give the prime
minister and almost every other politician a hard time for
confusing a statement about the past — 95% certain that more than
half the warming since 1951 was man made — with a statement about
the future, which he did. If deliberate, that was naughty. If he
was confused, then it was embarrassing. Everybody in the TV studio
I was in last Friday made the same confusion.

What very few of the reporters have done is report that the
projections of warming have been lowered compared with 2007. That’s
worth pointing out surely! You may not think they have been lowered
enough to remove the possibility of disaster, but lowered they have
been. It means that it is certainly possible that climate change
policies may do more harm than climate change. I may be wrong to
think that’s going to happen, of course, but I am hardly a moral
criminal for raising the possibility and suggesting we discuss it —
yet that’s the way most people are treating me.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times