Growing challenge to prevailing view on climate change

 

UNDER THE MICROSCOPEA small but growing view is that global warming is a natural process - nothing to do with human activity, writes Dr William Reville

GLOBAL warming/climate change is a very serious and important issue. It has been under scientific investigation since 1986 by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC declares global warming is a fact and it is driven largely by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities (IPCC Report 2007 - www.ipcc.ch/). I have reported the IPCC reports uncritically in this column, but a growing number of scientists are now presenting evidence that contradicts the IPCC position and I will give you a flavour of their position in this article.

Some scientists always disputed the findings of the IPCC but I dismissed this largely as expert opinion hired by the international oil industry. However, it is now clear that many eminent scientists, who are not beholden to vested interests, disagree with the IPCC (eg physicist Freeman J Dyson who argues that the modelling methods used by IPCC are not nearly discriminating enough to reliably predict future climate conditions). The American Physical Society recently issued a statement to say: "There is a considerable presence within the scientific community of people who do not agree with the IPCC conclusion that anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very probably likely to be primarily responsible for global warming since the Industrial Revolution."

The IPCC is a huge UN effort, supported by governments, and enlists the efforts of a great many scientific experts. Why would anyone doubt its findings? Well, critics charge the following: First, IPCC is an activist/ political enterprise whose agenda is to control emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and concentrates exclusively on evidence that might point towards human induced climate change. Second, leading IPCC scientists reflect the positions of their governments, or seek to persuade their governments to adopt the IPCC position. Third, a small group of activists wrote the all-important Summary for Policymakers (SPM) for the four IPCC reports to-date. SPMs are revised and agreed by the member governments. The thousands of scientists who do the scientific work have no direct influence on these selective summaries. Fourth, large professional and financial rewards go to scientists who are willing to slant scientific facts to suit the IPCC agenda.

Two things strike me about these charges. First, if they are true it is amazing that no whistle-blower has emerged from among the large ranks of IPCC. Second, why does IPCC not strenuously rebut these charges?

THE US Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) was set up "to base environmental policy on sound science rather than exaggerated fears". However, it has been accused of being influenced by the oil industry. SEPP has published scientific evidence (Nature, Not Human Activity Rules the Climate, S Fred Singer ed. The Heartland Institute, 2008) - www.sepp.org/publications/ NIPCC_final.pdf - to illustrate that 20th-century global warming is not the once-off phenomenon of recent historical times claimed by the IPCC, and that most of the current warming is the result of natural and uncontrollable variations in solar activity and very little is being caused, or could be caused, by human emissions of greenhouse gases. The SEPP also claims that we have little to fear from global warming since human civilisation always fared better during warmer than during colder periods.

If critics of IPCC are right, global warming is inevitable and we should now concentrate our efforts on planning how to live in a warmer world. If we were travelling by bus through the middle of a dangerous continent, where the only safe regions were coastal, and we noticed the bus was almost out of petrol, we would be much better advised to immediately start planning how to survive in the interior than to spend our time frantically searching for a gallon of petrol reportedly hidden on a nearby farm.

If IPCC is correct, we must take immediate steps to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions or we face awful consequences from global warming. Of course, it is important to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels anyway because of their relative scarcity, and this reduction would automatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If the critics are correct, any crash programme of reducing gas emissions would be a costly step that would have little or no effect on global warming but would divert funds away from fighting battles we could win - disease, poverty, etc.

Climate and weather are very complex physical phenomena and, as a biochemist, I am unable to critically adjudicate on the competing scientific claims of IPCC and its critics. IPCC represents the mainstream majority scientific position and, in the absence of very persuasive contrary evidence, I must support it. But, the growing scepticism does catch the eye and should not be ignored. It is also embarrassing to witness each side accuse the other of dishonesty. Scientists from both sides must come together to resolve this matter.

• William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC -http:// understandingscience.ucc.ie