RDN on Plimer, Paltridge, Monbiot and climate change

Posted by RDN under Climate change / On books / Politics & campaigns on 16 September 2009

The latest climate change row concerns a book by the “denier”, Ian Plimer (an Australian geologist) and its most public critic, climate “alarmist”, George Monbiot (of the Guardian). George seems to be winning hands-down at the moment. It happens that another Australian, Garth Paltridge, has also produced a climate change book, and it is sceptical rather than refusenik. I hope my review of the books, below, shows how they are both bad.

Heaven and Earth: Global warming, the missing science
Ian Plimer
Quartet
£25

The Climate Caper
Garth W. Paltridge
Quartet
£10

These books are both bad and it doesn’t help that it would lovely if they were true and well-argued. I very much wanted to like The Climate Caper on the grounds that its sceptical case seems pretty reasonable.

Professor Plimer, an academic geologist, has scored a bit of a hit with Heaven and Earth and James Delingpole loved it in The Spectator. This review will I hope support the idea that Delingpole was being daft. Elsewhere, the book quickly became notorious with the mainstream climate change orthodoxy.

Prof Plimer’s most interesting case is that:

“Although man-made increases in atmospheric C02 may theoretically make some contributions to temperature rises, such links have not been proven and there is abundant evidence to the contrary.”

I don’t know that “such links” have been proven, but they have surely been reasonably hypothesised as very likely?

And while there is a plausible case that other factors are involved, surely they haven’t been proved to be sufficient to cause such effects as we see? So when Prof Plimer says, “Climate closely correlates with solar activity”, doesn’t that actually remind us that the sun hypothesis has been examined and accommodated by the mainstream, at least to its own satisfaction?

Prof Plimer seeks to prove that there has been precious little warming, none of it man-made. More plausibly, he argues that lots of the supposed effects of climate change, aren’t. He suggests, very plausibly, that predictions of climate doom aren’t really all that scientific.

That mankind has nothing to do with climate change is obviously an outlandish claim and so this book matters because it is as cheerful as it is bold, and it is written by a senior scientific person.

Indeed, Heaven and Earth is superficially a scientific book. With well over 2000 references, mostly to the scientific literature, it bears the hallmarks of playing by the rules. But it takes only a very short time for the reader to realise that most of the author’s most interesting points have no references, presumably because they have no support in the literature. So Prof Plimer may be right about there being nothing anthropogenic about climate change, and he may be right on the science of that case, but it is a huge problem for his readers that he adduces no serious support for his argument.

Even on his milder argument as to the uncertainties of the effects of climate change and his dislike of the climate alarmists and their cases, we’re effectively on our own. The references which are thrown at one aren’t made to do any work. Time and again, Prof Plimer makes a point and tacks on a reference, but gives no clue as to what bit of the referenced work applies to his argument, or how. In short, one would have to have read the reference for oneself to have any inkling as to whether it actually helps Prof Plimer or not.

It is hair-raisingly weird of Prof Plimer not even to notice or discuss this glaring problem, which is all the greater considering that this is a book presumably intended for the lay public. It would be one thing – wrong, but normal – for a journalist boldly to make unsubstantiated claims for non-specialist consumption, but for a scientist to do the same thing is to fly under false colours.

Garth W Paltridge has written a short book which (as a foreword by Christopher Monckton notes) is not that of a “denier”. Dr Paltridge accepts that there will be some warming as a result of human emissions of greenhouse gases. But he thinks the evidence suggests that the effect may not be large or awful. He makes two main suggestions as to why so many scientists are in the alarmed camp. One is that they have succumbed to the herd mentality which large funding and political nudges will produce. The other is that so much of the work depends on climate computer models whose predictions are fallible mostly because they are highly susceptible both to the quality of the data put in and to the tweaking which can and perhaps must be done to make them accord with present reality.

It is easy to imagine these arguments are important, and they are put attractively in this book. But it’s hopeless, really. Some of Dr Paltridge’s case is weak because purely anecdotal: he thinks he has come across closed minds amongst alarmists during personal run-ins with the mainstream. The rest of his case is weak on much more important grounds. Again and again he asserts failings and weaknesses in computer models or the real-world assumptions which form their input , but either can’t or won’t back it up by reference to anyone else’s work.

Dr Paltridge sometimes characterises the opposition as even cruder than it often is.  On one page, and it isn’t all that exceptional, he tells us that the world’s climate is a pretty steady-state affair, and not prone to the alarmists’ “tipping point” anxieties. This is because:

“The actual impact of more CO2 on the world’s temperature becomes less as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increases. In mathematical terms, the response of the world’s temperature to increasing CO2 is ‘logarithmic’”.

I have no idea if this is a fact (and whether it is one which is included in the mainstream case), but just from my own inadequate reading I know that the alarmists fear tipping points (such as huge methane releases from melting tundra) which have nothing to do with mathematical phenomena. What I do know is that no bit of these important arguments has been evidenced or referenced by Dr Paltridge.

The Paltridge work is by far the more disappointing of this pair. I could easily imagine most of it to be pretty accurate so it’s a tease that most of it is merely asserted. It isn’t self-evident, proved, or supported. I find it hard to believe that Dr Paltridge is all that lonely in his beliefs but he gives his reader no help in hearing his sort of stuff from other decent sources. Dr Paltridge is a senior atmospheric scientist: what he says ought to be on the money. But surely he can’t have reached his present status without understanding how crucial it is that scientific writing provide its readers with really sound bearings?

You may choose to agree with either of these books, or with any bit of them, but to do is surprisingly similar to the cast of belief we sceptics don’t like in the alarmists. So far as I can understand, nearly any climate outcome is as plausibly predicted as any other. Absolutely anyone might be right in their climate faith, but it surprising how almost everyone in the argument – even those who claim a healthy scepticism – don’t have very good cards to put on the table.

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