A research finding that the world is warming is a decisive blow for action on carbon emissions, but our best chances have already passed us by. [1 November 2011 | Peter Boyer]
There was a small tremor last month that started right on the San Andreas fault at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. It wasn’t a typical shock. It began slowly and kept on rumbling. Weeks later it’s still rumbling. It may go on for years.
You won’t find it on the seismic record but it’s a quake all right, courtesy of Richard Muller, physicist, and his hand-picked team of scientists and statisticians who make up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study.
Aiming to resolve criticism of current global temperature analysis, BEST has now put out to public scrutiny its first written findings from an intensive evaluation of 1.6 billion land temperature readings from around the world spanning two centuries. (The second stage of the study will incorporate sea surface temperatures.)
Muller came to this debate from a decidedly sceptical viewpoint. That is, he felt people like analysts Stephen McIntyre and Anthony Watts, prominent critics of the main temperature data sources, had got a raw deal from the scientific fraternity at large.
He said so on a number of national talk shows known for their opposition to mainstream climate science, and in turn got a pasting from many of his peers. For his part, Watts (who gave a public lecture in Hobart last year) said boldly he was “prepared to accept whatever result they (BEST) produce, even if it proves my premise wrong”.
It’s past time for Watts to reconsider his position. Against all expectations, Muller told a Congressional hearing last March that it seemed the global temperature records were right all along.
Now he’s confirmed this position. In four papers put out to public scrutiny in October, BEST has found that the global average temperature has risen steadily by nearly 1C since 1950, a change that is “consistent with global land-surface warming results previously reported”.
Scientists have greeted with approval the statistical techniques used by BEST, and there was interest in the BEST finding that Atlantic Ocean processes had more influence on current climate than the Pacific-based El Niño-La Niña cycles. But in scientific circles the research papers — still to be peer-reviewed — were hardly earth-shaking.
The rumblings in the public domain, however, will carry much more weight. The BEST graphs confirmed the reality of global warming — a relentless rise in temperatures for half a century — but also suggested that some established data centres may have underestimated this trend.
The greatest irony is that the data released by the UK-based Climatic Research Unit — the villain in the piece during the now-discredited “Climategate” email furore of 2009-10 — shows recent temperatures markedly cooler than BEST’s findings.
The response among climate contrarians has ranged from muted resentment to undisguised fury. McIntytre said he continues to respect Muller and Watts said vaguely that science is never a static enterprise, then declared he wants to “step away” from his website work. But comments on their websites have damned Muller as a media junkie who just wants time in the spotlight.
There may be some truth in that. Ahead of the review of BEST’s papers by fellow-scientists, Muller went to the Wall Street Journal, bastion of climate change doubt in the US, which published his article under the heading “There were good reasons for doubt — until now”.
There were lighter moments in the blogosphere. Reacting to the fact that BEST’s biggest source of funding has been Koch Industries, an oil company that supports movements opposing climate action, one blogger even speculated that the Koch brothers were in bed with Al Gore!
But while this debate kept the stable doors open, the horses bolted. Emboldened by an anti-science movement in the US congress and among presidential candidates, some prominent Australians have joined the public assault on greenhouse science, sowing enough doubt in people’s minds to stall plans for action that once had massive public support.
The shift in public sentiment continues to this day, with opinion polls consistently finding that measures to limit emissions and develop a resilient economy remain low on most people’s agendas.
It’s possible that our best chance in many years to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels has disappeared with the onset of chronic global recession. No-one has been a winner in this sorry saga — except perhaps big oil and coal, and even then only in a short-term financial sense.
I’m far from alone in bewailing this lost opportunity. In the past couple of weeks, some have claimed that the deliberate campaign to discredit the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change amounts to a crime against humanity, whose perpetrators should be punished accordingly.
In light of the damage done, this position seems perfectly reasonable. Think what might have been achieved in a spirit of cooperation after the Kyoto Protocol was signed 14 years ago, when governments around the world accepted the science and when economic times favoured bold action.
Criminal action is a satisfying idea, but it’ll never work. It would only strengthen the conviction of doubters and potentially make them into martyrs.
In all of this wide-ranging debate, whether it’s science or human behaviour we’re talking about, nothing is clear-cut. There are no clinical, decisive outcomes. We’re stuck with doggedly soldiering on, waiting for each small opportunity as it arises. This is a very long haul.
• Big ideas and practical solutions (including all the latest gadgetry) are on show at this year’s Sustainable Living Expo, on Saturday and Sunday at Princes Wharf shed, Hobart.