David Whitehouse

In defence of Nigel Lawson, and his fellow climate sceptics

Some people find climate change ‘deniers’ the most irritating people on God’s green earth. On her Telegraph blog Martha Gill equates them with flat-earthers, which says a lot for the depth of her analysis. She points to a piece on the Huffington Post by Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (funded by billionaire Greenpeace contributor Jeremy Grantham, who also sponsors an $80,000 prize for environmental reporting – which this article will stand no chance of winning) and says it demolishes the deniers’ arguments. The problem is that it doesn’t.

Those who think ‘deniers’ are a problem and seek to put them down are in doing so misrepresenting the science they want to uphold. Once they said ‘deniers’ did not believe that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas or that mankind was pumping it into the atmosphere, or even that the globe had warmed in recent decades. And so-called deniers never took issue with any of this. Their questions were at a deeper level, but it took years for the media to notice.

You can make a strong case that all this ‘denial’ has been good for climate science. Some of these ‘deniers’ actually found that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s supreme icon – the ‘hockey stick’ graph showing a recent alarming rise in global temperature – was wrong. Then they pointed out that the global annual average surface temperature was not rising as predicted. To some it was an obviously fictitious, mischievous ploy to cast doubt on climate change, a misinterpretation of a minor recent blip in what is obviously an upward trend in global surface temperature that has been going on for well over a century.

But the ‘deniers’ were right. The non-publicity seeking real climate scientists who published their thoughts in peer-reviewed literature knew something was going on with global surface temperatures, and debated its significance and possible causes in unreported papers that only the ‘deniers’ seemed to read. Eventually the pause was recognised for what it is. The journal Nature called it the biggest problem in climate science, and so it is. Something that was said to be a denier’s ploy has now more than a dozen serious scientific possible explanations. The so-called deniers were closer to the science and far ahead of media commentators.

But there is still trouble with climate change ‘denial’ according to Bob Ward. He criticises Lord Lawson for saying that he denies any link between climate change and the weather events of earlier this year. Bob Ward said the Met Office has laid it out. Yes they have, and this is what their report said:-

‘As yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate.’

Bob Ward also cherry-picks his answer to counter Lord Lawson’s statement that the effect of carbon dioxide on the earth’s atmosphere is probably less than was previously thought. That is actually a fair and scientifically reasonable standpoint to take and were it made amongst scientists at a conference there would be sober discussion. It is significant that the latest IPCC report on climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide does not cite a best estimate, whereas the previous one did. The latest report notes a substantial discrepancy between observation-based estimates of the effect of carbon dioxide and estimates from climate models. This is not settled, there is room for debate.

Regarding the freezing of the Thames in the 17th century and the occurrence of Frost Fairs, Bob Ward says it is a ‘sceptic canard’ that this was due to a cold climate. He believes the narrowness of bridges and not the so-called Little Ice Age was to blame. Actually both had an influence, as did the building of embankments. The Little Ice Age – once thought to be confined to Europe but now recognised to have occurred worldwide – was a definite period of colder climate that had devastating consequences. We still cannot explain what happened.

Few scientists would say that scepticism is not a good thing in science, but somehow those who ask valid questions of climate science are different. Motives are impugned, qualifications questioned. The problem lies not with their questions but with the inflexible and dogmatic way that some commentators and indeed some scientists regard climate science. There is also a major problem with the quality of the scholarship of many commentators who are all too quick to dismiss sensible questions as ‘obviously fantastical rubbish supported only by anecdote and untested assertions.’

Climate science is important. We must deal with it and we must understand it. But it’s complicated. Not everything fits or is settled or consistent. Today’s obvious answers may not be tomorrow’s. Things change, values are revised up and down, and people have different opinions about the same data. Simple answers are seldom totally waterproof. It’s science and science is all about the awkward questions. The ‘deniers’ know this. Some others seem not to.

Dr David Whitehouse is an advisor to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. He is a former BBC science editor and European Internet Journalist of the Year.