NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Are Denialists in Denial?

                                                                                                                                                                                               November 19, 2009; updated March 7 2010

The sceptics would be more useful though if they were truly sceptical, challenging evidence and examining it rigorously. Instead, most believe any new theory, however implausible, that allows them to ignore the reality of climate change. This is denial, not scepticism. Challenge the “facts” presented by the green lobby; but don’t reject the overall conclusions of the IPCC — the most important joint scientific body ever established — just because they are ideologically inconvenient.

Mark Lynas

It is clear from these various facts, therefore, that a warmer planet than today’s is far from unusual. It is also clear that climate changes naturally all the time. The idea that is implicit in much public discussion of the global warming issue – that climate was stable (or constant) prior to the industrial revolution, after which human emissions have rendered it unstable – is simply fanciful. Change is what climate does.

Bob Carter, ‘Knock, Knock: Where is the Evidence for Dangerous Human-Caused Global Warming?’

The reader will recall that Faust, in Goethe’s play of the same name, was offered a deal by the Devil: a life of every pleasure imaginable in return for his soul. The deal was accepted, and became the classic a metaphor for shortsightedness; and subsequently the basis of one of the funniest films ever made: Bedazzled, featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

I try to avoid shortsightedness, but three times in my life I have found myself in the related condition of extreme denial: the result in each case of receiving serious bad news affecting me personally. Confronted with an elephant in the parlour, in the shape of an elephantine tragedy, one looks around it, over the top of it, and anywhere but at it. On each occasion, I started looking for whatever scant threads there were of hope. My conclusion from these experiences is that living in denial and hope is about the most futile state of existence there is, but we do it on occasions because at the time there appears to be no better alternative. Added in is the fact that acceptance of an apparently dismal reality can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So hope, furious, fervent and all too often futile, springs eternal.

Are those like Bob Carter, who deny that there is anthropogenic global warming (AGW) going on in this state of being in denial? (Read all you might want of their reasoning at Quadrant Online.)

Up to a point, we believe what we want to believe. This applies particularly to ideas which are in themselves beyond the scope of rationality and science, such as the propositions of the major religions; though devotees seeking consolation and grounds for hope in them also deny that this is the case.

I stumbled upon this issue thanks to the ABC Four Corners program Malcolm and the Malcontents,  put to air in Australia on Monday November 9, 2009. That dealt with the battle within the Liberal-National Coalition between AGW denialists and those who take a more alarmist and at the same time, truly conservative approach. It is tearing the Coalition apart and so ruining its electoral prospects. Their problem: how to deal with the Rudd Government’s policy on climate change. Then I happened to read George Monbiot’s Why the sudden surge in climate change denial? Could it be about something else altogether? published in the Guardian on November 2. It begins on the pessimistic note

There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere which cannot be reached by evidence or reasoned argument; any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings is greeted with furious invective. This sphere is expanding with astonishing speed.

Be that as it may.

Denialists are divided on what they deny. Most in my reading experience assert that the Earth is cooling, not warming, but add that whatever it is doing, humans cannot possibly be responsible. So if there must be GW, they want no A associated with it. But while I and many of my alarmist co-thinkers would be only too happy if they turned out to be right, we are not prepared to stake the lives of our children and grandchildren on it. By advocating a do-nothing policy with respect to CO2 emissions, the denialists finish up doing just that. This inevitably involves a dismissal or explaining away of evidence to the contrary. So they:

  1. look for flaws in the evidence on which AGW alarmism is based; and when I say ‘the evidence’ I mean all  the evidence. None of it can be allowed to pass;
  2. have to assert that any global warming detected post 1750 is purely natural, and part of a solar or other cycle or phenomenon.
  3. erect a straw man, then proceed to knock it down. (See the quote above from the prominent denialist Bob Carter. Does he seriously assert that the people raising the loudest alarm in the ‘public discussion’ – ie the bulk of the world’s climatologists – believe that the global climate only began to change after 1750 AD?)
  4. deny any useful role for computer models of climate;
  5. dismiss alarmist scientists for allegedly having venal motives, and being unable to see beyond their next  research grant. Given the extraordinary weight of scientific opinion now standing against the denialist case, this amounts to a full-blown conspiracy theory.
  6. dismiss any suggestion that they could have such motives themselves, or be influenced by any connections of individuals in their ranks to the fossil fuel industry;
  7. dismiss the Precautionary Principle or any sort of approach based on it as ill-advised;
  8. deny even the remotest possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing;
  9. assert (with Senator Nick Minchin et al) that AGW alarmism arises from the extreme left of politics; left causeless at the end of the Cold War;
  10. deny that anything humans do either way can possibly have any significant effect on the world’s climate;
  11. welcome the prospect a warmer Earth, arguing that our species only really got going in the last 10,000 years, after the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers;
  12. assert that apart from its allegedly negligible greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide can have no significant effect on life in the oceans when it dissolves in water to form carbonic acid.
  13. admit of no possibility of their being wrong;
  14. nor admit of any serious consequence if they are wrong, particularly if their do-nothing approach has meanwhile become state policy.

Accordingly, every bit of data on which the alarmist case is based must in turn be challenged, leading the denialists to argue that:

  1. the last 100 years of thermometer-based surface temperature data is unreliable, thanks largely to the ‘urban heat island effect’ by which urban recording stations are influenced by waste heat from industry and automobiles, and the solar radiation absorbed and re-emitted by buildings and roads.
  2. at the same time, what little reliable data there is indicates that the Earth is cooling;
  3. as the ‘greenhouse effect’ of atmospheric CO2 diminishes logarithmically, from here on added CO2 will have minimal effect anyway (say perhaps raise average temperature by 0.1 degree Celsius.)
  4. the Precautionary Principle would actually have us keep on with business as usual, for by that principle, CO2 and other emissions must be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
  5. the complexity of the global weather system, and the difficulties implicit in attempts to isolate the effect of any one component (eg anthropogenic CO2 vs ‘natural’ CO2) are a point in favour of their do-nothing case.

Their use of such arguments, and their tendency to close association with the political Right, have not deterred major world scientific organizations and many governments from urging strong action at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit. One such is the Letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the US Senate (link) which says to each US senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced…

As well as being sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Letter is endorsed by the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and 14 other scientific organisations. Whatever its advocates elsewhere may claim, denialism has not exactly won the day in the scientific community.

All of the above denialist wisdom will be found in the paper already referred to; by leading denialist Bob Carter, a climatologist and Adjunct Research Professor James Cook University, Townsville.


Independent scientists who have considered the matter carefully do not deny that human

activities can have an effect on local climate, nor that the sum of such local effects represents a hypothetical global signal. The key questions to be answered, however, are, first, can any human global signal be measured, and, second, if so does it represent, or is it likely to become, dangerous change outside of the range of natural variability?


The answer to these questions is that no human global climate signal has yet been measured, and it is therefore likely that any such signal lies embedded within the variability of the natural climate system. Meanwhile, global temperature change is occurring, as it always naturally does, and a phase of cooling has succeeded the mild late 20th century warming. (Carter 2008, 190)


That human-caused climate change will prove dangerous is under strong dispute

amongst equally well qualified scientific groups. The null hypothesis, which is yet

to be contradicted, is that observed changes in climate or climate-related phenomena

are natural unless and until it can be shown otherwise. (Carter 2008, 193)

If made the captain of the SS Null Hypothesis, a liner sailing on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic, Carter would order full speed ahead until it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the ship was about to collide with an iceberg. .As I have argued in the ‘Plimer’s Climatology’ series on this site, the most compelling evidence that the planet is presently warming is to be found in the:

  1. worldwide retreat of glaciers and the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, and
  2. satellite altimetry data that shows a consistent global sea level rise of 3 mm per year ever since readings began in 1992.

Both the above features are of geographic scale, and screen out the ‘noise’ of the ‘urban heat island effect’ and with it all the other strands of denialist argument. It may of course be the case that (say) so far undetected solar flux or bursts of heart coming up from the Earth’s interior are responsible for the ice loss and ocean level rise. It may be a mere coincidence that the rise from 270 ppm pre-industrial 383 ppm in 2009 is happening at the same time as a completely unconnected process of global ice loss and sea level rise. But I’m not betting the farm on it.

But interestingly, Carter and the other denialists never say what would constitute the unambiguous evidence of AGW that they proclaim does not exist. One is forced to the conclusion that in their view it cannot exist; that there is no way the signal of anthropogenic CO2 induced warming can be separated from natural background climate change, and that for them, by its own inherent nature it is both theoretically impossible and practically unknowable. Thus for them, if humanity was heading into self-inflicted climate catastrophe it would be doing so completely, inevitably and incurably blind. Nobody on the Titanic could have an inkling of the looming disaster. Whether conscious of it or not, as passengers on this planetary ship, the denialists seem not the slightest bit concerned at this possibility, which is implicit in their own thoughts on the matter.

One of the leading denialist Ian Plimer’s most enthusiastic supporters is Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.  On 24 May 2009, Pell had a column in the Sydney Daily Telegraph supporting Plimer’s position on AGW. A critical response from Michael Mullins, editor of the Catholic journal Eureka Street testifies that Catholics are not united behind him on the issue. However, Ian Plimer saw fit to include a significant theological aside on page 493 of his purportedly scientific book Heaven and Earth.

Human stupidity is only exceeded by God’s mercy, which is infinite.

In the context, the ‘stupidity’ referred to is what Plimer has spent his preceding 492 pages attacking: the proposition advanced by climatologists and other scientists that the Earth is being unduly warmed by human activities. This leaves the reader open to the conclusion that for Plimer, God is the ultimate thermostat. Of the Earth. There will be no climate catastrophe, because He will not allow it.

Well, it has this going for it: it is the most powerful and convincing argument in Plimer’s whole book, and the safest refuge for the denialist.

Without the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth would not be its present average temperature of 14 °C (57 °F), but as low as −18 °C (−0.4 °F).  In order of abundance, the main greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are (with their contributions to the greenhouse effect in [square brackets] ):

  1. water vapour (H2O)                   [36–70%]
  2. carbon dioxide (CO2)                [9–26%]
  3. methane (CH4)                          [4–9%]
  4. nitrous oxide (N2O)                   [neg]
  5. ozone (O3)                                 [3–7%]
  6. chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFCs’)     [neg]

All except the CFCs are products of natural chemistry, and have been generated in and by the atmosphere and ecosystems of the Earth since life began. All are likewise generated by human activities like the burning of fuels and the pasturing of ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle. The effect of the ‘natural’ as distinct from the anthropogenic CO2, N2O and CH4 can only be surmised from the known properties of each compound and the calculated concentrations of each in the air. If however, a significant percentage of the air was (say) chloroform (CHCl3), we could say that that any particular greenhouse effect due to that was 100% anthropogenic, because chloroform does not occur in nature.

However, that is a card we have not dealt to ourselves.

At this stage it would appear that there is no way the Earth can avoid a two degree rise in average temperature this century. That is an order locked in, thanks to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have been added to the atmosphere since around 1750. But a global average of two degrees involves a much higher rise of temperature in the high latitudes, threatening significant releases of methane from the Arctic permafrost and ocean floor deposits, which would in turn drive the temperatures still higher. While climatologists say that global warming involves an increase in the number of extreme weather events, it would be simplistic to attribute, say, a run of hot days in Adelaide in November 2009 to global warming alone, or to say that it even provides evidence of it. The global weather system is like a supertanker. Its momentum when underway is so huge and the time it takes to respond to alterations to engine speed and rudder settings so long that collision and running aground can only be avoided if anticipated well in advance of their happening. As all-too-often happens in shipping, those on the bridge are condemned to watching disaster steadily loom, knowing that the opportunity for taking evasive action is well past and gone. Vide the Exxon Valdez.

This year the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) changed the start date of the Pleistocene from 1.8 to 2.588 million years BP. In the last 650 000 years, the Earth has experienced seven major cycles of glacial advance and retreat, as seen on the  graph at the following  source,  [and my apologies for not being able to cut and paste it ditrectly.]

 We are now approximately in the warmest phase of the 7th cycle to occur in the last 650,000 years. It will be seen that corresponding warm periods in interglacials occurred at 130 000, 225 000, 325 000, 400 000, 475 000 and 580 000 BP.

It will be seen also from the above cited graph that the glacial-interglacial cycle has not been regular. In the last half million years or so, the glacials have been getting steadily longer and the interglacials shorter, as if the Earth was shaping up to plunge into a freeze-lock. If it were to do so, it might take a considerable time emerging on the other side and warming up again.

We are at a strange conjunction in the history of the Earth, with icecaps at both poles and the two American continents forming a north-south barrier to oceanic circulation that extends almost from pole to pole. It is pretty safe to assume that without the icecaps there would be no great mass of methane trapped in the permafrosts of Siberia and northern Canada, and thus considerably reduced possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing.

Since the start of the Cambrian 542 million years ago, the mean temperature of the Earth has kept between the lower and upper limits of 10 and 25 degrees Celsius; except for two brief periods in the late Permian (at 251 million years BP) and the end of the Paleocene (at 55.5-54.8 million years BP) when it went as high as 27 degrees Celsius.

Both of those periods have distinct names: the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Both involved massive reduction of life, and should be taken very seriously by those who would avoid another one in the very, very, very near future of geological time.

Australian denialists no doubt take comfort from the fact that while it has the world’s highest per capita emissions, this country still only produces about 1.5% of the world’s total emissions. So keeping on with business as usual in Australia cannot do all that much harm globally. Or so the thinking would go. Given the disastrous consequences for them and theirs if they turn out to be wrong, something like that train of thought would have to be available to rescue the denialist conscience.

But as the old proverb has it, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Elvis may have left the building, but the elephant is still here.