by Martin Odoni

At the start of the year, I wrote a lengthy appeal for science to be respected, and gave clear reasons why. (I must admit, I was somewhat motivated by a certain disrespect for science that I was observing among colleagues at The Word.) I was much reminded of that appeal this week, during the agonising heatwave, when I saw video of Ash Sarkar of NovaraMedia attempting to persuade a right wing media fool that it is time to stop pushing discussions of climate change back to the beginning, and start focusing on how to combat it.

Make up what passes for your minds, right wing media

There is a danger of letting immediate perceptions distort one’s judgement, but I will say this; Monday and Tuesday were definitely the two hottest days I can recall ever living through in the UK. (I might have experienced even hotter on journeys to Turkey in the 1990s, but that is on the Mediterranean – it should be much hotter.) These sorts of heatwaves are happening more frequently, and they are getting more intense. Weather in general is becoming more erratic and extreme.

The climate is not just changing. It already has changed substantially since the 1980s, even since the 1990s.

The classic useless TV set-piece argument

In this suffocating, stifling, soul-crushing heat, the London Fire Brigade had its busiest day since the Second World War, with over one thousand six hundred calls – over five times its usual daily call volume. Roads, including motorways and runways, up and down the country melted under the intensity of solar bombardment.

And as all this happened outside, as if it was not painful enough, in a Channel 5 studio, poor Ash had to endure the right wing idiocy of pretend-journalist Mike Parry, as he gave the usual rundown of climate change denialist crocks that were all debunked before John Major’s days as Prime Minister had come to an end.

“But it’s natural,” the deniers say, as though that means it is any less dangerous, or even that they are doing anything more than slapping a nametag on what is happening

I have every sympathy with Ash over what she said, as she sounded almost depressed at going through yet another of these bizarre ‘head-to-heads’ that television production companies seem to think scientific issues must be presented as.

On that note, why do they do this? Science often touches on politics – indeed I hope (with ever-decreasing confidence) that science exercises considerable influence on Governmental decision-making – but that does not justify the insistence of broadcasters that discussion of the science itself must be treated the same as ideological discussions, with at least two ‘sides’ bickering over what the science has found.

Science does not work that way. It deals in what the evidence says, and pretty much nothing else. It does not conform to an ideology, but to a method, and reporting what is observed, not guessing at conclusions on the basis of what an ideology says will happen. As I pointed out back in January, the scientific method has safeguards in place to prevent prejudiced research from getting into the textbooks, and while the system is not perfect, it is far, far more stringent than any other source of information.

This insistence on turning discussion of the science into two arguing camps may make for entertaining TV, but it is almost useless at informing the public. Mainly because almost everyone who is informed on the subject of climatology agrees about the broad gist of what the science has found. The only people the producers can find to disagree with it are therefore people who do have an ideology – usually a right wing economic ideology – that needs no understanding of the science, and has a desperation for its observations to be wrong. We therefore usually wind up with someone who knows something about climate change wasting their time arguing with someone who knows nothing about it and refuses to learn, and the ignorant is given at least as much prominence.

This is exactly what happened here. Ash Sarkar, I should stress, is not a climatologist, but she has at least demonstrated a grasp of how climate change works. Mike Parry is not a climatologist either, and he has no grasp at all of how it works, and do not be fooled by the questions he asks; he does not want to know the answers, he wants people to think the questions have never been answered.

The ancient crock

Perhaps it was just because it was so hot, or because she was bored of having to go over the same old rubbish, but Ash never quite explained why Parry’s objections are unscientific nonsense. She was absolutely right to get irritated at Parry trying to push the discussion back to such a basic level as whether the change in the climate is caused by human activity at all. It was, as she indicated, reducing the whole discussion to a level of day one pointlessness and wasted time. But she could have addressed his silly objections about vineyards near Hadrian’s Wall (so? There are vineyards in Britain today.)

In one sense, it almost does not matter what started it, all we need to know is that the climate is becoming dangerously volatile and extreme, and we need to focus on finding ways to slow down its changes and to lessen their impact. But allow me to explain why Parry should just shut his cake-hole and listen to the experts. The experts are out there, and their explanations are freely available. He is a journalist, he should have no difficulty finding them and contacting them, and even arranging to interview them, at which point, he can bloody well ask them for himself!

This is not alarmism or scaremongering. We do not wish to terrify you into never doing anything that uses electrical power. Quite the opposite, it is a call to ACTION. We all need to pressure industries to stop emitting carbon in such reckless quantities

The usual crock that deniers keep coming up with is, “But the climate changed in the past!” For some reason, when they raise this rather infantile and grossly obvious detail, they look so pleased with themselves. It is as though they have produced some massive revelation that has never occurred to anyone before. They seem to think that they have noticed it and yet, somehow, climatologists who have spent their entire adult lives studying the history of the climate and how it functions, have managed to ‘missed’ it.

HINT: Climatologists know more about this than you do

Climatologists have not missed anything though. They are well aware that there have been times when the Earth was hotter than this. But the difference is, they have not just noted it down and then forgotten about it. Instead, they have used copious geological evidence to establish why the climate changed in the past. Various Ice Ages, Snowball Earth, Hothouse Earth… all these climate epochs have not just been detected, they have also been analysed to the extent that climatologists can tell you how and why they happened, something deniers cannot do, because deniers are not researchers. This is why climatologists are climatologists and climate change deniers are not.

The reasons for previous shifts in the climate have been varied. Be it drifting continents disrupting sea flows, shifts in the orbit or rotation of the planet, rises or slumps in solar activity, or gradual changes in the gas make-up of the atmosphere itself, the causes of most of the past changes we have so far detected have been identified – most of them identified many years ago. If you want to know which explanation applies to which event, go ask a climatologist. Do not ask a smug ignoramus like Mike Parry, who epitomises the bizarre fashion identified by Isaac Asimov in the 1980s of thinking, “My ignorance is as good as your knowledge.”

The great Isaac Asimov trying forlornly to get across to people that, just because you have a right to express an opinion, that does not mean your opinion is worth the same as those of an expert who has studied the field in detail.

Parry does not know these things at all, because he is not trained in the subject, and he has no interest in consulting any of the many sources that could explain it to him (and with no charge). He wants the debate to stay at the same basic level, because then he can maintain the delusion that he is as intelligent on the subject as anybody, without having to go to all that tedious bother of having to do real research.

What caused the past does not necessarily cause the present

In the row with Ash Sarkar, Parry just lazily assumes that because climate change happened ‘naturally’ in the past, that must mean it is changing ‘naturally’ now. He cannot explain what the ‘natural mechanism’ is, he just assumes it is at work here. He also insists that climate change is ‘cyclical’, one which bones he again applies no flesh, and which is not exactly true either. (Many factors affecting the climate are indeed cyclical, but they happen for different reasons and on different timescales, and so there is no consistent time-pattern to overall changes.)

The bottom line is that Parry is simply projecting the past onto the present without ever checking to make sure that he should do so. It is a little like assuming that, because the Wars of Scottish Independence were caused by English monarchs interfering in Scottish politics, all wars since then must also have been caused by English monarchs interfering in Scottish politics.

No one should think Parry is an authority on this, because he knows nothing about it, and also, as the above demonstrates, he lacks basic critical thinking skills.

But climatologists do not lag behind Parry on this. Far from it, they were studying this as far back as the 1970s, and had established before the end of the 1980s that the ‘natural’ causes of past global warming were not at hand during the present bout. The natural conditions since the mid-1970s should have produced a very, very slow, very slight cooling. Parry raises the question of solar flares from sunspots, but they are a non-starter in this conversation, as solar activity, after a very slight dip in the mid-1960s, has more less flatlined ever since.

Note the yellow line, detailing solar activity. It is today more or less at exactly the same level as it was over sixty years ago

The climatologists also discovered some time ago that the current warming is happening far more rapidly than in past changes. The changes used to take anything from centuries to hundreds of millennia to take shape. Current changes are happening in less than a human lifetime.

It was first established way back in the nineteenth Century that carbon dioxide absorbs heat, and the more ‘CO2’ there is, the more heat it absorbs. Modern day climatology has found that CO2 increases in the Earth’s atmosphere – from about 300 parts per million a century ago to over 400ppm today – are consistent with the expected heat rise that has happened during the period of warming.

They also discovered that the additional CO2 we now have in the atmosphere is of an oxidised type. Most ‘natural’ CO2 is melted out of subducted rocks by the enormous heat below the Earth’s surface, and then ‘belched’ into the atmosphere during volcanic eruptions. There is no burning in this process, so the melted CO2 is not oxidised.

But when we burn fossil fuels, oxygen is required for the combustion process, and that oxygen leaves a ‘signature’ – oxidisation – on the CO2 released. The amount of oxidised CO2 in the atmosphere has increased to roughly one quarter of the present make up of the atmosphere. From here it is simple maths; 400ppm – 300ppm = 100ppm. So the oxidised CO2 is roughly one quarter of the total CO2 content, and the approximate size of the increase is also roughly one quarter.

It is us

You need to stop lying to yourself, Parry, as does everybody else. No one is saying that this means we are all ‘evil’, as Parry’s infantile, over-defensive strawman arguments would indicate. But there is such a thing as causing unintended harm, and that is what is happening when it comes to the climate. It is us. We never meant to, but we are causing global warming. We are releasing too much CO2 into the atmosphere, the natural ‘carbon-sinks’ of the planet are being overwhelmed, and if we do not put a stop to it before the end of this decade, the damage may well prove irreversible.

It is perhaps a shame that Ash was unable to convey these points, but to be fair, the host of the programme would probably have cut her off after about two minutes anyway. I do not think the point of these mainstream TV discussions is ever to inform the public. It instead appears to be to give the public the very wrong impression that no one can say for sure.