My inconvenient truth: ROSS CLARK accepts that the planet IS warming. But in a new book he challenge the consensus and argues that the hysteria and doom-mongering that now surround any debate risk doing more harm than climate change ever could
Fear is very easy to spread. Make a television documentary in which footage of extreme weather events is overlain with vague statements about climate change, and you sow the idea in viewers’ minds that we are headed for a hellish future.
There can never have been a time when some part of the world was not in a heatwave, another part was not flooded, another suffering unusually high temperatures and another unusually low temperatures.
Yet if you report on every extreme event and throw in the term ‘climate change’, you will very rapidly plant the idea that the world is in some freakish transformation.
Even when it demonstrably isn’t. A Pentagon report that came to light in 2004 claimed that by 2007 large parts of the Netherlands would be rendered uninhabitable by flooding and that by 2020 Britain would have a ‘Siberian climate’ as the system of atmospheric circulation broke down.
Ross Clark fully accepts that the planet IS warming. But in an important book that dares challenge the consensus, he argues that the hysteria and doom-mongering that now surround any debate risk doing more harm than climate change ever could…
In his 2006 climate change film An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore asserted that the snows on Mount Kilimanjaro would be gone ‘within the decade’. While there has been some continued erosion in the mountain’s glaciers, they are very much still in existence.
Certainly, there is ample evidence that the Earth is warming, and there are potentially many negative consequences from that. Yet hyperbole now rules so much coverage of climate change. Changes which are benign are regularly hyped up into something ominous.
On July 19 last year, Britain experienced its highest-ever recorded temperature: 40.3c (104.5f) at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. This was the fourth time Britain’s maximum temperature record had been broken since 1990 and is consistent with a warming climate.
Yet did that justify the reporting which framed it as an ‘apocalypse’ with predictions of 10,000 excess deaths from that summer’s heatwave? In the event, excess deaths came to less than a third of that. Moreover, the middle of 2022 witnessed a large unexplained number of excess deaths beginning in March, long before the heatwave.
Let us accept, though, that heatwaves are a danger to health and that climate change is making them more common and more intense. Yet the increased risk must be balanced against a fall in deaths from the cold — which is a much bigger killer in Britain’s climate.
On July 19 last year, Britain experienced its highest-ever recorded temperature: 40.3c (104.5f) at Coningsby, Lincolnshire
Official figures from the ONS (Office for National Statistics) show that over the first 20 years of this century, the upward trend in temperatures in England and Wales resulted in just over half a million — 555,103 to be precise — fewer temperature-related deaths. The headlines ought to read ‘Climate change saves half a million lives’, yet this real-word data seemed to tease out some rare scepticism from news outlets more used to presenting doom-laden forecasts and scenarios as established fact.
BBC climate editor Justin Rowlatt began his analysis of the study with the words ‘statistics can be slippery’. In effect, he was saying, I’m choosing not to believe this particular set of data.
But there were no such doubts in the media when, at around the same time, the Government estimated that climate change was going to cost the UK economy up to £20 billion a year by 2050 — even though there is no way of knowing what kind of weather or economy we will have in 30 years’ time.
Rarely is it admitted that there might even be some benefits from a warming climate. The Government’s own climate change risk assessment did identify some of these, such as the ability to grow a richer variety of crops in Britain, but this tended to go missing from the reporting.
Moreover, some of the dangers identified made you wonder: are we really so helpless as to be unable to cope? It cited ‘risks to human health, wellbeing and productivity from increased exposure to heat in homes and other buildings’. Yet people already live and work quite happily in climates far hotter than Britain will experience even in the most dramatic scenarios of climate change.
They manage to do this thanks to properly designed buildings, insulated from heat as well as cold, aided by proper ventilation and air-conditioning.
The trouble is that in Britain we have been putting up poorly engineered new buildings which are designed to cut carbon emissions to the exclusion of all other considerations, such as the comfort of their occupants.
We end up not with managed changes to the climate that might improve the situation but cataclysms beyond human ingenuity
They are stuffed with insulation and sealed against draughts — yet have inadequate ventilation and insufficient means to disperse heat from the sun and other sources. Occupants of new homes are wilting not because of climate change but, perversely, because of building standards designed to avert climate change. Yet nuances such as this are lost as we are fed a diet of ever-greater climatic doom.
There seem to be very simple rules behind the narrative being spun to the public. First, that climate change offers nothing positive, only harm. Second, that the only way to tackle that harm is to end climate change. The idea of adapting to it is considered sacrilege.
We end up not with managed changes to the climate that might improve the situation but cataclysms beyond human ingenuity. And apparently also beyond the ability of the natural world to cope.
Climate change is apparently going to kill off plants which rely on birds to spread their seeds. It is going to kill off insects — except for mosquitoes and locusts, whose numbers are going to explode
Some of what passes for warnings on climate is sheer flight of fancy. In January last year a study funded by the Met Office and written by academics at Exeter and Edinburgh universities presented five scenarios as to what might happen by the year 2100, depending on what actions are taken now.
One of them, in which the Government carried on exploiting fossil fuel, bizarrely had Britain descending into hunter-gathering and feudal warfare. Another, where green policies were adopted, resulted in the eradication of poverty by the end of the century.
This is not climate science, nor science of any kind; it is science fiction, dreamed up to serve a particular political outlook.
None of this is to say that climate change is not happening and is not a problem. The world is warming and there are many reasons why we should want to cut carbon emissions and adopt cleaner forms of energy.
But we are not having a reasoned debate as to the choices and balances which that entails. Instead, we are presented with hysteria, with terms such as ‘heat apocalypse’ being thrown about. That belongs to the movies, not real life.
We have lived through many ice ages, with rapid warming and cooling of the climate occurring over a few decades
Worryingly, there is now a growing divide between the statements of climate campaigners who claim to have science on their side and what scientific data actually says. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, everyone was banging on about ‘the science’, a supposed set of truths which could not be challenged. But it was noticeable how few actual climate scientists were there delivering lectures.
Certainly not the ones who compiled the report of the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published three months earlier, which pointed to some interesting and some conflicting changes in the climate but hardly to doomsday.
Its worst-case scenario — a global temperature rise of 4c, wind speeds in the strongest tropical storms up 5 per cent and rainfall from tropical storms up 12 per cent, as well as sea level rises of a metre by 2100 — would present serious challenges in many places. But even that would hardly amount to a ‘cataclysm’ for human civilisation.
We have lived through many ice ages, with rapid warming and cooling of the climate occurring over a few decades. Surely, an advanced industrial civilisation can find ways to cope with all these changes.
Yet climate change is a world that has come to be controlled by activists and campaigners who claim to be on the side of science and reason but who are really spinning narratives which suit ulterior motives.
And they get away with it because sceptical views have been all but banned from many newspapers and news channels.
In 2018 BBC news staff were asked to go on a one-hour course on reporting climate change, in which it was made clear that interviewees who were sceptical about man-made climate change were no longer regularly to be invited on to BBC news programmes. It went further: sceptics were now branded as ‘deniers’ — an emotive term coined by climate activists to try to compare their opponents to Holocaust deniers.
Climate change is a world that has come to be controlled by activists and campaigners who claim to be on the side of science and reason but who are really spinning narratives which suit ulterior motives
‘To achieve impartiality,’ BBC news staff were told, ‘you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way as you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2–0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.’ In practice it isn’t just ‘outright deniers of climate change’ who have disappeared from the BBC. I struggle to recall a single case where a dissenting opinion has been expressed on the subject over the past five years.
Yet there appears to be no parallel ban on the views of people who exaggerate the findings of the IPCC or other scientific sources. On the contrary, such people have continued to appear on the BBC, their assertions unchallenged.
In September 2021, for example, an activist with Insulate Britain, which was then causing havoc by blocking motorways, claimed on the Today programme that climate change would lead to ‘the loss of all that we cherish, our society, our way of life and law and order’, that the economy was ‘in serious danger of collapse’ and that climate change was ‘endangering billions of people’s lives’.
On none of these claims was she challenged.
There is a drive on the part of some activists to go further than simply banish sceptical opinion from the airwaves. Trygve Lavik, a philosopher at the University of Bergen, has suggested that climate change ‘denialism’ be made illegal on the grounds that it is a ‘crime against present and future generations’.
This tougher tone in the media is partly down to an organisation called Covering Climate Now, an initiative by the Guardian and other outlets with Left-liberal leanings, to which some very high-profile news organisations, such as Bloomberg, Reuters, the Daily Mirror and Newsweek, have signed up.
It offers support to journalists to ‘forge a path towards an all-newsroom approach to climate reporting’. Its guidance includes: ‘Remember, an extreme weather story that doesn’t mention climate change is incomplete and potentially even inaccurate.’
For example, when reporting a hurricane, they were urged to add that ‘this comes at a time when human-caused climate change is consistently making storms more intense’.
Storms more intense? This is not the conclusion that would be reached by a reporter who bothered to do their own digging and came across a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has done more research into this than anyone. It affirms that ‘there is no strong evidence of century- scale increasing trends in major hurricanes’.
We need to stop panicking. At the moment we are responding to modelled, worst-case scenarios and to assertions of climatic doom which have no scientific basis, only an emotional one
As for the IPCC, it found that Australia is currently experiencing the lowest frequency of tropical cyclones in the past 550 to 1,500 years, while the northern Indian Ocean is seeing an increased intensity of the most severe storms but a decrease in frequency. The data tells us that, no, rising global temperatures have not unleashed lethal hurricanes and other storms which otherwise wouldn’t have occurred, and in some parts of the world there is even a downward trend in storm activity.
Yet that is not the picture that viewers, listeners and readers will have picked up from reports of extreme weather events.
Rather, they are urged to believe that the world is already in the grip of mad winds whipped up as a result of human influence on the climate, that when anyone dies or is made homeless in a hurricane they are victims of man-made climate change and that things are only going to get worse unless we take drastic action now.
Were the public to be fed a calmer, more even-handed reporting of the data, we might have a more rational debate over net zero.
So what is really going on with the climate? What, exactly, is at stake when people assert that climate change is so dire a threat that we have no option other than to eliminate all net greenhouse emissions by 2050?
The evidence from the IPCC shows that the Earth is warming, leading to a rise in extreme high temperatures and a fall in the number of extreme low temperatures over most of the globe.
The world is also seeing higher and heavier rainfall, although this is not translating into greater flood risk in most cases. A study of more than 2,000 rivers over half a century, quoted in the most recent IPCC report, found that in only seven per cent of them was there an increasing trend in maximum annual flood levels.
Storm tracks in some parts of the world have shifted, leading to a rise in storms at high latitudes and a fall elsewhere. There is no increase in tropical storms, although they may be dumping more rainfall in some places.
Some places are suffering more drought, others are seeing less dry conditions. Fire risk has increased in some places but this has not translated into an overall increase in land affected by wildfires.
Data specifically on the UK confirms an upward trend in temperature and rainfall, more heatwaves but also fewer cold spells. There is some evidence of more intense rainfall.
But none of this adds up to the idea that Britain is suffering extreme or ‘violent’ weather, ‘climate breakdown’ or any other of the hysterical claims which are being made every time the country suffers weather-related damage.
If the present trends in temperature and rainfall are maintained throughout this century, Britain will end up with the kind of climate which is already experienced in slightly more southerly latitudes. A further rise of 1.5c in average July temperatures in London, for example, would take us to the current levels experienced in Paris.
But of all the challenges presented by climate change, the most serious for Britain is rising sea levels. Many of the country’s most populated areas are in low-lying coastal locations. London sits at the end of a funnelling estuary vulnerable to tidal surges.
Of all the challenges presented by climate change, the most serious for Britain is rising sea levels
Yet climate change is not the whole story here. Britain sits on a tectonic plate. The South-East of England is sinking — and has been doing so since the last Ice Age. Up to half the change in sea level in the Thames estuary is down to the land sinking rather than the sea rising.
The answer to flooding is better defences. Even in the worst-case scenarios, for the next century at least, we will be able to continue to live where we do now by adopting the drainage and flood defence policies of the Netherlands.
There, a quarter of the land surface already lies below sea level and the lowest point is a full 6.7 metres below sea level. Yet flooding is rare because sea defences are strong and drainage well managed.
None of this is to say that we should not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is very much in our interests to burn less fossil fuel, and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions more generally, even to try to eliminate them eventually.
But the fact is that we are not being fried, frozen, drowned, burned or blown away by human-induced climate change.
That is hyperbole, which is being used to suppress debate over net zero and forcing us into making some very poor decisions.
We need to stop panicking. At the moment we are responding to modelled, worst-case scenarios and to assertions of climatic doom which have no scientific basis, only an emotional one.
We have somehow developed an atmosphere in which anyone who expresses scepticism is denounced as a ‘denier’, yet baseless narratives of doom are promoted as fact.
To have succeeded in creating this atmosphere is an astonishing achievement on the part of climate activists.
Their manipulation of public emotion is truly remarkable. But any calm reading of real-world climatic observations shows their alarmism to be misplaced.
Somehow, government and Parliament must start to tell us the honest story, not adopt the language of the activists in telling us we are ‘a minute from midnight’ and so on. It is two decades since I first heard the assertion that we have ‘only five years to save the planet’, and yet we are still here, unroasted, unstarved and undrowned.
Panic is a sure way to make bad decisions, invest in the wrong things, make ourselves needlessly poorer and give other, far more polluting countries an economic advantage — likely increasing overall emissions as a result.
There are technologies which may one day allow us to eliminate carbon emissions at reasonable cost, but we do not yet know which ones. We will only find out if we give them time to prove themselves or fail.
The market can play a huge part in coming up with solutions, but to think that it will come up with all the answers just because we set an arbitrary target such as Britain’s 2050 goal for net zero is foolish.
Deadlines and targets can be helpful in achieving results, but not if they are entirely impractical. We could set a target to eliminate world hunger by next Tuesday — but we wouldn’t get there, however much we threatened the bosses of the world’s food businesses if they failed.
So how far can we reasonably expect to have got by 2050? I feel sure that by then we will be enjoying the benefits of cleaner energy than we have now. We may even have cheaper energy. But will Britain or the world have achieved net zero emissions? I suspect not.
I have a strong belief that, given the choice, we will have opted for economic growth — much to the disappointment of many green campaigners who seem to be motivated by a bizarre desire to halt rising living standards.
Meanwhile, the sun will still shine, the wind will still blow, the rain will still fall, the Earth will still be very much habitable — and we will look back to the prophecies of climatic doom being made today in the same way that we now look back at the 18th/19th century economist Thomas Malthus’s predictions of mass famine, or the warnings in the 1960s and 1970s that a new ice age was on its way.
It is the way with human civilisations: we are programmed forever to worry, to believe that a sticky end lies just around the corner — but we are also imbued with an ability to adapt, to survive and to thrive.
- Adapted from Not Zero: How An Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save The Planet) by Ross Clark, to be published by Forum on February 2 at £20. © Ross Clark 2023.
- To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until February 5, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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