Thursday 27th October 2016                 Change text size:

Lawson, climate change and the power of wishful thinking

Photo: Financial Times via Flickr

Skeptical Science blogger Graham Wayne unpicks the errors in Lord Lawson’s latest attack on the science of climate change.

Last week, the IPCC released its latest report summarising the state of climate science and the impact of human activity on the climate (AR5: Summary for Policy Makers). A day later, Nigel Lawson, co-founder of UK-based climate change denial lobbying group the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), wrote a damning article for the Daily Telegraph.

From the title alone, it’s pretty clear this was not going to be an appeal to reason: Climate change: this is not science – it’s mumbo jumbo.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to start by considering the very last sentence in Lawson’s assertive diatribe: “It is just as well that the world is unlikely to take the slightest notice of the new IPCC report.”

This statement seems to be entirely at odds with the institutional importance of the report, the authoritative expertise of the contributors and authors, the ubiquitous global concern about climate change, and the extensive media coverage both before and after the report’s release. Much of that coverage was pre-emptively hostile.

After the report’s publication, a great deal more time has been spent attacking it by predictable factions in the mass media and the blogosphere. If Lawson (and others) really believe nobody is going to take the ‘slightest notice’ of the report, why are so many prominent contrarians manning the barricades?

Lawson’s statement is yet another example of a rather bizarre and disturbingly pervasive belief in the power of wishful thinking. I came across a stunning example in the Guardian online. A Saudi cleric, defending the country’s male-only driving law, made this claim:

“If a woman drives a car […] physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards. That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees.

Of course, no medical studies have found any such thing. The cleric made that up. Many people will no doubt roll their eyes at the claim (at least metaphorically), but how much difference is there between that claim, and Lawson’s? Perhaps the power of wishful thinking works best allied to the power of wishful believing. Otherwise, why would the Telegraph give space to an article so riddled with habitual errors and statements that defy belief – or should do.

Let’s examine a few examples:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which published on Friday the first instalment of its latest report, is a deeply discredited organisation.

Discredited by whom – the GWPF? Contrary to Lawson’s unsubstantiated claim, the IPCC is an organisation charged by the UN with a daunting and formidably controversial task, whose work is continuously scrutinised and discussed by every government, every climate scientist, and by media outlets right across the globe. The IPCC does no science itself: its reports summarise multi-disciplinary, independent climate science research, conducted by thousands of the world’s climate scientists. The experts, in other words. Are they discredited too? All of them?

In the world of Lawson’s wishful thinking, perhaps they are. Whatever his views, he surely cannot change facts by writing the opposite of them. Nonetheless, he gives wishful thinking his best shot:

“[The IPCC’s] previous report, in 2007, was so grotesquely flawed that the leading scientific body in the United States, the InterAcademy Council, decided that an investigation was warranted.”

Even were we to set aside the ridiculous hyperbole of  ‘grotesquely flawed’, we’re still left with the fact that the IAC decided no such thing. It was asked jointly by the UN and IPCC to examine the processes and procedures of the IPCC in order to improve them. (Nor is it a US institution, by the way; the IAC is an international body. Hat tip to Sou at Hotwhopper for that observation). Compare Lawson’s claim – along with the ‘deeply discredited’ sniper fire – with this statement by the IAC themselves (my emphasis):

In 2010 the IAC was commissioned by the United Nations to review the processes and procedures of the IPCC after a small number of errors were discovered in its Fourth Assessment Report.

Unabashed, Lawson raises his rhetoric to new levels of self-service, this time through the cunning trick of quoting out of context – a long way out, in fact:

The IAC duly reported in 2010, and concluded that there were “significant shortcomings in each major step of [the] IPCC’s assessment process…

Compare that with what the IAC actually said (with the decontextualized section highlighted):

This chapter identifies and recommends ways to address the most significant shortcomings in each major step of IPCC’s assessment process, based on the Committee’s analysis of current IPCC practices, of the literature on assessments, and community input.”

Source: IAC Report Chapter 2: Evaluation of IPCC’s assessment process

I don’t think even wishful thinking should extend as far as deliberately misquoting reports in a crude attempt to discredit the IPCC. I do think that people whose arguments are valid would not need to do so.

Neither is a valid argument strengthened by factual misrepresentation. When Lawson suggests that only after ‘a detailed examination’ of the IPCC’s 2007 report was it revealed that “…two thirds of its chapters included among its authors people with links to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and there were many others with links to other ‘green’ activist groups, such as Greenpeace.”

In this context, ‘a detailed examination’ is little more than obfuscatory code for ‘reading the report’ – which in fact lists every contributor, every author, every source and document quoted. Published IPCC procedures also clearly position the role and importance of ‘grey literature’ – material from NGOs and other bodies whose contributions are considered valuable and informative.

Since Lawson holds the IAC in such regard, let’s conclude this section with their opinion of the IPCC, which, curiously, is entirely at odds with Lawson’s claims of discredit and irrelevancy:

By again bringing together so many experts from across the globe to synthesize current scientific understanding of climate change, the IPCC has demonstrated its on-going value to society. The InterAcademy Council (IAC) congratulates the IPCC on this accomplishment and expresses its gratitude to the hundreds of experts from developed and developing countries alike who volunteered their time and knowledge to this unique scientific endeavour. Their effort provides a scientific basis for decisions that policymakers around the world are making about how best to mitigate and adapt to climate change– one of the most critical challenges facing humankind.

Source: IAC CO-CHAIRS’ Statement on the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report

To sum up then: Lawson agrees with the IAC only when it suits his agenda to do so. When he doesn’t, he misrepresents what they say.

There is a regrettable connection between wishful thinking and propaganda. Perhaps they are one and the same thing. Both seem to depend on constant repetition for their efficacy, and Lawson doesn’t disappoint with a rather incoherent Gish Gallop through some surprisingly old territory.

We can sigh at a nostaligic snapshot of the geriatric ‘CO2 is plantfood’ meme (there’s a more sprightly discussion here); next comes a sly and well-rehearsed ad-hominem attack on Dr Rajendra Pachauri (“a railway engineer and economist by training, not a scientist”); contradictory claims that the IPCC report says both that warming has stopped, and is also continuing (“global warming appears to have ceased… [the IPCC] suggest that the warming may still have happened”); some hand-waving about climate sensitivity and a very odd remark about the Gulf Stream, capped with a thoroughly erroneous claim of projected temperature rises: “…the new report [suggests] that the global warming we can expect by the end of this century is probably rather less than the IPCC had previously predicted: perhaps some 2.7F (1.5C)”.

This statement is false. The correct range of figures – there isn’t one single figure presented – is that average temperature between 2080 and 2100 will be between 4.6-8.2F (2.6-4.8C) higher than today’s temperatures, if emissions are unchecked. That’s very different from Lawson’s claim. Either the person reading the report for him got it wrong, or this is just more wishful thinking, but it won’t change AR5, or the fact the temperature rise projected by 2100 is the same in this report as it was in the 2007 report. Do try to keep up, Lawson.

This unfortunate deviation from any known facts is followed by a quick assault on computer models – they are all misleading, apparently (or not – see IPCC model global warming projections have done much better than you think); the hoary old chestnut about warming being at a standstill (an opinion supported only by his insistence “there is no serious empirical evidence” for ocean heat uptake.  The rebuttal – replete with ‘serious empirical evidence’-  is here). He further claims that warming hasn’t accelerated; you may not be surprised to discover the IPCC and WMO (to name but two) disagree.

Then he rubbishes the confidence levels assigned by the IPCC to various projections: “This is not science: it is mumbo-jumbo. Neither the 90% nor the 95% have any objective scientific basis: they are simply numbers plucked from the air for the benefit of credulous politicians and journalists.”

On the basis of his criticism it is clear that Lawson has no idea how confidence levels are determined. Far from being ‘plucked from the air’, the methods are standard statistical techniques used throughout science. Instead of writing irrational nonsense designed to appeal only to the ‘credulous’, Lawson could have read Why is the IPCC AR5 so much more confident in human-caused global warming?.

After which comes the Emperor’s new icing on the wishful thinking cake. I was genuinely surprised to see a seasoned member of the political class coming out with the old ‘they changed the name’ cliché, but there it was in all its inglorious piety: “They have thrown dust in the eyes of the media in other ways, too. Among them is the shift from talking about global warming, as a result of the generally accepted greenhouse effect, to ‘climate change’ or ‘climate disruption’.

You can read the rebuttal here, but if you’re short of time, just bear in mind the IPCC was formed in 1988, and the CC doesn’t stand for Comedy Central. Odd too he should make that claim bearing in mind that when he was Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, his boss, then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, gave a seminal speech to the UN on global warming in 1989, in which she used the term ‘climate change’ twelve times (Source: Margaret Thatcher Foundation).

Of course, unlike Lawson, Margaret Thatcher was a scientist by training.

In his closing remarks, Lawson strides through a techno-economic landscape more familiar to him:

“So what we should do about it – if indeed, there is anything at all we need to do – is to adapt to any changes that may, in the far future, occur. That means using all the technological resources open to mankind – which will ineluctably be far greater by the end of this century than those we possess today – to reduce any harms that might arise from warming, while taking advantage of all the great benefits that warming will bring.”

Given the errors and misrepresentations in Lawson’s article, his speculation about how far in the future change may lie in wait should be treated with great caution. He seems remarkably complacent, his misplaced certainty at odds with the lack evidence to support it, and doesn’t acknowledge either the damaging effects of fossil fuels needed to fuel his ‘technological resources’, or the cost of energy as global prices march relentlessly upward. As for the ‘great benefits’, this is so diametrically opposed to virtually all authoritative investigations into the putative effects of climate change – on precipitation, on sea levels, on agriculture, on fresh water supplies, on economic stability – it’s hard to take Lawson seriously, unless you’re a fan of wishful believing, aka confirmation bias.

It remains a puzzle how Lawson can get so many things wrong about a subject he clearly cares about. He is very well connected, so it isn’t as if he’s short of good information, if he wants it. Yet all through his article there are far too many manifestations of wishful thinking instead of rational analysis, far too much fantasy in place of fact.

In the political sphere, one wish (or opinion) is more or less as valid as another.  In science nothing could be further from the truth. Nuccitelli et al (2013) discussed the failure of certain scientists to adequately explain climate change forcings, a sin of omission described by the author as ‘magical thinking’ – scientific explanations that explain nothing scientific.

‘Wishful thinking’ is the public equivalent; mounting crass attacks on the credibility of the IPCC will not make that body less credible. Claiming nobody will take any notice of their reports will not stop people reading them. Expressing counter-factual opinions will not change the laws of science, will not stop the planet warming, will not make all the ice come back, and it will never fool all of the people, all of the time. Surely an old political hand like Lawson must know that?

I started by quoting Lawson’s last line: “It is just as well that the world is unlikely to take the slightest notice of the new IPCC report”. Given the troubling errors and inconsistencies in Lawson’s article, and given how many times he makes the same mistakes, that comment has the hallmark of hubris stamped right through it.

This article originally appeared on Skeptical Science.

Further reading:

The four horsemen of the climate apocalypse

Thinking of my grandchildren spitting on my grave, before eating me out of necessity

How denial works: from geocentrism to tobacco to climate change

Honesty, subtlety and complexity in science reporting

Climate sceptics are our generation’s slavery apologists

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