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.”
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.”
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.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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