Where are we headed?
On July 12th, 2016, the UK Climate Change Committee was reported as advising that, if near surface temperatures rise more than 20 C above their 'pre-industrial' level by the 2040s then there will be chronic water shortages in the UK and people living in modern homes will die from the heat. Or they will unless they fit shutters to their windows like the French do, because modern British homes, care homes, and hospitals have been designed to retain heat in winter rather than stay cool in summer.
If, however, near surface temperatures do not rise by more than 20 C then there will be flooding on a massive scale, affecting homes and agricultural land on a large scale. The Committee's Report to the 2015/2016 Winter Floods Inquiry, issued in March, 2016, pointed out that over 30,000 new homes had been built on land liable to flooding since 2008. The Committee supported the widespread view that the flooding in the North-West of England, like the earlier flooding of the Somerset Levels, was unprecedented and "was made 50 - 75% more likely due to the warming of the atmosphere that has already occurred." [0.890 C, not the 10 C they claimed].
It is, of course, tiresome that others will point out that these recent floods were not unprecedented, and that of the Somerset Levels was due largely to deliberate efforts to hamper drain-off. In any case, the flooding was modest by the standards of 1607. Similarly, in the North-West there had been more severe flooding in the past - in 1686 and 1710, for example. There was severe flooding of the Tyne and Tees in the 1670s and 1680s.
Then there is the idea that we can look out with confidence to conditions in the 2040s. Only three years ago the UK Meteorological Office published a report on: "The Recent Pause in global warming", particularly noting the need for better records of solar variation. Short-term cycles of eleven years, and even twenty-two years, have long been recognised. So has the very long term Milankovitch solar cycle. But less attention has been given to other solar cycles, such as the Oort Minimum (1040-1080); the Wolff Minimum (1280-1350); the Sporer Minimum (1450-1550); the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715); the Dalton Minimum (1790-1820); and the Glassberg Minimum (1880-1914). There are those, like Niklas Morner, who believe that a new Grand Solar Minimum and Little Ice Age conditions could occur in the 2040s (Natural Science, 2015, 7, 510-518). This really would upset the assumptions and projections of organisations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK Meteorological Office, although they claim that anthropogenic climatic forcing will be a significantly more powerful source.
But here lies the most fundamental problem in the field of climatic change: the unwillingness to accept alternative views, especially the open recognition of uncertainty and complexity. 'The Times' of London newspaper was heavily criticised on April 21st, 2016, for its "distorted" and "poor quality" coverage of "global warming". The Fellows of the Royal Society of London so vehemently attacked Henrik Svensmark (co-author of "The Chilling Stars") that he became severely ill. Former Chairman of IPCC Working Group I, Sir John Houghton, dismissed any solar cycle other than Milankovitch's roughly 100,000 year one as irrelevant. Over twenty years ago William Nordhaus claimed: "Our future lies not in the stars, but in our models." Whether the latest IPCC's Assessment concluding that 111 out of the 114 climate models they considered relevant had overstated recent warming has shifted such sentiments I do not know.
The recent exceptionally strong El Nino-Southern Oscillation has quietened the concern that many "warmists" were expressing three or so years ago. But already evidence that the latest La Nina is having a cooling effect is not being bandied around in such quarters. Those who dismiss the very idea of serious anthropogenic climatic change have not, of course, been so reticent.
But for the rest of us, recognising the complexity and uncertainty of climatic change, the need for sound precautionary measures would appear to be based upon solid ground. Yet even here uncertainties abound. Not long ago the leading edge of UK renewable energy was the promotion of wind energy everywhere - with little regard for visual intrusion, impacts of aerodynamic modulation, or mean wind speeds in the locality. Then on June 4th, 2016, Hugh McNeal - CEO of RenewableUK - announced they would not be backing onshore wind energy developments in England because (poor) "wind speeds don't allow for it". As recently as March, 2016, a Freedom of Information request confirmed Drax could not use waste wood for its biomass development plans, and instead was chopping down forests in Florida because it needed hardwood. The idea that there is a "cost-effective path to the 2050 legislated commitment to reduce UK emissions by 80% on 1990 levels" remains elusive.
So far there has been little recognition that official statistics of carbon emissions changes since 1990 (UNFCCC and governmental) do not take account of those emissions associated with manufactured goods imported from China, India, and other countries still heavily reliant on coal-fired electricity generation. If they were then the official claim that the UK reduced its carbon emissions by 20% between 1990 and 2012 is highly misleading. The actual figure is a reduction of only 11%.
The euphoria aroused by COP-21 has been dying down for a variety of reasons. It is about time we calmed down about climatic change and placed matters in a broader perspective, as Mike Hulme has long called for. The abolition of the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change on July 14th may be a harbinger of other changes, presumably not foreseen by the Committee on Climate Change a mere two days earlier.
Editor of the journal Energy Policy
Affiliate Professor at ESCP Europe Business School
Find out more: