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About 2350 years ago, Aristotle noted that "there is no effect or motion without a cause". The cause of the downward motion of heavy bodies, such as the element earth (remember, back then, the elements comprised earth, air, fire and water), was related to their dense nature, which caused them to move downward. In his system, heavy bodies were not attracted to the earth by an external force but because of an inner gravitas or heaviness.

 Fast-forward to the 17th Century, nearly 2000 years later, and Galileo
showed that all objects accelerate equally whilst in free-fall. Moving on again, although the work of Isaac Newton further clarified matters, by the end of the 19th century it was realised that the orbital properties of the planet Mercury could not be completely accounted for entirely under Newton's laws, a glitch that was cleared up a little later by Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Thus does science work. Theories are proposed and they then stand or fall under the weight of subsequent observations and research. A theory that was merely a seed in the 4th Century BC, gravity is one of those that has stood the test of time well, undergoing a modification here, a modification there and making it through to the present day as a good explanation as to why jumping off a sheer cliff is not such a good idea.


Let's go back in time again, this time to the 19th Century. To Victorian natural historian and alpinist John Tyndall, the evidence, controversial at the time but now mainstream, that many thousands of years ago much of northern Europe had been covered by ice-caps and glaciers was clear. The problem was as follows: how could the climate change in such a drastic manner in order to permit such a development?     

Among the possibilities he considered was variations in the composition of the atmosphere. People had already picked up on the idea that certain gases had heat-trapping properties: in the 1820s, Joseph Fourier described how energy from the Sun penetrates the atmosphere, reaches the Earth's surface and heats it up, but the heat does not all escape back into space. Therefore the air must absorb some of that heat radiation. Tyndall discovered through further research that carbon dioxide was an important heat-trapping agent, despite being a trace gas occurring in the hundreds of parts per million range. Analogy is useful here: consider how a thin sheet of paper blocks more sunlight than two metres thickness of clear water, or how dangerous a single, microscopic smallpox germ is if it gets into your system. Small can be potent!

Like gravity, the theory of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions leading to a rising temperature came from a string of observations, investigations, discoveries and calculations. Like gravity, it is a developing theory with respect to minor details. Like gravity it is, as a fundamental concept, accepted by the vast majority of scientists who work in that particular area - climatology -  in a similar way that plate tectonics is accepted by most geologists but might not necessarily be fully understood by, for example, a neurologist.

That might all seem pretty straightforward. Scientists investigate things, develop theories to explain them and where desired find ways of exploiting them (oilfield geologists) or tackling them (cancer specialists). We are by nature curious folks interested in finding out what's going on. We seek the truth, not things to fit preconceived ideas we've made up.

So, then: why is the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) left-wing whilst the theory of gravity is, apparently, not?


It sounds like a daft question but in fact it is relevant - given that one of the various accusations frequently thrown at climate scientists is that they are conspirators in some grand plan to create a socialist World Government.

Now, forgive me if I have got something wrong, but history has shown that stability - in terms of society, economics and state - tends to favour non-extremist governments and far-left or far-right regimes have typically led to chaos and misery, often involving war somewhere along the line. Why would climate scientists wish to create something like that?

The answer is, of course, that they don't: climate scientists are as diverse a bunch of folks as any other profession from doctors to accountants. Fill a pub with them and get them engaged on various topics and you'll get plenty of good arguments going. Pretty much the only thing you'll get good agreement on are the scientific principles first established over 100 years ago by the likes of Fourier and Tyndall!


Yesterday - July 7th 2010 - the final report into the so-called "climategate" affair was released. Here are the key findings:

1) Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

2) In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

3) But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science.

In short, this simply means that they got the science right (1 and 2) but went about doing so in a way that to outsiders might seem a bit secretive or even aloof. So let's briefly look back at what led to the need to undertake these reviews.

The sciences have for a very long time progressed via a system in which discoveries and theories are written up and published in specialist journals following review by fellow specialists ("peers"). This is not a perfect system but it can be imagined as a crude "bullshit filter" that weeds out sloppy or repetitive material that makes no actual contribution to the knowledge-base. It can be controversial especially when there is a sense of competition or rivalry between various research teams and from time to time almighty rows can break out. Normally, all of this goes on out of the public arena. Up until recently, I've been aware of it through my work in mineralogy. Believe you me, there can be controversy even in that area of science!

Now, or rather since over 1000 emails were obtained and posted around the internet in November 2009, the general public is aware of it too. Science, that normally did its work largely behind closed doors, has been outed. Is this a bad thing?

I suspect not: since the 1990s the world has changed a lot, but science has been slow to catch up. The advent of the Internet and especially the ever-expanding blogosphere has made a potentially confusing hotchpotch of information (a highly variable mix of fact and opinion) available to anybody who has access to a computer and can read. While the work of climate scientists has often remained in the realm of the journals - typically sealed behind paywalls - the blogosphere has allowed an explosion of misinformation to be posted all over the place, supported by sections of the media that are hostile to the theory of AGW. Only in the past few years have some climate scientists realised the importance of a blog presence  - the well-known site RealClimate was started in late November 2004 - but the well-organised misinformation campaign of the opposition goes way back before then. The opposition is of a political nature and its proponents are often very media-savvy: until recently, that has not been a requirement for the scientists. It is now.

Although the journals are and always will be the core area in which science is progressed, we need to develop better public communication strategies across the board rather than rely on the media to do this job for us. It is vital that the public understand as clearly as possible where the certainties and uncertainties lie - in climatology and elsewhere. Scientific discoveries and theories often have direct effects on our lives. They have made flight, personal computers and vaccination against dreadful diseases possible, among many things. In this particular case, they are warning us that our current levels of fossil fuel use are unsustainable because they are destabilising the climate. As a geologist, I can also add that they are unsustainable because oil, gas and coal are all finite resources and if we start to run out of them (beginning soon in the case of regular oil) before anything else is in place as a replacement then economic collapse on an unprecedented scale can be expected.

Writing in 1995, the scientist Carl Sagan said:

"We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster."

He was right then and remains so now. The media has in some cases helped to perpetuate the situation when they had the opportunity to do otherwise, printing material varying from ignorant nonsense to outright lies. Some sectors have done much better - the Guardian and the Independent in the UK have taken climate change seriously, but with respect to the emails "scandal", there were instances of overly judgmental writing - George Monbiot's immediate (and, fair play, today retracted) call for the resignation of Phil Jones, prior to any in-depth investigation into what was actually going on, being a case in point. Jones is not immune to criticism - he admitted himself that he had "written some pretty awful emails". However, he is a scientist, not a PR man. Anybody who fails to get this point would do well to go through their "sent items" in Outlook and ponder whether they would like any of them plastered all over the Internet. The main job Jones was employed to do - investigate climate - he did well, despite the intense level of opposition harassment that he and other fellow climatologists had to deal with over many years. The science remains intact once the smears are washed off.

The BBC has a particularly strange policy when reporting climate science. In no other branch of the Earth Sciences that I can think of is so much airspace given to political opponents. In the case of evolution, they do not include Creationist points of view in every story. Yet in the case of climate, they frequently include comments from what are no more than political think-tanks such as ex-Chancellor Nigel Lawson's Global Warming Policy Foundation. And so more scare stories such as AGW being a left-wing conspiracy to tax us all more gain public traction.

Meanwhile, out there in the real world, Arctic sea-ice continues to dwindle - it will likely have a melt-season this year close to the record-breaker of 2007. High temperature records are being closely approached and in some cases broken in America, Africa and Asia. Destructively intense rainstorms are increasingly being reported from various parts of the world including a number in the USA - an unusual feature outside of the hurricane season. Ice-melt at high latitudes, heat and extreme rainfalls are all things that the physics behind AGW predict - for example, warmer seas lose more water vapour by evaporation to warmer air that can carry more moisture to somewhere else and dump it as an extreme rainfall - this is very basic stuff. Unfortunately, due to the delaying-tactics by the opposition, it is something we are going to have to get used to.

Opponents to the AGW theory like to look back over the past few million years and remind us that the climate is always changing. Yes - it is. However, in each of the drastic changes in the geological past, there wasn't a civilisation in the way. The development of modern civilisation has been favoured by a relatively stable climate these past few millennia. My advice is that it would be good to keep it that way.


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