Posted 19 November 2010
The Scientific Alliance, UK
From Global Warming to Global Climate Disruption
Many readers will already have been aware of this evolution in terminology. Having already been re-educated to talk about 'climate change' rather than 'global warming', we are now increasingly hearing the term 'global climate disruption'. In practice, 'climate change' is likely to remain the term in general use, but it is interesting to consider the motivation for these changes.
Since many scientists in the 1970s had been concerned at the prospect of global cooling (and rightly so, as the consequences of a transition to another Ice Age would be pretty serious), it was logical to talk instead of global warming as average temperatures began to creep up following a sudden jump in the mid-70s. The concept of changes wrought by an overall warmer climate was a simple one to grasp.
However, what became clear as climate scientists built their models and looked in more detail at what a warming world might mean was that there would be differences in the regional patterns of change and that temperatures would not simply be consistently higher. Although there was a consensus building in the scientific establishment that increasing carbon dioxide concentration would be the major driver of higher average temperatures, it was also clear that the global climate is highly complex and also subject to other influences.
Global warming became too black and white a concept to fit with the vagaries of weather systems and quickly grew to be the butt of jokes when the weather was unseasonably cold (ironically, there were early snowfalls on the day that the UK Climate Change Act was passed). 'Climate change' then became the preferred term, encompassing pretty much anything which might be considered 'unnatural'. But this was also open to criticism; after all, is climate not intrinsically variable? Hence the recent enthusiasm for 'global climate disruption', which nicely encapsulates the concept of unwanted and unnatural change.
Not that a change of name means anything as far as the average lay person is concerned. There is an apparent loss of faith among the general public, with increasing doubts about the seriousness of the issue appearing in consumer surveys. Given the lack of warming trend so far this century, this is hardly surprising. This does not, of course, prove that the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is wrong, but there has been no additional supporting evidence for the idea for quite some time.
In these circumstances, and faced by severe economic problems, it is hardly surprising that politicians are not falling over themselves to take radical (and expensive) action to reduce fossil fuel use, despite the fine words and the regular setting of unrealistic targets to be met after most of them have left office. But there is more enthusiasm in the business world, where companies are embracing the global climate disruption creed for a whole raft of reasons.
In many cases, this is merely the latest manifestation of the Corporate Social Responsibility agenda: make the company a good corporate citizen and consumers will show their appreciation by buying more of your products (or not, as the case may be). An extension of that is simply to get campaigners off their backs. Businesses want a quiet life and shy away from controversy if at all possible, so that they can get on with the business of making a profit undisturbed (and, for the record, I see nothing wrong in that at all).
A lot of the climate change mitigation agenda also helps with what is good for companies in any case: saving energy and becoming more efficient. If this can be done, then not only does the bottom line improve, but the business gets brownie points for being green. But in the financial services sector, climate change is a business opportunity of a different ilk. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Understandably, major insurers have been concerned about potential losses from the projected (although not yet apparent) increase in extreme weather events and have used this to raise premiums. Banks have seen the profit potential of carbon trading, although the demise of the Chicago exchange has been an obvious recent disappointment.
Given that their profitability may depend on it, some financial institutions have actually become advocates for the received wisdom on climate change. In September, Deutsche Bank subsidiary DB Climate Change Advisors published a white paper called Climate Change: Addressing the Major Skeptic Arguments. DB used a team of researchers from Columbia University to address a range of issues from the lack of a rising trend in temperatures since 1998 through consideration of the Medieval Warm Period and the missing tropospheric hot spot to the natural adaptability of human societies.
In each case, the answers from the researchers are pretty dismissive of sceptical views. Ross McKitrick sent a 'Response to Misinformation from Deutsche Bank' and got the authors to make some minor changes to wording, but only as an appendix; the original report still appears in its entirety.
As for the response to specific criticisms, take this example:
"Claim: The greenhouse gas signature is missing. Global observations are consistent with the model-based prediction of GHG-induced cooling in the stratosphere and warming of the surface and throughout the troposphere. Furthermore, new measurements in the tropics suggest greater warming in the upper troposphere than at the surface, as predicted by the models." (emphasis added).
Perhaps the situation is not black and white, but to use terms such as 'consistent with' and 'suggest' is hardly likely to increase confidence in what is a very basic part of the enhanced greenhouse effect hypothesis.
One of the most misleading is this:
"Claim: Climate sensitivity is overestimated in current climate models. Quantifying climate sensitivity, or the change in the global mean temperature in response to doubling CO2 is extremely complex because of the unknown rate and magnitude of feedbacks, such as changes in vegetation or ice cover. Attempts to identify negative feedback processes, which would counter the warming due to GHGs, have not been borne out by observations. Sensitivity values below 2.5°C cannot explain the observed climate changes of the past."
What this (and other arguments in the white paper) singularly fails to address is the fact that the dominant feedback is assumed to be a higher average atmospheric water vapour level, that the (probably significantly negative) effect of clouds is not properly allowed for and that credible mechanisms for a higher level of solar influence are ignored.
While the Royal Society and others are toning down their language and acknowledging major uncertainties, DB seems to be intent on hardening its advice to clients. Conceivably, one of the unexpected effects of the climate change saga will be a longer term hangover in politics and finance, even if the scientific monolith crumbles. In the meantime, semantic changes are unlikely to reverse the trend towards scepticism among the public.
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