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Realism over alarmism

Lakshman Menon  |  New Delhi 

Climate change, and specifically man’s responsibility for it, is the one article of faith we all share in the 21st century. Witness the increasingly apocalyptic warnings issued in July alone. The UK Met Office forecast that by 2080, global warming will wreak havoc in Europe. The Financial Times Magazine predicted that that by 2050, no fewer than 250 million people could become environmental refugees. The G20 agreed that by 2050, the world must cut its CO2 emissions in half. The Prince of Wales made a seminal speech, giving us only 96 months to save the planet or “nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust”.

So there we have it. An open and shut case. Or is it?

Enter Ian Plimer’s Heaven And Earth: Global Warming — the Missing Science. Plimer is a scientist of some repute, being Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. You would expect such a distinguished scientist to support the increasingly urgent warnings of his peers. You would be wrong.

“The hypothesis that human activity can create global warming,” Plimer contends, “is extraordinary because it is contrary to validated knowledge from solar physics, astronomy, history, archaeology and geology”.

Heaven And Earth stoutly refutes each argument that human activity is responsible for climate change. Take the question of CO2 emissions. It is now taken as “fact” that increasing levels of CO2 emissions generated by economic activity are responsible for most global warming. Plimer flatly rejects this, maintaining that firstly, CO2 in the atmosphere represents a minuscule 0.001 per cent of the total CO2 and secondly, even within this tiny overall figure, human activity represents only 4 per cent.

Could Plimer be right? In March this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a report on the science used to underpin its policy of CO2 reductions. Imagine the EPA’s dismay when the report stated that the accepted CO2 science is riddled with holes. What happened next is instructive. The report was dropped for the reason that it is now too late to raise objections to what is the EPA’s (and therefore the USA’s) official policy.

Then there is the matter of global warming itself. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperature is inexorably rising. It will increase by 2 to 3 degrees C in this century alone. The result will be nothing short of catastrophic and irreversible; the earth will experience a greater climate change than it has for at least 10,000 years. There will be heat waves, storms and flooding. Whole islands will sink in to the seas, ice shelves will collapse.

Unfortunately for the doomsayers, global temperatures have disobligingly refused to rise. Global satellite data by the University of Huntsville, Alabama, has shown that temperatures have actually fallen back to their average levels of 30 years ago. Plimer puts it bluntly; there is no global warming. Instead, the last two years have been ones of global cooling. He goes farther. Temperature records indicate that 20th- and 21st-century changes are unexceptional; geological records show many historical periods were warmer than today.

The public outcry against human-induced climate change has prompted the UK and the US to commit to cut their use of fossil fuels over 80 per cent by 2050. Barring a technological miracle, this simply cannot be achieved. But in the meantime, there is a dreadful financial cost to the taxpayer; the Obama administration is proposing a $7.4 trillion carbon-trading bill, the biggest tax in American history. In the UK , people have already begun to pay swingeing “Eco” taxes every time they board a flight.

This would be a price well worth paying if the end of the world were nigh. But is it? The most extraordinary feature of the debate on climate change is that there has been no debate. Any attempt to challenge the conventional wisdom has been swiftly suppressed or derided.

Plimer believes the issue of climate change has been hijacked by “politicians, environmental activists and opportunists”. Politicians use “global warming” as an excuse to extort ever higher taxes; environmental activists need to keep our fear levels at fever pitch in order to retain their jobs (and our funding); opportunistic corporations make fortunes from dodgy industries such as carbon trading.

Not surprising then, Plimer’s book has been published to a strangely coordinated outpouring of vitriol, “pseudo science” and “nutty conspiracy theorist” being the kinder epithets employed.

In fairness, Heaven And Earth is a big, clunking book; 500 pages of abstruse (dare one suggest, scholarly?) reasoning; not the kind of book you would take away for the weekend. You may disagree with its conclusions and indeed with its premise. But if it kickstarts an honest debate about climate change, Heaven And Earth will have performed an important service.


Ian Plimer 
360 pages; 25 pounds 

First Published: Thu, August 06 2009. 00:20 IST