Climate change: A true sceptic perspective.

I am by nature, a sceptic. 

Not a ‘denier’, nor someone who simply refuses to accept what is undeniable or accepts any support for a view I favour, but I am not an automatic believer either.

If there is something that appears to not add up, I seek answers.

When I first heard that CO2 produced by human activities was triggering dangerous climate change, my first reaction was “that just makes no sense!” I may be against the use of use of fossil fuels in dirty and polluting ways, but surely the carbon within fossil fuels came from the atmosphere. Aren’t we just putting the CO2 back where it came from?

For some it turns out there are answers, but for others…..

  • Sceptics or Deniers? Climate Polarisation and Extremism.
    • Climate Extremism: Believers vs Deniers and Opponents.
    • Sceptics vs Deniers and Opponents: Deniers are Decided, Sceptics are not.
  • Scepticism: In the world of fake news, Who do you believe?
  • The Obviously True (but maybe not) vs The Highly Implausible (but maybe true).
  • Hurdles: The Steps Required to Believe The Climate Change Narrative.
    1. Humans have raised CO2 by around 100 parts per million. (0.01% change to air)
      • OK, I can believe that, but it is a small amount.
    2. Temperatures have risen over 1 degree C, and this linked to the CO2 levels.
      • I do see it now having researched it, but the current change significant?
    3. Returning CO2 to the atmosphere is a problem.
      • OK, now I get this one. But it was a huge step and is not well explained.
    4. Temperatures changing 1 degree can be disastrous.
      • It may prove a trend, but 1 degree seems ok.
    5. If we do not make changes, the trend will continue, and will be even more disastrous.
      • There seems to be lack of modelling on the impact of ‘changes’.
    6. Urgent action, such as bringing Earth to Carbon Neutrality by 2050, is justified, and can solve the problem.
      • Now, I am back to sceptical. Modelling on impact of changes is unconvincing.
  • Sceptic status? We Are Not Hearing the Truth.
  • Conclusion: In reality, there are far more sceptics than expected.

The Labels: Climate Polarisation and Extremism.

Climate Extremism: Believers vs Deniers and Opponents.

This could be an unpopular post.

We live in a world where social media and influence technology leverages and weaponizes confirmation bias, polarising people towards extremism, because that will get people spending more time on their web portals, and therefore increase their profits.

I declare that not all people who do not believe the climate change narrative are deniers. Here is my classification of the groups that have arisen with regard to climate change:

  • Believers:
    • People who accept climate change is due to damaging actions of humans, support immediate action, and are outraged by those who do not support sufficient action, with particular outrage at those with a motivation of greed.
  • Supporters:
    • Those who support action on climate change, usually want more action on climate change, but support the balancing of action on climate change with ‘economic realities’.
  • Sceptics:
    • All those who feel uncertain of the facts, or level of action required or advisable, but do not apply a ‘belief bias’ to available information.
  • Deniers:
    • Those who do not want to believe, and will not process information that does not confirm bias towards the belief that:
      • Either, no action is required on climate change.
      • Or, proposed steps to combat climate change are an overreaction.
  • Opponents:
    • This group are outraged by what they see as a deliberate and malevolent ‘climate change is real’ misinformation campaign. This group are outraged by what they see as the ‘climate change hoax’ being propagated by people with economic or social interests that are against the interests of the majority of the population.

There are many ‘believers’ who label all others as deniers. This is because believers are themselves often polarised in their views.

Believers may declare my adopting a sceptical view as heretic. But then I may also upset ‘deniers’ by saying sceptics are not people who reject valid evidence without good reason.

Sceptics vs Deniers and Opponents: Deniers and Opponents are Decided, Sceptics are not.

So I may offend people. However, anyone who believes their position is rational, and will stand scrutiny, should be open to hearing other opinions, even if only to satisfy themselves of the flaw(s) in alternative positions. Even those who are already convinced of climate change may find themselves learning some surprising new truths. So I would use the label of ‘sceptics’ for people with unanswered questions, ‘deniers’ and ‘opponents’ for people who are rejecting valid answers to their questions, simply because the answers do not fit their views. Opponents go beyond deniers, and hold a moral stance, believing that ‘believers’ include those who are guilty of deliberate fraud.

In the spirit of scepticism, it is important to consider all points of view. There is a site sceptical science that concentrates of debunking myths, but often does not give links to sources of the alternative views independently scrutinising the other side. I am actually compiling links to web sites of positions I have considered and I do not agree with:

  • Ice Age Now: Not by Fire, but by Ice.
    • Right: Yes, contrary to much popular opinion, we are technically in an ice age. Wrong: Being technically in an ice age does not in any way imply it is about to get colder, or that it cannot get hotter.

Note the danger of some of these alternative views is that, as indicated above, they are often part right, part wrong.

In the world of fake news, Who do you believe?

I saw an interview with Brian Cox where he pointed out that the are scientists who study climate are experts, and it makes no sense to simply form our own uninformed opinions. In this video, Brian gives the example of someone sitting on a plane who knows nothing about the engineering, forming their own opinion on how the wings should be designed differently. Another analogy is, that if we go to a doctor, and they diagnose a health problem, we don’t think ‘but my great Aunts’ friend Emma has another opinion”. We trust the doctor. So why not trust scientists in the same way? Both analogies sounded reasonable.

However, it is not quite that simple. Unlike the design of the airplane wing, or the visit to the doctor, we are often presented with two contrasting views, each presented by people proclaimed as experts. It is not easy to just ‘trust the experts’ when multiple people put themselves forward as the experts, and each express different views.

It may be that there is a fossil fuel lobby following in the footsteps of big tobacco, and paying millions sponsoring some of these conflicting opinions, but if the strategy is to cause confusion, the strategy works. We all are left trying to deciding who are the real scientists, and who represent vested interests.

However, it turns out there is a lot of information that becomes irrefutable once investigated thoroughly.

The ‘Obviously’ vs The Highly Implausible

There are some obvious observations against those proposing urgent action is required to prevent catastrophic climate change, these include:

  • The ‘Carbon’ in fossil fuels was all extracted from the air by plants, so putting back the Carbon will restore the original balance.
  • CO2 levels are in parts per million, and are only a tiny fraction of the air.
  • CO2 in the air has been present at significantly higher levels in the past.
  • The Earth has had a relatively stable temperature, capable of adequately supporting life, for billions of years.

In fact, modern plants have to go enormous lengths to get enough CO2, with their equivalent of lungs, their leaves, on the outside with huge surface area. Clearly it would be better for plants if there was more CO2! Raising the CO2 levels, would help plants, and if in the process temperatures are raised by 1 or 2 degrees, how could that be a problem?

Temperatures change by far more than 1 or 2 degrees every day, and now we have air conditioning available, 1 or 2 degrees more heat should not be a problem!

The whole idea that more 1 or 2 hundred parts per million or CO2, and even 1 or 2 degrees of extra warmth is catastrophe, is ‘obviously’ an overreaction! That such changes are a problem seems highly implausible.

Hurdles: The Steps Of Climate Change.

That ‘putting the CO2 back where it came from’ as the cause of problematic global warming, is the step in the chain of the science that invites genuine questions. Anyone who is sceptical may still question the first two steps, but once pointed to the evidence, still not being convince on these points is going beyond ‘sceptic’ and into ‘denial’ or conspiracy theories. However, after that, it there are some less compelling points.

The steps are:

  1. Human activity is responsible for a ‘rapid’ increase atmospheric CO2 from 300 parts per million to 400 parts per million since 1950.
  2. Global Temperatures have risen by over 1 degree Celsius, and this is linked to the rise in CO2 levels.
  3. Returning CO2 to the atmosphere can cause problematic temperatures, despite CO2 levels having been much higher in the past.
  4. The rise of global average temperatures of just 1 degree Celsius, which it is said is actually a result of rising CO2 levels, actually matters.
  5. A one, or even two, degree Celsius change in average temperatures, is unusual rather than something that happens all the time, and brings about significant changes to climate.
  6. Urgent action, such as bringing Earth to Carbon Neutrality by 2050, is justified, and can solve the problem.

Step 1: There is a recent rapid Rise in CO2 levels.

Nasa Climate Data: CO2 levels

I suggest the most surprising information here is how low actual levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are. I think may of us not familiar with the data would have guessed CO2 in the atmosphere to be at higher concentrations, especially given we know plants require CO2 in order to breathe. However, the data is the data, and there is no reason to doubt it even if the number are lower than a lay-person might expect. Only someone with their own data, or a conspiracy theorist, or a ‘denier’ would question the data, and even among climate ‘deniers’, there appears to be no dissent on the levels of CO2.

As for humans being responsible for the increase, it is very clear humans are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.

This ‘step 1’ is not really open to scepticism, (although surprisingly I have found reports of such scepticism) as it is simply a measurement of data, combined with the undisputed fact that many human activities emit CO2. Fortunately, I have seen also seen little evidence of denial on this point either.

Step 2: Global Temperatures have risen by over 1 degree C and can be linked to CO2 levels.

A temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius. Most cities and towns experience at least 10 degrees Celsius variation every day. The sceptical response is more likely to be “just one (or even two) degree so what?” while the “denial” response tends to be “you are wrong, it was cold last week, so there is no global warming”.

Graph of reconstructed temperature (blue), CO2 (green), and dust (red) from the Vostok Station ice core for the past 420,000 years: Wikipedia

I suggest that even to a sceptic, a temperate change of one or two degrees seems very believable. The only challenge is to demonstrate how such a change is a significant problem.

I also suggest that anyone who disputes this temperature increase is clearly a ‘denier’ given the significance of the evidence for what, after all, is quite a small temperature change. Further, as the graph to the right reveals, there is clearly a link between temperature and CO2. Correlation is not causation. However, there is an no explanation for rising temperatures causing a rise in CO2 levels, and there is an explanation for rising temperatures stopping CO2 rising.

Step 3: We Can’t Put the CO2 Back Into the Atmosphere.

Why It matters.

To me this was a critical point. Didn’t the atmosphere originally have way more CO2? If there was way more CO2 in the past, why will it be a problem now. How big can the problem be if humanity is only returning CO2 was originally in the atmosphere, back to where it came from?

Where did the ‘Carbon’ in fossil fuel come from?

The graph of CO2 levels above, courtesy of Nasa, shows that current levels of CO2 are now the highest for ‘millennia’. Levels are now suddenly 400 parts per million, despite levels being previously below 300 parts per million for ‘millennia’. But ‘millennia’ actually means ‘thousands of years’ and on a planet that is 4 billion years old, ‘thousands of years’ is far short of forever. Now logic, and sufficient science knowledge to get into trouble tells me that Oxygen in the form of O2 did not even exist until plants started, and all the Carbon in plants comes from CO2 in the air, so all the CO2 in oil and coal came originally from the air. So there must have been far more CO2 in the air billions of years ago.

Clearly if the Earth could support life for billions of years with far higher CO2, then how could a mere 400 parts per million be so bad?

Note the ‘sceptic’ seeks to resolve the conflict, while the ‘denier’ immediately declares, “they are all wrong”.

The conflict was resolved when I learnt that the Sun was originally only 70% of the current intensity, so levels of CO2 from the distant past could be catastrophic today. When the Earth was younger we needed greenhouse gasses at far higher levels than today to avoid a completely frozen Earth.

So yes, the CO2 did all come from the atmosphere, but no, it is not safe to put it back, and it does make sense that putting back that CO2 could be disastrous once you have the facts. However, understanding this step requires understanding a huge missing part of the climate story:

  • The Sun keeps getting hotter and hotter.
  • CO2 levels have been dropping for billions of years to compensate for the ever hotter sun.
  • The Life Supporting Climate on Earth Is 99% over no matter what we do.

Step 4: This Small Change is Disastrous.

I suggest anyone but a ‘denier’ would agree there is this small increase in global temperatures in line with the recent increases in CO2. The question then becomes how big is this as a problem. How big the problem is determines what is justified as a response.

This is where the “didn’t the CO2 come from the atmosphere in the first place” question fits(as discussed below). On this point, the difference between ‘denier’ and ‘sceptic’ largely comes to down to an attitude of “they are lying to us” (denier) vs “how can this be correct” or “I don’t get it” (sceptic).

A big problem is: what is the measure of ‘disastrous’? You can measure CO2 levels, and even though the deniers will not believe that stats, you can measure global average temperature ranges. But there is so simple scale for ‘disastrous’.

My perspective is that a key message, relating to the ‘putting back the CO2‘ topic, is missing from any debate on the potential for climate change to be ‘disastrous’. Without a major education offensive on this message, I feel action on climate change will be mixed. And mixed response is not the goal.

Step 5: We are on track for Real Disaster.

Climate scientists have been sounding the alarm for years now, and consistently deadlines for action are missed, and the indicators of temperature increases accelerate further and further. Yet that action called for seems to be less and less.

Either things are not as bad as suggested, or the action called for is totally inadequate. One or the other.

Step 6: Urgent action is required, but Carbon Neutrality by 2050, is a solution.

I watched a documentary on Bill Gates (inside Bill’s Brain, S1E2 just pas 17 minutes) discussing request for funding on polio:

And I said, “I think you just asked for the most you thought you could ask for, you didn’t ask for what it is really going to take to have a high probability of success.”

Bill Gates: Interview in ‘Inside Bills Brain’ on the project to eradicate polio

Was it a ‘white lie’ for the team to say needed the amount of money that they asked for without explaining that they really needed more? They did they tell themselves they only needed the smaller amount of money? Is it a white lie to say ‘if the globe does not reach Carbon Neutrality by 2050 the consequences will be dire”? Or is it that Carbon Neutrality by 2050 is seen as the most that it is felt can be asked for – even though it is clear that if step 5 on what is at risk is real, this goal is not enough?

Sceptic status? We Are Not Hearing the Truth.

Yes I am. No longer a ‘stage 3’ sceptic, as having found the explanation to my question, it now makes sense that putting CO2 that was previously in the atmosphere, back into the atmosphere could be a bad thing. Further, I am now aware of an entirely new aspect to the threat: as time goes by, keeping the Earth from overheating becomes an increasing challenge.

However, stage 4 does not add up to me, and just as getting the information to overcome my scepticism of stage 3, does not solve the problems as stage 5 and 6 seem mutually exclusive.

How can you reconcile a plea for ‘Carbon Neutrality’ by 2050 with a report that between 200 million and 1 billion people will already be displaced by 2050?

Clearly, either the response being requested is so well below what is actually needed as to effectively be “please re-arrange the deck chairs on this Titanic”, or those requesting that response are also sceptical about how the seriousness of the problem.

Conclusion: In reality, there are far more sceptics than expected.

It almost seems that the only citizen of a high profile country to take reports of the impact of climate change seriously is a teenager in Scandinavia.

The current international plans for ‘step 6’, suggest a huge amount of scepticism, or lack of conviction on step 5.

It would be interesting to know what people reading this consider the possible impact of climate change to be, even in the seemingly unlikely event the globe does reach Carbon Neutrality by 2050.

Is it fair to say if many of us were not still sceptical, we would be putting more focus on the problem? I am reminded of a situation years ago when I heard an elderly lady explaining to a young child how a dog had died. “He has gone to a better place”, the lady declared in an extremely sad voice. The child asked, “If he has gone to a better place, why are you so sad?”. There was no answer, and it seemed that story of the better place for dogs was not necessarily believed.

I wonder how many of us need to put more efforts into resolving our doubts. Should we be more concerned, or is it really just an unlikely risk.

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