“We’re hurting Britain, not saving the planet.”

In a recent opinion piece in the Telegraph, Chris Gibson-Smith tries to make a case that British policies towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions are a huge mistake. Who’s Gibson-Smith? He is Chairman of the London Stock Exchange and a former group managing director at BP. That said, he has a PhD in earth chemistry and was on some business forums for the environment, so apparently we should trust his scientific opinion about climate change over the findings of 2,500 scientists and government representatives (including those from oil-producing countries) who recently concluded with a 90% certainty that humans are to blame for increases in global temperatures.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am very much a layperson when it comes to climate change science. So please correct me if I’m wrong. But I wanted to respond to some of Gibson-Smith’s comments:

To begin to understand climate change, it needs to be emphasised that we are actually in the middle of an ice age. We are in a warm phase of that ice age, but we are definitely in an ice age… One of the possible reasons we are in this ice age, is that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere appear to be at their lowest levels for nearly 50 million years. During the last ice pulse that culminated 20,000 years ago, when Britain was covered in ice sheets miles thick, carbon dioxide concentrations were as low as 190 parts per million, which is equivalent to 0.019 per cent of the atmosphere. They have now risen to around 379 parts per million, but 50 million years ago they were at 1,400 per million.

What he’s referring to is what geologists call the Great Ice Age, which has lasted for the last 1.8 million years. But he’s being (intentionally?) misleading here. We are living in what’s considered an interglacial period (an era of warmer temperatures between ice ages). And he’s been really misleading when he claims that CO2 levels are the lowest they’ve been in 50 million years. He’s casting an incredibly wide net (to long before homo sapiens were around) to somehow minimize the fact that CO2 levels (at 380 parts per million and climbing) are in fact higher than they’ve been in at least 400,000 years.

“It is clear that carbon dioxide is one factor that influences climate. Without the greenhouse effect it creates, the planet would be a permanent ice ball and there would be no life as we know it. Historically, rises in CO2 seem to have followed temperature increases, but human activities are now introducing something new that hasn’t happened before.

Oddly, however, although we are raising the carbon dioxide levels in a linear fashion, the temperature is not behaving in the way it should if there was a simple linkage. Clearly, there are things going on which we do not yet understand. This is true of climate change as a whole. The science is complex and can only begin to be understood by blending astronomy, geology, biology, oceanography and meteorology. There are many uncertainties and disagreements about how these disciplines contribute and interact with each other. There is still great uncertainty over the role of the Sun, how the Earth’s orbit affects climate, the way the oceans take up carbon dioxide and the role biology has to play in the planet’s climate.”

Trying to be polite, I think I’ll describe this as a mischaracterization. If he said that weather and climate were not behaving linearly (that is, it’s not getting hot everywhere at once), I’d agree with him. But global temperatures and CO2 levels really do mirror each other. And while it’s true that there are a lot of things related to climate that we don’t understand, there are many things we do. And two key ones are: 1. That there is a correlation between CO2 levels and global temperatures, and 2. That gases like carbon dioxide create a “greenhouse effect” that leads to heat being trapped in the atmosphere.

“This all makes it difficult to predict what is going to happen, and it reduces the credibility of those who suggest that the science is certain. In fact, the predictions give a wide range of possible outcomes and at the moment the temperature changes are tracking the low end of the forecasts.”

My understanding is that this is not correct, that temperatures have increased more quickly than previously anticipated. And the science is as certain as science can be: Global temperatures are rising, and CO2 levels since the Industrial Revolution are also rapidly rising–reaching levels not seen in the last 400,000 years. There is a correlation between global temperatures and CO2 levels, going back millions and millions of years. CO2 levels are one of a number of influences on atmospheric and surface temperatures, but the influence of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is well understood scientifically.

What is not clearly understood is exactly how the increase of GHGs will effect global temperatures. But the models provide enough information for us to know that things are changing, and rapidly. What is more concerning from the standpoint of the well-being of life on earth is how quickly they will rise. Life adapts to changes, but it is much more difficult for life to adapt to rapid changes. CO2 levels have been rising very rapidly and promise even more severe changes.

Ultimately, though, we have to accept that the UK is a minnow in climate terms. We are responsible for less than 2 per cent of global emissions, so even if we were to become perfect, our contribution would be negligible. There is no point in damaging our competitiveness and reducing our GDP if the planet will never notice.

This is such a B.S. statement I don’t even know where to begin. He completely neglects to recognize the role that international politics play in addressing this crisis. If every country were to take this attitude–and developing countries like India and China have an even stronger case to make (they’ve contributed far less than industrialized nations to our current greenhouse gas levels and still have a long way to go to even the playing field economically)–we would get nowhere. You can’t just say that Britain makes up 2% of global GHG emissions… you have to factor in its influence in creating international agreements.

So, in the whole, Gibson-Smith tries to use misleading/irrelevant science to paint a picture that global temperature increases and the rise of CO2 levels are all part of some long geological pattern of change that we don’t really understand. And so, because of that, we shouldn’t “hurt” economies (btw, making this economic assumption is far more questionable than the climate models he poo-poos) now when we don’t really know what’s going on and our behaviors hardly influence anything.

That’s basically like a homeowner saying: “I know that termites are eating away the structural foundation of our condo, but how do we know that the house wouldn’t collapse anyway from an earthquake or a fire? And our neighbor probably has termites, too, and so why should we spend money to fix the problem when he may not, and then his termites will just spread over here anyway? And when I really stop to think about it, we’re probably just going to die soon and the kids will inherit the house. So let them deal with it. Pass the butter.”

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3 thoughts on ““We’re hurting Britain, not saving the planet.”

  1. Pingback: Bush must be thankful for Imus « Two Thirds Done

  2. Great summary and rebuttal. I’m not surprised to see someone passing the buck on the issue. It’s like with smokers who think they’re impervious to the health consequences and can quit when it becomes more critical. I guess he’ll decide it’s a problem when the British sea scape is under water.

    …and I loved the ‘butter’ ending.

  3. Great insight: the assumptions that cutting emissions will “hurt” economies, and that “hurting” economies is critically important, are far more questionable than the climate models.

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