The Express: Climate change is just a 1,500 year cycle

  • 25 Jan 2012, 17:00
  • Christian Hunt

The Express today features an impassioned defence of Lord Nigel Lawson, chairman of the climate skeptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) from journalist Adrian Lee.

Obviously we don't agree with aiming 'venomous' or 'vitriolic' messages at anyone. But separate to any online ire directed at Lawson, there have been many reasonable comments about Lawson and the GWPF which have taken issue with their portrayal of climate science and their expertise on climate and energy matters.

In defending Lawson, the Express article itself makes a series of errors which appear to demonstrate an inaccurate understanding of climate science, and some basic failings of fact checking on points about shale gas.

First up, the climate science. It has been well established that the rise in global average temperature over recent decades cannot be explained by natural causes alone. A new branch of scientific research has developed, trying to quantify how much of the recent rise in global temperatures comes from different causes, such as man-made greenhouse gas emissions, solar forcing, or volcanic eruptions.

The studies which comprise the peer-reviewed scientific literature agree that human activities, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, have caused nearly all of the warming over recent decades. For example, a paper by Gillet et al. published earlier this year calculated that the Earth warmed by nearly 0.7 °C over the fifty years between 1961 and 2010, and that human activity accounted for all of that warming. In fact, the study showed, man-made greenhouse gas emissions would have caused even more warming than we got, were it not for the cooling effect of other processes such as aerosols reflecting energy back out to space. Other attribution studies show similar findings (see for example here and here).

So when Lee writes:

"Many scientists now believe that climate change is much more likely to be part of a cycle of warming and cooling that has happened regularly every 1,500 years for the last million years, without causing major harm."

This is just wrong. Who are these 'many scientists'? They aren't publishing in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

The 1,500 year cycle the Lee refers to are probably sudden climate fluctuations that happened during the most recent glacial period, and which can be detected in ice cores. A cooling and re-warming in the northern hemisphere is balanced by warming and re-cooling in the southern hemisphere, so these fluctuations are a re-distribution of heat in the Atlantic, and not a change overall global temperatures.

This, of course, makes these events different to current warming, which has seen temperatures rise across the planet. Furthermore, there is no peer-reviewed scientific research we're aware of which suggests that these events are linked to current climate change.

This video explains further:


The article also holds up TV presenter Johnny Ball as someone claiming to have been

"vilified for opposing the commonly held view about global warming."

Ball's take on climate science is certainly far from being in agreement with the peer-reviewed scientific consensus on the topic. But Ball himself has denied claiming that environmentalists were involved in smearing his name, as was reported at the time.

Finally, the piece moves on shale gas and fracking. The article makes the point that "fracking is already big business". Certainly true - as a US Energy Information Administration report points out, shale gas could account as much as 47% of US domestic production by 2035, but not, as the Express article claims,

"by the end of the decade"

Finally, the article notes:

"Shale gas emits larger amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than conventional gas but still far less than coal."

This is somewhat confused. Gas in general produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal - roughly half the amount. But shale gas is just natural gas taken from shale, so is still mostly methane. Gas - it's mostly just methane.

It may be that the extraction of shale gas emits more methane (we don't know, there were different views on this at an event we attended last week), but the gas itself is the same, just removed from a different type of rock.

So, again, the Express have produced an article that promotes basic scientific and factual inaccuracies. But as they don't participate in the Press Complaints Commission process there is no mechanism to seek corrections to their coverage.

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