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Energy policy or the dark art of global cooling?

  • 23 May 2012, 16:09
  • Christian Hunt

Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and Guardian columnist, has written a somewhat bizarre blog at the Guardian's Comment is Free today.

His central thesis seems to be that British energy policy is something of a dark art that rests on shaky factual foundations.

Our experience of examining media coverage of the same doesn't disprove this, but even so we'd guess that Jenkins' assertion that

"Anyone who claims to understand energy policy is either mad or subsidised."

...is probably a bit strong.

Jenkins has a somewhat bizarre characterisation of why the UK is trying to change its energy policy, though. He seems to think that the aim is to bring about global cooling:

"As for achieving a remotely significant degree of global cooling, that requires world diplomacy - which has, as yet, proved wholly elusive.

"Britain's contribution to cooling can only be so infinitesimal as to be little more than gesture politics, yet it is a gesture that is massively expensive."

Are we being excessively pedantic, or is it worth heading off confusion about this?

Measures to mitigate man-made greenhouse gas emissions, like for example burning less fossil fuels in favour of more low-carbon energy generation, are not usually suggested as a way to bring about 'global cooling'.

The reason that scientists have recommended trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions is to limit current ongoing global temperature rise. As the Committee on Climate Change, the UK government's advisors on preparing for and mitigating climate change, explain:

"Based on current levels of understanding, the world should aim to keep central (i.e. 50% probability) estimates of temperature increase by 2100 close to 2°C, and should limit the probability of a 4°C increase to very low levels (e.g. 1%)."

In case Jenkins seriously thinks that global cooling is what is being mooted, it's worth pointing out that it's almost certainly not a realistic option at this point. Even in an obviously unrealistic scenario where we suddenly stopped all greenhouse emissions today, scientists calculate that the planet would most likely continue to warm, because the greenhouse gases we've already put into the atmosphere would continue to warm it, while aerosols (which help to cool the atmosphere) would be quickly washed out.

Anyway, let's hope that 'global cooling' is just a silly rhetorial flourish.

Perhaps more unhelpful is how Jenkins frames current understanding of climate science, and the potential outcomes of global warming, in a pretty unrealistic way. Again, let's not take this too seriously because it's very obviously a polemic, but this is his summation of the state of scientific opinion on climate change:

"The world is doomed anyway (James Lovelock) or not doomed at all (Nigel Lawson)."

Indeed, James Lovelock recently suggested that his previous doom-laden predictions, which had already been largely dismissed by scientists, were 'alarmist'. On the other hand, Nigel Lawson is probably also not the first person you should turn to in order to get an accurate sumamtion of climate science, particularly given the kinds of things his climate skeptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation get up to.

Of course, the reality of the situation is much more nuanced than Jenkins suggests in his piece, and these two polar extremes of opinion on the potential outcomes of climate change aren't representative of the majority of commentators, let alone scientists. And as we have previously noted, the extreme viewpoint of one individual - or even two - doesn't change what we know about climate science.

Anyway, it's a polemic piece by a columnist who doesn't like wind turbines. What does it matter? Here's another polemic from a Guardian columnist to cheer you up, which probably also does a better job of responding to the kind of arguments Jenkins puts forward.


 

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