Climate activism is subject to controversy. On the one side are the climate scientists and social movements. They predict dire consequences and catastropic implications.But there are the sceptics. They question the assumptions and findings of climate science. They claim to have exposed it as a myth. The layperson wonders whom to believe.
This blog addresses this conundrum by unpacking the implication of client denialism. I use the arguments advanced by engineer Andrew Kelly. The SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) published these at the end of 2015. It advocated this to promote and defend free speech.
The post presents six assertions that make up Kenny’s argument. These are as follows.
CO2 saturates the atmosphere. So extra quantities can have no further greenhouse effect.
There is no causal link between atmospheric CO2 parts per million and temperature levels.
Sunspots produce climate change and we can’t do anything about it.
Climate change is too complex to model.
So-called climate research is scientific fraud and just climate activism.
The SA government subsidises expensive renewable energy projects, which are unsustainable.
The post clarifies challenges to each of these assumptions. I draw these from key documents in the scientific literature.
I show that climate scientists refuted each of Kenny’s assumptions. I use examples from the history of climate science. I do this to provide a sound theoretical basis for climate activism. I hope to inspire professional planners and urban strategists to become climate activists
Many ask the above question (in the title of this post). Many more deny its relevance. Globally there is apathy about these questions. People lead busy lives. They don’t know enough. They don’t have the time to find out. Serious urban and housing strategists should concern themselves. Is the idea that fossil fuels cause climate change a hoax or valid science? A minority of climate activists struggle to mobilise opinion for mitigation and adaptation. Government and corporates claim climate sensitivity. What is true? What is false? Shouldn’t we try and find out, given the risks of climate change? Can we address these through restructuring our urban spaces? Or do we need a radical economic and social development plan? How can we hope to answer these questions without understanding the science of climate change?
Political correctness and profitability drive corporate and government claims, in South Africa and elsewhere. In the US and Europe there are signs of mass climate activist protest. In South Africa popular awareness is almost non existent. Here there is an almost complete lack of climate activist social movements protesting climate change.
So, is the temperature rising or is earth in fact cooling? Are we at the whim of greater natural, solar forces, or is there anything we can do about this? If not now, when? We need to answer these questions to awake from a clouded awareness. Our conditions of life reproduce this lack of consciousness. People are trying to make ends meet. Some focus on raising families. Others pursue their careers. Many people are doing both. There is little time left to be climate activists campaigning to prevent apocalyptic events that might not even have a basis in reality. Feeding this confusion is the claim by climate sceptics that there is no rising temperature or if there is there is little we can do about it. We had best get on with economic growth and job creation. Global warming and climate change are part of an industry. This industry includes the production of renewable energy and the ideology of apocalyptic events. The purpose of the ideology is to frighten us into acquiescing to “their agenda”. In the US Donald Trump is the leading exponent of these views. In South Africa the cudgel has been picked up by several climate deniers. In this post we examine the claims made by engineer Andrew Kenny and the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) at end 2015. Our aim is to educate ourselves about the truth regarding climate change and climate activism.
Climate Activism and the Urban and Housing Questions
The key social questions around urban development and housing for the mass of our people is where will development happen and who will pay for it? These same questions reared their heads under apartheid. Then we thought that we could provide decent quality of life by opening up economic growth for the benefit of all. Now we are confronted with the limits to growth. But many of us still think growth is a precondition for improving the quality of life for all. So we have to take a stand on the issue of limits to growth. Climate change presents a stark example of these limits. Most built environment professionals and climate activists assume economic growth as the basis for broader-based social development. A few climate activists question this wisdom. The others regard these climate activists as part of a “green agenda”. They dismiss our concerns as undermining the core solution: economic growth. So to create a strong base for an ecological economics we need to understand the fundamentals of climate science. We do this by clarifying and critiquing the growth model. We start with a critique of climate scepticism.
Writing in SA Race Relations bulletin, @ Liberty (November 2015) engineer Andrew Kenny argued that to claim human extraction of fossil fuels drives global warming is fraudulent and a scam to perpetuate material benefit for professionals and climate activists comprising the climate change industry. He also claimed that people who questioned this were victimised and had their reputations attacked, a viewpoint supported by the SAIRR’s Frans Cronje, which was also the reason why the SAIRR published Kenny’s thoughts, in order to promote ‘the other view point’ and thereby advance the struggle for freedom of speech, which they both see as threatened by a rapidly decreasing tolerance of alternative viewpoints in the country.
I work as a strategic adviser on plans for sustainable human settlements, one of the pillars of which is conservation of the ecology through various critical interventions including the mitigation of CO2 emissions. It is important to come to terms with what climate science is telling us, because if there is large-scale ecological breakdown in the near future, how are we going to adapt in a way that sustains our living environments? In this regard there is an interesting article by Dirk de Vos where he eschews getting into the scientific debate because he thinks it will convince no one – However, I chose to unpack Kenny’s scientific points/premises and did some research on the state of climate science on these points. Maybe it’s just my predilection but I think it is important for lay people – especially professionals in the built environment – to try and understand the scientific arguments. Having said that I appreciate De Vos’ point when he argues that even if the risk of climate induced severe weather events is unlikely, the impact of these events (should they happen) would be catastrophic for the human and many other species. He makes the eminently sensible point that taking action to mitigate emissions and adapt to the estimated impact of weather events is necessary to mitigate this risk. One of these actions is implementing a carbon tax, the quantum of which is directly related to the temperatures recorded in the troposphere. This has the advantage of taking on climate deniers on their own ground: if the temperature is not rising, as averred by Kenney, then there will be little or no tax and climate deniers and their constituency should have no problem because they will then not be penalised.
Anti-climate pseudoscience as knowledge
Much of Kenny’s piece is an attack on the climate scientists through using emotional terminology and never providing a jot of evidence to demonstrate the culpability of specific individuals in the fraud that he claims is being perpetrated. Far more serious is his questioning of the very basis of climate science, using apparently demonstrable evidence. What we all need to be clear about is that the key points of Kenny’s argument are challengeable within the scientific paradigm, and that many have been debated within the scientific community. The following are the six key points around which Kenny’s argument is built, and the substantial scientific challenges to each of these points.
KENNY’S FUNDAMENTAL POINT: CO2 is quickly saturated in its ability to absorb infra-red wave/particles. Therefore, every part of CO2 that is added to the atmosphere results in diminishing increases in heat until no more heat is added. The implication is that so much CO2 has been added that there is no more warming effect, so we may as well just continue to do so.
CHALLENGE: An article by skepticalscience.com, ‘Is the CO2 effect saturated?’ shows how heat that is absorbed by CO2 is partly reflected back to Earth and partly transferred to the next layer of the atmosphere, meaning that the saturation point is never reached. George Philander (Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University) (Is the Temperature Rising?, Princeton, 1998) explains the Greenhouse effect – and refers to CO2 as an effective absorber of infrared radiation and a powerful ‘greenhouse gas’.
KENNY’S 2nd POINT: Indicators of temperature increases from 1996 to 2014 are unreliable because of unsound measurement methods. Satellite readings indicate that during the last 18 years there has been no rise in temperatures, yet CO2 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere increased substantially. From the 1950s to the 1980s when temperatures were relatively flat, CO2 ppm rose significantly. Thus there is no causal link between CO2 ppm and temperature levels.
CHALLENGE: In the 1990s Spencer and Christy, of the University of Alabama, observed that while ground temperatures were warming the troposphere (first layer of earth’s atmosphere) wasn’t. They questioned ground temperature readings. Other scientists, including the US National Academies, demonstrated that tropospheric and ground temperatures concur by separating the stratosphere’s (the next atmospheric layer) cooling effect from the troposphere’s warming effect. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) diagram (in Robert Henson, The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Rough Guides, London, 2011) shows the long-term temperature trend, from 1880 to 2010 is clearly upwards, and that it is aligned to an upward trend in CO2 ppm, as indicated below.
KENNY’S 3rd POINT: Mankind can do nothing about climate change because it is produced by nature, that is by the changing influence of the sun – and sun spots – on Earth’s temperature. At certain times charged solar particles deflect cosmic rays, thereby reducing cloud cover and increasing temperatures. The Medieval Warming Period (MWP) (800 to 1400 AD) is an example of the impact of increased solar activity on Earth’s atmosphere.
CHALLENGE: Henson (referred to earlier) mentions some laboratory evidence supporting theories about the function of solar particles (as espoused by Kenny), but also that satellite readings from the atmosphere show conflicting results. Henson also observes that some climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have closely correlated observed temperature with human and natural causes, and not with natural causes only. Skeptical science carried an article with comments suggesting that current temperatures are significantly higher than the MWP temperatures and that in addition to higher solar activity there were also changes in ocean circulation patterns during the MWP, which had a positive feedback on an already warming climate. The point is that the focus on solar activity as the source of global warming is challenged by these observations. A further question to Kenny is why use the solar activity argument to explain global warming given the 2nd point (above) that the past 18 years have witnessed no rise in temperature?
KENNY’S 4th POINT: Climate change is too complex to model.
CHALLENGE: Philander makes the point that to fully appreciate the insights of climate science we need to see not just single events and single causes but place the functioning of CO2 within a context of feedback effects, through which other processes involving other gases and materials can enhance or cancel out the global warming effect of greenhouse gases. For example as CO2 contributes to global warming this can result in more rapid evaporation of water from the seas, but as this water vapour rises to colder parts of the atmosphere the water vapour condenses and forms clouds which can return water to the earth, and also thereby cool the atmosphere. To make predictions about Earth’s weather patterns in a context of global warming requires computer models into which all the necessary variables and their complex interactions are fed. With each new technical development these models are becoming more accurate in their predictions, based on how accurately they are able to model past scenarios where most of the variables are known.
KENNY’S 5th POINT: e-Mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in 2009, revealed the scientific fraud being perpetrated: hiding, manipulation and deletion of data to influence the IPCC graphs, and plans to censor journals that didn’t follow the ‘party line of alarm’.
CHALLENGE: Robert Henson observes that closer examination of this correspondence revealed that the conversations were between scientists about developing a satisfying approach to solving a problem rather than a nefarious strategy, and that a series of investigations in 2010 exonerated the researchers from allegations of scientific wrongdoing.
KENNY’S 6th POINT: The SA government’s Renewable Energy Independent Producer’s Preferential Procurement Programme (REI4P) is undermining effective supply of sufficient electricity at market prices – state subsidies are a must because it is impossible to supply wind and solar generated electricity at market prices.
CHALLENGE: The injunction to keep subsidies out of energy provision reflects a market fundamentalist ideology, which suggests that the REI4P is inefficient and costly. Brent and Walwyn demonstrate that the increasingly competitive bidding process of the REI4P, combined with rapidly falling costs of photovoltaic and wind power, has succeeded in reducing the weighted cost of renewable energy by 23 per cent to the cost of new coal-based generation and by 28 per cent to global renewable energy prices (‘Renewable energy gathers steam in South Africa’). He incorrectly identifies the REI4P projects as subsidised by the state, whereas the coal-fired power stations have received financing directly from the fiscus.
Andrew Kenny’s case that climate science is a fraud is contested by reputable climate scientists and the points that he raises are not new to debates in the community of climate science. Indeed some of the crucial issues have apparently been resolved years ago. Instead of making this explicit Kenny has woven certain facts and half-truths into a diatribe against what he claims is a climate science industry fraud, which he says is aimed primarily at defending and consolidating the significant sums of money that are allocated to this sector each year. The SAIRR has associated itself with Kenny’s crusade against the suppression of free speech, implying too that there are interests at stake in the climate science community that don’t want an open discussion of the theories and the facts.
Science, reason and climate activism
There are a growing number of people all over the world who are becoming aware of and educating themselves about the risk of climate change and global warming. We see the current and future security of all people as inextricably bound up with a planet that retains its ecological balance below a certain level of temperature – a maximum rise of 2 degrees centigrade is accepted by most in the scientific community as the limit of temperature increases that the planet can tolerate before a tipping point is reached where extreme and sometimes unpredictable, severe weather events with disastrous consequences are likely to take place in various parts of the globe. The greater long-term risk is that of runaway climate change.
I think that a key factor in changing our carbon footprint and moving away from fossil fuel energy sources is grassroots citizens activism. But this climate activism needs to be informed by an understanding of the uncertain science of global warming. In this process there should be open debate about the fundamentals of climate change. Open debate means that climate deniers also have the freedom to put forward their arguments based on evidence. And as leaders of that climate activism, both for and against the science of climate change, we have a duty to learn from and understand both the science and the historical trajectory of carbon emissions in order to more effectively predict both the likelihood as well as the impact of both slow as well as extreme weather events. Doing the research, producing the evidence and providing an authentic understanding of the science as well as the facts, is the starting point of this climate activism. This not what Kenney and the SAIRR have done though. They have obfuscated the issues, manipulated some of the facts and tried to create a paranoia about a climate science scam under the guise of objective science and freedom of speech. The question remains: why would they do this?
For urban strategists as well as grassroots community organisers the important question remains. What can societies do about the risks of climate change? How can we spread prosperity to all and live within a sustainable carbon footprint? Climate activists see governments and corporates all over the world paying lip service to mitigating the rate of CO2 emissions. The simple point is that the remaining reserves of natural gas, tar sands, coal and oil needs to stay in the ground. But fossil-fuel extraction companies continue to pursue business-as-usual. People like Kenny and organisations like the SAIRR help to muddy the waters around this critical issue. As does the National Treasury’s Cities Support Programme (CSP). The CSP focus on changing urban form in order to make cities more sustainable (including environmental sustainability). The CSP wants to change urban morphology to improve efficiencies. But the problem is the burning of fossil fuels. It is not about the efficient usage of energy. This takes us into another dimension of this issue. One that is important for urban strategists and grassroots movement fighting for the Right to the City. Arumugam Pillay and I have written about this in greater detail in our paper critiquing spatial targeting.
 Kenny rejects skepticalscience.com as part of the climate change industry, without effectively refuting their arguments, i.e. he plays the man and not the ball.