Global Warming: How it all began

by Richard Courtney

Imagined risk

All available evidence indicates that man-made global warming is a physical impossibility, but if the predicted warming could be induced it would probably provide net benefits. However, there is a widespread imagined risk of the warming and politicians are responding to it. Responses to imagined risk are often extreme and dangerous. For example, somebody with a fear of mice may see a mouse and as a response try to jump on a chair causing damage to the chair and injury to himself. There is no point in telling the injured person that mice are harmless because fear is irrational so cannot be overcome by rational argument.

Widespread imagined risk is to be expected as the end of the twentieth century (the end of the second millennium) approaches. Prophets of doom have occurred when the end of each past century approached. They always proclaimed that “the end of the world is nigh” unless people changed their ways and accepted great hardship. So, history suggests that the global warming scare or something like it can be expected at this time.

Global warming proponents call for reduced CO2 emissions and this equates to a call for cuts in the use of energy, but the energy industries have done more to benefit mankind than anything else since the invention of agriculture. And global warming proponents often call for use of ‘renewables’ to replace fossil fuels, but that is a call for a return to preindustrial society: the industrial revolution occurred when fossil fuels replaced biomass and windpower. It is physically impossible for wind and solar energies to supply the energy needs of the developed world, and the peoples of the developing world are insisting on their right to develop too.

The past prophets of doom have all been wrong, so it is reasonable to expect today’s doom-mongers to justify their arguments. And this is especially the case when they attack something so clearly beneficial to mankind as the use of fossil fuels. But imagined risk is not rational, so reasonable expectations do not apply. The simple fact that it is physically impossible for CO2 emissions to cause man-made global warming has no effect on imagined fear of global warming. (It is a simple fact that a mouse cannot eat a person, but some people try to jump on chairs at the sight of mice.)

Also, some global warming proponents are accepting a good financial income from the global warming scare and have become global warming propagandists to promote their interests. These include some researchers who obtain research grants and some environmental organisations who need donations. They are making a living by promoting fear of man-made global warming. Their behaviour is similar to that of the ‘snake oil salesmen’ in the nineteenth century. Snake oil salesmen sold snake oil that did not require real snakes to make it. Global warming propagandists are selling fear of man-made global warming and that does not require real man-made global warming to make it.

The success of the global warming propaganda has induced some observers to argue that a conspiracy has created the imagined risk in the public’s perception (e.g. Böttcher, 1996). But consideration of the origins of the global warming scare deny the existence of any such conspiracy. Interests coincided and supported each other. And a coincidence of interests usually has a more powerful effect than a group of conspirators. The origins of the scare are political and have resulted in political policies that now threaten serious economic damage for the entire world.

  The origins of the global warming scare

The hypothesis of man-made global warming has existed since the 1880s. It was an obscure scientific hypothesis that burning fossil fuels would increase CO2 in the air to enhance the greenhouse effect and thus cause global warming. Before the 1980s this hypothesis was usually regarded as a curiosity because the nineteenth century calculations indicated that mean global temperature should have risen more than 1°C by 1940, and it had not. Then, in 1979, Mrs Margaret Thatcher (now Lady Thatcher) became Prime Minister of the UK, and she elevated the hypothesis to the status of a major international policy issue.

Mrs Thatcher is now often considered to have been a great UK politician: she gave her political party (the Conservative Party) victory in three General Elections, resided over the UK’s conduct of the Falklands War, replaced much of the UK’s Welfare State with monetarist economics, and privatised most of the UK’s nationalised industries. But she had yet to gain that reputation when she came to power in 1979. Then, she was the first female leader of a major western state, and she desired to be taken seriously by political leaders of other major countries. This desire seemed difficult to achieve because her only experience in government had been as Education Secretary (i.e. a Junior Minister) in the Heath administration that collapsed in 1974. She had achieved nothing notable as Education Secretary but was remembered by the UK public for having removed the distribution of milk to schoolchildren (she was popularly known as ‘Milk Snatcher Thatcher’.)

Sir Crispin Tickell, UK Ambassador to the UN, suggested a solution to the problem. He pointed out that almost all international statesmen are scientifically illiterate, so a scientifically literate politician could win any summit debate on a matter which seemed to depend on scientific understandings. And Mrs Thatcher had a BSc degree in chemistry. (This is probably the most important fact in the entire global warming issue; i.e. Mrs Thatcher had a BSc degree in chemistry). Sir Crispin pointed out that if a ‘scientific’ issue were to gain international significance, then the UK’s Prime Minister could easily take a prominent role, and this could provide credibility for her views on other world affairs. He suggested that Mrs Thatcher should campaign about global warming at each summit meeting. She did, and the tactic worked. Mrs Thatcher rapidly gained the desired international respect and the UK became the prime promoter of the global warming issue. The influences that enabled this are described in Figure 1 and the following paragraphs.

Figure 1. Influences leading to UK imagined risk of global warming.

Overseas politicians began to take notice of Mrs Thatcher’s campaign if only to try to stop her disrupting summit meetings. They brought the matter to the attention of their civil servants for assessment, and they reported that - although scientifically dubious - ‘global warming’ could be economically important. The USA is the world’s most powerful economy and is the most intensive energy user. If all countries adopted ‘carbon taxes’, or other universal proportionate reductions in industrial activity, each non-US industrialised country would gain economic benefit over the United States. So, many politicians from many countries joined with Mrs Thatcher in expressing concern at global warming and a political bandwagon began to roll. Mrs Thatcher had raised an international policy issue and thus become an influential international politician.

Mrs Thatcher could not have promoted the global warming issue without the support of her UK political party. And they were willing to give it. Following the General Election of 1979, most of the incoming Cabinet had been members of the government which lost office in 1974. They blamed the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for their 1974 defeat. They, therefore, desired an excuse for reducing the UK coal industry and, thus, the NUM’s power. Coal-fired power stations emit CO2 but nuclear power stations don’t. Global warming provided an excuse for reducing the UK’s dependence on coal by replacing it with nuclear power.

And the Conservative Party wanted a large UK nuclear power industry for another reason. That industry’s large nuclear processing facilities were required for the UK’s nuclear weapons programme and the opposition Labour Party was then opposing the Conservative Party’s plans to upgrade the UK’s nuclear deterrent with Trident missiles and submarines. Unfortunately, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents had damaged public confidence in nuclear technology. Then, privatisation of the UK’s electricity supply industry exposed the secret that UK nuclear electricity cost four times more than UK coal-fired electricity. Global warming became the only remaining excuse for the unpopular nuclear power facilities needed for nuclear weapons. Mrs Thatcher had to be seen to spend money at home if her international campaign was to be credible.

So, early in her global warming campaign - and at her personal instigation - the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research was established, and the science and engineering research councils were encouraged to place priority in funding climate-related research. This cost nothing because the UK’s total research budget was not increased; indeed, it fell because of cuts elsewhere. But the Hadley Centre sustained its importance and is now the operating agency for the IPCC’s scientific working group (Working Group 1). Most scientists’ work depends on funds fully or partly provided by governments. Also, all scientists compete to obtain their share of this limited resource. Available research funds were shrinking, and global warming had become the ‘scientific’ issue of most interest to governments. Hence, any case for funding support tended to include reference to global warming whenever possible. Much science in many fields may be conducted under the guise of a relationship to global warming. Activities which have obtained funds by this method include biology, meteorology, computer science, physics, chemistry, climatology, oceanography, civil engineering, process engineering, forestry, astronomy, and several other disciplines. Now, funds for this work are provided to most UK Universities and several commercial research establishments.

Much peer pressure deters scientists from damaging potential sources of research funds. There is especial pressure - loss of future career - to avoid being the first to proclaim the scientific truth of global warming and thus damage the research funding of colleagues. But failure to proclaim the scientific truth does not mean that many scientists believe in the global warming hypothesis. In 1992 - at the height of the global warming scare - Greenpeace International conducted a survey of the world’s 400 leading climatologists. Greenpeace had hoped to publicise the results of that survey in the run-up to the Rio summit, but when they completed the survey, they gave very little publicity to its results. In response to the survey, only 15 climatologists were willing to say they believed in global warming, although all climatologists rely on it for their employment. Also, the Leipzig Declaration disputes the IPCC assertions about man-made global warming. It was drafted following the Leipzig Climate Conference in November 1995 and has been signed by over 1,500 scientists from around the world.

The global warming issue is political. It induced the ‘Earth Summit’ that was attended by several Heads of State in Rio de Janeiro during June 1992 and is the reason for the Kyoto Summit in Japan in December 1997. Governments have a variety of motives for interest in global warming. Each government has its own special interests in global warming but, in all cases, the motives relate to economic policies. In general, the USA fears loss of economic power to other nations while this is desired by those other nations. Universal adoption of ‘carbon taxes’, or other universal proportionate reductions in industrial activity, would provide relative benefit to the other nations. Unfortunately, if a few nations adopted the changes they would increase their manufacturing, transportation and energy costs and thus lose economic competitiveness and industrial activity to all other nations. Developing nations cannot afford technological and economic advances that would benefit them and also reduce their increases to CO2 emissions as they develop, so they are seeking gifted technology transfers and economic aid from developed countries.

The press are interested in selling papers and the TV companies want to gain viewers. Threat of world-wide disaster makes a good story, and the statements and actions of politicians together with great increase in scientific publications gave global warming an apparent authority. The media began to proclaim the worst imagined horrors. For example, massive floods were predicted due to melting of polar ice. and one UK TV programme went so far as to assert that the polar bears would die out because their habitat would melt. The public rely on the media to provide them with their information, so they came to believe the global warming scare because they were only given one side of the story. Politicians respond to public concern, so the politicians actions began to gain popular support.

On face value global warming is an environmental issue. Many environmentalists joined the bandwagon. Governments were offering money and the public were concerned at global warming. Any environmental issue which could be linked to global warming was said to be involved in the matter. But the environmentalist interest was aroused by the impact of the issue. Contrary to common belief, environmentalists did not raise awareness of global warming, they responded to it. Simply, environmentalist organisations were part of the general public and decided to use the issue when it became useful to them.

Figure 2. Positive feedbacks supporting UK imagined risk of global warming.

Aspects of the global warming issue began to feed on each other. Many positive feedback loops exist in the system and the major ones are shown in Figure 2. The system amplifier is the politicians’ support of global warming. The issue is assisted by gaining political approval each time it passes around a loop shown in Figure 2.

The UK Government lost interest in global warming when Mr John Major replaced Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister. The flow of Government money began to stop for conduct of global warming research. UK scientists then began to speak out in denial of the global warming hypothesis. It seemed that the issue was dying a natural death. Then the ‘coal crisis’ arose in October 1992 when the public protested at the scale of pit closures. This gave the UK Government a new need to find an excuse for its policy of closing coal mines. Global warming fitted this need and so the Government committed £16,000,000 to an advertising campaign which scaremongered about global warming, and re-established the funding priorities for climate research.

Later, at the start of May 1997, the Conservative Party lost office to the Labour Party and Mr Tony Blair became UK Prime Minister. The UK had initiated the global warming issue and a change of UK policy may have had a significant effect on the widespread imagined risk, but by then the global warming issue had become important in its own right. Many countries had a stated global warming policy, 122 of them had signed a declaration of intent to reduce CO2 emissions at the Rio Summit, and the Kyoto Summit was scheduled. The UK was one of the very few countries that had reduced its CO2 emissions since the Rio Summit because the UK had replaced coal-fired generating capacity by gas-fired generating capacity. This provided the UK with a position of authority in this international affair, and Mr Blair committed the new UK government to strict action to cut CO2 emissions.

   Governments’ global warming policies

Man-made global warming has become a major international political issue. The imagined risk has become a real risk in the form of proposed government policies to inhibit CO2 emissions. The Rio Summit in 1992 proposed actions to constrain the emissions and the Kyoto Summit in December 1997 is intended to establish binding agreements that will commit nation states to the constraints. Although there are no real and potential risks of the global warming, the effects of the constraints will cause real and severe economic damage.

All industrial and economic growth requires an abundance of available energy supply. Anything that inhibits energy supplies reduces economic activity. At Kyoto, governments will be pressured to reduce CO2 emissions to far below their 1990 levels. This requires cutting fuel supplies and, therefore, economic activity. The effects would be much more severe than the ‘oil crisis’ in the 1970s because the constraint on fossil fuel usage would be greater, the increases to energy costs would be larger, and energy demand has increased since then.

Already, OECD countries (Europe, Japan and the US) have agreed in principle to adopt the ‘Berlin Mandate’ that requires them to cut their CO2 emissions to 15% below their 1990 levels by year 2010. The US Department of Energy (DoE) estimates that this would increase US domestic energy prices by between 80 and 90% and would increase the coal price to US consumers by 300%. Also, the DoE study determines that the Berlin Mandate would not reduce world-wide emissions of CO2. Energy intensive industries would be forced to move from the US to places where the emission constraints did not exist or were not enforced. This could even result in an increase to the emissions because the less-controlled places are likely to have less energy efficient industries. The DoE study goes further by saying that its findings are not specific to the US but apply to every industrialised country.

The US DoE study is supported by a similar study commissioned by the German government. That determined the cost to Germany of fulfilling the Berlin Mandate would be about US$500 billion and the loss of 250,000 jobs.

Industrialised countries would not suffer alone. The economy of every country is affected by the performance of the world economy. The economic disruption in the developed world would harm economic activity everywhere. The largest affects would be in the developed countries because their economies are largest. But the worst effects would be suffered by the world’s poorest peoples (people who are near to starvation are starved by economic disruption.).

A rational assessment of appropriate policies would include cost/benefit analysis, but imagined risk is not rational. All the proposed responses to the imagined risk of man-made global warming would increase starvation and poverty while inhibiting economic development throughout the entire world. And CO2 emissions would not be reduced and may be increased. In practice, politicians are accepting the predictions of climate models as being predictions of the future, and they are acting to change that future. This is similar to the behaviour of people who believe horoscope predictions of future harm so they avoid situations where that harm could happen.