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Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Free and open debate will do more for our environment in the long run

Unusually, George Monbiot had a column in today's Guardian that was both intentionally funny and somewhat convincing. The piece centred on the malign effect he believes environmental sceptics have on discussion of pollution and industrialisation. He particularly castigates the BBC for letting these scientists on its programmes alongside environmental campaigners when the issue is raised, and is no kinder to newspaper commentators. In his attack on journalists sceptical of the 'greenhouse effect', he advises:

If ever you meet one of these people, I suggest you ask them the following questions: 1. Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide? 2. Does atmospheric carbon dioxide influence global temperatures? 3. Will that influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide? 4. Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide? It would be interesting to discover at which point they answer no - at which point, in other words, they choose to part company with basic physics.

This is a good way of beginning the discussion, but only to a point.

One could quite easily ask of George Monbiot: 1. With England more populated than ever, are more people visiting the beaches of the West coast? 2. Does more children visiting these beaches mean more urinating in the Atlantic? 3. Does adding water to more water cause those water levels to rise? Unless you want to part company with science and reality, the answers to these questions also will all be yes.

But the real question that follows from that is whether this human activity is having any significant effect - and whether that effect is negative. Is it a drop in the ocean, or is it something both historically unprecedented and potentially catastrophic? That's the issue sceptical environmentalists are discussing, and the question some of the best scientific minds are asking. The global climate has changed throughout history and prehistory, forces far beyond our control determining temperatures on this island and across the world. As Norman Tebbit noted recently, in Roman times Britons grew grapes right up to the Scottish border, and we were making so much of our own wine that the central Roman authorities complained that we should buy more from them instead. Is the effect of human activity on the climate really so great by comparison to these natural, cyclical forces? If we are heading for trouble, is it really BMWs we have to worry about? Much science suggests not: the effect of human activity has been to increase global temperatures by less in a century than the average variation from one year to the next.

More fundamentally, how do we know that the climate of a century from now will not be better? As Tebbit, again, put it, these reports showing x number of Namibians dying from slightly increased global temperatures never seem to take into account the number of pensioners who survive in Britain or Ireland because the winters are a little warmer. Who are these climate reactionaries like Monbiot to decide that suddenly here and now in April 2004 we must stand before these impersonal forces of history and prehistory and yell 'stop'?

The serious scientific debate on these issues is really only just beginning, and if we want it to continue, then George Monbiot's call for the voices of caution and scepticism to be silenced should not be heeded.

UPDATE: Laban Tall offers a fifth question:

5. Do global temperatures influence atmospheric carbon dioxide?

You see the world is a funny, Gaia-like thing, with feedback going in all directions at once. The oceans hold a lot of carbon dioxide. Warm them up and you'll get more in the atmosphere. Which way does the link work? Are the temperature rise and the carbon dioxide rise due to our outputs, or is higher temperature causing more CO2 to be present?
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