I first wrote about man-made climate change more than quarter of a century ago in 1986, when I was science editor of The Economist. Here’s what I wrote then:
“If man were not around, the planet would, over several centuries, cool down enough for snow to last through the summer in Europe and much of North America. That snow would accumulate until ice sheets covered the land. The next ice age would have begun.
But man is around, and he has fiddled with the thermostat. In particular, he has burned wood, coal, gas and oil in increasing amounts, turning it into carbon dioxide and steam in the process. At the same time he has cut down forests to make way for agriculture. More carbon dioxide, fewer plants to turn it back into oxygen: as a result carbon-dioxide levels are rising steadily. They have now reached 150% of their pre-industrial levels: about 280 billion tonnes of carbon have been added to the atmosphere.
All this extra carbon dioxide makes the atmosphere slightly less transparent to infra-red rays. More of the earth’s reflected heat stays here rather than escaping to space.so, the planet is getting warmer. Slowly, and erratically (for about 30 years after the second world war the climate cooled slightly), the average temperature of the whole globe is going up. It has risen about ½ degC since 1850. Carbon dioxide takes time to show its effects, though, so even if levels stay the same as they are now, the temperature will continue to climb. If they go on rising, in the next century the temperature will rise by several degrees.
That may not sound much. To the inhabitants of cold countries, it might sound attractive. But it is worrying mainly because of its effect on the oceans and the pattern of climate. If the temperature of the oceans rises, the water expands slightly and the ice caps melt slightly: on present trends, the sea level will rise by between two and ten feet by 2100. That will inundate low-lying parts of the world, including such populous places as Bangladesh and Holland.”
I think you will agree that this is a fairly standard account of the greenhouse effect and – apart from the male pronoun for the species – could have been written today. Very little has changed in the conventional account of global warming. Indeed, today I would change almost none of it. (Almost! Read on.) I am moderately relieved to find that with just a few weeks exposure to the science of global warming I got most of it roughly right. In those days, remember, there was no internet and journalists had to find things out the hard way.
But as the years passed I came to understand more, and soon I no longer accepted every word of the above account. In particular, I discovered something my informants had failed to disclose – that even fast rising levels of carbon dioxide could not on their own generate “several degrees” of warming in a century: for that to happen requires amplification by water vapour. All the models assumed this amplification, but the evidence for it began to look more and more threadbare. So by 1993, six years after the piece just quoted, I no longer thought that 2-10 feet of sea level rise was likely and I no longer thought that several degrees of warming were likely. Instead, I wrote – in a single throwaway sentence in a long piece about eco-scares generally – that
“Global warming, too, has shot its bolt, now that the scientific consensus has settled down on about a degree of temperature increase over a century-that is, little more than has taken place in the past century.”
This was published in a book the Economist put out each year called (in this case) “The world in 1994”. The main prediction of the essay, by the way, was that genetic engineering was the next big eco-scare. I was right, if a few years early, and I did not spot that tomatoes, rather than dolphins, would be the species that touched the heart strings and purse strings of the green movement. I’ll append the essay at the end of this blog post for those that are interested.
I am even prouder of that sentence. At the time such a “lukewarm” view was unfashionable among activists, though not yet among scientists – and you were allowed to say things like that without being treated like a holocaust denier. But it’s not far from what I think now. Since the modal climate sensitivity in all the best studies is now settling down at a bit over 1.5 degC, and since the effect of aerosols, black carbon, ocean heat uptake etc are now all better understood and provide fewer and fewer excuses for high sensitivity models to disagree with data, for me to have come up with “about a degree” two whole decades ago, in a single sentence in an essay on other topics, seems quite surprising. Climate change was not my main interest then: I was writing a book about the evolution of sex having left the Economist to be my own boss.
Indeed, if you take a look at the graph below, you will see that over 34 years, there has been about 0.36 degrees of warming on a rolling average using data from five different sources: or on track for 1.08degC in a century, give or take. About a degree?
Graph from climate4you.com
I am not claiming prescience, more like surprise. As a journalist you get used to cringing at the things you once wrote, usually when you were too much of a slave to the conventional wisdom of the day. In this case, I feel no need to cringe.
Anyway, what’s the point of all this? Well, this sentence, taken out of context, was reprinted last week by a website called Deltoid in a blog post entitled rather strangely “The Australian’s War on Science 81: Matt Ridley’s 20 year old wrong prediction” (I am not an Australian, and I have as far as I recall only once written an article for the newspaper called the Australian; I have enlisted in no war on science – indeed if there is such a war, I’ll join the infantry on science’s side). The sentence was said to have come from the Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper that again I have hardly ever written for, in 1993.
Alerted by a tweet from Andrew Revkin, I replied in three tweets a few seconds apart: “I did not write for the Globe and Mail in 1993, let alone about climate…maybe the GandM quoted something else I wrote and anyway…not yet wrong”. This led to a torrent of tweets from some activist claiming I had denied the article, I was an idiot, etc. Good luck to him. Anyway somebody –- actually Gavin Schmidt – then kindly posted the article on the Deltoid website (the “owner” of which, Tim Lambert, had failed to do me the courtesy of letting me know he was posting this strange attack) so I could check that yes, I did write it and that yes unbeknownst to me the Globe and Mail did reprint it, presumably with the permission of the Economist, on the last day of 1993.
Now for all I know Tim Lambert may be very good at his day job, which is lecturing in computer graphics at the University of New South Wales. He may also be charming company. But let’s just parse his headline. “Matt Ridley’s 20-year-old wrong prediction”. In what way was it wrong? One fifth of a century has passed since I wrote that sentence – I’d hardly call it a prediction, more an assessment – so how can it be wrong yet to say that there will be a degree of warming in a century? And since the fullest data set over the longest period shows that we are on track for 1.08 degrees of warming in a century, “about a degree” is looking pretty good so far, though of course it is far too early to tell. I’m not claiming it was right, just that it’s 80 years premature to call it wrong.
But Lambert seemed to be under the impression that it was obvious that I was already wrong. In a series of tweets and in a very odd, cherry-picked graph with no data source cited, he kept insisting that there’s been 0.4 degrees of warming between 1993 and 2013. I showed him the above graph. Since 1993 was the low point of the post-Pinatubo cooling (conveniently) and by ignoring the black average line in the above graph but taking the one data point that is November 2012, he claimed justification. “UAH 0.42 warming over baseline. 1993 temp on baseline,” he tweeted. At this I have to admit, I burst out laughing so loudly my dog woke up. Truly the mind boggleth.
There ensued a silly little twitter war of words in which Lambert refused me room to reply in a blog post with diagrams – the comments space of his website does not fit diagrams — while a chorus of tweeters heaped abuse on my head. This is what passes for debate in climate science, or computer graphics departments, these days.
Now, let’s look at some predictions that HAVE failed.
First, the IPCC’s many models, only two of which looks any good at this stage. The rest have all overshot the real world by some margin. Woops.
Chart by John Christy.
Then James Hansen:
Chart from kaltesonne.de
All three of his scenarios were wildly higher than what actually happened, even though carbon dioxide emissions were HIGHER than in all three of his models.
Then IPCC again, this time for methane:
Chart from the leaked IPCC report.
Er, back to the drawing board, lads.
Now look, fellers, you do this kind of thing for a living. I’m just a self-employed writer with no back-up team, no government grants, no taxpayer salary, no computer simulations, and absolutely no pretensions to being Nostradamus about anything. But it strikes me I did a far better job of predicting the climate back in 1993 than any of you! How could that be?
Anyway, the whole episode was depressing in two ways.
First, it’s a little sad that a lecturer in computer graphics took the trouble to look up a sentence a freelance journalist wrote 20 years ago in a piece about something else and falsely claimed it was already “wrong” when it isn’t, and would hardly matter if it was. Does he not have anything better to do?
Second, it’s also a little sad to read just how little has changed in the climate debate since then. If I could travel back in time and tell my 34-year-old self in 1993 that I would be roughly right to take a “lukewarm” view about global warming, but that in the meantime the world would ignore me and would instead spend hundreds of billions of dollars on ways to prevent the poor getting rich with cheap electricity, on destroying rain forests to grow biofuels, on spoiling landscapes with windmills to provide less than half a percent of the world’s energy, and on annual conferences for tens of thousands of pampered activists, then surely my younger self would gape in disbelief.
Anyway, here’s the 1993 essay in case you’re interested.
The Globe and Mail (Canada), December 31, 1993 Friday
THE WORLD IN 1994 IDEAS ENVIRONMENT The Next Eco-Scare: Some environmental crises are genuine; others are carefully exploited fundraising bonanzas