POURING ON COLD WATER
An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming
By Nigel Lawson (Duckworth Overlook 149pp £9.99)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
It was Harry S Truman who famously demanded to talk only to one-handed economists: he was fed-up with what he saw as 'on the one hand ... but on the other' non-answers. In the same way, politicians and an impatient media seek excessive certainty and simplicity from natural scientists; they have little time for nuance or admissions of doubt.
As far as they are concerned, it is 'settled science' that the earth is set to warm significantly in coming decades as a result of man-made action and that this will have a catastrophic impact on humanity; it is equally 'settled economics' that massive reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are required as soon as possible to mitigate the costs of global warming.
It has become increasingly difficult for the minority that questions some or all of the above statements to be granted a fair hearing. This is the fourth book from Lord Lawson of Blaby, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and prominent sceptic of the consensus view on global warming; while his first three books found publishers before they were even written, this one was rejected by every British firm it was submitted to.
It is finally being brought to market by Duckworth, owned by Peter Mayer, proprietor of the Overlook Press in New York. Whether or not readers are convinced by Lawson's arguments - regrettably, I suspect most true believers will dismiss his arguments out of hand - we owe Mayer a debt of gratitude for this essential contribution to the debate.
So far, Lawson argues, there has been much less global warming than most people realise. The Hadley Centre's figures show that the climate didn't change between 1900 and 1920, warmed by 0.4°C between 1920 and 1940, had cooled by 0.2°C by 1975 and since then has warmed by 0.5°C, making a total rise of 0.7°C. Lawson also points to figures compiled by Hadley as well as by the University of East Anglia which show that there has been no warming at all since the start of the twenty-first century. The data reveals that the average temperature last year was just 0.46°C higher than during the 1961-90 period, a reduced increase from a decade ago which suggests that the earth is now slightly cooler than it was a few years ago.
On their own, these figures, while striking, do little to settle the question of whether or not we will face serious warming in the years ahead. The recent lull in temperatures appears to have been caused by a slight cooling in the Southern hemisphere, which has more than cancelled continued gentle warming in the Northern hemisphere. But what these figures do show is that there is far more to understanding climate change than simplistic correlations between CO2 emissions and increased global temperature of the sort presented in Al Gore's tendentious and deeply flawed film, An Inconvenient Truth.
Although Lawson doesn't say this, one reason why the vast majority of the British population buys the mainstream view on global warming is that the climate has undoubtedly changed significantly in parts of the UK, especially in London and the highly urbanised south of England. Perhaps in part due to the fact that cities have been getting warmer because of increased use of cars and central heating, there are plenty of palm trees in south-east London these days; the last time they could have survived more than a couple of winters would have been during the Middle Ages, a past period of global warming, or Roman times, which were also much hotter.
But just as the undoubted existence of localised warming does not prove that global change is taking place, or whether it is man-made, it is equally wrong to read too much into localised cooling. The official US temperature records produced by NASA reflect both the mid twentieth-century global cooling and the late twentieth-century global warming detected in the Hadley Centre figures. The recent cooling appears much more pronounced than that seen elsewhere, however, especially after a series of errors in the old data forced NASA to issue corrected temperature figures last year: for the US, only three of the last twelve years emerge as among the warmest since records began. Remarkably, the warmest year of all was in 1934.
There is much more conflicting evidence. In some parts of the world, sea levels are rising; in others they are not. Recorded warming has been greatest in polar regions, where it is coldest; and least in the tropics, where it is hottest. In those regions with the most warming, the coldest months of the year have showed the greatest warming. Some glaciers are melting but others are strengthening. It is much harder to make sense of all of this than proponents of the received wisdom on global warming would care to admit.
Lawson agrees that there has been some global warming over the past hundred years and that increased man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are partly to blame. But he argues that natural causes are more important than commonly agreed and that the science of climate remains in its infancy. The interaction between clouds and temperatures remains little understood. We don't really know whether the large quantities of sulphate aerosols pumped into the atmosphere by power stations prior to 1975 cooled the planet by dimming the rays of the sun - and if they did, by how much. It is also unclear why the tropical troposphere has warmed much less than the surface of the earth, contrary to what most scientists were predicting. Variations in the sun's intensity may also be more important than many realise.
This is a fascinating tome, the best exposition of the sceptical view on global warming that I have yet to come across. It is comprehensive, packed with useful and clearly referenced facts and refreshingly free of the fanatical tone that plagues so many works on the subject. If Lawson is eventually proved right, this book will be remembered as a milestone; if, instead, he turns out to have been completely wrong, at least Lawson had the courage of his convictions, an increasingly rare virtue in today's excessively consensual age.
Allister Heath is Editor of City AM.