Legislation Will Not Mitigate Climate Change
A response to Alan Dupont of the Lowy Institute

William Kininmonth

Weather is what everyone talks about but climate is what everybody claims to be an expert about. What is more, the self-styled experts insist that laws should be passed to ensure climate returns to what it was in pre-industrial times---just like in Camelot where King Arthur mandates:

    Its true! Its true! The crown has made it clear!
    The climate must be perfect all the year.
    (Lerner and Lowe)

Are 'centuries of fossil fuel use and deforestation' altering our climate, as claimed by senior fellow Alan Dupont (The Australian, Opinion 23/6/06)? Is carbon dioxide 'heating the atmosphere just a little, allowing it to take up and retain more moisture, which then warms the atmosphere further' as claimed by scientist, explorer and conservationist Tim Flannery in his book, The Weather Makers?

The answer to both questions is a resounding NO. These, and a host of similarly erroneous statements, are the bases for claims that governments should pass laws to prevent climate change. However, all the governments of all the nations could pass laws until the legislators fell exhausted but there would be no appreciable impact on Earth's climate and its continuing variability.

We can be confident that human activity is having only limited impact on Earth's climate because of the scale of past variability and the insignificance of human activity compared to the power of nature.

The atmosphere and the oceans are continually transporting excess solar energy from the tropics to the polar regions. As a consequence, middle and high latitudes regions maintain relative warmth in spite of the net radiation cooling to space. To put this in perspective, the average rate of energy transport is more than one thousand times the rate that energy is being generated by all human activity. Our activities are insignificant. For the optimists, as fossil and nuclear fuel resources are depleted the climate system represents an enormous source of renewable energy---if it can be harnessed

Earth's climate was not in balance prior to industrialisation, as global warming theory would have us believe. There was no Camelot. The ocean and atmosphere are fluids in motion that interact and modulate the rate of poleward energy transport, thus varying the global climate. When transport exceeds the amount of heat necessary to offset net radiation to space over polar regions there is warming and ice melt, as happened during the first few and last few decades of the 20th century. When transport slows then temperatures fall and ice sheets expand, as they did from the 1940s to the middle 1970s.

There is abundant evidence to confirm that the relatively small temperature and ice mass changes of the 20th century are within the bounds of natural variation of the climate system.

As earth emerged from the last major ice age between 19,000 and 10,000 years ago, the ice sheets that were more than a kilometre thick and covered much of North America and northern Europe melted and sea level rose about 130 metres. Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, polar temperatures were up to 2 degrees Celsius warmer than now but the Greenland ice mass did not melt, as alarmists are currently predicting. Even in the height of summer the temperature of the high elevation Greenland ice surface is less than minus 10 degrees Celsius.

The global cooling over the past 5 thousand years has not been regular. Much is written about the general warmth associated with the ancient Greek and Roman empires and there is evidence that between two thousand and 15 hundred years ago European and North American glaciers advanced. The glaciers retreated during the Medieval Warm Period that occurred between about 800 and 1200AD, when Iceland and Greenland were colonised from Europe, but they again advanced during the Little Ice Age, which was at its peak between about 1600 and 1800AD.

Londoner John Evelyn wrote in January 1684, as the industrial revolution was stirring, 'men and cattle perishing in divers (sic) places, and the very seas so locked up with ice that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls, fish and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens, universally perishing'. Is this the Camelot to which the Kyoto Protocol would have us return?

When we acknowledge that climate is forever varying, and that recurring extreme weather is a natural hazard facing humankind, then we will begin to take the necessary steps to mitigate its impacts. In those countries where appropriate measures are in place, preparedness, early warning and emergency response systems consistently reduce loss of life associated with weather and climate extremes. Universally, the material damage associated with weather and climate extremes continues to increase. This is largely because of a propensity to build in hazardous localities, whether by necessity or desire, and our inability to construct against the forces of nature.

There is much to learn about the climate system, especially about the oceans that are the flywheels regulating everyday weather and climate. The extent of the wind-driven ocean gyres has been recognised since exploration with sailing ships. However it is only in recent years that a concerted international effort has commenced to identify, analyse and monitor the sub-surface circulations and their variations that are important for regulating climate and associated weather.

It is a delusion to suggest that the science of climate change is settled. Simplistic explanations, such as that certain 'greenhouse' gases warm the atmosphere and so higher concentrations will warm more, are factually incorrect and lead to poor policy outcomes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that the net effect of water vapour and carbon dioxide, the principal 'greenhouse' gases, is to cool the atmosphere. The effect of varying the concentration of these gases is on the temperature of the land and ocean surfaces, not directly on the temperature of the atmosphere as is naively claimed.

It is even more of a delusion to accept that climate predictions made using computer models have any validity. Non-linear interactions between the components of the climate system lead to chaotic outcomes. Although the equations that describe atmospheric motion are non-linear the current predictions, as described by IPCC, are constrained to a linear relationship between carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature response. The different computer models give a range of predictions that relate to the built in sensitivity of each to carbon dioxide forcing. Moreover, computer models are not capable of predicting a return of conditions similar to those of the Little Ice Age.

An inability to predict the future is not reason for inaction. Equally it is not reason to get on an emotional bandwagon to address the chimera of anthropogenic global warming, just for the sake of appearing to be doing something. Australia has a well-documented history of weather and climate extremes, be they droughts, floods, tropical cyclones or conditions that build to support dangerous bushfires. The severe El Nino events of 1982-83 and 1997-98 demonstrate how a global pattern of disasters can evolve, impacting especially on developing countries.

Climate, and the intensity and frequency of weather and climate extremes, will not be changed appreciably through a reduction of fossil fuel burning. The societal impacts can, however, be mitigated through coordinated national and international actions that increase knowledge; that foster preparedness, early warning and response measures; and that reduces exposure to hazard through adequate planning guidelines.

Importantly, national energy policy should not be determined on the spurious ground of averting global warming. Such policies should be developed on the basis of real economic and environmental considerations.

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