Three scientists based at the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University – Dr Dave Lowe, Adjunct Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, Dr Lionel Carter, Professor of Marine Geology and Dr Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology, reflect on their experiences as the expert panel tasked with trying to convince economist Gareth Morgan that global warming is the result of human activity.
In mid 2007 Peter Barrett and wife were invited to dinner at the Morgans to talk about their upcoming Antarctic trip. Late in the evening Gareth mentioned an idea he had for a book on climate change to sort out the range of views he was seeing in the press.
Two weeks later Peter received a two-page 9-chapter outline for comment. It covered everything from: “What is Climate Change” to “What should New Zealanders do about it”, and the words “need a well-formed scientific perspective” appeared in several places.
Peter’s initial response was “Thanks…need a bit more time..”. Through the rest of the year Gareth motor-biked from Cape Town to London (among other things), and by the following January, Gareth had in hand a substantial report on why climate change was no cause for concern from a climate “Sceptic”. The book was plainly under way and it was time for some balance. Peter suggested a small group to cover what we considered the mainstream view. This would be led by recently retired atmospheric chemist Dave Lowe and include marine geologist Lionel Carter, who had recently moved to VUW. Gareth agreed, and that’s where the story really begins.
From the outset we were all apprehensive and knew there was a risk in taking part in this project. Gareth and John told us that they were “agnostic” and did not know which “side” was right, though they made it plain they were impressed with some of the Sceptic material. However they wanted to get the other side, reflecting the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC. This they labelled “Alarmist”, despite our continuing protest. However we knew that your average kiwi bloke reads Gareth Morgan and trusts his opinion. We figured that if we could convince him of the robustness of modern climate change science he would send a powerful message to New Zealanders in this book.
Gareth Morgan was well known as an established straight-talking economist with his own successful advisory business. Through his motorbike journeys and the books that resulted, he had also become a commentator on a wide range of issues. However the science of climate change is incredibly complex and there are no individual scientists who understand all aspects of it let alone lay people. How could we help Gareth for all his energy and abilities in a few months understand this body of knowledge well enough to comment on climate change science in any meaningful manner?
From the beginning however Gareth made it clear to us that this was to be a very different kind of climate change book. His plan was to canvas the opinions of well known climate sceptics around the world and have us provide commentaries on their seminal works. He would then send our critiques back to the Sceptics to get their responses to weigh up the merits. This exchange of texts might well be unique in the history of the climate change debate.
He also asked us to lead him through the science and we gave him presentations on various aspects of climate change as well as popular reports. Most of the time things proceeded smoothly, but there were quite a few rough passages where all of us, Gareth included, wondered how this was going to pan out. “In the middle of one of these episodes Gareth wound up calling Dave Lowe a bandit and somehow the three of us attracted the name ‘Los Banditos’. By this stage we knew we had gained each others’ respect.
The toughest part of the project involved commenting on a 50-page review of climate science by the Sceptics following the IPCC Fourth Assessment in 2007. It was entitled “Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate: Summary for Policymakers of the Report of the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change”, edited by Fred Singer. This report, which appeared in mid 2008 was seen as the latest and best case from the Sceptics, and it took us many weeks to get to grips with its many inconsistencies, faulty citations and straw man arguments. For our critique of this and other documents see http://polesapart.com/
After a couple of months of intense work it became clear to us that Gareth and his co author John McCrystal were passionate about finding as much as they could about the actual science behind climate change and were relying on us to help them through. At this stage we began to deal with some very complex issues eg: the relative roles of increasing CO2 and ozone depletion as drivers of stratospheric cooling. We began to solicit additional information from colleagues around the world.
After about six months we were all feeling the strain. Gareth and John could see that a lot of the claims and arguments by the Sceptics were not holding up. But at the same time they had correctly identified many of the acknowledged uncertainties remaining in climate science today, for example the role of clouds and other feedbacks, and put the pressure on us to explain. At some point – we are not sure when – they decided that enough was known to indicate a high probability of a huge problem, and that we were running out of time to deal with it.
Quite a few mainstream scientists aren’t happy about the book and the way the authors rip into the IPCC process, and Dave has had a few harsh comments for his participation in the book research process. Basically some of our scientific colleagues didn’t think that an economist could make sense of a complex subject like the science of climate change. We disagree. Not perfect sense, of course, but sufficient sense to come to his own conclusions that are in the end not very different from those of climate scientists.
That said, while we are satisfied with the outcome, and most of the scientific explanations the book contains, we feel we never did get Gareth and John to understand the process by which good science proceeds, and we think this process therefore takes more of a beating in their book than it deserves. Still it’s interesting that this is how scientists are seen by Gareth and no doubt many others in society at large. And that’s worth knowing.
We expect the book will have a huge impact with the New Zealand public. The amazing thing for us has been the single-mindedness of these two guys in chasing down the evidence. They really wanted to find out the answers. We think they succeeded – but time is running out for solutions.