As the world burns, the debate turns

Peter Jackson
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Well, golly gee. That global warming stuff shore must be true, 'cause it's powerful warm out there!

Of course, anyone who judges climate on such a narrow premise deserves every bit of the derision he gets. Yet, perfectly reasonable people will stand in an April snowstorm and caw about how climate science is full of baloney. "It's freezing here! Where's the global warming?"

Well, golly gee. That global warming stuff shore must be true, 'cause it's powerful warm out there!

Of course, anyone who judges climate on such a narrow premise deserves every bit of the derision he gets. Yet, perfectly reasonable people will stand in an April snowstorm and caw about how climate science is full of baloney. "It's freezing here! Where's the global warming?"

One such person is column-ist/commentator Rex Murphy, who lately has taken to spewing rash and uncharacteristically ignorant venom about the science of climate change. He once snidely implied that a brief cold snap in Ontario was evidence against climate change.

So I was surprised last week to hear that a Queen's University expert said the current heat wave in central Canada is attributable to global warming.

"Extreme heat wave example of climate change: expert" states the headline on CTV's website.

This would be an alarming new position for a climate scientist: singling out specific events instead of tracking trends. As it turns out, Prof. Harry McCaughey was only talking about trends.

"My strong opinion is that these kinds of extremes are something you would expect in a warming world, and expect to happen more frequently," he said.

So it is not any one event; it's the accumulation of events. An important distinction, I think, but one that seems to escape many people.

McCaughey goes on to point out that climate change predictions are, well, anything but predictable. He alludes to what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman dubbed "global weirding."

"The climate gets weird in the sense that you have no experience ... of what might happen," McCaughey said.

Although many of the core projections of global warming have materialized - melting icecaps and crop shortages, for example - it is still the prognosis side of the science that remains the weakest. There is just no way of knowing for sure how climate change will ultimately manifest itself.

Fortunately, other predictions are much more straightforward.

Take climate change skeptics, for example.

It didn't take Nostradamus to predict that oil companies and other corporate interests would enjoy considerable success in their stated goal to systematically muddy the waters of climate science.

Stated goal? You bet. A leaked 1998 internal memo on a communications plan for U.S. oil giant Exxon spells out in black-and-white how the company would channel funding and other resources into raising doubts about the international consensus of climatologists.

"Victory will be achieved," the memo states, "when uncertainties in climate science become part of the conventional wisdom" for "average citizens" and "the media."

The result? Welcome to 2010.

It's been a fascinating ride over the last decade or so.

There are now scores of skeptic websites, books, documentaries and thinktanks, peopled by a small army of loose cannons and rebels railing against the great scientific conspiracy that supposedly drives mainstream climatology.

In the midst of it all came the famous hacking of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at Britain's East Anglia University. Dubbed "Climategate," the e-mail revelations even stunned a few of the scientists' stolid defenders.

One e-mail talked about using a "trick" to "hide the decline" of temperature trends. A couple of others suggested a push to suppress the publication of contradictory rese-arch.

But the context of these few correspondences was either unclear or deliberately obfuscated, and the true context has since snuffed out any suggestion of outright fraud.

Three separate inquiries were called to investigate the implications of the leaked documents. The latest, an independent report, was released last week. The conclusion was the same in each case: the scientists may have lacked transparency, but the overall thrust of the e-mail exchanges provide no evidence of fraud. In fact, the vast sea of uncontentious communications proved just the opposite.

Every other month, one bombshell or other is dropped that supposedly blows apart the climate consensus. One by one, they inevitably fail to detonate.

About a year ago, the media was crowing about a new book by Australian geologist Ian Plimer. "Heaven and Earth" was heralded as a death blow to the manmade climate change consensus.

In his book, Plimer portrays the climate change lobby as a sort of religion (perhaps not entirely unfounded) and then appears to knock down numerous assertions by climatologists.

British climate journalist George Monbiot questioned some of Plimer's claims. He checked some sources and discovered the book was riddled with errors and outright fabrications. He challenged Plimer to a debate, putting several questions on the table about black-and-white matters of fact. Plimer stalled and stymied at every turn.

I recently discovered that the debate finally did take place - on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in December 2009.

For Plimer, it was an unmitigated disaster. He fudged and distracted at every turn like a senile old goat. In the end, he refused to answer a single question put to him by Monbiot or the moderator. His credibility - and that of his book - withered away into oblivion.

There are other signs the doubt-mongers may finally be running out of steam.

Polls in the U.S. - where much of the population takes to propaganda like kids to candy - show skepticism about global warming is starting to evaporate.

"Belief" in global warming has been on a downward slide since the skeptic steamroller began more than a decade ago. But a survey last month by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities indicate a slight rise this year in the number of people who accept that global warming is at least somewhat caused by humans. It now sits at nearly 60 per cent.

Surprisingly, a whopping 77 per cent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and two-thirds of respondents even support signing an international treaty to cut emissions by 90 per cent by 2050.

Polls are always malleable, but these numbers are encouraging. Perhaps cooler heads are finally starting to prevail once again.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at

Organizations: Queen's University, CTV, New York Times Exxon East Anglia University Australian Broadcasting Corporation Yale George Mason

Geographic location: Ontario, Canada, U.S. Britain

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Recent comments

  • Sean
    July 20, 2010 - 13:03

    Sorry to burst your Global-Warming bubble (or is it 'climate change' now, thanks to a decade of actual global cooling?), but you'd be hard-pressed to find many educated and informed people here in the southern US, including ex-Newfies like myself, who are still being led by the nose-ring down the CO2-is-poison path toward global political control of industry and commerce. The terms 'free enterprise' and 'entrepreneurship' still mean something here; those pursuits were long abandoned in Canada in favour of 'entitlement'.

    Those who understand what carbon-dioxide actually is (excuse me while I catch my breath), its benefits to plant life and growth, its mere trace-level existence in the atmosphere, and the veritable minuscule contribution to its production by human activities, understand where this all is/was heading. Most informed Americans, including us ex-pat Canucks, have long rejected that baseless liberal rhetoric thanks to actual scientific fact, particularly the direct correlations between sun-spot and solar activity and ocean current patterns with global temperature fluctuations. As for your recent St. John's July heat-wave day, I do recall the 'rock-splitting' temps when I myself moved to 'town' from the 'bay' back in July 1977. And then of course, I remember shivering through many subsequent miserable townie summers. (BTW - it snowed twice and hard-froze this past winter in Houston; the previous year I played golf on New Years Day in shorts). Welcome to the world of normal weather fluctuations - maybe with a few decades of enlightenment under your belt, you'll too see that the only constant IS change.

    So to paraphrase an old con, if you still buy into what Harper & Co. and the barely right-of-European socialism he and his predecessors have been selling since the '60s, I've got two lung-fulls of carbon dioxide I can trade with you.

    Baking (per July normal) here in south Texas, I remain -

    S. Large

  • Charles
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Yea old boy ypu got too much Texas sun.
    Why would yoou call yurself an ex-Newfie.
    That is normal for sun damage of the brain.They forget where they can from.
    I have spent quite a bit of time in the US.The further south you go the more sun damage you find.
    Climate change is real.Just ask the natives of Northern Canada.They don't have so much sun damage!

  • Edward
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Wow! I will go out on a limb here and suggest that the previous commentator works in the oil industry? It reminds me of Ronald Reagans, claim that trees caused pollution. Then again, his Secretary of the Interior mused that there wasn't any point in saving the environment because there wasn't that much time left until the Lord returned . And Stephen Harper as a socialist? It's time to start wearing a hat when you go out in the Texas sun.