by Joanne Black
Faced with one of the great questions of our time – whether the Earth’s current warming is caused by humans – economist Gareth Morgan did what only a philanthropist can do: hired some top scientists to give him the answer.
Riding her motorbike north through Alaska, or across the Sahara, Joanne Morgan would occasionally pause to point out something – desertification, perhaps, or dying forests – and say to her husband, “See that? That’s caused by global warming.”
“I got bloody sick of it, to be honest,” Gareth Morgan says now. “And finally I said to her, ‘Joanne, for God’s sake, you can’t possibly make such sweeping statements.’” Her answer was that if he had read Tim Flannery’s climate-change book The Weather Makers, as she had, then he would understand.
So, he started reading it, but instead of being convinced that human activity – most notably the burning of fossil fuels – was causing global warming, Morgan finished each page with more questions than answers. He decided to hire some climate change policy researchers to investigate.
Early last year, he again read Flannery’s book, this time while heading to Antarctica, rolling around in an icebreaker in the Southern Ocean, accompanied by friend and writer John McCrystal, also a climate change sceptic.
“I was intrigued, but I wasn’t convinced by the arguments for anthropogenic [from human activity] global warming,” Morgan says in his company boardroom in a downtown office block overlooking Wellington Harbour. “I’m naturally sceptical about everything. God, I come from the financial sector and you get pretty sceptical about people’s behaviour there.”
His researchers returned with papers that were no use because they were about policy, “and I didn’t even know if climate change was true. I thought, isn’t it intriguing that countries are spending all this public policy money yet we don’t take the first step, which is to ask, ‘What is the problem we are trying to solve?’”
After speaking to Victoria University Professor of Geology Peter Barrett, Morgan decided to hire the best scientists in the world on both sides. The result is Morgan and McCrystal’s new book Poles Apart – Beyond the Shouting, Who’s Right About Climate Change?
Morgan likens the process to being on a jury: hearing all the evidence from both sides, but also subjecting the scientists to rigorous questioning and cross-examination before deciding which side has the most scientific credibility. Along the way, Morgan and McCrystal became deeply exasperated with what they considered the equal willingness of both camps to be activists for their cause, obscuring efforts to get at the science.
“People have very emotive, very predetermined views, and that typifies both sides,” says Morgan. “We’ve had some heated sessions with our alarmist scientists where they’ve been on the verge of walking out, saying, ‘How dare you question our conclusions?’ I had to keep saying, ‘Look, I have a completely open mind.’ But their fervour has caught the public, so they have found themselves – on the basis of partial knowledge – being rounded into either camp rather than simply being able to ask for some clarity and for someone to explain why it’s true and why it isn’t.
“If I had one message, it is, ‘For God’s sake, stay objective, don’t get wound up by either side’s polemics and emotion,’” says Morgan.
“It’s like people feel they must have a cause, and it turns reasonable people into nutters and they don’t see it. They only see it on the other side. I would say to the guys who helped me, ‘I don’t want to know about the other stuff, this is a scientific inquiry, for Christ’s sake’, and they’d get really offended. They might be professors and they’re not used to being spoken to like that; they are used to intimidating the public because the public is ignorant.”
Initially, Morgan says he and McCrystal were like weathervanes, persuaded by whatever they had just read. “You’d read a paper in the morning that said climate change was nonsense, and it would convince you, then in the afternoon you’d pick up a paper [that was] predicting hellfire and brimstone and us all being dead by dawn, and that would convince you.”
During their researching, both men learnt a lot of science. In doing so they have crystallised for themselves and their readers the core arguments of both sides of the climate change debate, and decided that anthropogenic global warming is the more credible argument.
“Are we satisfied as jurors that it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that the cause of the warming is anthropogenic?” asks Morgan. “No, we’re not. But if we rephrase the question and ask, if, on the weight of the evidence presented, we think the cause of the warming is anthropogenic or natural, then we would say anthropogenic. But I would bear in mind that John Maynard Keynes quote with which we end the book, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’There could be some new development out tomorrow that makes us all look like chumps.”
Clearly, although they’re open to that possibility, the pair think it unlikely. Science, they explain, is on the side of global warming having human causes, notwithstanding huge variations in the world’s climate long before humans evolved.
Although there is endless argument about global temperatures in the past, the measurements since about 1900, and certainly more recently, are sufficiently reliable for there to be general agreement that in recent decades to 1998, the world’s temperature warmed, although temperatures have been stable in the past 10 years. But a decade does not mean much in the scale of climate change, and the trend is still for increasing warmth.
Even if the historical temperature statistics can be disputed (and they are), the pair say there is no argument that warmth causes ice to melt. And at the North Pole, ice is melting very quickly because Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the average global rate over the past 100 years. Poles Apart says that after the thaw of 2007, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest recorded level since satellite-borne microwave measurements began in 1978; the thaw of 2008 was the second lowest. Other studies, using the best estimates, suggest that in the mid-20th century the Arctic was the warmest it had been since records began in 1840, and it has continued to warm since then.
A similar level of thawing is not occurring in the Antarctic, but this, according to scientists, does not mean Arctic thawing can be shrugged off as a regional rather than a global-climate-related event. For a start, the Antarctic has a much denser thermal mass so can stay cooler longer. Further, the Arctic ice is thinner, so when it cracks apart it exposes the dark ocean water to the sun. Ice reflects heat back into space but the ocean absorbs that heat. Because of that, one of the concerns is that the Arctic risks entering a “vicious feedback loop”.
The Arctic picture is interesting, and possibly disturbing, depending on your point of view, but like many other observable changes – the expanding Gobi Desert, the devastation caused by pests in areas where cold would normally have killed them off, coral bleaching – evidence that the world is warming is not the same as evidence that human behaviour, such as burning fossil fuels, is the cause.
After all, as Morgan points out, in its history the Earth has been warmer than it is now. It has gone without ice for millions of years. And even knowing that ice-core data shows the speed of the current warming is without precedent in 2-5 millennia does not in itself mean this current period – which falls outside the cycle of warming caused by the rhythms of the sun – is man-made. It is unusual, yes; it is fast, yes, but are humans to blame?
Yes to that, too, Poles Apart concludes. The burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide in which the carbon isotopes occur in a different ratio to that of CO2 released in the pre-industrial era. Results from isotope ratio mass spectrometers can and do accurately reveal that the increased CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the combustion of fossil fuel, and CO2 is one of the gases that is creating an excessive greenhouse effect, partly by increasing the rate of evaporation, which means there is more water vapour in the atmosphere. The vapour is itself a greenhouse gas, trapping infrared radiation in the atmosphere and thus warming the Earth.
There is much, much more to the theory and science of global warming than this, including the latent heat already in the oceans (the heat stored in the top 3.2m of the ocean is equivalent to the amount of heat in the entire atmosphere, scientists conclude), which means even if humans stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, there is still at least another 50 years’ worth of “committed warming” to be experienced. And, plainly, humans will not stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which the two authors seem to conclude is as willing as any other participant in the debate to play politics, forecasts that if atmospheric CO2 doubles from its pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million, and beyond the current 387ppm to 560ppm (which the IPCC considers a “low-emissions scenario”), the climate is likely to warm by about 3°. So far, it has warmed by about 0.8° over the past 150 years.
Actual numbers are hard to predict because there are a number of significant moderating effects on temperatures, in particular clouds, which are extremely difficult to factor into computer modelling of the climate. The IPCC’s “mid-range” scenario of emissions suggests concentrations of CO2 could reach 800ppm by 2100, which could mean an increase of 3.3° from present levels. And as Poles Apart points out, if 3° doesn’t sound like much, people should remember that in any 50-year period, the average temperature varies by usually no more than 0.2°, and there is no evidence Earth has ever been, on average, in the period of human habitation, more than 2° warmer than it is now. Nor is there evidence to suggest Homo sapiens have experienced higher atmospheric CO2 levels than currently exist.
“If we accept the theory of anthropogenic global warming, we must at least evaluate the prospect that we may soon be inhabiting a world whose climate is different to that to which our species has adapted,” Morgan and McCrystal say in Poles Apart. “After all, greenhouse-gas concentrations seem set to keep rising at the equivalent of 1.5ppm of CO2 per year.”
In the course of the research McCrystal has gone from being a sceptic to a believer (or an “alarmist”, to use the authors’ terminology) but, like Morgan, he says he is open to evidence that they may have got it wrong.
“At this stage it is important to keep open minds. It is still on a knife-edge for me, and it’s always possible something is about to come along that will tip me back the other way, but at the moment there is insufficient evidence to do that.
‘The position we reached is that the science of anthropogenic global warming is almost impossible to argue with. Sceptics are light on coherent propositions that stack up against the coherent proposition on the other side.”
But McCrystal says what gives the debate its urgency is that no one can wait for absolute certainty because the stakes are too high.
Indeed, because the book is devoted to exploring whether global warming is man-made, it ends just when it is getting interesting. If global warming is man-made, what can be done to stop it?
In Morgan’s assessment, the scenario is bleak. “If you ask by how much do we have to reduce emissions in order to [make a difference], I look at the numbers that are required and there’s not a show, not a shit-show of that happening. My first pass at it is, ‘You’ve got to be joking.’
“The IPCC gives a series of scenarios and says, ‘All is not lost.’ I struggle to believe them. I’m a natural pessimist anyway, but the cuts in emissions that are required make me think they’ve put the rose-tinted glasses on in order not to spook everybody. I’m a wee bit in the James Lovelock camp in the sense that I think, ‘Shit, it’s a tall order.’ You’ve got to hope the scientists are wrong about the whole bloody theory, but I don’t think they are.
“But then, how many times in the past have we seen technology solve apparently insurmountable problems? The only thing that worries me about this one is the lag – the lagged effects like the ocean, and by the time we collectively, as a world, say, ‘Crisis! Crisis!’, well, sorry, mate, we should have done that 50 years ago.”
The uncertainty over whether global warming is anthropogenic, and then trying to calculate exactly what effect it will have, makes the whole issue a public-policy nightmare, Morgan says.
“The dilemma you have as a human being is that to reduce this problem and deal with your carbon footprint, you upset the livelihood of people in other places. Growing crops for biofuels was a classic example. It displaced food crops, which put up the price of food, which might not affect you and me, but in Africa that’s life or death. So, every policy course you take has costs, and every policy has only a probability of being right. It’s not certain, especially in this issue where you’re talking about such long time periods. That’s why it deserves the respect of the public having a reasonable view, rather than getting in camps shouting at each other.”
Morgan says the public policy dilemma is akin to former prime minister Robert Muldoon seeing the price of oil rise to $80 a barrel and thinking, “We can’t live with that”, so embarking on a huge programme of borrowing to build the Think Big projects, aimed at greater energy self-sufficiency, only to have the price of oil drop back to $20 a barrel while the country is saddled with debt.
“You must look at the counterfactual, which is, ‘What is the cost to society if you’re wrong?’”
McCrystal says the danger of saying global warming is already too advanced to stop is that people then say they might as well maintain their levels of consumption and drive their Hummers, “and that may well make the situation worse than it needs to be”.
“So, policies to mitigate the effect of global warming mean not only making adaptations to a warmer world, but also making the world the least warm it needs to be from the position we are in now. The bleaker end of the spectrum now seems to be: ‘We can’t stop this, but we still need to act now so the problem does not become even worse than it otherwise threatens to be.’”
The pair think any solution must be global, but New Zealand’s role is likely to be small.
McCrystal says, “New Zealand is such a tiny contributor to the whole problem, and most of what we do contribute is actually pretty difficult to tackle unless we mean to change everything about the way we live. Needless to say, we are a primary producer and it is our primary production that creates most of our most potent greenhouse gases, and what do we do otherwise? It doesn’t make any sense to cripple ourselves as a country in order to make such a slight difference to the overall problem.”
He says although it is not talked about much, global warming will bring benefits to some parts of the world, “and we just happen to be one of them”.
“Parts of New Zealand will be better off,” McCrystal says. “New Zealand could be in a position of being a lot more self-sustaining in terms of energy needs than ever before. We probably won’t get much warmer, but we probably will get windier, which, ironically, will make us capable of building wind farms in more locations. We’ll get wetter along the West Coast, which is great for the hydro lakes, and if it is a bit warmer there will be less demand on electricity.
“It will be disastrous for the East Coast,” he says. “We’ll get more droughts and pastoral farming will be a thing of the past in areas like Wairarapa, Marlborough and even parts of Canterbury, but there will be other benefits in other parts of the country.
“So, if you’re trying to convince New Zealanders that we need to act, and we need to radically change everything about our lives because of global warming, then you need to be asking them to save the planet, not save themselves. And how do you do that? It’s like trying to get Americans to care about the Third World while America is going along quite nicely, thank you. Why should they care? It goes to everything that is fundamental about political philosophy, which is what really excited me about the whole thing.”
Morgan says serious efforts to reduce emissions have to include China and India.
“There is no point shagging around trying to send an example to outermost Kenya of how they should reduce their carbon footprint. If you really want to have a material impact on carbon emissions, you’d say to China, ‘Stop building those bloody coal-fired power stations.’ Because if we’re looking on the scale of materiality, at the margin of where the next bit of CO2 is coming from, that’s where.
“If it’s a global problem, then the global solution is to say, ‘Yes, China, we’ll have free trade with you, but first please do this.’ And both sides will pay the price – some people will be out of work and goods won’t be as cheap. So, we have a deal, right, because we’re both losers. But at least we’re not going to fry.
“At the moment we’re on this thing where some are in Kyoto [the protocol] and some are not, and it’s like the World Trade Talks where a round of talks can go for years and then break down. But if global warming is true, we can’t afford that timelag. You can’t afford a GATT-round approach if you want to honour the chance of getting it right.”