Book review: Unstoppable Global Warming – every 1,500 years

Posted January 24th, 2007 by Guest and filed in Book reviews

Editors note: The following book review, which analyses a new book by Fred Singer and Dennis Avery from the perspective of Post-Normal Science, was provided by Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre, who we are honored to welcome as a contributor to the PNT.

Unstoppable Global Warming – every 1,500 years
S Fred Singer and Dennis T Avery
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, MA, 260pp.
Hardback 0-7425-5116-4, £49.00
Paperback 0-7425-5117-2, £15.99

Is this a book about science? It is certainly written by scientists, one a climate physicist (Professor Fred Singer, an ex-US Government science advisor and outspoken critic of the idea that humans are warming the planet), the other a biologist. Its central thesis – the warming currently observed around the world is a function of a 1,500 year ‘unstoppable’ cycle in solar energy – is linked to evidence that most people would recognise as being generated by science. And the book is written as a scientific text, with citations to peer-reviewed articles, deference to numbers and adoption of technical terms. But whether this book is about science or about something else depends on what you believe science to be. One of the central reasons we disagree about climate change is because we have different conceptions of what science is and with what authority it speaks – in other words, how scientific ‘knowledge’ interacts with those other realms of understanding brought to us by politics, ethics and spirituality.

Before I explain, let me precis Singer and Avery’s argument. Their contention is that a well-established 1,500-year cycle in the Earth’s climate can explain most of the global warming observed in the last hundred years (0.7degC), that this cycle is in some way linked to fluctuations in solar energy, and because there is nothing humans can do to affect the sun we should simply figure out how to live with this cycle. We are currently on the upswing, warming out of the Little Ice Age, but in a few hundred years will be back on the downswing. Efforts to slow down the current warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases are at best irrelevant, or at worst damaging for our future development and welfare.

This of course is not what the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will say next week. Its report from its climate science working group will conclude that it is likely that most of the warming of the last 50 years has been caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations and that, depending on our actions now to slow the growth of emissions, warming by 2100 will likely be between about 1.5º and 6ºC. The upper end of this range is almost an order of magnitude larger than the warming Singer and Avery suggest is caused by the 1,500-year cycle. So is this a fight between scientific truth and error? This seems how Singer and Avery would like to present it – ‘science is the process of developing theories and testing them against observations until they are proven true or false.’

Last week on the Radio 4 Today programme, Dennis Avery discussed the ideas in the book with climate campaigner Mark Lynas. The interesting this about this ten minute discussion was that the battleground was over the scientific truth claims of the 1,500 year cycle – which reduced to how many scientific papers were cited in the book, were they ‘proper’ scientific papers, how many scientists wrote the IPCC report, and so on. It was odd to hear a biologist and a historian trading blows in front of half a million listeners over the scientific veracity of a geophysical phenomenon.

But this is symptomatic of what has happened to climate change. Too often the reasons we disagree about what to do about climate change are framed in this way, as disputes about the truth claims of some aspect of biogeophysical science – is the world warming; are greenhouse gases responsible; will this ice-sheet collapse? This reflects one view of science, the conventional Enlightenment view of science as an objective, disinterested endeavour incrementally leading us closer and closer to a universal and immutable view of reality … past, present and future. This is ‘normal’ science.

But for many years now, around 25 at least, philosophers and practitioners of science have identified a different mode of scientific activity, a mode where stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. This is what Silvio Funtowicz labelled in 1993 ‘post-normal’ science. Disputes in post-normal science focus as often on the process of science – who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy – as on the facts of science. The IPCC is a classic example of a post-normal scientific activity. The IPCC is a large procedural assessment activity involving first of all scientists, but then later entraining a broad range of other experts from government, business, civil society to evaluate the quality of the assessment, before the modified text is presented to government representatives for their amendment and approval.

But there is also a third way of interpreting contemporary science, which is yet one further step removed from the binary truth-falsehood view of Singer and Avery. This third way of seeing science pays more attention to the social and cultural context in which science works and speaks than to the phenomena being studied. Who are the scientists, what are their values, motives and preferences, why are they being asked to study this particular problem rather than some other problem, and who funds them? This understanding of science is what sociologists have termed its social construction.

Understanding the nature of post-normal science, and drawing upon some of the insights of social construction, helps us to re-interpret the Radio 4 discussion between Avery and Lynas. It will also help us towards understanding why we disagree about climate change. On the surface, Avery and Lynas were arguing about science – is there a 1,500 year cycle in world temperatures; do greenhouse gases warm the planet? This was normal science mode and many people, perhaps a majority, will have interpreted the debate in this way: truth or error, fact or fiction, or just more uncertainty and confusion between experts.

But what was really going on was a dispute about the much deeper (yet unexpressed) values and beliefs held by Avery (and Singer) and Lynas. Do they have confidence in technology? Do they believe in collective action over private enterprise? Can all things they value be quantified in monetary terms? Do they believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? We need this perspective on science if we are going to make sense of books such as Unstoppable Global Warming. Or indeed, if we are to make sense of polar opposites such as James Lovelock’s recent contribution The Revenge of Gaia, in which he extends climate science to reach the conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is no more than a couple of generations away.

The unfortunate thing is that many people still hold onto a ‘normal’ faith in science such that it can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow. Fred Singer has this view of science; so does Mark Lynas. That is why they reduce their exchange to one about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences. If the battle of science is won, then the war of values will be won.

If only climate change were such a phenomenon and if only science held such an ascendancy over our personal, social and political life and decisions. To the contrary, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre-stage. This is not a comfortable thing to say – neither to those scientists who still hold an uncritical view of their privileged enterprise and who relish the status society affords them; nor to politicians whose instinct is so often to hide behind the experts when confronted by difficult and genuine policy alternatives. Two years ago, Tony Blair announced the large, government-backed international climate change conference in Exeter in his G8 year by asking for the conference scientists to ‘identify what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is self-evidently too much’. This is the wrong question to ask of science. What is ‘self-evidently’ dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth-seeking; we might gain some insights into the question if we recognise the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists – and politicians – must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth-seeking and reveal honestly and fully the values and beliefs they bring into their scientific activity.

Lack of such reflective transparency is the problem with Unstoppable Global Warming, and with Dennis Avery and Mark Lynas on Today. Such a perspective also opens a chink of weakness in the authority of the IPCC as it reports its latest science findings next week. What matters about climate change is not whether we can predict the future with some desired level of certainty and accuracy. What matters is whether we have just sufficient foresight, supported by wisdom, to allow our perspective about the future, and our responsibility for it, to be altered. All of us alive today have a stake in the future and so we should all play a role in generating sufficient, inclusive and imposing knowledge about the future. Climate change is too important to be left to scientists, least of all the normal ones.

Professor Mike Hulme
School of Environmental Sciences, and Director Tyndall Centre
University of East Anglia
Professor Hulme is currently writing a book “Why we disagree about climate change”