Climate: The Counter Consensus

By Gareth Renowden 29/04/2011

ClimateThis review of Bob Carter’s latest book, by Dr James Renwick, Principal Scientist at NIWA’s Climate Variability & Change group, was first published in the March newsletter of the Geoscience Society of New Zealand. My thanks to Jim for permission to republish it here.

This book is a curious read, full of misinformation, straw-man arguments, and poorly-documented assertions. To become immersed in it, we must enter the through-the-looking-glass world of the ’independent’ scientist, where those such as myself are the ones ’…who have dissembled, told half-truths, cherry-picked their data, fantastically exaggerated, and suppressed the circulation of better science’ (Prefatory Essay, p. 19). Meanwhile, the ideas put forward by Prof. Carter are portrayed as representing a balanced appraisal of the issues. From where I sit, that’s the opposite of reality.

The basic premise of the book is that observed climate changes are a result of natural variability, with at most a very gentle nudge from human activity. Carter asserts that future global cooling is at least as likely as warming. And those whose work suggests that human-induced climate change is real and is a significant threat have either become politicised (p. 231), or have been pressured into submission (p. 181). To support his case, Carter lists many references, relying heavily on his own publications plus those of Soon, Loehle, McLean, McKitrick et al., and with extensive reference to the blogosphere —,,, etc.

Much of the criticism is directed at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body that every few years provides a synthesis of what’s published in the scientific literature on climate change. The IPCC report writing is done by volunteer teams of scientists, and every effort is made to be inclusive, broad-ranging, and authoritative. But in Carter’s book, the IPCC is portrayed as a slick PR machine designed to push a political line, resistance to which is professional suicide. Carter claims that major news organisations, science academies, the Archbishop of Canterbury and even Prince Charles (!) are involved in the relentless drive to squash opposition (p 162). Many authors are quoted out of context, in part to portray the idea that there’s a growing number of brave souls who are starting to see the light 1.

Climate science is seen as ’consensus science’ and so by definition is not science at all. The IPCC is again painted as the major villain. Actually, there’s an overwhelming weight of evidence in the literature that supports the reality of human-induced climate change. This could be described as a consensus, which could then be criticised for being a consensus, if scientific agreement is seen as a bad thing. Galileo is held up as proof that consensus is meaningless — one man turned the consensus of his time on its head. Since Galileo’s time, a general consensus has developed that he was right, because a mountain of observational evidence and theory has built up to back his findings. That adds weight to Galileo’s ideas, rather than detracting from them. There are the occasional Galileos (e.g. Milankovitch, Arrhenius), but most scientific advance is incremental, carried out by large teams who communicate widely, guided by the observational evidence to hand.

The book begins with an overview of the geological context, covering orbital forcing, Milankovitch cycles, abrupt events, and the Holocene. The existence of large natural variations in the past is used to argue that present-day variability is nothing unusual, and that there’s no evidence that human activity is having a significant effect today. The crucial point left out is that the major influence changing the climate today is the increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, a result of human activity. That is true regardless of climate history and the existence of other natural forcings. The tight coupling between carbon dioxide and global temperature is undisputed and is documented through the ice ages and beyond. The basic radiation physics has not changed.

Because we need that geological ’long view’, the instrumental record is seen as woefully inadequate (Chapter 2). Moreover, because it is standard meteorological practice to define climate ’normals’ as 30-year averages, we are told there is only one new climate observation every 30 years, hence the complete instrumental record is only 5 points long!

Chapter 3 covers climate sensitivity and greenhouse gases. Here, CO2 is portrayed as a benign gas with a limited role in the radiation balance. The bulk of the literature on this subject is ignored, in favour of work by Ernst Beck2 and Chris deFreitas. Climate sensitivity is portrayed as low, and uncertainty very high. I wish this were so, but the vast majority of research over recent decades (ignored here) says the opposite. Chapter 4 discusses the oceans. Again we are told that there’s no cause for concern, that sea level rise is all natural (and certainly not accelerating), and anyway, according to Carter the oceans are now cooling (p. 121). Ocean acidification (described as a deliberately ’emotional’ expression) is portrayed as a non-issue. Again, the reality of the situation, and the vast majority of the literature on this topic, is not discussed.

Climate models are roundly rubbished in Chapter 5, being described later as ’playstation games.’ Supporting evidence comes from Soon, McKitrick, Essex et al., again ignoring 99.9% of the scientific literature, and the long list of climate modelling achievements. There are many inconsistencies throughout this book, such as the statement on page 121 that models incorrectly project increasing ocean heat content, while observations show no warming for the last five years. After dismissing 150 years of instrumental observations in Chapter 2, we are given one sixth of one data point to imply (erroneously) that models are wrong.

Chapter 6 claims to show that evidence of (human-induced) climate change is either fraudulent, or exaggerated, or actually the result of natural variability. Amongst many other things, Carter claims that the Great Barrier Reef and its waters are in the same state they were in the 1700s — supported by reference to one of his own papers. That claim ignores well-documented declining water quality from runoff, loss of coastal wetlands, overfishing, invasive species, acidification…

If the author had a genuine case to make […] he would be the toast of the science community everywhere […] a modern-day Galileo.

Chapter 7 suggests that most of the climate science community has been corrupted by the vast sums of money on offer (certainly not my experience), or intimidated by science academies and others. We’re told that even the US National Academy of Sciences has been ’infiltrated by environmental activist scientists’ (p 167). Chapter 8 implies that ’independent scientists’ such as the author are deliberately shut out of public meetings on climate change. If the author had a genuine case to make, and could demonstrate that the threat of human-induced climate change is not real, he would certainly get entry to public forums. In fact, he would be the toast of the science community everywhere, having overturned thousands of person-years of research effort —- a modern-day Galileo.

Chapter 9 discusses the IPCC at some length. The strength of the IPCC reports is the breadth of research that is surveyed, literally tens of thousands of papers are referenced and woven into the biggest of big pictures on climate change. Carter’s contention that a small politically-motivated clique runs things is just not the case. As Carter notes, peer-review is not perfect, but I, and most in the science community, recognise that it’s a very good start. Yes, mistakes are made, but no document is error-free, and the number of identified errors is remarkably small for the 3000 pages of text and figures in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report. Similarly, a small number of scientists have expressed dissatisfaction with the IPCC process. Yet, the more notable thing to my mind is the huge number who have not expressed any disquiet and who are genuinely keen to contribute.

Chapters 10 and 11 discuss two things: that we should prepare for global cooling; and that adapting to regional natural variability and extremes (what Carter calls ’Plan B’) makes more sense than worrying about climate change (Carter’s ’Plan A’). The first point is risible, given that the globe continues to warm3, glaciers continue to melt4 and sea levels continue to rise5. The second point fits closely with strategies already adopted by many central and local government agencies in New Zealand and around the world: Plan B is already under way. At the same time, we need more emphasis on Plan A (climate change mitigation), if we are to avoid really major changes in climate.

The final chapter covers ’Climategate’. The book makes the illegal release of e-mails and other material from the University of East Anglia sound like the death knell for climate science. Again, that is just not so. All the official inquiries into the matter have since vindicated Phil Jones and the Climatic Research Unit, find no tampering with data, and no conspiracy to suppress anything or trick anyone. A huge amount of time and public money has been wasted looking in to crimes that were never committed.

In summary, I cannot recommend this book. Carter’s criticisms of the IPCC and the climate science community are just not true. The book’s scientific arguments are based upon a very selective reading of the literature and do not stand up to scrutiny.

  1. For example the Introduction (p 30) cites Perlwitz et al. (2009), noting that they say ’Doubts on the science of human-induced climate change have been cast by recent cooling.’ We are not told that the Perlwitz paper also states ’The implication is that the pace of North American warming is likely to resume in coming years, and that climate is unlikely embarking upon a prolonged cooling.’
  2. Check for a summary of the dubious nature of Beck’s ’research’.