I spend a lot of time, probably too much, on this blog debunking the scammers and scaremongers who make a living spreading tall tales about the dangers of cosmetic and personal care products. But a lot of the same stories and concerns also turn up in blogs by people of a green persuasion, with whom I have a lot more sympathy. I think the cosmetic industry should get an easier ride with these people. After all, if you are worried that the world is getting hotter and more crowded surely you should be grateful for the people making the antiperspirants. But anyway, I thought it was time to talk about something where I can reveal a bit of my inner tree hugger.
Seriously, nobody doubts we face a future with a lot more people. Every industry is going to have to adapt. We can’t carry on adding to the planet’s population indefinitely of course. But luckily, it turns out that there is a rather good way that the population time bomb can be defused. When people’s standard of living rises, the number of children they have goes down. So solving global poverty also saves the planet.
But do we have the resources to support a large population and at the same time keep them all well off? There are some pretty big issues ahead that need to be solved to be sure. This isn’t something that fills me with despair because I think humans are good at solving problems and this particular human enjoys doing so and watching others do the same. I hope, and expect, that the personal care industry will play its part and I’ll be keeping an eye out for any good stories. But there is one issue stands out as being extraordinarily difficult to deal with and which is a bit beyond the ability of a single individual or even a single country or industry to do anything about on their own. Global warming or climate change as we tend to call it nowadays, is the big one and if we don’t get this one right not much else will matter a great deal.
But before we can even talk about this subject, we all know that there are a lot of people around who don’t even think it is a problem in the first place. And frustratingly, they have some good arguments against the climate scientists. I have a strong feeling that the complex climate models used by the international body set up to investigate climate change will turn out to be deeply flawed. Despite this, I do think climate change is real and that it is something we should be addressing. I just don’t like the way the whole issue has been unecessarily complicated.
So what do I mean? Let us do a bit of climate modeling ourselves. Say you are planning to go to Bognor Regis, the charming resort on the south coast of England, for a holiday. Now there are many attractions in Bognor. The architecture, the fine dining, well I don’t have to tell you about its appeal. Its reputation speaks for itself. But what about its temperature? You will need some idea of this if only to decide what clothes to pack. How do you predict what the temperature will be in Bognor in the first two weeks in August.
The common sense approach would be to look up what the temperature was the previous year. In fact this is a reasonably sophisticated bit of predictive work. Underpinning it is the fact that we know that the Earth is in orbit around the Sun, so the best previous data point is the same point in that orbit. Can we improve on it with more data? We could take the previous five years data and take an average. This would probably marginally improve the accuracy of the prediction. But we wouldn’t bother, because we are talking about England so we already know that the variation in the weather will be large so we need to pack a wide range of clothing options regardless of what we expect.
But can we make a really good prediction if we have a lot more data? We could for instance take the data from the whole year and fit a model to it. This sounds fearsomely difficult if you don’t do that kind of thing often, but it is a lot easier than it sounds. There is even a module on Excel which will do it for you. With a bit of fiddling about you can come up with an equation that fits the data for a whole year. This can give very impressive results for the year being modelled. You can be pretty confident what the temperature was down to the minute for any day on the year being studied.
But this hasn’t really improved your ability to pack the right clothes. When you look at the data you’ll be able to calculate the confidence intervals which will tell you that the temperature in summer is highly variable with an average that won’t be very different to the number you looked up from last year. Basically, all that extra work has not gained you any extra insight. It wouldn’t be useless information for some purposes – if you wanted to work out what fitting double glazing would save you in your heating bills for example, it might be just what you need.
When it comes to climate change, if you have to decide whether or not to build a flood protection scheme on some low ground you might want to look at the climate models – though even then I would warn you that the science of predictive modelling has a dreadful track record. But if you are trying to make up your mind whether or not climate change is a real problem I think you have a much simpler job and you don’t need very much scientific information at all. First off, does carbon dioxide cause warming in the atmosphere? We know it does on the small scale, and you can verify it yourself with some very simple experiments if you doubt it. This doesn’t automatically imply it does this on the larger scale, but the onus is on the doubters. That carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere would be expected given how much coal and oil we burn, and that increase has been measured.
So it is to be expected that our activities are warming the planet. There may be some mechanism that exists that stops these obvious facts from translating into the planet getting warmer. But as far as I know, none has yet been discovered.
There is also the fact that the world on the whole does seem to be getting warmer. This could be down to chance or to some other factor that we haven’t yet identified. But it is exactly what you would expect to happen if global warming is true as well. Again, getting lost in the details isn’t really helpful.
So in my opinion, the facts are that global warming is real and that it is happening. I am pretty open minded, and if a counter argument comes up and I very happy to listen to it. But it has to be a substantial counter argument that explains why the obvious is not actually true. Finding fault with a particular climate scientist’s methodology, particularly by taking his e-mails out of context, proves nothing at all. None of us understood what he was doing in the first place anyway. Conspiracy theories that it is all a plot to get research funding are just silly. Flogging investment strategies to bankers would be a much more profitable line for a cynical scientist.
The evidence is that climate change is something we are going to have to live with. How we go about solving it, now that is where we need to concentrate our brain power.