U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to tell Indonesians recently that climate change is a serious danger to humanity if not addressed appropriately. Although asserting that such changes are “the greatest threat that the planet has ever seen” was clearly over the top, history shows that disaster ensues when societies do not properly deal with climate change.
But Kerry ruined his credibility on the issue when he asserted that climate science is “simple,” and “not really a complicated equation.”
Trying to unravel the causes and consequences of climate change is arguably the most complex science ever tackled. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change demonstrates that much of what we thought we knew about climate is wrong or highly debatable. The science is becoming more unsettled as the field advances.
We do not actually know how much climate will change as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels continue to rise. We do not even know whether warming or cooling lies ahead. That may surprise many people. We have been told for years that “future warming is unequivocal.” Al Gore and others regularly cite the predictions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a steady rise in temperature is inevitable with increasing CO2 levels.
But nature is not cooperating with such forecasts. Although atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased about 8 percent over the past 17 years, even the IPCC now acknowledges that planetary temperatures have not risen during this period for reasons they do not understand. They’re also in the dark as to why their forecast of “a decline in the frequency of cold air outbreaks in the Northern Hemisphere winter in most areas” have failed so spectacularly in recent years.
Of greater concern than hypothetical future warming is the possibility that the past decade’s cold weather records are a harbinger of significant global cooling. Solar scientists are forecasting that cooling is inevitable as the sun weakens into a “grand minimum” over the coming decades.
Solar expert Habibullo Abdussamatov of Russia’s Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg explained, “From approximately 2014, we can expect the start of the next bicentennial cycle of deep cooling with a Little Ice Age in 2055 plus or minus 11 years.”
We won’t know for decades whether Abdussamatov and his peers are right, but history shows that cold periods are far more dangerous than warm times. Yet governments across the world are planning only for warming, a relatively benign scenario and one that is appearing increasingly improbable.
So what should be done about climate change given that we don’t know what will happen next? We should focus on adapting to climate change, not vainly trying to stop it. Adaptation measures should include upgrading our heating, cooling, and irrigation systems, relocating populations living in dangerous areas, burying electrical and communications cables underground, reinforcing infrastructure, and preparing for continuing sea level rise.
To do this we will need massive quantities of inexpensive, high-quality, reliable power. Yet in discussing his solutions to these dangers, Kerry promotes wind and solar power, the least reliable and most expensive options available. Moving away from coal and other hydrocarbon fuels to flimsy alternative power sources because of climate concerns would be suicide.
The secretary encouraged his audience to “have a frank conversation about this threat.” To facilitate such a discussion, Kerry must admit what science and engineering really tell us about these topics, not just what is politically convenient. We have no hope of fulfilling his goal “of leaving our future generations the safe and healthy planet that they deserve” if we do otherwise.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.