Earth: The Climate Wars

When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins’s three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word “polemic” in my TV guide, noting that “creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.”

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that’s as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as “controversial”. Interestingly, the polemic word doesn’t seem to have been attached to this one. It’s an “investigation”.

To be clear, I don’t regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant ‘controversy’ in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a “big freeze” and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth’s future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there’s plenty here that I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in detail. In some respects it’s surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a “polemic” if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no “harm” to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I’ve read other rebuttals, e.g. badscience.com but it’s still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden — in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word — shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden “tipping point” temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder — although thankfully 2008 didn’t break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it’s always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of “controversy” driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply ‘counting the rings’ that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you’re likely to find. That’s assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong — which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: “Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven”, a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong — although, y’know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction — but because disasters are cool. That’s why Iain Stewart’s earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don’t for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that’s just me.

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