Thunberg on Science

Greta Thunberg is one of those hard-to-pin-down thinkers whose ideas are widespread and influential without being well-defined. Like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Russell Brand.

Of course, she has written them down.

In a book, published by Penguin Science.

With an average of six lines of writing on each page.

Like a Noddy book, though without the illustrations.

Personally, I’d rather read the ingredients on a bottle of barbecue sauce.

Aloud.

In Public.

Over and over again.

But then I’m suffering from Aspirational Aspergers. I have a secret yearning to know what it’s like to be the world’s most boring loony. Alas. Fame, letters signed by thousands of the world’s greatest scientists and personal meetings with Mrs Merkel are not for me. I will have to make do with you, dear readers.

[Has no-one ever remarked Greta’s striking physical resemblance to that other delightful Swedish creation, the Snork Maiden? Not that Ms Jansson’s delectable heroine would ever sit on a cold pavement.]

In a new article in the Guardian accompanied by another by Guardian environment editor Damien Carrington, Greta and her chums outline what they are going to say to the forty-gigaton-a-day-smoking Merkel. It’s the same old same old that the Guardian’s best have been publishing since before Greta was born, on the lines of “It’s worse than we thought. It’s later than you think. And the fact that the worst hasn’t happened since the last time I warned you only goes to show how much worse it’ll be when it does happen.”

I’m Warning You…”

Isn’t that the helpless cry of every desperate parent since the beginning of time, or at least, since the invention of family therapy? I’m not being funny now. What happens when one unhappy, unusually intelligent infant understands that cry, and understands the parental impotence it reveals, and the sense of power it gives the infant, who throws it back to the parents, and transmits his or her insight to a million other unhappy adolescents? (And a few thousand intelligent sensitive journalists who are still unhappy adolescents at heart?)

And that’s where we’re at.

Which you won’t be reading in any Noddy book published by Penguin Science.

This article by Greta, Luisa, Anuna, and Adélaïde, does in one short and seemingly insignificant paragraph, actually get down and dirty with the science and make some assertions that can be tested. Here they are:

Science doesn’t tell anyone what to do, it merely collects and presents verified information. It is up to us to study and connect the dots. When you read the IPCC SR1.5 report and the UNEP production gap report, as well as what leaders have actually signed up for in the Paris agreement, you see that the climate and ecological crisis can no longer be solved within today’s systems. Even a child can see that policies of today don’t add up with the current best available science.

If science “merely collects and presents verified information,” then why continue studying after the age of fifteen? After all, as Greta has observed elsewhere, the science has already been done. All we have to do is “study and connect the dots.” And then publish our results at the Guardian.

But in this paragraph Greta et al. cite their sources, which are IPCC SR1.5 and the UNEP Production Gap Report

Taking the latter first: UNEP says, in its executive summary:

Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

What they don’t say is that there is a margin of error of a degree or two around any estimate of warming due to a doubling of CO2 (which doubling is expected to happen, from a base circa 1950, some time this century.) And that the 2°C and 1.5°C are measured from about 1860, or the onset of the industrial revolution. And that estimates of warming during the 20th century vary from a half a degree to one degree, depending on thwhim of the time travellers at NOAA, thus adding an additional 0.5°C of uncertainty either way to any estimates of future warming(Climate science is a young discipline, and its practitioners are still at the stage of fourth century Platonists or Church fathers who knew what Plato or Jesus really meant to say, and adjusted their data accordingly. Unfortunately for our study of Christianity and Plato, the Wayback machine doesn’t go back that far. But it’s just fine for 20th century warming adjustments, which, as Greta observes, a child can verify.)

So what the UNEP Gap report is telling us is that current planned fossil fuel use is inconsistent with limiting warming to somewhere between nothing and something, and may even be inconsistent with preventing a cooling. What the report doesn’t say is that the world is going to end. Or, as Greta puts it, that:

it is … unrealistic to believe that our societies would be able to survive the global heating we’re heading for.

The evidence of the UNEP report is that our societies would survive, but just be a tiny bit warmer, or possibly cooler, or possibly the same as before.

Turning to IPCC SR1.5

The 1.5°C limit was inserted into the Paris COP25 report at the insistence of the conference’s co-president Fiji, representing the fears of all those Pacific small island states threatened by sea level rise. Fiji is two bloody great volcanic rocks rising vertically out of the ocean, and has as much chance of being overwhelmed by rising sea levels as I have of being eaten by a famished polar bear. Which didn’t stop the media reporting the removal of Fijians from huts in a swamp to bungalows a half a mile inland as a climate refugee disaster story. But journalists are born liars, as you have often noted Greta.

IPCC SR1.5 is billed on its opening page as:

An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

In other words, it is wholly concerned with predicting what would happen if average temperatures rose by a certain amount (generally thought to be about 0.5°C above the current level.) It has nothing to say on whether or when this might happen, and nothing to say about the fact that this regularly happens already, with monthly average temperatures a degree or two above or below any average global temperature anomaly you care to mention. Of course, butterflies die by the million, people swelter and curse their governments and invest in air conditioning, and the cleverer ones look for ways of creaming off a percentage of the trillions that government will throw at any crazy scheme you and your fellow ex-schoolgirls care to propose. But none of this is science. IPCC SR1.5 has nothing to say about science and what science can tell us abut the future. Because the IPCC doesn’t do science and science doesn’t do the future. Which the IPCC makes clear in their very next paragraph, in a quote from the French aviator and author of “Le Petit Prince” (literature’s first prepubescent treehugger:)

Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible.” 
Antoine de Saint ExupéryCitadelle, 1948

As far as the future is concerned, the point is not to predict it, but to make it happen.”

Quite. Which he said in 1948, according to the IPCC, despite the fact that he died in 1944. But that’s climate science for you. Or it would be, if the IPCC did science, which it doesn’t. It does quotes, and nothing else. And so do I, but the difference is that I know what I’m doing.

What Thunberg does is something else. Temper tantrums possibly. Which are certainly justified, given the way our society treats the young. Greta’s elder brothers and sisters have been saddled with debts for a crap education which barely entitles them to an Uberised short contract work environment, with no prospect of property ownership or freedom from debt in their childbearing age. This is social suicide. Greta thinks it’s all about a half a degree rise in average temperatures, but it’s more complicated than that. She may be right to be revolting, but for the wrong reasons.

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August 20, 2020 at 07:14PM

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