Here’s an astonishing segment from a recent interview with futurist Vaclav Smil, conducted by New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin. Smil claims that there has been “no global warming in the past ten years” and appears to suggest that we can safely ignore the problem of climate change because it won’t hit with “full force” any time soon, and its full impact is as yet unknown.
The interview came last Saturday at the Quantum to Cosmos Festival (Q2C)l in Waterloo, Ontario, a 10-day presentation of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Smil is a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and the author of 30 books, the most recent being “The Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years.”
At Dotearth, Andrew Revkin presented highlights from the wide-ranging interview, including this statement about climate change:
This is not going to be with us in full force — nobody claims it, even the orthodox people, in 2015…. But in between there are a great many things coming in between…. The pandemic is number one. Because we are overdue for a pandemic.
Below, I’ve excerpted most of the exchange that led to the above statement. The segment starts 22 minutes into the interview (30 minutes in the Q2C “padded” version).
Revkin paraphrased his question as “Is climate change the biggest pinch point, or are other issues more pressing?” (The wording is slightly different, but that is clearly the correct sense of the question).
Revkin: Your most recent book is on these catastrophes or emergencies that are coming or could be coming… Climate has been one that has been talked about so much lately… If you accept the basics that these gases trap heat and we double or triple the amount in the atmosphere, we’re in for a lot of climate change. Is that the biggest pinch point or are there other things that would come up before that?
Smil: … This global warming is very complex and we don’t know. You know very well what happened in the last ten years. Basically no global warming in past ten years And people say: Oh, we anticipated it. I say: Who did? … Did Jim Hansen in 1988, in his famous speech to congress, did he say that global warming is here, but it will basically stop for ten years?
It does not mean at all it will not jump back again with as much force in five or ten years. But I am just giving you the example of the last 10 years. It is very complex.
Of course, the so-called “stop” or “pause” in global warming has been debunked time and time again, both here and elsewhere. For example, here is a chart of decadal increases for the three main surface global temperature series.
It can be clearly seen that global warming continued in 2000-9, relative to the previous decade. Decadal warming has ranged from from 0.17C (HadCRU) to 0.19C (NASA GISS).
At this point, Revkin tried to remind Smil that the so-called “pause” is simply a “wiggle” in the “curve”, although he stops short of saying outright that Smil is dead wrong. But Smil is having none of it. He then goes on to insist that a coming global pandemic, costing up to 60 million lives, is a much more pressing problem .
Revkin: We’re so focused on the here and now, which is of course about that kind of wiggle in the curve. This is something I’ve characterized as a “slow drip” problem … and we’re always distracted by what’s happening now.
Smil: If you have this orthodox view, what I call the IPCC view… Now people are publishing these papers saying that it will be much worse than we anticipated. But we have been there before and maybe in five years they’ll be saying it it will be a little better than we anticipated.
The point is that this is unfolding slowly. This is not going to be with us in full force — nobody claims it, even the orthodox people, in 2015…. But in between there are a great many things coming …. The pandemic is number one. Because we are overdue for a pandemic.
So why does Smil think that climate change is so overrated as a problem? Some clues come in this summary of his thinking from a review in American Scientist.
Smil is blunt in his criticisms of the global-warming pessimists, saying that we simply don’t know enough about the complex interactions and feedbacks that may take place to be able to reliably quantify the likely consequences of the warming that is occurring. His estimate is that there will be a temperature increase of 2.5 degrees to 3 degrees Celsius over the next hundred years, a figure that is about at the midpoint of recent projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently the industrialized nations in the Northern Hemisphere have the wealth and technical capabilities to handle this increase, but poor countries in the global South, which are already carrying an unmanageable load, will find it quite burdensome. (Smil’s usual concern with the interaction of variables is not in evidence in this case. Does he think that the multitudes who cannot cope will quietly disappear?) Although he stresses the difficulty of estimating future sea levels, he says that “a cautious conclusion” would be that they will rise about 15 centimeters by 2050—“clearly a noncatastrophic change.” He concludes surprisingly that the market impacts of a moderate warming will be “a trivial sum in all affluent countries” (which prorates to about $180 a year per capita), citing in support work by Yale economist William D. Nordhaus. (Other respected economists disagree.)
So Smil appears to think that anthropogenic global warming of the scale aniticipted by the IPCC is real, but entirely manageable, at least for wealthy nations. I guess we’ll have to read the book to understand why he thinks the inevitable food shortages caused by massive deglaciation in the Himalayan watershed, for example, will not be disastrous for the nations of that region, not to mention having widespread repercussions. And at a time when most scientists think a 1 meter rise in sea level by 2100 is inevitable, his dismissal of the inexorable rise in sea level as a problem to be mitigated sooner rather than later is puzzling indeed.
Another interesting Smil interview from 2006 can be found at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the right-wing (and climate contrarian) think tank based in Smil’s home town of Winnipeg. (The FCPP recently presented the pompous contrarian Lord Monckton in a series of lectures, as I noted previously here and here).
Here is Smil on solar energy and the oil sands in northern Alberta:
FC: What alternative energy sources do you think show the best prospects?
VS: In the long-term prospect, no doubt about it, photovoltaic conversion of solar energy, because it is an unlimited source and you convert solar radiation directly into electricity. There are more places around the world which are sunny, even in high latitudes, than ones that are windy or have geothermal energy. When you look at geothermal, tidal or wind, the total amount of resources and their locations around the planet, the energy available is not as abundant as direct solar radiation. We should be pouring more of our money into research into high-efficiency photovoltaic electricity conversion.
FC: You also cite the tar sands as a great energy resource in Canada, but worry that we are burning plenty of valuable natural gas to extract the oil. Can you comment?
VS: If it were the only way the world could get energy, then it would be fine, but we have other, cheaper ways. That money would be better invested in geophysical exploration for conventional oil elsewhere around the world, because there is still plenty to be discovered, offshore, in Africa and in Asia. Only when we run out of conventional oil should we take this serious step into non-conventional oil.
What a difference three years makes. Now Smil is touting cheap shale natural gas as a source of energy for decades to come, and an example of how energy analysts (including himself presumably) always get it wrong. There’s no word yet if that means the oil sands are okay after all.