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14 March, 2007

Timothy Ball of Confusion

I noticed in the Telegraph (a UK newspaper) that Dr. Timothy F. Ball has been receiving death threats. This is because he does not believe that climate change is caused by human activity. I was appalled by this. No-one should be threatened with violence because of what they believe, or what they say. If we condone such behaviour, we have no moral credibility at all.

Moral outrage aside, it was surprising to me that there are still people around who don’t accept what science is telling us about what we are doing to our world. Even the world’s right-wing governments (and let’s face it, they’re all right-wing these days) are beginning to accept it (the Dick Cheyneys and John Howards excepted, of course). The highly-conservative views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) are far from alarmist and represent a global consensus by scientists that we need to act now to prevent serious degradation of our environment over the next 100 years. Even the economic argument that we would ruin our national economies by responding to the climate change threat have been trashed recently by the Stern report which shows that failure to act will have far worse economic consequences. Yet there are still people like Ball telling us that man-made climate change is not happening.

Ball is not just a ‘climate sceptic’, he is a vociferous advocate of his position. He is a member of the right-wing Fraser Institute which also argues against any response to climate change. He is also Chairman of the National Resources Stewardship Project – a Canadian lobby group against climate change control. His views are summed up in Global Warming: The Cold Hard Facts, if you’re interested.

I really don’t get it. Ball seems to believe quite genuinely and passionately that CO2 does not contribute significantly to global warming, and that all those thousands of other climate scientists, chemists and physicists have simply got it all wrong. Ball’s various arguments (solar cycles, urban hot-spots, fudged data in the famous ‘hockey-stick’ graph, errors in the satellite data, etc.) have all be systematically studied and dismissed by the scientific community. New evidence, new studies, by dozens of different research groups suggest that Ball is wrong on all the evidence he cites in favour of his position.

Which is not to say that Ball is actually wrong. I’m no chemist, physicist or climatologist. I’m in no position to judge the evidence. However, I do have confidence in the self-correcting nature of science itself. It is quite easy for scientists to go haring off in the wrong direction, led by a few exciting results to believe they are onto something. However, as new evidence mounts, incorrect interpretations quickly become untenable, the error is spotted and the excitement fades. Over the past thirty years, the evidence that climate change is caused by our own activities has overwhelmingly corroborated the hypothesis.

Having read what Ball says (no scientific evidence, as it happens, but lots of assertion) I get the impression of someone who is a bit of a nutter who is being used as a pawn of the energy industry to promote anti-climate change ideas that they would dearly like us to believe. The fact that he receives funding from Canadian oil and gas companies (money that has been passed through the Calgary Foundation, to the University of Calgary, though a body called the “Science Education Fund,” and on to another lobby group with which Ball is associated called Friends of Science – according to the Globe and Mail, as reported by Jim Hoggan in is neither here nor there. Why should he not accept their funding when he has completely congruent objectives? And, frankly, who else would fund such a fringe position?

Unfortunately, right or wrong, Ball is doing the wrong thing about it. If Ball is wrong about climate change – and the chances seem excellent that he is – he could be doing terrible harm to everyone by lobbying governments to ignore the evidence. If on the off-chance he is right that it is a natural phenomenon and nothing to do with us, then he should be out there lobbying even harder to cut CO2 emissions because the world is still warming up – even he doesn’t deny that – the icebergs are still melting and the droughts, storms, floods, disease and starvation are still coming, and we still have to do what we can to save ourselves.

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