Terry Smith, Carbon Emissions and Debt

Terry Smith

The straight-talking Terry Smith

I heard the straight-talking Terry Smith on the radio and, filled with concern about my pension, I looked him up. Coming across his blog, I was then disappointed to read that he declares himself to be a climate ‘sceptic’. However his article on the subject is full of cynicism rather than scepticism.

While I was browsing his blog it seemed to me that there was actually quite an interesting analogy between debt and carbon emissions. Really? Yes! So I decided to write to Terry Smith, and my note is now awaiting moderation here. Just in case it doesn’t get posted, here it is, recorded for posterity. I will let you know if he replies.

Terry Smith

I came to your site after hearing you speak insightfully about the ‘debt issue’ on the radio. But I am saddened to hear your comments on Climate Change.

Who am I? My name is Michael de Podesta and I am 51 year old scientist working at the National Physical Laboratory. I spent several years as an academic physicist and I am now working as a specialist in temperature measurement. I also talk to the public about the issue of Global Warming and have been invited to sit on the Steering Committee of the Surface Temperature Initiative – a response to the Climategate fiasco. Our aim is to create an open temperature database with independently verified analytical tools. I am not in the ‘Climate Change’ lobby, but as I explain below, I think the phenomenon of carbon emissions has some analogy with the growth of national debt.

First of all let me mention your tone: this is not the tone of a sceptic, but of a cynic. You openly express contempt for work towards which people have devoted their lives. In matters like this, tone is important.

In recent years I have briefly met some of these people (e,g. Phil Jones) and I was curious as to how would they come across. The answer, to my surprise, was that they come across as very modest and very open to criticism. But, they have been exposed to astonishing vilification – even death threats – for just making the best estimates they could with limited data. Imagine if economic forecasters and got the same level of vilification when they got things wrong! Tone is very important.

Secondly, the question to ask is not ‘Is the Earth warming?’, but ‘How did the Earth get to be the temperature it is in the first place?’ Answering this generally non-contentious question reveals the small role played by CO2 in determining the Earth’s climate. And then one notes that CO2 levels have been rising due to anthropogenic energy uses, which by the way have brought enormous benefits to human kind. Just about every calculation of what one expects the effects to be predicts the same thing: a global warming. And since CO2 remains in the atmosphere for several hundred years, we have not yet seen the full warming caused by the CO2 we have put there already, and the rate of emission of CO2 is rising. There is nothing particularly scientifically contentious about anything in this paragraph.

Thirdly, the question of the average temperature above the land surfaces of the Earth – the instrumental temperature record. Contrary to your assertion, scientists involved in this field have devised software of the complexity worthy of a derivatives trader to eliminate the effect of urban heat islands. And, although the work is subject to many criticisms, all analyses seem to show a warming trend. There no analyses which show a cooling trend. Contrary to your statement, the adjustments made remove the effect of urban heat islands and still show a warming trend. Personally, I don’t put much store by any of this because the average surface temperature of the Earth is extraordinarily insensitive to all kinds of climate change (which may warm one place and cool another) and also amazingly difficult to measure. Much of the warming has come over polar regions where there is no one to notice and measurements are particularly difficult. There are other things which one can look at (e.g. polar ice coverage, seasonal shifts etc) which are more sensitive indicators of possible changes.

Finally, should we do anything about it? Well I would like to remind you of your comments on the role of debt in economies. A certain level is fine, but when a country habitually increases its debt it is heading towards trouble – reduced credit-worthiness, increased interest rates and then possible bankruptcy. Of course the road to this is paved with pleasure because borrowing money and spending it is (a) easy and (b) feels great at the time. And most importantly, the point at which debt is too great to deal with will not be marked with any kind of fanfare.

Similarly with CO2 emissions. Burning carbon fuels is cheap and cheap energy is enjoyable and brings great benefits to human kind. Whether or not the temperature signal has been detected from its effect on the Climate is a moot point, but the CO2 has not disappeared! As I mentioned above, to the best of our knowledge the CO2 emitted already will be warming the planet for several hundred years and we are continuing to add to this amount which will increase the rate of heating as well as its duration. And we won’t know the extent of the changes we are causing for several hundred years. And like with debt, the point at which the situation becomes irrecoverable will be marked with no fanfare.

It seems to me that in this situation it would be prudent to BEGIN to reduce carbon emissions in the same way that it is prudent for the UK to reduce its debt BEFORE there is a crisis. Of course I understand that carbon emissions are linked to economic growth which is what is required to pay for everything. But cynicism towards the scientists trying to address this issue is unwarranted.

All the best


P.S. Any tips on what to do with my pension fund would be gratefully received 🙂


2 Responses to “Terry Smith, Carbon Emissions and Debt”

  1. POZ Says:

    I don’t see an update–Did he ever respond?

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