The Great Global Warming Swindle (GGWS) is a controversial documentary on climate change by British television producer Martin Durkin1. It first aired on the BBCs channel 4 on March 8, 20072. This documentary argues against conventional scientific understanding of the degree and cause of recent, observed climate change. The overwhelming view amongst climate scientists is that twentieth century global warming is largely due to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases resulting from increased industrialization during the last 100- 150 years.
His program collides sharply with the premise outlined in former Vice President Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which presents a bleak picture of how a buildup in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide affects the global climate, with potentially disastrous consequences. Durkin presents an alternative view that recent global warming is neither significant nor due to human activity.
The documentary does not attempt to argue the latter view through any critical deconstruction of climate science orthodoxies. Rather, it contends that modern climate scientists are at best seriously misguided in their collective opinion on the nature and causes of global warming, or are at worst guilty of lying to the rest of the community. Publicity for the documentary leans heavily towards the latter, stating that global warming is “the biggest scam of modern times”.
The documentary uses a series of techniques to shake the viewer’s belief in current orthodox understanding and to present an amenable contrary viewpoint. Several experts, labeled as ‘authoritative’, are interviewed to lend credibility to the documentary.These commentators are presented as ‘insiders’ who cast doubt on the integrity of climate change science and the IPCC assessment process that has led to current orthodox understanding. Alternate scientific contentions are presented in a credible way by selectively presenting facts and heightening uncertainties without context or by specious reference to the actual published science. The motivation and morality of scientists driving current orthodox understanding is questioned through aspersions that are conspiratorial in nature.
Many of the people that were interviewed did not have the proper credentials and were under qualified. For example, Patrick Moore is a Canadian Professor who has no training in climate science. He makes public statements in favor of genetic engineering and logging in the Amazon. In 1986 Moore had an altercation with Greenpeace and has since put most of his energies into undermining the arguments of environmentalists, particularly his former colleagues. His main claims involve the idea that environmentalists ‘treat humans as scum’.
In the 1990s, Moore worked as a consultant for the British Columbian Timber Products Association, undermining the attempts of Greenpeace to preserve forests. Also various large corporations and companies paid many of the people that were interviewed off. Fred Singer is a retired Professor from the University of Virginia and has never had an article accepted for a peer reviewed scientific journal in the last 20 years. He has argued that CFCs do not cause Ozone Depletion. There are numerous scientific studies that disprove his ludacris assertion. In 1990, Singer founded ‘The Science and Environment Policy project’, which contradicts climate science and has received direct funding from Exxon, Shell, Unocal and ARCO 2000.
Patrick Michaels is another such person interviewed in The Great Global Warming Swindle. He is one of the most prominent climate change skeptics in the US and made the claim (in the movie) “I’ve never been paid a nickel by the old and gas companies”. This is actually not true as according to journalist Ross Gebspan, Michaels has received direct funding from German Coal Mining Association ($49,000), Edison Electric Institute ($15,000),
He is a meteorology professor at MIT and is known as one of the most reputable climate change skeptics in the US. Some of his most notable claims include those published in the Wall Street Journal in June 2011 maintaining that “there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends or what causes them”. Lindzen is known to charge oil and coal interests 2,500 USD a day for his consulting services and in 1991, he testified in front of a senate committee, after receiving funding from the company Western Fuels. He is a member of the Advisory Council of the Annapolis Center for Science Based Public Policy which receives a large proportion of its funding from Exxon Mobil.
In summary the documentary is not scientifically sound and presents a flawed and very misleading interpretation of the science. While giving the impression of being based on peer-reviewed science, much of the material presented is either out-of-date, already discredited or of uncertain origin. A number of the graphs and figures used in the documentary are not based on any known or published climate data, while others are presented schematically, and hence may confuse and mislead the viewer.
The general arguments in the movie are; that climate change is a natural occurrence, that Global temperature actually dropped during the period of greatest anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions, that carbon dioxide is not a significant greenhouse gas that the greenhouse effect isn’t being enhanced and that carbon dioxide concentration increases do not cause increased temperature. The format of the documentary itself is sound in that it shows the opinions of various source, the problem is that the interviews were taken out of context and visual imagery was often manipulated.
The documentary attempts to support the claim that temperatures were higher in the recent past with the graph ‘Temp – 1000 Years’ – attributed to the “IPCC”. This graph purports to show global average temperature between AD 900 and “now”, with the highest values recorded between about 1100 and 1300 (labeled as “Medieval Warm Period”).
The graph is actually reproduction of a schematic diagram published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its First Assessment Report in 1990 (Figure 2). It is important to note that this schematic is largely based upon early reconstructions of European temperature changes such as that of Lamb (1988). Critically, the 1990 IPCC Report cautioned, “it is still not clear whether all the fluctuations indicated were truly global”, and underlying the fact that neither regional temperature averages nor temperature records from single locations can be used as proxies for global temperature.
This 17 year-old graph has been superseded by numerous more recent studies, with the IPCC successively publishing updated records of “near global” temperature in its Second Assessment Report in 1995, its Third Assessment Report in 2001, and its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. The most up-to- date figure for the Northern Hemisphere, from IPCC (2007), is reproduced in Figure 3, which shows 12 different reconstructions. These consistently show that, for the Northern Hemisphere, the past century is exceptionally warm, and that the warmth of recent decades clearly exceeds that of the Medieval Warm Period in all cases.
The United States National Academies published a report in 2006 (NAS 2006) that reviewed the published scientific evidence on surface temperature reconstructions for the last 2000 years. It found that “evidence for regional warmth during medieval times [centered around AD 1000] can be found in a diverse but more limited set of records including ice cores, tree rings, marine sediments, and historical sources from Europe and Asia, but the exact timing and duration of warm periods may have varied from region to region, and the magnitude and geographic extent of the warmth are uncertain”.
Based on a review of the scientific literature, the report concluded “none of the large-scale surface temperature reconstructions show medieval temperatures as warm as the last few decades of the 20th century.” Very clearly, the documentary has misrepresented the early IPCC figure, and ignored all IPCC updates to this figure. The analyses published by the IPCC strongly contradict the documentary. Another such scientific inaccuracy is the claim that the rising temperatures of the planet stared to plateau around 1940 and then didn’t continue to rise again until 1970, and therefore that this represents evidence that human activities don’t influence the climate.
This is clearly a tactic employed by the movie’s makers and interviewees to manipulate the audience as the logic behind this is very flawed. The years leading up to and during the second World War were a time of great industrialization for many countries in the northern hemisphere (which contains a majority of the Earth’s landmass), causing large amounts of carbon dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere. This industrialization also created a large amount of pollutants that stayed in the lower atmosphere which reflect incoming sunlight back into space, thereby causing temporary cooling.
These lower level pollutants, including sulphate aerosols only have residency times of a few months (as opposed to about 100 years for C02) and therefore warming resumes (refer to figure 1 in appendix). The current data from the IPCC shows that since then, the temperature has been increasing faster than it has in the last 10,000 years17. While there were clearly many attempts at manipulations and scientific errors in the Global Warming Swindle, there were a few valid points that were made. The argument that Global warming is (in some cases) being used in such a way that keeps developing countries from the rapid development needed to create better standards of living for the general population in a valid one.
It is very simple for the theory to be used in a way that makes actions such as preventing the use of fossil fuels in developing countries seem valid, despite the fact that this often a necessary step in the development process. Developed countries currently emit a vast majority of global greenhouse emissions and the media frequently depicts countries such as China and India as the colloquially termed ‘bad guys’ because they refuse to maintain the necessary reductions in greenhouse emissions. The movie showed a short clip of an interview in a hospital in a rural area of an developing countries where the power from a solar panel was clearly not enough to power the hospital. Such instances are common in rural areas of Africa where NGOs, in an attempt to reduce Global emissions, install inappropriate technologies.
The movie is also has a sound format in that it is in documentary ‘style’ (disregarding the validity of the points presented), and it shows clips from various different scientists and Climate skeptics in different fields. Climate change Skeptic Bjorn Lomborg has been criticized for using very few researchers belonging to a very narrow spectrum of fields to validate his claims18. In comparison, The Global Warming Swindle has presented a decent number of sources and ‘experts’. The general format was also such that it intertwined interviews, narration and visual aids. This method is quite effective in maintaining the interest of the audience throughout the movie.
The inaccuracies presented in Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ needed to be responded to and the general idea of creating a documentary to address this issue was a good one. Al Gore only barely presented the other side of the argument and there are some very valid cases relating to the fact that Global Warming may not have anthropogenic causes. In fact, if the Global Warming Swindle is correct in its assertion that Global warming isn’t manmade then there really isn’t much that can be done and our resources really would be better spent elsewhere and any real action would mean convincing every nation on Earth to cut down on fuel emissions-which data suggests, is unlikely.
Despite these valid points, arguments can be made to the contrary, especially with consideration to their presentation and the omission of certain information. The Global Warming Swindle implies that there are official expectations for developing countries to cut emissions by the same amount as developed countries. This isn’t true. The Kyoto protocol explicitly stated that there was nothing expected from developing countries in this regard.
This was yet another attempt to manipulate the audience into believing the producer’s agenda. The inclusion of this fact may have made the movie seem a little more credible and balanced but this information is omitted. For the most part, it is now understood that economic development has to go hand in hand with climate policy. There is currently no legitimate environmental movement that says that the worlds less developed should have their access to energy restricted. There is also a very valid argument to the effect that sustainable development is a possible route towards economic development.
Regardless, even if sustainable development doesn’t occur, the use of fossil fuels for development in developing countries wouldn’t have a significant effect on the environment. Costs estimate that the upper bound for the annual cost of emissions reductions consistent with the stabilization of CO2 levels would equal about 1% of the world’s GDP by 205020. This shows that, despite the cost, continual development is possible and that these actions will prevent the possible occurrence of Global Warming related phenomena that could have a detrimental effect to global development. The issue about how scientists now use the theory of manmade global warming to fund their research is completely true. On the other hand, this is not a new phenomenon.
In order to prove or disprove a theory, scientists need to find sources of funding for their research. Obviously using arguably the most in ‘vogue’ scientific issue of our time is an easy way to get funding. Before the theory of Global Warming was being researched, scientists still had to present their research and find modes of funding. Therefore using this as a way to argue that Global Warming isn’t the result of anthropogenic greenhouse gases seems a weak argument that is rather off topic.
The Great Global Warming Swindle does not represent the current state of knowledge in climate science. Skepticism in science is a healthy thing, and the presence of orthodox scientific skepticism in climate change is ubiquitous. Many of the hypotheses presented in the Great Global Warming Swindle have been considered and rejected by due scientific process. This documentary is far from an objective, critical examination of climate science. Instead the Great Global Warming Swindle goes to great lengths to present outdated, incorrect or ambiguous data in such a way as to grossly distort the true understanding of climate change science, and to support a set of extremely controversial views.