Climate change and the limits of science

di Vincenzo Zappalà

A competition more political than scientific

Science should progress through approximations, not through unproved assumptions

The “hockey stick”

The raised atmospheric carbon dioxide level is the effect and not the cause of the temperature variation!

A new Original Sin and a new Era of Inquisition?

A new Copernican revolution is necessary

Monitoring the environment and improving the social equity: a duty for us

Space colonization: the only way for the human race evolution?

A competition more political than scientific

The reality of the Global Warming debate seems to be quite simply a great conflict between political powers and industrial interests, together with the obvious and well known interactions between them. The writer is not an expert in Climatology, nor in the sciences of the Atmosphere and Glaciations, nor of finance. For this reason he might be the right person to comment and describe the present situation. In fact, he is not at all involved in the dispute between the schools of scientific opinion. However, as an astronomer and chiefly as a man of science, he well understands the difficulties of testable data collection as well as of their interpretation and, finally, of any attempt to define a plausible theory able to describe their physics and to allow general predictions.

Indeed, the majority of the results of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) as well as those of its opponents generally lack reliable theories, verifiable data, and correct interpretation. In this situation it is very difficult to understand their scientific value. However, we must say that the majority of the “skeptics” well understand this limitation and they do not hide the problem. The same is not true for the IPCC. This Panel shows generally results that are presented as inconvertible even if the theories and the data used are highly uncertain and sometimes unproved. This is the major difference between the two groups. Probably both do not have the correct solution, but while the opponents admit generally their limits, the Panel try to mask the lacks present in their data. On the other hand, the IPCC is funded by Governments and is supported by several industrial interests and by the ecologists. The real mistake is already clear in the role of the Panel: it must study the “human induced global warming” and NOT to establish if it is really due to Humanity. As a consequence, its job is to define the political, economic and industrial strategies needed to mitigate the supposed climate change. Unfortunately, the IPCC is not required to establish if the change really exists and, in that case, if it is really human induced. Everybody knows perfectly well how difficult it is to forecast the weather for the next three-four days. How can we pretend to know in advance the trend for the next ten-twenty years? Atmospheric phenomena are part of an extremely chaotic system (if a butterfly moves its wings in Himalaya, maybe tomorrow it will rain in Italy….), which can be studied only with numerical approximations, without any reliable formula. The parameters involved are practically infinite: oceans, ice, solar activity, cosmic rays, volcanic eruptions, long term variations of the Earth orbit and rotation axis, etc., etc.

Science should progress through approximations not through unproved assumptions

As an astronomer, the writer knows very well that when one wants to study a complex phenomenon, like the motion around the Sun of a planet under the perturbing effects of the other planets, he has to rely essentially on numerical computations and statistics. For instance, in order to know if an asteroid will hit the Earth in 2036, it is necessary to use almost perfect data and simulations. However, if the system becomes chaotic (close encounter with a planet, entry into a mean motion resonance) even perfect data are not sufficient. The only way to proceed is to perform an enormous amount of simulations and then extract the most recurrent result. This will be considered the most probable, but with a quite large error bar. 


In the Solar System the contour conditions are well known, as well as their expected errors. Also the models are very reliable as demonstrated by the successes of numerous space missions. In the fields of weather science and climate variations, the problems are enormously magnified. The data are quite poor, the models are very uncertain and often unproved, and there is a little knowledge of the contour conditions and how they can affect the overall system. It is like Don Quixote against the windmills… So, what to do? Before giving as clear as possible an answer , it might be interesting to discuss the main points of divergence between the IPCC results and those of the “skeptic” scientists.


The “hockey stick”

The first point to discuss is the so called hockey stick, one of the main starting points of the IPCC strategy. It is the graphic which shows the temperature trend during the last ten centuries. It remains almost constant till the beginning of the industrial era. Then, it shows a steep increase, leading to a shape that resembles the stick used in the hockey races. It is considered the fundamental proof of the human induced climate warming. Recently, several scientists have succeeded in breaking the stick, demonstrating that the constant part is completely wrong, once all the data have been correctly taken into account. A correct revised version shows indeed that the temperature in the Mediaeval period (1400-1500) was higher than today. Then, from 1600 to 1900, there was a long low temperature period (the so called little ice age, well represented in several paintings of that period). Finally, we have the present increase, still lower than the Mediaeval level. 

It is very important to say that the hockey stick is not wrong for a trivial computation mistake, but for a predetermined choice of only the best data leading to the expected final result, excluding those, equally reliable, which might give a different appearance of the graphic. Moreover, some data were recognized to be misleading. 

In conclusion, it is a real delusion. However, it has been considered by the Panel itself, the Governments and the Media the most important proof of human induced climate warming. But there is something more to say. 



The final increase in the graphic could depends mostly by the urbanization of the large towns. In other words, the temperature measured in the towns would be strongly affected by the heating produced by the inhabitants and partially by their presence too. The trend is in fact different if we consider only the rural records and, mainly, the results coming from satellites. 

It is not very important to understand whether this lack of interpretation has been intentional or not. What is really fundamental is that global warming might well not exist at all! If true, as it seems, this represents the strongest result against the IPCC and the threat announced as an immediate apocalypse by ecologic groups and the Media. It means also that the IPCC would have no reason to exist, at least as it is organized today.

The raised atmospheric carbon dioxide level is the effect and not the cause of the temperature variation!

Another important point is to understand what is the real cause, if there is a single cause, of the temperature changes. Here also the guilty party seems to be identified beyond doubt by the IPCC: the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, CO2.

However this graphic, used as a fundamental proof by Al Gore in his famous movie, must be analyzed very carefully. In fact, a detailed analysis of the data has shown that is the carbon dioxide which follows the temperature trend and not the contrary! The delay between the two lines has been estimated of about 800 years. This could be due to the increasing release of CO2 from oceans after high temperature periods. Again, another fundamental proof used by the Media for demonstrating the present climate threat seems to have been “broken”.

Similarly, one has to consider carefully the situation of the ice melting in the polar caps. While it could be real for the sea ice in the Arctic (but not for the ground ice of Greenland, for instance), it seems to be untrue for the South Pole (the major concentration of ice on this planet), an increase of the ice volume has been found, excluding the relatively small Ross Peninsula, which is “by chance” the only one mentioned by the Media. We have also to remember that the name Greenland means really Green Land, since in the Viking period it was covered by vegetation and the navigation in the Arctic sea quite easy.

A new Original Sin and a new Era of Inquisition?

Let us start with some questions. Did the carbon dioxide really increase so much in the last years? Furthermore, what has been its trend during the geological eras of our planet? indeed, is CO2 really so dangerous? First of all, we must clearly say (and this is never mentioned by the Media and by the IPCC) that the CO2 is not the major greenhouse gas. More important is water vapor, whose production cannot be human induced. CO2 represents only the 0,03% of the atmosphere and it seems very hard to believe that, even doubling its amount, carbon dioxide can affect our planet with global catastrophes. Moreover, it has been proved that the first trend of an increase of the greenhouse effect is the reduction of extreme events, like tornados and hurricanes. It seems today that carbon dioxide would represent the new original sin of a new Religion, if not the new representation of the devil. Believing in this “devil” is an act of faith: if you do not believe , you are a sinner and you deserve a terrible punishment by the Governments, the Media and the ecologists. On the other hand, we need to remember that CO2 is at the basis of any form of life, as it is well represented by the following formula:

It represents the fundamental “engine” of life: Photosynthesis . Without it no form of life can survive! We could be seriously risking a relapsing into a the times of the Inquisition: if you do not believe in the global warming and in the CO2 devil, you could be persecuted.

A new Copernican revolution is necessary

It is well known that the carbon dioxide has always shown significant oscillations during the history of our planet, often connected with periods of volcanic activity (only one big eruption can change drastically the CO2 percentage in the Earth atmosphere). Moreover, it is also clear, as already seen, that it is the CO2 which follows rises in temperature in a quasi-periodic trend. Therefore, it seems more important to understand what is the cause of the temperature variation. Recent studies of the solar activity indicates a clear correspondence between it and the temperature. For instance, the present warming period is also observed everywhere in the Solar System. We know that the Sun has periods of high and low activity, followed by increase or decrease in temperature. On the other hand, almost all the energy of the Earth is coming from our star and it could be difficult to think that it could not have a strong influence on the climate.

This conclusion seems reliable without any doubt. What is not clear is the quantification of the effect on the temperature. The general mechanism should be the following: a larger or smaller solar activity could affect the cosmic rays quantity reaching our surface. It is also demonstrated that a larger or smaller cosmic rays flux affects the cloud formation and therefore the temperature at the soil. The game is over, taking also into account that the increase of clouds favors the water vapor and then the greenhouse effect.

The key point is : what is the contribution of this process to the temperature variation? How can we quantify the effects? Today we do not understand the matter in sufficient , and we do not have reliable models to simulate the complex and mostly unknown chains which connect astronomical and atmospheric phenomena to the climate changes.

The simple conclusion seems to be: we are not yet able to model the climate response to external causes. It is a problem comparable to the problem of the origin of life. A lot of hypotheses , several data sometimes contradictory, very few certainties and no real capability to reproduce the processes. 

The true scientists should admit this situation. It is sufficient to think that, even knowing quite well the general mechanism of star formation and evolution, every day we discover some star with a quite “strange” and unknown feature. This is the beauty of Science, probably one of the best reason to live, apart from the conservation instinct.

Today there is a general need to change the IPCC model and to create an organization which genuinely studiesy the various physical processes, without masking the uncertainties and without any pre-defined act of faith. A group of real scientists working together with the necessary intellectual humility. 

More generally, somebody who would finally understand that any future problems connected with the climate will affect Humanity and not the Earth as a planet. Our future acts, bad or good, will destroy or will improve the life of Man, not of the planet. 

Humanity could be sick, not the Earth

Our planet has suffered such large modifications and extreme events during its life that no human induced action can be really dangerous for it.

Monitoring the environment and improving the social equity: a duty for us

If we can suspect that the actions of the IPCC are strongly motivated by political and financial interests, the same can be also true, at least partially, for the skeptics who were not able to enter in the frame of this large organization dispensing a lot of money and power. In any case, even if the writer believes that the present situation does not represent the apocalypse expected and disseminated by the Media, he is also convinced that men must monitor the environment, while trying to improve their life and that of the less lucky inhabitants of the Earth. This means on the one hand we should accept our present limits about climate researches, while on the other hand making efforts to develop alternative energy solutions to eliminate the blackmailing power of lucky minorities and to extend everywhere the facilities of present technology. Our main efforts should aim to level the strong discrepancies existing in different parts of the planet. We cannot invest in technologies that only rich countries can support, but mainly in low cost solutions within range of any countries. At this point it will be much easier and more ethical to work for a less polluted world, not for its sake, but for ourselves.

Space colonization: the only way for the human race evolution?

Are we still in time to do so? Or is it too late? The answer is not easy. There is a terrible demographic explosion in several parts of the world and in a few decades we can reach a number of inhabitants beyond hope for a good life for all. The eco- system formed by living creatures is a closed system and can easily collapse, as already happened several times in the history of the Earth. If this is not a problem for the planet, it is one for us, if we would like to survive and to expand. Maybe the only solution is the Space.

Humanity should change his perspective and start to consider the Solar System as its new home .   

This is not science fiction, but the new horizon of the human civilization. The Moon, the asteroids, Mars are the first steps and the best test-bed for understanding our future. They have plenty of mineral resources which can be exploited with technologies not so far from the present ones. The colonization of the Solar System, and in the far future of the Galaxy, can be probably the only possibility for the human race to evolve from a physical and ethical point of view. If the dinosaurs, after about 180 million years of evolution, were not able to save themselves from the asteroid impact of 65 million years ago, Humanity could overcome future threats to our species by means of space colonization.

Links to related articles


Global warming or global stunning? - A. Autino

Other comments on the climate changes - M. Martin-Smith, D. Christlein, L. Spairani

Links to papers, videos and other materials

Home page of the climate changes report


[English translation revised by M. Martin-Smith]

 [002.VZ.TDF.2007 - 02.12.2007]