Why Danny Healy-Rae’s comments about climate change were MOSTLY right
Several people have been asking me what I think about Danny Healy-Rae’s recent comments in the Dáil (Ireland’s version of Parliament/Congress) on climate change.
In case you missed it, here’s what he said:
1. Background to the Healy-Rae debate
Danny Healy-Rae is a recently-elected independent TD (Teachta Dála, the Irish equivalent of a Member of Parliament or Congress) from Kerry (a rural part of Ireland). He and his brother, Michael Healy-Rae (another TD) were both elected with a landslide victory in their constituency, partly because many people in Kerry feel that rural Ireland (and particularly Kerry) is being ignored by the government and the media.
With their strong Kerry accents & their focus on fighting for better services for their constituency, the Healy-Rae’s are often depicted by the media as being ignorant & parochial.
So, since Danny gave the above speech last week, where he argued that climate change is a natural phenomenon, the media reaction has mostly been ridicule… especially since he mentioned God. e.g., articles in the Irish Independent and Irish Times
People have been implying he’s ignorant, uninformed and anti-science for making his statement.
BUT…, if you’re familiar with Ireland’s climatic history and listen carefully to what he was saying (which I know is hard because of his strong accent!), you’ll see that he has actually done a lot of research into this subject, and is not as ignorant & uninformed as people have been assuming…
2. What Danny Healy-Rae was saying
Many people & most of the politicians in the Dáil have been repeatedly using the phrase “climate change” to refer explicitly to “man-made climate change”, specifically Anthropogenic (“man-made”) Global Warming from carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. However, Danny Healy-Rae was pointing out that, yes the climate is changing, but the climate has always been changing and it always will, whether humans are around or not!
He argues that climate change is a natural phenomenon, which has nothing to do with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel usage. To illustrate this, he provides a long list of examples of dramatic climate changes Ireland has experienced over the ages — long before the Industrial Revolution — or as he describes it, “…before there was ANY combustible engine”
Despite the ridicule he has received for this, all of the examples he gave are indeed genuine — he had researched the subject and wasn’t just rambling!
- 11th-12th century AD — seems to have been a relatively warm period (the “Medieval Warm Period”)
- 15th-16th century AD — seems to have been a relatively cold & wet period (the “Little Ice Age”)
- 1739–1741 AD — Ireland was struck by several severe & harsh winters (“the Great Frost”) after decades of mild weather, leading to a disastrous famine. This devastating famine led to the construction of several monuments across the country as part of “work for food” famine relief projects, e.g., the Obelisk at the top of Killiney Hill. (Note: I suspect the Great Frost was comparable to the recent “Big Freeze” winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11)
- 1816 AD — the “year without a summer”:
- He also referred to the fact that for the last 2 million years, the Earth seems to have been alternating between glacial and interglacial periods, and that roughly 12,000–15,000 years ago, Ireland was almost entirely covered with giant ice sheets!
Now, for the record, I disagree with Healy-Rae’s belief that humans can’t possibly influence the climate and that only God can do that(!). Even climate sceptics like me agree that humans can and do have a substantial influence on local climate, e.g., urban heat islands.
Also, he seems to have conflated the cold events in the late 19th century with the “year without a summer” cold event in 1816. And, as we discuss in our “Global temperature changes of the last millennium” paper (which we have under living open peer review at our OPRJ website), there is a lot of debate over how warm the Current Warm Period is compared with the Medieval Warm Period — compare the various plots in the 2 figures below:
But, most climate scientists agree that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Ages were examples of dramatic climatic changes, and they occurred long before the Industrial Revolution, and cannot be explained in terms of man-made global warming from CO2 emissions… or as Healy-Rae would say, they occured “… before the combustible engine”!
3. “But, climate scientists already know about that!”
Having said all that, all of the examples of natural climate change events which Healy-Rae gave are already well-known to the scientific community (especially to those specialising in Irish or European past climate). And most climate scientists acknowledge that climate change can occur naturally.
So, you might argue that “the scientists already know that” and he’s just being ignorant and dismissive of the scientists.
But, he is a politician, and he is debating the merits of policies with other politicians. For reasons I’ll explain below, the points he was making are NOT generally known among policymakers!
Despite the popular claims that “97% of scientists are in agreement” about climate change, there is actually considerable debate among the scientific community over how much of the climate change since the 19th century is man-made (“anthropogenic”) and how much of it is natural in origin.
For instance, in our recent Earth-Science Reviews paper, we found that — after accounting for the urban heat island problem — most of the Northern Hemisphere temperature trends since 1881 can be explained in terms of solar variability, i.e., natural global warming (if you’re interested, you can download a pre-print here)
For this reason, when most scientists use the term “climate change”, they’re referring to any change in climatic averages — man-made or natural. This is the definition used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
However, when governments and policymakers meet to discuss climate change at the various UN Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, such as the December 2015 COP21 meeting in Paris, they use a different definition of “climate change”. They use the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) framework which explicitly defines “climate change” as being man-made & due to changes “in the global atmosphere”, e.g., carbon dioxide (CO2).
As Prof. Roger Pielke Jr. noted in his 2005 paper this creates serious problems for policymakers. Instead of using the normal scientific definition of “climate change”, policymakers are using a political definition which basically ignores natural climate change, and implies that any change in the climate and/or extreme weather event is due to our carbon dioxide emissions (and other greenhouse gases).
In other words, despite being ridiculed by his fellow politicians and the media, Danny Healy-Rae was actually making very relevant and important points!