Human activity may not be making as large a contribution to global warming as thought, according to a new theory that is bound to infuriate many scientists who believe there is now little doubt that mankind is the primary cause of climate change. However, business leaders would be wise not to let the on-going debate about the causes of global warming derail their initiatives to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a recent study from Danish weather scientist Henrik Svensmark, cosmic rays have a far greater effect on climate than previously thought and as such the impact of human activity may have been exaggerated.
The research - which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society and forms the basis of a new book called The Chilling Stars, written by Svensmark and former editor of the New Scientist Nigel Calder – is based on a series of experiments which found cosmic rays that originate from stars and hit the earth create charged ions. The experiments showed that these ions encourage the formation of clusters of ozone, sulphur dioxide and water molecules, which in turn act as aerosols that attract water vapour and lead to the formation of clouds, which reflect more of the sun's rays back into space.
Writing in the Sunday Times this week to publicise the new book, Calder said that the intensification of the sun during the twentieth century increased the magnetic field which bats away many of these cosmic rays. The slight increase in the sun's temperature therefore meant "fewer cosmic rays, fewer clouds, and a warmer world".
Calder argued that this theory was a compelling alternative to the orthodox view that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming and also helped explain why some regions of the world, such as east Antarctic, are currently experiencing cooler temperatures than in the past – something he argued theories centred on manmade climate change fail to adequately account for.
The theory, however, is unlikely to convince many of the leading climate scientists who leant their name to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which claimed it was now 90 percent certain humans were causing climate change. It had been hoped by many environmentalists that the report would put a nail in the coffin of the debate surrounding the causes of global warming, but their hopes that rival theories would fade away appear to be decidedly premature.
A spokesman for the Met Office told GBN that Svensmark's theory was not new and that while the organisation's scientists kept an open mind on the various causes of global warming the research "needs to be taken with a pinch of salt".
"According to Met Office climate change scientists the impact of cosmic rays on cloud formation is very small and only occurs on a localised basis," he added.
However, the continuation of the debate on the causes of climate change may prompt some business and political leaders to ask if there really is the need to invest in moving away from fossil fuel based technologies when there is still some doubt that CO2 emissions are the main factor driving climate change.
It is a question Calder is keen to raise, imploring readers to "inquire whether Gordon Brown will give you a refund if it's confirmed that global warming has stopped".
He also points out that the IPCC's 90 percent certainty about the scale of man's contribution to global warming is no guarantee they are right. "Older readers may recall a press conference at Harwell in 1958 when Sir John Cockcroft, Britain's top nuclear physicist, said he was 90 percent certain that his lads had achieved controlled nuclear fusion," writes Calder. "It turned he was wrong."
But the suggestion that we should not act to curb emissions until we are certain they are the main cause of global warming – while tempting to those unwilling to make the necessary investments – completely misunderstands the nature of risk and should be ignored by any sensible business or political leader.
Even accepting there is a small chance that the scientific orthodoxy is incorrect the stakes are so high that economies have little choice but to develop business models that follow the scientists' recommendations and rely far less on fossil fuels.
Can you imagine someone giving you a gun with 10 chambers that contains nine bullets, and then saying you can either invest a small percentage of your income with them or you have to play Russian Roulette? You'd be pretty reckless not to give them the money. Would it even matter if they were lying and there were only five bullets in the chamber?
The same principle applies with global warming, albeit on a grander scale and with a longer timeline. It is almost certain that greenhouse gases emitted by mankind's activities are causing global warming that will lead to catastrophic results and huge loss of life. Even if the scientists are wrong, is it worth continuing with a course of action that could make the entire planet uninhabitable on the grounds that the scientists might just be incorrect and we could save a small percentage of global GDP by ignoring them and refusing to invest in new clean technologies?
It is simply too risky to ignore this scientific consensus.
However, even if you do belong to the shrinking minority of people who believe manmade climate change is a hoax there is still a clear commercial case for green investments.
Let's assume, just for a moment, that the link between carbon emissions and global warming is erroneous. It would not stop the vast majority of legislators, employees, and, most importantly, consumers being certain such a link exists.
Climate change deniers repeatedly claim that there is a conspiracy afoot, but from a business perspective the response has to be, so what? If there is a conspiracy – and on a personal level I believe firmly that there is not – it has been so successful that it would be a very foolish business decision to try and oppose it. You do not win customer approval by contradicting their beliefs, as any business that has operated in a non-secular country will testify.
Public opinion on manmade climate change is now well established and, much as climate change deniers may object, it is not going to change any time soon. As a result, any business leader that wants to keep employees, politicians and customers on side needs to act to limit carbon emissions regardless of how much noise is made by those who wish to downplay the impact of human activities on global warming.
There is a miniscule chance the scientists are wrong – and in a way we should all hope that they are – but without truly compelling evidence to contradict them the stakes are simply too high from an environmental and commercial perspective for anyone to use the opinions of a shrinking band of dissenters as a valid reason for the status quo to continue.
A round up of green business news from around the world
'We have to repurpose capitalism': Meet the radical green business group inspired by XR and the climate strikes
Business Declares initiative launches in support of Global Strike, as millions around the world take to streets to demand climate action
Wera Hobhouse sets out the Lib Dem's net zero plans and warns any politician saying they can deliver the same goal by 2030 is 'fibbing'
The past week provides an avalanche of evidence that the climate strike movement is working