A monkey trap of our own construction

In parts of Asia, indigenous populations have developed an extremely simple yet ingenious way of catching the otherwise elusive wild monkeys. The trap involves a hollow object such as a gourd, which is securely staked to the ground, with a narrow opening on the top, just about wide enough for a monkey to squeeze its arm through. Inside, something sweet, like a banana or rice, is set as the bait.

Attracted by the smell, a curious monkey comes along to investigate, and pushes his arm into the gourd or jar to reach the treat. Then, because the hand is full, the monkey is unable to withdraw it. So far, nothing too unusual. What happens next is quite extraordinary.

The monkey continues to pull and twist his hand to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade the hapless monkey to give up what it believes is its prize. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.

That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the enormous loss that such tenacity entails would, at first, sound like one of those parables about how our cousin primates are, let’s face it, not very clever at all.

That judgement is harsh. Monkeys are powerfully programmed by evolution to hunt relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this primate is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning, and a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.

Author Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance describes what he calls value traps. Of these, “the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of a commitment to precious values…the facts are there but you don’t see them”. In the case of the monkey trap, Pirsig writes: “the monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the bait. He cannot see that freedom without the bait is more valuable than capture with it”.

The wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would of course never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding modest losses in the here and now – right? The evidence that we have indeed evolved to be able to detect and so evade latterday monkey traps is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.

Over the 200 millennia or so since our species first evolved, we gradually overcame just about every obstacle that nature could fling in our path, from sabre toothed tigers to lethal microbes, expanding our numbers and our reach to now occupy almost every habitable square kilometre on the surface of the planet. While there are today over seven billion humans alive, our numbers have more than quadrupled in just over a century, and risen seven-fold since the 1830s.

Despite much talk of the population explosion having been defused, Earth’s numbers continue to balloon by the population equivalent of the Republic of Ireland every two-and-a-half weeks.

In just the last two centuries, we have figured out how to harness the colossal power of fossil energy to literally reshape the world to our enterprises. More than half the forest cover on the entire planet has disappeared since 1800, as humans pushed ever deeper into uncharted regions and brought them under the plough.

The evolutionary monkey trap has now been well and truly sprung. Science has, for probably the last half century or so, begun to grasp and quantify this massive unstructured reshaping of the biosphere by the actions and waste products, some deliberate, many incidental, of billions of humans simply going about their business.

Veteran broadcaster David Attenborough put it in the plainest of language recently: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Oceans cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface and, since humans don’t actually live there, you would expect our impacts on these vast systems to be limited. The opposite is the case. A lethal cocktail of chronic overfishing, widespread pollution, eutrophication, increases in near-surface water temperatures, reef destruction and rapid ocean acidification has already taken a fearsome toll on the web of marine life.

Even if all human impacts stopped tomorrow, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”, according to Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). A million years, bear in mind, is five times longer than the evolutionary history of our species. But of course we won’t stop fishing, we won’t stop polluting and, rather than conserving the world’s greatest reef system, the current Australian government plans to use parts of them as an offshore dump for mining waste.

The greatest monkey trap of all is climate change. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our current business-as-usual trajectory will see average global surface temperatures increase by between 4 and 6 degrees centigrade this century, with ‘positive feedbacks’ in the climate system causing temperatures – and sea levels – to continue rising for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years into the future.

Back in 1992, leaders of all the world’s governments got together for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Even though the data was nowhere near as robust as is available today, scientific guidance on the scale and severity of the growing climate crisis was unequivocal. Climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, including human life.

What emerged from the conference were the 27 Principles of the Rio Declaration, a bold document drawn up to guide humanity onto a sustainable path with the natural systems upon which we depend. Environmental protection was finally to be placed as a key pillar of all future human progress, rather than some annoying afterthought.

And to make sure the politicians were left in no doubt as to the scale of this crisis, later in 1992, a panel of 1,700 senior scientists issued a public appeal, headlined: “Warning to Humanity”. Humans and the natural world were, they wrote, “on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment . . . if not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life as we know it”.

What followed instead were two decades of the most relentless resource plunder, habitat destruction and pollution in the last two centuries, as China, India and much of the Far East raced to play ‘catch-up’ with the world’s major polluters. This unprecedented evisceration of the rich diversity of life on Earth has been celebrated as an era of record “economic growth”.

So what exactly is at stake? A major paper in the science journal Nature argued that Earth is on the cusp of one of the greatest ever die-offs, involving mass extinctions of species.

“When we kick over into a mass extinction regime, results are extreme, they’re irreversible and they’re unpredictable,” according to Dr David Jablonski of the University of Chicago. Prof Stuart Pimm of Duke University added: “We are living in geologically unprecedented times. Only five times in Earth’s history has life been as threatened as it is now.”

Mistaken ideologies and distorted politics make a resolution of our ecological crux all but impossible within the prevailing growth-fixated paradigm. “The current political system is broken,” according to the British government’s chief science adviser, Dr Bob Watson. “Nothing has changed in 20 years, we are not remotely on a course to be sustainable.”

Tackling climate change was, for a short few years, beginning to gain traction on Ireland’s political agenda. The electoral wipeout of the Green Party in 2011 heralded the sudden end of that brief dalliance. The appointment of a political fixer with zero interest in or understanding of the Environment brief was Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore’s two-fingered salute to sustainability.

In the 20 years since the Earth Summit, Ireland’s average temperature has increased by 0.75C, exactly in line with a projected 4C calamity this century. The last five years in particular have seen our once-benign climate turn distinctly hostile, with record-breaking flooding events followed by almost unprecedented Arctic conditions, followed by still more flooding. The fodder crisis in 2012 in particular was a wake-up call to those in Irish agriculture who think that climate change is somebody else’s problem.

Three major recent reports, from the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the European Environment Agency all point to the same stark conclusion: the climate crisis is rapidly turning into a planetary emergency that is fast moving beyond humanity’s ability to contain, let alone reverse.

“This isn’t about shock tactics, it’s simple maths,” according to Leo Johnson of PwC. “One thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2 degrees, but 4, and, at our current rates, 6.” While this is strikingly unvarnished language coming from a firm of management consultants, PwC’s Johnson did gloss over one salient fact – neither individuals nor societies can possibly ‘plan’ for a 4-6C apocalypse.

The climate change monkey trap is a self-constructed trap into which humanity has plunged its right arm. Its left arm is up to the elbow in another gourd labelled ‘ecological overload’.

Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man’ was written by Prof Michael Boulter of London’s Natural History Museum. He summed up our existential conundrum pithily in an interview in 2008: “I think human beings are a failed species – we’re on the way out. Our lives are so artificial they can’t possibly be sustained within the limits of our planet.”

If this all sounds like bad news, Boulter, with the cold eye of a scientist, was able to point to a silver lining: “The planet would of course be delighted for humans to become extinct, and the sooner it happens, the better.”

Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will decisively to draw back from the brink appears little more than a comforting myth. Author Chris Hedges explores this painfully when he wrote “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”

Even now, at two minutes to midnight, there are real steps we can take to at either delay or (if extraordinarily lucky) even dodge disaster. For starters, scientists now estimate that 80 per cent of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to avert disaster.

We now have no choice but to forgo the easy wealth that comes from burning this vast carbon store and switch to low-carbon sources. Like it or not, this also means the winding down of consumption-based capitalism and major declines both in energy consumption and living standards.

And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural obstacles, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth. Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.

This description coined by the great 19th century naturalist, John Muir has never been bettered: “when one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim. This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue
of An Taisce’s magazine.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Psychology | 5 Comments

Musing on the Climate (In-)Action Bill…

The Prologue

As anyone in Ireland with an interest in climate change is well aware, the present Government promised significant legislation on climate policy already in the programme for government agreed between the coalition parties when they took office:

Climate Change: We will publish a Climate Change Bill which will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets.

That was March 2011.

And funnily enough, we are still waiting.

But sure, that’s only three years. Thirty-eight months. We want to get this right after all. For goodness sake, it’s not like there’s any rush, and this Government has an awful lot of other Very Important Business to sort out. It’s Ireland — you know what they say: “if you don’t like the climate, just wait five minutes and it’ll change anyway”. Or is that weather? Ah but sure it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Anyway: it’s not like there hasn’t been any progress in the meantime. There’s been loads of it. Huge progress altogether. Absolute gobs of it. A consultation. A Roadmap. An Interim Report. A Statement of Progress. A Final Report. A Draft Heads of Bill. Submissions and opening Statements for Oireachtas Committee Hearings. Resumed hearings. Continued hearings. Still more hearings. A Ministerial meeting. Concluding hearings. (Yet another) Report.

But then … yes, well worth waiting for, a real result: Government agreement (yay!) and, wait for it … a revised Draft Heads of Bill. Taa daa!

Oh well. We are where we are, I suppose.

When Physics and Politics Collide …

So, without further ado, here is my entirely personal brain dump of visceral reactions to this long, long, awaited, revised, updated, and thoroughly modern Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill (while there’s still maybe a tiny lingering chance to improve it before it finally becomes law).

  • In essence, the primary effect of the Bill is simply to enshrine in national legislation that the State will indeed abide by international agreements that it enters into. On the face of it, this seems to be of somewhat — what shall we say? — convoluted value. Surely, agreements are, and will remain, agreements, regardless of such hyperbolic belt and braces? Indeed, it suggests that the Bill might be cynically read as political posturing designed to deflect attention from a lack of genuine understanding or engagement with the true scale and urgency of the climate challenge.

    But on more mature reflection, maybe this core substance of the Bill does actually say something important — albeit more a possible insight into the Irish national psyche than the existential threat of climate change. In fact, a very literal reading of the Bill would seem to mean that the only thing it actually binds us to is that we will not, in any circumstances, act in advance of or go beyond mitigation obligations that arise through international (EU/UNFCCC) agreement. That is, the Bill seems to propose (accidentally? tacitly? covertly?) to bind us, as a matter of law, to make the minimum achievable contribution to global mitigation. This is hardly a recipe for good faith engagement in negotiations; but I can see that it’s an entirely “rational”, pragmatic, position to adopt. After all, the presumption is always that we are too small to matter either to actual absolute global mitigation, or to diplomatic engagement by the large scale emitters; so the logical thing is to keep our heads down, and just maximise our own scope, at the margin, to continue using the cheapest available global energy sources (i.e. fossil based).

    Ah, ‘twould be a great stroke, altogether.

  • In any case, scientific understanding has moved on even since the initial Heads of Bill were published: the IPCC has now definitively endorsed the finite GHG budget approach to global mitigation policy (see e.g., IPCC AR5 WG1 Technical Summary, Fig TFE.8, pp. 102-5). It follows that the Government now has a number of obvious obligations both to the Irish people and to the global community with whom we share a single atmosphere. Firstly, it should explicitly articulate our claim to a specific share of this finite and rapidly depleting global resource. Secondly it should explain how, in their view, this claimed share conforms with global justice and equity. Finally, given this budget claim, the Government should elaborate a timeline for its prudent consumption: one focussed on putting in place the best measures possible to adapt to the absolutely necessary aftermath of zero — or better, negative — nett GHG emissions.

    Now that would have been a Climate Bill worth waiting for.

  • And for the record: “low carbon development” is simply no longer an option. As a very minimum gesture of political honesty, that phrase should certainly be struck from the title and the text of this Bill. Only “zero carbon”, or, preferably, “negative carbon” development is now defensible.

  • Moving on. In a context where effective global mitigation will require approximately 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to be left in the ground, the Government should clearly declare a moratorium on exploration for new fossil fuel resources in the national territory, whether conventional off-shore resources, or unconvenional on-shore resource extracted by so-called “fracking” techniques, and an explicit plan to ensure winding down of extraction from currently licensed deposits (including peat and off-shore gas).

  • But yes, Ireland is a small country, and its emissions are, in absolute terms, a relatively small part of the global challenge. It follows that Ireland’s climate and the welfare of its people in a globalised economy are now, in practice, at the absolute mercy of mitigation decisions by the large scale GHG emitters. Therefore, it is absolutely central to our national interest that we engage in intensive and sustained diplomatic effort to facilitate and encourage collective agreement to radical mitigation on a global basis. I can’t conceive of any higher national priority in the unique historical predicament in which we now find ourselves. Of course, that would require a commensurate allocation of dedicated, highly qualified, diplomatic resources. In fairness, in comparison to just about every other area of state expenditure, this would represent a tiny absolute investment in the interest of literally incalculable returns: what price a livable planet?

  • Of course, the credibility, and hence effectiveness, of any such diplomatic effort would depend completely on a willingness to show good faith: which would surely mean proceeding with aggressive unilateral mitigation ahead of global agreement. It seems to me that such “leading by example” represents the only significant leverage we might still have remaining under our own control that could be effective in mitigating the intensity of future global climate disruption. And without such mitigation, all efforts at effective adaptation will surely be rapidly overwhelmed.

  • To be clear, our own entirely selfish long term national interests absolutely rely on effective global action to bring nett global GHG emissions to zero with extreme urgency – within the next 20-30 years at the very most. (And yes, I’m painfully aware that the three years already squandered on this pitiful legislative tokenism already represents a tenth or more of that time period — just thrown away!) This points precisely at an overwhelming argument for unilateral local mitigation (ahead of EU/international agreements): it is the only way to achieve credibility in our diplomatic efforts — essentially trying to “shame”, or at least “embarrass”, the big emitters into the scale and urgency of action that we desperately need them to achieve.

    Now realistically, I don’t really believe that that sort of “short term sacrifice for long term security” approach is — yet — a “saleable” political proposition in this country. To the extent that we collectively think about the problem at all we either hope that maybe all those pointy-headed scientists have got it wrong after all (i.e., they are just all “over-alarmists”); or else that other “small nations” will take on the fight in our place (Costa Rica? Denmark?) and we can then simply be “free riders” on their early “sacrifice”. (An important irony here: this presumed “sacrifice” may be largely imagined anyway: facing reality, transcending denial and division, can be empowering for societies as well as individuals.)

    So is free-riding really the national vision of ourselves that this generation of Irish political leaders wishes to bequeath to their children and grandchildren? As we approach the centenary of the sacrifices of 1916 — which, regardless of any other judgement, were certainly selfless, idealistic, and dedicated to achieving freedom from tyranny — was it really for this kind of choice that those founders of this nation fought and died? Shall we really now fix forever the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood at the level of aspiring to be “the best small country in the world for business” — while that very world is being recklessly degraded around us?

    An Béal Bocht was intended as satire, not a policy manual.

  • But back to practical national and local policy action. Even with the most optimistic view of the prospects for urgent, radical, global GHG emissions reduction, we know that serious, disruptive, climate change is already committed to. While there will be significant regional disparities in the particular speed and severity of these impacts, Ireland will certainly not be immune. Accordingly, all Irish infrastructural investment should now be reviewed and prioritised to focus on building maximum resilience to unpredictable climate shocks, including the real possibility of abrupt regional climate regime shifts. The government should lay out their projected 50-year risk assessment scenario of “worst case” climate change impacts for Ireland — including international conflict, global food shortage, disruption of trade etc. — as a basis for gauging the adequacy of adaptation investment.

  • And what, you ask, of the “Expert Advisory Body” to be established under the new Act (when finally it arrives)? Surely that, at least, is worthwhile progress? Surely that, at least, will ensure that this, and future, Governments can have their policies informed by the best available, completely objective, scientific evidence, decoupled from denial, vested interests, and wishful thinking; and further, will be continuously held to independent account?

    Well, I hope so. I dearly wish so.

    But … a truly independent Expert Advisory Body would not contain any members who are constrained — by their employment — in commenting on government policy. And all appointments to the body would be made manifestly free of political influence through rigorous and transparent public scrutiny. For the moment at least, this Bill offers none of that. But yes, if there is still scope for something meaningful and useful to be recovered from this dismal and seemingly interminable legislative process then that is probably still the one aspect where it might be achieved.

The (Still) Open Future

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now. — Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The climate change challenge is unprecedented and affects all aspects of government and societal well-being. It represents a “long emergency” of indefinite duration and severity. We are sleepwalking our collective way into a genuinely existential challenge for human civilisation. Merely passing an Act of the Oireachtas was never going to be an adequate response. But still: it could have been symbolic, it could have put down a marker. It could have said clearly that we recognise that it is no longer any use saying, ‘we are doing our best’: we have to do what is actually necessary.

So let me put my cards fully on the table at last: I long since gave up seeing this legislation as important in itself. To me, it has manifestly been a device to delay, procrastinate and deflect attention from any need to actually do anything at all — and it has served that purpose extremely well. I don’t see any scope at all for it to be somehow reformed, at this eleventh hour, into anything meaningful or effective. At the risk of repeating myself, it seems to me that the unpalatable truth remains that, neither at political or societal level is there remotely the degree of understanding or engagement with the climate issue that would allow serious debate about the steps that might now be physically necessary (as opposed to “politically possible”).

So: where are we in the end? Shall we just resign ourselves to a fatalistic acceptance, a prospect of hopeless inaction in the face of overwhelming fate?

Of course not. First, it is possible that the new Expert Advisory Body will confound my doubts and skepticism, and deliver firm, unflinching, truth to power; and further, that power will listen, will digest, and will, ultimately, act. But secondly, of course, this predicament is not going away. The laws of physics don’t compromise, they don’t listen to reason, they don’t do negotiation or engage in brinksmanship. So climate change impacts will grow, in both clarity and severity. This will be discontinuous — but inexorable. So, action will also grow. Tragically, it will be later than necessary, and much less effective for that. But there are good tipping points as well as bad. There will certainly be tipping points for progressive societal and political recognition of the reality of our situation, and the conviction that planetary boundaries are real and tangible forces constraining — but never dictating — our collective future. The future is open: and we can, always, choose how we engage with it. If politics truly is the “art of the possible” then political leadership can and must be the art of changing the politically possible to encompass what is actually necessary.

In the meantime, here and now each of us has the chance, the opportunity, and yes, even the moral obligation to do whatever we can to bring those good tipping points forward in time. So, honestly, pragmatically, knowing that our knowledge is always imperfect, yet knowing still that we must act anyway, let us speak the truth as best as we can know it, and plead for what is collectively necessary. Right now, the facts of the climate change threat are so stark that, in truth, the only rational response is to raise a commensurate, honest, alarm that can start to fuel truly effective action. By facing reality squarely we can still take a first great step.

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.” “It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.” “The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.” — Phineas Finn (Anthony Trollope, 1868)


Barry McMullin is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University. He is also the Chair of the Climate Committee of An Taisce.

However, he rants (and occasionally tweets) on an entirely freelance basis!

Special thanks to Paul and Lizzie, and John G. for very helpful comments and improvements on the original draft: responsibility for the remaining excesses (grammatical and otherwise) rests, of course, with the author.

Posted in Global Warming | 4 Comments

The meteorologist and the scourge of climate ‘over-alarmism’

Back in March, there was quite a kerfuffle when RTE PrimeTime tried to set up a ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change by initially loading a panel 3:1 in favour of the 3% ‘skeptical’ position that rejects or downplays the reality and gravity of man-made climate change. Under pressure, specifically from An Taisce, PrimeTime relented, eventually giving the 3% position a mere 50% of the panel slots.

In the course of a lengthy posting after the event I described one of the panellists, retired UCD meteorologist (as distinct from ‘climatologist’) Prof Ray Bates as “a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.”

Bates was not best pleased. On April 4th, I received the following email, which he also cc’d to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond, reporter Robert Shortt and correspondent, George Lee. He clearly wanted this exchange to be as public as possible.

Hi John,

I’m not in the habit of reading blogs, but it has been drawn to my attention that my name has appeared in a blog of yours commenting on the RTE Prime Time programme of 18 March:

Naturally, this arouses one’s curiosity.

I wonder if you could possibly back up a couple of things you have said about me:

1) Could you give me a reference to some instance in which I have talked up the benefits of climate change?

2) On what grounds do you describe me as a climate sceptic?

Regards,

Ray.

The questions clearly merited a response, so I took a few days and replied, on April 8th, in some depth and detail (see below). As a professional courtesy, I did not cc the email to third parties, preferring to put the points privately initially to Bates and allow him to respond, privately or publicly, whichever way he decided.

That was over five weeks ago, and to date, no reply, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my email has been forthcoming. The matter might well have rested at that, until yesterday’s Irish Times, which devoted a large chunk of its op-ed page to more of the same-old-same-old by Bates under the lurid (not to mention tautological) heading: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’.

The author’s apparent lack of respect for many of the world’s top practising climate scientists and for the highly complex processes used to develop IPCC consensus positions shines through this article, as he picks and chooses the bits of the IPCC report that he “approves of” while dismissing out of hand much of the thrust of the 2nd Working Group (WG2) Report. Bates also floats a favourite red herring of the skeptical lobby by decrying the ‘failure’ of climate models to account for “the warming hiatus”. And, while decrying the inaccuracy and sloppiness of everyone bar himself, Bates attacks this report as follows:

“Multiple tipping points” – a concept that is not endorsed by the report of the first working group even under the most pessimistic of model projections for the 21st century – are freely referred to.”

Good point, except, as Paul Price points out, it’s not true.

The phrase “Multiple tipping points” is not “freely referred to” by WG2. The phrase is used precisely ONCE in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and ZERO times in the Technical Summary. In the draft SPM the IPCC says:

“The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).”

This, Price adds, is “sound science and far from alarmist”.

“As with his shaky ‘hiatus’ ‘evidence’ and his overlooking of the stark warnings in Working Group 1′s report, this example illustrates Bates’ bias toward low balling climate risk despite the abundant, and alarming, evidence given by both the WG1 and WG2 reports”, Price adds.

What most informed observers of the rigorous (if not tortuous) process by which large panels of expert reviewers argue line by line over each section of the report before it’s agreed is that this process is innately conservative. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms of the IPCC AR process is that it constantly lags behind ‘real world’ scientific advances.

Also, it is deeply cautious and conservative by simple dint of having to find consensus not just among thousands of scientists, but also among government and diplomatic representatives of the 154 participating countries. When you consider these include petro-states like Russia, Canada and Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to imagine the level of political pressure being brought to bear on participants to downplay climate risks and impacts. All of which makes Bates’ claims even more fanciful.

Here’s a link to the full list of AR5 Authors and Review Editors – over 800 in all. Have a look in particular at the institutions represented in WG2 – including the US Geological Survey, Goethe University, Polish Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, King’s College, London, US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, South African Space Agency and the Russian Academy of Science. In fact, there’s even a representative from that notoriously climate alarmist corporation, Exxon Mobil on the WG2.

But, according to Bates, this bunch are really just hand-waving alarmists.

“…The (WG2) report conveys no corresponding sense of caution. The most pessimistic climate model projections are taken as if they were completely reliable and are applied to deriving the most alarming impacts in various sectors”.

The WG2 has precisely 309 Contributing Authors and Review Editors, all with internationally recognised expertise in the highly specialised fields of ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Imagine just how large any one person’s ego would have to be to casually dismiss this huge array of practising (and publishing) experts as being simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

So what, you might ask, is Ray Bates’ actual point? Well, it appears to all boil down to the desire to protect Irish agriculture (yes, agriculture) from any possible negative effects of pesky GHG emissions controls. In his own words:

“The over-alarmist stance of the second working group’s report should not induce the public or our legislators into supporting blanket policy options affecting agriculture that serve neither the interests of this country nor those of the wider world.”

Interestingly, Bates’ performance on that PrimeTime back in March was another billet doux to the unique entitlement of the Irish beef and dairy sectors to produce as much meat and butter as the Chinese middle classes can eat, and devil take the hindmost when it comes to the massive carbon footprint that both industrial beef and dairy farming entail.

But here’s the thing. The IFA and ICMSA already have well-oiled PR machinery working around the clock to make sure that climate legislation doesn’t affect agriculture, and that, presumably, when we fail to meet our legally mandated GHG reductions targets as a result, said organisations will throw their hands in the air in faux surprise and demand that ordinary taxpayers cough up the multi-million euro fines. But to be fair, that’s their job (whether ordinary farmers will thank their leadership in the longer term for their coyness on climate change is another matter entirely).

What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and all very much includes our agriculture sector.

Here’s what I wrote to Ray Bates on April 8th:

========================================

Hi Ray

Thanks for your email. It reminds me that our correspondence now stretches some six years. I still have the cutting of the Irish Times letter you wrote about one of my early columns on climate; you were correcting my interpretations of some data, as I recall, but in a constructive way, which I certainly appreciated at that time.

First off, I haven’t cc’d this email to various RTE staff, as I’m not sure what this has to do with them. The statements I made were on my blog, not on RTE. Whatever difference of opinions or emphasis you and I may have, I’d hope we can resolve between ourselves.

Let me take them in sequence:

1) In the PrimeTime debate, you focused to what I would regard as inordinate degree on Irish agriculture; late in the debate, long after agriculture had been discussed, you brought the discussion straight back, stating: “climate models are projecting that by the end of the century, most of the warming will be concentrated in the southern Mediterranean countries, they’ll become very dry and hot in the summer whereas the Irish climate will be relatively much less affected, so agricultural capacity in European countries is going to be greatly diminish because of climate change…whereas the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland so if we have to adhere to the 80-95% (GHG) reduction targets we won’t be able to do this…Irish food output per unit of output has a very low carbon footprint…”

First, a question: as a meteorologist: can I ask why your overriding focus in that PrimeTime programme appeared to be on agriculture? Granted, food security is important, so are many other topics, but none of these warranted much comment from you. Why?

My second observation is that most climate scientists I’ve spoken with – including a lengthy recent interview with Prof Michael Mann of Penn State University – state that the overwhelming imperative for civilisation is that we urgently, drastically and permanently reduce GHG emissions, including emissions from agriculture. Irish agriculture produces huge quantities of beef and dairy products. Neither of these are, as you know, in any way “low carbon”. I thought you might have suggested that we need to adopt our diets to reduce meat and dairy consumption, not just to cut GHGs, but also to reduce obesity and heart disease. You could have pointed out that the ‘western diet’ is driving the clearance of rain forests, desertification of agricultural land from over-grazing, etc. but instead, you chose what I see as ’special pleading’ that Irish agriculture be allowed to shirk its GHG reductions commitments.

You were the sole scientist on that panel, yet where did you set out the utterly dire consequences of allowing global average temperatures to spiral +2, +4 or more this century? (RCP8.5) Is it that you don’t accept that is likely? What I personally find astonishing is that these projections fall within the BAU, i.e. we can and mostly likely will achieve these in the coming decades to century, thanks largely to the public being unaware that this is where business-as-usual takes us, and more specifically, that climate change of that magnitude will cause far-reaching, devastating consequences, including setting in train irreversible sea level rises for centuries into the future, mass coastal abandonment, huge drops in global agricultural output, water stresses, etc. etc. In this ghastly set of scenarios, which as the IPCC report put it: “increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts”.

So, pitching to an Irish audience that “it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland” when you are referring to highly GHG-intensive forms of agriculture, is to me, surprising. The fact that you also believe that Irish agriculture will be “relatively unaffected” until the end of the 21st century by climate change I also find surprising. I’m sure you’re aware of the work by Dr Stephen Flood et al. of NUIM, specifically his paper: ‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’. Its summary states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output” (my emphasis). This of course is only to mid-century. We can expect impacts to accelerate later in the century, as warming intensifies.

Let me contrast this with your PrimeTime statement, inter alia: “the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…”. I’m surprised that you never sought to point out that agriculture everywhere (including Ireland) is highly vulnerable to climate change, as the expert evidence has shown. Instead, as I saw it, you “talked up” the (relative) benefits of Ireland being “relatively unaffected” by climate change this century and being able to take advantage of the (presumed) collapse in central and southern European agriculture to export food to these devastated regions. As I’ve demonstrated above, I don’t believe your opinions here concur with the ICARUS research work, which, unless I’m mistaken, is the benchmark in Ireland for measuring likely climate impacts on our agriculture.

Having looked at your very impressive list of Scientific Publications  I couldn’t find a single paper there that dealt with the impacts of climate change on agriculture or food security (if I’m mistaken, of course, please feel free to correct me). Therefore, am I right in saying this is not an area in which you are a published expert? Why then all the focus on agriculture and climate change/food security? I’m aware this is a topic you regularly speak on. As a non-specialist in this field, would it not be prudent to reference the ICARUS research and the clear warnings set out therein for agriculture in a warming world, specifically including Irish agriculture? Or even to caution that your views may be at variance with the ICARUS research regarding Irish agriculture.

2) I stated that your views “would place (you) in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science”. That is not the same as calling you a ‘climate sceptic’. For instance, I understand that you have spoken and corresponded recently in support of the view that there has been a ’15 year pause in global warming’, i.e. little or no warming trend since 1998. I was very surprised to hear this attributed to you, but the sources were unequivocal that this is your stated position. Perhaps you could, without going into tremendous depth, clarify this?

Ray, I’m well aware that you are a scientist of the highest repute, and we’ve enjoyed a cordial exchange of views over the years, including agreeing to disagree on a number of occasions. You got to express your angle on climate change to several hundred thousand people via that Prime Time programme; I got to reach maybe a few hundred via my humble blog, so Advantage to you on that front! I didn’t write to RTE management or the BAI complaining about the broadcast; I made some – very brief – references to your contribution in the midst of a 3,200 word posting looking at the overall framing of this “debate”. I’m a little disappointed that you chose to involve three people from RTE, none of whom I know or have engaged with, into your complaint about my blog posting. That is of course your right; feel free if you so wish to circulate this response to RTE, but if you do so, please do so in full, so context is not inadvertently lost.

To conclude: both of us know that climate change is a huge problem and both of us presumably agree that BAU is simply not an option. I think we could both agree that the Irish media largely ignores this story, and when it is covered, often focuses on dissent rather than consensus. As a journalist, citizen and parent, I feel compelled to do what I can to try to improve our understanding and communication of climate change, and will happily work with anyone to that shared end. Unlike you, I am not an expert, nor do I pretend to be. I occupy that ill-defined niche of a science communicator.

There’s a bigger fight here to be waged than you and I exchanging volleys of emails. I’d like to believe that we’re both ‘good faith actors’, i.e. we’re both broadly on the same side, seeking the same outcome – a safer future for all and urgent steps towards climate stabilisation for the sake of posterity, both for humanity and for the natural world. You may well find my ‘advocacy’ approach frustrating, and I admit to finding your approach at times similarly frustrating, but relative to what we agree on, these are or should be trifles.

Finally Ray, have you reviewed the AAAS publication, ‘What We Know ? I’d love to hear you step up and talk about the overwhelming consensus among top published scientists and academies about the need for urgent, immediate no-excuses action, while we still can, to arrest climate change. When the AAAS states: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts”, I think that is far, far more important than Harvest 2020. Don’t you?

When the AAAS states: “The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do”, I don’t see how lobbying for sectoral special interests to be exempted from contributing to the urgent, critical task of GHG reductions could possibly be more important than us all working together, in good faith, to avoid, at all costs, “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes”.

Ray, if you want to meet up for a chat at any time, I’m happy to do so. I’m not deliberately trying to be on your case here, but I do hope you’ll reflect, rather than just react, to at least some of the foregoing. I’m assuredly wrong from time to time, and hope I’m big enough to accept that and to learn from it and try and be less wrong next time. But I’m not sure I’m entirely wrong about this.

Sincerely

John Gibbons

8/4/14

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Postscript: At exactly the same time Bates was taking the ‘over-alarmist’ professional climate experts who warn about possible tipping points to task, stunning news was breaking of “unstoppable, irreversible” accelerated western Antarctic collapse.

The over-alarmists this time came in the shape of two papers due for publication this week in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. “This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

“The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the melting… Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” glaciologist, Dr Eric Rignot said in a NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”

Disgracefully, NASA climatologists seemed to show little concern for what some might well regard as the real threat here: what possible impacts their scare-mongering research findings could have on Harvest 2020!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

When will accuracy trump ‘balance’ in media climate coverage?

Is the media now the largest remaining impediment rather than aid to an effective public and political response to climate change? If so, how exactly did this come about, and is there anything that can be done to reverse this?

I have argued and will continue to put forward the proposition that the effective, honest and forthright communication of the reality of climate change is probably the most important work anyone, anywhere can be engaged in right now. This came up repeatedly in my recent interview with climatologist, Prof Michael Mann.

He and other top professional scientists have gradually and perhaps grudgingly come to realise that their remaining ‘above the fray’ simply left the field wide open to chancers, industry hacks and attention seekers. In the US, the situation is further complicated by how intensely politicised the science has become. For most Americans, acceptance or denial of the basics of climate science is now as clear a marker of political affiliation as your stance on the three Gs – guns, god and gays.

In Ireland, the situation is nowhere near as polarised, but from my observation, much of the fringe ‘climate contrarianism’, rather than being reflected, is in fact being generated from within the media. Some of this is conscious, but much seems to be related to a toxic amalgam of innate suspicion of ‘consensus’ in tandem with an extremely poor grasp of basic science and of how scientific understanding actually advances.

Go back two weeks, and RTE radio hosted a ‘Late Debate’ on climate change, in which I participated. Also speaking for the 97% scientific consensus was Frank McDonald of the Irish Times. Pitched against us were Eddie (‘The climate is always changing’) Downey of the IFA and Richard Tol, formerly of the ESRI and more recently making a thorough nuisance of himself misrepresenting the IPCC’s work and providing Manna from Heaven for climate deniers everywhere.

If I were being extremely polite, I’d describe Tol as an outlier, a crank and a narcissist who enjoys the limelight above all else. If I were less polite, I’d direct you to Bob Ward of the LSE, who has catalogued in forensic detail the alarming litany of ‘errors’ in Tol’s work. Strangely, Tol’s miscalculations and unfortunate jumbling up of data gleamed from other papers almost invariably lends weight to his central theme, which is to low-ball the risks and hype the costs of addressing climate change. To be fair, Tol has been at this for years, but it’s good to see his modus operandi finally receive the attention he so clearly craves.

However, for the purposes of the Late Debate, Tol was able to pretty much single-handedly swing the framing of the entire discussion from ‘what the holy hell are we going to do to address climate change’ to something of an ‘oh-yes-it-is-oh-no-it’s-not’ parlour game. The presenter lapped this faux controversy up and Eddie from the IFA purred gratefully as Tol went through his well-rehearsed contortions.

Wiser souls would no doubt have not taken the bait, but I’m clearly not that wise, and couldn’t help but wade in swinging, pointing out just how full of crap Tol et al’s 2008 ESRI projections for a never-ending boom in Ireland were, and so, on that basis, anything else he might be offering his ‘expert’ advice on should be treated with caution. And, if that weren’t reason enough to have the asbestos gloves on when handling Tol’s scholarship, this little beauty from his ESRI days in 2009, entitled ‘Why Worry About Climate Change’ will have you reaching for the whiskey and revolver. Rather than rehashing and refuting line by line the rubbish therein, suffice to enjoy instead our idiot savant’s ‘Reference’ list for the article, as follows: Tol et al, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol, Tol et al, Tol et al.

Adrian Kelleher in Village magazine did a devastating take-down in 2011 of Tol, his dodgy GWPF friends and his even dodgier neo-liberal utterances (“new religion of climate change”… “fanatics” and “adherents of the Church of Gaia” … “economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave” etc. etc. etc.).

I’ll leave the last word on Tol to Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, widely regarded as one of the most important books in the last couple of decades. Taleb is a world-renowned expert in risk management and assessment. “Tol is clueless about ruin probabilities. Totally clueless about risk in general…you idiots fail to understand evidence of harm and precautionary warning”, was Taleb’s devastating critique in a spiky Twitter exchange. He said much else besides about Tol too but I’ll let you look those up yourselves.

Trojan investigative work by Bob Ward and others have helped to neutralise Tol, but not before he did serious damage (as was clearly his intent) to the communication and public understanding of the IPCC AR5 report. Meanwhile, RTE’s new Agriculture and Environment Corr, George Lee has confounded those (including this writer) who feared his appointment would be long on economics and agriculture and short on environment.

I met Lee last month, when he dropped out to Dun Laoghaire to record a slot for the evening news on the release of the third and final part of the AR5 report, this one focusing on mitigation. I was impressed to find him fully up to speed and entirely engaged with the sheer gravity of what the IPCC report had to say. And he delivered it straight, no spin, no bull, no Tol.

This run continued the following day, when RTE Drivetime asked me to comment on the AR5 report. (from 02.17–02.25) Anyone who follows presenter Philip Boucher Hayes will be aware that he clearly recognises climate change as the mother and father of all crises. What made this interview unusual was the marked absence of red herrings – the interviewer asked me to set out the scale of the problem as outlined by the IPCC, as well as possible responses, plus an indication of the costs involved in choosing not to respond. The mitigation/adaptation debate is an important one, but the notion that this is an a la carte menu that humanity can dip in an out of if and when it sees fit is bunk, and Boucher Hayes seemed to be well aware of that.

So far, so good. It could not, of course, last. The following morning the Irish Independent carried an unusually ugly, ignorant piece by columnist Ian O’Doherty. I was going to do a line-by-line rebuttal of it, but on re-reading, it’s little more than the babbling of a willy-waving attention-seeker desperate for instant notoriety. The personalised nature of his attacks on Mary Robinson were, however, despicable. O’Doherty is what he is, but more shame on whatever editor actually allowed that stuff into print.

That was Tuesday. The following day, George Hook unearthed another ‘Emeritus Professor’ to wage war on reality, in the form of one Leslie Woodcock, retired from the University of Manchester and now a mainstream peddler of climate conspiracy theories. CO2, Leslie tells us, is “the gas of life”, and global warming is “absolute nonsense”.

Having been on with Hook some weeks ago for an interview in which he appeared open-minded and certainly seemed to take note that there might be something to this whole climate change malarkey, it was just a tad depressing to hear him wheel on Woodcock explain how practicing scientists have “been indoctrinated by the powers that be”. You could almost hear Woodcock’s tin foil hat crinkle as the interview progressed.

“The balance of evidence in this case is that there is no hard evidence to suggest any fluctuations in temperature are actually caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – CO2 is the gas of life…everything grows faster as the temperature goes up, or if CO2 goes up. There’s no evidence at all that anything unusual is happening as a consequence of burning fossil fuels…the small rise in temperatures actually stopped around 15 years ago, temperatures are actually going down right now…”

At this point, George Hook appeared to have twigged that his esteemed guest might be just a little, how shall we say, potty.  One of the hazards with getting the word ‘Professor’ before your name is that, long after you retire, and no matter how hopelessly idiosyncratic or, in Woodcock’s case, totally wrong you are, people in the media will continue to seek out your opinion to “balance” the debate that’s raging in their minds between on the one hand, the largest science collaboration in world history and on the other, a few duffers and blow-hards who love the sound of their own voices and are far beyond caring about being objective, factual or even vaguely scientific.

So much for Tuesday and Wednesday, surely the circus would at least take Thursday off? Well, not exactly. Instead, it moved to a huge piece in the unfortunately named ‘Life Science’ page in the Irish Times. The headline was catchy: ‘Galway’s drowned forests show climate change is nothing new’. And yes, they found another retired professor – Michael Williams – to set that over-excitable IPCC crowd straight on, well just about everything.

Williams is a retired geologist, and he just loves climate change. Human evolution “would not even have begun were it not for climate change…not only is climate change inevitable…at present the Earth is cooler, sea levels lower and atmospheric levels of CO2 are less than they have been for most of Earth history”.

Hurrah, everything is hunky dory so! What was all that rubbish a couple of short weeks back about climate change racing out of control and smashing through 2C and on towards 4C by mid-century, bringing in its wake a devastating global extinction event and catapulting Earth systems through one or more tipping points and into a chaotic new phase?

No sweat, says the retired geologist. We’ll, you know, adapt. Maybe by moving the global agricultural systems needed to feed over 7 billion humans, well, somewhere else, c’mon, there must be a couple of vast undiscovered continents we can just up sticks and move to? “Since we are the ultimate in animal adaptation humans must continue to adapt”, Williams sagely advises.

Cynics might well ask what exactly a geologist would know about human adaptive capabilities, over and above, say, the actual experts in human adaptive capability? Who knows, but, like Woodcock, Williams is a Professor and so, at least in some media quarters, that makes him an expert is all manner of things.

So what would the geologist suggest we do next? Who needs the IPCC AR5 report and its 800 authors drawn from the world’s elite of published scientists? Who needs its 2,000 page report drawing on the expertise of 9,200 peer-reviewed studies? Clearly not Prof Williams. The IPCC says that only massive mitigation at a global level can give us any reasonable chance of halting ‘dangerous, irreversible  anthropogenic interference in the global climate systems’.

Bah humbug to all that. “Education and planning for an uncertain future is a substitute for panic and the spending of billions in funds to temporarily defer the inevitable. Instead, why not use the funding and our ingenuity to plan for future environmental changes”? Says Williams. Yes, cynics might well ask what a geologist knows about the “uncertain future” and the implications of “spending billions” over and above, say, the actual experts in planning for both adaptation to and mitigation of climate impacts.

Williams is of course perfectly entitled to his own opinion, however at variance his views are from the international expert consensus. These are obviously personal views, but here’s the thing: they appear on a page called ‘Life Science’, the person offering the idiosyncratic opinions is referred to as Professor. At no time did the writer of the piece, or her editor, interject to point out that Williams’ fascinating tour of paleo-climatology is completely and absolutely irrelevant to the existential conundrum a densely populated, deforested, highly polluted world teeming with billions of humans and in the grip of a mass extinction event faces in the coming decades as a result of sharp increases in global average surface temperatures on a scale and at a rate far beyond the adaptive ability of either humanity or (what’s left of) nature.

Of course, there are those who will argue that it’s not the job of the Irish Times Life Science page to only offer the IPCC ‘side of the story’ (the 97%+ global expert consensus ‘side’). But here’s the thing: this page, to the very best of my understanding, completely ignored the IPCC AR5 report, all three parts of it, in fact. On the other hand, the entirely personal opinions of one retired geologist are worthy of two thirds of a broadsheet spread, with a headline so lurid it even got picked up by RTE’s It Says in the Papers. Deniers everywhere must have been rubbing their hands in glee.

The piece was also just plain sloppy. “For example, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 reduced global temperatures by over 10 degrees, and it took another five years for climate to return to normal”, Siggins quotes Williams. This is out by a factor of ten. In fairness, when challenged, the writer accepted it as a slip of the pen and the online version has been updated. However, were the “degrees” centigrade or farenheit? There’s a huge difference, but who knows, since the piece (on a Science page!) doesn’t bother saying.

The Irish Times letters page carried two pieces highly critical of this article the following Monday. One, by physicist Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, states that Williams’ views are  “completely at odds with the consensus of climate scientists worldwide…in the first instance, the past climate changes cited by Professor Williams occurred over many thousands of years, allowing plants and animals time to adapt. In addition, these changes occurred at times of low (or no) human populations. The threat we face today is a climate that is changing over decades, not thousands of years, and the likely effects on a densely populated world”.

O’Raifeartaigh added: “It is telling that in his discussion of the ice ages, Professor Williams makes no mention of the critical role greenhouse gases played as an amplifying effect in global warming”. Another thing the good Professor seems to have overlooked is the small detail that the geological record gives us an exquisite view of the effects of sudden climate shifts.

Take the end-Permian era 252 million years ago. This mass extinction event took place in the blink of an eye, at least in geological terms. The whole episode took little more than 100,000 years. The event was triggered by a massive release of carbon. Ocean chemistry went haywire as the water acidified from excess carbon. When it was over, more than 90% of all species alive had been wiped out, and of the surviving species, their numbers were drastically reduced. It took some 10 million years for life on Earth to begin to recover its diversity.

The fossil record faithfully records the five great mass extinction events that have befallen Earth in the last half a billion years. What the sediments reveal is how devastating sudden climatic changes are on the balance of life. The great Ordovician extinction 444 million years ago is – literally – written in stone.

“The change here from black to gray (in the sediment) marks a tipping point, from a habitable sea floor to an uninhabitable one, and one might have seen that in the span of a human lifetime”, Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, a stratigrapher at the University of Leicester tells author Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction (a book I would very strongly recommend to Prof Williams, whose own field of expertise is, well, Sedimentology).

Ironically, the end-Ordovician extinction event was triggered by rapid global cooling. The point is that rapid shifts from the climatic norm – in either direction – are associated over and over again with extinction events. Whether the precipitating cause is a meteor strike, mass volcanic eruption or anthropogenic carbon dumping is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is the rate and magnitude of the disturbance.

As Kolbert sets out so starkly: “Right now, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy”.

Prof Walter Alvarez is a highly decorated earth scientist who became famous for first developing the theory that the (non-avian) dinosaurs were in fact wiped out as a result of a global cooling event triggered by an asteroid impact some 65 million years ago that brought the Cretaceous era to a juddering end Most geologists have heard of Alvarez. I wonder what Prof Williams would make of Alvarez’ observation that the current global crisis of life is being driven not by a speeding asteroid but by “one weedy species…we’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings”.

Paul Price also had a hard-hitting critique of this Williams interview published in the letters page. Below are the main points he made in a comment appended to the online edition of the Irish Times, which he addressed both to Williams and to writer Lorna Siggins:

 1. Can you point to the exact time frames in which average global temperature changed “by as much as 16 degrees, in time frames as short as decades”? Please state your references.

2. Can you tell us the total average surface temperature change between ice age glacials & interglacials? Surely you know that the difference was only about 4 to 5ºC and the transitions took thousands of years? This compares with humanity’s current track toward a possible 4 to 6ºC change within 200 years (IPCC AR5 WG1). Can you give evidence that this is not an extreme risk?

3. Do you think, as IPCC WG2 do, that climate change beyond adaptation limits for many regional human and ecological systems is possible by the end of this century, if radical mitigation of emissions is not undertaken quickly?

4. Are your cherry-picked, misleading, out of context factoids actually representative of your own ‘business-as-usual’ values to attempt to deny the best assessment we have of climate science as given by the IPCC. They state that business as usual is not tenable:

“Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” IPCC AR5 WG1 p19

5. Are you really as clueless about climate science as you appear to be? Why do you apparently disrespect climate science and climate scientists to allow yourself to speak in such a misleading way from your position as a geologist non-climate-expert?

These are serious charges, and we look forward to Prof Williams or the Irish Times addressing them in detail.

I’d like to add one or two more myself:

Dear Irish Times ‘Life Science’ page, can you remind us exactly how much space you dedicated to covering publication of the three main releases of the IPCC’s blockbuster AR5 report in recent months? (hint: somewhere between ‘very little’ and ‘none at all’). Given that the IPCC is the largest scientific collaboration in the world, and only publishes its Assessment reports every seven years or so, in what way would you consider this to not be worthy of extensive coverage on a page ostensibly dedicated to science and the public understanding of science?

The editor of this section caused quite a stir last July with a front page ‘news’ story entitled: ‘Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age’. Denier website Wattsupwiththat and UK denier think tank, the GWPF both liked this story – a lot. So much, in fact, it’s now in their online ‘news’ archives.

Given that this flies in the face of just about everything we know about climate change, small wonder it made the front page. Too bad, perhaps, it was simply untrue, as Prof Barry McMullin carefully unpicked here and, far more publicly embarrassingly for the paper, the UK Guardian savaged the report here. As unfortunate coincidence would have it, another stalwart of the same Life Science page is (yet) another retired professor, William Reville of UCC, a man who brings startling levels of academic rigour to his occasional forays into environmental science: “many leading greens seem to be Marxists” or DDT “poses no health hazards” and my personal favourite: “The green movement believes in God, or more precisely, a Goddess called Gaia”, etcetera etcetera.

Meanwhile, back to the Williams interview. Here, I have to agree with the comments Paul Price made in his letter to the Irish Times: “(Williams’) unscientific cherry-picking of a series of geologic and ice age climate facts created a highly misleading picture that is entirely irrelevant to the mitigation and adaptation decisions required by us now… ‘Opinion’ pieces by non-experts may be acceptable for politics or entertainment but on a matter of science, and one of such grave import for all our futures, knowledgeable, critical reporting is required…. it is the responsibility of The Irish Times and its reporters to have sufficient critical and fact checking ability to avoid supplying the public with badly misleading information on climate change, just as would be expected in reporting vaccination for example.

“At the very least reporters should read the IPCC report summaries. Climate change affects all our futures, therefore our media need to work much harder and contact climate scientists for help when writing climate stories to ensure accuracy. Otherwise journalism betrays our trust in this pivotal decade.”

Surely, after five full IPCC reports and countless thousands of peer-reviewed papers over the last two decades or so, that’s not too much to ask?

The Irish Times delivered its response to the challenge thrown down by O’Raifeartaigh and Price, in a manner of speaking, by running two letters from out and out climate change deniers a couple of days later, including a serial denier, David Whitehead, associated with a Flat Earther grouping calling itself Turn 180. Its stated aim: ‘is to inform the Irish public that Carbon Dioxide is not a pollutant, nor is it the cause of Global Warming’ (yawn).

Whitehead wasted no time in labelling people who do not share his anti-science views as “shrill, hysterical…ignorant”. Another letter writer chimed in: “the thought police are on the warpath again – a lone voice queries the popular assertion of “climate change” and is condemned in tones reminiscent of Animal Farm… I find myself wondering whether “global warming” might not simply be the latest iteration of atavistic superstition.”

In the interest of yet more ‘balance’, further responses from both Price and O’Raifeartaigh were published a couple of days later…and so the merry-go-round spun on and on. A letter drawn up by An Taisce’s newly formed climate change committee (disclosure: I’m a member) and signed jointly by Barry McMullin and James Nix was submitted but, sadly, not published. It was headed: ‘Honesty and integrity in climate science reporting’.

Among the points it addressed were:

“To maintain trust, and to properly serve the society that sustains them, our public media need to embrace their responsibility to reflect honestly and accurately the overwhelming scientific consensus on the core findings of climate science and the scale and urgency of the human predicament this science describes. The status of this scientific consensus must be clearly distinguished from mere shared opinion, ideology or, worst of all, “groupthink” – indeed, it is the very opposite.

“Consensus among a large, diverse and distributed group of scientific experts is achieved only through the most intense, prolonged, severe and transparent processes of critical review, experiment and argument, all directed with the explicit aim of uncovering any conceivable weakness or error. Science does not and cannot deliver unambiguous or definitive “truth” on any issue – it is always open to new challenge, refinement or correction: but it is the very best approach yet discovered to identifying and eliminating error.”

The letter concluded by urging Ireland’s Paper of Record to follow the lead of the Los Angeles Times and Sydney Morning Herald among other media who have recently introduced explicit policies to refuse to give oxygen to deliberate misrepresentation of climate science. In a nutshell, that means refusing to run material that promotes demonstrable falsehoods, such as Whitehead’s letter. Maybe it’s reading too much into the decision of the paper not to publish this considered official response from An Taisce, but it does suggest the paper may not yet ready to fully take on board its own Editor’s Statement, which includes the following: “Above all else, we commit ourselves to accuracy; the most essential test of our profession”.

More broadly, quite how you overcome the mindset among some in journalism that gleefully showcases irrelevant contrarianism in a way that is clearly designed to dent public confidence in the reliability of climate science and the need to take urgent, far-reaching actions to avert disaster is perhaps another day’s work.

Trying to unpick media coverage on a moving point like climate change is a tricky and thankless pursuit, and yet it remains critically important. It’s only by calling our media to account, over and over again, that we can hope to see any progress, however slight, in the accurate communication of climate science. After all, it’s not like our lives don’t depend on it.

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 41 Comments

Mann on a mission – Hockey Stick scientist interviewed

Michael Mann is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He is director of the Earth Systems Science Centre in Penn State University and has been a lead IPCC author since 2001. His ‘Hockey Stick graph’ became the defining symbol of man-made climate change – and made him a special target of the fossil fuel lobby. You can view the full interview, which I conducted via Skype, below. It runs to just over an hour. Alternately, there’s an abbreviated text version further down.

He is author of ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’, an insider’s account of the murky world of climate denialism and its decade-long campaign against both the science in general and individual scientists in particular. Mann was implicated in the so-called ‘Climategate’ hacking affair in 2009, but was exonerated by several independent investigations.

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Here’s an abbreviated text version of the interview I conducted with Prof Mann, as published in the current edition of Village magazine.

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JG: Mike, you’re best known for your work on the Hockey Stick. Can you tell us about it, why it’s so important, and why it gets you into so much trouble?

MM: The Hockey Stick is this graph my colleagues and I published a decade and a half ago depicting how temperatures, specifically over the northern hemisphere, have changed over the past 1,000 years. We used information from tree rings, ice cores and coral records, what we call climate proxy data. We know the globe has warmed by about a degree C over the past century but the question of how unusual is that warming requires us to go back in time. The record shows relatively warm conditions around 1,000 years ago, a steady, slow cooling trend into the 1900s – and then an abrupt warming over the past century.

The shape of that curve is like a hockey stick…what it indicates is that the recent warming really is unprecedented as far back as we can go. This curve became iconic in the climate change debate – it became a potent symbol in the larger debate over human-caused climate change, and it thus became an object of attack by those looking to discredit the case for concern over climate change. Climate deniers felt if they could ‘take down’ the hockey stick, then somehow the case for concern over human-caused climate change would collapse like a house of cards. Of course, that’s silly because there’s so much other evidence that tells us climate change is real, and caused by us.

JG: There are many controversies in science. Why do you think climate science has become such a red-hot focus of controversy? In other areas, the controversies are in the (peer-reviewed) journals. Why is this one on the street?

MM: It’s a great question. The fact is that any time you see the findings of science come into conflict with powerful vested interests, they’ve done their best to try to discredit the science and the scientists. Take tobacco, industry documents actually contained the phrase ‘doubt is our product’. They manufacture doubt when it comes to scientific findings that pose some potential threat (to their profits). It isn’t a coincidence that fossil fuel interests are pouring in tens of millions of dollars here in the US to finance a campaign to discredit the science of climate change, and to discredit arguments for renewables and clean energy. The Koch brothers for instance are funding both of those efforts.

JG: If the more serious projections coming from climate science (up to 4C warming by mid-century) are borne out, as I understand it, this means no future for anybody. It’s puzzling that the so-called deniers somehow believe that the impacts won’t affect them. Is this something you’ve thought about?

MM: Denial takes many forms. Those who are orchestrating the disinformation campaign at the top, one might imagine that they’re fairly cynical – it’s quite clear that the fossil fuel companies know that their product is damaging the health of our planet. There may also be some cognitive dissonance. Aside from sociopathic and psychopathic individuals, most people don’t want to believe they’re doing something fundamentally wrong, fundamentally evil, they may want to believe those individuals who claim that the problem is exaggerated, that it’s not going to be as bad as the scientists are saying.

In some cases it’s almost ideological, it’s no longer a matter of logically looking at the scientific evidence, they see (opposition to) climate change as just another part of their cultural and ideological identity, whether it’s gun control or your view on government healthcare. In the US, belief in climate change is about as good a predictor of party affiliation as anything in this country…part of the explanation is changes in our (US) media environment; it’s now possible to isolate yourself in a bubble, in an echo chamber of self-reinforcing sources of disinformation. A study found that people who habitually watch Fox News are actually less informed – the article title was Watching Fox News makes you dumber!

Tens of millions of dollars have gone into a massive PR campaign to divide the public on climate change. In US politics, you don’t need to win the argument, you just need to divide the public, and that’s what fossil fuel interests have had some success in doing.

JG: Ireland doesn’t have the US-style ideological chasm, but instead we have a media that is tremendously uninterested and uninformed. Our leading climate scientist, Prof John Sweeney had to actually boycott a recent TV programme, on the grounds that this type of “debate” (giving oxygen to known climate deniers) is feeding the problem – you’ve experienced this?

MM: Sometimes, if you don’t participate, the fear is that people are only going to hear from the voices of doubt and disinformation, so then maybe it makes sense to do so, but if we allow that sort of framing to continue, if we are complicit in this ‘false balance’ approach, it does a disservice to the public. If you as a scientist share the stage with an industry-funded denier, you are implicitly telling the audience that these are two equally credible voices in this matter – and they’re not.

I’m sympathetic to the view that John Sweeney expressed about the fallacy of false balance when it comes to media coverage. It’s like an astronomer getting into a debate with the president of the Flat Earth Society over the latest stellar observations.

JG: If I may say, you don’t come across like your conventional scientist; most tend to ‘stay out of the fight’ and can be critical of those who do engage. What shaped your path and your decision to get into the fight?

MM: As a young scientist at the University of Virginia, I very much shared the viewpoint you’ve just described, that somehow we scientists have to preserve our scientific purity by not wading into matters of policy relevance, yet if you look back at scientist like Einstein, he played a very profound role in the political discussion (around the development of nuclear weapons). This is a different sort of threat, a threat the whole world is being subjected to by human-caused climate change – it’s an even greater existential threat (than World War II) to human civilisation.

JG: You have a young daughter, as I do. Looking out to the time she’s college-aged, heading out as a young adult, is this where climate science for you becomes personal?

MM: Yes it does. To me, this is a matter of intergenerational ethics, making sure we do not make decisions today that guarantee the fundamental degradation of this planet for our children and grandchildren. There is something unique about this particular problem and this particular juncture in this debate. At no time before, in my view, have humans been in a position to impact the entire planetary environment in such a fundamental way. There’s a qualitative difference now in our ability to change the composition of our atmosphere. With great power comes great responsibility, and we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t screw it up.

JG: Yet knowing all this, we seem to have chosen the path of ignoring and attacking the science…

MM: Thus far; we can look to the past for some cautious optimism. We were in a similar situation regarding ozone depletion and acid rain. This problem (CO2 and global warming) is larger by many magnitudes. Fossil fuels currently underlie the global economy – Exxon Mobil is the wealthiest company that has ever existed. With that wealth comes a great opportunity to influence, some would say, to buy off, politicians, misleading advertising, funding front groups whose sole role is to poison the debate over climate change and what to do about it. Yet maybe we’re not that far from the point where we will engage in the good faith debate about what to do about this problem.

JG: The IPCC’s AR5 report seemed to give some weight to the idea of there being some kind of pause or slowdown in the rate of warming. This was pounced on by those wanted to portray that as a ‘stepping back’. Has that been a communications problem you’ve had to overcome?

MM: There’s no pause in global warming. Nothing that’s happened in the last 10 years fundamentally changes our understanding of global warming, and how much more we’re likely to see if we continue with fossil fuels – that’s a PR campaign by the Usual Suspects, to misrepresent this one aspect of the science. The IPCC did not change their forecasts of projected warming. If anything, the IPCC is projecting even more warming. Some of the impacts of climate change are unfolding faster than the climate models say they should be unfolding – disappearance of Arctic ice is outrunning the model predictions, leading to even more warming (albedo effect).

Recent articles in leading science journals are arguing that the climate models that project more warming may be the closest to reality. We’re already losing more than a trillion dollars a year from extreme climate-related events. Climate is already costing us around 1% of our global productivity, it’s projected to cost far more in the future, but there’s also the threat to human health, to food security, water security, national security.

Tobacco is a good analogy, here’s a case where the science was in decades earlier and there was a huge cost in human lives for not having acted earlier on the scientific evidence.

JG: As a journalist I’m fascinated as to how my colleagues have (largely) failed to grasp climate change; is that largely because science is so complex for non-scientists and so easy to game?

MM: It’s much more difficult to inform than to confuse. There’s asymmetrical warfare between us scientists and good faith communicators trying to inform the public discourse and those looking to pollute it.  Deniers don’t even have to be internally consistent. And that assumes a level playing field, which of course we don’t even have here. A lot of deniers, I see them as victims, they’ve been misled by fossil fuel interests who have a hidden agenda.

JG: Is there an element of scapegoating, i.e. we’re sensing a threat and we need someone to blame, other than ourselves?

MM: That’s right, you often see the framing crafted to prey on people who are economically disaffected, people who are hurting in their personal lives. I was attacked on a pro-gun website recently by an energy-funded writer arguing that these evil climate scientists want to somehow take away your guns!

JG: I’m aware you have been personally threatened; has that eased off?

MM: If you’re involved publicly in communicating climate change, you will be targeted by vested interests who want to turn you into a villain. There’s always the very real threat that some individual will believe the propaganda and act out.

JG: You’ve used the line ‘If you see something, say something’. Can you explain what this means?

MM: It’s a motto from our Dept. of Homeland Security, if you see something strange or a threat, it’s your duty to report it. We scientists are also citizens and appreciate more than anyone the particular threat of human-caused climate change. This message is also to my fellow scientists, to recognise that we do have a responsibility to report this threat that we see.

JG: Common sense tells us that smoking 40 cigarettes a day for 30 years is probably going to harm our health; common sense also suggests that dumping 35 billion tons of CO2 into a finite atmosphere must have an effect. Do you think it’s up to those who disagree to prove their case?

MM: I like the way you frame the question. It gets at the issue of what we call the null hypothesis. We may have arrived at a point where every meteorological event is operating in a different environment. We’ve fundamentally warmed the atmosphere. The default expectation is that the atmosphere is different to the way it was 100 years ago.

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A Prime lesson in how not to cover climate change

On Tuesday of last week, PrimeTime did something extremely unusual – at least for RTÉ. It had a programme on climate change. Well, ok, that’s not strictly true; the one-hour show actually carried three items, so climate change was wedged in between a piece on surrogacy and an unintentionally ironic item about… living on a houseboat.

First off, what’s so unusual about this? Well, from what we can work out, the last time Ireland’s premier current affairs programme deigned to do a feature on climate change was all the way back to the eve of the ill-starred Copenhagen COP conference – in December 2009. PrimeTime airs three nights a week, and carries on average, three items per show. That’s nine slots a week, over a four year period, and yet still no room for an item to discuss or analyse the greatest crisis the world has probably ever faced.

We’ve had a few close calls along the way, mind. Back in February, as the flooding crisis reached its peak, the programme invited junior minister Brian Hayes, the IFA president and climatologist, Dr Kieran Hickey into studio. As a climatologist, Hickey was left baffled. “I thought the first question I would be asked on the programme was ‘is this weather linked to climate change?’ And I would have said ‘definitely yes, there is a pattern’. But I wasn’t asked”, he told the Sunday Times.

It could of course, have just been the way the programme panned out. Hickey himself identified a clear flaw in RTÉ’s entire organisational approach: “I think lacking an environment correspondent has been a disaster when we are facing the consequences of climate change”. He is referring to the fact that when its correspondent left the post in early 2011, our national broadcaster chose to eradicate the position of Environment Correspondent.

This was a quite extraordinary decision, one that runs to the very heart of station’s gross derogation of duty on environmental reporting. Consider the 2012 UN climate conference in Durban. Not alone did RTÉ have no reporter to cover the event, the COP 17 conference didn’t even make any of the TV bulletins. RTÉ levies some €180 million in compulsory taxation from the Irish public in the form of the TV licence. On top of that, it brings in another €120 million or so in commercial revenue, largely thanks to its dominant position in our media landscape.

No one begrudges a national broadcaster being freed from the tyranny of chasing ratings and mollifying advertisers if it then discharges its ‘public service’ remit to inform the Irish public and to offer meaningful coverage and context for the critical national and global issues of the day.

Yet on climate change its performance has been abysmal right across the board. It is clear that some individual journalists within the station – Philip Boucher Hayes, Ella McSweeney and Cathal McCoille spring to mind – are fully au fait with the reality of climate change and the extraordinary gravity of the existential threat it poses to us all, yet clearly the people at the controls, the senior management and top editors and producers, appear to be collectively out to lunch.

The most clear-cut evidence to support this view actually comes from the RTÉ’s own Audience Council, which comprises 15 members independent of the station with the remit of “providing a voice for viewers and listeners of the broadcaster”. The Audience Council recently produced a report (Executive Summary of RTE Audience Council Climate Change Research) written by Clare Watson and Mark Cullinane on RTÉ’s performance on covering climate change, and it found that over a two year period, just one in 10 of the 285 news reports on RTÉ Six One that could have mentioned climate change actually did. And even when it was mentioned, it was constantly framed as an ‘international’ story of little relevance to Ireland.

As the Sunday Times report pointed out, “30 major climate-related stories carried by other media between January 2012 and April 2013 were ‘entirely absent’ from Six One News, Prime Time and RTE News online. This is said to demonstrate “a series of significant silences that reflect major gaps in coverage”.

Back in 2008, PrimeTime served up an appalling ‘debate’ between climatologist Kieran Hickey and a climate denier with zero qualifications who tours the US Tea Party anti-science circuit, one Phelim McAleer. It was a toe-curling piece, representing a total abdication of journalistic duty of care, swapping a fact-led analysis and discussion for an ugly brawl, to the obvious delight of McAleer and his energy industry friends.

But now it’s 2014. Things have moved on a long, long way in the last six years. Hell, even the World Bank, the US military, the International Energy agency and the IMF are all saying precisely the same thing the scientific community has been shouting for years: climate change is here, it’s real and we must act decisively or face certain disaster.

So, given the feedback from its own Audience Council and given the overwhelming international consensus for action that stretches far beyond the traditional boundaries of science, how does RTÉ go about putting together a programme on climate change? First, you need to select a panel of four. RTÉ’s first choice for the panel were climatologist Prof John Sweeney (representing the “97% scientific mainstream” science view”), then the IFA president, then a sports psychologist from a London-based climate denier institute with secret funding links to the energy industry.

And finally, Prof Ray Bates of UCD, a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.

That would have left RTÉ’s initial panel with one voice representing the “97% consensus view” on climate change, facing three people representing a 3% view.  This plan was, however, scuttled when, in an almost unprecedented move, Prof Sweeny contacted PrimeTime and told them he was not prepared to participate in such a lop-sided “debate”.

(To put this in context, PrimeTime had invited a number of people – including this writer – from the ‘environmental’ field into its audience the previous week to have input into what transpired to be a farcical spat between book-promoting Eddie Hobbs and energy minister, Pat Rabbitte. We attended, having been assured that the opportunity would be given to pose the question that, given that 80% of the world’s known fossil reserves can never be burned, is it really a great idea to be spending billions looking for yet more unburnable oil? The ‘climate change’ question was conveniently swept under the editorial carpet that night, much to the disgust of those of us present).

Sweeney is a low-key scientist, not an attention-seeker or rabble-rouser, and so the decision to boycott RTÉ’s flagship TV programme must have been extremely difficult for him. An Taisce (of which Sweeney is president) issued a press statement condemning PrimeTime’s proposed ‘Punch and Judy show’:

An Taisce is asking the Director General and the Programme’s Producers to explain if they understand ‘Climate Science’ and the difference between scientific balance and journalistic balance.  Is PrimeTime fulfilling its ‘Public Service Broadcasting’ remit?  We are sure that it would be possible to find some expert that does not agree that smoking causes cancer but would RTE put them on a panel to discuss lung cancer?

This put the cat among the editorial pigeons at Montrose. I was contacted by a researcher a few days ahead of the programme, and was happy to spend 45 minutes on the phone explaining the rudiments of climate science and what the various organisations were saying about climate change, but when I tried to enquire as to the likely shape of the panel for the programme, zero information was forthcoming (which is, I assume, standard editorial policy).

The figure on PrimeTime’s panel who had caused such consternation is one Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy (sic) Foundation, a lobby group fronted by Nigella Lawson’s octogenarian dad that, apart from systematically distorting the fundamentals of climate science and routinely claiming that climate scientist are corrupt and secretive, is entirely coy about explaining the source of around 95% of its own funding, and has refused numerous FOI requests for disclosure.

The vague ‘Irish’ connection to this rum lot of spoofers, deniers and ideologues is that Richard Tol, formerly of the ESRI, is on the GWPF’s ‘Academic Advisory Council’. Tol is a paradox, being both a talented scholar and a skilled peddler of fudge and ambiguity – no more so than in his infamous little ESRI document, ‘Why worry about climate change?’

Depressingly, he has been the go-to guy for many’s the researcher, and, sure enough, we understand Tol was first invited on by RTÉ, but was unavailable and offered his GWPF buddy Peiser instead. While Tol, as a published researcher has some credentials in this field, Peiser has none (Click here for a full unpicking of Tol and his strongly idiosyncratic views, e.g. “In the case of climate change, economists have shown that climate change is not the biggest environmental problem in the world, denying people the catastrophe that they crave…”).

The PrimeTime team were, apparently, extremely unhappy, both with John Sweeney’s decision to boycott their programme, and also press statements by, among others, the Environmental Pillar and An Taisce, with RTÉ believing that such statements were premature and pre-judged the matter. Of course, none of us likes to feel we’re being told how to do our job, but is this a fair criticism? Below is part of an email sent out by RTÉ researchers ahead of the programme (my emphasis):

“We will be discussing ‘Climate Change’ and we will be asking whether our recent weather is a result of climate change? Is the climate change man made? Is it the world’s biggest crises (sic)? Has Ireland’s climate changed?”

If you are told that a professional climate denial lobbyist is on the show, and that RTÉ is still asking questions like “Is the climate change man made?” then, to be fair, the producers of the programme can hardly be surprised if people from the ‘environmental area’ are just a little concerned about what you might be cooking.

RTÉ then invited Prof Barry McMullin, chair of An Taisce’s newly formed climate change committee* to replace John Sweeney. Barry, an engineer, also declined, and explained his rationale in a very polite letter to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond.

In essence, climate change is too serious an issue to allow people on who, in his words, “wilfully deny the scientific realities and abuse the public trust”. Peiser & Co, in other words, simply have no business sitting on the panel of an RTÉ current affairs programme, any more than RTÉ would invite on a Holocaust denier to “debate” the reality of the concentration camps with survivors.

Nor would RTÉ get away with having a spokesman for the tobacco industry come on to PrimeTime and diss the mountains of scientific evidence linking tobacco use and conditions such as lung cancer and heart disease. And, if they tried, there would be public outrage and demands for resignations. Yet, when it comes to climate change, when not simply ignoring the issue, RTÉ turns instead into little more than a fact-free undergraduate debating society.

If, at this point, you are saying, hang on a minute, I watched the debate last week, and it was nothing at all like this, that’s because RTÉ back-pedalled from their original 3:1 line up in favour of deniers/skeptics when the heat was applied by the various protests and boycotts. They re-shuffled the deck to replace Sweeney with Joe Curtin, an articulate climate policy researcher with the IIEA, while the IFA ‘slot’ was demoted to the audience and replaced with Eamon Meehan of Trocaire.

This left Curtin pitted directly (and very effectively) against Peiser, with Ray Bates pursuing his own idiosyncratic take on climate science and Meehan making some useful comments about the wider issue of climate impacts in the developing world. The panel debate was preambled by a VT report presented by Robert Short. This was no-nonsense journalism, seeking out expert views and assembling them in a short video format, and steering clear of oddballs and hired guns.

When the debate began, presenter Claire Byrne took the quite unusual step of pretty much insisting that everyone on the panel agree that climate change is real and is man-made. Much as we now know that the Earth is indeed round. Yes, it might sound bleedin’ obvious, but by RTÉ standards, this is a breakthrough – just a shame it took such a bare-knuckled confrontation to get them to apply the absolute minimum of journalistic criteria that we take for granted in so many other walks of life (too bad also that the presenter neglected to challenge Peiser on who secretly funds him to say what he says).

Peiser performed so poorly in the debate – partly because the presenter appeared to be keeping him at arms’ length – that it’s difficult to say what exact point he was trying to make, other than something along the lines that, whether climate change is too small a problem to be bothered with, or too vast a problem to even attempt to tackle, the key is to do nothing – the favourite line of the energy industry worldwide.

No doubt RTÉ will point out that Peiser’s ‘acceptance’ of the basics of climate change proves he was entitled to be involved in the debate. This move was, I would suggest, tactical, given the GWPF’s routine dismissal of mainstream scientific evidence in favour of ‘industry-friendly’ pseudo-science gobbledygook.

Peiser’s boss, Nigel Lawson, is a flat-out Flat Earth-style climate denier, he too represents the GWPF and its barmy ‘policies’, so why should we expect Peiser to be a paragon of reasonableness when Lawson is barking and picks fights with actual experts about rudimentary physics facts he clearly doesn’t understand. It would be downright odd if Peiser disagrees with Lawson when Lawson denies, for instance, copious instrumental measurements showing how heat is transferring into the oceans.

I should interject here to say that I’m a fan of public broadcasting. The odious Fox ‘News’ network is what happens when you hand journalism over to the private sector plutocrats. The criticisms here of RTÉ are based on my expecting better, much better, from them. Some of the best journalists in the country work in RTÉ, many doing a fine job, but the station has this extraordinary blind spot when it comes to the environment.

Having left the Environment Corr. position in abeyance for three years, the station recently filled the slot by comically tagging it on the new ‘Agriculture & Environment Corr’ post, and then filling that post with an economist (again, a decent journalist in his own right, but with zero track record or known expertise or background in environmental science or reporting).

PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond was not best pleased with the stance taken by An Taisce, and he expressed it clearly to McMullin:

We were disappointed that you, among others, chose to decline our invitation to take part in last night’s discussion on Climate Change based, it seems, on the fact that we had one person on the panel who did not share your analysis of the problem… As campaigners, if you feel that it is in your interests, you may, of course, choose to ignore a particular strand of opinion, but as journalists and public service broadcasters, we do not feel ourselves free to do so. We must always reserve the right to choose our panel using our best judgement, and taking into account the state of scientific knowledge on a particular subject, rather than doing so based on the pressure exerted by any campaigning group.

Diamond is of course correct. Journalists can’t have lobby groups telling them what to write and who to interview and who not to. If PrimeTime had truly “taken into account the state of scientific knowledge”, they might have based their entire editorial premise around solid foundations such as the recent AAAS report, What we know. This synthesises the expert views of the world’s leading climate specialists. Even a cursory reading of it would confirm just how far off the mark they were.

But who exactly in the PrimeTime team is equipped to make these calls? If they were preparing a story on some aspect of legislation, they could call on their own legal affairs correspondent to give them a steer as to what way the wind is blowing. Ditto for a crime, health, farming or pretty much any other specialist story you care to mention.

Not having a single solitary reporter among a staff of almost 2,000 whose sole or even main job is to track what happens on the climate and environmental ‘beat’ leaves PrimeTime relying on loose cannons for ‘guidance’, and then blundering into fiascos like Benny Peiser.

If this issue were about some nonsense like Wind Turbine Syndrome or the great fluoridation conspiracy, RTÉ’s lack of interest and expertise would, frankly, be neither here nor there. But it’s not. This is instead about the future of humanity and the biosphere; in truth, it’s about assessing if humanity has a future at all.

And in case anyone from PrimeTime is reading, a reality check: your goose as well as mine is well and truly cooked in the 4C world that we are collectively barrelling swiftly towards. Forget about the economy and the Garda Commissioner for a minute. Forget about your pension or the future you imagined for your children or grandchildren. Climate change, uniquely, is not just a ‘story’ that affects other people, one you can file-and-forget once the show is over and the studio lights have been turned down.

This is not a drill. Climate change is on track to plunge us into a new medieval era of collapse and chaos, if not wiping us clean off the map. World Bank president, President Dr Jim Yong Kim acknowledged that the looming 4ºC degree world was, quite simply a “doomsday scenario”. Pause for a moment and read that phrase again. Now, which part of “doomsday scenario” are you still unclear about?

RTÉ’s performance in terms of environmental and climate change coverage over the last three years, and specifically, over the last two weeks, brings to mind the observation of academic and author, Prof Justin Lewis. In failing to address the reality of climate change, the media, he argues, is engaged in “one of the most obstinate displays of inertia in human history, a time when, like latter-day Neros, we fiddle while our planet burns”.

*Disclosure: (a) I am a member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

(b) I too was asked by PrimeTime to participate, but in the audience only. Two hours before the show aired, I was contacted again and given a promise that I’d be allowed to ‘ask the panel a question’. I judged this to be too little, too late, and politely declined this last-minute offer.

 

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

It’s not fair! I can prove I’m better than BOD…

In a recent newspaper article, I wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, the tide was finally beginning to turn regarding Ireland getting real about climate change. As if to answer the question, the producer of Today FM’s The Last Word contacted me with an invite to participate in an extended live panel discussion on…climate change.

Were the topic politics, economics, business, jobs, marriage equality or agriculture, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at – yet another – panel discussion in yet another radio station with the usual talking heads bashing out various angles of the debate. But for climate change, almost 45 minutes airtime during peak hours in Ireland is genuinely almost unheard of (You can download the podcast from here. It’s no. 7 in the list).

Host Matt Cooper is an experienced media hand, and he guided the first half of the discussion comprising a three-person panel with perspectives from science (Prof John Sweeney), politics (Eamon Ryan) and media (myself). But, like in the Sinatra song, then he went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like: “we are now joined in studio by Lord Christopher Monckton…”

It was like déjà vu all over again. I’d been on Today FM back in January 2011 with Matt Cooper and, yes, His Lordship, but on that occasion, I thought it’d be good fun to point out that among Monckton’s kookier ideas in a career studded with kooky ideas, was that of setting up concentration camps to forcibly and permanently detain…AIDS victims. The exact wording, from his American Spectator article in 1987 was:

“There is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease for life. Every member of the population should be blood-tested every month … all those found to be infected with the virus, even if only as carriers, should be isolated compulsorily, immediately, and permanently.”

It had the desired effect of winding up His Lordship into a state of high dudgeon. Still, since he was en route to join fellow crackpot conspiracy theorist Jim Corr at a public meeting, maybe the tone was in fact about right.

Roll forward two years, and Lord Monckton is still getting airtime to ‘balance’ debates in ways that make no sense at all. It’s as if Matt Cooper were having a discussion on the Six Nations and felt the need to ‘balance’ the discussion by bringing on someone who thinks that rugby is the work of the devil and makes the palms of your hand sprout tufts of hair. That may be one person’s point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily make it either relevant or worth including.

This is perhaps my long-winded way of explaining why, despite ample ammunition, I chose to keep the discussion entirely civil and, in so doing, perhaps accord Monckton a parity of esteem with the other speakers which he so blatantly does not deserve.

It’s the classic dilemma: go on the attack and be accused of being an extremist; or keep it all light and fluffy and let a fantasist like Monckton go through his statistical dog-and-pony show largely unchallenged. On the day, I chose the former route, but within hours, was wondering if this was as much a cop-out as taking the high moral ground. Yes, I rattled his cage back in 2011, but, listening back to the recording from this distance, I can see how someone listening in casually could well have been at a loss to decide which of us was the real headbanger.

The whole experience brings to mind the line: “Arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon…no matter how good you are, the bird is going to shit on the board and strut around like it won anyway”. And, in that sense at least, the Honourable Viscount of Brenchley is quite the chess player. He certainly knows how to play the media, and yes, he is full of it too, but he comes from the public school debating tradition where the rights and wrongs of the argument are irrelevant, it’s about strutting about trying to sound awfully clever and working on witty one-liners to clinch the debate by acclaim.

And on the subject of sounding awfully clever, a new Irish website, modestly entitled Global Warming Solved, has appeared in recent weeks. It describes itself as a “family-run independent research group based in Ireland”. The family in question, the Connollys, are perhaps the world’s greatest polymaths – at least if you take their claims at face value.

Here are their four modest ‘key findings’:

1. We are not warming the planet

2. We are not causing catastrophic climate change

3. The scientific consensus on global warming was premature

4. Increasing or reducing our carbon footprint will make no difference to the climate

Ordinarily, you’d say, fair enough, the Connollys are as entitled as Lord Monckton to their opinions, however at variance with the scientific evidence they may be. However, they go further, much further, by actually presenting what they claim is the hard science to support the above four extraordinary propositions. And they do so via a brand new peer-reviewed online journaltheir own peer-reviewed journal, featuring eight of their own articles. There is no mention anywhere on OPRJ.org of an Editorial Board, or any information whatever on who exactly is going to do the ‘peer-review’ of these papers, or other papers, should people not from the Connolly family choose to submit a paper.

The actual structure and format of the 8 papers already posted is quite impressive: take Urbanization bias I. Is it a negligible problem for global temperature estimates? This paper follows the recognised presentation style for an academic journal, and is fully referenced. Underneath the paper is a category called ‘Peer Reviews’. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke: do they actually literally mean that anyone who drops by can offer their (entirely unqualified) opinion of the paper and that will then be listed as a ‘Peer Review’? If so, this is Flann O’Brien country, but given that the papers themselves are carefully researched and written, I’ll leave it to those far more qualified than I to – professionally – review them and cast judgement as to whether they hold water.

I’d hate to in any way pre-judge the likely outcome of this scrutiny, but when you make bald statements like this: “Our research has shown that it doesn’t matter whether we double, treble or even quadruple the carbon dioxide concentration. Carbon dioxide has no impact on atmospheric temperatures” then you had better have quite extraordinary evidence to back up that quite extraordinary claim. There are plenty of other extraordinary claims too.

Generally, when people make grand pronouncements claiming to have overturned our understanding of something as highly specialised and intensely studied as atmospheric physics, then those people go directly to one or more of the established major peer-reviewed science journals. Fame, fortune and the Nobel Prize for Physics await anyone who can actually make such claims stand up.

This way, their study, as well as the supporting evidence upon which it is based, can be thoroughly reviewed by a panel of expert peers before being published. This makes a lot of sense. Peer-review helps to iron out any actual errors or omissions, large or small, before the paper makes its way into the public domain. In science, there are very, very few Galileo moments, but lots and lots of people who are convinced they are the next Galileo.

There’s a very good critique of the Connollys’ attempt at re-shaping our understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect here.). What is truly novel is that one of the authors, Ronan Connolly, joins in the debate attached to the above article and manfully explains and defends their new ‘findings’. The physics involved is way over my head.

Another important thing we look for in a novel paper making potentially ground-breaking claims is: prior publication. Have the authors published hundreds, or even dozens of times previously in the peer-reviewed press? If so, have their articles been cited frequently in other papers (a good guide to the importance of a given paper over time is how frequently other peer-reviewed paper cite it)? There is no evidence presented on the website of any previous publication, and certainly none in a field relevant to the science of climate change.

Ronan Connolly has a PhD in computational chemistry from UCD. Since receiving his PhD, he says he has been working with his dad, Michael, and “we began actively researching climate change in early 2009”, but he doesn’t say anything about the nature of this research. Michael’s stated qualifications also include a PhD, but it’s not stated in what field. “I have lectured and tutored at third level in the fields of physics, chemistry, electronic engineering, computer science, mathematics and statistics” is all the information he provides, though he does also mention having owned and operated the National Aquarium in the past, and he has a strong interest in aquaculture.

Here’s how Ronan Connolly puts it in a comment on the above blog:

“We are acutely aware of the fact that our conclusions differ from the conventional “textbook” understanding of atmospheric temperature profiles. We didn’t come to our conclusions lightly. However, when we looked at the results of our studies, we found that the conventional understanding seems to be incomplete and inadequate.”

Wow, just wow. It is of course possible that the Connollys are right, and that every scientist from John Tyndall to Svente Ahhrenius and all those who have followed and built on their research work over the last century and a half are, well, just plain wrong. It does happen, just not very often. On the other hand, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to come forward seeking attention for what are proven to be half-baked rehashes of poorly understood and partially digested science.

Often, these folks are ‘not even wrong’, i.e. they don’t actually understand the science sufficiently to even be even fully aware of the glaring inconsistencies in their own work. As stated earlier, I’ll leave it to the actual experts to cast final judgement on the efforts of the Connolly family. Unsurprisingly, the denier websites are delighted. The Hockey Schtick blog is a notorious anti-science clearing house, and already they are cheerfully republishing this as though it were actually from a peer-reviewed scientific source. In a tweet, Penn State climatologist, Prof Michael Mann noted wryly: “I suspect that the description of the journal as “peer” reviewed is ironically correct in this case…”

A solid track record of relevant prior publication, for a researcher is a bit like caps for a rugby player. You start in the junior league, then, if you’re really good, work your way into a major club. From there, a tiny handful, the best of the best, progress to the provincial academies, where the successful few are blooded in competitions such as the Rabo Pro 12. From here, an even tinier group come to the attention of the senior provincial coaches; then, the elite 30 or so players in the country come to form the national squad.

What the Connollys have done, I’d suggest, is the elite science equivalent of me phoning up Joe Schmidt, pointing out that I absolutely love rugby, know all the rules, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, and, having played a bit in school, reckon I should be picked for the next two internationals. And to clinch my claim, I point out that I’m older and a far more prolific writer than any of the current Irish squad, so surely that proves I deserve to pull on the green shirt. And besides, when I was playing schools cup rugby in 1979, where was the ‘great’ Brian O’Driscoll? Oh yeah, at home in Clontarf having his arse wiped by his mammy, that’s where!

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 48 Comments

Gravity of climate crisis has yet to sink in nationally

Below, my article more or less as it appeared in the Irish Times last Friday. The day it appeared, rain bucketed down across the country, and maybe this is why the article struck a chord – it was the ‘Most Read’ piece on Irishtimes.com all day, and to date, has attracted almost 800 user comments (many, it must be said, from dyed-in-the-wool deniers), and extensive of coverage on Facebook and Twitter. Whether this upsurge in interest lasts longer than the current spell of ongoing severe weather remains to be seen.

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IT IS TEMPTING to imagine that a sea change in Ireland’s on-again, off-again relationship with the reality of climate change has occurred in recent times, as extreme weather events yet again battered our coastline, inundated farms and flooded urban areas, with the latest wave of damage already running to over €100 million.

Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, when visiting areas of his home town Limerick battered by flooding commented: “I think we all now believe in climate change… the defences that were here, with the new climates that we are having all around the world, are no longer adequate.”

Next up was Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin. “When calm is restored I think we have to do some serious thinking about long-term flood defences because clearly climate change is a reality”.

Then Brian Hayes, Minister for the Office of Public Works said the OPW had identified some 250 at-risk locations for repeated flooding. However, the costs of trying to defend these locations, Hayes warned, would run into “tens of billions of euros”. The actual government allocation for the next several years is just €250 million.

Meanwhile, back in the Dáil, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and opposition leader Micheal Martin both agreed that climate change was indeed real. The one who doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo was Environment Minister, Phil Hogan. As the storms rolled in and the flood waters rose higher, Hogan chose instead to join Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney in celebrating securing a renewal of the environmental vandalism also known as Ireland’s latest derogation from the EU Nitrates directive.

“Whether we have scientific evidence or not in relation to climate change, it looks as if we’re going to have these types of weather patterns in the future”, said Hogan. This was about as close to uttering the ‘c’ word as he has managed in two and a half years. And yes Minister, there is evidence alright, mountains – and lakes – of it, in fact.

Not everyone is quite so conflicted as Hogan. The world is “perilously close” to a climate tipping point, International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde warned recently. With a culinary flourish, she added: “unless we take action, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”.

The main difficulty in communicating this fathomless crisis remains a lack of context. RTÉ, for instance, the public service broadcaster with a budget in excess of €300 million should have a team covering climate and environment with the depth and passion lavished on business or sports. Instead, it scrapped its solitary Environment Correspondent post three years ago. And it shows.

RTÉ’s ‘Marian Finucane Show’ on Sunday featured an economist gushing about the rosy future of improved labour market opportunities for his 3-year old daughter by the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s 2012 document, ‘Turn down the heat’ projects global average temperatures to have smashed the +2°C ‘point of no return’ by the late 2030s.

This locks us into a future of food and fresh water shortages, devastating and intensifying weather extremes, coastal inundation, desertification, ocean acidification and mass extinction events. These ‘business as usual’ scenarios are now widely accepted by the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and, more recently, the IMF, but this stunning reality still has barely made a dent in our national discourse.

Quite how anyone imagines the global economy could survive such relentless disruption has become the question that dare not speak its name, while our economic commentators continue serving up puerile prescriptions for a future that, on our present course, no longer exists.

RTÉ’s dereliction of duty on environmental reporting is a national tragedy. The print media has hardly fared much better, but it has the slender fig leaf of not having a public service mandate. RTÉ’s Audience Council is now inviting the public to comment on its communication of climate change. Submissions close(d) on Monday 17th.

Interestingly, Met Eireann’s head of forecasting, Dr Gerry Fleming pointedly avoided linking the ratcheting up of extreme weather events in Ireland to climate change, stating: “it’s our grandchildren or great grandchildren who will make that call”.

His UK counterpart, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, had no such compunctions. “All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change…there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events”.

The clamour from the Irish public for answers in the face of relentless extreme weather events is gathering pace, yet ironically, outrage is not being directed against the real enemy, which is an energy system utterly dependent on coal, oil and peat-burning. In our displaced fury, we are, Don Quixote style, tilting instead at ‘ugly’ windmills and pylons.

Amid the gloom, some positive news: An Taisce has just established a new climate change committee (disclosure: I’m a member) to take a more forceful approach to communicating this crisis and challenging Ireland’s dangerous do-nothing consensus.

 John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

 

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Leave a comment

A welcome Eye on the climate crisis

Last Tuesday evening, Duncan Stewart’s excellent Eco Eye series turned its focus on climate change, and specifically, the impacts already manifesting themselves on Ireland’s weather. You can watch the full show below:

Among the experts directly interviewed for the show were Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Institute in Manchester. It was a coup to get Anderson, one of the world’s heaviest of hitters on climate science, to participate. What’s refreshing about Anderson is his willingness, as a senior scientist, to join the dots and spell out in clear terms that our current global emissions trends are actually worse than the very worst case scenario that IPCC modelling actually allows for.

Astonishingly, there is absolutely no indication whatever of any intention on the part of the world’s political classes to attempt to limit carbon emissions to within what climate science tells us are the physical limits of the biosphere. We are, Anderson states, on trajectory this century “for temperatures that could be 4, 5, even 6 degrees (C) higher, compared with now”. Today’s global average surface temperature is around 14.5C. Global warming to date has already pushed this figure, which is the average for all land and oceans surfaces, 0.8C higher than the pre-industrial average.

Pushing that figure towards 17, 18, even 20C in the coming decades would unleash a climate catastrophe of quite simply unimaginable proportions, with mass crop failures as extreme temperatures destroy agriculture and with it, global food production. A temperature jolt of this magnitude commits the massive Greenland ice pack to accelerated collapse, with the western Antarctic peninsula similarly threatened. These would mean, over time, rises in global sea levels far beyond any possible means of adaptation. This will force the abandonment of most of the world’s great cities and ports.

The economic and political crises triggered by a destabilised climate system are likely to unleash intensified resource conflicts, with water wars a very real possibility as nation states try to secure adequate supplies for their own populations, even if this means taking control of shared water and agricultural resources by force.

Duncan Stewart chose to tell the climate change story to an Irish audience through the lens of extreme weather, and the serious impacts already being felt by tens of thousands of Irish families who can no longer insure their homes against flood damage. Irish farming is also exposed to an increasingly restive and unpredictable climate, with major shifts in precipitation rates and patterns, as well as a blurring of the traditional Irish seasons.

I contributed later in the show, opening by repeating the quote from the president of the World Bank, who famously described a 4C global average temperature rise as a “doomsday scenario”. There’s an extended version of my interview below (Duncan actually recorded over two solid hours over the course of our interview, so perhaps there’s an über-long version somewhere in the archives?).

Fears that putting climate change on-air would be a major turn-off for Irish audiences appear to be unfounded. The Eco Eye on climate change had 405,100 viewers and achieved an impressive 27.5% audience share. When figures are added in for those who watched the show on RTE+1, the RTE Player and a repeat showing early next week, upwards of 600,000 people will have seen the show. Well done to all at Earth Horizon for a fine effort in keeping the moribund coverage of this crunch issue from disappearing entirely from our national airwaves.

The day after the broadcast, I was invited on to The Right Hook to discuss new European Commission emissions reductions targets with a rather skeptical George Hook. The interview ran to around 15 minutes, and, to be fair to the presenter, he allowed a full and detailed discussion to ensue, rather than trying to shut it down, as is so often the case. Hook was prepared to discuss the issues with me directly. Others, such as Tom McGurk or Pat Kenny, prefer to hide behind the “debate” format, ie. bring in a denier wing nut and use them to stir up a bogus ‘controversy’, with the host tut-tutting in the middle, feigning objectivity while wondering aloud why “the sides in this debate are so deeply divided”.

It’s a cynical ploy, known in the trade as bias-in-balance, it’s also the laziest stratagem in journalism, allowing the interviewer to disguise their ignorance, bias – or both – from their audience. Credit where it’s due to George Hook for being prepared to man up and take responsibility on himself to present the ‘skeptical’ (in the true sense of the word) counterpoint on climate change, and to manage the discussion in a courteous, professional manner. You would think that goes without saying, but sadly, that’s often not the case.

 

 

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | 2 Comments

Climate change fuelling our weather extremes

Untitled 2Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times this week:

IN THE FIRST week of January last year, I placed an 80 euro bet that 2013 would be among the top ten hottest years since global instrumental records began in 1850. The odds on offer: 1-80. This week, I collected my stake plus meagre one-euro winnings. I was right; so too were the bookies, hence the dismal odds on offer. 2013 has been duly confirmed as the 7th hottest year globally on record.

Astonishingly, all ten of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred in just the last 15 years. Following literally hot on the heels of a tumultuous 2012, last year was again marked by weather extremes, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). “The coldest years now are actually warmer than the hottest years before 1998”, said WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud.

Australia endured its hottest ever year in 2013, while China, Japan and South Korea experienced their warmest summers on record. The giant Brazilian plateau in 2013 experienced “the largest rainfall deficit since records began”, while what the WMO categorised as “extreme precipitation events” rocked Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Austria, which endured their worst flooding events in over 60 years.

Ireland, north America and northern Europe shivered through the bitterly cold spring 2013, as the Jet Stream dipped down, drawing Arctic conditions in its wake. Our excellent summer was a welcome break from weather woes, but it has turned out to be little more than a lull before the current wave of storm systems that have battered both Ireland and the UK.

While recovering slightly from its all-time low in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice extent last year was still 500,000 square kilometres below its 1981-2010 average. That’s an area of Arctic ice six times the size of the island of Ireland that no longer exists. Loss of Arctic ice cover is radically perturbing climate systems in the northern hemisphere.

“Global warming has increased the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, which has altered atmospheric conditions in a manner that stacks the deck in favour of more severe winter outbreaks”, according to Prof Charles Greene of Cornell University in the US.

“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is ‘caused’ by climate change is that it is the wrong question”, argues Prof Kevin Trenberth of the US national centre for atmospheric research. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be”.

Climate change means more energy in our atmosphere, rising sea levels and warmer ocean surfaces. When combined with high spring tides, as in Ireland in recent days, the effects can be severe.

The global atmosphere today carries some four per cent more water vapour than in the 1970s. This may sound like a small increase, but it has major impacts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found “high confidence that the intensity of extreme precipitation events will increase with warming, at a rate well exceeding that of the mean precipitation”.

Prof Robert Devoy of UCC has been a lead author in the last two IPCC assessment reports. The evidence, he told me, is unequivocal. “If you put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as we’re now doing, there must be a warming response”. The unpalatable fact, he says, is that we are going to be forced to abandon much infrastructure and housing located in the wrong places, such as estuaries and flood plains as it will be unviable to protect these areas from increasingly restive weather.

Dr Kieran Hickey of NUI Galway sees a strong trend emerging: “Since November 2009, we haven’t had a six-month period in Ireland without a significant weather event or disaster”. The clear threat to Ireland, Dr Hickey told me, is not rising temperatures per se, but “more and more weather extremes from a system ramped up by climate change”.

Meanwhile, the US is now gripped in what is known as a polar vortex. This has led to a predictable outbreak of jeering by flat-earthers and Murdoch-controlled media outlets about the freezing temperatures ‘proving’ that global warming is some kind of hoax.

The reality, ironically, may be the precise opposite. Loss of ice cover in the Arctic is causing heat from the ocean to be released into the atmosphere, reducing the region’s temperature differential versus lower latitudes. This has the effect of weakening the powerful circular wind system known as the polar vortex, allowing it to ‘escape’ southwards – with dramatic consequences.

Former chief climate advisor, Sir David King warned this week that Britain faced having to spend up to £1 billion a year by 2020 building defences against extreme weather events driven by global warming. “Storms and severe weather conditions that we might have expected to occur once in 100 years may now be happening more frequently”, he told the BBC.

Ireland, in contrast, is budgeting to spend just 45 million euros this year on measures against weather-driven events. With every euro spent on flood defences reckoned to save 7-8 euros in damage, this level of expenditure may prove very poor value indeed.

Worldwide, adaptation to rising sea levels and more weather extremes will be an ongoing battle this century. However, unless we sharply curtail the massive carbon emissions that are ratcheting up the global thermostat, every effort at adaptation is doomed to failure as climate destabilisation wrecks economies, devastates food production and risks drawing 100 centuries of human flourishing to an abrupt halt.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Arctic, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 3 Comments

Time to sign up for the climate change war

Below, my article, as it appears in today’s Irish Times. There has been a pretty strong reaction thus far on Twitter (not that much uptake on Facebook) and quite a useful online discussion accompanying the piece on the Irish Times site – well over 150 postings to date.

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Randall Truman got his 15 minutes of fame in early 1980. A long-term resident on Mount St. Helens in Washington State, Truman (83) scoffed when authorities began evacuating the region.

“Nobody knows more about this mountain than me”, he told reporters. “This goddamed mountain won’t blow. Scientists don’t know shit from apple butter”. His folksy defiance made him an unlikely media star.

When, as predicted, Mount St. Helens blew up on May 18, 1980, Truman was buried under 46 metres of volcanic debris.

It’s easy to dismiss the tragic folly of one old man’s stubbornness in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Yet, when it comes to climate change, we are today a society of Randall Trumans, sitting defiantly on our collective front porch, watching the distant smoke plumes rising, feeling the tremors, while all the time decrying those scientific know-alls who keep trying to scare us or tax us with all their waffle about carbon dioxide, melting icebergs, deforestation, biodiversity loss and assorted other eco bugaboos.

We instinctively know better than the actual experts. So do our politicians, economists and media commentators. Are we worried? Hell, no. Just like old Randall, we’ve seen it all before. Assuming that the future will be much the same as the past was a fatal error for Truman, yet this mistaken view is widely held, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

“We climatologists, like other scientists, are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies”, said Prof. Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. “Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that it poses a clear and present danger to civilisation”.

This apocalyptic prescription is rapidly going mainstream. The World Bank described the projected 4C+ of global warming this century as “a doomsday scenario”. The US military now believes climate change “will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we talk about”, as US Admiral Samuel Locklear put it.

Geophysicist Brad Werner produced a recent paper entitled: ‘Is Earth F**ked’? Despite the provocative heading, it was a sober analysis, with a chilling conclusion: the looming collision of infinite and expanding human demands with a finite and declining biosphere sees the arc of human history bending towards catastrophe.

Nor does Dr. Werner believe this crisis is amenable to ‘top-down’ solutions, as transnational corporations and their billionaire chiefs are the prime drivers of this process, and they either directly own, dominate or finance the bulk of the world’s political and media systems.

You might imagine our ruling elites would be too wise, or at least too self-interested to preside over a complete unraveling of human progress. You would be wrong. In 1938, on the eve of another great crisis, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt issued this blunt warning: “the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, at its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group”.

Seven decades later, transnational corporatism, turbocharged by neoliberal economic theory, has reached its global apotheosis and, freed at last from the constraints of either human moral agency or state oversight, is in the process of destroying the very civilisation it purports to serve.

This theme was taken up forcefully recently by Pope Francis, who experienced at first hand the disaster visited on his native Argentina by financial speculators. He lambasted trickle-down economics as a sham that heightens injustice and inequality.

Support of neoliberal economics “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” he wrote. “The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market”.

All that remains is resistance. “Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers and other activist groups”, Dr. Werner suggests, is the last hope of at least arresting the runaway growth machine before it destroys us and our children’s future. Politicians may respond to, but will never initiate, this resistance.

Slowly, more and more scientists are doffing their white coats and taking to the streets to demand that society acts on the overwhelming evidence to mitigate the worst of the coming climate calamity. Prof Gus Speth, retired dean of Yale University’s environmental school described his jail cell following his arrest at a climate protest as the most important position he had ever held in Washington.

Financier Jermey Grantham published an unusual open letter to scientists in the journal ‘Nature’ urging them to get off the fence and join the fight. “This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave”.

Resistance is not for the faint-hearted, as it will be met by fierce coercion. The Arctic 30, comprising jailed environmental activists and journalists, have felt the vicious backlash of the Russian petro-state. As resistance intensifies, so too will suppression and counter-propaganda. Climate change may not feel like your fight today, but that too will change. Make no mistake, this is, quite literally, the fight of our lives. Success is far from certain, but when you consider the stakes, it is surely morally indefensible to countenance not even trying.

Should we fail, author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut suggested this wry message to posterity: “Dear future generations: please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum”.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming, Psychology, Sceptics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Billionaire baddies bringing us to the brink

Below is my article, as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine. I’ve long been fascinated by denial and our seemingly limitless power to delude ourselves about unpleasant or unpalatable realities. This was brought home to me yet again yesterday, when attending a funeral mass in a Catholic church in Dublin.

The entire occasion was a ritualised flat-out denial of the the most rudimentary of all facts of life – death itself. The deceased was little more than a prop in this macabre theatre. After all, if we can even deny our own mortality, it’s not much of a stretch to see how uniquely well equipped we are psychologically to quash other existential conundrums by ignoring and denying them out of existence.

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As evil plutocrat villains go, Australia’s Gina Reinhart is straight from central casting. The daughter of a mining tycoon, she is now regarded as the world’s wealthiest woman, with an estimated worth of around $20 billion. Her fantastic wealth is all inherited; her parents’ vast fortune was made by exploiting Australia’s mineral wealth.

Reinhart is also quite outspoken. Last year she bemoaned the fact that Australians were not prepared to work for less than two dollars a day, unlike African workers. This fact made the multi-squillionaire “worry for this country’s future”.

Reinhart, whose wealth is entirely serendipitous, is not shy of advice for other people who would like to get ahead. They should, she says, “stop whingeing” and “Do something to make more money – spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working”. Mind you, at the two dollars an hour wage she prefers, the average Australian would have to work for approximately five million years to match the pile Ms Reinhart got handed by daddy and mummy.

Reinhart is also, shock, horreur, a climate change denier. In the last three years, tired of all the left wing whining in the media, she has taken the step that more and more billionaires, both home and abroad, have discovered is foolproof in dramatically improving your media profile – and that is, to start hoovering up newspapers and broadcasters. She is now the largest shareholder in Fairfax media.

Journalists were reportedly openly fearful that Rinehart would turn them into a “mouthpiece for the mining industry”. That was, I suspect, the last time said Fairfax journalists were openly commenting about anything to do with their new boss’s commercial interests.

Her best buddy is the ultra-corrupt Rupert Murdoch (net value: $13.4 billion) the tycoon who uses his web of media interests to grossly interfere in politics and undermine democratic oversight and accountability around the world. The influence of Murdoch’s odious Fox network in polarising and debasing US politics and demonising science, specifically climate science, is now well understood.

According to Forbes magazine, there are 1,426 billionaires in the world. Collectively, their combined wealth is around $5.4 trillion – $5,431,810,000,000 in longhand.

The net worth of energy industry mega-tycoons the Koch brothers is around $68 billion – around the same as the entire GPD of Cuba, a country with a population of over 11 million. The Koch brothers invest some of their vast wealth in funding anti-climate change disinformation and astroturfing groups. They are also now dabbling in buying up media companies.

Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine our 1,400-odd billionaires were planning to head off, in a fleet of luxury aircraft, on a flight path that would take them thousands of miles from land and crossing through some hazardous airspace along the way. First off, you can be certain they would insist the aircraft had been thoroughly checked prior to departure. This work would have been entrusted to the best engineers. Similarly, plotting their course, getting detailed weather forecasts and ensuring their planes’ fuel supplies were adequate, all this work would be placed in the hands of the leading experts in their field.

Similarly, if they decided to bring along an in-flight medical team, these would be hand-picked based on experience, expertise and their status among their peers. You get the picture. The world’s billionaires generally know how expensive it can be to take the counsel of numbskulls.

And yet. When it comes to the Big One, i.e. whether or not industrial civilisation can survive the next couple of decades, and whether humanity itself can escape the jaws of an encircling trap comprising resource exhaustion, biodiversity collapse, ecosystem failure and climate catastrophe, the world’s richest people can hardly be accused of doing nothing.

Quite the opposite: their funding, media access and moral support is enabling an international cabal of climate deniers, liars and assorted numbskulls to befuddle and bamboozle with impunity. What these patrician geniuses appear to have entirely misunderstood is that we (and yes, that includes the super-rich) really are all in this leaky tub known as the biosphere together.

Wealth, even humungous wealth, is of little value when international trade has collapsed, the electrical grid is permanently down, the global economy is dead and food production has been destroyed by chaotic weather. All of these scenarios are odds-on in a world in which average surface temperatures have shot up by over 4C this century.

The controversy-averse IPCC routinely low-balls risks by excluding real but difficult-to-measure threats such as permafrost methane releases, yet it still says we have no better than a 50/50 shot at avoiding an impending 4C global warming calamity. And that slim shot assumes we all act now to slash emissions.

You and I can fret, we can lobby, we can make our plans, but in reality, as individuals, we remain almost powerless. Our billionaire betters, on the other hand, have power and influence almost beyond measure. Yet, rather than acting to save even their own necks, many of them work diligently and spend freely to actually hasten our collective appointment with mass extinction.

Let’s conclude with an update to that ancient Greek quotation: ‘those whom the gods would destroy, first they make filthy rich’.

John Gibbons is a specialist environment writer and tweets @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Sceptics | 1 Comment

The oceans: cradle and graveyard of life on Earth

My first newspaper environmental column appeared in mid-March 2008, headlined: ‘Out of our depth in tackling overfishing disaster’. In researching the piece, I was staggered to read a quote from a senior UNEP official to the effect that even if human impacts on the marine world stopped immediately, “the recovery from the changes we’re making will probably take a million years”.

Trying to summarise the situation back in early 2008, I wrote: “A lethal cocktail of climate change, overfishing and pollution is causing severe strains on fish stocks worldwide, with the total collapse of commercial fish stocks now predicted to be just four decades away”.

While the main focus of that piece was the lunacy of taxpayer-funded industrial overfishing, it was hard, even back then, to see the catastrophe somehow not extending far beyond the shoreline.

I signed off that opening column as follows: “Unless a radical conservation-led approach to managing the world’s fisheries is quickly put into place with binding and enforced international agreements, the calamity will not be limited to the marine ecosystem. If we simply to carry on our current path, ‘market forces’ will, left unchecked, do the rest and complete the maritime holocaust exactly as scientists are predicting”.

I may have been vaguely expecting an angry mob to march on Government Buildings that day, crumpled Irish Times in hand, demanding that the Irish State “do something” to stop the carnage. If so, that piece was to be the first of many such disappointments over the last six years or so.

No amount of environmental or ecological ‘bad news’ can, it seem, pierce the invisible carapace that appears to shield the public, media and political classes from the breathtaking realities of our predicament. Many column inches have been shed, here and elsewhere, trying to unpick the flaw in our ability to collectively reason that has allowed a mass extinction scenario to steal upon humanity with barely a whimper of either recognition or outrage.

Reporters whose job it is to bring us the stories from war zones and humanitarian disasters, often become cynical about the litany of misery and horror that is their job to relate. Taking that home with you is a recipe for depression, or worse.

South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 shot to international attention with a harrowing photo of a starving African child trying to drag herself to a nearby feeding station. In the background, a vulture stood, apparently waiting. That image won Carter the Pulitzer Prize but it also seemed to haunt him. Within a year, he was dead.

Part of his suicide note read: “I am depressed… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”. (Carter’s angst was immortalized in the eponymous song by the Manic Street Preachers).

Writing and researching environmental and ecological issues from the bloodless safety of a computer in suburban Dublin is a long, long way from the front lines that Carter and many others have risked so much to cover, yet the horror still comes crashing through from time to time, no matter how remote you may wish to imagine it.

I had such an experience early this morning when reading a report on ocean acidification by the Guardian’s Fiona Harvey. She was reporting on the release of an international audit (State of the Ocean) of the health of the world’s oceans, by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

I have read and written on this subject on numerous occasions, yet was still left gasping at the import of this audit. The current acidification “is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun”.

According to Alex Rogers, professor of biology at Oxford University: “The health of the ocean is spiralling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth”.

The same article quoted Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, describing the report as “a deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans…unless we restore the ocean’s health, we will experience the consequences on prosperity, wellbeing and development. Governments must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats – in the long run, the impacts are just as important”.

The last major global extinction event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), occurred around 55 million years ago. The current rate of carbon release into the world’s oceans is today ten times faster than those that preceded the PETM extinction event. “The IPSO scientists can tell that the current ocean acidification is the highest for 300 million years from geological records”, Harvey’s report added.

Overfishing and deoxygenation as a result of run-off of fertilisers and sewage into the oceans is making a desperate situation worse. The IPSO report projects that the average oxygen content of the world’s oceans may fall by some 7% by 2100. Phytoplankton, single-celled plants that live at or near the ocean surface, produce 40-50% of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.

Without the quiet industry of trillions of these organisms, you and I and all our fellow mammals would, quite literally, suffocate. Yet the epic pressures human actions, from hydrocarbon burning to overfishing to wholesale marine pollution are placing on the ecology of the oceans threaten this fine equilibrium.

“People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems”, Alex Rogers of Oxford added. “Phytoplankton produce 40% of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90% of all life is in the oceans”.

All life began in the oceans. Our ancient ancestors first crawled or heaved themselves onto the shores around 400 million years ago. The oceans are and remain the cradle of all life on Earth. Destroying this cradle, either intentionally or through carelessness or hubris, means our own sure and certain destruction.

Evolution is unsentimental. From its narrow standpoint, humanity is a dangerous aberration, a defect that will either kill or be overwhelmed by its host. The race is on. Wherever you choose to put your money, neither outcome bodes well for homo sapiens.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Sustainability | 3 Comments

IPCC AR5 set to reiterate bleakest of messages

Below, my article as it appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times. I had a bit of a swipe at Fine Gael’s former Environment spokesman, Simon Coveney, having sat down recently to re-watch a clip I recorded for Climatechange.ie back in January 2008 at a conference chaired by Duncan Stewart in which each of the main parties were asked to set out their stall on climate change. In hindsight, Coveney’s performance can best be described as darkly comic. (To get directly to Coveney’s spiel, go forward to around 8 minutes 16 seconds).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is probably the largest international scientific and policy collaboration in history. Later this month, it begins publication of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). More than 830 expert authors have contributed to this titanic project, with the final report running to thousands of pages.

You could, however, sum its findings up in just four words: “the world is defrosting”. This is how Prof Neville Nicholls of Monash University, Australia put it. Human impacts, according to a leaked draft of the report, are changing the planet in ways “unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years”.

Of course, we already know this, since the last IPCC report, issued in 2007 in a blaze of media publicity and political gesturing, set out the extreme dangers of a business-as-usual emissions trajectory for all life on Earth. Back then, the IPCC warned the world’s leaders that we are now collectively supping at the Last Chance Saloon.

Today, six years and a global recession later, and instead of being reversed, greenhouse gas emissions are literally steaming ahead, at over three per cent a year. “We’re heading rapidly in the wrong direction”, says Dr David Victor of the University of California.

Earlier this year, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels breached 400ppm, their highest levels in at least three million years, and representing an astonishing 30% increase in the amount of this potent heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere in barely 50 years. There is simply no historical analogue for changes on this scale happening so quickly. The time lag here is crucial. During the Pliocene Epoch, fuelled by similar CO2 levels to today, global sea levels rose by a massive 20 metres.

This is only for starters. By mid-century, the world is on target to have doubled the pre-industrial levels of atmospheric CO2, to well over 500ppm. Global temperatures track CO2 levels closely, so we can expect average surface temperature rises of around 2C by that time, with much more heating effectively “locked-in” as what are known as positive feedbacks overwhelm the lag in the climate system’s inertia.

With this, the current 10,000 year interglacial period of generally mild, stable climate that allowed human civilisation and the agriculture that supports it to flourish comes to a dramatic end. To lock in this apocalyptic scenario requires nothing more than maintaining our present path just a short while longer. “The decisions we make in the next decade or so are decisions that will determine the fate of the planet for thousands of years”, says Prof Kerry Emanuel of MIT in Boston (meanwhile, ThinkOrSwim soared to new heights today by having its humble scribblings picked up by WattsUpWithThat, the world’s number one climate denier website)

The oceans too are under assault. Acidification is “virtually certain” to increase, the IPCC warns, and this “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems, from phytoplankton to coral reefs and from Antarctic systems… to many human food webs”. The scenario of acidified, oxygen-starved oceans teeming with jellyfish and almost nothing else is edging from science fiction to climate science fact.

Sea level rise is now projected to be in the range of one metre this century, but the rapid accumulation of CO2 means longer term sea level rises of 5-10 metres and beyond are now looking increasingly certain. This means the abandonment over time of most of the world’s coastal cities and settlements and the loss of millions of square kilometres of land to future generations. In hindsight, our seemingly benign pursuit of relentless “economic growth” may come to be seen as the most dangerous ideology ever to bewitch human society.

Any hope that the IPCC report may err on the side of alarmism is misplaced. For instance, the real-world rate of disintegration of the Arctic ice mass is currently some three decades ahead of the IPCC’s conservative model projections. Controversially, the IPCC report actually excludes modelling of the effects of melting Arctic permafrost, which has the potential to add enormous additional methane emissions and move the needle much faster than the Panel’s published projections.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity”, WB Yeats wrote in ‘The Second Coming’. He could have been describing the forces ranged today on either side of the battle to save humanity from its own hubris.

In one camp are the billionaire energy and media moguls spending freely to buy off politicians, subvert regulatory oversight and befuddle the public. The recent election of a new Australian government headed by a climate denier in the pocket of tycoons Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart was another timely reminder of the capture of politics by the trillion-dollar energy industry.

Closer to home, Murdoch’s Sunday Times recently ran a wildly inaccurate spread under the lurid headline: ‘The joy of global warming’. The neoliberal assault against public understanding of even the most basic scientific facts may yet turn out to be the world’s deadliest undeclared war.

In January 2008 I witnessed Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney deliver a powerful, passionate speech in Dublin in which he demanded the FF/Green government set “ambitious targets” for emissions reductions, admitting to having had “my own worst fears confirmed” as to the scale of the climate crisis. This is, he added, “Ireland’s challenge, and we need to meet it”.

That was then. And older and no doubt wiser Agriculture Minister Coveney was recently quoted as stating that the EU’s climate change policy, the very policy he championed in 2008, “makes no sense to me, no sense on any level”. The future of humanity itself cannot, its seems, compete with the more pressing short-term business of keeping the IFA sweet and a political career on track.

Coveney is no backwoods politician; to the contrary, he is smart, has a young family and doubtless knows the real score on climate change. When even this generation of leaders has abandoned us, you know it’s time to be very, very worried.

John Gibbons is a specialist writer on climate and the environment and is on Twitter @think_or_swim

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Psychology | Leave a comment

Sensationalist ice-age story may betray covert media agenda

[This is a slightly extended and fully referenced (hyperlinked) version of an article which first appeared in Village Magazine on 14th August 2013.]

GHOST: But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
List, list, O, list!

— Hamlet. Act 1, Scene V.

On Friday, 12th July, Irish Times readers were treated to a truly extraordinary front page headline: “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. The implication was immediate and unmistakable: if the world is heading into “another ice age” then, by definition, it cannot simultaneously be globally warming. Some fatal flaw must have been found in the theory of global warming, such that it has been decisively refuted. Given that this theory has surely been by far the most intensively studied and comprehensively tested theory in human history, and has robustly survived all those tests to date, this would be simply the most extraordinary revolution in our scientific understanding. Ever. And not just a scientific revolution either — it would have dramatic social and political ramifications. Globally, we could stop worrying about emissions of (so-called?) “greenhouse gases”.

In Ireland, we could safely exploit any and all fossil fuel resources we can dig, drill or frack, anywhere in or around the national territory. Yes, we’d still have the little matter of an “ice age” to adapt to instead, but with all that ice having to form, surely that could only happen very slowly? In any case, the apocalyptic visions of impending collapse of human civilisation promoted by those climate change “alarmists” had clearly been finally debunked. Dr. Pangloss was vindicated and all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Except, of course, that none of this was actually so.

To see this, we will have to unpick the story carefully. It’s not a pleasant or pretty exercise, and certainly not one that an ordinary reader should be expected to embark on; but the stakes are high (could hardly be higher) so maybe it is worth the effort.

To begin, we can hardly blame the headline editor; for s/he has just taken a cue from the article lead — which itself is a model of journalistic brevity:

The sun is acting bizarrely and scientists have no idea why. Solar activity is in gradual decline, a change from the norm which in the past triggered a 300-year-long mini ice age.

Now admittedly, we’ve already clarified (retreated?) to a mere “mini” ice age; but still definitely some form of “ice age” nonetheless. So still, presumably, global cooling, advancing glaciers, all that stuff? Definitely a contradiction of this global warming nonsense we’ve been tortured with. And wait, read on — this is all breaking news, and on the highest scientific authority:

Three leading solar scientists presented the very latest data about the weakening solar activity at a teleconference yesterday in Boulder, Colorado, organised by the American Astronomical Society.

So clearly, these three “leading scientists”, with the benefit of the “very latest data” have just predicted an impending (mini) ice age; notwithstanding all the extraordinary disruption of mainstream climate science that such a claim entails.

Or at any rate, a reader could certainly be forgiven for thinking that that’s what she had just read. But such a reader would be sadly mistaken. For these first two paragraphs are actually a model of misdirection: not exactly false, but certainly not meaning what they seem to say on the surface.

In fact, as far as I have been able to establish, the only parts of the Irish Times article properly deriving from the teleconference (actually hosted from Bozeman, Montana, not Boulder, Colorado) are the technical details on the projected evolution of the current and immediately forthcoming 11-year solar cycles. For solar science buffs this is, of course, a genuinely interesting story. The current solar cycle is really quite different from immediately preceding cycles. But in itself, this is hardly breaking news. For example, two years ago (June 2011) we could read in a press release from the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division (AAS/SPD):

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

The more recent teleconference featured by the Irish Times is still important, because it updates and refines this ongoing projection of solar activity. But where’s the big “ice age” story that brought the dramatic front page headline?

Well here the plot thickens. In fact, that June 2011 press release was also followed by a flurry of media coverage that linked this aberration in solar activity to a possible new “ice age”. To such an extent that one of the authors at that time, Frank Hill, had to explicitly repudiate this inference:

… a lot of reports have come out and said that we have predicted a new ice age. That is making the leap from low sunspot activity to cooling. We did not predict a little ice age. What we predicted is something that the sun will be doing, not what the Earth’s climate will be doing. That has been the major inaccuracy that I have seen in the media at this point.

One might have imagined that even minimal background research by an alert journalist could have located that previous story, and sensitised him or her to the potential for serious mis-communication here. But apparently not.

Still, perhaps we might blame the scientists themselves for poor communication: maybe they were unclear or ambiguous in what they announced? Well no, apparently not. On the contrary, one of them, Dr. Giuliana de Toma, is explicitly quoted (much later in the article) as saying that the current data:

… did not mean the earth was heading for another “Maunder Minimum”. This was a time between 1645 and 1725 when solar activity was extremely low or nonexistent, a situation which caused a mini ice age. [emphasis added]

Yes, you read that correctly: one of the “leading scientists” whose teleconference was identified as providing the basis for this whole story, is quoted within the text of the article itself as saying that the results do not indicate that the Earth is heading for a (mini) ice age (or, more precisely, for a “Maunder Minimum” — but that apparently amounts to essentially the same thing? or at least that seems to be the Irish Times’ interpretation …).

When contacted independently and asked to comment on this Irish Times story, Dr. de Toma reiterated this position, and for more detailed clarification, she recommended an article which appeared in New Scientist magazine on 12th July 2013 (the same day as the Irish Times coverage). This New Scientist article — reporting on exactly the same scientific data as the Times — carried the headline “Sun’s quiet spell not the start of a mini ice age”!

So: who did make the inference that this change in solar activity may presage “another ice age”? Well, the Irish Times article switched abruptly from the original AAS teleconference participants to offer us commentary from “Irish solar science specialist”, Dr Ian Elliott, who is directly quoted thus:

“It all points to perhaps another little ice age,” he said. “It seems likely we are going to enter a period of very low solar activity and could mean we are in for very cold winters.”

Note carefully that some unspecified number of “very cold winters” (in Ireland? Europe?) is a very far cry from the “ice age” (a global cooling phenomenon) of the article headline. As to a “little ice age” (or “mini ice age” as the Irish Times would apparently have it), this is strictly a term of art with a very different, narrow, and limited meaning. Historically, it denotes a period which overlaps with, but is far from identical to, the previously mentioned Maunder Minimum. Despite the name, it is not properly an “ice age” in the conventional sense at all. None of this would be apparent to the layperson, and is not clarified in the article. We will return to that point (which will turn out to be the nub of this whole disastrous miscommunication). But before that, let’s ask on what basis does Dr. Elliott make this prediction?

And now our already thickening plot positively congeals!

The final, and key, actor in this labyrinthine dramatis personae is revealed as Prof Mike Lockwood of the University of Reading. And the decisive quote is this:

Research by Prof Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading showed how low solar
activity could alter the position of the jet stream over the north Atlantic, causing severe cold during winter months.

Now let’s be clear that Prof Lockwood doesn’t seem to be associated in any way with the recent teleconference or the scientific team that was the ostensible trigger for this article (any more than Dr. Elliott). Nor is he directly associated with Dr. Elliott. Nor, as far as I can tell, does Prof. Lockwood himself suggest that his work allows a connection between the teleconference news and a prediction of “another ice age”. In fact, it’s not even clear whether Prof. Lockwood was actually consulted in the preparation of this article at all. But again, a casual reader could easily suppose that all of these people are part and parcel of a single story, encapsulated as “Sun’s bizarre activity may trigger another ice age”. This seems to me to be extraordinarily sloppy reporting (to put it at its kindest).

But let us park all that: does Prof. Lockwood actually claim what he’s reported as claiming? And if so, what should we make of it? The Irish Times article does not give precise sources (of course?), but it seems to be referring to a paper published by Prof. Lockwood and colleagues in the academic journal “Environmental Science Letters”, in the Apr-Jun 2010 issue. From the abstract of that paper, we read:

… We stress that this [anomalous cold winters] is a regional and seasonal effect relating to European winters and not a global effect … the results presented here indicate that, despite hemispheric warming, the UK and Europe could experience more cold winters than during recent decades.

So not “another ice age”. Not even a “Northern hemisphere ice age”. Not even an annualised cooling on a hemisphere basis (remember: “despite hemispheric warming”!). No, none of those things; just somewhat more frequent cold winters in Europe than during recent decades. Maybe. And the full extent even of this dependent on whether we really do enter a Maunder Minimum. Which the “very latest data” explicitly contra-indicates, at least according to the one leading scientist actually quoted on this point.

Or, for another perspective, the interested reader (or engaged journalist!) might consult the highly respected skepticalscience.com site. Filed there, under (debunking of) “Are we heading into global cooling?”, there’s this useful summary:

The Lockwood quote supposedly about global cooling simply discusses that decreased solar activity may impact winter weather in Europe, and has nothing to do with global temperatures whatsoever. Lockwood has performed numerous studies concluding that the Sun is not responsible for a significant amount of the recent global warming, and has not predicted global cooling.

So: this “story” as dramatically presented (spun?) by the Irish Times turns out to be essentially without any solid scientific foundation to speak of. But the damage has still been well and truly done. The Irish Times readership have, by now, moved on — but those who retain any lingering impression of this story will surely be that significant bit more confused, more disbelieving, more cynical about any future coverage of climate change: “Ah sure, last week it was supposed to be an ice age on the way — that climate change stuff is just a load of oul’ green guff.” Even more critically, the article itself lives on, for the Internet never forgets. It is already a featured link across the climate denialist blogosphere — indeed, precisely because it carries the full authority and credibility of a national “newspaper of record”, this article is virtual manna from heaven for that audience.

And now we come to the rub. Could this all have been an honest journalistic error (or rather, blunder)? Or equally, is it conceivable that the Irish Times was an innocent — albeit credulous – victim of a cleverly disguised denialist sting? In either of these cases, significant damage limitation would still be absolutely possible, simply by publishing a frank retraction and correction — in print, but also incorporated retrospectively into the archived online article. This would immediately turn the ongoing denialist linkage to the story back on itself and help significantly to undermine this particular denialist trope for the future. However: in the absence of such good faith remedy, we may have to seriously consider the alternative interpretation: that the sensationalist construction, presentation and placement of this story was in fact a manifestation of a conscious, deliberate, yet entirely covert, editorial line. If the latter proves even partly the case, then the judgement of our children, and their children in turn, will surely be harsh.

Acknowledgements: Sincere thanks to Phil Kearney, John Gibbons, Paul Price and Duncan Stewart for additional research and critical feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Of course, errors remain the author’s sole responsibility.

Barry McMullin is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing at Dublin City University.

Postscript

On the same day as this critique appeared in Village magazine (14th August 2013), the same Irish Times article was also comprehensively discredited by Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian newspaper. Nonetheless, as of 18th August, the Irish Times article remained online in its original form without retraction or qualification. However, an apparently unrelated Irish Times story (published on 16th August) blared: “Ireland to experience huge temperature rises, says expert”. The latter represents a welcome step back toward scientific reality (though still managing to implicitly echo another denialist trope, namely that while the world may be warming this is happening “regardless of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit into the atmosphere”). And in fairness to the Irish Times, it has been pointed out to me that there has, in the past, been a clearly overt “editorial line” that explicitly acknowledges and recognises the scale of the climate change challenge, such as represented by this editorial from February 2013. But for the present purposes, suffice it to note that the comments section of the more recent (“huge temperature rises”) piece immediately attracted the mischievous, but inevitable, contrarian observation that “… not so long ago scientists said we could be heading into a mini Ice Age … will they ever make up their minds[?].”

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , | 1 Comment